Ratings and Reviews by Mike Russo

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Medicum Veloctic, by Lawrence M Marable

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Grimdark superhero melodrama, April 18, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

My fingers keep wanting to type this as “Medium Veloctic”, but there is nothing mid-range about this superhero medical thriller, which has its dial set all the way at 11 throughout its hourlong run time. There’s a lot that’s well-crafted here, including some fun puzzles and a refreshingly diverse take on a comic-book milieu, though the grimdark setting and over-the-top writing made it too exhausting for me to fully enjoy.

There are a couple of interesting things Medicum Veloctic is doing. One is the character dynamics; the primary driver of the story is the eponymous Veloctic, a tortured vigilante in the Batman mold whose struggles against a new supervillain provide the main plot business. The player-character, though, is his lover, who’s a doctor and responsible for patching up Veloctic – his real name’s Arthur, which I’m going to use from now on – when he oh-so-frequently gets his teeth kicked in. This leads to the puzzles, which are another novel element: in each major sequence, you need to diagnose and treat Arthur with the assistance of a handy, sidebar-accessible medical manual. And Arthur isn’t just Batman, he’s a gay Asian Batman, and the player character is a Hispanic man (named Reyes). Their respective identities don’t play a major role in proceedings, but it’s still nice to see.

There’s also a lot that’s much more standard. Top of that list is the worldbuilding and plot. We’re squarely in Iron Age comics territory: Veloctic comes with your standard angst-filled backstory (albeit with an unexplained-in-my-playthrough soupçon of parricide) and hyperviolent m.o., and the villain is a nihilist who just wants to stack up dead bodies. There’s one “investigation” sequence with some brushed-through mystery-solving, but mostly the story is a rush from one bone-breaking, blood-spurting fight to the next.

The relationship between the two characters also felt more identikit than I would have liked. Reyes subsumes his personality in taking care of Arthur, who’s got few compunctions about his self-destructive crusade but feels guilty about the toll it’s taking on his lover. Reyes has a job offer lurking in the background (from the WHO, which is a detail that doesn’t feel like it makes sense), providing the hope or threat of escaping the cycle. These dynamics are established early and don’t feel like they meaningfully evolve until they abruptly shift in the ending.

With solid prose, these less-inventive elements could have been fine, I think, but I have to confess I didn’t like the writing. Beyond a fair number of typos and technical errors, it’s melodramatic to a fault:

"The mask is worn for redemption not to paint oneself further in sin. But can you take the mask off before God and have him still call you clean?"

Unsurprisingly, it’s completely po-faced, and though Reyes repeatedly describes Arthur as a motormouth, Spidey-type character who’s always ready with a quip, the only thing that made me laugh was a throwaway sentence in the medical reference book that “flame-throwers are unbelievably common.” The game also crams way, way too much – emotion, detail, and frankly number of words – into its overloaded paragraphs:

"Licentia, that’s what the new villain calls himself; and god above do you hate it. You hate it so much. But he declared it on top of a bridge while fighting Veloctic so now it’s true, and he was one for the show when he shouted it at the cameras, all before getting grabbed by the Veloctic and slammed into a nearby beam. Earlier today he let an explosion go off at two banks across the city, it would have been five if Arthur didn’t manage to stop three of them at the last second."

The dialogue between the two lead characters is written the same way, full alternately of violent argument and lust. Some of this works in an overheated romance-novel sort of way, but I found myself wishing there was less Sturm und Drang and more opportunities for the conflict to slow down, so I could get to know who Arthur and Reyes are when they’re not furiously yelling at and/or making out with each other.

The writing also goes into a lot of unpleasant detail on the trauma Arthur inflicts and has inflicted upon him, but this at least is necessary to support the main gameplay element, which is the medical problem-solving you get up to in between fights. These sequences aren’t too graphic, and I found they hit a satisfying balance between too easy and too complex – at each point you generally have a choice between three of four plausible-seeming options, and the reference book provides a handy cheat-sheet while still requiring the player to match the descriptions in the main text to the corresponding clinical diagnoses. I’m not sure whether it’s possible to completely mess these up, or if your performance meaningfully impacts the story, but they do add a welcome note of interactivity while underlining the story’s themes about the toll the vigilante lifestyle imposes.

The presentation is a high point too. There’s a brooding color scheme that’s readable while fitting the overall vibe, punctuated by the occasional well-chosen photo. It’s on-point but nicely understated at the same time, and I just wish the rest of the game was more in line with the visual design. With more measured pacing that added some downtime in between the dramatic extremes, and a polish pass to clean up the typos and dial down the purple prose, this would be pretty great – as it is, Medicum Veloctic gets a lot right, even if it is a bit too much of an adolescent yawp for my taste.

Those Days, by George Larkwright

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A sharply-written pleasure, April 18, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Those Days tells a story you’ve heard a million times before – a young man outgrowing his best friend as he grows up – and does so without much interactivity. Its writing, though, is some of the sharpest in the festival, grounding this familiar plot in well-chosen detail, solid pacing, and prose that’s evocative but never purple. This one’s well worth a play.

The lovely thing about making sure your writing goes into specifics is that it can paradoxically make the story more resonant, and that’s very much how Those Days worked for me. I’m not English and had a very different experience of high school and college than the protagonist, of course, but because his experiences are described with such care, there were many passages that sparked a sense of recognition that yes, this is exactly what it’s like to awkwardly meet someone when you’re 12, or to giggle over an unkind nickname:

"Luke used to call him ‘swingball’, a reference to his oversized flaccid earlobes that swayed metronomically as he walked."

