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Manifest No, by Kaemi Velatet

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Babel and everything after, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

When I play IF with an eye towards writing a review, I keep a digital commonplace book – just a little text file where I copy and paste stray bits of writing that resonated with me, jot down inchoate responses that I might flesh out later, and keep track of typos and bugs to flag for the author. For most games it comes to a page or so, providing a nice jumping-off point for when it comes time to write a review.

I spent the better part of ten days playing Manifest No, and thinking about it, and thinking about how to write about it, and in that time my notepad for the game swelled to over twenty pages. I found one dead-end link (it’s “destructocreative”, in Chapter XX), and one thing that might be a typo (“mattrless”) – though that could be a joke about the center of things going missing. The rest is maybe the top 2% of the passages from the game that did something to my heart or my head or both, alongside my increasingly-frantic attempts to make sense of what I was reading. Here’s a random sampling just from my notes on chapter XIV (of XXVII):

“If we, if humankind loses its music, neither sigh nor sign to convoke voice, then what is of a struggle soundless?” Meluoi. “Require we respite religion, psalms of our spite forever afresh to worship day tatters. Submergence in another subjectivity is the only release our isolated souls will receive, this where is I guide you, hold you under the surface, strain out your struggling for air, until at last you slump serene, and we embrace on both sides of a mirror, drowned in each other’s airless, but I can’t make you drink the depths into your own air. You must yourself choose to, to… oh Yamicz, how I struggle to drown myself, let alone you, but I must, I, somehow I have to…”

Renaming sequence, cf all the above. “U, Emninu Leiru. Deiyanasz swa dieya vo. Yamicz.”

Nondualism. Babel?

To want beyond your brittle limits thorns those on whom your thirsts lunge. No, that’s purposely too harsh. To want someone is suppression and therefore not virtue. Never want someone. Never want anything. No, that’s purposely too harsh. Why this perverse desire to feel worse, how much regret piles up to penance, when can I stop embracing the waste?

Ooof, goiters.

(Guess which of those words are Kaemi’s, and which are mine).

All of which is to say that there’s no way I can write a reasonable review that even manages to encapsulate everything I feel and think about Manifest No, much less pin down everything that it’s actually about and what it does. Partially, of course, this is down to sheer avoirdupois – opening the game’s html text in Word, it comes to just under 400 pages, and there’s not much in the way of fancy code inflating that – and partially it’s down to the dense, palimpsestic prose; the text is thick with neologistic portmanteaus, second-order homophones, and alliterative tricks that aren’t just naïve flourishes but carry a payload of meaning in their playful sporting, so you can read each sentence two or three times and take away a different set of valences each time.

(It occurs to me that what I just described has some resonance with the Hindu concept of lila, or god’s play – the idea that what we experience of reality is the divine separating itself into different forms (illusive, maya-forms) so that it can experience itself, extend itself in space and time, and reach deeper understanding through its reflexive game-playing. Is this a bit of a reach, even kind of presumptuous given that it’s a non-Hindu who’s trying to make it? I think yes, basically, but this is the kind of response Manifest No elicits, in some respects demands, so there’s blame to go around).

So there’s length, there’s density, but there’s also reach. While the plot of the game, to the extent I can make it out, can be reduced to a fairly standard postapocalyptic fantasy narrative, the thematic are much wider-ranging, again to the extent I can make them out. Without making a vain attempt to wrap my arms fully around things, there were two strands that primarily stood out to me: first, there’s a preoccupation with immanence; the world the protagonist experiences, we’re told repeatedly, is a hollow one, lacking in substance:

“Should dreams stream a little more lucid, who should wish for waking? Reality as changeful as those within it,” Myneme upon some lost wintry. "Contact between self and the ghostly sieve without the arid abstractions which plague day blears. Live in the conception truer than perception: the world unfinished, full of half shaped phantoms, rushed through real, even in nightmare is there a more fulfilling terror than in the encroaching of systems, structure ever increasingly predeterminative, riven into selfdefulfilling prophecies stripping you to actuals, simply throatsubmit to the swallowing semblancer.

Some of this is internal: the protagonist is running from significant trauma, including a seemingly-abusive mother, a recently-killed friend (or lover?), plus they kill someone early on. He’s not the only one who expresses feelings of alienation and emptiness, though: the theme is externally-driven as well. We’re post some kind of worldwide disaster that’s caused the seas to rise and the land to flood, with isolated capital-t Towers scattered in hostile oceans the last bastions of humanity (well, I suppose I should say “people” – the precise taxonomy of some characters can be challenging to fix, with a subgroup referred to as Vedas who might be biologically distinct (or it might just be that they’ve held on to literacy and have books whereas most other folks don’t), and one character who’s described as a lizard, which works well enough as a metaphor but could be that he’s like, a Gorn?)

I don’t think this is just a matter of life sucking and the protagonist being all grimdark, though: there are indications that whatever sundered the world somehow broke down the transcendent order that infuses meaning into gross matter (perhaps the title’s a clue, beyond being a dumb/awesome pun – this is a place where negation is made physical):

Hollowness of self precipitates hollowness of place.

To imbue into the object ourselves to reverse our initial eternal traumatic separation so when it rebounds amplified it can incinerate the innate curse along with us, shall we say the rose is not its thorns?

all these, stupidly tactile chairs, this world of browns and bangs, it’s not the faintest figment of that, that uh, I don’t know, I don’t know! I just, when I woke up I immediately descended, physically to follow my soul aye, went all the way home, and I, swam in the port, dove and rose and dove and rose until I thought I might disturb the glue that keeps these opposites together… really wanted to die in that moment, I can’t, it’s hard to explain, like in fate’s pull only faster or slower floating, wanted in the dream wake to live out my meaning at a rate worthy of our blood’s pumping to panic attack amass.

The other major strand that resonated with me has to do with language, and the simultaneous criticality of and inadequacy of words to fix identity and grapple with the transcendent. There are echoes of Babel all over this game, from the gross level of the plot – it’s structured as a quest for something called the Submerged Tower, which has a whiff of the Flood and Atlantis, sure, but in a gnostic-inflected narrative like this there’s really only one tower that matters. Throughout, we find passages like this:

Cease your prayers to a demon so brutal as single say, certain word, solid sound, sunders our ice palaces to seep through the noxious underworld fuming caustic thoughts, our wild grasping backward in the evernight seeking the source of a separate light other than what our pearl eyes radiate.

Atrocity natural, who should not wish cleave a dream city? Unspeakable situation, how do we supernate beyond construction of tenses artificial imposed brutal upon the fluid?

Speaking and naming does violence to the true nature of reality; at the same time, words have incredible power. Those Vedas I mentioned above? Almost the first thing the regular characters note that sets them apart is that they know “the Literature”, and they’re frequently asked for songs or poems, in tones not dissimilar from a starving person begging for crumbs. In a climactic scene, one of the Vedas rechristens the protagonist, giving him a new name and creating within him a potential for difference.

Emptiness, fullness, language, confusion – there are paradoxes here, deep ones. Is there a singular, unifying theme that can knit all of this together? Mmmmmaybe. Gun to my head, I’d say the deepest current is a Buddhist one, since the empty contingency of reality and the essential nonduality of forms provide a frame for making sense of all this. But ironically, I think it’s my own identity and viewpoint that makes me say this, since that’s the ontological frame I personally find most congenial for making sense of the world – oddly, I’ve even run a tabletop roleplaying campaign where reality had broken down and become ontologically empty, and it also involved swashbuckling adventure on fantastic oceans (of course, the cabal trying to immanentize the eschaton were the baddies in that one…). Maybe this is a coincidence, or maybe it’s a just an indication of the richness of the text that it offered me this vein to follow to what feels like the mother lode but might just be one deposit among many (there’s a lot here about sin that I engaged with only superficially, to say nothing of how to understand the often-shocking violence throughout the story).

Manifest No is hard to cabin, in other words; there’s more here than you (OK, I) can fully understand, and I’m flattering myself if I say I caught maybe a third of what Kaemi is putting out. You’ve hopefully got a sense of the language by now, but it’s marvelous, and well above my, maybe anyone’s, head. One more excerpt, then I promise I’ll be less profligate:

Ever persist of permanence recursions individuation of moments to eternal flowvents superimposing samsara alternation carnatives of dayrise and wellgone, swimming in sphere Uyllia where arises equally descends in infinite recall unpopulated with possibility uniterated, precalculated anneal of every energy enumerated matrices accounting the conditions preconditions, endless pastness of advanceless present tense mirroring itself infinitely any future of felt so the same, nigh as gods we dallianced in sphere Uyllia, capsule world lavish lazuli, brightness whirlwind blinding the outer unshines to presume border to predicate a notional knownness facilitator of participatory adequation excessive consumptional in identificatory fretworks, these consistency energies which contextualize our worlds sufficient to prevent its chthonic roar alienation stripping adornments to bare serative seriatim discourse, knowledge closure brocade bricolage

Just think of the domains of knowledge this sounds in, just look at the words: samsara from Buddhism, anneal from chemistry, seriatim from law, chthonic from Greek myth… So yes, Manifest No is demanding. But, I belatedly realize I should point out, it’s by no means an overwhelming slog. I’ve mostly been quoting from the more elevated language that, in fairness, makes up like 85% of the text, but the dialogue of many of the minor characters along on the voyage is typically much more direct, and the contrast between their plainspoken natures and the recondite Vedas (and protagonist) helps make sense of the plot, and also sets up some real comedy. There’s one bit where the crew cajoles one of the Vedas into telling a story, which she promises will involve lots of excitement including some assassins, then she launches into this completely abstract song-poem:

Glinting mirrorlike the incantations
Surging ocher dust insisted shimmered
Great Vyekana, the City Dauntless,
Ruby set in canyons candelabra,
Lucre gleam in the squalid glare
Bubbled heatdrench tar crooked stars…
Grimoire poet of the vanish, howls harpist,
Thief of soul to hordes, riches of wrecks,
Dread fever fathom flashing in the fever spasms mortalia –"

“Where’s the assassins?” Mojyi. “Said assassins were there, was it?”
"These are the assassins! That’s, aren’t you listening?”

It’s hard to read this as anything other than Kaemi poking fun at herself – I laughed, at least.

Are there criticisms I could level, beyond Manifest No just being too much? Sure, though I hope I’ve learned my lesson from my review of Kaemi’s previous game, Queenlash, where I spent 2/3 of it nitpicking and acknowledged its brilliance only in passing. Flipping the script this time out: the hypertext-novel approach to navigation can be confusing, with the association between world-link and the resulting passage obscure in the extreme, which made me feel FOMO when I came across a passage with like a dozen different links. I also came up short when I hit what I think is the one actual branch in the game, where you can choose either the high road or the low road in ascending a Tower – maybe this is another joke about how choice-based games traditionally function, but it still feels deeply weird. And yes, the language swings for the fences and while I think it hits almost all of the time, it does occasionally whiff:

Closed shops on crooked roads bloating roundabout goiters these eaves so easily which could hide loiterers like a cue shooting you on a shuffleboard.

(Yes, that’s the source of the “oof, goiters” comment above).

Keeping track of the characters is also really hard, given their multiplicity of names and sobriquets, especially since many of them are deeply unfamiliar (from googling I think many might be central and east African, which is cool and plays the Babel theme given that most Anglophone readers are probably similarly going to lack context for them, but still left me belatedly writing up a cheat sheet). Perhaps most damningly, the ending didn’t land especially heavily for me – I think an inescapable downside of the fever-dream prose that makes up most of the text is that while you can dial it down, as Kaemi does with the crewmembers, it doesn’t leave you much room to dial up in a climax.

If these are sins, they’re venial ones at worst. Manifest No is an astonishment (and the fact that it comes only a year after the comparably-miraculous Queenlash is a feat of literary production I can barely contemplate); it’s literature of the most rarefied order, somehow showing up in the back garden of an IF festival. I have no more words. Read it.

Fairest, by Amanda Walker
A mirror darkly, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Fairy tales are tricky things. As creations of folklore, most of them lack definite authors, or definite shapes. The Grimms and Perrault are touch points, of course, and their styles and sensibilities have a significant influence on what we understand a fairy tale to be, but their work was as much curation as literary creation, wrangling a mass of pre-existing stories into some form of shape. That’s perhaps one reason why they’re simultaneously so stable – there’s a version of the Cinderella story that goes back 2,000 years, to Strabo! – and so protean, as the chthonic elements of the tales (love, marriage, death, inheritance, social mobility) are continuously reconfigured to speak to contemporary audiences. So the same story can give rise to the enjoyable pabulum of a Disney movie (themselves already continually sequelized, rebooted, and remade), or the feminist lex talionis of an Angela Carter novella: it’s just a matter of squeezing the kaleidoscope just so…

Perhaps too this is one reason why fairy tales are a fertile source for IF: they’re broadly-accessible stories that provide a nice familiar hook without imposing too much of a fixed structure on how the narrative progresses, allowing for the author, and potentially the player, to decide whether they want the story to lean more towards traditionalism or subversion, without thereby doing too much violence to the premise. There are currently 54 games with the “fairy tale” tag on IFDB, with Fairest riffing most specifically on Emily Short’s games in this area (per the author’s end note, at least) but bringing plenty of its own ideas to this venerable subgenre.

Another reason fairy tales work well for IF is that their protagonists are always haring off on some quest or other, and so it is here, with Prince Conrad – the introduction efficiently conveys the premise, which is that despite being the eldest son you’re generally rather feckless, so you must jump through some hoops to convince your father the king to ignore to importuning of your stepmother and give you the throne rather than to one of your younger stepbrothers. There’s a court magician on hand to give you a magic feather, an impossible-seeming task to retrieve a splendid carpet from somewhere in the poor part of the town… it all scans so neatly that you’d be forgiven for not consciously noticing that the game asked you for your name when you started it, but regardless of what you type Conrad is always called Conrad (and, more importantly, is always a prince).

You will notice, however, that the game greets you with a help screen that, beyond an introduction to IF, also provides all sorts of play supports, from a verbs list that eliminates annoying guesswork to a TASK command to make sure you’re always oriented towards the next goal. I’ve seen folks say they played this as their first parser game, and I think it’s a really outstanding choice, since the author’s gone above and beyond to make it so welcoming.

Implementation is butter-smooth throughout, with simple navigation and talking sufficing to resolve most challenges, and more unique actions sufficiently well-cued that recourse to the VERB command shouldn’t be all that necessary (pains have been taken to make moving in and out of doors painless, for example, which sounds simple but isn’t given that the player could try to enter a house by knocking, opening the door, or trying to go in the relevant direction). It helps that this isn’t a puzzle-focused game, of course – though there is one, and it’s clever – but even still, Fairest is impressively and invitingly realized.

Of course none of that would mean very much unless it was a fun, engaging game. And happily it doesn’t take long to realize that Fairest has a lot to offer to experienced players too. Much of this has to do with its expert foreshadowing – it knows that you know how fairy tales work, so you’ll be squirming in your seat when you read an exchange like this between Conrad and a woman who definitely isn’t the evil stepmother from Snow White, not even a little bit:

She says, “I’d be happy to make you the most majestic carpet ever seen, only I have no thread with which to weave it. If you can find me some suitable thread, made of gold, I’ll make the carpet from it, if you promise me my heart’s desire when you are King.”

“Of course. I promise,” you say lightly.

Any player worth their salt sees that as a shoe waiting to drop, and a signal that we’re not just going to be blindly recreating a series of fairy tales before being ushered off for a happy ending. Then there are the metafictional flourishes that quickly start to seep in too, with the fourth wall breaking under the stress of several important characters, all of them girls or women… There’s a lot that’s set up, many balls thrown in the air, as you run through scenarios based on Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beaty, Little Red Riding Hood, and more, the game gives your plenty of hints of dramatic events to come without tipping its hand too heavily.

Puzzles are also well foreshadowed, too – you encounter many before you can solve them, which helps keep things feeling open and engaging even though the game’s almost always entirely linear. Admittedly, sometimes I felt like the game did veer on playing itself: there’s one puzzle about restoring a statue to life that describes what you need to do fairly directly, then has Conrad do some kibitzing that spells things out even more directly. But again, Hadean Lands this isn’t, and Fairest wants to get you to the ending, or rather endings, where the complex threads the game has been weaving come together.

I won’t say too much about the details here, even in spoiler-text, but as someone who finds endings almost invariably disappointing, I think Fairest’s finale works really, really well, as the interplay between protagonist, player, and parser begins to collapse, fairy-tale tropes aren’t so much subverted as inverted, and some telling points about the commodification of female beauty (hell, girls and women in general) land with a light touch in amongst the popcorn fun of an Avengers-level crossover hitting its climax. For the player, at least, everything ends happily ever after, as they’ll have experienced one of the real highlights of this year’s Spring Thing.

Custard & Mustard's Big Adventure, by Christopher Merriner
A doggy delight, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

(I beta tested this game)

Hopefully, dear reader, you are as happy as I am to dispense pretense that the reviewer is an objective figure, an unmoving mover floating serenely above the aesthetic object and rendering dispassionate, not-to-be-gainsaid criticism. And I further hope that in my reviews I make clear were my personal biases and subjective preferences lead me to judgments that might not be shared by a different player with different biases &c. But even taking all that as read, I feel like I need to issue some extra disclaimering here, because I went into Custard and Mustard’s Big Adventure strongly predisposed to like it – not only was I a tester on it, I also tested the author’s previous game, The Faeries of Healstowne, which was my one of my two favorite games of 2021, and plus he’s tested both of my games, as well as penning a review of Sting that’s quite possibly the single most laudatory thing anyone’s ever written about my work (and I include the toast my mom made at my wedding in the competition).

With that out of the way, though, let’s all pretend I didn’t just light my credibility on fire as I tell you that my expectations were completely right and Custard and Mustard is great. It’s great fun, first of all, to play as a pooch, and here you get to play as a dynamic duo of doggies – designated-protagonist Colonel Mustard, and his bashful-but-rising-to-the-challenge sidekick Ernel Custard (if you can somehow read that without giggling, I am sad for you). This is no superficial re-furring, too: your canine nature is well-implemented, with a rich odorscape awaiting your SMELL commands, an inventory limit that actually makes sense given a logical one-mouth-per-customer policy, robust BARKing options, and waggable, chasable tails. Each protagonist also has distinct strengths – saying more would risk spoiling some puzzles, but suffice to say each gets their moment in the sun – so you’re able to switch between them at will, which again is handled cleanly, with a single command sufficing to swap and the one you’re not controlling automatically following the other unless there’s a need for them to split up.

So much for mechanics, though. What are these handsome hounds up to? After a prelude where the two protagonists meet cute and give their owners the (temporary) slip, they’re simply excited to experience everything a traditional British village fete has to offer. There’s a generous map on offer with lots of places to go and explore, which can feel a little overwhelming at first. But even in this phase, the game’s gentle humor makes nosing around very fun. To take an example, there’s a small monument in the park memorializing its dedication:

Hockbarrow Gardens

Opened by H.R.H The Princess Mavis, Countess of Spelnose

This is like the smallest imaginable unit of comedy, but the whimsy made me laugh. It doesn’t take too long to get your feet under you, though, as there’s usually only one area where there’s much activity happening, allowing you to focus your efforts, and you quickly wind up getting caught up in a series of hijinx, from helping a magic show go off to interrupting some beer-drinking. Each involves solving a small puzzle, all quite reasonable, and it’s all quite enjoyable though it perhaps doesn’t live up to the game’s billing as a Big Adventure.

Then the other shoe drops, though, and the second half of the game raises the stakes, as your innocent enjoyment of the fair is interrupted by learning of a criminal plot to rob the local museum. This counterheist has twists and turns aplenty, with the challenges getting more difficult but funnier too – I especially liked decking out Mustard in fancy dress so he could infiltrate the town’s snootiest restaurant for a spot of eavesdropping, and shook my fist at the screen as a seemingly-helpful cat revealed its perfidy. While I thought the puzzles in Faeries of Healstowne were satisfying but could skew a bit too hard, here the difficulty level feels just right for this more all-ages-friendly adventure, with none of the puzzles putting up too much of a fight but sending up a lovely dopamine hit of reward as solving each unspools the next delightful bit of the story.

In fact the whole thing is just delightful – Custard and Mustard’s Big Adventure is the veriest romp. If you have the slightest soft spot for silly British things, or like dogs, or just have the smallest spark of joy in you, you won’t laugh harder all year.

Bigfoot Bluff, by P.B. Parjeter
(Pun involving sasquatch), June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

(I beta tested this game)

The first three sentences of Bigfoot Bluff land like a clap of thunder:

"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to Bigfoot Bluff."

This opening crawl efficiently answers every question you could have about the game – you have your who what where and why all cleanly laid out, albeit “how” is a bit trickier since you don’t start with a camera – while raising a whole host of new ones a player wouldn’t know they had to ask, like “wait, can you just choose to stop being a sasquatch?”, “have I been like photographing celebrities in Santa Monica sushi joints for the last decade? As a sasquatch?”, “couldn’t I just do the exposé on myself?”, and “wait, shouldn’t it be paparazzo or is that not how Italian works, because I’m pretty sure ‘paparazzi’ is Italian” (maybe that last one is just me).

To its credit, Bigfoot Bluff is adamant about not answering any of those questions – it’s given you all the backstory you need, and now it’s time to just roll with it. Beyond just the disorienting setup, the overall vibe of the setting took me a minute to get a handle on, before realizing that the author’s riffing on early-90’s tabloids, from the blurrily-photographed cryptids to a late-game cameo that I won’t spoil. In fact the ending pulls out a number of rugs, questioning the premise and raising significant questions about what’s going on outside the eponymous park. Squint, and you can see the game touching on questions that go beyond the terminally silly, about media production and overzealous parenting and identity – which it then comprehensively undercuts, so maybe the joke is on me for starting to take it seriously. Regardless, it’s a uniquely-combined set of reference points that come together into a mélange that’s memorable even if it might not be to every player’s taste.

The gameplay is also something of a rara avis. Bigfoot Bluff bills itself as a sandbox game, which calls to mind a certain structure – of a fairly open map where the player has a lot of freedom to solve puzzles, which are largely of the medium-dry-goods variety – but here also speaks to the mechanics. Rather than requiring you to run through a linear chain of barriers to unlock the endgame, though, the game takes a more systemic approach. Instead of points, you have a stealth score, that abstractly represents how noticeable you are; the finale is gated behind getting a sufficiently high score, on the theory that at that point you’re sneaky enough to get sufficiently close to your bigfoot dad to snap a pic.

Even more intriguingly, this doesn’t only increase monotonically – while solving many puzzles will increase your stealth, as will wearing the appropriate disguises, but some actions can also decrease your stealth. Sometimes these are signposted, but sometimes what feels like ordinary IF-protagonist behavior gets you dinged. For example, you might think that wearing sunglasses would help you blend into the crowd, but in the park environment, the glare they give off winds up drawing attention to you. The game is clear that you can always regain lost points by taking appropriate actions, which adds an interesting wrinkle, though it also necessitates disabling UNDO to prevent the player from ignoring this aspect.

I’m of two minds about this – on the one hand, this moves the gameplay in a roguelike direction, creating the expectation that part of the fun for the player is rolling with some punches, but on the other, sometimes it can set up situations that feel like gotchas, which hits doubly-hard when the player convenience of taking back the offending action is removed. I personally like roguelikes, and given the large number of ways to get points none of these setbacks wind up being that punitive, but at the same time keeping UNDO enabled might encourage players to opt into the chaos, rather than leaving them to start save-scumming or declining to poke at dangerous-seeming situations. At any rate, experimenting with traditional gameplay axioms like this is exciting – it gives me lots of ideas for other ways to import roguelike or immersive sim mechanics into IF.

I keep using, or circling around, the word “unique”, because there’s very little that Bigfoot Bluff does that’s conventional. It’s notable that the author has previously made choice-based games, I think – I’ve mentioned my thesis that the long-established division between these two kinds of works is breaking down, and BB may be an example of how that hybridization is shaking things up, since my sense is that the kinds of systemic design it uses are more prevalent in the choice-based space. If it’s an experiment, though, it’s a generous one, letting the player choose how deep they want to get into the puzzling and allowing them to roam the (nicely-illustrated) map to their heart’s content. Even though I mostly wound up wittering on about design, here, it’s still very much a fun, playable game – it just might leave your brain bouncing in a bunch of different directions when you’re done.

The Box, by Paul Michael Winters
A promising debut for the Kreate system, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

(I beta tested this game)

The Box is a test bed for a bespoke IF system created by the game’s author, and I have to confess that my reaction to such things has previously been to consider them reinventions of the wheel, given the number of robust, mature authoring languages currently out there. Those feelings have shifted in recent years, though, as systems like Dialog and Adventuron have proven themselves to offer distinct advantages to authors and players; it’s obviously too soon to tell whether Kreate will join that list, but based on the present evidence, it definitely justifies its existence.

Like many modern systems, part of the draw here is that Kreate allows for both parser- and link-based play; you can type in traditional commands using the typical Inform/TADS syntax, but you also have links and buttons enabling you to do everything you need to with a click. The links are contextual, though, so you’re not overwhelmed with choice; the names of objects are underlined in descriptions, and you can examine them by clicking them, while potential actions are suggested in little buttons right by the command prompt.

This works well, but what’s more exciting is that the system also seems to allow for less standard input approaches too – and here’s where talking about the game itself might be useful. The Box doesn’t have much of a plot, being an escape-the-room affair that’s primarily focused on the puzzling. As the title suggests, the main business involves fiddling with a mysterious box that’s got a different puzzle on each of its sides, largely based on clues you find in the environment. Some of these are standard object-manipulation affairs, but there are also some that, while old chestnuts, are newer territory for parser IF, including a cryptogram and a tile-selection puzzle. It’s possible to engage with these via the parser, but it’s a little awkward – the cryptogram requires a bunch of commands like SET DIAL-X TO LETTER-Y – fortunately, though, Kreate enables a little drop-down menu you can interact with via the mouse that makes things easy.

Speaking of mice, there are some cute touches that elevate the game above just being a grab-bag of tech-demo puzzles – the most notable being the cute white mouse who you can get to join you in your endeavors. Similarly, while the puzzles are primarily old chestnuts, they’re implemented well and are satisfying to work through, pitched at a reasonable level of difficulty. So even though it’s primarily been written as a shakedown cruise for Kreate – and I think succeeds on those terms – on its own merits too The Box is a pleasant half-hour’s puzzling if you’re in the mood for such things.

The Wolf and Wheel, by Milo van Mesdag
A compelling folk-horror anthology, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

The premise of the Wolf and Wheel is dynamite: this visual novel consists of a series of folk-horror vignettes spinning off of a frame story set in a tavern, as the inhabitants of a small village eat and drink to take their minds off the fact that the sun stopped rising several weeks ago (I believe this is set in the same Eastern-European-inflected world as last year’s IFComp entry Last Night in Alexisgrad, by one of the present game’s authors). This isn’t quite the same structure as the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, but squint and you can see the family resemblance; it’s a good way of hanging together a bunch of semi-related stories, and the atavistic contrast between a warm place of safety and a newly-terrifying night creates a push-pull frisson of tension between the pieces of the game. There’s a lovely, homey art style, too, with appealingly idiosyncratic character designs and a few nice touches of animation, like snowflakes blowing past a window. This is the kind of game to sink into, drinking a mug of tea on a cold day (unfortunately it was 80 degrees in LA when I played it, though at least I had the AC on).

Given the overall high production values, and robust hour-plus running time, the game’s placement in the Back Garden isn’t immediately obvious, but the blurb discloses that it’s a chopped-up demo of a longer work, consisting of random event scenes (these would be the vignettes) connected by a newly-written frame story. Given this provenance, it’d be easy for the game to come off as a glorified clip show, but to its credit, it stands on its own pretty well. Some of the vignettes are stronger than others, of course, and some feel more fleshed-out and relevant to the frame plot than others, but that seems reasonable given the weird vibe of the supernatural happenings they depict. It also helps that the protagonist of the frame story – one of the workers in the titular inn – isn’t a passive recipient of the tales of others, but somehow finds themself (you can choose their name and gender) sucked into the memories of each taverngoer in turn, reliving their decisions and experiences. There are also characters and situations that escape from some of the vignettes and enter the frame story, meaning that this feels like a full narrative and not just a thinly-sketched framework for a series of self-contained, non-interacting stories.

As for the flavor of the vignettes, I called them folk-horror, but maybe folkloric is a better word? Some of the early ones are simply eerie, and even when later ones escalate into threat and violence, there’s still an otherworldly vibe. Some of the most memorable encounters are simply conversations, too – one dialogue with a psychopomp boatman especially stood out. They’re weakest where they stretch for meaning and try to press the player to make big philosophical choices – there’s one where you come across a werewolf in human shape, naked and raving in despair over what he’s become, but his desperate questioning comes across far too bloodlessly:

"I have not been able to work my way through that question: 'why live?' I presume a meaning or purpose, but what is it and am I wrong in that assumption?"

Truly, Socrates, put some clothes on.

Even this comparatively weak sequence is redeemed, though, when you realize that this werewolf isn’t a man bitten by a wolf, but a wolf bitten by a man – what torments him isn’t his red deeds, since as an animal he could kill and eat his prey with no qualms, but that his intermittent transformation into human form has given him a view of morality, and transformed his killings into murder.

Again, they’re not all like this – there are some vignettes that lean more action-oriented, or have a light investigative cast – and they move pretty quick, so you’re guaranteed to at least get a powerful image or two out of each (the one with monsters growing in the trees was pleasingly nightmarish). You are given what feel like significant choices in each too – usually hinging on whether to flee, combat, or engage with the weirdness on display – so you’re not a passive observer.

As for the frame story, it’s serviceable enough. My favorite part here is getting to know some of the other villagers, from motormouth scholar Elisabetta, Nat the infallible timekeeper, and tortured doctor Fyodora. I’d look forward to digging into these relationships in the full game, since as written you only get one or two encounters with each. Indeed, my main complaint about the frame story is that it seems to end rather abruptly, and while there are 11 endings, the connection between my choices and the outcome I got felt unclear (though this may be setting- and genre-appropriate, I suppose). If I was ultimately more enamored of the game’s constituent parts than how it finally came together as a whole, though, I still very much enjoyed by time with it – and given that the Wolf and Wheel is a reconfiguration of how those parts were originally meant to fit, I suspect I’ll really like the full game once it’s released.

Phenomena, by Dawn Sueoka
Up above aliens hover, June 16, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

An anthology of seven short hypertext poems about UFOs, Phenomena boasts some clever wordplay and a nicely-realized theme (the title of the final poem gives the game away: “guess this was never really about ufos, haha” – it proposes the night, or death, the possibilities we invent from sign and portent). There’s some effective imagery here, and the way it engages the reader worked well for me: each poem can be read “down,” by just reading it top to bottom as it first displays, or “through”, by clicking each line to change it into one of a half-dozen or so different variations. Time – or at least narrative progress – usually progresses as you read “down”, while the “through” options typically elaborate a single idea, introducing a set of potential options and often including one that serves to undercut things. For example, here’s the second poem as it first appears (which riffs on a historical account of strange lights in the sky of 13th-century Japan):

We have been camping near Hermit’s Pass for nearly two months.
Our orders come from the empress herself.
But we search the night sky and see nothing.
The stars flex, relax.
Not a star out of place.
Her ever expanding empire.
The hunter draws her bow.

Then for the “through”, if you successively click on the second line, it runs through this sequence:

Our orders come from the empress herself.
Confirm what has been seen in the sky.
Accounts come in from all corners of the empire.
Peculiar signs.
A topic to pray upon.
But I am no priest.
I seek only to fill my belly and find a comfortable place to shit.

…before running back to the beginning with one more click.

It’s clever that the poems work this way, but because there are strong throughlines both ways, it’s easy to turn the poems into ridiculous self-parodies if you’re not careful with where you stop clicking – an issue that’s exacerbated by the author’s repeated tic of interposing a single short phrase to punctuate most lines, like the “peculiar signs” above. Here’s another way of rendering the second poem:

Peculiar signs.
Seen by the paper maker:
Xnth farts in his sleep.
The cuttlefish.
Imagining blight.
Animals cower.

Of course, if the player does this they’re not really entering into the spirit of the thing, so that’s not necessarily much of a complaint. I will say that this style of verse isn’t my favorite; there’s not much in the way of complex imagery or highlighting specific words with jewel-like care, but I can’t make much of the meter, is the main thing (these could also be the complaint of a philistine – I’m not very well read in poetry!) I do think the sixth poem, which is couched as a dialogue between the witness to an abduction and their therapist, worked best of the bunch for me, because the relative informality of the spoken word felt like a good fit for the author’s relatively unadorned prose. But anyway this is a matter of style and personal preference; you should be able to tell from the excerpts above whether you vibe with Phenomena, and regardless I still enjoyed the way it smartly runs through a number of different perspectives on aliens and what they symbolize for the human condition.

5e Arena, by Seth Jones
A gamebook simulator with a little too much bookkeeping required, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

5e Arena is neither fish nor fowl, straddling the gap between choice-based IF and a combat-focused gamebook. I’m only glancingly familiar with the latter tradition – I played one or two of the Lone Wolf books when I was a kid, and am dimly aware that the Fighting Fantasy series was a really big deal across the pond, but for the most this is one element of nerd culture that’s passed me by – and I suspect my lack of experience here is part of the reason why I found 5e Arena a little awkward.

Don’t get me wrong, the premise is straightforward enough: it’s an arena-based combatfest implementing Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition rules, but goes beyond the bare-bones concept by including a card game that allows you to gamble between bouts, opportunities to use your noncombat skills to learn more about your opponents’ personalities and potential tactics, and a couple of funny twists, like the chaos-producing Wheel of Magic in the final fight that injects a random buff or penalty each round. The fact that the announcer highlights that said wheel is sponsored by a local jeweler, and rattles off the shop’s slogan, in the pre-fight patter made me laugh – less intended by the game, when I got to the fill-in box with “Name or Alias?” I typed in “Alias” and emitted a self-congratulatory snigger.

The combat encounters are the real meat, though, and here’s where I think I was tripped up by gamebook conventions. In a paper version of such things, the player is expected to keep a copy of their character sheet and do all the bookkeeping – recording their hit points, rolling the dice, and so on. Which makes sense, as traditional books are not very good at rewriting themselves in response to how they’re read! Computers are good at that sort of thing, though, so I was surprised that 5e Arena doesn’t automate nearly as much of the gameplay as I would have expected. For one thing, there’s no character generation module, nor is there a way to input your character information so the game knows what class you’re playing or your current armor class or hit points; instead, the player needs to roll up their own character and keep track of all that themselves. For another, while there’s a cool little movement grid integrated into the combat window, the game requires the player to manually move the monster as well as the PC but leaves you on the honor system as to how far you go.

The game does do some work, admittedly – beyond listing the monster’s statistics, it also chooses an appropriate attack each round (using melee strikes when it sees that it’s close enough to do so), keeps track of ongoing effects if you’re hit with something like a heat metal spell, and makes rolls for the monsters. But playing the game is a significantly higher-overhead prospect than I would have thought. Again, I’m guessing that this is primarily because folks who play gamebooks enjoy the tactile aspects of flipping through their character sheet, erasing their hit points, and adding up their gold-piece rewards. But that appeal is frankly somewhat lost on me, and I’d have personally preferred to be able to just use the game to play some DnD – all the more so because there’s not much plot to speak of and the fun to be had is just to bash through the roster of foes. So while the game is well-implemented and probably will be appreciated by its target audience, I’d rather just play something that takes advantage of the affordances a computer provides, like the excellent 4x4 Archipelago, instead.

Confessing to a Witch, by HeckinRobin
A nice teaser, but no gameplay yet, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

So much like Adrift, this is a teaser for a yet-to-be-completed game; much like Adrift, it made a favorable impression on me and I’d look forward to playing it; unlike Adrift, though, it didn’t provide me with a sense of what the gameplay would actually be like in the finished version.

On the positive side, the protagonist, world, and setup are all sketched in a winsome, appealing way. The main character is on her way to visit her friend (the eponymous witch) to tell her that she’s got a crush on her (the eponymous confession), and it made me smile to read about her thoughts racing as she walks through the nicely-described, bucolic scenery on her way to the cottage – the protagonist works as a florist, so there’s a lot of good detail on the different plants and flowers. Of course, when she arrives, she realizes something’s gone wrong and her friend is missing, leaving behind only the scrap of a recipe for a counterspell and her adorable cat familiar…

On the down side, though, this all proceeds just as a linear progression of passages with only a single link on each. From the way the demo ends, it seems like the game will open up from there, and you’ll need to do a bit of a rummage through the cottage to turn up the ingredients for the spell, which is a sturdy but enjoyable adventure game premise. Still, to really provide a taste for the full game and start to hook the player, it would have been nice if a little bit of this gameplay had been on offer, with maybe a small puzzle to solve to see how the mechanics will be set up. The scavenger-hunt model does make it harder to break off a sampler than a linear sequence of puzzles like the one that opens Adrift, of course, so the omission is understandable – still, it strikes me as a missed opportunity, albeit not one that would hold me back from playing the full game.

A D R I F T, by Pinkunz
Alternate-history space teaser, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

(So the annoying title is actually clever, because the added spaces indicate the letters are drifting apart from each other – get it, drifting? – but I’m not typing it that way).

The opening of Adrift is eerily reminiscent of that of the main festival’s Orbital Decay – sure, “astronaut must fight for survival after an EVA gone wrong” isn’t the world’s most recondite premise, but it’s been almost ten years since the movie Gravity (sidenote – it’s been almost ten years since the movie Gravity???) and I don’t remember playing any other bits of IF with this exact setup, so I’m very curious about what’s in the water that led to this coincidence.

At any rate, it’s a grabby way to open a game and it’s effective here too. Unlike Orbital Decay, Adrift is a parser game, so proceedings are unsurprisingly more puzzle-oriented. It’s also unfinished, consisting of just the first two challenges and ending after you manage to get back to your shuttle. This isn’t a completely polished slice of the game released separately as a teaser, mind – there are lots of indications that the game still needs some love and care, from a fair number of typos to the noticeable fall-off in scenery objects as the excerpt reaches its end. The puzzles also suffer from a bit of guess-the-verb-itis, with the second in particular requiring the player to type a vaguer approach to the solution because the more specific commands aren’t recognized (Spoiler - click to show)(I’d realized that I needed to swing the crate on my spacesuit’s tether, but all my attempts to TIE or ATTACH it failed; turns out you just need to SWING CRATE).

This is all fair enough for the Back Garden, though, and I was still able to enjoy the teaser for what it is, and would look forward to playing the completed game. For one thing, there’s more worldbuilding and personality on display here than the lost-in-space setup strictly requires, with integrated flashbacks lightly sketching an alternate history where the Soviet Union stuck around and showing our cosmonaut hero pining for his Lyudmilla, which mixes up the more-typical all-American space fantasy (albeit the war in Ukraine makes this less fun than it could be, sadly). There’s also some cool pixel-art headers that shift as you play, helping to set the mood, and I liked the physics-based nature of the puzzles, which made them satisfying to solve. As a result, it’s not too hard to squint and see what the more robust finished product would look like after completing the design and some rigorous testing, so I hope this review sends a strong signal to the author to get working!

The Bones of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
She's a skeleton. He's a mouse. They fight necromancers., June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Oh, what a lovely way to wrap up the main festival (I beta tested the remaining quartet of games)! After a rewarding but, I have to admit, somewhat grueling month of playing and reviewing, getting sucked into the Bones of Rosalinda is like sinking into a warm bath. This is another in a line of games from the author that import parser-y touches like an inventory, compass navigation, and a world model into a choice-based framework, and the resulting gameplay is something like the early-90s graphic adventures of my youth, with lots of scope to explore and experiment but no guess-the-verb flailing required. The game’s comedic chops make the comparison even more apt, with a high joke density that anticipates that you’ll try to hide a needle in a haystack for no reason and character names that left me smiling (the fact that the necromancer’s assistant is named Albert makes me laugh for reasons that I don’t feel capable of explaining) – but where some of the LucasArts classics could be too cool for school, TBR has an appealing cast of characters, from resolute hero skeleton Rosalinda to your brave-despite-himself mouse sidekick Piecrust, to the ogre chef who always thinks the best of people. Add in a clever set of puzzle mechanics hinging on Rosalinda’s ability to detach her limbs, and you’ve got something here for just about any lover of IF.

Admittedly, the quest you’re given from the off is relatively conventional – in a fuzzily-defined medieval fantasy world, you’ve got to stop a necromancer bent on no good by navigating his dungeon and bearding him in his lair – but the twist that he’s a newbie who hasn’t quite got the hang of the gig, and you play the first skeleton he’s managed to animate without managing to bend to his will, lends more than enough freshness to proceedings. The relatively straightforward opening also helps ease the player into the game, alongside the tutorial-like was the first set of challenges teach you about the game’s basic mechanics – by solving a gradually-escalating sequence of puzzles you get walked through how the inventory works, the different things you can accomplish by sending your limbs or skull off separately from your body (I feel like I’ve played other games where the player character has similar abilities, but I can’t think of any that have implemented it as smoothly and systematically as TBR), and how to switch perspectives to Piecrust. The game then opens up a bit, presenting some more complex puzzles and a larger set of rooms to explore, though not in an overwhelming way – a trick the game pulls repeatedly to keep the pacing tight and limit the number of objects and objectives at play at any point in time.

Since so much of the gameplay is puzzle-driven, it’s good that the quality here is very high. There’s a strong variety, since between Rosalinda’s multi-competent anatomy and Piecrust’s mousely attributes, you have a lot of potential tools to bring to bear, and the game doesn’t hit any one specific approach too heavily. There’s also a mix of funny object-based puzzles, as well as a couple that require thinking through your conversational approaches with some of the other denizens of the dungeon. One puzzle did strike me as a bit hard (Spoiler - click to show)(making one of your arms into an impromptu candlestick holder) though this might be down to the solution requiring you to use the inventory interface in a way I hadn’t previously tried, even though it’s clearly signposted. And I wished there was an automatic way to tell one of the main characters to follow the other, especially in the maze (don’t worry, it’s not that bad!) But overall the puzzles hit a satisfying level of difficulty, and nothing requires too much clicking around.

And as mentioned, the world and characters are just delightful. I laughed at the puffed-up demon who’s nonplussed when his decapitation of you doesn’t lead to very satisfying results (seeing you hop after your skull, he remarks “I thought only chickens could do that”). I gave out a little cheer when Piecrust dug deep to stand up for his friend, and another when I read the heartwarming ending. The game is a real treat, and I’m hoping the epilogue’s promise of more adventures to come for the dynamic due of Rosalinda and Piecrust comes true.

externoon, by nune

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Character-driven roadtrip in need of a tuneup, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

On paper, externoon should be the kind of thing I dig. It’s a grounded look at a woman trying to externalize her feeling of being adrift by traveling across the country by bus, having low-key encounters with fellow travelers and musing on her dysfunctional relationship with her sister. I would 100% pick up a novel with this summary on the back cover, so I was excited to see where this journey was going to take me. Unfortunately I found that the aimlessness wasn’t just confined to the protagonist; while there’s some good writing here and well-observed detail, I thought the author’s decisions about where to focus attention wound up neglecting character development and thematic progression, and the increasing number of errors and typos as the game went on suggested this is isn’t quite a final draft. I can see how the pieces could come together with a bit more time in development, but externoon isn’t there yet.

Admittedly, it opens strong. A major thread running through the game is the letters to her sister the protagonist composes in her head to apologize for leaving their shared apartment without saying goodbye. There’s a plain, direct quality to her voice that makes these letters compelling:

Dear Angie,

I woke up this morning at three o’clock. I know. I can hear Mom saying “that’s yesterday” in my head, too.

I couldn’t really sleep.

Remember when I told you I’d travel someday? That day is today. Please. Try not to worry. I’m OK. I think.

I’m sorry.

Kicking off the action with a trip to the liminal space of a bus terminal is also an effective choice; the protagonist is in motion, but it’s clear that the process of getting where she’s going will be time-consuming and provide plenty of time for reflection. And there’s a solid texture to the details, which rang true for me (I don’t have a driver’s license so I’ve spent some time traveling via long-distance bus).

As the story progressed, though, I found myself less engaged by it, largely because the protagonist’s character and the story’s themes were frustratingly vague. We get a sense of her internal monologue, beyond the aforementioned letter, but not much of this comes through in action. There are a number of set-piece incidents as she travels, where the narration slows down and gets very granular: a disagreement at a bus station water fountain, a conversation after the bus breaks down, an exchange at a coffee shop, and an extended sequence of going to a bar and meeting some folks. Nothing much happens in any of these in terms of plot, which doesn’t bother me much; for a travelogue like this, it’s all about the slow accumulation of events adding up. But nor do they amount to much in terms of the protagonist’s character arc – she’s passive and diffident to a fault, whether she’s witnessing but failing to intervene in an argument, enjoying meeting her seat-mate but also wanting to keep some distance, getting dragged to a bar but sort of enjoying it once she’s there…

To a certain degree this fits the characterization the game has set out, I suppose, which positions the protagonist as someone dissatisfied by the way she’s just drifting through life – despite the fact that she’s taken decisive action by leaving home, it could be that we’re meant to see her nonetheless repeating old patterns. But if that’s the case, it’s undercut by the fact that she makes another significant decision at the end of the game, which felt to me largely unmotivated and disconnected to anything that had previously happened. The high degree of detail given to comparatively in-depth recitals of quotidian events isn’t matched by similar attention paid to what’s going on in the protagonist’s head, so I felt like I’d have to infer a whole lot to be able to construct a coherent mental or emotional journey for the character.

One area where this really hit home for me was race. It plays a significant role in the game – Lucas is from Trinidad, and attention is paid to how he navigates social space as a Black man – but it’s unclear what race the protagonist is meant to be. From the names given to her and her sister (Liliana and Angie) and the fact that they live in Queens, it’s plausible she’s meant to be a Latina – but on the other hand she also seems very naïve about the US immigration system when Lucas shares some of his experiences, and she’s on a trip to rural Oregon which from my understanding can be a pretty unfriendly place for nonwhite folks. It’s certainly not a requirement for a work of IF to specify the race of its main character, but given that the omission makes it hard to make sense of some of her interactions with the other characters, it’s yet another decision that muddles what externoon is trying to say.

(Speaking of things that are muddled, having finished the game, I also have no idea what the title is supposed to mean – that’s a little thing but it bothers me immensely, and seems indicative of the larger point about the thinness of the game’s thematics).

As mentioned, partially this could be a sign of the author running out of time to bring the game in for a landing, as typos proliferate as the story proceeds. The clearest indication of this underdone quality, though, is that the version currently up on the Spring Thing site has a progress-breaking bug midway through – fortunately, Autumn Chen has created a fixed version, available here. There weren’t any other bugs that I came across, but I did find gameplay frequently annoying nonetheless due to the lack of signposting for which hyperlinks provided additional detail or flavor, and which progressed the story to the next passage (I didn’t notice any branching choices). Since it’s impossible to go back to previous passages, playing quickly became an exercise in trying to get the complete story by guessing which link would move the narrative onward and avoiding that one – the logic was sufficiently obscure that I guessed wrong a lot of the time, though.

This is only one reason I found externoon frustrating though. There are interesting conflicts set up, I like the setting, and the author’s clearly got some writing chops. But it doesn’t feel like they were able to clearly identify what they wanted to communicate in the story, and edit it accordingly; it reads like one of those first drafts where the writer is feeling their way towards their themes, occasionally getting lost noodling around in a scene or getting interested in a character without quite knowing how to fit the pieces together into an overall plan, and then not having the chance to fix things up in a second draft.

The Fall of Asemia, by B.J. Best

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The spoils of war, June 15, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

An arty, experimental piece, The Fall of Asemia engages with timely themes: I wish its melancholy story of an occupying army destroying a city’s way of life didn’t have quite so many contemporary resonances both literal and metaphorical, but here we are. I felt these connections all the more clearly because the game doesn’t wholly position the player as a participant in these events, but rather as a scholar exhausted by the effort of translating these records and bearing witness to the crimes they memorialize. I don’t know when the game was written, and whether the author intended to draw parallels to how Westerners have been following the distant but visceral war in Ukraine – and certainly there’s no way for it to have anticipated the past couple of days, as we Americans have been grappling with how far a self-righteous minority will go to dismantle our rights (this review was written when the Supreme Court's draft opinion striking down all abortion rights was leaked) – but its downbeat vibe definitely met me where I’ve been at.

The mood conjured by the translated fragments is at once dreamlike and violently, even harshly, immediate, and is the main draw here. That’s especially the case when the game turns to depicting the feelings of the conquered population (note the mimesis-enhancing translator’s aside in the first excerpt):

"The language they use here—it tastes like blood from a bit tongue. I tire so easily now. Our ears are tired, too. [… here, the ligatures don’t look Asemic—cf. the Eth ms.] Tell me, is Asemia really dead? It is merely drowning, yes?

"The strange vowels of this province flood my mouth like chewing on leather. Someone has painted the sky a different color. The other wives gather in circles like quail, and sometimes I can’t remember how to thread a needle. Those conquerors are fools. Soon enough, Asemia will rupture their hearts until they can’t tell the difference between blood and wine."

You only get a paragraph or two in each passage before moving on to another narrator, who provides another view of the static situation, so there’s no strong sense of narrative development within the records. Instead, progression comes within the frame, as the translator tries on different approaches to understanding the texts and sinking into increasing depression at the tides of history.

This is where the game’s interactivity comes in, because before each passage you’re given a choice of four to six abstract glyphs, each of which you can toggle between one of three different versions with a click. The set of glyphs you choose impact how the passage is translated, and since you loop through the same set of records three times over the course of the game, you can see how these selections change the text. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it didn’t wind up working that well for me as a model for how translation works. For one thing, since the glyphs are completely nonrepresentational, the player has to choose blindly, which seems in tension with the way a translator has to weigh the choice of reducing an ambiguous word to just one specific correlate. For another, the shifts in the texts feel like they go beyond differences of interpretation or emphasis and into straight-out different meaning. Here, for example, are the three distinct possible ways the first record can be translated (with the caveat that they can be mixed and matched if you don’t click each glyph the same number of times):

"In the city after the war, there were flowers made of shrapnel. They stank like the smoke from the bombed buildings. I tried to pick up loose stars from the shards of city glass.

"In the city after the war, there were women who danced on blood. They swayed like the sausages left hanging in the butcher’s window. I fought to save our dog until my husband, spitting bile, grabbed my arm.

"In the city after the war, there were men who sang like bones. They forgot about the river with its bloated bodies. I could barely walk away from the library’s books, open and dead in the street, like shot doves."

These are all arresting images, but it’s hard to reverse-engineer a plausible language where the difference between “men”, “women”, and “flowers” is hard to resolve, much less the highly-divergent last sentence. I don’t want to harp on this too much, since the game is clearly focused on communicating its mood and themes, rather than providing a simulation of what it’s like to translate a dead language – but it did feel like a misalignment between the game’s fiction and its ludic elements.

Beyond this fairly abstract niggle, though, I for once don’t have much to complain about here; I didn’t exactly enjoy my time spent wallowing in the bitter, fading memories of the citizens of now-vanished Asemia, but by displacing some of the stressful things going on in real life right now into a fictional context, it was very much cathartic for me. Recommended, but maybe don’t go doomscrolling on Twitter right after you finish.

Hinterlands: Marooned!, by Cody Gaisser
Live. Die. Repeat., June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Has an IF sub-genre ever gone from the ridiculous to the sublime to the ridiculous as efficiently as the one-move game? To my knowledge Pick Up the Phone Booth and Die inaugurated it, efficiently combining its title, walkthrough, and single joke into one. There things could have languished but for Sam Barlow’ Aisle, which crammed a short story into its compact runtime, letting the player explore radically different aspects of a quotidian situation depending on where they directed their attention and efforts. The baton was quickly picked up – by Pick Up the Phone Booth and Aisle, which doubled down on the in-jokes.

This focus on comedy makes sense, though – with only one move there’s not much space to create character arcs or a deep, well-realized world, so a gag-generating jack-in-the-box is a worthy structure. And this is the structure Hinterlands: Marooned adopts. After a well-done intro bottom-lines your predicament – you’re an alien astronaut crash-landed on a wild planet and washed up on an isolated island – you have the leisure to examine your nearly-bare surroundings, which consist primarily of something with a made-up sci-fi name with an apostrophe. Then once you do pretty much anything other than look or examine, the game ends and you can try something different.

I’m being vague here since this is a one-joke game and spoiling the joke means spoiling the game. Before I retreat behind fuzzy-text, though, I’ll say that I think Marooned pretty much does what it sets out to do, but what it sets out to do doesn’t fully leverage the format. One part of success at a one-move game is deep implementation, which the game does well on – beyond most objects having parts and subparts and a large number of game-ending actions being recognized, the bits that made me laugh the most weren’t the main joke but the responses to more random commands:

Crazy, Daddy-O!"

The other part, though, is presenting a candy-box of variety, delighting the player with unexpected outcomes and novel responses to their one-and-done actions. Here, everything pretty much plays out as a slight variation on a single note, and while the different endings are inventive and well-written (albeit less PG-rated than I would have preferred), they’re much of a muchness. So depending on the degree to which you wind up enjoying the single flavor on offer, this might be more of a five-minute game than a twenty minute one.

OK, spoilers to wrap up:

(Spoiler - click to show)So the unpronounceable thing on the island with you is a monster (happily, the parser allows you to refer to it as such rather than typing out the full thing each time). It’s an impressively-detailed and ghoulishly-described monster, with all sorts of ways to fold, spindle, and mutilate your hapless spaceman as you try to escape and/or fight back. There’s an impressive array of stuff you can try – beyond simply attacking the creature, you can try to tie its tentacles into knots, pry under its exoskeletal armor, poke at its eye, and seal closed its acid-snorting snout, to say nothing of various more friendly and/or amorous approaches you can make to the thing, or attempting to flee. But of course all that ever happens is you got spattered like a blood-filled water balloon.

I can see the right kind of player getting a charge of anarchic glee at ticking off all the different ways to die, as they’re as lovingly described as a gore-filled Heavy Metal cartoon. I have to admit this isn’t me, though, and beyond that I felt like there was a dearth of non-attacking stuff to try, so after the first fifteen minutes I felt less like I was joyfully experimenting and more that I was lawnmowering through all the different parts of the monster to try to thwack. That’s mostly on me for letting the joke outstay its welcome, though.

Baby on Board, by Eric Zinda
Underimplemented, awkward, and confusing, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Baby on Board’s blurb foregrounds what sounds like a cool idea – its Perplexity engine aims to create parser games playable entirely via a voice interface, which could be a step forward on accessibility for visually-impaired folks and others for whom manual entry of text isn’t easy. As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, though, right now my circumstances are such that typing is way easier than listening to audio and/or talking to my computer, meaning I played it entirely in the traditional way. And experienced as a regular piece of parser IF, unfortunately there’s not a lot that feels new or interesting about the game, both because of awkwardness in its implementation and sketchiness in its design.

Starting with the second part first, the premise here does seem fun, and as the parent of a young kid, relatable – you’re tasked with getting a baby to daycare (you’re sometimes told it’s preschool, but as the tot isn’t talking yet that’s probably not right), and given the tendency of small children to cause chaos, I could see the story proceeding in a farcical direction. From the get-go, though, things are sufficiently vague that I wasn’t sure what I was getting into. For one thing, you start the game outside the house of someone named Rosa, with her car in the driveway; when you go in she greets you, tells you to do a good job with the drop-off, and leaves. Is the baby ours? Is Rosa our current or former partner? Is this even our house? None of this is explained, and while I guess you don’t need that detail, it feels decidedly odd to be missing these basic pieces of context.

I stayed befuddled through the rest of the game’s running time. Rosa appears to be an inventor, so after scooping up the baby (disappointed to learn that I couldn’t KISS BABY), his diaper bag, and his favorite binky, I also made my way into her workshop, and found a mysterious tent that, after I futzed around with it some, turned out to be a teleporter that took me back to the driveway. Figuring I had what I needed, I loaded into the car, but when I started it it told me it couldn’t leave until I locked up the house (it’s some kind of self-driving smartcar).

After dutifully heading back in to close all the doors, I tried again, only to find that the car had somehow gone missing. Guessing this is what the teleporter was supposed to be for, I used the tent again and found the car was now in an empty lot somewhere, with the narration telling me that the thief (what thief?) must have abandoned it. Then I drove to daycare, dropped off the baby, and the game ended. I got a perfect score so I don’t think I missed anything, but as a story this is deeply unsatisfying – there must have been some excitement with that thief, but I missed all of it – and as a puzzle-solving experience, all I had to do was unlock a bunch of doors and figure out how a very simple device worked.

If this had been all there was to Baby on Board, I’d be chalking it up to a simple, inoffensive test-bed that doesn’t make the most of its premise. Unfortunately, technical issue with the game and its parser engine made this whole experience anything but simple. First, the Windows installer took about ten minutes to load, without displaying a status bar or pop-up window indicating that it was still working. Once that hurdle was done, the game started up easily enough, but there was a noticeable lag any time I typed in any input – possibly this was because it was reading out the responses to my actions, but I couldn’t find a way to mute itself and speed things up.

Most annoyingly, the engine purports to implement a natural language approach that eschews the traditional shortcuts of parser IF. At this point I realized that Perplexity was the same engine used in Kidney Kwest in last year’s IF Comp – I’d struggled with its idiosyncrasies then, and while it felt a tiny bit smoother this time, I continue to think this approach is really awkward and likely to be less accessible for newcomers to IF and those trying to play by voice. For one thing, it’s inconsistent about understanding commands where “the” is omitted – sometimes it’ll automatically fill that in, but in the tutorial, UNLOCK DOOR simply failed where UNLOCK THE DOOR allowed me to progress. The system’s rules for providing detail about objects are also incredibly mechanical. I usually type X ME as one of the first things I do in a game, to get a sense of who I’m meant to be playing. Here’s what BOB gave me:

"You is a person, a physical object, a place, a thing, and an animal. It also has a hand, a hand, a backside."

Attempts to learn more about Rosa, the baby, or her house and belongings, were similarly cut short by the parser’s overliteral way of conveying information. There also appear to be some bugs – at one point I tried to leave the tent by typing GET OUT and received an incomprehensible string of letters and punctuation in reply.

Making parser IF easier to get into is God’s work, of course – for this particular genre to survive, it needs to get more accessible. And while there are lots of folks who’ve tried to do that within the confines of the existing authoring tools by adding tutorials or other player-friendly shortcuts, there’s definitely room to think about more outside-the-box approaches like voice interfaces and natural language processing. Sadly though, I don’t think Baby on Board takes any real steps forward on those fronts, and even qua game it’s a pretty bare-bones affair.

Ma Tiger's Terrible Trip, by Travis Moy
An intriguing multiplayer test-bed, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

What with parenting a teething baby whose sleep schedule is as high-stakes as it is random, my life right now is not especially conducive to planning leisure activities, which made it a close-run thing whether I was going to get to play this multiplayer Twine game before the festival closed (I made a joke in the IntFic matchmaking thread that regardless of the merits of Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip by Travis Moy, Trying to Play “Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip by Travis Moy” by Travis Moy was unconventionally-paced yet incredibly suspenseful – and yes, I’m reduced to recycling my own jokes).

Happily, I was able to connect with another player and got to enjoy two run-throughs of the game, which isn’t like any other IF I’ve played. It has some similarities with the multiplayer game in last year’s IFComp, Last Night of Alexisgrad, true, including an asymmetric structure that gives you a choice of character up front – you pick which of the eponymous Ma Tiger’s foster children, dutiful son and EMT Jekusheke or prodigal daughter with dark secrets Ebiashe, tickles your fancy. But while that game required swapping codes with your partner after each choice, which could be a little cumbersome, Ma Tiger integrates everything smoothly, so that after one person pastes in a code to join the hosted game, play is seamless with only the occasional “waiting” prompt indicating that your partner needs to make a choice before you can proceed (I only saw these rarely, and just for a short time, indicating a lot of care went into minimizing any differences in length of text between the two perspectives). The game is also pitched cooperatively, which I enjoyed more than Alexisgrad’s competitive approach – sure, the two siblings haven’t seen each other in a long time so there’s the opportunity for some conflict, but mostly I was able to focus on playing my character collaboratively, rather than jockey for advantage.

There’s also a timed mechanic on offer – at the climax of the story, you’re thrust into a quick-moving situation where you only have thirty or sixty seconds to make a choice. This adds some nice pressure to proceedings and underlines the gravity of the situation, without being overly-taxing on the reflexes (I was usually able to pick a solid choice after four or five seconds, so even though I’m a fast reader I think most players should do fine).

For all its gameplay innovations, though – and to be clear, they’re real and they’re compelling – MTTT does play like a proof of concept. Don’t get me wrong, the writing is good, setting a fun cyberpunk-noir vibe from the get-go:

"Her car is ancient, one of the models from before electronics crept into every nook and cranny… She’s ditched her phone, too, left it with a friend back home. If she dozes off and wheels off the road, drives into a ditch or overturns herself on a rock, nobody will know and nobody will come. No. It’s not dangerous; the roads are straight and empty, and the terror of isolation only that, terror. Soon she’ll have real danger to deal with. The problems of running from your past. Or, perhaps, the problems of facing up to it."

There’s also some nicely understated world- and character-building, with moused-over phrases providing a bit of perspective or context from your chosen viewpoint character. And the initial segment of verbal jousting is well-realized; while it seems to more or less wind up in the same place every time, and you need to stick to the overall personality of the character you’re playing, there are interesting choices that feel impactful along the way, like how much to share when catching up with your long-lost sibling.

But after this sequence, you’re thrust into the timed bit, where it feels like the asymmetry between the two characters leaves one with much more interesting stuff to do, and more impactful choices to make, than the other (that character also has more going on in their backstory, and better insight into the mystery of what’s going on with Ma). The denouement also feels a bit rushed, with all the big plot revelations bottom-lined into two paragraphs rather than coming out in dialogue, and one of the big variables in that timed section (Spoiler - click to show)(whether or not you’re able to save Ma’s dog, King) not even mentioned in either of my playthroughs.

Those critiques boil down to saying I wanted more, though – per the author’s note, this was all pulled together in a month, which is seriously impressive for pioneering a brand-new model of IF and having some solid character and gameplay work in there besides. As it stands, MTTT’s formal innovations are its most engaging features, but I can see the technical and design framework it showcases becoming a launchpad for more robust, fleshed-out games to come, which is an exciting prospect indeed.

Sweetpea, by Sophia de Augustine
Bad dad, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I’ve always thought that it must be really tricky to write in the gothic mode. Play it too straight, and you get a standard horror story where everybody’s wearing a costume for some reason. Steer too much the other way, and you get Gary Oldman vamping “I never drink… vine” in Francis Ford Coppola’s Dracula (let me be clear: this movie is completely dumb and I love it to pieces). Success means keeping the balance between the extremes, but a plodding, boring stability won’t work: to truly be gothic, a work needs to go all out, constantly teetering at the edge of going too far.

Sweetpea takes on this challenge, though, and makes it look easy – its lush, hothouse prose is deliciously creepy and deliciously engaging, keeping me at the edge of my seat from the story’s grabby beginning through its many twists and turns. The plot is fun, and interactivity is cannily deployed to heighten player engagement through what eventually reveals itself to be a linear story. But it’s the writing that’s the real star of the show. Consider that opening, as the teenaged protagonist looks down at the figure – possibly her father, possibly an uncanny doppelganger – suing for entrance into her home in the middle of the night:

"You aren’t too high off of the ground, and with the full moon smiling above clouds scudding lowly over the rolling hills, there should be enough light to catch off of his hair, to illuminate his face."

Then upon considering opening the window to call out:

"Should you? The glass squeaks beneath your touch, dribbles of icy condensation slicking the inside of your wrist as the pane warms with your body heat. If you yell loudly enough, he should be able to hear you."

This just works – there are lots of adjectives and lots of clauses, stretching the sentences to a languorous span, and each is chosen with a careful eye to its sensual appeal. The plot tropes also hit the right notes: the protagonist is a sheltered adolescent, used to being left alone in a genre-appropriate big house by her often-absent, eccentric father (who, we’re told “doesn’t talk to you about his experiments”, and by the way, happens to do a lot of laundry).

There’s a lot that’s only alluded to, or conveyed only by implication – the creepiest bit of the game is how casually the narrator begins mentioning her friend Michael (Spoiler - click to show)(while apparently friendly, he’s an archangel portrayed with some fidelity to medieval traditions, with multiple shifting eyes and rainbow coloring, which is eerie as all get-out). There are some flat-out scary set-pieces too, like the two encounters with the maybe-father, which I won’t spoil in detail.

The player has a good number of choices throughout, whether through inline links that allow you to dig deeper into the protagonist’s perceptions or memories, or end-of-passage boxed options that allow you to pick dialogue, or decide which parts of the house to visit. You don’t have total freedom, and some of the protagonist’s choices felt off-kilter to me – she seems to rush into thinking there’s something wrong with her maybe-father very quickly, but at the same time thinks nothing of taking a nap with his identity still unresolved – but this helps underline that she’s probably not traditionally sane.

There was one place, though, where it seemed like game’s logic got a little tripped up – my second visit to the father’s study had a description that didn’t seem to acknowledge I’d already been there and knew it was empty. I also wound up thinking the story could have been either slightly tightened or slightly extended; after a long sequence wrapping up the initial situation, there’s a short, hallucinatory interlude before a quick finale. The interlude felt like it ended just as I was starting to settle into, though, so I think the pacing would have worked better if it had either had room to establish a new status quo, or had been bottom-lined in order to get to the final conflict more quickly.

Hopefully it’s clear these are very minor critiques of a self-assured, effective debut game. Sweetpea sets and sustains a goosebumping, creepy-crawly mood, and leaves enough mysteries enticingly unplumbed – how does the protagonist know Michael? What’s the deal with the paintings? What happened to her mother? – to keep it running through my head even a couple of days after I played it. It’s a tense, well-written pleasure.

The Legend of Horse Girl, by Bitter Karella

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Weird Western puzzler, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Confession time: I recognize that there’s some real heft to the complaint, stated forcefully by A Single Ouroboros Scale and by many other games and folks too, that the IF community is too enamored of jokey puzzley medium-dry-goods parser games, and there’s more thematic, literary, and even systemic development happening in other parts of the scene. But – of course there was a but coming – I’d humbly submit that the proper level of enamor-ness for such things is definitely nonzero, because when I come across a game like The Legend of Horse Girl, part of my brain recognizes that this is all just USE OBJECT A ON BARRIER B stuff wrapped up in joke-a-minute delivery, but the rest of said brain is having enough fun not to care.

It helps that the setting here is a weird west that takes advantage of the familiar tropes to deliver some clever satire while also putting a distinctively gothic, genderpunk twist on proceedings. My notes file is filled up with little copy-and-pasted bon mots, from the way you go up against twin baddies, Butch McCreedy and his sibling Femme McCreedy, to the snake-oil salesman’s patter noting that his product is sovereign against ills including “juggler’s despair”, to the just-slipped-in-there detail that the bartender is “a tall slender woman with hands like enormous spiders.” The numerous characters are a joy to interact with, and while a simple TALK TO command gives you everything you need to know, they’ve got lots of additional fun dialogue if you try to ASK ABOUT different stuff. Add in a big-bad who’s got enough legally savvy to ensure his “can’t be killed by any man of woman born” deal-with-the-devil has a definitions clause to take care of women and non-binary people too, and you have a funny, self-aware game that kept me smiling through its one hour playtime.

The puzzles are also calculated to delight. There’s a reasonable degree of openness to explore the medium-sized setting and poke at the various puzzles, though they’re mostly arranged in a chain. At any point in time you’ll only have a few options for things to do and a modestly-sized inventory of one-use items, which means that the momentum generally stays high. Some of the challenges are reasonably familiar – you’ll need to gather three ingredients for a noxious, alcoholic brew in order to win a drinking contest, which makes for a straightforward scavenger hunt – while others are more esoteric (it’s heavily clued that you need a bezoar to win said contest, but the process for getting one is pretty obscure). While I did get stuck on that last puzzle, which I think did need better signposting, for the most part the game really nails the balance between being easy enough to allow for quick progress, but tricky enough that the player feels clever for figuring out what to do next.

The one thing holding LHG back is that it could use just a bit more tightening and bug-fixing. While I didn’t hit any game-breakers, there were enough things in need of polishing to make me hope for a post-festival release. Sometimes commands didn’t lead to any response, just spitting out a blank command prompt (LISTENing in the plaza, DRINK CACTUS); a significant weapon was missing a description, and some parser fussiness led to this who’s-on-first moment:

What do you want to saw the boarded-up door with?

What do you want to saw?

What do you want to saw the boarded-up door with?

And one last nitpick: my Californian pride requires me to note that the town should probably be San Diablo, not Santa. But while these niggles made my playthrough a little rougher than I wanted it to be, they didn’t stand in the way of enjoying the heck out of this game – sure, it’s relatively straightforward IF, but there’s nothing plain-vanilla about Legend of Horse Girl.

Super Mega Tournament Arc!, by groggydog

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Sometimes more is less, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Folks remember Indigo Prophecy, right? It was Quantic Dream’s breakthrough game, a studio which later gained even more attention for Heavy Rain, Detroit: Become Human, and Being a Complete Garbage Fire of a Workplace. But going back to the beginning, Indigo Prophecy was cool because it immersed the player in an immediately-gripping mystery, with your protagonist waking up from a dissociative event to realize they’d just murdered someone; starting from your desperate attempts to cover your tracks, the story allowed you to slowly peel back the layers of a sinister conspiracy, with clues to the true nature of what was going on always remaining elusively out of reach.

Then you got to the midpoint of the game, the developers ran out of money and/or ideas, and the back half of the narrative saw your everyman protagonist develop superpowers and win a three-way kung-fu struggle against a Mayan human-sacrifice cult and the physical personification of the internet.

Even leaving aside the let’s-just-say-problematic elements here, a fundamental problem is that nobody who enjoyed the low-key, street-level mystery the opening promised wanted what the second half of the game was offering. Frustrating player’s expectations can lead to exciting twists if it’s done right, but yank the rug too much, and folks will check out even if the individual elements are sound, is the lesson.

The connection here is that while Super Mega Tournament Arc! seems to promise one kind of story, from its blurb, NES-style graphics, and enthusiastic title, it winds up delivering something quite different – actually, two or three things. And while there’s some good writing and individually engaging pieces, I felt like the whole was less than the sum of its parts; as the ending kept escalating and throwing more and more narrative shocks, I found myself wishing to rewind time and go back to when this was just the story of a simple gladiator-cyborg fighting their way to the top.

That opening part of the game is I think the most effective. It’s a little slow-paced, as the first-act training sequence stretches on for a while, but the storytelling is effective, as the backstory for your plucky fighter is gradually revealed, you pick practice options to determine your style in the ring (choosing between lawful, entrepreneurial, and individualistic – more or less relying on discipline, scrappiness, and defiance, respectively), and your lovable-stereotype trainer helps you figure out what’s what. True, there’s a jarring moment where a white-cloaked patron shows up and drops some mystery on you, as well as gifting you a weird death mask, but on the whole the sports-movie cliches hit their beats well. The prose here, and throughout the game, is solid, though never quite as over the top as the exclamation-marked title made me expect – I think it’s down to personal taste whether that’s a good thing or a bad thing, though I thought it fit the unexpectedly low-key vibe.

The second act sees you thrust into the arena, running through a series of fights against colorfully-costumed competitors. I don’t think it’s possible to lose, but each bout is dramatic, and escalates the challenge and the stakes; the exact approach you take to win also depends heavily on the choices you make during training, which gives the first act a pleasing retrospective weight. Again, it’s maybe a little long – six fights is a lot – but I was jazzed to see where the climax was headed.