While the main characters – especially the best friend, Luke – can be annoyingly laddish sometimes, with the game framing as childish mischief some acts that struck me as rather worse than that, this also seems true to life, and is softened by the protagonist’s reflective tone, as well as an elegiac, backward-looking vibe complemented by the gentle color-gradient backgrounds. There’s a nice pastoral element, too:

"On weekends we’d all ride our bikes deep into the arable hinterland outside of town. We’d race along hidden dirt paths, kicking up gravel and flint as we sped down the green monolithic hillsides, stitched together by hedgerows and interwoven with tussocks and wild flowers."

The writing is just as good with characters as it is with landscape. The protagonist is appealingly drawn, convincingly shy and hard on himself in a way that makes you root for his success, so the weight he assigns to his relationship with Luke means the reader sees it as significant too. Here’s one more excerpt, with a nice bit of physical detail underscoring his hesitance to meet Luke during the point in their relationship that they’re most distant, likening his reluctance to other moments of dread:

"Walking into school for the first time. Walking to the head-teacher’s office for my only detention. Walking to collect my exam results. All with that same, shortened, nervous stride."

Okay, there is the occasional misstep – in the scene where the protagonist meets Luke for the first time, the latter’s face is described as “soft and slightly bulbous, like a half-filled water balloon.” And I found a few sequences, like the end of Chapter 4 when the protagonist and Luke are drifting apart, a bit on the nose, in terms of plot and prose. But these missteps are few and far between.

Throughout, you’re mostly clicking just to advance – passages usually requires multiple clicks to get through, with each revealing the next line or two. There are a few cosmetic choices of dialogue, as well as I think two more meaty ones that lead to a late-game callback (though I think I experienced a bug with one of these: (Spoiler - click to show)I was brave enough to jump across the gap on the rope swing, but the game thought I’d chickened out when it came up again at the end). The text is also timed, displaying at a clip that’s fast enough on the first go-round but would be annoying on replay. Replaying isn’t the point of Those Days, though – it tells a resonant, relatable story, and tells it in so satisfying a way that I can’t imagine the player who’d want to go back and optimize their choices. Lovely stuff.

Sovereign Citizens, by Laura Paul and Max Woodring

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A different kind of haunted house, April 17, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Sovereign Citizens managed to defy my expectations at least two or three times – which is good, I think, since those expectations were mostly negative! When I read the title, I was worried it was going to center on the insane anti-Semitic conspiracy theory about – I mean, I can’t really explain what it’s about since it’s insane, but I know they hate admiralty law? Then when I read the blurb and authors’ note, I was worried it was going to be a thuddingly didactic bit of political evangelism subordinating character and drama to an oversimplified message.

Fortunately this elusive game isn’t that either – though I’m not sure it’s great that I’m hard-pressed to say what it actually is. Summarizing the plot is simple enough, at least. You play one of a couple who seem to be homeless, camping out outside and carrying their few belongings with them in backpacks.

There’s not much detail given to flesh out their circumstances, including where they are – it’s a less-settled area, at least – and how they got there – there’s a short semi-flashback suggesting they once had a home and were evicted, but it’s unclear. They don’t appear to be especially deprived, and since there are no other people around, there’s almost a post-apocalyptic vibe. The nature of the couple’s relationship is also really unclear – they don’t interact that much, and they could be siblings or friends instead of romantic partners for all I could tell.

Regardless, as one of these vague people in a vague world, you stumble upon an unoccupied mansion on the coast, and decide to break in. This isn’t too challenging, and then most of the game is taken up by exploring the house, which is sprawling and often bizarre. It’s positioned as a rich person’s playground, with a full movie theater, art displays, and incredibly fancy bathroom installations. It also has very strange features, like what’s described as a therapist’s office decorated with degrees made out to obviously fake names. The fridge is locked, with an Alexa-type virtual assistant asking for a passcode before opening it (though this is presented as a frustrating but not necessarily weird security feature, as best I could determine). And though most of the house appears to be stocked and furnished, there aren’t mattresses in the beds, meaning that it’s an uncomfortable place to stay. After spending a cold night, the couple decide to leave, taking nothing that they found.

The writing I think fits the alienating, confusing vibe of the story, though it’s occasionally fairly clumsy. Here’s an early description of the house:

"Noland had noticed the abandoned mansion’s for sale sign knocked over on the now muddy lawn. For the summer we circulated on the beaches nearby there was never a car, homeowner, or even cleaner who we ever noticed go in or out."

There’s nothing grammatically incorrect there, but the overuse of stacked clauses make these sentences rather ungainly. There are also a few typos.

Ultimately I found playing Sovereign Citizens to be a meditative experience, with a few nicely-observed details sticking in my mind, like the flurry of realtors’ cards crunching like leaves underfoot when the couple enter. Despite its flaws it worked for me as a vignette of alienation, presenting a house haunted and made inhospitable not by ghosts, but by idiosyncratic capitalist excess. If it’s meant to be political, I think the context is too lightly-sketched to allow its message to really land, but in these matters better to have too light than too heavy a hand I suppose.

The Secret of Nara, by Ralfe Rich

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A deer's life, April 17, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

There’s a lot of IF out there with nonhuman protagonists – monster, aliens, what have you – but Secret of Nara is fairly unique in featuring a totally normal, non-talking, non-anthropomorphized animal. The game walks a fine line, portraying the deer who serves as the viewpoint character as resolutely nonhuman, while still providing enough of a window into their experience to allow for decisions to be legible. The writing can occasionally veer into over-abstraction, and the story, such as it is, is very much low-conflict, but I found the game a meditative pleasure to experience.

The prose is the main thing to talk about with this one. It does a good job of conveying really concrete, specific information about how the protagonist and other deer are behaving, and what they encounter in the environment. There’s no cheating – the deer’s thoughts are primarily emotions, not words, and while they probably have a clearer idea of what other deer are trying to communicate with their actions than a human would upon observing the same behavior, it still takes some work to decipher. Combined with the serene natural setting – a mountain and forest – there’s some lovely imagery here. This is an early passage I liked, where the deer reflects on their solitary existence:

"Cold winds brushing against your fur, peaceful stillness, and empty presence have been your every day for as far as you remember."

Occasionally the challenge of conveying a nonhuman mind can leave the prose feeling a bit airy, and there are moments of awkward phrasing, but the writing is generally strong, and a major draw.

Structurally, there’s a fair bit of branching – in each of my four playthroughs, a different incident served as the climax of the story, though they’re all decidedly low-key, like having a funny moment with a tourist or helping another deer. I liked this approach, since trying to make decisions lead to dramatically different outcomes, rather than leading to different scenes, probably would have made them heavier and more dramatic than the story would support. And that’s a good illustration of why Secret of Nara works so well: it’s a disciplined game, knowing exactly what to do to realize its novel premise.

Wintervale, by Ethan Erh

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An interestingly-lumpy lump of coal, April 16, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Here’s a bit of Wintervale’s backstory that illustrates some of what makes this fantasy Twine adventure distinctive, in ways both good and bad: so the setting is a town in the icy north, which was founded after a wandering adventurer killed the dragon that was threatening the region. You’d think the town got its name since it’s cold and probably located in a valley, right? Nope – turns out the dragon-slaying warrior just happened to be named Wintervale! Good thing he wasn’t named Arthur Warmbeach, that would have really confused the tourists. The fractured D&D aesthetic behind Wintervale (the town) also animates Wintervale (the game). It’s a mix of overly-familiar, boringly-presented tropes and surprising left-turn choices that might not always make sense but are definitely intriguing. A decided lack of polish makes getting to the good stuff harder than it should be, but there’s more here than you might at first suspect.

Let’s talk a bit about that first impression. From the get-go, the player is hit with a high density of typos and confusion about the title (the initial screen appears to refer to the game as “When Time Converges”, and there’s soon a mention of “Windervale”). The opening narration wears its worldbuilding heavily, with the paragraph about the people of Wintervale including specific links for more than a half-dozen races that when clicked disclose enervating details like most orcs being construction workers because they’re strong. This wonkiness extends into the game proper, as you’ll see things like “(if 0 > 0)”, an event titled “EVENT”, and typos and malapropisms galore, while even characters the protagonist has appeared to know for years go by their occupation rather than having a name. And the setting – a tavern you own – is often described in about the most generic terms imaginable.

Once past this frankly off-putting beginning, though, I found Wintervale started to grow on me. The story that’s playing out in this played-out setting is actually more interesting than you’d first imagine. It’s a horror-inflected Groundhog Day scenario, with your tavernkeeper protagonist noticing stranger and stranger occurrences in their bar – suspicious blue-cloaked figures, a secret entrance cut into your storeroom, intimations that one of your employees is keeping secrets – before being repeatedly killed and waking back up at the beginning of the day.

The investigative bits of the game play out via a solid structure where you can move between parts of the tavern and speak to different people in whatever order you please. Early on, you also get access to a nifty bit of magic – a monocle that allows you to see temperature changes – which provides a neat perspective on this oasis of warmth amidst the cold, and which is used to open up a few needed options. Everything seems fairly linear; there are choices to make but no real puzzles to solve as far as I can tell. But I felt like there was enough for the player to do to draw me through Wintervale’s 45 minute or so runtime.

The other thing that makes the game surprisingly grabby is, funnily enough, how confusing much of the writing is. I’m not sure if it’s by design, but I spent most of the game off-kilter, never really sure exactly what was going on. I found a magical shard of glass that seemed to go missing when I wasn’t looking, people kept killing me but I wasn’t sure who or why, I got a mysterious note that the protagonist resolutely refused to read for a long long time, characters came in and out with no real rhyme or reason… And it’s not just at the level of plot and secrets, even what should be simple physical descriptions are skewed and unnatural. Here’s the protagonist remarking on a pile of broken glass:

"From a distance it’s not too significant, though after comparing it to a nearby broom its probably a good 2-3 inches tall."

This is not how human beings talk or understand the world, so at some points I was wondering whether there was some kind of mystery tied to the protagonist’s identity? But as far as I can tell, no, there isn’t. Regardless, the overall effect somehow wound up being intriguing as well as frustrating, in a David Lynch does AD&D sort of way.

Ultimately I reached an ending – a bad ending, though I’m not sure whether others are possible, or what I could have done differently. Nothing was explained: not the source of the time loop, what was up with the mysterious albino woman, where that shattered glass came from, or what the deal was with my receptionist. I can’t really recommend Wintervale on the basis of my experience with it, but while it’s not a diamond in the rough by any means, it’s at least a lump of coal that’s lumpy in a sufficiently odd and idiosyncratic way to make it stand out from the others.