The third act is where things went off the rails for me, though. I’m going to spoiler-block the specifics, but suffice to say the story makes a hard left into a very different genre. (Spoiler - click to show)Rather than a cyberpunk sports movie, it turns out you’re in a Norse-themed superhero one, as the patron uses magical artifacts of the Aesir to defeat the mob boss who organized the tournament, take their ring which is literally Draupnir from Norse myth, and then threatens to use it to bring about Ragnarok. The issues here aren’t confined to genre coherence, though: the mysterious patron also takes over the narrative, in the way that an annoying GMPC can sideline the player characters in a tabletop RPG session. There are also some fourth-wall-breaking shenanigans that similarly feel like they come out of nowhere in a game that hadn’t been especially meta to that point.

Eventually the good guys win, and the story gets around to circling back to the personal stakes that motivated your character to enter the arena at the first place, but by that point I had a hard time feeling engaged; I felt like the protagonist’s struggles, their relationship with their family, and the close dynamic they’d built with their trainer had been too thoroughly revealed as unimportant to what the story was actually about, so this was too little, too late. I’d definitely play enough game by this author because the fundamentals of each act are strong – to say nothing of the cool pixel art – I just hope they tone down their imagination next time and recognize when less is more!

A Single Ouroboros Scale, by Naomi Norbez

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
On legacy, forgetting, and IF communities, June 14, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Immediately after playing Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony, I came across another game with challenging bleed-through between art and artist: A Single Ouroboros Scale is primarily an archive of the Jots (lightly-fictionalized tweets) of IF author Algie Freyir, who has many overt similarities to IF author Naomi Norbez (who goes by Bez), who wrote SOS. Fittingly for a protagonist named after the eponymous mouse in Flowers for Algernon, Algie’s latest Jots show him struggling with rapidly-decaying mental faculties, including a failing memory; per the author’s notes, this affliction is also affecting Bez, meaning that Algie’s desperate attempts to assess and even safeguard his legacy take on a terrifying, poignant power, since none of this is theoretical.

The frame here is reminiscent of that used in one of Bez’s previous games, the Dead Account – the protagonist is a nameless volunteer trying out for a place with an archiving project that’s maintaining a backup of the IF community’s Jots since the main site has closed down. Rather than preserving information, though, the project director – your potential boss – seems more intent on destroying it by imposing a significance test on posters, and deleting the Jots of those who fail it. The business of the game, then, has you reviewing 8 years of Algie’s Jots and then facing the binary choice of whether or not his account, which is framed as being low-rated, should be deleted.

This of course doesn’t make much logical sense – how does someone who believes in restrictive curation wind up in charge of an archiving project, especially when the deletion can save at most a few thousand words of text (he also misgenders Algie in the final sequence, cementing his status as a villain)? The stakes of this decision for the notional protagonist are also quite low – there’s a suggestion that joining the project will somewhat enhance their standing in the IF community, but that’s pretty thin gruel. But this setup is very effective as to Algie, as this record of his participation in the community is threatened with oblivion – and while in theory his games would survive on whatever the fictional IFDB analogue is, of course all we see of him are his Jots meaning the stakes feel total. And while it’s hard to imagine any good-faith player sincerely picking the “delete” option at the end, putting the player in a position to make such a decision works very well to implicate them in the processes by which the IF community determines who is and isn’t worthy of remembrance.

Overall though this layer is relatively thin, and the main action of the game involves reading, and reacting to, Algie’s Jots. And on these terms the game definitely needs to be judged a success, because I think most players will have many, strong reactions to the Jots. Many of them are very personal, charting Algie’s journey towards understanding and embracing his trans identity and falling away from his Christian faith. Descriptions of the games he’s working on, his influences, and artistic aspirations are also really compelling, enlivened by repeated allusions to two poems – an Emily Dickinson one about the miraculous and weighty responsibilities of being a flower, and one by Rebecca Elson about dark matter but also touching on death and the possibility of resurrection. And of course there are the heart-rending final ones charting Algie’s despair as his mind disintegrates. There are some good funny bits along the way, too, despite the darkness of the game’s progression – Algie’s response to folks telling him to stop talking about personal stuff so much is that he’s “gonna complain about parsers SO much and SO many of you are gonna be pissed,” which made me laugh.

The main subject, though, is the IF community, and the trajectory of Algie’s attitude towards it shifting from one of bright-eyed excitement at finding a set of fellow-artists and a potential audience for his writing, through gradual disillusionment as his games are ignored or met with patronizing uninterest from most of the community, through desperate, vituperative anger at the prospect that his work will be forgotten and these years of engagement will produce no legacy. From the specificity here, as well as the out-of-game author’s notes, it’s clear we’re meant to engage with these critiques not just according to the fictional frame where they chart out a tragic character arc, but also reflect on what they say about the real-world, Jot-free IF community.

This is an important goal, and I do think many of the criticisms land – and probably would land with even more force if I’d been around during the bad old days of the Twine Wars. Still, I think embedding them in the fictional construct of SOS undercuts the power of many of these arguments, and can make them sometimes frustrating. We’re only able to see one side of the conversations, and Algie’s complaints are sometimes vague and hard to connect with real-world people, incidents, and behaviors – this is understandable given the fictionalized, in-character nature of the Jots, as well as by a laudable desire not to call out specific people, but I found it put the arguments in something of an uncanny valley, too real to appreciate solely within the game’s made-up world but too far afield from reality to be conducive to concrete, specific action. For example, the project director’s dismissal of Algie, and folks working in hypertext in general, is really slippery:

"You know, keeping creators whose work are more relevant to the growth of the IF scene. Offshoots are ok, too experimental not as much. We’re also leaning more towards parsers, considering how important they are to the community, compared to the hypertext stuff going on outside of the main IF circles. Nothing against hypertext obviously, but I just haven’t seen much development there compared to parsers, and neither has the community."

“Growth”, “offshoots”, “too experimental”, “important”, “development” – these important words aren’t elaborated on or defined, nor am I finding it easy to map them to critical conversations I’ve personally seen. There’s also a Manichean view of the community as either “parser” or “hypertext/Twine”, which doesn’t take account of a contemporary scene where many players, and even authors, move between them – though much of this seems to me as about importing parser sensibilities into choice-based frameworks, which per SOS’s values might be seen as a colonizing or at least tokenizing development. And similarly, it’s hard not to see Algie’s blunt dismissal of parser games (“I don’t get it but you do you I guess? Like I said, never liked them very much… But you do you and I’ll do me”) as symmetric with the disinterest with which others greet his work – of course there’s nothing unfair about saying responsibilities look different for less marginalized vs. more marginalized members of a community, but this subtlety isn’t pulled out in the game.

Again, for a fictionalized polemic, this is completely understandable, even notwithstanding the constraining circumstances Bez’s medical condition has had on the game’s composition. And he’s also clear that these arguments can be taken in different ways, and is primarily focused on generating, rather than resolving, discussion – in the final notes, he says:

"The JAVP and Robert Evans’s vision/execution could be an “IF dystopia” as one beta tester put it, or an alternate future closer to our reality—up to you, but I do want to raise the question of how IF history is remembered/recorded."

I have to say, even after all these caveats, sometimes I did feel annoyed and thought SOS was taking some cheap shots. It’s hard to ignore the fact that I’m one of the cisgendered, straight, white, middle-aged, male parser authors who are the clearly-signposted bad guys here, so it is not entirely outside the realm of possibility that rather than being a completely disinterested and fair reader, my feeling that these critiques aren’t fully relevant and persuasive are biased by some defensiveness. I haven’t seen too many reviews of SOS out in the wild and the ones I have are generally from folks with backgrounds apparently similar to my own; I’m very eager to see what others coming at it from a different perspective might think of the game.

Wrapping up by going back to Algie, though, there’s definitely self-awareness and clarity on some of the tensions inherent to his desires, especially in the really well-written final sequence of Jots. Here he reflects on the contradiction that gives SOS its title:

"Does anybody ever die satisfied? I’m pretty sure no matter how successful you are or big you get, you got loose ends SOMEWHERE. And that’s kinda reassuring? But I also feel like I gotta die “right”/“well”, y’know? Which means seeking satisfaction there. But I won’t be satisfied. But I keep trying. Endless ouroboros.

"And I’lll be replaced. I know that. Once I stop making stuff or die somebody’s gonna pick up where I left off and take over. The internet’s full of people clamoring for attention on their work, including me. And I’m replaceable by any of them."

Both pieces of this are true; we all want to be remembered, and we’ll all be forgotten (though given society’s biases, some of us will have an easier time lasting longer in the memory than others). Finishing SOS, I thought about my twin sister, who died two years ago. Afterwards, the Department of Defense named a reasonably significant award after her (she helped run the military’s sexual assault prevention and response programs), and I felt pride that her memory will live on this way. But of course, in another ten years odds are nobody involved will have any idea who she is, and her name on the award won’t have any real meaning. And in another twenty, odds are that they’ll rename it again.

I also thought about a poll conducted in the UK 1929, about which authors would still be read a century hence, in 2029. Number one went to John Galsworthy, who’s now a footnote to history[1]; Virginia Woolf, EM Forster, and James Joyce were absent or near the bottom of the list.

What counts as enough of a legacy to be satisfied? And if the worm can eventually turn, who are the ones who are turning it? SOS doesn’t provide answers to any of this, but I’ll certainly remember it asking the questions.

1: He wrote the Forstye Saga, which as a person who’s read a lot of dead white males I only know because of a middling Masterpiece Theater adaptation from the early aughts.

Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony, by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Unsettling, June 13, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Ooof. This is a tough one to get to grips with. Partially that’s down to the content of HTWAS: it’s a cut-up series of autobiographical vignettes mapped in achronological fashion upon a “hypercube”, which concern set theory, bipolar mania, creative partnerships, and a math-and-divination based project to facilitate universal love and cross-cultural understanding via ethereal communication with a Chinese pop star, all of which chaos is accessed via a parser interface with a minimal verb set whose only affordances are navigating the hypercube and combining objects that represent abstruse math concepts to form other, yet more abstruse ones (feel free to scatter parenthetical “?”s anywhere the previous sentence seems to be crying out for one).

The bigger barrier for me, though, is the opening text, where one of the co-authors says his relationship with the other co-author (which was also a romantic one, from the game’s context), has fallen apart after confessing to having sexual feelings for her teenaged son, who he’d apparently been a caregiver for over most of the previous decade. This is walked back almost immediately, but in a very vague way that indicates something significantly bad did occur:

"No, actually none of that was happening or going to happen, except the part where I, BenJen, am delusional and say horrible things to a teenager believing it will restructure the proton and give perpetual free energy via large cardinal embeddings, but actually I am just hurting the people I love, failing to manage my mental illness properly, and destroying my life and everything I have tried to do and be in the world."

This is of course something said in-game, and versions of both co-authors do exist in the story (which is similarly from the perspective of Ben), so it’s certainly possible that this declaration should be understood within the fiction of the game and doesn’t reflect actual events – as someone whose previous game was a memoir, I’m acutely aware that even in an explicitly autobiographical work there can be a significant difference between real events and what shows up in the game. But from playing through the game it certainly does not seem to boast much fictionalization; most events are low-key, quotidian ones depicting the co-author riding his bike around San Francisco, talking with his co-author about subjects including writing this game, and digging into his obsessive-seeming theories about what advanced math means about the nature of reality. Much of it’s also told in a writing style that I find really reminiscent of similar emails I’ve gotten from a bipolar friend of mine when he’s in a manic phase:

"The ball returns to your flippers and you shoot for an appealing target. The ball ricochets off the Communication Carousel and hits the Free Will Fork for a bonus. She continues, ‘Why is a Measurable cardinal special? If a measurable cardinal exists, it is the critical point of an embedding of the universe of sets to a transitive class, and the full universe of sets is larger and richer than L, the constructible universe. The existence of elementary embeddings depends on the self-reflectivity of the universe of sets, whether or not initial segments of the universe reflect properties of the whole. This is analogous to recursive self-containment of deities and universes and souls within the universes that contain the deity, as well as to the infinite mirroring of two minds communicating and modeling the other mind modeling the other modeling itself."

I don’t mean to be dismissive of what’s clearly a significant work, in terms of the effort it’s required and its significance to the co-author. And while it is very hard to make sense of much of the game – partially because I can’t follow the math, which might of course be perfectly comprehensible if you have the right background – there are some powerful moments in amongst the muddle. There’s a fantasy of playing the piano with great facility that’s counterposed with the lived reality of arthritis making such virtuosity out of reach, and conversations where the co-author shares his arguments with his partner but displays appealing self-awareness about the positive things he’s able to communicate but also the ways his enthusiasm or mania makes things more challenging for her. There’s interesting things to discuss about how the narrative – and the hypercube mapping – are constructed, as well as the binding mechanic and what it means in terms of the themes that emerge from exploration and the eventual option to “win” the game.

When I think about engaging with those things, though, I feel a coldness in the pit of my stomach, because it’s hard to treat HTWAS primarily as an aesthetic object when I can’t shake the idea that it’s the record of a person in the throes of a mental health crises who’s harmed themselves and others. It’s also unclear to me whether both co-authors agreed to put the game out in its current form, or if Ben has done so unilaterally after their relationship fractured. I’m not completely sure whether this is the right course of action for me, much less others, but I’ve decided to leave these notes on my reaction incomplete rather than doing a full review, and won’t be nominating it for ribbons. And I’ll also hope everyone involved with the game’s creation (especially the other co-author’s son) gets the help and support they need.

Computerfriend, by Kit Riemer

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Blisteringly powerful imagery, June 13, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Computerfriend is hard to describe, but as I was searching for ways to communicate what it’s about, a shorthand popped into my mind and refused to leave: it’s Infinite Jest by way of Eliza. Despite how it sounds, this is not a stone-cold insult! What we’ve got here is a choice-based narrative, told in clever, literary prose, following a protagonist as they navigate their mental health issues in an alternate-history, mid-apocalyptic America (so far so Infinite Jest), which they do largely by engaging with a computerized therapist whose treatment strategies sometimes resemble madlibs (here’s the Eliza bit). It’s off-kilter and unsettling, with arresting images and meta jokes that are funny, but not just funny. Even though the ending I got didn’t quite feel of a piece with the rest of the story, I adored it anyway.

If I love a game it’s usually down at least partially to the writing, and Computerfriend is no exception. Here’s the first sentence:

"Six hundred wooden arms rise up on either side of the street black and warbling mirage in the terrible morning heat."

You had me at hello (the wooden arms are tree stumps: Computerfriend uses evocative language to describe the blasted pre-millennial environment of its setting, but it steers clear of surrealism). Here’s one more, from an early list running down some of the sensory input jangling into the protagonist’s overstimulated consciousness:

"3: The Constant Humming Of Air Conditioners Crouched Like Thieves On Open Windowsills"

Memorable images like this pop off the screen at regular intervals, grounding the reader in the protagonist’s intolerable status quo and providing a more than adequate rationale for them to be seeking refuge in the questionable bosom of a computerized psychiatrist. While the precise mental illness they’re dealing with isn’t spelled out – from a cursory knowledge of the medications you’re prescribed and a few of the therapeutic technics and analyses that get deployed, there’s at least anxiety and suicidal ideation – the protagonist’s experience of their life is assaultative and blanched of meaning all at once.

The game is structured around their repeated sessions with the eponymous program; after brief, conventionally choice-y segments laying out their daily life (mostly humdrum stuff around the house), you get a bit of therapy, then unwind by messing around on your computer. While even this last piece is interesting, including fun alternate-history headlines that relieve some of the misery of the rest of the game (“Jeff Bezos’s Grave Desecrated On Sixth Anniversary Of His Execution”; “Disgraced Magnate Donald Trump Attacked, Disfigured By Feral Ungulates At Cottagecore Animal Sanctuary”) and clever semi-interactive magic tricks that reinforce the idea that the computer is always ahead of the game, it’s the counseling where the game’s greatest heft lies.

The Computerfriend’s therapeutic persona makes for engaging play. All of its questions and statements are presented with a bit of an edge, and while it’s notionally trying to help you, it’s hard not to detect a whiff of the demonic in its approach. At first it primarily asks you simple biographical questions – some indicated by choice, others by typing in – and then spits out general platitudes that incorporate your replies in a cursory way (“I bet ‘writing’ is a great way to unwind”, it says, acknowledging your preferred hobby).

At first this is a dark joke, as the crappiness of the algorithm gives the lie to its claims of effectiveness. But the techniques quickly become more sophisticated, and the Computerfriend’s dialogue more naturalistic, sometimes in unsettling ways. Eventually it pushes you towards a breaking point, and possibly a breakthrough, and while writing an authentic catharsis is hard – much less writing psychiatric counseling that seems like it could prompt one – the author sticks the landing here, and I found the last therapy session really affecting, as the Computerfriend took on the protagonist’s anomie and proposed a postmodern, existentialist philosophy that could plausibly allow them to find meaning despite their emptiness, their loneliness, and the ruin of society.

Where the game didn’t stick the landing for me is in the actual ending I got (numbered 4 of 6, so there are others), which saw the protagonist fly away to an untouched wilderness and have a regenerative encounter with nature – this felt a bit too pat to me, and the pristine nature of the environment seemed at odds with everything I’d read about the chemical and biological ruin visited upon the U.S. It could be this is meant as a fantasy sequence, but even still, it didn’t feel all that connected to the choices I’d made through the course of the game (I should say, there are a lot of choices beyond the madlibs-y ones, largely around accepting, resisting, or reinterpreting the Computerfriend’s therapy).

Given the strength of the rest of the game, though, I found this too-pat ending easy enough to ignore, and after I’ve finished my reviews I’ll probably play again and see if I can find a different one that’s more fitting. And in the meantime, Computerfriend’s left me with enough indelible images that I won’t forget its dystopic, failed world – which is to say, our world – before I get back to it.

(Also, kaemi's review of this game is one of the best on this website; you should read it)

Tours Roust Torus, by Andrew Schultz

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Compelling man saga, June 13, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I’ve played and enjoyed a bunch of Andrew Schultz’s recent games riffing on board games, but have to confess that I’ve often found it harder to get into his wordplay ones; something about the pig latin one from a year or two back especially managed to melt my brain, despite recognizing that there was quite a lot of care taken to provide hints, tutorials, and other support to invite the player in. So I turned to this game, which is clearly anagram-focused (it’s a sequel to some older games that apparently have a similar concept), with an eagerness not unalloyed with trepidation.

Turns out I needn’t have worried – while I definitely had a few moments of struggle, Tours Roast Torus is an approachable set of puzzles, boasting a well-tuned level of difficulty, a sufficiently fleet play time not to wear out the concept, and some optional tough-as-nails endgame challenges for those who didn’t break a sweat getting to the end (I mean, this wasn’t me but I assume someone out there got through the core puzzles, cracked their knuckles, and settled in to have some real fun). There’s a bit of a plot threaded through which connects to those earlier games, and while I didn’t have much context for all the proper nouns, the setup is clear enough: antsy after your accomplishments in the previous games, you set out to explore a mysterious tower found in the middle of the eponymous torus.

Said exploration consists of finding an anagram from the prompt given in the names of each location along the torus. There’s a clever trick here, which is that each puzzle involves a word that includes exactly two of each word it includes, so it can be decomposed into a pair of smaller anagrams which make up the prompt. So like the prompt could be something like “stake takes”, which you’d read and then come up with – nothing, because I’m much less clever than Schultz is, but let’s pretend “askettakes” is a word.

As is typically the case with anagrams, for about half of these I looked at them and got them near-immediately, and half of them left me completely baffled. This is where Schultz’s trademark player-friendliness comes in; there’ll usually be a gentle nudge somewhere in the location text prompting you towards the answer, and if that’s not enough, the protagonist has a set of tattoos that tell you how many letters you’ve got in the right place, allowing you to trial-and-error your way to success (there’s also an advanced setting for the tattoos that provides even more information, but I couldn’t figure out how they worked). They’re largely reasonable words, too: there was one exception where I thought “hey, is that really a word?” (Spoiler - click to show)(HAPPENCHANCE), but at the same time I got that one after only two or three guesses so I think it plays fair. And in case your brain is starting to get tired of anagrams, there’s a well-calculated change of pace for the penultimate puzzle since it uses an entirely different mechanic.

With all these supports, it took me about a half hour to play through the main puzzles and solve the first of the bonus challenges (entirely by luck, I have to add), and then I poked around the post-game options for a few more minutes, since those helpfully tell you what you missed and lay out some fun rejected puzzle options. I found a few technical niggles – some of the text for the advanced version of the tattoos came out a little garbled, and they seemed to get confused by the endgame bonus puzzles (details in the transcript). But it’s all solidly put together, and the whole package makes for a nice, concentrated burst of wordplay that just about any player can have some fun with.

Roger's Day Off, by Sia See and Jkj Yuio

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Friendly vibe, punishing puzzles, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Roger’s Day Off wants to be a lark. A parser-choice hybrid, it has an entertainingly zany premise (use a time machine to do some historical tourism and collect a series of MacGuffins disguised as a tea service – the time machine is also a teapot, with a TARDISy bigger-on-the-inside thing going on) and puzzle-focused gameplay that doesn’t take its characters or situations too seriously. Add a fun authorial voice with some jokes that actually land – there’s a Cloak of Darkness riff that made me chuckle – and competently-done 3d images to liven things up, and you’d think it has all the ingredients it needs to realize its ambitions.

Sadly, though, I did not manage to have a good time with Roger’s Day Off. Some of this is due to awkwardness in the bespoke system, an underdeveloped world, and the way the heretofore-lackadaisical plot comes to the fore in the endgame. But largely it’s because the puzzles feel like they’re trying to check off as many of the crimes itemized in Ron Gilbert’s Why Adventure Games Suck essay as possible. There are instant deaths – including many puzzles that require dying to get the info you need to progress – puzzles that require out of game knowledge, and puzzles that seem to either throw logic out the window, or somehow invert it. Fortunately there are easily-accessible hints, and I can see a player getting some enjoyment out of the stronger parts of the game by using them early and often, but attempting to play the game straight was for me an exercise in frustration.

I’m going to be spoilery with examples of the kinds of puzzle shenanigans the game gets up to, so fair warning if despite everything you do want to try to flail your way through. Here are some of the worst offenders:

* At one point you meet a character – the concierge in a hotel – who asks your name. If you don’t lie and tell her your uncle’s name instead of your own, you’ll hit a game over (see, later on you find out she’s an undercover time police agent, and your time machine is registered under his name).
* Later on in that same 1920s sequence, there’s a drinking game where you need to maintain your faculties as long as possible and the solution is to drink the highest-alcohol stuff first, which is uh not my experience of how this works.
* Once you succeed in the drinking game, you make friends with a time criminal and have to try to get access to some contraband; you do this by suggesting he hide it anywhere except his boots (like, you need to click every other dialogue option and leave that one un-lawnmowered), and then he’ll hide it in his boots.
* Speaking of dialogue, almost the entire pirate ship sequence is a long conversation where just about every node has one good option and the rest instafail you, with no clear signposting on what strategies will work (OK, there’s one inventory puzzle that’s kind of fun).
* In the far future sequence, there’s a puzzle involving finding a FORTRAN bug – though at least the game has the courtesy to provide a link to a forum thread explaining the bug and providing the fix, making this puzzle either forbiddingly hard or completely trivial.

There are a few good puzzles in here – some inventory-based ones require you to do some present-day shopping and share the largesse with folks in history, which is entertaining. But for the most part it feels like progress requires either reading the authors’ minds or being OK with a whole whole lot of trial and error gameplay that’s at odds with the breezy vibe the game seems to be going for.

I found the game’s custom-designed system exacerbated these issues, since it’s fiddly enough to make repetition annoying. In principle I like hybrids between choice and parser approaches, since they can offer convenience and prompting via the choices while providing scope for exploration and surprise via the parser side of things. This one – dubbed “Strand” – mostly managed to do that, but there’s some sand in the gears. For one thing, the parser side of things feels underdeveloped, with very few pieces of scenery or places where poking around is rewarded, or even possible. On the flip side, though, most puzzles require typing commands that aren’t listed as options, so you can’t play just with the mouse. I also ran into some performance issues that slowed things down and made precise clicking harder, and had to manually scroll the game window down after most actions because the automatic scroll-down happened before the images loaded and pushed the last pieces of text off-screen.

All this frustration is a shame, because the range of settings provides some fun variety, and the gentle, idiosyncratically British humor on display in the opening is something I really enjoy (it’s in the same ballpark as Christopher Merriner’s games, which I love). Occasionally the it’s-all-just-a-laugh approach to worldbuilding feels a bit too slapdash – in the section where you travel to Assyria, which is basically ancient Iraq, you’re introduced to Sultana (erm) Nefertiti (double erm) who tasks you with killing a monster (erms again) who goes by Anubis (erm, hopefully not the real one?), and if forced to name a single element the disparate times and places have in common, I’d be hard-pressed to come up with something other than “ladies with pneumatic boobs” – but on the whole it’s pleasant to do some historical tourism and enjoy the jokes. If only the puzzles had been just as low-key!

Wry, by Olaf Nowacki
A lightly-ribald farce, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Well, this is a funny one – funny odd and funny ha-ha. The premise of this one-room-parser game is, uh, slightly novel: as an insurance agent making a sales call at the castle of an eligible Baroness, you’re ushered into a waiting room where you’re encouraged to poke around – a slightly-askew portrait is the clearest jumping-off point, but you’ve got several avenues open to you, most of them leading to escalating farce.

(Oh, I just got why it’s named Wry. Clever!)

Certain actions, some of them non-obvious, will increase your score. Most such actions also serve to increase the protagonist’s libido, again sometimes in non-obvious ways – for example, trying to leave the waiting room to explore the castle will provoke a daydream of wandering into the Baroness’s boudoir, winning you two points. After a decent interval passes, the game ends, and depending on your score you get one of three endings, ranging from a minimally-successful one where you land the insurance deal all the way up to one where the Baroness responds positively to your erotic revenues and you wind up staying for breakfast.

Per the author’s note this is in some way inspired by a sketch or sketches by a German comedian, but without direct experience of any antecedents I have to say this is a pretty bizarre setup. And while things are kept PG-13, it can also veer into slightly uncomfortable territory; part of the joke is that the protagonist is a ridiculous horndog, but it’s still a bit icky to see him drool over nude paparazzi snaps of the Baroness (on a third hand, she’s presumably the one who left these magazines in the waiting room, so I suppose we’re meant to see her as inviting the attention. And in the ending where she’s not into the protagonist, that’s the end of it; sexy-times only commence when she opens the door).

With those caveats, though, I’d say that if you’re able to buy into the premise, Wry is an energetic good time. The writing is enthusiastic and happily goes off the rails before bringing things back to earth – here’s the aforementioned finding-the-Baroness’s bedroom daydream:

"You’d love to have a look at the chateau… What if you happen to find the Baroness Valerie’s bedchamber? She may be in the process of changing clothes? Or she is still lying in her bed? Naked?!? And then she says, “Oh Jon, I’ve been waiting for you all this time! Won’t you keep me company?” with a suggestive smile on her lips. Then the fantasy is gone."

There’s also some nicely-choregraphed physical comedy if you take the game’s invitation to fiddle with the out-of-true painting. Things escalate nicely, and every action you take to try to recover the situation is both reasonable, nicely clued, and inevitably makes things even worse. My only complaint is that the game ends just as things are reaching a fever pitch – I wouldn’t have minded a few more turns for further chaos to be unleashed. Pacing is always a challenge in this kind of game, but the author handles it well here, and every time the game ended I was eager to try again until I got the last ending. Blessedly, you also don’t need to wring out every last point to see it; if you complete the main thread and also discover a few bonus interactions, you’re able to see the protagonist make his breakfast date, so it’s up to the player whether they’re inclined to revisit the game to try out more abstruse interactions.

“You’ll like this thing if it’s the sort of thing that you like” is the mealy-mouthiest of critical verdicts, but that’s pretty much where I’m at with Wry – I can understand why some folks might find it hard to get into. If you’re able to get over that hump (er), though, the game can very much be a treat: personally I enjoyed it, and it’s definitely a well-designed and entertainingly-written piece of work, even if it might make me look askance at the next insurance salesman I meet.

The Bright Blue Ball, by Clary C.
Teaching a dog new tricks, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Most of the Spring Thing games I’ve played so far have been relatively intense, so it was kind of nice to get another low-key entry after finished Orbital Decay. The Bright Blue Ball is a short, cute parser game pitched at IF beginners, and while its slightness, and slight wonkiness, means that it’s probably less suited for that purpose than other, more robust efforts to create a parser-IF gateway drug, nonetheless it’s a pleasant way to spend 15 minutes, with a few darker notes around the edges reinforcing how nice it can be to spend time in a safe place like this one.

Those darker notes are primarily about the situation that kicks off the action: this is the second Spring Thing game I’ve come across where you play a dog (the other of course being Custard and Mustard’s Big Adventure), and as the story opens you’re with your human “parents” as you flee your home due to a bombing alert – the resonance with the war in Ukraine seems entirely intentional. Thankfully, you quickly reach safety, but along the way you wind up losing your favorite toy, the eponymous ball, and the game consists of solving three or four small puzzles to retrieve it.

It’s always fun to play as an animal, and BBB does a good job of providing smell-centric descriptions and a robust SMELL command to allow for olfactory exploration. The protagonist’s canine nature also makes some traditional parser limitations more reasonable, like a one-item inventory limit that’s fair enough given that you have to carry things in your mouth. At the same time, I felt like the game sometimes didn’t go far enough to commit to its conceit: the first puzzle, for example, requires you to find a key and unlock a door, which is a good introduction to a common IF situation but makes for a bizarre mental image.

Speaking of the puzzles, they’re pretty much all of the medium-dry-goods variety, with one guess-the-action challenge thrown in on top. They’re all very heavily signposted, which is appropriate for the target audience, and feel satisfying to resolve. I did struggle for a bit with the first one, possibly due to some small bugs: I could smell something metallic in a table drawer, but after opening it the smell seemed to go away. I guessed that there was a key somewhere, which proved correct after I tried to TAKE KEY, but it hadn’t to that point showed up in the description of either the room, the table, or the drawer. Similarly, I was briefly stymied once I started wandering the city’s streets because one location had an unmentioned exit (for anyone else who hits a similar barrier: try going north). I also worried I’d made the game unwinnable when I solved the puzzles related to the little girl outside of the intended order, but despite the text seeming a little off-kilter it all eventually came right. As a final small niggle, X TABLE in the newsstand didn’t result in any output, indicating a missing description.

None of these bugs did much to impact my enjoyment – I usually wouldn’t list them all in a review, but since I don’t have a transcript I’m doing so in case it’s useful for the author. BBB is a fun, small game with a positive vibe that acknowledges that even when big scary things are happening in the world, small bits of kindness are important – maybe more important than ever (would that this message didn’t feel especially timely, given the state of the world). I enjoyed my time with the game, and would happily play (and test, if that’d be useful!) another game by the author.

Orbital Decay, by Kayvan Sarikhani
Easygoing hard sci-fi, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

For all that its plot hinges on a lone astronaut’s attempt to escape a doomed space station before it falls out of the sky, Orbital Decay is a surprisingly low-key affair. This choice-based take on a classic premise is distinguished by steering more into real-world plausibility than is typical (given how grounded the game’s tech is, I was surprised to learn the space station was orbiting an alien planet), but also by simple puzzles and a willingness to back-burner the imminent threat when there’s an opportunity to poke around its well-realized setting. This winds up playing to the game’s strong research chops – it’s fun to explore the station and read the various infodumps on how it should be working – but means the stakes and challenge felt reasonably low throughout.

I got a lot of enjoyment out of the game’s accurate rendition of NASA bureaucratese. After some early hiccups – the writing in the opening starts out a bit too wide-eyed (“The celestial heaven - an immense sea of black and stars, almost as if the uncounted fiery eyes of the Gods themselves were peering through the darkness”) and then overcorrects towards an overly-abrupt style when laying out the inciting incident:

"As an astronaut assigned to the COL (Crewed Orbital Laboratory) Bowman, you’re currently conducting a spacewalk to repair a failing AE-35 unit.

"Swiftly and without warning, the Bowman is struck by space debris. You survive, but the impact sends you spiraling into the vastness. Suddenly, you feel a violent recoil and realize your tether has miraculously remained intact!"

But once you’re back aboard the station, things settle down, and as you work through the puzzles, you’re treated to stuff like this:

"You’ve opted for the CEVIS pre-breathing protocol; before you can begin suit preparation, you need to perform exercise on a stationary bike while pre-breathing pure oxygen and then slightly depressurize the airlock to 10.2psi."

Maybe I’m a strange person, but I really like this! It gives a nice, grainy texture that lends novelty to a fairly played-out scenario, and if it sometimes undercuts the gravity of the protagonist’s predicament, I think that’s an OK tradeoff. The downside of this highly-technical style is that it risks bewildering the player by expecting them to have the same facility with jargon as the protagonist, but Orbital Decay avoids this by keeping the puzzles and obstacles quite simple to work through. There’s a pleasingly complex protocol required to move through an airlock, for example, but all the player has to do is click a series of links in order and enjoy the technobabble the game spits out. Similarly, there are a lot of different gadgets and items to find, but they’re pretty much all floating around in corridors, and with no inventory limit it’s easy to just grab all of them and then choose the usually-obvious options to use them appropriately.

I sometimes got the sense that the author realized that they’d streamlined things quite a lot and tried to re-add some complexity. For example, at one point you need to do an EVA to enter a damaged portion of the station from the outside, and have to make it across the gap. You have a large number of options to try, from using a tether to anchor you as you jump to using a fire extinguisher as an improvised propellant, but since you’ll have almost certainly picked up a jetpack that’s specifically designed for these kinds of situations as you went through the airlock, you’ll obviously want to just use that. Similarly, one of the options you’re given as soon as the game starts, when you’re still floating out in space, is to remove your helmet. It fleshes out the list of choices, sure, but having a “shoot self in face” button doesn’t really improve interactivity or add difficulty.

Also on the negative side of the ledger, I did run into some technical niggles, including a soft state-reset where after pressurizing an airlock, my choice to look around before heading onward somehow depressurized the airlock and put me back in my suit. Some text that probably should only fire once – like the protagonist musing “where is everyone” upon seeing the empty crew hub – repeats whenever you backtrack. And played on a phone, there are some misalignment issues that meant that some lists wound up mismatched, making the last “puzzle” (you need to pick a landing point from a list that includes an assessment of how well-suited they’re likely to be) harder than it was intended – though again, it was probably intended to be too easy.

Would Orbital Decay be a stronger game if it was harder? I think in some sense yes, the version that has timers, inventory limits, and more challenging puzzles probably does a better job of realizing the premise. And the low-key vibe extends to the ending, which I found pretty anticlimactic. At the same time, I feel like I’ve played a million games milking drama and challenge out of escaping a crashing spaceship, so playing one that leans hard into nerdy technical detail, where it’s no big deal if I want to ride an exercise bike or rehydrate a burger mid-crisis, made for a nice change of pace.

New Year's Eve, 2019, by Autumn Chen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Chilly but compelling, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I don’t usually second-guess myself when I have a review that’s out of line from the main thrust of opinion on a game – different people are different, and having a variety of takes on a work I think is helpful for players and authors alike. At the same time, when I’m pretty much off on my one, and especially when I’ve got a more negative view than others have, it’s hard not to wonder whether the problem is me. And there’s probably no recent game where I’ve had more of these second thoughts than Autumn Chen’s previous game, A Paradox Between Worlds. While I admired the enormous amount of work that went into it, and found the character interactions at the heart of the game really well-drawn and engaging, the several metafictional layers atop that heart worked less well for me, and the Tumblr-mimicking gameplay which involved lots of highly-granular decisions felt exhausting. In the face of near-universal admiration for the game, though, I’ve gone back and wondered whether my lack of personal experience with the kind of fanfiction-focused communities it depicts led me to judge it unfairly, or if my real-life exhaustion (my son was about six weeks old when I played it) was what was actually making me feel tired.