Journey to Ultimate Fightdown!, by Havilah "mwahahavilah" McGinnis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Ultimately entertaining, April 16, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

A title (and author nickname) as over-the-top as this reads to me like a thrown-down gauntlet: will the actual game live up to the badass silliness being so ostentatiously signaled? I’ll admit to some skepticism after reading the blurb and loading it up – fantasy RPG parodies are a dime a dozen, often going for lazy skewering of the same tropes with jokes that feel like they would have been musty even in the 90s. Thankfully, JUF! charts its own path, committing to a very specific take on the gag and not forgetting to include an actual game under the parody.

The twist here is to treat big-budget RPGs as showbiz. The characters are all digital actors, supported by body-doubles and production assistants. So when the connection goes down right as the final battle ramps up – it appears to be a single-player game, not an MMORPG, so I’m guessing there’s meant to be some kind of DRM? – you control Tommy, the actor playing the protagonist, as he chats with his coworkers and tries to figure out how to get the show back on the road. In the course of these efforts, you get to know your colleagues, who are a nicely-humanized collection of Hollywood stereotypes – the overenthusiastic newbie, the ambitious co-star, the embittered journeyman, the overlooked PA who’s secretly running everything.

The writing strikes a good balance between serving up jokes and creating sympathetic characters, and it’s effective on both fronts. Take Lackey Three, for example – she’s played by Lucie, whose performance is checked-out because she’s studying to break into the digital assistant business. Her interjection of “additional words!” into the opening smack-talk, and the extended sequence where she reveals her uh, rather strong feelings about Clippy (the go-to example of a digital assistant), are both funny bits, but while she’s a bit abrasive because she wants Tommy to stop bothering her so she can study, I ultimately found her sympathetic and relatable, despite the beyond-silly context.

The game side of things is no slouch either. It’s presented as a top-down RPG, and you click to move Tommy around and talk to the other characters (I had no idea Ink could do this!) Each character has the same dialogue tree, where you can ask them about themselves and their plans, their opinions on the other characters – which includes telling them what their colleagues have said about them – and ask them to swap an item. There’s a lot of depth here, and while it can get repetitive since everyone has the same options and getting all the dialogue requires doing two full passes over all eight characters, the writing is strong enough to support the time.

With that said, there are no dialogue options or other choices you make while talking that impact the game (well, except one to trigger the endgame) – it’s the item-swapping where the gameplay resides, and it too has surprising complexity. Tommy starts out carrying the ultimate sword, a less-good sword that looks like a fish (there are a lot of jokes about fishing minigames), and the Crown of Agency that marks him as the protagonist. Each character has a single item apiece, ranging from the metaphysical – a sense of purpose – to the mundane – an overwashed pair of pants – to the truly dangerous – a union organizing pamphlet.

You can work out chains of swaps by figuring out which character might accept as a trade, and what they should ultimately be holding when the curtains open once more. The object a character is holding when the end fight resumes (including what Tommy’s got in his inventory) has a major impact on how things play out – the traditional victory of good over evil can certainly happen, but there’s more than enough room for improvisation, flubbed lines, last-minute betrayals, and more. The combinatorial possibilities here are enormous, and after four playthroughs I feel like I barely scratched the surface – yet each ending went off mostly hitch-less, weaving together the different possibilities into a satisfying whole every time.

JUF! does have a few flaws. The biggest one is that the dialogue scrolls out slowly, and there’s a lot of it, meaning that clicking through it on replays can be annoying – and since repeated replays are needed to get the most out of the game, that’s a shame. There are some quality of life features unlocked as you go, including skipping the intro, but I really wished there was a “skip repeated dialogue” one. I also thought one very-positive ending was a little too easy to get (Spoiler - click to show)(painstakingly juggling everybody’s inventory got me a pretty solid result, but just making a beeline for Jacquie and swapping her the Crown of Agency seems like it’s close to the ideal ending. I support this rejection of damseling, but this is the point I stopped playing because I figured I couldn’t top that). I only noticed one stray typo – Boyle is referred to as Riley in one of his ending slides – but I did play a version that’d been updated a couple times since the Festival opened. But these are very small nits to pick, and I have to say, JUF! has taken its place as my favorite entry in this much-maligned genre.

A Blank Page, by Edu Sánchez

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A specific take on a universal experience, April 15, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

A Blank Page is an appealing game that I suspect will resonate with most folks who’ve tried to create something. It’s exactly what it appears to be – a Twine game about writer’s block – but with a well-observed take on the subject that provides lots of specific details to flesh out this universal experience.

It helps that the presentation is attractive – black text on a clean white background matches the topic at hand, of course, but there’s also a nice blinking-cursor effect that underlines the anxiety of starting to write. The prose could use an additional editing pass, as there’s more than one typo or infelicity of language, but it’s also effective at conveying the subjectivity of the protagonist:

"You really like this old keyboard. Its soft touch caresses your fingers. The tapping sound it makes when typing accompanies you in the solitude of the apartment… But, like a curse, everything changes as soon as you stop using it to play or chat or whatever and start using it to write your projects… You notice the roughness of some of the keys and how some of them offer more resistance, slowing you down when typing. The sound starts to be annoying, like a little hammer incessantly beating your ears, reminding you that you are not quick enough, that you are wasting time."

The game’s structure is pretty standard but with just enough of a twist to be interesting – slight spoiler here: (Spoiler - click to show)as the game opens, you’re given several choices for how to try to write or procrastinate. None of it works, and when you go to sleep, you wake up the next day faced with exactly the same text and exactly the same options, with the only difference being the weather’s gotten worse – it’s Groundhog Day, more or less.

Again, the details are a lot of what makes this work – beyond the keyboard description excerpted above, I also really liked the notebook, which has a series of prompts and ideas you can cycle through, half or more of which are pretty awful while a couple actually have something to them (my favorite was the one about dead gods leaving giant corpses that cults spring up to worship).

It’s all very relatable, including its ultimate take: after trying a bunch of different stuff, including taking a walk, chatting with friends, doing some reading, and just keeping the main character’s butt in the chair, eventually I was able to get past the block and start writing. There’s no indication that that’s because I solved a puzzle or unlocked a magic formula, which seems true to my experience: if you leave space for inspiration, connect with other people, take care of yourself, and keep grinding out and persevering, eventually the block you’re facing unclogs, without any clear rhyme or reason for it.

This isn’t anything revelatory, I don’t think, but A Blank Page is a positive, grounded exploration of its topic, and did pretty much everything I want a short game like this to do.


1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An empty plenum, April 15, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

After checking out its entry page, I was looking forward to this one: choosing the mythological counterpoint to Galatea as the title of your game is a move with appealing chutzpah, no matter how much extraneous punctuation you throw in there to muck things up, and Pygmalion’s blurb offers a pretty solid hook too:

"A story about You— The Murdered God— and the attempt to solve your death’s mystery in places beyond."

That enthusiasm carried me into the opening sequence, as the game’s got a neat CGA aesthetic and starts reeling off potentially-compelling plot elements: a murder-mystery where you’re the victim! Fourth-dimensional politics! Reformed necromancers! Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories! And there’s a fun little character-generation sequence here where you can define the genders of yourself and your sidekick.

Unfortunately, once I got to the game proper, my enthusiasm began eroding and I wound up not enjoying this one very much at all. On both the game and writing sides of things, my experience with Pygmalion was irritating and empty, despite the author’s clear intentionality and technical skills.

Before getting to the critique, a potted summary of how Pygmalion plays is needed, so here goes: you’re a god who’s been murdered by parties unknown, but a helpful necromancer has resurrected you by shoving your spirit into a marble statue. This second lease on life is on a severe timer, but it’s enough to allow you (with the necromancer in tow as a sidekick) to revisit the scene of the crime – a sort of cross-dimensional nexus – and interrogate the suspects and hopefully figure out whodunnit before you re-expire. The game is in Twine, but with a stylized presentation where you’re always looking at a retro, 4-color picture of a character or location, with navigation or dialogue choices listed below.

There are eight locations that play home to five suspects, with lots of incidental environmental details to investigate along the way. The places you can go are mundane – a garden, a foyer, a rec-room – but the contents are offbeat, including strange half-mechanical plants, ley-line tangles, and obelisk-fountains that resolutely refuse to grant any wishes. So too are the suspects, who are nameless representations of aspects of society: politics, capitalism, entertainment, big tech, and athletics (though I was confused on this last one since his picture makes him look like a motorcycle cop), each of whom occupies a different point on the spectrum between menacing and alluring – the cast reminded me of the characters you can make in the tabletop RPG Nobilis, if anyone remembers that. After time’s up (there is a real timer that ticks down as you explore), you accuse one and get an ending, though you appear to die again no matter what.

Even reading this summary, I think it sounds really great! But like I said, I got very little enjoyment out of this one. Partially this is due to how finicky the interface is, which adds friction to every interaction. Because of how much space the pictures take up on the screen, the text is spit out only one or two sentences at a time, and sometimes there’s quite a lot of it to get through before there’s a choice. Unfortunately, this requires either hitting the space bar – which I found often led to skipping over a line – or clicking a tiny > button that shifts slightly up and down in the window depending on how much text there is, which is a constant, low-level frustration. There are also sometimes options or explanatory text that shows up below the main display, meaning you frequently need to scroll up and down to see whether you’re missing anything.

I also didn’t really enjoy the game’s prose, though it’s technically well done – I noticed only a few scattered typos, and it’s got its own style. Unfortunately the style is one I don’t like. Sometimes it’s flat and dull, listing the furniture and stating how characters are standing and moving in terms more unimaginative than you’d think given the setting. It does occasionally liven up, typically when interacting with the suspects, but usually that means it starts sprinkling in references and adjectives that don’t quite fit, while remaining emotively flat, which winds up creating a kind of vague, hostile atmosphere. This alteration of styles I’m sure is intentional – it reminded me a bit of some of the literary fiction in vogue in the early 90’s, like David Foster Wallace circa Girl With Curious Hair – but it made my experience playing the game alienating and dull.

Speaking of things that are alienating and dull, the murder mystery here underwhelmed me. When you sketch the outline, again, it should be great! The problem is that there’s no actual investigation to undertake. There are no physical clues (crime scene’s been tidied up); you can only ask the suspects the same three questions, with none of them having anything substantive to say in response; and at the end, you can accuse anyone you want but regardless of your choice, you appear to only get a sly hint that sure, maybe they did it, without any resolution. Your actions wind up being completely unimportant as far as I can tell, with the player character unable to even attempt to solve the mystery. I suspect, as with the prose, this is the point, but for reasons I won’t rehash here since this is already running long, I really don’t get on with 99% of postmodern detective stories.