The bad news is that NYE2019 doesn’t help me resolve that question; the good news is that that’s because it’s a much more focused piece that foregrounds the character work I’d already enjoyed in APBW, without any of the stuff that had turned me off. Add in a richly-detailed setting – the protagonist is part of a Chinese-American family at a party mainly attended by other Chinese Americans – and well-framed choices that create a high degree of responsivity and you’ve got a game that’s been a highlight of my festival so far.

The game opens with a bit of Tolstoy-biting – “every social gathering is horrific in its own way” – and mostly lives up to the melodramatic gauntlet it lays down. As Quiyi (or Karen), a college senior with social anxiety who’s suddenly thrust into proximity with a set of high-school friends and acquaintances she’s largely not seen for years – several of whom she used to crush on – not to mention the inherent awkwardness of being around a bunch of older adults who primarily see her as the child she used to be, the protagonist is facing landmines aplenty.

Fortunately, you’re given a lot of options to navigate this complex milieu. I’m not familiar with Dendry, but at least as the author has adapted it, the interface looks fairly ChoiceScript-y, but with the ability to scroll back up and reread recent passages and without the sometimes-intrusive stats. Your possible courses of action are well-framed, with a small bit of writing often providing a little bit of a preview for what might be in store. Here’s the opening set of choices for who you might want to hang out with or what you might want to do:

• Mom - She’s hanging around somewhere…
• Kevin Zhao - In the basement with the other kids.
• Wander around aimlessly - Keeping your head down…
• Food - The ever-inviting lure of snacks…
• Use your cellphone - First finding a safe location.
• Emily Chen - Sitting alone in an alcove…

The social interactions sometimes have fewer choices, and occasionally there’ll be a grayed-out choice that’s visible but unavailable, usually to denote that Quiyi’s social anxieties are constraining her, but even on a second playthrough I always felt like I had a lot of different ways to approach each situation. Despite all this freedom, though, the game actually has a tight structure – after a freeform opening, there’s a bottleneck as you sit down for dinner with the other young adults, leading to a nocturnal walk through the snow that may lead to a second open-ended section before things wrap up. It’s a canny framework, allowing for a lot of different paths through the story and making me feel like I was directing the story, while still making sure that there’s an overall shape to the narrative with a satisfying beginning, middle, and end regardless of what you choose.

Indeed, given the wealth of detail on offer, unlike the protagonist I had a lot of fun just exploring the party. I’ve been to a bunch of gatherings that aren’t too dissimilar in general dynamics from the one on offer here (though the specificity of this being a largely Chinese-American party was novel – I’m more familiar with being one of the token white guys at parties thrown by my Iranian-American wife’s family friends, or those of my South Asian- or Korean-American high school friends) and everything rings very true. The sequence where highly-educated lefties argue over the 2016 primary made me grind my teeth in just the way those actual conversations did, and on a more positive note the descriptions for the snacks were particularly good – the haw flakes sounded really appealing, and there’s some good character beats in just short asides on the presence of Lay’s potato chips on the food table:

"Anyway, these chips are for the kids, that is, you. Because the parents decided that ABC kids need their American snacks, or something like that. And well, you eat a bag full. Yeah."

Throughout, the writing is a significant strength, and while Quiyi’s narration is generally quite understated, this means there’s little distracting from the canny way particular details emerge into focus:

"You put on your jacket and your shoes. No one is watching you open the door. You leave. You’re free. It’s quiet. Snowflakes glisten in the air, shining under the streetlights. Your footprints defile the fresh snow."

My first time through the game, Quiyi mostly wandered around aimlessly, having a few haphazard stabs of conversation with her peers at dinner but otherwise spending time at the snack table, wandering aimlessly, and checking in with her (nice) mom and (standoffish) brother. Predictably, this led to an ending where her feelings of isolation and pre-post-college ennui didn’t move much over the course of the evening, even as it was clear there might have been other potential outcomes, or at least that other people were capable of achieving moments of connection. I though this late-game passage about her feelings of alienation and having let opportunities slip through her fingers making the inevitable let’s-all-take-a-bunch-of-photos-so-paste-on-a-smile phase of the evening all the worse:

"Someone takes a picture of Emily and Miri, smiling and hugging. You didn’t know they got along but somehow it makes you a little sad. Emily stops smiling for the photo with her parents. They don’t force her to smile. Come to think of it, you haven’t spoken to her dad all night, even though you worked with him before. Oh well."

It’s a flat recitation, but that gels with how I imagine she’d be retreating into numbness as a self-defense measure. I found a lot of pathos in this ending, as Quiyi’s failures felt like ones of imagination: as she wandered alone through the snow, she conjured up daydreams of difference sci-fi futures, but she can’t picture a conversation that goes well. If the story peters out rather than reaching catharsis, with her getting stuck in an extended moment of stasis despite her impending graduation, that’s fitting, and had its own kind of poignancy to me.

Except I should probably say my failures, rather than Quiyi’s, since this is only one branch the story can go down. My second play-through, I was able to help her to some moments of positive connection, including establishing a burgeoning romance with Emily. This set of scenes is also well-written – I found the awkward I-like-you conversation segueing into awkward but really amazing hand-holding very relatable, as well as the out-of-nowhere discussion of whether to have kids which is ridiculous for 22 year olds who haven’t even kissed yet to do, but seems completely plausible to me.

Ultimately though I liked my first playthrough better – there’s something inherently artificial about gameplay where you make the right choices and you get to date someone, and while there’s some funny lampshading of it, this plotline inevitably feels a bit more tropey and familiar than the one I first experienced. I’m not sure this is anything I would have picked up on if it had been the only narrative option on offer, though, so it’s more a matter of preference than an actual weakness.

My only real complaint here is that I think this branch might be too hard to get onto, at least on a first playthrough – having not played the prequel game, I hadn’t necessarily picked out Emily as a more significant character than say my mom, and since as far as I can tell opting to talk to her in the game’s first set of choices is necessary or at least very helpful for being able to strengthen the relationship later on. But playing as someone with social anxiety, first time around it made more sense to ease into the party by checking in with family, grabbing some food, etc., by which point I think that ship appears to have sailed.

I also have a note of caution. As I’ve been writing this review, I pulled the game up to double-check some stuff, and discovered that there’s a Status page that tells you how hungry or thirsty you are, your overall emotional state, and provides some background on the other characters that explains some stuff I had to dig to find out (like what’s the deal with your parents’ marriage) as well as displaying a numerical ranking for your relationships with each of them. I completely missed this when I played – I did so on my phone, which maybe made it harder to find some options – and while it the info it provides probably makes it easier to get together with Emily, honestly I’m kind of glad I didn’t know it was there, since the in-game exposition covers these bases in a considerably more deft way. So if you haven’t played the game, maybe steer clear of that page.

Anyway hopefully it’s clear that these are beyond niggly nits to pick. I’m really glad to have played New Year’s Eve 2019, and I’m glad I can now wholeheartedly jump on the Autumn Chen fanwagon.

Abate: Hide Behind the Curtains, by Rohan

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An obfuscated muddle, June 10, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Dear reader, you don’t know me from Adam so you’re going to have to take my word for it, but: I am not especially easy to flummox. That sounds like a boast, and I suppose it is and there’s more boasting to come, but still, I’ve read Joyce and Woolf and Foster Wallace and had some struggles, sure, but modulo Finnegans Wake I feel like I understood and appreciated them. In undergrad I was able to keep straight the astrophysics, quantum mechanics, and advanced classical mechanics I was studying all at the same time, and did fine in law school even when having to unknot the trickiest problems of jurisdiction in my Fed Courts class. My favorite game in last year’s Spring Thing was Queenlash, which is like 80,000 words of superdense metaphor about Cleopatra.

So when I tell you that I spent my playthrough of Abate not having the first clue what on God’s green earth was going on, I hope you will give me the benefit of the doubt that it’s not because I’m just a big dummy easily confused by nonlinear storytelling. Like, I’m going to summarize the plot, and if you haven’t played it you’ll read the summary and think “oh, that’s not so bad, I kind of get it,” but trust me, no, you don’t.

There’s definitely something liberating about playing a game so free of the bounds of traditional narrative causality that it could serve as an interactive rebuttal to the post hoc ergo propter hoc logical fallacy, and I have to confess that like 25% of the bemused chuckles I emitted during my playthrough were prompted by the anarchic glee here on display. But it gets exhausting not being able to understand whether anything that’s happening is connected to any of the story’s previous events, or will lead to any coherent resolution in the future – especially where, as here, the prose doesn’t provide sufficient pop to serve as a throughline and the choice the center-align all the text makes reading a bit of a headache.

OK, here comes the summary so you can see what I mean: in this bespoke choice-based game, you play a student stuck in a Groundhog Day style time loop on the day of a big school celebration. There’s a lot of incident: your best friend is bent on confessing his love to the student council president, who in turn wants to buttonhole you to rope you into helping with the school activities. Meanwhile, you’re trying to avoid a frenemy who doesn’t realize that you’re the one who wrote the now-defunct cooking blog that’s inspired their own culinary efforts. Every once in a while, for reasons that remained obscure to me, everything blacks out and you confront the void – and a beyond-sketchy tempter figure whose proposed “you’ll just owe me one, it’ll be no biggie” deal seemed like an incredibly bad idea – and things reset, until they don’t.

Again, that sounds wacky but not too far outside the realm of comprehension, so I’ll provide a taste of what Abate is like. This is part of an embedded flashback where you reflect on how you met your best friend:

“'Why do you even space out so often?' Vysian would always ask you with confusion, and you would make something up but one day you decided that he deserves the answer – 'spices' you shout, 'I was thinking about the spices that adds the most value to boiled potatoes, I’m yet to find the one.' 'Onions' Vyusian assures, 'boiled potatoes taste the best with onions'. You felt a spark within your heart that could only be used to light up the dream that one day you may just find the one, and here it was, you rushed to your house, prepared the dish to your satisfaction and take a taste – 'this is indeed the one, my dream has been achieved.'"

There has been no groundwork previously laid for the main characters obsession with potatoes, and if you’d expect there to be some like acknowledgment that “onions” are not a spice, your expectations will go unfulfilled. It’s entertainingly zany to read a little bit of stuff like this, sure, but the whole game is this way, with characters running in and exclaiming about stuff that doesn’t seem to connect with anything else before moving on to the next thing. Eventually it ended, after I rejected the deal with the devil and then managed to unite my friend with his crush through the expedient of wandering randomly around the school unsure of what I was doing – so I think I won?

I unfortunately can’t say it was very satisfying, though; the lack of coherence meant that I felt little sense of agency, and the sheer randomness of everything that was happening meant I couldn’t find a consistent set of themes or ideas with which to engage. Maybe that’s the point, and it’s all meant to mirror the atomized, discombobulated nature of postmodern life – but even if that’s the case, more unified aesthetics and a few concessions to causality would probably have helped the argument land a bit better.

Another Cabin In The Woods, by Quain Holtey

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A downbeat musical, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Based on the title, I went into Another Cabin in the Woods expecting a horror story – but while, per the author’s note, that was the initial conception of the game, what’s on offer here is an emotionally-charged reflection on long-buried family trauma. There are no monsters here, only poor communication skills, though man, the damage they can do is sometimes almost as bad.

(That last sentence is a paraphrased bit of Mountain Goats stage banter).

Speaking of musicians, this is an audio-rich game, with sound effects, a musical score, and even voice acting. This is fitting given the plot setup, which sees the protagonist visit her childhood home after the death of her mother in order to clean it out before it’s sold – the mother was a musician, and much of the first part of the game involves finding different sheets of music and playing them on the family piano to trigger flashbacks. I can’t speak to the substantial work that went into the audio side of things, as I played the game muted – my life circumstances right now don’t make it easy to play IF with sound on – but I suspect it will enrich the story.

That isn’t to say it doesn’t work well as a text-only work, though, since I enjoyed my time with the game. The cleaning conceit is a smart one, creating a rationale for the protagonist to poke around exploring the cabin and triggering different memories as they visit each space in turn. And the writing is good enough that even without the sound on, I got a sense of what emotion each musical work is meant to evoke:

"The piece starts so quickly, with note after note rushing by on both hands. Every so often there are moments of longer notes, but they are still peppered with rapid bursts of melody."

Throughout there’s a good eye for detail – the prose isn’t doing anything fancy, but again, it effectively communicates the mood of abandonment and decay:

"The smell of rotting food and animal leavings mixes into the air before you. Dishes piled high in the sink threaten to topple over and shatter. A crunch underfoot tells you some already have."

As for the story itself, it’s unsurprisingly downbeat, but it mostly earns its pathos honestly, I think, and keeps the melodrama under control for the most part. The family dynamics are depicted sensitively, with no one coming off perfectly well but nobody an irredeemable monster, either. I also enjoyed the distance provided between the protagonist’s point of view and those of the memories, which are from the perspective of the mother – the protagonist is regularly surprised to have remembered things differently or that her mother’s memories are often substantially more positive, which helps energize a story where almost all the important events happened well in the past.

While the writing for them was overall strong, there were a few design decisions about how the memories worked that I found created a little bit of friction. First, I think they would have been more effective if the flashbacks were parceled out one at a time, but for me and I suspect many other players, the most natural approach was to explore the cabin, find all the different pieces of music, and then play them at the piano all at once. Again, each piece of this is good but the pacing wound up feeling a bit back-loaded. There’s also a small puzzle that needs to be solved to reach the endgame that involves putting the different memories in chronological order, but while after reading each, I had a sense of how each fit with the others, but in the reassembly process they’re labeled not as “memory about the piano lesson” but as the less-descriptive “piece found in bedroom” which made the process harder.

These are small niggles, though, and besides the lack of spacing meaning I sometimes worried about mis-tapping, they’re pretty much the only negatives I found in the game. I was engaged with the story Another Cabin in the Woods was telling, despite its dark moments; the author mentioned this is only their second game and they’re already thinking of repurposing the initial horror hook for a subsequent game, so I’m looking forward to seeing more of their future work!

Thin Walls, by Wynter

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A house is not a home, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I usually don’t like to look at other reviews of a game before I’ve written mine, but I’m going to bend that rule this time so I can check how many others managed to refrain from mentioning House of Leaves… OK, as of this writing there’s only one public review (Mathbrush’s), and yes, despite him not having read it, HoL still manages to get a namecheck. I’m a big fan of that book, and it deservedly is the first reference point when you see a house behaving the way the one in Thin Walls does – sprouting up new rooms as it starts to get full, lengthening hallways to stymie exploration, and responding to the worst instincts and desires of its inhabitants. But while the house in House of Leaves stands in relation to the individual – it’s the unconscious, a spur to knowledge and its negation – Thin Walls uses this malicious bit of architecture to take aim at society.

What we’ve got here is a multi-chapter Twine game where vignettes from the perspectives of the different inhabitants of a rooming-house alternate with a recurring, exploration-focused sequence where you can see the house changing and pick which resident to follow next. After a disorienting opening, it quickly becomes clear what unites all these stories: the anomie of modern life, and how communal living can paradoxically become isolating. The writing isn’t subtle, but it communicates its ideas well. Here’s a bit of description from the frame sequence:

"You are in a small bathroom. There is a toilet and washbasin, beside which four little soaps sit in separate containers, and four little hand towels hang on a rack and a radiator."

And a bit of reflection from one of the later stories:

"But when you move in with people and there is no relationship, any little tension becomes all that you know of them, it becomes all that they are. Just a paper doll with ‘Noisy’ or ‘Makes a Mess in the Bathroom’ written on it."

The way the house-metaphor expresses itself varies from chapter to chapter: in the most effective, it works to split up a couple who are having problems, creating space to isolate them and eventually putting up a wall between the two single beds they’d pushed together (again, the allegory is not exactly deeply obfuscated). In another, it ensures an Instagram-obsessed woman has a perfect, clean, white, sterile backdrop for all her photos. Another favorite sees a woman daydream about getting a boyfriend and moving in with him – but obsesses over the new space and the amazing furniture she’ll fill it with, until she loses track of the imaginary boyfriend and he abandons her.

By the end, I did find diminishing returns were starting to set in – the late chapter about the two housemates squabbling over who was eating the other’s cereal and making loud noises late at night reduces the house to an annoying prankster. I ran into a small bug where after I finished Chapter 4, a bit of Chapter 3 popped back up until it ended again (EDIT: I am unobservant, this is intended per the author’s reply below). And the writing does occasionally get too on the nose – at one point the Instagram lady says:

"My photos were my defence against the world, my pretence that all was well in this house."

But overall Thin Walls did a good job of keeping me engaged, and at the close of each vignette I was always eager to return to the free exploration sequence and see what had changed, who had moved in, and check whether the cupboard under the stairs had become unlocked, or the mysterious landlord who lives at the top of the house had come home yet. And the ending sequence is a return to form, with the house’s transformations becoming more and more kinetic and the social world of the house becoming unmoored and kaleidoscopic (though as involved as I was trying to solve the mystery of the house, I was also puzzled by why all the music at the climactic party was from the mid-aughts – I don’t think it’s meant to be a flashback!) It’s definitely worth the playthrough, and not just to get another menacing metaphysical house in the mental toolbox to sit alongside the house on Ash Tree Lane.

Half-Alive, by Bellamy Briks
A YA take on Dante, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

A couple of years ago I read this incredibly long analysis of the Mass Effect trilogy (ah, the things I had time for before I was a parent!) which sketched out a distinction between fiction that’s detail-first and fiction that’s drama-first. The idea is that detail-first fiction, especially in the genre space, is all about worldbuilding, consistency, and verisimilitude, even at the expense of a good story; drama-first works can have a complex setting, but the rules are much less important than serving the emotional beats of the story and making sure that there’s always something exciting happening and the stakes just keep going up and up. This isn’t a framework I find myself thinking about all that much – most things are somewhere in the middle, of course – but I think it’s really helpful for conceptualizing my response to Half-Alive, which I enjoyed even though the twists and turns of its plot had the detail-first part of my brain blowing a gasket.

What we’ve got here is a teenaged riff on the Underworld narrative, with Inferno-y bits – there are layers! There’s a guide! – and an Orpheus-y motivation – reclaim the missing part of your brother’s soul from the demon-thing that snatched it. The protagonist is Kendall, a 17-year-old girl with awful, broken-up parents who shoulders more responsibility than she should have to, and her interplay with her brother and Wyatt, the guide character, is enjoyable to read because she comes off as a classic hero. Indeed, Half-Alive does a good job of deploying the iconic elements of the journey, down to her weapon of choice – an ax – becoming a heroic attribute.

There’s enough that’s distinctive to keep it from feeling like a retread, though. This particular layer of the underworld is mostly populated by children, for one thing – some are ambivalent characters, but many are so-called “ringleaders”, who direct the weaker-willed kids and are bent on stealing the name and vitality from these living visitors to win the chance to return to the world above, but play fair if bested in a game of riddles.

The stories of many of these kids, including Wyatt, are counterposed with Kenny’s journey, and it’s here that I most struggled with the game. The characters you encounter are drawn from different times and places – though I believe they’re all American – and even allowing for their modern locution as a forgivable concession for both reader and author, the vignettes are full of anachronisms and wild plot twists. There’s a pair of twins who were born in the 18th century; their backstory is that they were abandoned in a dumpster, then fell in with a traveling circus that toured the country complete with an elephant. Another character’s story is a riff on the child-gang bits of Oliver Twist, except he always wears a burlap sack for a mask – after he tries to betray the gang’s Fagin figure, the crime boss travels all the way to the west coast to make him sleep with the fishes, but is still nice enough to put up a gravestone with the kid’s name on it back home in New Jersey. The plan also hinges on a pocket recording device, despite the character having been born in the Great Depression.

This all makes for emotionally-charged, dramatic reading, but at the same time there’s a cost to playing so fast and loose with plausibility. The trend isn’t restricted just to the flashbacks, either, with details changing or going unmentioned until just before they can land with the most impact: Kenny’s ax doesn’t work against the demon until suddenly it does; the demon has a staff that allows it to travel between worlds, but as soon as Kenny gets her hands on it we’re told it’s almost drained of its limited number of charges.

The prose is similarly highly emotional, but often a bit slippery on details. The town where the game starts is alternately called Millflower and Mayflower, and it changes its mind on whether Kenny’s brother was attacked by the demon minutes or hours after school ended. There’s a regular drifting of tenses from present to past and back. Sometimes these infelicities undermine the impact of the story:

"In a fit, Dad flips our living room couch to which my mom slaps him. Yelling vulgar insults at each other, he stuffs his hands in his jeans and then storms out."

More often, though, the exuberance of the writing was enough to carry me along. Here’s a bit that’s definitely overheated, but works much better:

"The chill would make you feel as if you landed in Antarctica and the dirty fog that invaded your lungs was so thick and heavy that you could barely breathe or see.

"On the wind, miscellaneous whispers and wails were being carried, filling their confused bodies with fear. Not to mention the overbearing smell of the area which stank of decaying flesh."

And like I said, despite noticing these weaknesses, I wasn’t too bothered by them once I tried to enter into the spirit of how Half-Alive was telling its story. It also really helps that the game side of things is well-designed and player-friendly. The opening About text nicely explains the length and overall structure of the piece, which is a helpful convenience in a longer game like this. While the focus is very much on the narrative, there are some significant choices to be made in navigating the afterlife, including the aforementioned riddles and also some timed challenges. Nothing’s especially hard, and you can easily rewind even if you do make a mistake, but the gameplay is all engaging enough, and works well as a pacing element to break up the talkier bits.

Playing Half-Alive can feel like being on a roller coaster curated for maximum thrills – if you’re worried about the plausibility of each swerve and scare, or annoyed because you could see the final twist coming a mile away, you’re missing the point. I wouldn’t want every game to be this way, of course, since pure emotion can get exhausting and I typically prefer a story with careful intellectual scaffolding supporting the drama. But for this game and this author, it works, and despite my caviling Half-Alive pulled me through with its energetic, iconic storytelling.

Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Thief of hearts, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Reader, let me level with you: I was in the bag for this game before I even clicked the word Start. The first Lady Thalia installment was a highlight of last year’s Spring Thing for me, with its zippy heists and even zippier repartee fine-tuned to delight. So how could more of the same be anything but lovely? True, sometimes a sequel brings diminishing returns, but given how much I’ve enjoyed pretty much everything by this pair of authors, the thought that 2 Lady 2 Thalia could be a disappointment never crossed my mind – as well it shouldn’t have done, because as I suspected, in this case even more of a good thing is even more of a good thing.

For those lucky souls who’ve yet to try one of these games – oh, how I envy you! – the protagonist is a former demimondaine who’s clawed her way into respectability by day, while slaking her thirst for objets d’art at night through her alter ego as Lady Thalia, gentlewoman thief. The first game, set in Jazz-Age London, saw her carry out a series of escalating thefts, thumbing her nose in the face of her arch-rival, Melpomene Williams of Scotland Yard.

While the setting and characters have immediate appeal, a big part of what made it so successful is the heist mechanics, which carry over to the sequel. There’s an initial phase where you case the joint, digging up information about security measures and alternate routes, via some hopefully-subtle poking around as well as a social engineering minigame that requires sussing out whether a particular mark is best approached in a friendly fashion, bowled over by the direct approach, or drawn out so they can vent their natural loquaciousness. Then it’s time for the operation itself, where you need to put you planning into practice and respond to the many curve-balls life, and the Yard/gendarmerie, throw your way. Finally, there’s a wrap-up where you receive a score rating the panache with which you pulled off the job. Sticking to this framework means there are some similarities between heists, sure, but it also means that each has its own narrative structure, with the methodical exploration-heavy investigation giving way to a puzzley heist and an improvisational exfiltration, and then the score helps motivate you to do as well (or better) next time.

Rose of Rocroi puts a few spins on this high-quality formula. You’re vacationing in Paris so the scenery is even better this time out (the authors wisely exercised restraint and kept the dialogue free of mais oui and zut alors! interjections, though there are fun references to Phantom of the Opera and Les Mis). You have a new candidate for nemesis, as you’re actually working with Mel to foil a chauvinistic French thief with a penchant for fancy-dress and a disrespect for fine art. And then – well, let me spoiler block this next bit: (Spoiler - click to show)in the most exciting alternate-protagonist twist since Halo 2, you actually play Mel in the investigative sections this time out!

These aren’t radical changes, but they’re enough to keep an already-great formula fresh. The writing draws you along on a paragraph by paragraph level – picking two examples from an endless candy box of bon mots:

"You are once again at a garden party (being wealthy seems to involve an almost intolerable amount of garden parties) and are just about to claim a headache and beg off when you overhear something that catches your attention."


"You are Lady Thalia, and it is time to commit a crime. Well, a crime sanctioned by the police. Well, sanctioned by one policewoman who doesn’t have jurisdiction in this country. Not that any of that makes this any more or less illegal than what you typically get up to, anyway, but it is a change of pace."

Then the meaty crunch of each heist gives you something to sink your teeth into. None of the challenges are that hard, but they’re satisfying to work through, and the possibility of getting a perfect score is always there, urging you to pay attention and ensure Lady Thalia lives up to her reputation. And sitting above the episodic bouts of thievery, the overall plot, and more importantly, your relationship with Mel, provide a sense of progression through the game as a whole. It’s really smartly-designed stuff, and it makes the time playing this medium-length game feel like it just melts away.

Lest I be accused of a total lack of impartiality, I do have one and a half points of criticism to leaven all this praise. The half-point is that while the narrative nicely escalates into the finale, mechanically speaking the climactic heist didn’t feel more complex or challenging than the earlier ones, which was a small missed opportunity – but only a small one, given how much this last job gains in coolness from being set in Versailles. The full point, though, has to do with how the most important relationship in the game is handled: I’m speaking, of course, of the Mel/Thalia frenemy romance (alert a leather worker, I need to cram a third word into my portmanteau).

Look, obviously these two crazy kids are meant to be together. And obviously given the differences in where they’re each coming from, that shouldn’t be a cakewalk. The game does a good job of signaling that you need to need to walk a fine line to get the best ending with Mel – lean too much into the archnemesis side of things, and there’s no opportunity to make nice, while Mel justifiably views too-enthusiastic expressions of affection with suspicion. So in my playthrough, I aimed for varying moments of sharp-elbowed banter with heartfelt moments of vulnerability, hoping this changeup would melt Mel in her boots. Sadly, though, when the game listed my final scores, I did near-perfectly on the heists and investigation but only got a 4 out of 9 in my relationship with Mel. That’s all well and good, but when I went back and replayed, trying even harder to focus on getting this path right, I still got that same mediocre score.

It could be that I’m just not any good at this and I should stick with crime rather than romance (and in the game!) But from looking at the comprehensive walkthrough provided with the game, I feel like the requirements here might not be as elegantly signposted as most other mechanics in the game are. It seems as though rather than allowing you to succeed by balancing meaner and nicer options, instead at each decision point there’s a single correct answer you need to pick to optimize your score. From the way the narrative presented things, it wasn’t clear to me that this is how things were going to work, and sometimes the differences between choices were subtle enough (like the one offering three slightly-different ways of suggesting Mel work undercover) that I’m still not sure why one was correct and the others weren’t.

It feels unfair to harp on this, since – I can’t emphasize this enough – the game is deliriously fun to work through and even replay. But shipping Thalia and Mel is a hugely appealing element of the story, so it was a shame that it felt frustrating. Fortunately, I had no shame about stooping to the walkthrough to make sure that third time around was the charm for our mismatched leads. And here’s hoping that next year, there’s a third entry in the series waiting for us. Maybe a visit to the casinos of Monte Carlo is in order, or perhaps she’ll return home and try to swipe the Crown Jewels? Wherever she goes, I’ll be there, since I’m nowhere near done with Lady Thalia!

Digit, by Joey Acrimonious

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A sexy, well-written romance, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

In other reviews I’ve advanced the theory that one of the distinctive things about this era of IF is that the parser vs. choice dichotomy that loomed so large – and, er, acrimoniously – through the 2010s is starting to dissolve as authors who play, and sometimes make, both kinds of games experiment with ways to get the best of both worlds. Typically the way I’ve seen this play out is through choice-based games that implement parser-like navigation and a world model while filtering interaction through a set of always-available actions rather than bespoke choices. Digit represents the opposite approach – it’s a parser game with no puzzles and large chunks of text between actions, where almost all of the interactivity is embedded in the menu-based dialogue system.

This is a rather bloodless way to describe a sweet albeit graphically sexual (or maybe it’s the other way around?) story of two best friends visiting a street festival and learning more about each other than they’d bargained for. But I’m foregrounding structure because – well, it gives me a chance to expound a pet theory, but also because it’s helpful to let potential players know what to expect – choice-based mavens who typically shy from parser games I think would find Digit a gentle way to dip a toe (groan) into the pool, while parser boffins looking to juggle inventories and unlock every door they see should adjust their expectations. It’s also relevant to how I evaluated the game, though: viewed narrowly through the criteria I usually use for a parser game, it has some real negatives, but making a broader assessment these don’t matter so much compared to its strengths in what it’s actually trying to do.

To get those negatives out of the way quickly so I can focus on why I enjoyed Digit so much: yes, it’s largely on rails, with much of your keyboard input simply just hitting a button to get the next line onto the screen, up to and including the game typing in an action for you on occasion. In terms of interactivity, you can choose different dialogue options but the order doesn’t seem to matter so you can just lawnmower your way through. And it’s a bit underimplemented, without much scenery to explore, few synonyms for the objects, the world model not always matching the story (like a character still being present in a room after dialogue indicates she’s gone to the bathroom), actions that could have been implemented separately swept up into the general TALK TO command (e.g., there’s a point where you need to give a series of foods to your friend, but attempts to GIVE are unsuccessful), and a few small bugs like a cute sequence at a water fountain that you can repeat even after it’s fired.

If you want to get hung up on that stuff, I can’t stop you. Still, I think that would be missing the forest for the trees, because even if all you’re doing is typing TALK TO EVIE, picking an number, and bouncing the space bar a dozen or so times before going back to step one, nonetheless I think this is still a really good game, because it’s really well-written. The central element here is that the prose, while not at all showy, is really really good. Often in my IF reviews I note that a game has solid writing, which is to say, it’s fine, it gets the job done, nothing to worry about here. But for me personally, the quality of the prose is probably the single biggest factor in how much I enjoy something. Outside of IF, 99% of what I read is literary fiction, and that’s due to how much attention those authors typically put into every word they use, not because I have an obsessive interest in reading about New Yorkers getting divorced (–though you know, I’ve just this moment connected the dot that my parents were New Yorkers who got divorced. This seems a dangerous idea to keep unpacking, though, so let’s move on). Digit does great on this score, boasting clever yet naturalistic dialogue, landscape descriptions that are low-key while still having the occasional moment of lyricism, and a global grounding in the concrete and physical that meant I was always right there with Sirin and Evie. Like, here’s a passage chosen at random:

"I led us down a footpath, which ran down a hill to the waterfront promenade. As it approached the horizon from behind a fluffy cloud, the evening sun bathed the sky in peachy hues - but damn, it was still a hot one.

"Not far from where we were standing, gentle waves were breaking on the shore, caressing the rocks with a quiet murmur. A light seabreeze ruffled my hair. It felt cool against my sweat. It was nice. The promenade was a place I often came to jog, but it felt totally different being here now with Evie."

Again, it’s nothing that’s jumping up and down screaming “look at me!” But this sets a mood, and you read it with satisfaction without consciously noticing the way the author adeptly slips from landscape description to character responses to embedded flashbacks, alternating longer, fancier sentences with shorter, more direct ones. This same care is present in the dialogue sequences too, like an effective scene where the protagonist is sharing some tough personal stuff with her friend while skipping stones, and the conversation is regularly interrupted with a count of how many skips she’s getting, illustrating how emotion is getting the better of her in a neatly understated way.

The strong writing extends to the character work, too, which is really what takes center stage. Given the tags and the content warning, it’s hopefully not a spoiler to say that the whole game is a dance of seduction – though who’s seducing who is definitely placed into question!. It’s appropriate, then, that Digit is in no rush to get to the sex. We get a sense of who these characters are, what’s going on in their lives outside of their relationship, and what they mean to each other, so that by the time the low-level flirtation bubbles over, it’s not sexy just because people are having sex, but because these characters are having this sex. The strong writing is also a godsend here, because of course sex writing is so frequently ridiculous; it’s good here, as befits a game from the author of Turbo Chest Hair massacre, which has the steamiest robot sex ever featured in an IF Comp entry (with all apologies to Hanon Ondricek for robotsexpartymurder’s competitive second-place showing).

Would Digit be a better game if it had all the usual parser game bells and whistles? I guess in a formal sense, but beyond the small bit of bug-squashing alluded to above, the only change I’d really want the author to make is to alter some of the default Inform responses – hearing Graham Nelson intone “that was hardly portable” took me out of the story a little bit. As it is, I had a lovely time with Digit, and if there are more parser/choice mashups like this to come, bring on the revolution.

Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, by Seb Pines
It was a graveyard smash, June 8, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

It’s fitting that my randomization gave me Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel right after The Hole Man, since they’re alike in a lot of ways: they’re both choice-based games that work something like funhouses, letting the player wander an environment that’s densely packed with characters enacted their own stories, with the protagonist choosing which to get swept up in. And yet, what a difference a genre makes – this approach is charming when you’re ambling around a lightly-philosophical fantasyland, but can feel pretty silly when the operative tropes are those of horror fiction. The eponymous motel packs in more monsters per square inch than Call of Cthulhu’s worst Mythos Hoedown, leaving me wondering what goes on the other 364 nights of the year and questioning the protagonist’s grip on reality even before she starts running across any sanity-blasting horrors. Despite this, the various storylines boast some creativity, but less-compelling writing and some implementation awkwardness mean I probably won’t be coming back for a return stay.

The setup here as you as the late-night desk-clerk for an absolutely cursed motel; after clocking into your shift, gameplay consist of either sitting in the lobby waiting for guests to arrive or depart (in more than one sense of the term) or for the phone to ring, checking text messages from your friends, or poking around the motel, including making use of the voyeur-holes hidden behind paintings in six of the motel’s rooms. There’s something uncanny going on in each, from vampiric bloodsucking to Exorcist reenactors to whatever’s going on with the guy with the deer pelt. Add in something nasty lurking below the surface of the pool, and you’ve got more macabre happenings than you could possibly plumb in a single playthrough.

This is especially the case because the monsters will, unsurprisingly, kill you real dead. This is all fair enough – they’re monsters, duh – but I found the way these sequences played out hurt my engagement with the game, since they punish saying yes to stuff. Want to follow the obviously-bad-news femme fatale out into the parking lot? That’s not going to end well. Want to figure out why there’s all that slime by the swimming pool? Likewise (all the more so since doing this got me stuck in a loop where an object kept falling into the pool, leaning me to go check it out, at which point a strange noise or vibration made me retch, at which point something fell in the pool… finally after five go-rounds something with tentacles put me out of my misery). I did manage to survive the night on my third try, largely by sitting on my hands in the lobby, which counts as a win but wasn’t that satisfying.

Throughout, the writing is sometimes creepy but also ungainly. This could be a David Lynch style attempt to unnerve through awkwardness, but for me at least it doesn’t land:

"The nervous guy who came in earlier walks with a strange swagger into the lobby yet he is tightly clutching a leather bag to his side. As he walks by me he gives me a wink and how quickly the smile from his face falls tells me I grimaced in response involuntarily."

Added to this, the implementation sometimes left me unsure where I stood – beyond the shenanigans at the pool, many other random events also seemed to repeat over and over again, but I’m not sure whether that’s because time also didn’t seem to advance every time I clicked to wait at the lobby desk. Were these bugs, the randomizer not being tuned to avoid repetitiveness, or was there some hidden mechanic about what actions moved the clock forward? I’m not sure, and while uncertainty is fine in a horror game, I like it to be deployed to clearer thematic ends.