(I should say that I found one small bit of interactivity in the scenery, where options changed depending on what order I did things – if you check out the fountain and bum all your sidekick’s coins to throw into the water, you can then go back to the car and get a much larger haul of change to dump in. This leads to a little reflection that I kind of liked, with that act being a sort of commemoration of your soon-to-end existence, a kind of riff on writing your name in water. But this little narrative cul-de-sac, as always, doesn’t appear to have any impact on anything else that happens).

The last redoubt here would be the thematic level – if I found the story was ultimately one that had an impact on me and illuminated some aspect of the human condition, certainly all the above would be forgivable. Alas, I found things uninspiring on this front too. The narrative doesn’t have much in the way of specificity – like, who the god you’re playing is, or how they’re related to the characters you meet and why anyone would want to kill you. This is a problem not just for the murder-mystery side of things because no one has a motive, but also on the literary side of things because there’s not really any conflict. Sure, you can impose your own reading on this empty vessel – the best I can do is to imagine that the murdered god is a representation of religion, so Pygmalion is about allowing you to level a finger at the force that’s displaced you from pride of place in contemporary American society. But the game doesn’t give you enough interesting building-blocks to really support that interpretation.

As I’ve said throughout, this is a well-considered game that doesn’t do things accidentally, and shows quite a lot of skill and craft (though I did notice two bugs – a broken link to an image when examining the portraits in the stateroom, and a missing macro closing tag error in the Chanteuse ending). And I can see it resonating really strongly with certain players. But sad to say on this one, I’m on the outside looking in.

The Weight of a Soul, by Chin Kee Yong

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Excellent if slightly lacking in avoirdupois, April 14, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I played the Weight of a Soul in two sessions – it’s a longer game than I’m used to seeing these days. After the first one, I was already working on this review and planning to lead off by saying “the only thing wrong with Weight of a Soul is that it slowed down the previously-torrid pace of my review thread”. Now that I’ve wrapped it up, I have a few more caveats, but this is still a really impressive and enjoyable piece of parser IF, with strong characters and a lovely world in which to get lost.

So I’ve tipped my hand that I think WoaS ends weaker than it begins, but it begins REALLY strong. The opening is in medias res, and showcases the paciness and quality prose on display through the rest of the game. Here’s the first full paragraph, as the player-character – a doctor-in-training named Marid – grounds herself to deal with an emergency:

"He was healthy not a day before, or so he said when he stumbled into the clinic just minutes ago. You should have seen the signs — the shivers, the black stains around his eyes — but the shadows were long in the hour of night, and in the darkness you couldn’t see, you couldn’t see…"

As Marid works with her mentor to try to save the patient (a goblin), details establishing the world and characters are skillfully woven with escalating tension and prompts for the player to assist in the treatment. Then after the crisis is past, there’s a breather for Marid to clean up, return to her home, and unwind with a drink. It’s a bravura, well-paced sequence that draws the player in, establishing the themes and narrative stakes of the story. It also fills in just enough about how the world works – we’re in a steampunk type setting where alchemy is the dominant science – to allow the player to get their bearings, without overburdening the introduction with dry exposition.

Indeed, the light-touch worldbuilding is a major strength of Weight of a Soul. It reminded me of a dozen different settings – the Dishonored immersive sims and the Zachlike Opus Magnum probably most directly – but it’s got its own spin on things, and the game has answers for all sorts of questions about how society, infrastructure, science, and politics work in Furopolis (admittedly the Greek-and-Latin linguistic slurry behind the terminology might not be its strongest suit). Critically, none of these details are rammed down the player’s throat – throughout, descriptions are short and suggestive, conveying what the player needs to know to act and a little bit more to excite interest, without getting flabby. My notes are scattered with delightful coos over things like the paired cold-closet and stove, how the char-golems work (and are named), the dignity of the bemasked mutant bartender, and the individual descriptions of the statues making up the Chorus Metallis, a personified pantheon of alchemical substances. The card-reading – which I think is a completely optional sequence – was also a major highlight. I will say that my suspension of disbelief was a bit shaken by the line of dialogue suggesting that the underclass goblins toiling away in a hellish foundry have access to bereavement leave – probably that’s just due to overfamiliarity with how awful U.S. labor law is though…

Another immediately-noticeable strength is how well Weight of a Soul manages being a big game. To help the player deal with the scope, there are plentiful supports, including a dynamically-updated journal and list of characters, and a beyond-gorgeous map. But I actually barely touched these, because the design itself is careful never to be overwhelming. There are a lot of places to go, but they’re laid out in a big loop, and you can’t stray too far from the beaten path without reaching a dead end and going back to the central artery. Locations have a good amount of scenery, but not too much that it feels exhausting, and the number of characters and objects who can be interacted with is actually relatively modest. It’s generally quite clear why you should be talking to a particular person – and even if you’re a bit fuzzy, either Marid or her interlocuter will make it plain soon enough. And since the game is based over multiple days, the plot mostly progresses not by opening up massive new areas – though it does this a few times – but by changing the existing geography and providing new motivations or roles for characters you’ve already met. This meant that on my first trip out into the Channelworks District I behaved much like a tourist, gawking at every new sight, but quickly grew familiar with it and was able to pick out what was different on subsequent visits. I usually prefer a game go deeper in a relatively smaller set of elements, than sprawl out with more, shallower ones, and that’s especially important in a larger game – Weight of a Soul nails this.

I haven’t talked much yet about what you actually do in the game. This is good too! You’re tasked with investigating the mysterious plague that afflicted the goblin you treat in the opening. So you beat feet to explore his haunts, talk to his associates – and then, as the disease inevitably spreads, the scope of Marid’s investigation expands as well, taking in physical evidence-collection and some light puzzling. Really, though, most of what you do in Weight of a Soul is talk. The author has a good ear for dialogue, and these menu-driven chats unsurprisingly do a good job of establishing the characterization and voice of the supporting cast, while striking a balance between offering up a list of topics to be lawnmowered through one by one, and actual choices that allow the player to proffer their own interpretation of Marid (she is very much a fully-drawn character herself, though, so this is more about putting a bit of spin on her already-established traits).

The reliance on dialogue also opens into how well-done the technical implementation is here. Because there’s a lot of talking in this game, it adopts a visual-novel style approach where after each line or two, the player needs to push a button to advance. I typically find this interface slightly annoying, but here it’s well-chosen, because otherwise the player would be forever scrolling up and trying to find purchase in massive walls of text. This same care’s been taken when it comes to other potentially-tricky bits of the implementation. In one sequence around the mid-game, for example, you need to examine four different cadavers, including looking at different parts of their bodies and their clothing. Once I realized what was in store I had visions of the disambiguation hell to come, but instead it was seamless, with commands like X EYES automatically cueing off of the last person examined.

I did mention up top that I found Weight of a Soul grabbed me less as it went on, though. Much of this is down to a slight mismatch of expectations on my part, but the butter-smooth implementation of the first two-thirds of the game does start to break down a bit in the last few sequences. It’s still very good, don’t get me wrong, but I did find myself wrestling with the parser when trying to exit through a window, unlock a hidden door, or even trying to shortcut talking to Marid’s mentor by typing TALK TO DOCTOR. I also ran into a run-time error in the code generating background events on Day Three.

I also found the dialogue and writing strayed a notch too far into melodrama for my taste as the stakes got higher. Weight of a Soul is I think operating within YA conventions – you’ve got a teenaged protagonist taking on a problem the grown-ups are powerless to solve, a somewhat trope-y love triangle, and after poking at a bunch of small details I’m pretty sure it’s even set in a post-apocalyptic world. This isn’t my genre of choice, and I think heightened emotion is very much part of what folks who like it enjoy, but things like Doctor Cavala declaring that Marid is the one person who’s made all her work worthwhile sometimes took me out of the story.

In terms of gameplay, I kept waiting for things to get a bit more puzzle-y. Since the first half is focused on world-building and investigation, I didn’t mind that there weren’t any real obstacles in the way. But as the climax neared, the few puzzles that did appear were nothing too special (the two main ones being (Spoiler - click to show)outwitting Carnicer, whose solution is telegraphed with what I thought was a very heavy hand, and the (Spoiler - click to show)piston-pressure puzzle, which is just an exercise in trial and error). Many players won’t mind that there are only a few, easy puzzles – but given that they are there, it’s a shame that there’s less creativity on display than in the rest of the game, especially since the alchemypunk world sure seems like it would lend itself to interesting challenges (I was itching to get clever with the Metallic Chorus!)

Finally, for all that I really dug the characters, world, and plot of Weight of a Soul, I didn’t find its themes to resonate that strongly. Marid’s central struggles are definitely legible to the player (letting go of the past, figuring out how to be a healer given the inevitability of death) but they’re very familiar ones, and often felt a bit too abstract, or too tied to the details of the fantasy setting, to land strongly. I’m significantly older than the protagonist, which could be reducing my ability to relate to her journey, but I do think some of the game’s narrative choices wind up short-changing the themes – for example, having the only patient we see Marid treat be the goblin whose awful death kicks off the plot undermines the player’s ability to appreciate her late-game reflections on the grind of serving the same people, day-in and day-out, as they slowly decline. Sure, I intellectually understand that that’s her experience – but my experience as a player is different.

Compounding this slight feeling of abstraction, I was underwhelmed by the final reveal of the mystery, which ideally would have tied Marid’s internal and external conflicts into a unified whole. I’m going to put all of this behind spoiler tags: (Spoiler - click to show)I only really understood Justinian’s plot (that is, the motivation behind it, not what he was doing and that he’s a baddie since that was pretty clear early on) like the third time he explained it. It seems to depend on the player noticing some pretty subtle bits of world-building, like the fact that this is a post-apocalyptic world with the population squeezed into overcrowded cities, which I think is only alluded to if you examine second-order nouns in an incidental mural. And even with the background granted, I thought there was a really substantial mismatch between Justinian’s stated aims – radically change the world for the better, somehow – and means – culling the population of the poor so they don’t have so suffer so much. I’m happy to accept him as a delusional psychopath, but Marid seems to think what he’s doing has some logic to it, and not I think just because of her puppy-dog crush. And since the major plot felt like it reduced to “eh, dude’s nuts” I didn’t experience much catharsis around Marid’s final choices. Oh, and while I’m being spoiler-y, I also thought Carnicer’s actions didn’t make any sense (she was a hired hitman, paid to knock off Doctor Cavala but not a member of the conspiracy – so what possible reason would she have to freelance on an unpaid gig trying to kill the person her patron specifically told her not to harm?)