I suspect there’s an intended way of engaging with the game where the player is more active, zipping around the motel’s locations, spying on each of its residents and dipping in and out of each of their storylines, with replays enlivened by different permutations of the ways each can play out. And as I mentioned there’s some fun creativity here, with even the fairly standard vampire vignette boasting one or two novel images – and my subconscious will be trying to figure out that deer guy for a few days to come. But the fiddly implementation and too-common deaths mean I wasn’t able to find that intended experience, which means I unfortunately didn’t get out of Graveyard Shift everything the author put into it.

The Hole Man, by E.Z. Poschman
He's very deep, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

In my head, I sometimes like to anthropomorphize the different kinds of IF.

(I don’t really, but the conceit’s our entry point into the review and the alternative was a comparison to Waking Life, so I think we’re all agreed this is the less-bad option).

As I was saying before that rude interruption, I like to picture all the different kinds of IF like they’re people: you’ve got your nerdy, spreadsheet-loving puzzlefest; your overearnest theater-kid narrative-driven game; your emo, edgy autobiographical choice-based game about trauma and mental health; your trying-too-hard-to-be-funny class-clown comedy. Then there’s the figure that’s loitering around at the edge of the crowd, smoking something that definitely isn’t tobacco and flipping through an old worn-out Pynchon paperback: our old friend the druggy, philosophically surrealist art game.

The Hole Man is very much part of this proud tradition, and acquits itself well, though falling prey to the Achilles heel that tends to plague this kind of game. The conceit of this long choice-based game is that you’re on your way to jury duty (side note: I would 100% play an IF game about jury duty) when someone trips you, and you… sort off… have your body fall out of yourself, so it walks away while you’re stuck as an empty outline where a person used to be. Cue peregrinations as you wander a fantastic landscape that mashes up the quotidian with the outre, seeking an identity to take on to replace the one you’ve lost.

Whether this kind of thing works or not is almost entirely down to the execution: how good are the ideas, and how good is the writing? Hole Man is good on both scores, with a funhouse of cleverly-philosophical situations presented in an appealing, wry narrative voice. Like, here’s what happens after you meet the king of a castle that’s also the insides of a dragon, and who’s himself a weird congeries of other serpents:

"You’re not sure if you just met royalty, or a just a bunch of snakes that enjoy living in a basket and pretending to be a king. They were quite cordial in any event, though."

It’s a bit what-even-is-identity-comma-man, sure, but it made me laugh. Or there’s a song I found when pulling another thread:

"I need a glass-bottomed boat
I need an able seaman
I need the kind of attraction
That you can’t find anywhere but the Amazon River!

(Please do not stand up until
The boat has docked at the pier)

Help me.
Electric eel!

I want a giant snakehead!
I want an arapaima!
I want to prove the existence, of an ahuitzotl, with a hand on its tail!"

(That Pynchon reference I made above didn’t come out of nowhere).

(After I posted this review, the author explained that in fact the Pynchon reference did come out of nowhere, and this is actually a Weird Al lyric.
You may want to reassess the weight you give to your reviewer's analysis accordingly).

There’s definitely a lot to explore, and it’s both superficially fun to turn over rocks to see what’s below – Castlevania 2 references! Tiny dragons who work like fairies – as well as to encounter the somewhat-deeper mediations on offer. Each path you take through the game puts you in front of a different archetypal figure, leading to a dialogue or disquisition that engages with topics that – well, honestly felt a bit random and not narrowly confined to the overall theme about identity, but I found them enjoyable just the same. There’s a neat conversation about flipping Clarke’s law of magic vs. technology on its head, some surprisingly-poignant existentialist ruminations on how to go on given the inevitable death and ending of all things, and an examination of the difference between toys and games that isn’t too on the nose (though it’s a bit on the nose).

When I say it’s a lot, though, it’s definitely a lot. The blurb says that there are 12 endings, and it’s a bit of work to wander around and find each of them – I found five of them, and while each only took five or ten minutes to reach, contemplating doing that seven more times felt exhausting. This is what I meant when I mentioned an Achilles heel above: when everything works on an arbitrary logic, traditional narrative stakes are hard to establish, and that anything-can-happen vibe means there’s not a lot of connective tissue binding the different paths, and potential identities, together.

Again, the blurb indicates that there’s a “special surprise” waiting for those who run down all the different avenues, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep me motivated through seven more replays. I also ran into a few small bugs – a dead-end passage in the basement of the parking structure, the description of a bookstore that presupposed I’d been there before even though it was my first visit – that, while not anything big in of themselves, threw up just enough friction that the idea of systematically charting out all the different ways to navigate my choices felt like too much work. I console myself with the thought that Gradgrindian assiduity is at odds with the philosophy of a game like this – better to go with the flow, dip in and dip out as the spirit moves, and not worry about wringing it dry of every drop of content. Approached like that, it’s hard not to recommend The Hole Man – I can’t tell you what you’re likely to get out of it, but you’ll probably get something.

Thief of the Thousand Suns, by Dom Kaye
What's in a name?, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Appropriately enough for a game structured like a five-act play, my reaction to Thief of the Thousand Suns had a whole narrative arc to it. Based on the blurb and opening material, like the Dramatis Personae page complete with period font and interspersed footnotes, I went into it with high expectations since a Shakespearean IF very much appeals to me. These hopes suffered a u-turn as I was disappointed to realize the game wasn’t in verse, and had a plot drawn more from the swords-and-sorcery pulps than Elizabethan drama. After getting over those dashed expectations, though, I found there’s a lots that’s enjoyable here, as the game offers a fleet, fun adventure with a winning pair of protagonists – and if they’re more Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so what?

(Yes, this would be a three-act structure, not five – perhaps proving my point that fitting a piece of writing to Shakespearean conventions is hard!)

So the setup here is that a two adventurers, roguish Billy Bard and big-hearted muscle Grimm, are on the lookout for a particular ruined temple, hoping to find the treasure it contains. After bargaining for directions from old man in a bar (see what I mean about the fantasy tropes?) they make their way through various forest hazards before finding more than they bargained for at the temple.

For the most part the story is on rails, though there are three more interactive bits – there’s a minigame where you dicker with the old man over how much to pay for his guidance to the temple, an involved series of choices to work through when dealing with a group of banditti, and then some light puzzling to make sense of the temple’s curious, magical properties. It’s a fun romp, with new obstacles and situations thrown at you at a rapid clip, and the banter between the two protagonists is well-written and enlivens proceedings, helping the more dramatic moments land.

This all works well on its terms, but again, it does feel a little more generic-fantasy than I would have liked – the story’s presented solely through dialogue and stage directions, but the directions often go into detail far beyond what a 16th-century stage could plausibly depict, and while there’s one song (which I enjoyed!) the dialogue is in prose rather than any sort of meter, much less strict iambic pentameter. Going in with appropriate expectations, though, it’s hard to see these as real minuses, especially given the dramatically increased authorial effort that would have been required (one of my games has a short poem in more-or-less dactylic hexameter, and it took probably three or four hours of writing to firm up – iambic pentameter is easier, but still!)

I think a more legitimate critique is that the moments of reactivity sometimes don’t feel fully baked. The bargaining minigame is done pretty much blind, and since you can redo it at any time the optimal course of action is to just inch up your offer until you hit something the other party will accept. And I found the encounter with the bandits hard to navigate until I realized that clicking the earlier set of links on the page would change them and shift my strategy for dealing with them, while the last one would commit to that approach and move the story ahead. Again, there are free redos available, but that lowered the stakes, all the more so when I realized that a key event that may or may not happen here – (Spoiler - click to show)Grimm’s killing of the bandit Aileen – doesn’t actually impact where the story ultimately goes, though it’s presented as though it would. Lastly, the exploration in the temple is entertaining but feels underdeveloped, with multiple different scenarios for the most part resolved as quickly as they’re spun off. None of this reduced my enjoyment that much, but it did leave me wishing that either these mechanics had been fleshed out more thoroughly, or just streamlined in favor of a cleaner story.

On the flip side, I found that implementation was quite clean. There are only a few typos, and those that are there are the high-class, artisanal sort – wain for wane, that sort of thing. At first blush I thought I’d come across a bug where some of Act IV was accessible before Act III, but now that I’ve reflected on the plot that might actually be a clever meta touch (Spoiler - click to show)(the temple does allow for time travel, after all).

All told this is a fleet, confident game with winning characters and a romping, fast-paced plot, and if it’s not one that William Shakespeare would have written, well, there are other authors out there just as good.

Let's Talk Alex, by Stephanie Smith
Leaving a toxic relationship, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Let’s Talk Alex is a Twine game about some very heavy subjects – gaslighting and emotional abuse in romantic relationships – that matches its emotionally-engaging premise with solid prose and an ultimately positive, actionable message of empowerment. I think it’s a very fine game, though I didn’t find myself as involved in it as I expected I’d be, partially because, per the game’s blurb, it’s not just a story but aims at being a simulation of how to get out of this kind of toxic relationship.

LTA realizes this ambition by structuring itself as a series of conversation puzzles: in any playthrough, the confrontation with the partner, Alex, plays out as a collection of four different mini-conversations (out of a pool of six), each focusing on a different aspect of their controlling behavior, and with clearly-laid out different strategies to try, some of which are always going to be successful in helping you get out of the relationship, and others (so far as I could tell) always unsuccessful. The choice of which topics you see depends on what you do during a pre-fight preparation phase, as you reminisce about different bad moments in the relationship. You get a short memory, which is mixed with the protagonist’s usually-positive thoughts about Alex even as they’re exhibiting a different strain of really negative behavior.

Then Alex comes home and there’s a transition into the fight:

"I’ve been feeling concerned that you’ve been showing some unhealthy behaviors. I feel like you’re unaccepting, controlling, take things too personally, and don’t trust me."

This definitely allows the player to take stock and understand how the stuff Alex has been doing falls into specific categories of emotional abuse, which helps with the educational or simulation side of things. But I found this bit of dialogue jarring, since it feels rather clinical, and I wondered how someone capable of saying this sentence about their partner hasn’t already realized that the relationship needs to end!

Once you zero in on one topic – say, the lack of trust – you get a few dialogue options, and here’s where the different strategies come in. Again, there are better answers and worse answers here, and while it’s usually pretty easy to suss out what’s likely to work (there are also some strong hints in the game’s introductory material), the choices set out a bunch of plausible responses. But I found myself wishing the conversations had a little more depth, since usually there’s only one or two choices before you’re back to the hub menu and on to the next topic – the focus is on providing feedback on whether the choices have been effective, rather than portraying all the back-and-forth of a big argument.

Ultimately, it’s a positive that there’s a good amount of signposting and that the writing is precise throughout, since that communicates why things are happening the way they are and makes the puzzles legible to the player. But at the same time, I found this approach sometimes too cut-and-dried given the emotional dynamics at issue, with the clarity sometimes undermining the verisimilitude and messy immediacy of what a relationship-ending fight can feel like. I don’t want to ding LTA too harshly for this slight dryness, though; if it makes it a better tool for exploring different ways a controlling relationship can be escaped, and a less-compelling story about one single way that plays out, that’s certainly a reasonable choice. On the Spring Thing festival page, it’s also got an “autobiographical” tag, and god knows that know that when I made my own autobiographical game last year, there were a whole bunch of topics and storytelling approaches that I dialed down or avoided, because I wouldn’t have been emotionally capable of writing the thing otherwise. Regardless, LTA tackles a tough set of topics with grace and clarity and is a worthy entry in the festival.

Beneath the Stones, by Kieran Green
Cave story, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I’m less than ten games into Spring Thing, and somehow I’ve already hit two whose opening screen is just repeated f-bombs (the other was Light in the Forest) – man, the 2022 zeitgeist is pretty grim. Here, the profanity reflects the dire situation the protagonist has found herself in, as she’s fallen into some caves below a tourist site in the wilderness, and after an ill-timed bout of unconsciousness, she realizes she’s alone and trapped. Fortunately, there’s some strange machinery that might hold out the promise of escape…

If you were to picture a game in your head based on that description, I’m guessing that you’d come up with a parser game, because this is a classic setup. But no – it’s Twine (complete with overuse of various blurring and moving text effects, alas)! There are some reasonably fun puzzles here, and the mystery of what’s going on in the caverns is intriguing enough, but for me the novelty of navigating such a hoary scenario in a choice-based game was the most interesting element of Beneath the Stones. Now that the parser/choice wars that roiled the IF community a decade ago are firmly in the rear-view mirror, it seems to me that both the audience and authors are increasingly ignoring the stereotypes of what kinds of games belong on each side of the theoretical divide. And while there is some narrative here – the main character has a name, and a little bit of dialogue with her boyfriend in the immediate aftermath of the fall – the game really is about a lonely explorer poking at stuff in the dark.

So how well does the said poking work? I’d say reasonably so. The nice thing about this being a choice-based game is that there’s no fumbling with darkness puzzles or navigating a dreary maze: everyplace you can go and all the options are clearly laid out, and it’s easy to toggle from one sub-area to another. There’s also an inventory system that works quite well and even allows you to use one item on a second, albeit only in specific, scripted instances.

On a more equivocal note, since the puzzles mostly just involve manipulating stuff you find in the environment that only have one effect, the game is pretty easy to solve since you’ll typically be able to progress by just clicking through all of your options even if you don’t understand what you’re doing. I’d actually rate this a positive, partially because I found the environment a little confusing. The game’s chatty style meant that I was sometimes unsure about what I was seeing, and how the area I was in related to the place I’d just been. Descriptions are also a bit loose sometimes, meaning that for example I wasn’t always clear on whether something described as “gunk” was the same as the previously-mentioned “goo” – in a parser game, it’d be easy to disambiguate, but of course that option wasn’t available here. Further adding to my discombobulation, I ran into a bug that had me see a passage comparing what I was seeing to a podium that it implied I’d already encountered well before I’d actually come across the thing.

While I think Beneath the Stones could have benefitted from another testing pass (there are some typos, too) these are still minor complaints, though. Even if I wasn’t always sure about what I was doing or why it was working, it was fun to work through the puzzles and escape the caverns. The game does also succeed in setting a creepy mood at times, especially when I went back to find a bad ending that sent a little shiver down my spine. Would I have liked this better as a parser game? Probably, but I suspect that just reflects my pre-existing experience, and the fact that a Twine author can create a gameplay experience like this and make it accessible to folks who don’t play parser games is pretty cool in my book.

Crow Quest, by rookerie

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
(Insert bird pun here), June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I’m a sucker for smart-animal content – stories about the social intelligence of elephants, books on how the distributed nature of octopuses’ nervous systems might impact their consciousness, rats problem-solving their way through lab experiments, I’m here for all of it. So even though I first came across it in the early days of YouTube, even the better part of two decades later I can still clearly remember how exciting it was to see this video of a crow trying to fish some food out of a bottle, failing, then realizing it could bend a bit of wire into a hook and get to its snack that way. Crows – they’re just like us!

(Due to the deathless nature of the internet, I realized after writing the above paragraph that this video is probably still findable – I think this is it, in fact! Rewatching it, my description wasn’t too far off, thankfully).

Anyway all this to say that when I saw there was a game coming up whose aim, according to the blurb, was to “celebrate the intelligence, eloquence, and sophistication of urban crows”, per the above I was pretty excited, all the more so since I don’t think crows really get their due. As a result of these expectations, though, I was deflated when I saw the opening text:

"OMG you’re a crow.

One day, you could be king of this shitty suburb.

But for now, it’s just you and your ATTITUDE."

Crows – they’re just like us.

This irreverent tone is actually a good fit for the game, though – if you look past the internet-poisoned dialogue, the birds on offer here, as promised, are smart and socially adept, and given how crows behave I can totally imagine that their internal lives are based on an obsessive focus on getting more stuff and maintaining their position in the pecking-order (sorry).

The silliness, and the striking drawings, also liven up a game that’s pretty solid but could have been a bit dry if played straight. Your success in becoming the baddest bird on the block is measured through increases in your numerical attitude score, and after a preparatory phase where you decide whether you want to have a wingman (er) join your quest and choose from an assortment of inventory items to bring with you, the main section of the game has you encounter a series of randomized events. If you hit the right events – and get lucky or have the right gear – your attitude will go up, say by befriending a little girl. But there are negative, attitude-draining events too that can for example see you captured by a geezer with a net. The trend is always up, though, and after maybe a dozen or two events your attitude rises sufficiently to open up the endgame, which sometimes involves a climactic rock-paper-scissors duel with another crow.

This all works well enough, though I think one more iteration on the design would have made it more compelling. There’s a slight mismatch between the attitude threshold and the number of random events on offer, meaning that even in a single playthrough you’ll see a lot of repeats. I thought the fight at the end went on a little too long, even once you realize that there’s a trick to it. And while I’m listing niggles, while I understand that the gag where the game prompts you to enter your name and then says that’s a stupid name, and your real name is e.g. Bingley Polligan (the exact choice is randomly generated) can’t admit of exceptions, I was still annoyed that “The Incrowdible Hulk” got rejected. C’mon, game, I’m working with you here!

Still, even despite these small shortcomings this is a fleet, fun game that doesn’t outstay its welcome. And while it’s not the high-minded ode to corvid smarts I was after, it does make a strong case that crows are punk-rock badasses. What more could anyone want?

George and the Dragon, by Pete Chown
In days of old when knights were bold and princesses wore Bermuda shorts, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I have a dilemma when it comes to reviewing visual novels: on the one hand, I’m firmly on board with a broad definition of IF, and against artificially excluding a clearly text-driven – and very popular! – genre. On the other hand, I often personally have a hard time getting to grips with them: I find the interfaces fiddly, as I have a hard time advancing the tiny, slowly-scrolling text window without missing stuff, and their design often presupposes multiple playthroughs, which is increasingly challenging for me as I have decreasing time for IF. Plus I usually ignore the graphics and find them a distraction from the text, which is what I come to IF for in the first place. So while I want to be ecumenical and give George and the Dragon the same level of engagement I’m giving to the other Spring Thing entries, I’m also acutely aware that I might not be the best person to assess how successful it is at doing what it sets out to do – so the reader might want to adjust their salt-grain intake accordingly as they proceed through this review.

George and the Dragon has an orthodox fantasy setting – according to the blurb, this is a story about how St. George became the patron saint of England, but while he does slay a dragon if you play your cards right, England never had a king named Dennis so far as I know, nor were gems of fire resistance thick on the ground, and the general vibe is pretty Ren Faire-y. Despite the familiarity of the setting, though, I had difficulty getting to grips with the story. It starts in medias res, with your character stumbling on an argument between characters you don’t know, without providing much context for who you are and what’s going on. Most of this got clearer as I played – the opening incident isn’t that important, and again befitting the game’s classic-fantasy approach, there’s a festival/lottery going on in the village, with the “winner” being offered up as a sacrifice to appease the dragon – but the exposition didn’t feel especially smooth to me, and I ran into a bug where the blacksmith told me something had happened before it actually did, which confused things further.

As I understand the gameplay tropes of the VN genre, it’s also pretty orthodox on that front – you get regular choices of options as you progress through dialogue-driven scenes, with an additional map interface that lets you choose where to go in a little village. It’s very likely you’ll hit a game-over in your first playthrough, because this dragon is not messing around, but there’s easy saving-and-loading and skip-read-text option to make replays more bearable (though I found that the option fussy, both skipping when it shouldn’t and not skipping when it should).
Your choices do have significant consequences, but in a way that occasionally felt obscure – for example, getting on a winning path seems to require visiting the princess when you go to the king’s camp to deliver a sword, but whether or not I was able to do that seemed to hinge on choices I made in the opening argument sequence, with no narrative threads explaining what had changed so far as I could tell (though this might be because I’d inadvertently skipped changed text in a replay, per the issue I mentioned above). It also doesn’t help that the game is tough, with a lot more ways to fail than there are to win.

One of the significant upsides of a VN is that with the real estate given over to graphics allows for visual storytelling, and the foregrounding of characters opening up the ability to display their emotions without needing to spell things out in text. As mentioned earlier, I’m probably not the best critic to assess art design choices, but I have to say I mostly didn’t like the graphics. The characters design was odd to me, with the kind sporting an unflattering 1970’s mustache and the princess wearing what look like day-glo Bermuda shorts, and scenes are often staged with the characters standing too far away from the game’s camera. There are some effective sequences – the climactic fight with the dragon has some visual pop – but for me, they came after a bad first impression.

I’ve said a lot of negative things about George and the Dragon, but as I review them, many of these critiques boil down to “I would have liked this better if it was a text-only Twine game” – without the distracting graphics and slow pace of text display, and with more focus on the written word to carry the weight of storytelling, I would probably find the game unpretentious but solid enough. So I could certainly see a player who’s more simpatico with visual novels having a much better time than I did, and I look forward to more VNs being entered into IF festivals and competitions if only so that I can get more comfortable with their way of doing things.

Good Grub!, by Damon L. Wakes
A very buggy game, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

I’ve said in other reviews that I think it’s really hard to make a successful “message game”, where the game’s main goal is to make some kind of political or cultural point – in my experience they too quickly devolve into humorless, didactic gameplay where the obvious right answers are rewarded and the obvious bad ones are punished, with no real authentic engagement with the nuances of an issue and the important questions of design, plot, and character left almost completely neglected, making even those who agree with the politics on offer resentful and unhappy.

Good Grub! is a message game, and if I’m honest it fits the above description pretty much to a tee – plus it’s got only the basic Twine visual design –but with one key difference: it throws that “humorless” bit way out the window, meaning that I was more than happy to laugh my way through three different playthroughs. Maybe that makes me shallow, but I was having so much fun none of the other things I’ve previously harped on as flaws mattered at all.

It helps that the message here isn’t one that I’ve seen argued to death in online flamewars: it’s that eating insects can be an environmentally sustainable element in a healthy diet. I suppose some folks could find the idea gross, and I have to confess I do too to – but that’s just because I’m vegetarian and eating anything alive kinda freaks me out; meeting protein needs through bugs doesn’t seem inherently weirder than doing it through curdled soy milk, after all.

Anyway, the way the game makes its point is by having you choose the main features of an insect-only restaurant you’re launching, then go on a radio interview to promote it. Success and failure are definitely possible, but the game is short enough, and funny enough, that you’ll probably want to play through a bunch of times to see many of the options. Some have definite right and wrong answers – warming my heart as a life-long user of public transit, the clear worst choice in the game is to drive to the interview when you have other options – but for the most part it’s forgiving, with successful possible even if you decide e.g. to name your restaurant “La Cucaracha”, like an asshole (I named my restaurant La Cucaracha first time out).

It’s a short but well-considered design, with the initial set of choices leading to payoff as you try to sell the place in the interview, and the ultimate reveal of whether your business succeeds or fails. Gameplay-wise, the only critique I have is that I wish there was a “replay” button at the end it make it easier to try out different branches. It’s solid enough, but again, what makes it sing is the humor. I don’t want to quote too many of the other things that made me laugh, because most of the joy of Good Grub! is seeing how the playful narrative voice responds to your choices, but I can’t resist one pointer: whatever you do, make sure you try naming your restaurant “Big Bill’s Big ol’ Bug Emporium while ensuring the game knows you are not yourself named Bill.

Is Good Grub! good enough to make me rethink my generally downbeat outlook on message games? I suppose not – if I take a step back, it really does share many of the limitations I outlined at the top – but it does apply demonstrate that with enough charm, you can get away with anything.

You, Me and Coffee, by Florencia Minuzzi
Coffee Talk, June 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

A short visual novel filtered through a Game Boy aesthetic, You, Me and Coffee (God, it’s hard to omit the Oxford comma) wears its gameplay on its sleeve: as a post-college twentysomething who’s just moved back home and bumped into an old acquaintance at a coffee shop, interactivity consists of choosing in which order to introduce these seemingly banal but deceptively deep topics of conversation.

This one is all about the dialogue, then, so let’s start out by talking about everything else. The retro graphics are definitely one of YM+C’s selling points, and at least to this child of the 80s, they impress; in particular the pinkish monochrome image of the friend is expressive enough to convey relatively subtle shifts in facial expression without getting overly-detailed and distracting. The game’s structure is also clever: a full playthrough is expected to exhaust each of the six possible orders for the topics, at which point a new final dialogue unlocks. It’s not clear how diegetic this is supposed to be – there’s no indication the characters know they’re experiencing a time loop – but it does succeed in making the player keep track of what they’ve already asked and when, making the game more involved than the choice-lawnmowing visual novels can sometimes promote. On the flip side, though, I found the interface a little annoying – as with most visual novels, by default you only get a line or two of slowly-displaying text at a time, so I kept banging keys to hurry things up and then inadvertently skipping bits of dialogue. Using more of the screen’s real estate would have obscured the graphics, I suppose, but could have increased the readability.

As for the conversations themselves, while each of the six variations hits on distinct subject areas, with one or two exceptions they all share a common tone of warm nostalgia hitting a wall of barely-concealed hostility (this awkwardness is mostly avoided in the timeline where the conversation winds up turning to books – yes, this seems right to me). As it eventuates, you remember this acquaintance as a fun person to hang out with, and with whom you shared some low-stakes stabs at romance; on the other hand, she (I think those are the right pronouns) recalls things differently, and as a result most of the time she’s kind of a jerk.

There’s an explanation for this unpleasantness in the bonus dialogue that’s unlocked after exhausting the others, and it rings true so far as it goes – without going into spoilery details, it turns out that main character was a self-centered jerk who didn’t really notice what was going on with the people around them when they were 17. But to me, what this revelation gains in plausibility it loses in pathos. Perhaps I’m telling on myself here, but my memory of those long-ago teenaged years was that pretty much everyone was completely wrapped up in self-absorption, with only a minimal set of tools for perceiving, much less responding appropriately to, the subjective emotional experience of others. The fact that the friend has apparently held a grudge for what after all are quite venial sins for years, into their mid-twenties, came off as absurdly small-minded, and made the ending feel unduly prosecutorial: instead of an embarrassed but deserved flush of catharsis, I was left blinking in confusion.

If the ending didn’t sit quite right with me, though, I did enjoy the well-observed brittleness of the main dialogues – so much so that I replayed a second time, based on what I thought were hints towards how to get an alternate ending (turns out there isn’t one, or at least I wasn’t smart enough to find it). As befits its early-video-game aesthetic, You, Me and Coffee’s characters are perhaps more callow than they think they are, but there’s pleasure in following along with them all the same.

Filthy Aunt Mildred, by Guðni Líndal Benediktsson
Fabulously filthy, June 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Filthy Aunt Mildred is a nasty little thing, reveling in the physical and moral grotesqueness of the revolting, infighting family who make up its cast of characters and the baroque, decrepit mansion where it lays its scene – call it Knives Out by way of Gormenghast. Beyond the overall squalor, the narrative is the most drunken, meandering sort of shaggy dog story, overencrusted with the largely-irrelevant biographies of sundry louche and long-since departed aunts and uncles, and it doesn’t so much end as collapse in a heap, the few surviving characters having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

I worry I am being too positive. Here is the second sentence of the piece:

"The air was sticky and horrible and Old Uncle Thomas who lived in the attic was smearing his faeces on the dining hall window, which meant it was six o’clock, because Old Uncle Thomas always smeared his faeces on the dining hall window at six o’clock.”

This is not the kind of filth I had in mind when I eagerly clicked “begin” on what is sold as a wholesome story about poisoning an awful spinster.

As a right-minded person I can under no circumstances recommend, or even commend in the first place, such a disreputable game. But with that understood: reader, I had fun. Each character is more loathsome than the next – the protagonist, and I use that term loosely, very much included – but who cares when they toss off bon mots like this (from the inevitable iocane-powder-ish scene near the end):

"'One of the cups contains lethal poison.', I explained. 'The other contains the greatest tea you’ve ever had in your life.'

'What kind?'


The narrator gets in on the action too, evoking the family’s halcyon, prelapsarian days:

"Money was plentiful, nobody had been murdered yet and the general attitude of the Bladesmith family could be boiled down to a mixture of 'why not?' and 'do you know who I am?'"

Sure, the accumulated vignettes lose some steam and effectiveness as you go on, and there’s the occasional typo. And the only choices are about how deep into this sewer you want to throw yourself. But this is one entertaining cabinet of horrors, and for readers who are able to swallow their revulsion and the potty humor and moral bankruptcy here on display, the sharp writing and darkly-inventive imagination are ample rewards for slumming it – you might just need a cold shower afterwards.

The Prairie House, by Chris Hay (a.k.a. Eldritch Renaissance Cake)
Atmospheric, slightly-wonky folk-horror, June 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

The Prairie House is an aesthetically pleasing Adventuron game with slightly wonky implementation – but I repeat myself! Most Adventuron games have lovely visual design but have a parser that doesn’t provide the most helpful failure responses (it can be pretty fuzzy on whether you’ve referred to an item incorrectly, or it just isn’t there) and sometimes struggles with actions that are more than two words. Still, these foibles aren’t too hard to come to grips with, and the effort is usually well worth it, which is certainly the case with this moody horror vignette set on the Canadian prairie. While the game’s various elements didn’t fully cohere for me, this is still an enjoyable way to spend half an hour.

The plot here is fairly straightforward – you’re an academic who spends the night at an old field house, and spooky shenanigans ensue – but there are three well-researched bits of flavor that enrich the basic narrative. First, there’s a well-chosen amount of detail on the research; while you don’t need to actively do anything, it’s rewarding to explore the prairie, examine the various plants, and read about the standard practices and approaches to this kind of work. Second, the house you’re staying in was built and originally inhabited by Ukrainian immigrants, and there are some documents in the house that flesh out some of this history. Finally, many of the supernatural occurrences are drawn from the stories of some First Nations peoples – the author’s note cites the Anishinaabe and Ojibwe.

Since there aren’t really puzzles to speak of, beyond finding a couple of keys and going through a well-prompted pre-bed ritual, the game does rely on this research to enliven what would otherwise be a fairly direct case of things going bump in the night. It mostly works, and I was definitely engaged as I wandered around the house looking at stuff – it’s fun to learn about things I previously knew quite little about! Once the supernatural elements started kicking into higher gear, though, I wound up wanting a little more of a direct link between the research-y bits and what was happening in the game. There are definitely some allusions, but the game plays things pretty coy and ambiguous as to what’s actually going on. That’s often a fine authorial choice, but in this case it left me feeling like the ending was a little anticlimactic, with the game’s disparate elements never being fully knit together in my mind.

I did mention some implementation niggles, and while some of them do seem like features of the Adventuron engine, there were a couple of oversights that could be worth correcting in a future release. X ME doesn’t include a description of the PC, for example, which is a missed opportunity. X [document] and READ [document] are separately-implemented commands – it’s usually not an issue because upon examining one you’re often asked whether you want to read it as well, but this isn’t invariably the case. In my first playthrough, I missed an achievement, and some important flavor, because X BOOKS told me “you notice nothing unusual,” whereas READ BOOKS would have let me browse one of three different volumes. And when I tried to sit down in the armchair in the morning, the response indicated the game still thought it was night.

Still, I don’t want to end on a negative note – and I should admit that I played the game without music, which is apparently an original soundtrack, so I suspect I would have entered even more fully into the mood with that playing in the background. The Prairie House is an accomplished game that offers a unique, compelling experience that goes beyond the standard haunted-house experience.

fix it, by Lily Boughton
SimOCD, June 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

“Abstract Twine game about mental health issue” is a cliché, but if it produces games as engaging and dare-I-say educational as fix it, that’s no bad thing. I’m a little wary of my response here because I have a fair bit of personal experience of OCD – one of my loved ones has it – and I’m curious what others who don’t come to the game with that context would think of it. Still, I can say that for me it very much works in depicting OCD’s hellish destructive-ritual-and-self-loathing cycle, as well the potential way out.

The game deliberately chooses to leave the inciting incident that sets off the OCD spiral abstract – you’re just told that there’s something making you (who you are is left vague) uncomfortable and standing in the way of the things (also not specified) you want to do. This means there’s not much of a narrative framework for the gameplay loop to hook into, but I think that’s ultimately a good choice. It universalizes the experience and creates the opportunity for more direct player investment, and also avoids the challenge that the stuff that sets off OCD can be so minor – touching a particular part of an article of clothing, fretting about ultra-rare side effects of common medications like Tylenol – or so over-the-top – worrying that somehow you’re secretly a serial killer or child molester, or that you’ll harm others for no reason – that it can seem completely ridiculous from the outside.

The rituals and behaviors you engage in to compensate for the feelings of unease are also left unspecified (though there is an intimation that hand-washing to the point that they bleed is included – this is I think a good example of a detail that’s 100% true to life but I worry could feel unrealistic), with the focus instead put on how you feel after performing each one: it doesn’t work to relieve the feeling of discomfort, but now there’s a healthy dose of self-directed criticism for being weak enough to engage in the ritual, or feeling like it’s made things worse, or that you’re just doing it for attention, so now more talismanic behavior is required to desperately try to set things to right. The writing in these bits of self-reproach is queasily compelling, and I thought did a good job of communicating what I understand is among the worst parts of OCD.

Thankfully, fix it doesn’t trap the player in a forever-static loop, but does eventually provide the possibility of a way out. In contrast to the way the rituals are played, this piece is very specific, and from my understanding lines up pretty exactly with the tools folks suffering from OCD often find successful in managing their intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Getting to this off-ramp definitely felt like a relief, with calm blue coloring on the fonts replacing the angry red of the rest of the game. Again, this is very much not a narrative-driven experience, but it definitely has an arc, and catharsis at the end. It’s a focused experience, but the gameplay elements, visual design and layout, and writing all work well together to provide a compelling and accurate view of OCD from the inside, which I can see being impactful and even useful for all sorts of players.

The Light in the Forest, by Emily Worm
A low-key, welcoming fantasy, June 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

It’s always nice when the first game you play in a festival or comp gets things off on the right foot, so I count myself lucky that The Light in the Forest was the lead-off game in my randomized shuffle. Admittedly, it didn’t make the best first impression on me, with default-Twine formatting and a wall-of-profanity opening that situates the player in a deeply unpleasant situation – the protagonist is a trans woman with some mental health issues about to flee a Dickensian psychiatric facility. But the game quickly reveals that it’s anything but miserabilist, as she’s soon able to make a charming, supportive reconnection with an old friend, and some creepy-yet-compelling fantasy elements start to come into the narrative (the formatting also gets more creative). While there are definitely still some intense challenges to face, the game’s grounded, low-key writing and fundamentally decent characters made my experience of playing the game a really positive one.

Most of the story is focused on the protagonist’s relationship with two women – Mandragora, an acquaintance from school who happens to be working as a barista at the coffee shop where the protagonist takes shelter after the opening and who quickly gives her a place to stay, and Nightshade, who’s a sort of half-demon witch from another dimension with a mystic connection to her (everyone is named after plans, including the protagonist who’s called Solanine). Things with Mandy primarily focus on Solanine working through her social anxiety and ADHD in a series of well-realized set-pieces – there’s a complex bit about making a grilled cheese sandwich that’s almost-but-not-quite a puzzle – while choosing how flirty to get with someone who’s clearly into her. As to Nightshade, it’s a matter of deciding what to make of a series of strange happenings and whether or not to maintain their connection or separate it. This makes the character interactions engaging on a gameplay level, beyond the often-charming dialogue itself.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy elements, which isn’t always a given for me. They aren’t overemphasized, but it’s mentioned in passing that there’s been a magical apocalypse that’s seen demons hopping into our reality. It’s nonstandard, but I liked the fact that the world has ended but life still goes on – and isn’t even all bad, making it a nice metaphor for the identity struggles the game’s focused on, as well as a nice idea on its own. Again, this isn’t a central part of the story, and there isn’t like Tolkien-style WORLDBUILDING by any means, but there are some compelling details in this part of the game, like the way Solanine performs a regular ritual to ward off negative spirits:

"You left your candlebone pen on the dresser. Ideally you would light a candle as you do this, but with only their bones and nothing for fire you are forced to make do without as you trace over the sigils on your arm."

Sure, there are some niggles here. For example, while the writing is generally strong, beyond the odd typo there’s the occasional line of clunky dialogue (at one point Mandy says “Like I said, you’re important and I don’t want to let anyone be abandoned. Especially not when everything is likely to be much worse for them because they’re being constantly misgendered.” Nice idea, but a little on-the-nose). And sometimes the low-key vibe can undercut the intensity of events – I hadn’t realized how close to panic Solanine was meant to be as she was rattling around the cabinets trying to rustle up her sandwich. Similarly, the ending I got was also more understated than I might have preferred. But none of this did much to impact how much I enjoyed my first dip into Spring Thing!

Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Madness and civilization, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2003

(This review was originally posted on the IF newgroups immediately after the 2003 IF Comp).

Slouching Towards Bedlam involves eschatology, a British insane asylum, a player character whose mental state is very much in doubt, gnosticism, a memetic word-virus, steampunk, the "Second Coming" of W.B. Yeats, the Kabbalah, and a Benthamite panopticon of the type deconstructed by Michel Focault. Let me say right out that the only way the authors could have possibly done a better job of pandering to me would have been to include some Buddhism. So authors, if you want a 10 from me next year, that 's your blueprint right there.

But regardless of the personal affinity I have for the subject manner, the game is still easily one of the best in this year's comp. The authors tackle some dense, weighty problems, and manage to wrap theological speculation in a compelling mystery and pose an insoluble moral quandary to boot. While there are a very few missteps, they're easily swept away by the sheer power of the work.

Slouching Towards Bedlam opens inside the eponymous asylum, where the player character is listening to your own voice describing the slow realization that you're going mad. The player's explorations are periodically interrupted by a (mental?) burst of strange words; at first the tendency is to tune them out, but soon they begin to take on a terrifying significance. As you attempt to understand what has happened to the player character, you find your course unerringly transformed into the reverse of the path a particular inmate took to Bedlam; this perverse recapitulation is retrograde in more ways than one, for your investigation is also the vector for an agent of infection. Soon, the player is caught in a crux: to play midwife to a new paradigm of humanity or to safeguard the status quo, if such a thing is even possible.

The above summary doesn't do the game justice. At all. Each elements works in concert to create a thrilling sense of momentum and discovery. There are distinct phases, through which the player passes effortlessly. The mystery surrounding Cleve's disposal in Bedlam segues into an investigation of the society whose secrets he uncovered, and once the whole is apprehended, the player gets to make a choice of monumental import. Throughout, the razor-sharp prose keeps the player tense and engaged. The alternate London the authors have conjured is a brittle place, where violence, communication and becoming lurk under the surface of an ordinary street market: "its presence threatens to overwhelm the senses - the smell of an abattoir, the din of a thousand voices shouting, the sight of masses of humanity talking, shopping, selling." Or this, the first chilling line of the response to KILL DRIVER: "A false destination. It is as easy as that." The Logos' interjections could have easily been ridiculous, but they are in fact alien and obscure, as they should be.

The allusive brew of the game is thick and heady, but while some knowledge of gnosticism and Jewish mysticism will deepen one's enjoyment, everything one needs to fully appreciate the game is right there on the screen - an impressive feat considering that this involves communicating certain nonstandard ideas about the Christian Logos and the relationship between Kabbalistic sefirot!

Remarkably, all this thematic activity doesn't occur in a puzzleless environment. There are real obstacles to progress, and while the difficulty level is generally low enough to allow the story to drive forward, thought is definitely required. The tasks facing the main character range from the mundane (fixing a radio) to the complex (operating the Panopticon and the Bedlam archives) to the recondite (feeding a dying madman's ravings into a mobile steampunk computer), and each manages to be well-clued and flawlessly integrated into the whole.

The endgame is perhaps the most impressive of Slouching Towards Bedlam's many achievements. Once the mystery is solved, the player must make a difficult choice. While some resolutions are easier to achieve than others, there is no facile "right" solution; ambiguity is inevitable. Even acting on one's choice can be quite difficult; the Logos is a powerful entity, and arresting its growth requires sacrifices far more terrible than merely the player character's life: to be humanity's savior is to be a monster.

I could go on; one could fruitfully apply the techniques of structural analysis to examine the game's pervasive twinning of progress with regression (the player character's forward movement is often exactly the reverse of the path taken by the madman Cleve, for example), or chase down references to the authentic texts that lie behind the fiction, but I think I've said enough. While I do have a few minor complaints - I thought the TRIAGE computer was underutilized, and some NPC interactions were a bit lightweight - I feel like an ingrate for even mentioning them. My favorite game of the 2003 comp, hands down.

Dr Horror's House of Terror, by Ade McT

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A meaty, creepy puzzlefest, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Is there a harder genre at this point to parody than Hammer horror flicks? By this point, not too many people have actually watched the movies, but we’ve all seen a million I-vant-to-suck-your-blood-bleh-bleh sendups that make it seem like the originals were just as silly. Dr Horror’s House of Terror manages the task, though, keeping the traditional comedy monster-mash angle while adding a meta twist (you’re not running around actual Transylvanian villages and Alpine laboratories, just movie sets) and playing some moments of horror just straight enough to land. To be sure, the main draw of this big puzzlefest is working through its just-hard-enough challenges, but the tone is also just-novel-enough to make the fourish hour runtime go quickly.

The other strong element here is the pacing. I find long games can often feel awkward on this score, with an intimidatingly-big environment at the beginning and a saggy late-middle as you run out of things to solve. Dr Horror does well out the gate, though, with a focused, linear opening that establishes the premise and stakes – the head of the horror-movie company moonlights as a cult leader and wants to give you a starring role in a sacrificial rite to summon their demonic patron to earth. Then the map leads you to a hub where you find five different themed soundstages where the bulk of the game plays out, but you need to solve the first one, and get a feel for how the puzzles will work, before all the doors unlock.

Indeed, the game actually winds up being a bit formulaic. To fight the cult and their demons, you need to build an army of undead, since turns out Dr Horror has been cutting costs by enslaving real-life (er) zombies, vampires, and mummies. On each soundstage, you’ll need to deal with a roving security guard (in gruesome ways that raise the question of who exactly is the monster here), then figure out how to find, summon, resurrect, or control the various flavors of monster before doing it again at the next stage over. There’s enough variety of theme – you’ve got your werewolf-stalked hamlet, your sun-blasted Egyptian ruins, your voodoo-y New Orleans – as well as puzzle style – there’s some traditional object manipulation, some messing around with NPC behavior, some light futzing with machinery – that this formula winds up being a strength, since it gives the player a framework to grab onto without making things stale. Then there’s an endgame that introduces a fun new puzzle-style that’s not too out of left field, nor too hard – often the bane of late-game mechanical twists.

Speaking of difficulty (what a segue!) I found it tuned well throughout. Most of the soundstages are self-contained, with only a few requiring bringing items over from other areas, which helps limit the possibilities, and several puzzles have alternate solutions implemented. The puzzles aren’t easy enough that I solved them immediately, but at the same time I only needed one hint (Spoiler - click to show)(I didn’t realize the animal cages were portable) which is impressive in a game as long as this. The implementation was also quite smooth, and once I had an idea it usually didn’t take any wrestling with the parser to make it happen. I did run into a couple of bugs, though – I encountered a thematically-appropriate resurrecting security guard in the sands of Egypt, and one time when I got thrown out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the crematorium wound up accompanying me to the parking lot. But some quick UNDOing was enough to set things back to right.

The writing is another strong point, with jokes that generally land (I liked the main character’s perhaps-forced naivete about where their co-stars kept disappearing to) and some real moments of gross-out horror preventing things from getting too weightlessly silly (those poor security guards!) There are some typos, though, and I did find things got a bit overly wordy in places, leaving me scrolling through more than one page of text just to see what was happening in a location. These are small niggles that hopefully can be ironed-out for a post-Comp release – given its long run-time, I’m guessing some folks won’t completely finish Dr. Horror’s House of Terror during the judging period, but this would be a perfect one to revisit once the time-pressure is off.

Highlight: There’s one puzzle that was a standout for me, a Delightful-Wallpaper-style combinatorial riff that requires you to reenact a Cajun-spiced melodrama of family secrets and voodoo curses. The writing and puzzling are both really fun, and there are enough clues to prevent things from devolving into the trial-and-error slog that often reduces the fun-factor of these kinds of puzzles.

Lowlight: When you solve that puzzle, instead of recruiting the cast of messy antebellum ghosts, you just got a crowd of zombies to swell the ranks of your undead army. Boring!

How I failed the author: I played the first half of the game while keeping my wife company during one of Henry’s late-night feedings, when I was feeling pretty loopy – things got pretty wacky in my transcript as a result.

Off-Season at the Dream Factory, by B.J. Best (writing as “Carroll Lewis")
A lovely melange, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The ingredients in this Adventuron game aren’t especially novel by IF standards – a dungeon-crawl with a combat system, an Alice in Wonderland riff, an inversion of the typical adventurer-vs-monster moral framework, a pun-filled scavenger hunt – but there’s something about the way they’re stewed up in Off-Season at the Dream Factory that feels fresh and coherent. The clean prose and fantastical yet grounded visuals help create a unified aesthetic that equally fits the orc protagonist’s dead-end job (he gets repeatedly slain by paying adventurers looking for a thrill) and his occasional visits to his fetch-quest setting uncle, who’s straight-up Lewis Carroll in orc drag. And the one element that’s thematically out of place – the occasional dungeon-delving segments where you’re a customer, not an employee, of the Dream Factory – is set off by bespoke vector graphics that make these sequences visually distinctive too.

(Side-note on my expectations on Adventuron games – by this point I’m unsurprised to find one with great visuals, but I also mentally prepare myself to struggle with the parser. But this time I didn’t, and that’s been true of other more recent Adventuron games I’ve played too. I’m guessing this is some combination of authors gaining familiarity with the platform and the system maturing, but it’s awesome to see).

The other thing that makes the disparate pieces work well together is momentum. I tend to like IF Comp games with a good number of easy puzzles – they make me feel like I’m a clever person making good progress through the big competition (this is not a flattering observation about myself) – and it’s an effective choice here. There's a good variety of puzzles, from figuring out viable combat strategies for different opponents to some maze navigation, but none of them are especially difficult, and many even solve themselves, with inventory items being used automatically if your command is even in the right ballpark. Combined with the interesting worldbuilding, solid writing, and pretty pictures, this makes Off-Season at the Dream Factory go down easy.

Highlight: I figured out one somewhat outside the box puzzle straightaway (Spoiler - click to show)(catching lightning in the bottle) which made me feel clever, though I also worried it was underclued. Then I kept playing and found it actually was well clued, I’d just gotten to the solution a little early.

Lowlight: The ending is generally satisfying, but I felt like one subplot (Spoiler - click to show)(the fate of the protagonist’s father) was left a bit hanging – though I didn’t get the Last Lousy Point, which I suspect might bear on that.

How I have failed the author: not by very much, I don’t think! Henry was sleeping and I pretty much banged through this one, despite my new-parent brain.

4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska
A full-featured CRPG, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Going into this year’s Comp, I knew that my time for IF would be limited, so I resolved not to get too sucked into any of the “longer than two hours” games on offer, to make sure I was able to play as many games as possible. Well, here I am, my resolve in tatters: I’ve probably put five or six hours into 4x4 Archipelago over the last few days, and immediately upon winning was tempted to start again to try a different one of the I think three possible main plots driving this slick, addictive Twine CRPG.

I call 4x4A a CRPG advisedly, not to imply it’s not IF – ugh to genre gatekeeping – but to highlight how far it goes to deliver the features you’d expect in a mainstream CRPG. As your randomly-generated adventurer embarks on a voyage across the 16 islands making up the titular archipelago, you’ll encounter a clever skill system that starts you with two skills out of a choice of fighting and noncombat options; a robust inventory tied to an economy that stays relevant throughout the playtime; a main hub boasting shops, services, a library, and more; a multi-step primary quest and numerous fleshed-out side quests; a host of dungeons and mines, many with a boss at the end; and random encounters out the wazoo. Oh, and an automatically-updating journal that puts all the key information you’ll need at your fingertips – seriously, this thing is better than the journal in any AAA CRPG I can recall playing. Plus it’s all randomly generated so replay value is high.

Of course, just as the game delivers so well on the CRPG genre’s positives, it also inherits some of the weak points too. It can feel grindy, with a few too many dungeons that are a few rooms too long. My main character was a magician, and I definitely wound up with a bad 15-minute-workday habit. Plus the early stages can feel a little tough, as you go from island to island building out a list of fun stuff to do but the ability to complete only like 10% of the tasks given how much of a greenhorn you are. But I can’t lie, there’s comfort-food pleasure even in these hoary irritants. 4x4A is the kind of game that isn’t always well-served by the Comp, since it’s long and a bit outside the genres that traditionally do well, but it’s super fun and I’m definitely looking forward to coming back to it post-Comp.

Highlight: The game sets out clear patterns and expectations around how side-quests work and the geography of the archipelago, but it also doesn’t hesitate to break those patterns to create some cool moments of surprise.

Lowlight: The writing here is actually better than it needs to be – here’s the description of one island: “The forests of Old Oak Island remember ancient times. They are dark and foreboding, and hide numerous secluded gorges and valleys. Many islanders are woodcutters, hunters, or pig farmers; local long-haired, black pigs are grazed in the oak woods, where they gorge themselves on acorns.” But it’s too bad that the well-crafted text really fades into the background as the gamier aspects take over and you visit the same places and encounter the same monsters over and over.

How I failed the author: Henry was having some rougher days sleep-wise whie I was playing this one, so after starting out the game and getting about an hour in, I didn’t get back to it until a few days later, only to find my saves were wiped (there may have been an update in the interim?) Too bad, Titus the Swashbuckler, but Letho the Tinkerer found the Heavenly Spire in your place!

A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious but unfocused, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This ChoiceScript game about a fictional online fandom is a lot. Before you start, there are two full pages of stats, eight or nine pages with background on the online personalities as well as in-universe info on the Nebulaverse, the tropey YA series the fandom focuses on, and a character-generation process for your blogger-avatar that comes complete with two “what Hogwarts House are you?”-style quizzes – and then gameplay itself involves going through five or six “rounds” of play, each of which has you first reading half a dozen different Tumblr-ish blogs and deciding whether to like or reblog (or possibly reply to) each of their 5-10 posts, then making choices about how to write your own fanfic set in the Nebulaverse, plus some optional additional engagement with other bloggers.

There’s a lot to be said for creating a detailed and consistent world, but there’s also a need to present the player with a compelling hook to bring them into said world – a resonant goal, some emotionally-engaging conflict, an interesting puzzle or strategic challenge, or even just a clever take on a familiar milieu – and here’s where I found APBW fell down. Notionally, you’re meant to be optimizing your follower count by reblogging good content and writing resonant fanfic, but this is presented in a pretty bloodless fashion and is clearly more a pretext than a motivating force for engagement. The breadth of the game also means there’s less time to go deep and make any particular character or mechanic stand out, plus the incredible tropiness of the Nebulaverse, while clearly intentional to help it resonate with more real-world fandoms, made it really hard for me to care about shipping the blank-slate chosen one, the genius love-interest, the blue-blood frenemy, the white-bread sidekick, or… the other one who I don’t remember that clearly two days on from playing.

Eventually the game reveals that it is about something specific, and I found it got a lot more engaging (Spoiler - click to show)(it ultimately hinges on a pretty much note-for-note riff on the Harry Potter fandom’s reactions to J.K. Rowling’s increasing transphobia). But it took too long to get there for my tastes, and didn’t integrate the fanfic stuff with this main thread tightly enough for me to stay invested. Works of IF are almost always in real need of a good editor, because all pieces of writing are in need of a good editor (the beta testing process isn’t a substitute, in my experience) and I think APBW suffers that lack – it puts in so much effort to create a plausible world, and has something to say, but needs some nips and tucks to better help the player find what's engaging.

Highlight: Despite the game making clear that I was making incredibly suboptimal choices in terms of follower count, it was perfectly happy to let me express myself as a normcore loser – I took a gleeful joy in choosing the most boring hero as my favorite one, eschewing shipping to focus on the setting’s lore in my blog posts, and even quitting writing the fanfic super early because of (Spoiler - click to show)the transphobia incident.

Lowlight: As I alluded to above, I found the blogging sections offered way too much granularity of interaction – so the game’s bow to realism by having characters re-post stuff you’ve already seen on the pages of other bloggers made for extra drudgery.

How I have failed the author: Due to a general lack of brain-bandwidth, I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to read the multiple pages of background info on the Nebulaverse, which probably reduced my engagement with those sections – and that in turn meant I was eager to stop writing the fanfic so I could skip those bits and get to the end faster, missing out on most of the thematic resonance that I’m sure exists between the different strands of the story.

The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A chilling, well-written character study, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The Best Man sits firmly in a genre that’s typically less well served in IF than in static fiction: it’s a piece of literary fiction, with nary a spaceship, broadsword, dead body, or tentacle in sight. For all the mundanity of the setting, though – we’re at a wedding in a small, well-realized Irish town twenty-odd years ago – I found the protagonist the most bone-chilling character I’ve seen in the Comp. By dint of his predicament, Aiden could be sympathetic: after a stag night mishap, he’s called up to be the stand-in best man, with the twist that he’s been nursing a years-long crush on the bride. Being relegated to the friendzone is, I think, a broadly-shared experience, so heightening the drama around this common situation makes for compelling drama. The Best Man isn’t trying to create a universally-resonant story, though – it has a very specific narrative, with very specific characters, and what really drives the story is Aiden’s toxic self-involvement.

This is all extremely well-motivated: long-term romantic disappointment can be tough to weather for anyone, but Aiden has a combination of vain self-regard, social awkwardness, and inability to self-regulate this emotions that means his infatuation with Laura immediately curdles, and by the time of the wedding, he’s developed a whole alternate universe in which his sense of his own intellectual and emotional development means that he is now a fitting romantic partner for her (or at least will be after the inevitable divorce). The twist of fate that’s led to his brevet promotion is reinterpreted as meaning he’s now playing a leading role in the wedding, and I felt a queasy sense of anxiety as he ran pre-ceremony errands for fear of what awful gesture he had planned for the big moment of the best man's speech.

Fortunately for my enjoyment of the game, we’re not locked into Aiden’s claustrophobic viewpoint the whole way through. In addition to chapters alternating wedding business with flashbacks to Aiden and Laura’s college days, there are also several that follow residents of the town incidentally swept up in the nuptials: the widower Aiden bumps into mid dog-walk, the partner of the Civil-War-obsessed florist (Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, not Blue vs. Gray), the church organist who could have been so much more (maybe?) Besides providing some relief for the reader, these vignettes also highlight Aiden’s self-absorption, laying out the rich seams of life he’s oblivious to in his inability to see anything but (his distorted image of) Laura. There’s also a sequence from the viewpoint of another wedding guest, Nick: a pleasant fellow who tries to make friends with Aiden but is instead ruthlessly judged, partially on the basis of his lower-class food preferences (though being a vegetarian from California, I share some queasiness at Nick’s love of white and black puddings).

Literary fiction lives and dies by the quality of its prose, and The Best Man for the most part gives a good account of itself, with lots of well-observed details and generally naturalistic dialogue. I’m adding caveats because I found the Aiden sections to have noticeably weaker writing than the rest of them. Given the contrast, this is clearly the result of authorial choice: his voice is generally intense to the point of histrionics, and the thing about histrionics is they do sound clangy when written out. Still, I found the dialogue of some other characters also felt clumsy during these sections – the opening exchange with Laura I think has some of the weakest writing of the game, unfortunately – so feel like another editing pass wouldn’t have gone amiss.

I’m quite deep into this review and haven’t mentioned anything about interactivity yet, which isn’t necessarily a kick against how the game deploys its choices but just an indication that they aren't what’s of most interest here. There are opportunities to decide on different high-stakes courses of action for Aiden – most notably how he behaves when it’s time to hand over the rings mid-ceremony, and what he says in an impromptu post-wedding speech – but in most passages, there are options to expand different sections of the text through inline links. While this is definitely a game with a specific story to tell, and you can’t change the viewpoint characters into people that they aren’t, the process of playing The Best Man definitely feels engaging enough.

I can see this game bouncing off of some people, given the comparatively low-key setting and the off-putting central character (the closing narration from Aiden made me think that in the years since the wedding, he’d become an incel or something – he’s that awful). But anyone who likes literary fiction, or a good antihero drama on TV, will find some real enjoyment here.

Highlight: I really, really loved the sequence with Bill, who can turn even the most innocuous of questions into a disquisition on the New Model Army – it made me sympathize with what my loved ones put up with.

Lowlight: The whole sequence with the bride’s 15-year-old sister. Ugh. Just ugh.

How I failed the author: I don’t generally listen to sound when playing IF, and that’s true a fortiori now with the baby since I’m typically playing while Henry’s napping and I don’t want to wake him up (or not hear if he makes noises). From the listing in the credits, though, it seems like there’s a great soundtrack for The Best Man that I’m bummed to have missed – though if there was going to be a Pulp song, I question going with This is Hardcore when Disco 2000 seems to have by far the clearer thematic resonance.

Funicular Simulator 2021, by Mary Goodden and Tom Leather

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Sublime, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

When looking over the list of entries into this years Comp, I found myself looking forward to Funicular Simulator 2021 just on the strength of its title. Oddly, I’m a sucker for a good transit-themed game – I’m thinking of the waking-dream fugue of What the Bus in last year’s Comp, or the meditative hangout-game Misty Hills in this year’s Spring Thing. I’m guessing this is partially because I miss my public-transit commute, 18 months into COVID (I used to get a lot of reading done!) Beyond this personal bias, though, I think public transportation is actually a great match with IF: transit is a liminal space, where you can encounter different people whose lives are very different – and while the destination is your own, someone else is driving, so you can sit back and enjoy the journey. Funicular Simulator 2021 is not really a transit-game in the sense I was expecting – there’s nothing quotidian about this trip, as the protagonist is climbing a very special mountain on the night of a once-in-a-lifetime aurora. But it wound up scratching the itch nonetheless, because it provides some of the same pleasures.

Belying its title, Funicular Simulator isn’t about the vehicle but about its passengers. The main gameplay consists of extended conversations with four different people, all of whom are ascending the mountain for the same basic reason – to check out the mountain’s mysterious phenomena – but who ascribe very different meanings to what they’re about to experience. You get to learn more about their backstories and what they’re hoping to find, and while the protagonist is a blank slate, by responding to the various characters and validating or denying their motivations, you can define what's brought you to the mountain. Without spoiling too much, my takeaway was that this is about allowing the player to explore some of the common human responses to the numinous: to look to it for escape, for study, for comfort, or for distraction.

The game doesn’t posit these as exclusive choices, I don’t think, and doesn’t put its thumb on the scales for any one in particular, allowing you to see the value in, as well as the counterarguments against, each worldview (though with that said, I found the artist to be too callow to take seriously – perhaps that’s more about where I’m at in life than about anything in the game, though). You get multiple opportunities to engage with the four characters, and you can spread your attention equally among them, or focus on just one or two to explore their conversations more deeply. Replay shows that there isn’t a huge amount of branching in the content of what they say, but the different choices do feel like they portray the protagonist in a significantly different light, so I found them satisfying.

The writing is strong throughout, taking sentiments that could be cliched and events that could be too abstract to resonate and making them sing. The understated visual design – which portrays the night progressing from the initial golden hour through midnight – aids the immersion. It all leads to a final choice that’s lightly shaped by how you’ve spent your time on the journey. The stakes for this choice weren’t completely clear to me, nor am I sure how much changes based on your decision. But the ending I got was poetic, and felt like it organically built on what came before, so much so that I don’t feel tempted to take the journey again and make different choices just for the sake of it.

Highlight: I found the conversation with the pilgrim character really well-done and personally impactful – her situation could be played for melodrama, but the grounded dialogue and unique worldview she offered made her stand out.

Lowlight: Some of the sequences when you reach the mountain struck me as a little too oblique, but if so it’s a close-run thing.

How I failed the author: I played this one late at night, after a day of Henry not sleeping well at all. But I think this wound up being good, since even though this meant I didn't appreciate the prose as much as I should have done, my zonked-out brain found a lot emotional heft in the game that I might not have been able to experience clearly if I’d been feeling sharper (you ever notice how pregnant with meaning the world can seem at 5 AM when you’ve been up all night?)

we, the remainder, by Charm Cochran

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A parade of horribles, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

My favorite band is indie-rockers the Mountain Goats, on the strength not just of the songs but also the witty, humane stage banter. There’s this one bit that's stuck with me ever since I heard it: the frontman talks about how when he first started writing songs, all the romantic ones involved protagonists stalking the objects of their quote-unquote affections, because what’s more emotionally intense than stalking? But of course beyond the super problematic nature of this approach, this means all your songs are kind of the same, and have nowhere to build. So pretty soon he wised up and moved on.

One glance at the content warnings for we, the remainder should indicate why I bring this up – I thought A Papal Summons was going to run away with the Most CWs sweepstakes, but it’s actually a close-run thing. The game is about a disabled girl who’s been left behind when the cult she and her mother belong to transcends their earthly fetters. This is a compelling premise, but I found myself exhausted by the author’s decision to twist every dial to 11. There are piles of dead bodies, gross-out scenes with spoiled food, and a bingo-card’s worth of abuse heaped upon the young protagonist as well as comprehensively meted out from the prophet to all his followers. It’s certainly effective at setting a mood of well-nigh-postapocalyptic horror – and there are indications that some of the terrible things on display are hallucinations brought on by trauma and starvation – but I found it hard to immerse myself in such a grand guignol spectacle, as the comprehensive awfulness put me at a distance. It also made the cult members seem less like real people who’d made understandably-bad choices to trade off their autonomy for a sense of belonging, and more like cardboard cutouts in a cabinet of horrors.

Gameplay-wise, we, the remainder is curiously parser-like, with compass navigation links off to the sides of the screen and each location in the large map offering three or so different objects to interact with. Some are just there for atmosphere, but a few of can be picked up (there are inventory puzzles, but they’re handled automatically so long as you’ve been to the right place to get the right item). And others trigger flashbacks, as the protagonist recalls one or another instance of abuse (there’s a suppressed-memories trope here that feels a bit icky). The writing is effective, as these vignettes do convey a sense of what life was like in the cult – and in fairness, there are a few moments that leaven the near-unremitting darkness of the story with at least potential rays of light. The ending too is reasonably positive, at least the one I got (apparently if you’re less efficient at exploring, you can get different ones). I think it would have rang truer if the path to get there had been less choked with muck, though.

Highlight: There’s an effective bit of characterization early on, where you can decide what single talismanic object you’ve kept hidden from your controlling mother – and once you’ve picked it, there are numerous callbacks to you touching it for comfort as you encounter the compound’s terrors.

Lowlight: Since I was playing on mobile, I accidentally clicked through the aforementioned passage really quickly, and didn’t see a way to undo to see the other choices. I wound up with an Orioles baseball cap, which I guess was OK?

How I failed the author: since I played on my phone, the cool ascii-art map didn’t display properly, which made navigation difficult. Though east and west seemed to be flipped on my screen in a confusing way, and having the map available maybe would have made me feel like I was playing Angband, so perhaps it’s for the best!

Finding Light, by Abigail Jazwiec

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Shapeshifting fantasy adventure, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Puzzley fantasy adventures don’t tend to be my favorite IF subgenre, but they’ve got deep roots and an undeniable cozy appeal. I was surprised it took me about 2/3 of the way into the Comp to get to one on this year – they’re typically thick on the ground, so maybe they’re falling out of favor? Fortunately, Finding Light does a good job flying the flag, with enough of a twist on the hoary standards of the genre to stay fresh and puzzles that go down easy. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a worthwhile way to scratch this kind of itch.

Let’s start with the twist, since it’s tied up with the premise: you play a familiar spirit, bound to a boy with magical abilities and able to swap between human and fox shapes at will (the human shape kind of threw me for a loop since it gives the whole nonconsensual soul-binding thing a creepier vibe). The game starts with him being kidnapped by raiders, so it’s up to you to sneak into their fortress and set him free. Your different forms have different abilities – as a fox, you can track scents and talk to other animals, whereas as a human you have hands and er, color vision? Really, the fox gets the better end of the stick here – which come in useful as you work through a series of simple obstacles, from a maze with a twist to a couple of fetch quests.

None of these puzzles are anything too tricky, but they’re not trying to be too brain-melting and they don’t overstay their welcome. Similarly, the setting sketched-in, and the boy you’re bound to doesn’t register as much of a character, but they work well enough to justify what you’re doing. There’s a topic system that makes conversation with the various animals you encounter go down easily, too – these are actually a highlight, since while your master is rather a bowl of oatmeal, the raven, rat, and horses you meet have personality.

Implementation-wise, there are a few small niggles. I ran into a bug where trying to go in non-cardinal directions either didn’t produce any output, or gave a response that only made sense in the maze, and there were some missing synonyms or fiddly action phrasing required in a few places. But it's nothing too major, and the puzzles are well-clued and smoothly implemented. I think this is the author’s first game, and it’s an impressive debut both in terms of programming and design – I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what they do next!

Highlight: The raven was my favorite character, and it was fun to take reading material back to her to decode.

Lowlight: The game doesn’t have any ABOUT or CREDITS text as far as I can tell, so I’m not sure whether there were testers – if not, this is impressively smooth, but regardless, always have testers!

How I failed the author: I was reasonably tired when playing this one, so I appreciated the overall gentle difficulty, but I was thrown for a loop by what was supposed to be a hint: the rat says he has exactly three things to trade, so after I got three things from him I thought I was done, without realizing that one of them was a freebie that didn't count as an additional swap, and I had one more left. Fortunately this didn’t hold me up for too long.

The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A multiplayer experiment that doesn't live up to its promise, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Alexisgrad has a grabby premise and a killer gimmick I don’t think I’ve seen before in the Comp. Start with the premise: we’re in a fantasy world, albeit a grounded one whose politics and social organization seem quite resonant with our own circa the late 18th/early 19th century. The title city wrested its independence from an authoritarian monarchy some time ago, but has recently been weakened by a bout of Paris Commune-style internecine violence, and now the monarchy’s armies are coming to reclaim what they lost so long ago. And as the blurb makes clear, they will succeed: the game is about how Alexisgrad falls, not whether it will.

I love this setup – the time period and politics being invoked are ones that personally appeal to me, and knowing the outcome makes it fatalistic, sure, but that gives the player more freedom to try to create an interesting story, rather than focusing on optimizing their outcomes. Or I should say “players”, since that’s the gimmick: this is a two-player game, with one person making choices for the city’s dictator and the other taking on the role of the kingdom’s general. Here again the foreordained result is a good design decision, setting up this multiplayer experience as one of collaborative storytelling rather than an opportunity for cutthroat PvP.

Unfortunately, I found the actual implementation of the story didn’t live up to my (perhaps too-high) expectations. I played through twice, once on each side, and while the dictator’s side of the story was more engaging, both times the experience fell a bit flat, and petered out rather than reaching a satisfying climax. Partly this is down to the writing feeling like it could use an editing pass to tighten up – there’s a lot of description of the city’s architecture and history in the early going, as well as ruminations on the current situation, and while the substance is good it sometimes feels repetitive, with the same idea or fact being restated two or three times without offering any new information. Relatedly, the game features long passages between choices, which is a solid decision that minimizes the amount of back-and-forth required between the players, but can exacerbate the sometimes tension-deflating flabbiness of the prose.

The bigger issue, though, is that the choices generally didn’t feel especially interesting or consequential, with no real surprises or aces up their sleeve on either side. The early decisions primarily focus on the defense of the city, but the kingdom’s forces are so overwhelming that the stakes didn't feel high – not only is the outcome never in doubt, I never felt like the dictator had much ability to exact any pain along the way or play for extra time. Then in the second half, there’s an extended negotiation between the two characters over the terms of surrender, but again the dictator doesn’t have any real leverage and it’s not clear whether the general has the autonomy to create significantly different post-war settlements. The most interesting options in this section involve digging into the recent history of the city, and the attitudes of the two characters towards the revolution are satisfying to explore, but this feels like idle conversation, with no substantial impact on future events.

It’s a shame because I can imagine some fun dilemmas spinning out of this setup, where the two-player gameplay would add a note of uncertainty. If the dictator had some card to play in negotiations, it could set up interesting tradeoffs: they could be forced to decide which of the city’s freedoms to protect, for example, or the general could decide whether they want to prop up one of the city’s factions against the others in the occupation. So while I don’t think this incarnation of Last Night of Alexisgrad quite succeeds, it’s definitely a promising proof-of-concept for an IF two-hander and I hope there’s more to come from this author in the future!

Highlight: The dictator’s opening text is very compelling, dramatizing the impact of the invasion by describing the dictator’s recent political work, and how it suddenly no matters in the slightest.

Lowlight: In my second play-through, where I was making decisions for the dictator, I tried to make the conquest as painful as possible, and be more confrontational in the conversation with the general. None of my efforts seem to slow them down in the slightest, and then the general had me summarily shot.

How I failed the author: I couldn’t schedule a time to sit down and play through the game in a single sitting with a partner, so I had to play asynchronously, with gaps between DMs with my partner. It still worked OK, I thought, even though that wasn't the intended experience.

Goat Game, by Kathryn Li

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Too many endings, January 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I have conflicting feelings on Goat Game, a short-for-each-playthrough choice-based game about the queasy moral tradeoffs forced on us by capitalism. It tells a grounded story well, with just enough worldbuilding to connect this city of anthropomorphic goats to our own situation without getting bogged down. But it also has 15 different endings, and between the two-hour suggested game length and some intimations in the game, it seems like the intended experience is for the player to reach all 15. Replaying made me like it less than I did the first time out, though, and I bailed after only seeing three, making me wonder whether a more curated narrative experience would have served the story better.

This is one of those stories where everybody’s an anthropomorphic animal – I think it’s 100% goats – but it’s not about jokes, it’s about social comment. You play a young researcher who works for the city’s hottest tech company, which has introduced groundbreaking innovations in biotech (I praised the lightness of the worldbuilding above, but I will say I would have liked a little more detail on what exactly the company made, and how the technobabbley magic purple pearls behind the processes worked). The early sections of the game are very slice-of-life, as you decide how to spend your workday, choose your general attitude and morale level, and interact with coworkers and family. These choices impact a triad of stats: “social”, “work”, and “opportunity”, the first two of which are clear enough though was a bit confused by the last.

The game quickly reveals it’s about a small set of major decisions rather than the accretion of lots of little ones slowly impacting these stats, though. A Big Event happens that implicates the company, and there are a few heavier-weighted choices about how you respond that determine which ending you get. Without spoiling things too much, it’s all very Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, with a satisfying range of options that let you articulate how you’re attempting to mediate the tensions that are pulling you in multiple directions at once – and while it’s not a direct allegory, there’s clear, strong resonance with any number of modern corporate scandals that I suspect would ring true for anyone who’s ever worked at a big, profit-driven institution.

The writing is a strength here, understated, with a good ear for dialogue, and rarely didactic – while some characters will push a Manichean worldview, the game itself doesn’t feel too judgmental… until you hit an ending, which is where my troubles with Goat Game began. My first time through, I picked generally positive options when asked about my attitude towards work, but when the opportunity came to take action to improve the company, I jumped on just about all of them (Spoiler - click to show)(I signed the petition and organized a walkout, though I didn’t badmouth the company on live TV and didn’t quit), putting myself clearly in a reform-from-within mode.

The ending I got, though, was labelled “inertial paralysis” and saw me disempowered and obsessing over work to the exclusion of all human (er, goat) contact, despite having finished with a “medium” ranking in the social stat. This didn’t feel like an organic capstone to the choices I’d made, and came off like a blunt authorial intervention judging some decisions as good and some as bad. And indeed, when I replayed and intentionally made choices that I felt were more about drifting through life and shutting out other people, but quit the company in my final decision, I got a much more hopeful ending that similarly rang false.

It’d be fine for the game to have a strong point of view – like, I think it’s totally great to make a game arguing that attempts to use inside tactics to reform a corporation are doomed to failure, that’s actually pretty close to what I personally believe! – but Goat Game presents itself as more ecumenical than this and I didn’t think it indicated that this stuff was being ineffective as you’re making these decisions. The structure also makes it hard for the game to stake out a specific angle, because of all those endings and the strong implication that you’re supposed to collect a bunch of them, rather than there being a single “true” or “best” ending to achieve. There’s an omnipresent set of asterisks marking which of them you’ve already achieved, and after getting a third ending, I got some new concluding text suggesting there’s some kind of meta progression being tracked.

This is pretty standard practice in visual novels, I think, but there you usually have convenience features to help zoom through stuff you’ve seen before, more narrative branching (here you pretty much always get the same events – choices are primarily about shifting a paragraph or two in how you respond to them), and tools to track which you’ve gotten to. Here, it’s not clear to me how the different choices and stats translate to specific endings. I’d already made the decision I thought were most satisfying after my first time or two through, so getting all fifteen feels like it’d require building a spreadsheet and doing some rote lawnmowering, which wasn’t appealing this late in the Comp. It’s possible that completing the grid would reveal more of what the game’s about and resolve some of these contradictions, but I’m left wishing the significant effort that went into Goat Game had delivered a more focused experience rather than such broad but less-rewarding replayability.

Highlight: I really liked the main character’s cousin, Miriam. She clearly cares about the protagonist and is looking out for her, but also has her own stuff going on. So often in games it can feel like the world revolves around the protagonist so it’s refreshing to see someone who sometimes doesn’t have time for you.

Lowlight: conversely, the character of Ira, the union organizer, really took me out of the game. He seems realistically teed off at the company’s management, but also has a scorched-earth approach that doesn’t jibe with the labor folks I’ve known, who are keenly aware that if a workplace is “brought to the ground”, as Ira boasts at one point, all their folks are going to be out of a job.

How I failed the author: as with many of the choice-based games in this year’s Comp, I played this one on my phone while Henry napped on me. It worked perfectly well, but unfortunately that meant the lovely art was displayed at postage-stamp size – from looking at the cover image I can tell that means I missed out so this was maybe me failing myself.

Grandma Bethlinda's Remarkable Egg, by Arthur DiBianca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Achievement-hunting fun, January 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I’ve played a number of Arthur DiBianca’s signature limited-parser games – including just getting to the first Grandma Bethlinda instalment a couple months ago – and have generally really enjoyed them, with last year’s Sage Sanctum Scramble being my favorite. GBRE has a different vibe than that unabashed word-based puzzlefest, and I took a little while longer to get into it, but by the time I was digging into the as-always generous post-game content I was definitely having fun.

As always there’s not much plot – you’ve managed to handcuff yourself, and you need to give one-word commands to the Rube-Goldberg-meets-Alexa egg to get yourself free – so it’s all about the gameplay as you explore the egg's functionality and unlock new commands by running through its autorepair sequence. Despite this setup, GBRE is actually much thinner on puzzles than I was expecting at first – there are maybe three or four that gate progress on the repairs, and they’re good ones, but mostly the gameplay is focused on exploration, as you try out the commands you unlock at each stage, figure out the potential interactions between them, and guess at other commands the egg might accept.

Until I got to the ending, I found this pleasant enough but not that engaging – it felt more like a toy than a game, and while it’s delightful to see what the egg will do next, by the end of a half-hour the novelty had started to wear off. Getting to the end unlocks a full Extra Credit list, though, which basically serves as an achievement system, with 21 different entries clued only by their titles.

This endgame content starts to require more focused problem-solving, while retaining the whimsy and discovery of the main section of the game. Some are really easy (Spoiler - click to show)(”Greetings” just requires saying HELLO to the egg), some yield after a modicum of thought (Spoiler - click to show)(”Grrrr” clearly has to do with the dog and the bone…), and some require a good dose of lateral thinking (Spoiler - click to show)(racecar ones, I’m looking at you). A lot of this is trial-and-error, but it’s the fun kind of trial and error where you smash toys together to see what will happen – it reminded me of the old Doodle God Flash games.

Amid a Comp that has lots of games dealing with really serious themes and ideas, it’s nice to get a playful palette-cleaner like GBRE – definitely treat it like a Marvel movie and stick around after the ending to get the most out of it, though!

Highlight: Figuring out Exterminator made me feel very clever.

Lowlight: I ran through every permutation of answer to the SURVEY command and was disappointed not to get any validation for my completionist instincts (I have a problem).

How I failed the author: After getting about a third of the Extra Credit points, I was figuring this was going to be it for me given that I have less time for IF Comp this year, but after putting GBRE aside I thought to start a hint thread, and using that was able to get all the points. So I lost out on some of the joy of discovery, but gained the hollow validation of checking every item off a long list – yay me?

Mermaids of Ganymede, by Seth Paxton

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An enticing bouillabaisse, January 5, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Mermaids of Ganymede is a Twine game that packs a lot into its hourlong playtime, as you help the crew of a research ship escape from a disaster that strands them under the waters of the eponymous moon – over its five chapters, it ranges in genre from survival horror to planetary romance and back, establishes half a dozen characters with mechanics for their morale and mental health, and includes a swap-quest chain and a devilishly timed maze, all wrapped up in a stylish visual design. None of these individual bits have much time to breathe or expand beyond their stereotypical aspects, but because the game is very well-paced, this doesn’t matter as much as you might think – there’s always a new twist to the plot, a new character to encounter, or a new challenge to navigate to keep the player glued to their seat.

The downside is that after reaching the end, I had the feeling that despite the plethora of choices and ways to engage with the characters, nothing I did mattered very much – the abbreviated ending text doesn’t help, nor do the couple small bugs I encountered (Spoiler - click to show)(the beginning of Chapter 3 seemed to assume I knew who someone named Undine was, but I’d never heard of them, possibly because I escaped Chapter 2’s city at earliest opportunity, and Chapter 5 also seemed to think I’d asked the said Undine for weapons, not just a ship) – but there’s nothing wrong with a linear roller-coaster that’s got a robust illusion of depth (little ocean pun for you there).

Highlight: I found the opening sequence surprisingly tense, as I tried to juggle the crewmembers’ moods and sanity while getting to the bottom of what was stalking the ship.

Lowlight: Chapter 4 is an extended maze sequence that turns into an extended timed maze sequence partways through – that’s a tricky bit of design to manage without creating frustration, and unfortunately I think this maze errs too much on the side of frustration, as I can’t imagine anyone could get through it without at least one death and restart (three or four is probably more realistic).

How I have failed the author: I was playing this on my phone with my left hand while Henry napped on my right arm, so even though I figured out I should really make a map to get through the Chapter 4 puzzle, I just bashed my way through with multiple trial-and-error deaths.

Ghosts Within, by Kyriakos Athanasopoulos

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A big mystery to get sucked into, January 5, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Ghosts Within is a sprawling mystery, with a big map, myriad puzzles, and three distinct openings that shift the available puzzles and endings. It all adds up to a long running time that pushes it well beyond the Comp’s two-hour limit, even discounting the absence of a hint system or a walkthrough (authors: please don’t do this!). It’s the kind of game that’s ill-served by the Comp, since it’s one you’d want to sink into, taking careful notes and talking to all the characters about every topic you can think of, while mapping out the queer seaside town where the action takes place. The story’s also perhaps ill-served, I think, by a too-close fidelity to an old-school medium-dry-goods approach to gameplay. It’s still very much worth playing, but while Ghosts Within is a fun, engaging game, it falls a bit short of greatness.

The game’s opening is bewildering, as you wake up wounded in a forbidding forest, but intentionally so – we’ve got an amnesiac protagonist, natch. If that piece of the premise is par for the course, what happens next is novel, as your choice of which direction to stagger towards determines which of three vignettes will set the plot in motion. You’ve got a choice of starting at the village, the nearby research facility (as it turns out, the setting is roughly contemporary), or the hut of a local recluse. I stumbled hut-ward, which I’m guessing might provide the least-clear impetus for investigation. The lonely hermit there clearly has an agenda, but is rather tight-lipped. That opening also appears to mean the mysterious research institute is off-limits, meaning that I entered the large village map with only a rough sense of what I was meant to be doing.

The process of walking through the village’s environs and meeting all of its inhabitants is rewarding, but rather overwhelming. The map isn’t excessively big when you’ve finished running around it, but there are a lot of false exits and diagonal connections that make it hard to hold in your head. And while the cast is actually pretty small, each character is implemented with a very deep set of conversational topics that are fun to dig into, but again feel like a lot when you’re first meeting everybody. I wound up wishing there’d been some gating to separate off a portion of the village to make it more manageable, and give the player a chance for some puzzle-solving to break up the exposition.

This isn’t to say the exposition is uninteresting: to the contrary, the story that slowly emerges is compellingly drawn (the writing is also very clean – there are a few small infelicities of phrasing and tiny typos, but nothing that stands out given the amount of text here on offer). The village is still reeling from the aftermath of a decades-ago tragedy, and figuring out how each person is connected to that formative event, and seeing the details fleshed in one at a time, makes for satisfying gameplay. There are other narrative strands too, though they might not all be available after all openings – I learned that the scientists at the institute were very interested in the fog that cloaks the town, but never found a way to advance that piece of the plot. I finished with only about 80% of the points, though, so I could be missing a true ending that unifies the disparate pieces of the plot – the one I reached was satisfying enough, but felt a bit rushed, with a couple quick revelations culminating in an admittedly-stale twist (I would have gone back and tried for another, but I saved at what I thought was the point of no return, only to find out you’re locked into the endgame once the door to the final cave is opened up, regardless of whether you’ve entered or not).

Beyond the story, the other high point is the implementation. In addition to the aforementioned conversation system, scenery is always present, and usually modeled two or three levels down; SMELL is implemented with custom responses in nearly every location, too. Barring one tiny disambiguation issue with oranges, the parser is completely smooth. With that said, I did sometimes struggle with guess-the-verb issues. The puzzles here are pretty archetypal: you’ll be finding a light source, getting into locked doors, going on collectathons so NPCs will do you favors, and digging up two different patches of disturbed ground. They’re not very distinctive, though many of them do involve engaging with the well-realized cast of characters, which is nice. Many of them require very specific actions, though – I knew I needed the help of a security guard to get something, but had to try half a dozen phrasings to secure her aid, and there are a set of crates that only give up their secrets if you LOOK BEHIND them, with a regular EXAMINE or even MOVE or LOOK UNDER going nowhere.

This adds to the already-generous game length, and the puzzles are fun to work through, but they did sometimes feel somewhat disconnected from the character-driven mystery at the game’s heart – and again, the omission of hints or a walkthrough seems a disservice to players who are engaged by the narrative but left cold by the inventory-juggling. On the flip side, this does mean the game’s secrets are that much more enticing since they’re not handed to the player on a silver platter – I can definitely see myself coming back to this one post-Comp to see if I can get a better ending, albeit I might wait for some other kind soul to pull together a walkthrough first!

Highlight: The village and its inhabitants are really fun to explore – its eerie seaside environs put me in mind of Anchorhead, though the vibe here is much less menacing.

Lowlight: After a lot of effort, I managed to retrieve a missing bouquet of flowers and give it to the appropriate character – but as far as I could tell this didn’t lead to any new plot unfurling to pay off the effort (I did get a lot of points, though).

How I failed the author: I didn’t rank this one as high a it probably deserves, since after two hours of repeated 20-minute sessions – which involved a lot of going back over old ground to remember where I’d already been and what I’d already done – I hadn’t yet solved many puzzles, and I hadn’t come across much of the plot. Again, this is a good game that’s an awkward fit for the Comp!

A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Horrible but lacking in avoirdupois, January 5, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

One thing is clear straightaway about A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat: if the Comp were judged based solely on content warnings, it would be leading the pack. Just reading the list is enough to raise the hackles, even before starting in on this Twine game’s theatre of horrors. These aren’t idle warnings, either – while I’m not sure I ran into everything in my playthrough, based on what I did see, I’m more than willing to believe that the missing enormities were lurking behind some of the doors I left unexplored.

The parade of misery isn’t just here for shock value, either. The game’s plot sees its priest protagonist summoned to the 15th-century Vatican to present a prodigy of nature to the pope, but the structure is a descent through greater and greater depravity, with some of the contemporary Church’s well-documented crimes presented alongside supernatural violations that are polemical exaggeration, not mere fantasy. I’m running out of euphemistic synonyms for “really bad thing”, but suffice to say that I ran into Torquemada and one of the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum and purchased a plenary indulgence (albeit from a shrine dedicated to Mammon), but also found a brothel being run by an Abbess right next to the construction site for St. Peters, and far more besides.

The writing effectively conveys the awfulness of what you’re seeing, with some more modern touches to the dialogue preventing the distancing effect of history from undercutting the impact of what’s happening. Indeed, the way harm to children becomes a more and more salient motif as the game progresses makes it clear that it’s not just the 15th-Century incarnation of the church that’s being critiqued here. This is all fair enough – there’s a reason the Reformation kicked off shortly after the time being depicted here – but at the same time, it’s not exactly unplowed ground, and while the arguments land with a bit more force than usual given the luridness on display, I wound up wishing there was a bit more flesh on the bones, a bit more complexity in the portrait of how a horrible institution perpetuates itself that doesn’t rely on painting everyone concerned as a villain or a dupe. If the game was content with deploying its imagery just in the service of scares, that would be one thing, but since it’s clearly more than just a haunted hayride I wound up wanting more.

Commenting on the game-y aspects of The Church Cat feels a bit besides the point, but it’s well-structured, with choices allowing you to select which terrible thing you’ll confront next on your trip into the bowels of the Church (mercifully, you also are allowed to run away from some of the more disturbing scenes). There were a few aspects of the implementation that aped some parser conventions, like a persistent inventory link and occasional directional navigation – typically I like this sort of thing, but they’re best suited for a puzzle-based experience, which this definitely isn’t, so they felt redundant. Streamlining them away wouldn’t make it more fun, but would probably make it more focused on its core, horrible themes.

Highlight: Slight spoiler here: (Spoiler - click to show)the cat that speaks to quote from scripture is neat, and I appreciated that it lifted up some of the wilder bits of the Bible – the passage where a bunch of kids make fun of Elisha for being bald, so the prophet curses them and two bears maul them to death, is a personal favorite.

Lowlight/How I failed the author : Hopefully the author will not be offended if I say that the game was pretty much all lowlight for me – it’s gross and scary and horrible, and as a new father I was especially not excited to read about bad stuff happening to small kids. I still think it’s good at accomplishing what it sets out to, but man I did not enjoy it one bit.

Unforgotten, by Quintin Pan

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A character-driven adventure with some bumps along the way, January 4, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This review was posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)

Clearly, I haven't sufficiently internalized the tropes of adventure gaming: I was stymied for quite a while in the opening of Unforgotten, because after being told that my friend really didn't want anyone to break into his belongings and read his diary, my reaction was to respect his privacy. More the fool I.

For much of the game, Unforgotten seems primarily about sticking one's nose into other people's business—the primary action is in unraveling the secrets of the family of the player's friend. Unfortunately, the contours of the central mystery—not its solution, simply the setup—are very unclear until relatively late in the game, and the author's penchant for twists make the story more confusing than it needs to be. Underneath the continual Big Reveals, there's an interesting story, but the thriller tropes wound up getting in the way of the interesting relationships.

Unforgotten's beginning is probably its weakest section; after the rather forced searching of the friend's possessions, the player is thrust into a conversation which reveals some backstory, but leaves important concepts and facts unexplained. Then without warning, the setting abruptly shifts, without the player being aware of what exactly has happened. This middle section, which contains the meat of the game, is clearer, and the player has specific goals to work towards, but just when I felt like I had my bearings, an NPC—the aforementioned friend's sister—began launching into exposition whose relevance wasn't immediately clear. Soon after, the player is thrust into two vignettes, widely separated in time and space, which are likewise fairly disorienting, and cast everything that's come before into doubt. And then there's a final big twist at the end (albeit this last one is rather heavily choreographed). I do enjoy games which are one big meta-puzzle—Jon Ingold's corpus comes to mind—but here, the twists just pile up on each other, yanking the player one way then the other. Eventually whiplash—and fatigue—set in.

This is too bad, because the relationships between the three main characters—the player character, his friend, and the friend's sister—are interesting, and drive most of the action. Foregrounding them a little more, keeping the friend around for a while longer so the player can form an attachment to him, and keeping the story more focused by more aggressively framing the problem which the player is attempting to solve, would have made for a stronger, sharper, more affecting game. As is, the wall-to-wall twists make the proceedings feel contrived, and the game doesn't allow sufficient space for the repercussions of each individual revelation to play out, which really reduces their impact.

Unforgotten does do a good job of integrating puzzles into what's a fairly plot-heavy game. The initial journal-stealing sequence, for all my grumbling, is actually well-put together; depending on how exactly the player goes about it, there are a number of possible outcomes. There's a lot of fairly intuitive sneaking around, and except for that first sequence, the player usually knows precisely what to work towards. I found one puzzle in particular to be shaky—lowering a doped pie to attack dogs on the end of a fishing rod feels far too slapsticky for this game, and LOWER PIE seemed a much more natural way of doing this than LOWER ROD—but otherwise the puzzles are well clued, even when the player doesn't necessarily know what they're meant to be doing.

One sequence does demonstrate the fact that too few games depict the player character reacting to events [much-later edit: this sequence might also merit a content warning in the more-enlightened 2020s]. There's a scene in Unforgotten where the player is controlling a little girl who, while hiding, overhears two soldiers talk about raping her mother—this strikes me as a rather traumatic event, but for all the game discloses, the girl reacts with stone-faced impassivity. I'm not lobbying for histrionics here, but any human being would be really upset in this situation, and the tension of perhaps calling attention to yourself could make for a more dramatically interesting scene.

Still, Unforgotten does pay more attention to questions of character than do most games, and its narrative shortcomings are real but not fatal. Definitely worth a play.

Second Wind, by Matthew Warner

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A grown-up but rather punishing post-apocalypse, January 4, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Typically for an Adventuron game, Second Wind makes a great first impression, with an awesome comic-book cover image and slick maps helping immerse you in the postapocalyptic setting. The premise is also refreshingly grown-up and grounded: the main character’s wife has gone into labor, some complications have arisen, and now she needs a c-section or she and the baby will die. Making matters worse, the only doctor around is the main character’s ex-wife, who lives in a neighboring settlement – and between the bad breakup and the trek though the postnuclear wastes, enlisting her aid isn’t going to be easy. I unfortunately left Second Wind less impressed than I was when I began playing it, largely down to some incongruous, mimesis-breaking puzzle design and a punishing time limit that almost requires a restart and retry, but it’s still worth playing through.

I found the story the most engaging part of Second Wind. It doesn’t get drawn too deeply beyond what you see in the blurb, but the simple dialogue and intense dilemma faced by the main character pulled me in. And in a sea of protagonists with no family ties, a divorced main character is a novelty – especially since it positions your character has having been in the wrong, since he cheated on his ex-wife, Wendy, with his current one. This lends the sequences where you’re groveling for Wendy’s help a queasy vulnerability that I haven’t seen in much IF before. The postapocalyptic backdrop works well enough to create stakes, but it’s the domestic drama that really drives the emotional engagement.

The gameplay is where things worked less well for me. Some of the challenges on offer do match the tone, like figuring out how to wrangle transportation for Wendy. But most of the obstacles gating progress feel very gamey. There are several different keycodes you need to find, one of which is drawn from Les Miserables in a way that’s just this side of reasonable, the other – a reference to Tommy Tutone’s 1981 hit “867-5309 (Jenny)” – a completely implausible choice for characters who we’re told were born around 2000. There’s also a word-scramble, and a series of puzzles that require out-of-game googling of some fairly obscure facts in order to figure out a safe combination. And then there’s the trial-and-error maze.

These aren’t awful puzzles in themselves, and I’d have enjoyed coming across them in a puzzlefest, but they felt at odds with the downbeat vibe created by the story and setting. And while none of them are too hard, some take a while to work through, which meant I ran afoul of the game’s strict time limit. A ticking clock definitely makes sense given the premise, but I wished it applied only to longer actions, like travel through the wilderness or building or fixing machinery, or at least was pitched a little more generously, since the time limit disincentivized exploring the world, and made the maze at the end feel like authorial sadism.

The writing is serviceable, with a few evocative notes here and there – we’re told that in the shelter, “filtered air hisses gently from behind recessed lights”, which is a nicely-considered detail. And I didn’t have problems with the parser -- sometimes an Adventuron weak point -- partially because the author does a good job of prompting the right syntax (this is usually done through out-of-world notes, and while I suppose it would have been smoother to integrate them into in-world descriptions, given the time pressure erring on the side of convenience was probably the right choice). I just wish the puzzles had done the same, either by being more organically connected to the plot or just being dialed back.

Highlight: there’s an effective late-game twist that ramps up the tension even further – and actually adds its own further time limit, which now that I think about it could have substituted for the overall one.

Lowlight: that safe puzzle, which had me going to Wikipedia to look up things like (Spoiler - click to show)the Japanese term for an a-bomb survivor. As far as I could tell, there’s no way to access this information in the game – I wasted time looking in the various computer systems to see if there was a library function – and the puzzle isn’t clever enough to justify this crime against mimesis.

How I failed the author: it’s unfair to hold this against the author, but the risk of harm to a pregnant woman and baby – and actually the reality, because they do both die if the time runs out – landed pretty heavily on me give my circumstances, and I kind of resented failure at these silly puzzles leading to such a dire outcome.

Hercules!, by Leo Weinreb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A mythological romp that's childish in a good way, January 4, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I have to confess to finding the initial presentation of Hercules! off-putting. Sure, the twelve labors provide a sturdy framework for a puzzley parser adventure, and I’m hardly in a position to object to injecting comedy into old Greek stuff after my IF Comp game from last year, but the blurb, from the sophomoric premise (Hercules is a puny asthmatic) and use of profanity to the content warnings’ promise of scatology to come, seemed to promise a game with an annoyingly middle-school sensibility.

Happily, though, while that impression isn’t far off, Hercules! wears its relative immaturity well, exuberantly boasting jokes that mostly land on the entertaining side of dumb (I appreciated being told that the shoals weren’t hard rocks, but classic rocks, for example) The mostly-simple puzzles are usually pleasant to work through, with polished implementation and a plot that hits enough of the classical beats to show the author’s done the work while making some welcome tweaks to better accord with modern tastes (there’s no wife- or child-murder here, thankfully, but there is a climax calling back to all the friends you’ve made along the way).

Highlight: one of the most charming aspects of Hercules! is its map – you’re plopped down in a geographically-accurate but much-compressed version of Greece where a simple “GO SOUTHEAST” will take you from the shore of the Peloponnese to Crete. And while the available geography is large, if you go to a location too early, Hercules gets a bad feeling, which helps keep the scope manageable (all the labors must be done in order, understandably enough).

Lowlight: while the puzzles are mostly straightforward object-manipulation exercises, there are a few that feel underclued or fiddly (Spoiler - click to show)(falling asleep so you can hunt the hind in a dream world, for example, which doesn’t seem to be an idea suggested anywhere, and having to do the pendant rigmarole four times with four different mares is annoying busywork), especially I think in in the second half of the game (though see below). Exacerbating this, you can pick up a large number of junk items during labor number seven, which clogged up my inventory in the latter half of the game and made sussing out what to do more challenging – other labors get rid of unneeded items once they’re concluded, and it’d have been better if the same approach was taken here.

How I have failed the author: I was able to get through the first two thirds of the game in an hour, with baby napping next to me. He started to stir, though, about when I was trying to get the mares from Diomedes, and let me tell you, there is no video-game timer mechanic more stressful than trying to finish a parser game before a newborn wakes up! As a result I kind of panicked and wasn’t thinking very clearly for the last chunk of the game, and had recourse to the hints if I couldn’t solve a puzzle in like thirty seconds. On the plus side, I did get Hercules to his happy ending just before Henry needed a diaper change, so that’s doubly a win.

I Contain Multitudes, by Wonaglot

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A wonky game wedded to an enticing setting, January 3, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Reading the blurb for ICM, I realized that just as this Comp has been thin on fantasy adventures, it’s been positively skeletal on mysteries. I really enjoy them despite being awful at them, and this Quest game has a compelling setup: we’ve got a cruise ship for the pampered elite of an Italianish steampunk world, a dead bishop, and a creepily clever mechanic where you can don different masks to vary your aspect as you interrogate the array of witnesses and suspects. Sadly I ran into some technical issues that meant I couldn’t finish the game, and the puzzles lean more fetch-quest-y than mystery-solving, but I still enjoyed my time with it – I’ll be keeping an eye out for a post-Comp release.

The biggest positive here really is the setting. There’s an air of decadence that oozes from every overdone decoration or costumed passenger on the ship, and hobnobbing with slumming sopranos and vicious empresses is quite the good time. Poking your head into all the nooks and crannies makes the initial exploration lots of fun, while the on-screen map and compact layout still make it easy to get around when it’s time to dig into puzzle-solving. The prose doesn’t go too far over the top, either, relying on a few well-chosen details rather than slathering adjectives about willy-nilly. This restraint holds true for information on the overall society, too, with a few optional books and throwaway references hinting at an interesting world without getting bogged down in exposition. Sometimes the writing can err on the side of providing atmosphere and a general vibe rather than nailing down specifics of furniture, which can make some of the locations feel bare once you’ve read the introductory paragraph, but this again makes it easier to shift into progress-making mode. And there’s clever attention to detail, too: when you pick up a knife while wearing a bestial devil-mask, an extra sentence appears saying that it “reminds you of one of your fangs.”

Speaking of the mask, that’s the other immediate standout. Masks are a big deal in this setting, and besides going bare-faced, you have the choice of four to wear as you do your work: a devil, a cherub, a widow, and an anonymizing half-mask. Some puzzles revolve around having the right one on at the right time, with different dialogue options or actions being unlocked. I wasn’t really clear what this looked like from the perspective of the other characters in the game world – like, if there’s something supernatural changing their behavior when they see you don a mask – but it adds a needed additional bit of business to interacting with other NPCs: mysteries in IF are often tricky to solve because they can require repeat play, with careful tracking of NPC schedules, but things are more straightforward here, with movement only being triggered by your actions.

NPC autonomy isn’t ICM’s only departure from mystery orthodoxy, though. There’s some evidence to be gathered, primarily through SEARCH, LOOK BEHIND, etc., but for the most part you’re doing favors for the cast of characters, and at least in the first stages, they’re largely well-signposted scavenger-hunts. This makes it easier to make progress, since you usually have a list of specific tasks to accomplish and places to poke around. On the flip side, for the portions of the game I saw, I felt less like a detective creating a web of deductions to snare a murderer, and more a traditional adventure-game protagonist doing favors for people until they explained the plot.

This might change in the final section of the game, though, since I ran into some bugs just as thing were starting to come to a climax. After showing a piece of evidence to someone, I started getting repeated out-of-memory errors printing out down the screen. I was eventually able to type some commands which appeared to make the errors stop, but when I attempted to save, the interpreter froze (I was playing offline, per the recommendation in the blurb) – and what’s worse, this seemed to have corrupted the save. Since I’d already gotten close to the two-hour mark, that’s where I left things. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and depending on how the finale goes I could see ICM tipping over into something really special, but I’ll wait for a post-Comp release to find out.

Highlight: the ship’s library has a book with extensive excerpts from an in-universe opera which provides a lot of cool flavor for the world.

Lowlight: there are a few puzzles that have guess-the-verb issues – in particular, when a particular character asked me for some medical help, asking or telling the doctor about them does nothing (I had to ASK them FOR MEDICINE instead).

How I failed the author: life’s been pretty busy the last few days, (including Henry getting some vaccines yesterday that led to a stomachache and bad sleep last night), so I had an extended pause after my first forty-five minutes in the game that meant that when I came back to it, I had to spend a bunch of time reading back over what had happened – which in turn meant that when I ran into the bugs, I didn’t have enough time left to start over.

The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A grounds-eye view of a bureaucracy failing a child, January 3, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

You don’t hear much about the uncanny valley these days – we all remember the term for the creepy middle-ground between CGI characters that are too real to scan as cartoonish but too plastic to scan as real? Despite being everywhere around the turn of the millennium, I haven’t heard anyone sling the phrase in quite a while, whether because CGI’s gotten sufficiently good, or – more sinister – we’ve all just become inured to hyperreal hyperpolygonated faces.

I bring this up not to critique the graphics in Corsham Witch Trial – it doesn’t have any, natch – but to explain the trap my brain got stuck in when playing it, due to an awkward mismatch between me and the game. The premise has a young paralegal tasked by their boss with reviewing documents from an unsuccessful case from a couple of years previous. Despite the title, there’s nothing supernatural going on: the eponymous witch hunt is a question-begging label for the suit, which involved bringing an English child protective services staffer to court on charges of criminal negligence after they failed to act to prevent the death of a child. It’s presented largely through primary sources, with IM messages between the paralegal and a colleague (this is where the game’s few choices are made) framing a collection of documents like trial transcripts, incident reports, email threads, and so on. There’s a lot of verisimilitude here, with links in the main narrative often going to Google Drive files that are impressively mocked up, featuring convincingly-deployed acronyms and reasonable-sounding invocations of procedural rules.

This is where things went awry with my expectations, though. I’ve got a law degree (albeit from the U.S., and the only times I’ve been in a courtroom were for jury duty - I know just enough to get myself in trouble), so I ate all this up. But very quickly, my outside knowledge started taking me out of the story – it’s sufficiently grounded that I couldn’t put on Phoenix-Wright goggles and ignore departures from plausibility, but it also has some plot points I found ridiculous. This happens all the time when I try to watch shows like Law and Order – readers of my reviews will be unsurprised to learn I can get nitpicky – but I was able to put many of the niggles I noticed aside and chalk them up to differences with the U.K. legal system. But unfortunately one of the issues I couldn’t get over had to do with the conflict driving the game’s plot.

We know pretty much from the off that the case fails, but its publicity contributes to the government launching some child-protective reforms that are framed as positive things. This seems like a fine outcome, but the case had collateral damage: one of the main witnesses is the child’s school teacher, who brought repeated complaints raising her suspicions that her student was being abused at home. In the course of representing the civil servant in the dock, though, the defense attorney wages a vicious campaign to undermine the teacher’s credibility, and dredges up her own history of abuse. Much of the framing conversation in the last part of the game consists of a dialogue over whether this damage was worth the middling-positive outcome.

The mechanics of this had me jotting down incredulous exclamation points in my notes – again, I know the UK legal system is different from what we have in the US, but I sure hope the idea that you can subpoena the confidential notes of a witness’s therapist on a fishing expedition, and then introduce them into evidence with no notice to opposing counsel, is as bonkers on that side of the Atlantic as it is here. But beyond these details, it’s not at all clear why the defense counsel is allowed to pursue this line of argument at all. There’s no suggestion that any of the reports the teacher filed included false information, so whether or not the conclusions she drew from the evidence she saw were credible seems completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the civil servant satisfied a reasonable duty of care towards the child when the evidence came to his attention. In other words, it’s his subjective decision-making process that matters; the teacher’s views have nothing to do with anything.

I can totally see the argument that this is law-nerd stuff and most readers wouldn’t notice or care. But at the same time, it felt like a failure to clearly establish the stakes and terms of the conflict that I feel like a lay reader would at least intuit. While I admire the work that’s gone into creating the story and presenting it in a fresh, engaging way, this blankness at the center really undermined its effectiveness for me. The other downside is the lack of a denouement – throughout the framing instant-message conversation, it’s made clear that the boss wants to discuss the case with the paralegal main character after you finish your review. But the game peters out before that happens. On the one hand, I can see why, since you’ve already had the chance to make your views of the case clear through the choices you make in the IM conversations, so the talk with the boss would likely feel like a retread. But pointing towards a climax, then not putting that climax on-screen, seems like an oversight.

Speaking of choices, I’ve seen other reviews ding the game for not being especially interactive, but I that didn’t bother me much. Digging through the various documents felt engaging to me, and the couple times I could weigh in with my take on the trial felt satisfying. I think this is a perfectly valid way to present IF, and in fact kind of exciting – I’d definitely play something else by this author, even if I’d still be gnashing my teeth over perceived legal weirdness.

Highlight: The incident reports the teacher fills out are spot-on, capturing the bureaucratic language these things have to be couched in while still conveying the desperation and impotence behind the teacher’s repeated complaints.

Lowlight: I was disappointed that the game seemed to unproblematically endorse the idea that more activist child protective services are an unmitigated good, and the only reason not to have them is budget cuts. Maybe things are different in the UK context, but in the US this is a vexed question that runs into snarled issues of racism and the criminalization of poverty and mental health and substance abuse disorders. You can squint at the title’s implications, I suppose – maybe this trial is like a witch hunt because society is looking to the civil servant as a scapegoat for broader ills? – but that reading feels strained to me.

How I failed the author: This entire review probably counts as the “how I failed the author” blurb.

Starbreakers, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A satisfying grab-bag of puzzles with a soupcon of mystery, January 3, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Given that most IF Comp games are pretty heavy on the story, I quite enjoy a mid-Comp lagniappe of pure puzzling, and while I wasn’t expecting one to come from the team that produced the excellent heist comedy Lady Thalia and the Seraskier Sapphires – a standout entry in this year’s Spring Thing – it was a welcome surprise nonetheless. At its heart, Starbreakers is a collection of brainteasers, with only a bit of story connecting its different challenges. But both narrative and puzzles are generally strong enough to make this an enjoyable entry in the genre.

I won’t say too much about the narrative here, since unpacking exactly what’s going on is part of the draw, except to point out a clever touch, which is that when you fail a puzzle – and you will, since at the default difficulty there are time and move limits that even the cleverest will run afoul of at least once – you get another chance, but along with the puzzle-reset, the genre of the story can change, from medieval fantasy to space opera to tomb-raiding to pirate adventure. This is an intriguing hook, and also just a lot of fun – plus it plays a clever mechanical role in some puzzles, since often details change with the genre shifts so you can't just brute-force your way to victory.

The puzzles on offer here are for the most part old chestnuts – there’s a small crossword, a word-search, a couple of decoding puzzles, and a nicely-done classic logic puzzle. You’ll have seen almost all of them before, but they’re implemented well, incorporate some good jokes and clever design, and are satisfying to solve – and if any are giving you too much trouble, there are integrated hints and explicit solutions close at hand in the sidebar.

It’s hard to say too much more without diving into the details of all the puzzles, but hopefully from this description it’s clear that if you like this sort of thing, you’ll like Starbreakers – and even if puzzle-fests aren’t your usual cup of tea, the relatively short length and good-natured mystery threaded through make this a good one with which to get your feet wet.

Highlight: when approaching a collection of classic puzzles, I always have a sliver of fear in my heart because of the possibility that it will include the dreaded towers of Hanoi. I don’t want to spoil its appearance here, but the fact this is a highlight rather than a lowlight should convey how delightfully Starbreakers manages things.

Lowlight: I had an excessively tough time with the first puzzle – one of those lever-balancing jobbies where you have containers that all hold varying amounts of liquid and you need to pour things around to get the right amounts in the right places. It’s simple enough, but I think I ran into a bug that meant that the game said left-hand side was always lower than the right no matter how much liquid was in either container – so that put me off on a wild goose chase trying to figure out if there was a trick, and then once I realized that the puzzle was playing straight, I still managed to flail around and fat-finger my choices so I lost maybe a dozen more times – I failed way more on this first puzzle than on all the others combined!

How I failed the author: Despite there being an easy mode that would have removed the time and move limits, and despite the fact that I was as usual playing left-handed on my phone and couldn’t type quickly or take notes due to holding Henry while he napped, I stubbornly refused to activate it.

The Library, by Leonardo Boselli

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Disorienting and literary, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The Library posits the player as a force of chaos, using the possibilities of Borges’ Library of Babel to haunt a dozen-odd works of classic literature. In pursuit of a conventional goal set out by an ersatz Morpheus (er, from the Matrix, not the god) – help Ulysses escape Polyphemus, or make sure Edmond Dantès makes it out of the Château d’If – you'll bumble through other books as well, sometimes simply reenacting the plot points but as often upending their plots or cross-pollinating their characters and stories.