Again, though, I think like 75% of my criticisms here are pretty much just down to me wanting a slightly different experience than Weight of a Soul is offering up – if you’re in the market for a YA-style adventure with dialogue-first gameplay, I don’t think there’s anything else remotely as good. And most of that remaining quarter would be pretty easily addressed with a few nips and tucks before the next release. Even in this Brobdingnagian review, I haven’t managed to even name-check everything that delighted me in Weight of a Soul (let me squeeze in a final pair: the undead pigeons, and the way you’re introduced to Horatio standing by a bridge). This is a game that I’m quite sure folks will still be recommending ten years from now, and I’m excited I got to play it when it was brand new.

Excalibur, by J. J. Guest, G. C. Baccaris, and Duncan Bowsman

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A rumination on memory, in wiki form, April 12, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Excalibur is somewhere between odd duck and rara avis. Created by a murder’s row of talent, it’s a Twine game built as a fan-wiki for a low-budget BBC space opera from the 70s. There’s some dynamism to it, with a few additional links and comments opening up as you read through the entries, and a sequence that’s more or less an ending. But there’s no puzzle-solving beyond what’s happening in the player’s own head, as they browse through the wiki and mentally assemble each individual jigsaw piece into a mental model of what was going on with the show.

Excalibur’s success, then, is all down to how enjoyable it is to read each of its pages and engage with the questions it raises. Happily, it is a success. There’s an enormous amount of craft on display in how the authors’ have conjured up this two-season wonder, spanning not just plot summaries and character bios, but also backstage drama like writer/director clashes, special-effects mishaps, and more. My upbringing was about 15 years too late and 3,500 miles too occidental to fully appreciate all the references, but I know enough about Windrush and the coal miner’s strike to tell that the story is cannily situated in its time and isn’t just a classic Dr. Who send-up (though I’m pretty sure there’s a lot of that here too).

Of course, just methodically clicking through cast and crew listings for a nonexistent show could get a little dull, no matter how many finely-crafted details and in-jokes there are to find (the Russian-language poster for Terrovator – or “Death Lift” – made me laugh). In a well-considered move, there’s an element of creepypasta to proceedings too, which provides some of the most immediately engaging stuff. As you browse the entries, you come across hints that there could be something odd about the fact that no recordings of the show still exist, or that some of the accidents that plagued the cast and crew had to do with the incorporation of a ritual in the series one finale.

I’ll say that little of this struck me as super original – perhaps I’m biased because I live about three miles from Jack Parson’s old house – and I thought the way the “trivia” and “fan theory” pages spelled out many of the mysteries was less effective than it would have been to just let the player notice this stuff and come up with their own ideas. But overall, this element definitely does the job of providing the sugar-coating that entices the reader to do a comprehensive dive through the wiki (I especially enjoyed figuring out what was up with the crossing-guard and tracking down his comments).

What’s ultimately more compelling is that in amongst all the speculation about whether the show is a (Spoiler - click to show)tulpa and what exactly happened to Old Alfie, Excalibur engages intelligently with the role nostalgia plays in our culture and interrogates the impulses that give rise to these kinds of massive fan-projects. One key perspective comes from the writings of a French existentialist who consulted and wrote a few of the show’s scripts, including one where the character’s experiences seem to presage future developments and even mirror those of their off-screen counterparts ((Spoiler - click to show)Bleak Planet):

"Vaillant defines ‘haunting’ as the ineluctable repetitions of immaterial, atavistic terror birthed by the machinations of human consciousness. In this view, humankind is doomed to face a ceaseless mockery at the hands of its own creations."

He ultimately espouses a radical ethic of forgetting, and in the cast interviews that are some of the last pieces to open up, you can see some of them coming round to this approach too (there’s some in-show mirroring of these ideas too in how the Lethe Ray is used in the final episodes). And the game doesn’t shy away from portraying the negative side of obsessive fandom, largely through the gatekeeping, nerd-raging character of Ian Newell. At the same time, this pro-oblivion theme doesn’t exhaust what’s in Excalibur, not just because of the obvious love and dedication that went into making it, but also in the experiences of the less-crazy fans and the positive connections they’ve developed out of their devotion to this deeply weird (Spoiler - click to show)and possibly made up show. The urge to reify our memories through a shared cataloguing has taken on the very specific form of the fan-wiki at this particular moment in late-stage capitalism – and yes, there’s politics in Excalibur too – but it’s also recognizably the same urge as leads to story-telling at a funeral. The game cues up the difficulty of finding the balance between remembrance and forgetting, a very human dilemma, even as it comes down more strongly on one side than the other.

I noticed a few technical niggles with the game (the “Television Series” category link at the bottom of the “Excalibur (TV Series)” link doesn’t work, nor do any to the character page of Chanticleer) and some typos and inconsistencies (the audio archive page mistakenly lists series two episode 13 as a second episode 11, the Lodestar One page says it should be included in the “Derivative Works” category but it’s not actually listed, and one of the trivia entries for the episode Oneironaut says it was directed by Goulding, when obviously it was really LaGomme). I was also able to sequence-break by accessing the series two episode summaries before they officially unlocked (via the wiki-maintainer’s profile page). Though given that this is meant to be an amateur, fan-driven effort, perhaps all these errors are diegetic! Again, there’s a smart alignment of form and function that means even mistakes help draw the player in rather than drive them away. Excalibur’s great accomplishment is to conjure up a richly realized alternate world in which to get lost, while raising more than enough interesting reflections for when we return to the real one.

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