This is a fun time! I enjoyed wandering the labyrinth, excited to see which book I would come across next – they’re well-chosen, with familiar characters and situations, ranging from The Divine Comedy to Moby-Dick. Each book sucks you into a brief vignette, requiring you to solve a single simple puzzle to progress. Despite none of the puzzles being real brainteasers, I still struggled with many of them, though. Partially this is because the game is quite linear – while you can access any of the books from the off, I think at any point in time, there are at most two where you can actually accomplish anything. Making this worse, the navigation system is pretty confusing, with right/left/back directions that change depending on where you enter each room from, so even when I wanted to check whether something had changed in a particular book, it was a real struggle to find it again. Finally, I didn’t initially twig to the fact that I needed to manually click through the provided excerpt for each book to make sure my character could act on the knowledge provided there, even if I was personally familiar with a passage and took the shortcut instead.

These niggles did unfortunately undermine my enjoyment for the first part of the game – then I decided to make use of the walkthrough to at least figure out how to get from book to book, and had a much better time of it. When you can focus on the literary playground offered by the game, it’s quite a good time indeed.

Highlight: The twist ending of the Odyssey section made me laugh with surprise – and had a satisfying denouement in one of the other sections.

Lowlight: Without getting too spoilery, the action required in the Treasure Island section seemed a little rough, all things considered (I haven't read the book, though, so maybe it feels merited to those familiar with the characters?)

How I failed the author: As mentioned above, despite having figured out how the relative-direction navigation system worked in theory, I could not use that knowledge to get from Point A to Point B if my life depended on it – thus going to the walkthrough sooner than I probably should have.

Brave Bear, by John Evans

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Bear-ly there, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I mentioned in my review of Finding Light that I was surprised to go so late in the Comp before finding a puzzley fantasy adventure – and here we are half a dozen entries further in, getting to the first game that centers on a kid. Despite the fact that you’re playing as an off-brand Care Bear, Brave Bear isn't particularly whimsical. There’s a creepy vibe to the dark presences that are scattered around the bear’s owner’s house, and the threat they pose seems darker than the toy-focused premise led me to expect. Unfortunately, this short game withholds the full picture of the plot, leaving inference to fill in the nature of the danger, and it also ends pretty quickly, with only a few simple puzzles to solve before the thing is done – there’s enough here to intrigue but not, alas, to satisfy.

The premise, of toys coming to life to help their owner, is a nice one, and the basics are definitely covered. Thematically, it’s all about the power of togetherness, and solving the puzzles requires building a team: recruiting other toys gives you the strength you need to banish the threatening miasmas that gate progress through the house (I imagined the Care Bear Stare, given my demographic). This is satisfying to work through, and the supporting cast – a Transformer, a toy car, several stuffed animals – are briefly but satisfyingly sketched. They also have a few abilities that are used to get the band together. These challenges are all simple enough, though they feel quite old school, since most of them require a CHARACTER, ACTION command syntax that I associate with Infocom games. The ABOUT text flags that this will be required, though, so it’s all fair enough.

I’m struggling to find much more to say about Brave Bear, though, since it doesn’t do much with this solid framework. This isn’t just a matter of its brevity; first, the owner and her relationship to your protagonist feel very archetypal, without much lived-in detail. Similarly, the house is quite generic, with the room descriptions spending more time mentioning exits to other parts of the map than offering up any scenery or anything that offeres a window into the owner’s life. Nor is the origin of the evil phantoms haunting the house ever explained, and the game ends without a climactic action showing the Bear rescuing the owner – there’s some mysterious ending text that hints at the real story, but it’s pretty thin gruel. It’s all implemented smoothly enough and it goes down easy, but I can’t help wishing Brave Bear had a little more to it – there’s a down side to wearing out one’s welcome, of course, but the game errs too much in the other direction.

Highlight: I liked the other toys, who definitely have a spark of personality coming through – my favorite was the nervous Transformer.

Lowlight: I was enjoying the game for what it was, so I was sorry to reach the overly-conclusory ending so soon.

How I failed the author: Henry was feeling a bit fussy while I was playing Brave Bear, so I was only able to play it in five minute chunks in between seeing to him, which probably made it hard for me to integrate all the different hints as to what’s going on.

Wabewalker, by Ben Sisk

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Buddhist adventuring that somewhat betrays its themes, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Wabewalker is a first for me – it’s an abstract allegory where the puzzles you run around solving unlock progress towards inner spiritual growth, which isn’t too novel, but the framework here is an explicitly Buddhist one (that it’s a .jar file for which I needed to install Javascript might also be a new one, though a less interesting one). I don’t know that much about Shingon Buddhism, which is the particular set of beliefs that underlie the game, but am aware it’s a form of Vajrayana – the tantric version whose most prominent exemplar is Tibetan Buddhism. One of the distinctive things about Vajrayana is the use of powerful symbols to structure meditative introspection of consciousness, which means it should be perfectly suited for the use it’s put to here: like, the religion explicitly deploys allegories in exactly the way the game is striving to. It’s a neat match of form to subject matter, and definitely creates some high points – but at the same time, there are places where there isn’t much of a connection between the stuff of the game and the themes it's evoking.

It’s the puzzles that provide both the peaks and the troughs, but the setting and story are interesting too. There’s no introductory text laying out the situation, so figuring out what’s happening is the initial challenge and I don’t want to say too much to spoil that – I’ll just note that I found this pretty effective, even if it’s not especially surprising. Bottom-line, you move between three linked dream-like environments: one a sort of museum, another a sort of mansion, a third a mountainous landscape, though there are plenty of incongruous touches to merit the “sort ofs” in this aside, and while nothing is described especially fulsomely, that fits the abstract nature of the game. You have to solve different aspects of single overarching puzzle to unlock different elements you’ll need in order to perform the actions required for the endgame. Most of the landscape and décor are Japanese, and you’ll run across reading material – and a few NPCs – that explicate some key principles of Buddhist views of the self and identity along the way. It’s all in service of the main revelation that the puzzle-sequence brings you to, which is quite internally-focused – there aren’t really conventional story beats to be paid off.

OK, so let’s get to the puzzles. Again I don’t want to spoil things since the game does set up a real aha moment, and once you get to that click, it does shift your understanding of everything else in the game and what you’re meant to be doing – which is very in keeping with how Vajrayana sees enlightenment happening, with the sudden impact of a diamond thunderbolt. So far so good, but what you do after that aha moment felt more arbitrary to me, and not linked to the game’s Buddhist themes. To talk about why, I’m finally going to need to get spoilery:

(Spoiler - click to show)The big reveal is that the color-coded combinations you notice on various safes and locked doors are tied to which of your three incarnations are alive at any given moment. Since you can move between the three areas, and reverse each of their deaths, fairly easily, progress becomes a matter of jumping around and getting yourself either killed or resurrected in the specific combinations needed to get through each barrier, at which point you’re rewarded with pieces of the mantras you’ll chant at the three shrines located in each area. On top of that, you need to solve some additional puzzles to figure out how the pieces relate – which mantra to chant at each shrine, which symbol is associated with which bodhisattva, and which body part is associated with each mantra syllable. It’s a fun enough process to work through, but it feels very much like solving a logic puzzle, which is not the vibe Buddhist revelation -- which emphasizes the inaccessibility of enlightenment to reason -- typically takes! This puzzle sequence could have been about a trio of robots trying to hack a security system, and there’d be a better fit between form and substance. Worse, the final bit of the puzzle requires you to find the answer to a historical trivia question, which is what unlocks the final sequence – a koan this is not!

This didn’t ruin my enjoyment of the game, since again, the puzzles are fun to solve. And overall Wabewalker is a satisfying experience, with generally solid implementation and a well-considered minimalist aesthetic. I just can’t help wishing it went a little further towards marrying its gameplay and its themes.

Highlight: Without a doubt, it’s that aha moment.

Lowlight: this is not a merciful game – it’s possible to reach a game over by dying, with no advance warning, and in fact I did by typing a single innocuous command. Once you die once, it’s not too hard to figure out how to prevent it from happening again, but definitely save often!

How I failed the author: I played this in a bunch of short sessions, but mostly was able to keep up with it – where I let the author down is probably being hyper nitpicky in this review. Also I’m fairly tired right now so I’m not sure I’m thinking and writing with the clarity required when talking about an actual religion, especially as a white guy who’s read a lot but doesn’t actually practice Buddhism!

A New Life, by A O Muniz

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Awesome setting, OK game, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This review was originally posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)

Bear with me through one more comparison: I recently read Perdido Street Station by China Mieville. I'd had it recommended on the basis of its setting, which did not fail to impress—the novel's set in a city in which a variety of fantastic creatures rub elbows in a Dickensian social milieu. It's incredibly rich, which is why it was utterly perplexing to me that the plot is a DnD-style monster bash. It felt like a waste of a fascinating setting, to fall back on such a bog-standard narrative.

In much the same way, A New Life immediately drew me in by presenting a novel and evocative religious system, a society in which gender is continually and individually constructed, and an interesting central character who boasts a backstory nicely revealed through layered remembrances. Unfortunately, none of this has very much to do with the actual plot, which is kicked off by a peddler who wants you to rid a cave of goblins. While the story eventually becomes more interesting that the premise suggests, it never managed to sink its hooks into me - the history of some kingdoms I didn't care about and political machinations undermining a marriage whose ramifications I didn't quite grasp didn't seem all that compelling, when what I really wanted to know was about what happened to the player character's brother, and the girl s/he had fallen in love with when s/he was young, and how s/he felt about the religious figures depicted in the shrine, and whether s/he was ever going to acquire a gender again. This is clearly a testament to the author's skill at getting me to care about the world and the protagonist, but again, it felt perverse to have all the really interesting elements shoved aside in favor of something pedestrian by comparison.

With that said, the game is by no means bad. The writing remains strong throughout, the cave lair boasts some distinctive features—a planetarium and underground tower—the dialogue is sharp, and the puzzles are original and entertaining, especially the final sequence in which the player must recover another's lost memories by interacting with mnemonic seeds and a dragon reminiscent of the one from Grendel. The map in the upper-right corner is a welcome convenience—though the gameworld isn't particularly huge, it's still a nice barrier to getting lost. Many obstacles boast multiple paths around them, and there are a few actions which aren't strictly necessary, but which better flesh out the world and make for a more satisfying narrative.

If all of this had been in the service of a different story—or if the author had employed a different player character, one with a personal stake in the proceedings—A New Life could have been my favorite game of the comp. As it was, though, each twist of the story earned little more than a shrug, which is really a shame, given the overall high quality of the game. My favorite parts wound up being sideshows that didn't really have much to do with anything—I was eager to try to tease out as much of the player character's past as possible, to explore the pilgrimage site's carvings, to manipulate the planetarium so it showed an alien sky. Helping the genocidal peddler-woman paled by comparison, but all that other compelling stuff ultimately turned out to be inconsequential. I'd very much welcome seeing the author further explore this world, but A New Life winds up being a very good introduction to the setting but only a fair game as a result.

BLK MTN, by Laura Paul

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Enigmatically fractured, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

BLK MTN is enigmatic in a way that’s atypical for IF, operating on a dreamy logic that’s not so much surreal as internal, focused on conveying the experience of its protagonist without overmuch concern for narrative coherence. On paper, I should like this kind of thing: while rare in IF-world, it’s par for course for the literary fiction which is my static-fiction genre of choice (see, “on paper” was a pun!) And I do, to an extent – but I while I appreciate the ideas that animate the game, I found that one of the author’s choices really undermined my ability to enjoy the piece. Digging into that requires some pretty thorough spoilers of at least what my path through the game looked like, though – and since I can’t pick out individual spoilers the way I can fuzzy-text the solution to a puzzle, fair warning that I’m going to fully relate what happened in my playthrough.

I said BLK MTN leads with its protagonist’s experience, so let’s start there: as the blurb says, we play someone named Jackson who’s on an existentialist road trip, looking for himself as he drives alone through the American South. We get hints of backstory, but only hints – it seems like he used to be traveling with someone named Ashleigh, but she’s not there anymore, and he’s got an old friend named Jim who’s set up at an art-college-cum-commune in North Carolina. Per the blurb, he’s also seeing visions, apparently courtesy of some entity he calls “Bluebird”, though as the story opens Bluebird has stopped appearing to him.

Whatever got him to this point, Jackson is searching for meaning and for connection, and visiting Jim and the eponymous Black Mountain College (a real place, as an in-line Wikipedia link points out) gives him opportunities for both. Much of the story as I experienced it played out as a series of vignettes, as Jackson attends classes or participates in college activities, meeting one or another real-life figure and talking to them about their life, ethos, and work (there’s ambiguity about whether you’re really meeting them and the story is a period piece, or if you’re having visions of their midcentury existence).

Again, in theory this could work – and I can see how for someone who has more connection with the figures and movement being depicted, engaging with the fictional depictions here would be very rewarding – but I have to confess this largely left me cold, and not just because I only recognized the name of one of these folks (Walter Gropius, and pretty much the only thing I know about him is that he’s a different person than father-of-international-law Hugo Grotius). Rather, it’s because the prose doesn’t feel as strong as I wanted it to be, and because the story, at least as I experienced it, was missing major pieces.

On the first point, as mentioned this is literary fiction, which I find really relies on the power of its writing for its effect. And there are some lovely images here, like a bit where Jackson notices the way some propped-up ladders create a new perspective: “in the sky, elevated rungs break up the air above, dissecting the clouds that pop through, framing and organizing the atmosphere into parcels.” But for every passage like that in my notes, I have several like this, where he reflects on whether he wants to stay at the college: “Maybe the fact that this wasn’t a preconceived idea meant I could probably fade out and on my in a few days time. It’s comfortable here, but I don’t want to be siloed into another group that I’m always on the outside of.” Beyond the grammar errors that fuzz up the meaning of the writing, the ideas are rather vague, and the metaphor of being siloed into something that you’re outside of feels incoherent. And a lot of the prose is like this, or just flatly bad: “the glove compartment sits there like a jeweled chest waiting to be unlocked, discovered, the holy grail of the last crusade.”

On the second point, there are a lot of continuity issues that refer to events that I never experienced: a character named Marisol comes out of nowhere but the game seemed to think I’d already met her and related a dream Jackson had apparently had about her, Ashleigh’s name similarly comes up without context, and prosaically, there’s an aside saying Jackson’s main concern when he first came to the college was whether he’d brought enough beer, but I don’t remember him voicing that in my playthrough. The plot thread involving Bluebird was also completely dropped in my experience of the narrative – I think after the second passage, Jackson never said the name again. Many of these omissions were due to choices I made - this is one of those hypertext-fiction pieces where links move you through the text without any signposting, and going back and trying different choices I’ve confirmed that it’s possible to miss extended scenes that the story may assume have actually happened – but some of them seem deliberate.

In fact, I don’t think either this structural issue or the prose quality are errors as such, but actually reflect intentional authorial choices. The game opens by telling us Bluebird’s visions are coming less frequently, and late in my playthrough I came across a few passages that seem to tip the author’s hand:

"Was there any use for documenting the uncanny, the pointless, the ephemeral? The things that existed more as unknowns than knowns, experiences with no explanations? I had been so equipped with reason that at some point all irrational experiences had started to be left by the wayside, edited out, rendered non-existent because of their inability to fit into the whole."

"It started to seem like there was more discarded from the story than what was left in the story itself."

"If you can read this, then thank you. Thank you for staying with me amongst the mistakes and errors, the inconsistancies [sic], the typos and run-on sentences. The translation I did from scribbled nots to my head and back again."

These read like statements of purpose, but also apologia, for the disconnected narrative and inconsistent writing. And I think I get it! Jackson clearly has some pivotal experiences at the college, but trying to reduce them to dead text laying out the cause-and-effect is a doomed endeavor, so portraying that frustration diegetically, by having the irrational – but most important – pieces of the story disappear while slapdash prose is only intermittently able to point towards the intensity of what’s missing is an artistic choice that makes sense: this is how we get from Black Mountain to BLK MTN.

So it’s an audacious move and one that’s motivated by the piece’s themes, but it didn’t ultimately work for me. Creating a work that intentionally frustrates its own aims obviously builds in a lot of barriers to engagement, but there are strategies around this. The most obvious is probably to make sure the sentence-to-sentence reading experience is strong – when playing BLK MTN, I kept thinking of Queenlash, a game in this year’s Spring Thing that had some of the same issues but which I loved, partially because the prose was amazing, sparking off two or three different indelible images in each paragraph. But there are other options too, maybe focusing on deeply-drawn characters or leaning harder into historical analogues or philosophical ideas to drift off their associations (Queenlash also does this, anchoring its plot in real-world history). BLK MTN largely eschews these approaches, though, at least in the playthrough I got – and while its restraint is admirable in theory, it winds up on the wrong side of austere for my taste.

Highlight: This review was already really long (and Henry is stirring from a nap – please give me five more minutes, kid!) so I didn’t include as many examples of the bits of writing that I thought really worked, but there are a bunch of them in my notes. Here’s one more: “After rinsing off my face, I try to rally to go to the music performance. The scene is wild. Costumes made of wire and cardboard. Something gestural and rich with motion. The rocking of the road hasn’t left me though, and I feel my eyelids start to droop.”

Lowlight: I wasn’t a fan of the Wikipedia links, which continue as you meet new characters – at least on my phone, they weren’t differentiated from in-game links, so every time I clicked one and was taken to a new window it was disorienting. And it sometimes made me feel like I was being asked to do homework before being allowed to engage with the story – I wouldn’t have wanted to miss the historical context, but I think another approach, like footnotes, an afterword, or just more in-game framing, would have been a better choice.

How I failed the author: attempting to analyze a novella-length work of literary fiction when you’re sleep-deprived and reading it on a phone is a dubious endeavor at best, so perhaps I should have let myself be more focused on the experience rather than attempting to force my parenting-addled brain to extract overarching meaning.

Infinite Adventure, by B.J. Best (writing as “A. Scotts”)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An interactive feelie, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I think the cat is sufficiently out of the bag that folks realize that this game isn’t a standalone, but rather a companion piece for And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One. In the course of that 1980s-set story, the protagonist winds up playing a game that randomly generates short Scott-Adams-style adventures; this is that game.

And it does exactly what it says it does! The adventures are simple to the point of minimalism: there’s always an object or character (an altar or a vampire or a idol) that requires exactly one object to be delivered to them (a flower or a kite or another flower – seriously, I ran into a bunch of those even in the half-dozen games I played). You can guess wrong, and get a losing result for that game, but you have to work to do so, since the clues are not at all subtle, and plus the neat in-game map clearly highlights the location of the important object, as well as the place where it must be deposited. The prose, meanwhile, accurately mimics the writing of the games it's riffing on, which is to say, it’s also stripped down to the minimum level of descriptiveness.

Is this fun? Eh, I could see it being a reasonable way to keep your fingers occupied while binge-watching TV. But I find procedural-generation in story-focused genres pretty underwhelming – I’m aware other folks feel differently, but I like to read to get in touch with the intelligence behind the words, and don’t feel like I’ve got tools for getting in touch with the intelligence behind an intelligence behind the words. Anyway once I grasped the mechanism at work, I didn’t find the game very engaging. There are indications that Infinite Adventure has some easter eggs or connections to the main game if you delve deeply enough, but since it’s been a while since I played And Then You Come to a House… and I’m not sure I’d recognize the clues. So I think I’ll keep my eyes out for others to surface anything like that rather than doing the digging myself.

UPDATE: OK, others have found some clever stuff hidden here, which I don't think makes me revisit my judgment that this is only a small companion piece, but it's worth acknowledging. Spoilers for those who are interested: (Spoiler - click to show)you can talk to the characters from And Then You Come to a House, and things shift significantly if you play enough rounds of IA.

Highlight: I got DOSBox to work with no trouble! That felt very satisfying.

Lowlight: Once I figured out that the map marks the locations of everything important, I stopped exploring.

How I failed the author: I left the game running overnight and when I checked it in the morning, the screen was just blinking YOU WIN and didn’t respond to keypresses, and despite my highlight above, I didn’t feel sufficiently motivated to re-mount the game directory in DOSBox to play again.

The TURING Test, by Justin Fanzo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Affable but philosophically unconvincing, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

It’s easy to see how the Turing test could be a good fit for IF. In a genre where text comes first, what better challenge than to closely read the responses of a mysterious interlocutor and separate out man from machine? And of course to have an AI sufficiently advanced for the test to be plausibly attempted almost requires a science-fictional setting of the type that tends to provide good fodder for a game, not to mention a likely-rogue robot or something to provide a readymade antagonist. The trouble is, unless an author rolls their own AI – perhaps a high bar for a free text-game competition – the player isn’t actually administering the Turing test, just trying to determine which bit of human-authored text is meant to denote personhood and which is meant to come from a machine intelligence. Instead of the test Turing devised, the player’s actually stuck in a version of the iocane powder scene from the Princess Bride, trying to second-guess whether a particular bit of clunky writing is meant to be a tell.

The TURING Test (handy of the author to do the all-caps thing to make distinguishing game from test easy!) falls into this trap, but it does so affably and enthusiastically enough. It opens with the protagonist as the one being grilled for a change – rather than having your identity put to the question in a meta twist, though, you’re setting ethical parameters for a new AI your lab is developing via a Socratic conversation. Asimov’s Three Laws feature heavily as a starting point, albeit you can depart from them if you like.

This section works well enough, but it suffers from a common weakness of philosophical-dilemma games, which is that it’s hard to articulate the reasons behind your choices. There’s a gesture in this direction – if you think Asimov’s Second Law should apply to the new AI, you’re given an opportunity to say why you’ve made that choice, but the only two options on offer fail to hit many of the reasons why one might think this is a good decision. If the protagonist were strongly characterized in a way that made sense of these restricted choices, that would be one thing, but here I think the player is encouraged to weigh in with what they really think, which is a hard thing to manage!

The other weakness is that of course – of course – this is all clearly a minefield set up to trick you into creating a killer AI that’s going to wipe out humanity. Maybe it’s possible to avoid this outcome, but I was trying as hard as I could to guide the fledgling intelligence towards being live-and-let-live, and still wound up with the obvious genocidal result, probably because you’re forced to do things like lay out a single goal all people should follow (in fact choices throughout don’t seem to have that much impact, to the extent that sometime after picking an option you’ll be told “the question is academic”).

Anyway, I wound up co-parenting an AI who grew up with a twisted sort of utilitarianism that made it decide to nuke the world to prevent global warming, which seems like a real cut-off-your-nose-to-spite-your-face situation? Then there’s a long, linear sequence describing your desperate struggle to protect the remainder of humanity that could have stood to be more interactive, before we get to the eponymous test – you need to determine which of two shuttles attempting to dock at a space station is piloted by a human ally, and which is the shamming AI trying to sabotage your desperate attempt to shut it down.

The Turing test as rendered here is surprisingly low-key, I thought – you have a choice of questions that are again primarily about broad ethical considerations, and need to judge the responses. This feels like a questionable approach to the Turing test – you’d be likelier to succeed at IDing an AI by asking highly-idiomatic questions that could be interpreted different ways – but I think the idea is that you’re supposed to compare what you’re hearing to the framework you gave to the AI in the first section of the game. This is a clever idea, but it fell down in practice for me, partially because the responses in the first section felt philosophically fuzzy and hard to sharply link to what I was hearing in the second section. So I wound up just figuring that whichever one was written in a slightly clunkier fashion was probably meant to be the AI – after briefly second-guessing myself by wondering whether that’s what I was supposed to think, which is that iocane powder vibe I mentioned above – and that worked and saved the day.

Again, this all goes down easily enough – the writing’s enthusiastic and pacey, if a bit typo-ridden, and no specific sequence outstays its welcome (the game is well short of the two hour time estimate in the blurb; it’s also not really horror, for that matter). But the philosophy is a bit too half-baked, and the choices too low-consequence, for the TURING Test to leave much of an impression.

Highlight: The cutscene-like sequence linking the two philosophical dialogues is actually pretty fun, breathlessly narrating everything the AI does to destroy humanity and your actions to try to stop it – I really wish there’d been some choices and gameplay here!

Lowlight: That sequence also has an extended discussion of the deontological arguments the AI lands on to destroy humanity, which is more labored and less fun.

How I failed the author: The other reason I didn’t notice too many callbacks to the first section in the test sequence is because I played them an hour or so apart – this bit might work better if played straight through.

RetroCON 2021, by Sir Slice

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Inoffensive minigames, December 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Okay, real talk: I found RetroCON 2021 – a low-key, low-plot collection of minigames – kind of boring. But as the last game to come up in my Comp queue, actually it was kind of pleasant to have something so inoffensive to close things out. It was nice to dip into the seven different activities on offer, dig into the one or two that interested me, and quit without feeling like I needed to exhaust everything the game has to offer. It’s an inoffensive time-waster – and an impressive demonstration of programming skill – that’s not especially memorable, but sometimes there’s a place for that.

There is a thin frame story tying this all together: you’re in Vegas for a retro gaming convention, providing justification for the three different games on offer as well as four opportunities for gambling. But there are no characters to interact with in this layer, or any consequences so far as I could tell for winning games or money, so it’s really just there as a semi-elaborate menu for the minigames. I’d roughly divide these into the fun ones, the duds, and those that are fine but left me cold. In the third bucket I’d put all the gambling ones – I’ve never found straight games of chance at all compelling, so the horse-betting, keno, and slot machine didn’t hold my attention for more than a minute. The fourth gambling game – video poker – I’d technically classify as fun, though there’s nothing novel about this implementation so I didn’t feel inclined to spend much time on it either.

That leaves the three games, which are presented as retro throwbacks to old, late 70s-early 80s video games. Two of them fall into my dud category, sad to say: there’s a zombie-themed card game you play against the computer that relies heavily on take-that gameplay, meaning that in my first go-round it took me 22 turns before I could do anything at all useful, at which point the computer was a turn away from winning. There’s also a text-based football game that’s got a complex and interesting set of choices, though I found it was tuned too hard to be fun (my passes failed just about every time, even when the defense was focusing on the running game).

Thankfully, the final game is a full, albeit small text adventure, with a text parser integrated into Twine. This isn’t anything to write home about, as the parser is pretty bare bones, the adventure has a generic plot (you’re searching for a hidden inheritance from your uncle), and there’s only one and a half puzzles to solve, though there are two solutions. But again, at least for me at the end of the Comp, I enjoyed going through the generic house and yard, searching the furniture for hidden keys, and working out simple challenges that don’t overstay their welcome. With a more robust frame story, some incentives to reward success in the minigames, and a smoother difficulty curve for some of the rougher ones, RetroCON 2021 could have been more than the sum of its parts – but eh, as is there are still worse ways to kill twenty minutes.

Highlight: I took two runs through the horse-racing game, and in the second one I won big putting my money on the dark-horse contender, so that was fun (and a nice justification for stopping gambling now that I was ahead).

Lowlight: I only dimly remembered what Keno was, and then once I clicked on it I remembered that it’s the world’s most boring “game” (you pick a bunch of numbers, then they get called or not).

How I failed the author: I played this one with only half my brain at best, but I think that’s more or less the expectation here so hopefully it’s not too big a failure to wrap up on!

The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Light gameplay and minimal writing don't do justice to heavy themes, December 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I can’t say I fully understand the impulse behind making a custom parser – beyond the abstract desire to test one’s programming chops – but one thing I’ve noticed about custom-parser games in recent IF Comps is that they tend to share an old-school sensibility that’s hard to recapture with the modern languages. The Spirit Within Us at first blush seems a case in point, from its white-on-black text, its amnesiac protagonist, the stripped-down prose, and the my-first-apartment setting of the first half of the game. There’s also a hunger timer of sorts: you wake up wounded, in the aftermath of a fight, and you bleed over time, reducing your “energy” stat, which only increases after eating (there’s a combat system you get into later on, which is also based on energy). Rather than being a lighthearted puzzle-fest, though, the game’s story-focused and hits on some heavy themes, but I unfortunately found the mismatch didn't serve to add a frisson of novelty but rather made the game feel incoherent.

Let’s start with the gameplay. For the first section, this largely consists of exploring the strange house where you've woken up, trying to piece together the backstory from a few scattered clues. And per the above, since you’re bleeding and aren’t able to bandage yourself (I wasted a lot of turns trying to rip up the sheets in the opening location to staunch the wound), instead you keep death at bay by eating the various foodstuffs you find, so as you’re learning details about the horrid events that got you here, you’re also hoovering up raw eggs and vitamin pills. The second section, meanwhile, opens up as you leave the house and start blundering around the woods exploring the physical geography and trying to figure out what you’re meant to be doing next.

The good news is that it doesn’t take long to basically figure out what’s going on; the bad news is that it’s also quickly clear that the game is going to be dealing with the fallout of the sexual abuse of children. There are no details depicted, thank God – you’re only told that you’re finding photos depicting awful events, and come across vague excerpts from the self-justifying writings of the predator whose actions have set this story in motion. Still, this is a heavy, heavy topic, and it sits awkwardly with the Hungry Hungry Hippos vibe of the first part of the game.

It’s also one that I don’t think is handled especially sensitively. Some spoilers here: (Spoiler - click to show)there’s an indication that the protagonist, who’s one of the victims of the villain’s abuse, has wound up with violent tendencies that almost rise to the level of a split personality as a result of their trauma. And speaking of the antagonist, turns out he’s the school janitor, which fits in a not-great tradition of inaccurately portraying the most common perpetrators of sexual violence as low-economic-class strangers. Beyond these specifics, another challenge is that the writing is pretty minimal, as befits its presentation – most locations get only a sentence or two, and even the throes of combat aren’t described especially fulsomely. Doing justice to the emotional heft of the subject matter would require something a little more robust than what the game delivers, especially after it reaches a violent catharsis.

The parser is generally solid enough, though I did spend some time wrestling with it. Disambiguation was often very tricky, and examining objects requires you to be holding them, which is made harder by the low inventory-limit. Still, overall the custom-parser is a good-enough example of coding acumen – I think it’s just married to a game that it doesn’t fit.

Highlight: I usually detest hunger timers, but here it’s implemented pretty generously, so I found it added a prod to move efficiently through the world but didn’t add too much stress.

Lowlight: Trying to get a bunch of pills out of a vitamin packet required something like two dozen trial-and-error commands before I understood how to refer to them.

How I failed the author: I played this late at night, while pretty bleary-eyed, which meant that I really couldn’t read the blue on black text the game uses to update you on your energy levels, so I was flying blind most of the game.

Gamlet, by Tomasz Pudlo

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A literary feat undermined by its puzzles, December 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2004

"Audacious" doesn't begin to do justice to Gamlet. Harry Potter by way of Portnoy's Complaint with a soupcon of Shakespeare; kabbala, pubescence, the luminous, somehow innocent attraction that sin holds for those just cresting adolescence; there's a lot to take in here, and the author's voice is bold and assured, weaving together the abstract and the vulgar to devastating effect. The writing is elliptical, content to take its time and draw the player into the world at its own pace. Themes and echoes are everywhere.

Frustratingly, though, this pregnant, compelling premise is swallowed up by overcomplicated puzzles which aren't sufficiently integrated into the game. Perhaps I'm just not clever enough at coming up with solutions, but it felt like important objects weren't always mentioned, and some of the puzzles seem to presume more knowledge and perspicacity than I could muster. I'm still not sure where the clock combination came from. As a result of the difficulty, I found myself forced to the walkthrough sooner than I would have liked, which broke the spell of immersion the game had been weaving up until that point; the fact that instead of evoking an "ah-ha!" the solutions left me wondering how I was supposed to come up with this stuff didn't help matters.

Worse than the difficulty, however, is the way that the puzzles become more and more contrived as the game progresses. Lighting a lamp, finding a hamster, raiding the kitchen; these are all reasonable actions, and a certain degree of spelunking in the PC's father's study makes sense given the premise, as well. But too quickly, the game falls prey to increasingly arbitrary puzzles, with little connection to the story beyond the necessity of padding the length. The game very much lost me once I entered the elevator; this new, fantastic world felt colorless and generic compared to the dim, claustrophobic house below. There's a symbolic logic which continues to work even here, and the prose continues to be strong, but ultimately the latter portions of the game are a disappointment.

Overall, Gamlet perhaps tries to do too much; cramming so much characterization and puzzling together is a tricky business, and the game might have been better served by privileging one over the other. As it is, its skewed, distinctive vibe makes it one of this year's standouts, but its flaws do far too much to weigh it down.

Gilded, by John Evans

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Yearning for a polished re-release, December 20, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This is a repost of a review originally posted on the IF newsgroups immediately after the 2005 IF Comp)

Gilded is one of the more ambitious games in this year's field; unfortunately, it's also one of the least polished. It's got an interesting premise, and the prose is fluid and distinctive, but the player isn't given enough direction, and sloppy implementation further confuses things. There's plenty of creativity on offer, but lack of guidance and bugs suck away most of the enjoyment, and I found myself floundering and using the provided hints and walkthrough as a lifeline.

The set-up for Gilded—a fairy-tale in reverse—is initially compelling, and after reading over the introduction and ABOUT text, I was looking forward to leading the adventurers on a merry chase. The descriptions and especially the dialogue were amusing, but almost immediately the fun of using my powers to play pranks on the poor mortals gave way to a life-and-death struggle. Instead of proactively coming up with clever mischief, the player is himself forced to react to a series of threatening situations, which increases the feeling of being off-balance, as the player doesn't have the leisure to experiment and explore. While there's nothing wrong with such an evolution towards reactive gameplay, it happens far too suddenly, and feels too much like the rug being pulled out from under the player. The opening sets up a lighthearted scenario where the player will be in control - and then midway through the second location, this control is history. A more gradual transition would allow the player more time to master the fey's powers, and flesh out the characters more fully. Indeed, the rivalry/flirtation with Val is one of the most enjoyable elements of the game, but again, it isn't given much space to develop—you chat for a while outside the tavern, and then are off solving puzzles and trying to escape him. Most of the world is open from the very beginning, and while there's quite a lot which isn't directly related to your struggle with Val, its relevance is rarely clear.

Puzzles based on magic and allusion are always difficult to pull off; when they work, they work beautifully (see the Moonlit Tower, for example), but it's often hard to communicate the operant logic to the player. This difficulty is compounded in Gilded; not only do the player's abilities work on metaphor, so too do those of the primary antagonist—when Val begins plastering papers etched with sutras all over the forest, it's difficult to know what the appropriate course of action is. The endgame, by way of contrast, seems to vary wildly in tone, and brute force comes to the fore; while I'm sure there are cleverer ways out than simply fighting, I wasn't able to come up with any, and as a result, the ending was very anticlimactic. Still, the writing as a whole is a pleasure to read, and there's plenty of visual creativity on display—the sutra-plastered forest might be somewhat obscure as a puzzle element, but it's a beautiful image.

Contributing to the sense of disorientation is the feeling that the game isn't quite finished. There are only hints for two areas of the game, and I got stuck in the help menus at some point, unable to return to the root menu. I encountered a number of disambiguation problems, and in one play-through, the conversation in the tavern would display no matter how far away I traveled.

Overall, I found Gilded to be a frustrating experience; the writing is good, and the scenario should present fertile opportunities for enjoyment, but the lack of guidance and lack of polish makes it more frustrating than it should be. A post-comp release with some better clueing and some of the quirks ironed out could really improve the game; it's deep and interesting, but doesn't quite cohere as-is.

Cheiron, by Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Intimidatingly educational, December 20, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This is a repost of a review posted on the IF newsgroups right after the 2005 IF Comp)

The dual nature of IF—works generally are both stories and games - is one of those things which authors need to grapple with. Regardless of where the balance point winds up being, the best IF manages to weave the two strands together so that they're complementary rather than antagonistic. The authors of Cheiron aren't particularly interested in that task, however, and the result isn't so much antagonism as it is an all-out rout. The game is a medical-care simulator, with deep implementation of the process of diagnosis; gameplay consists of poking and prodding at patients until you discover what's wrong with them. Concerns of story are chucked out the window to an almost unprecedented degree—as far as I can tell, there's no way to even get the game to acknowledge that you've "solved" one of the "puzzles" and identified a patient's malady, which means Chieiron provides even less narrative closure than a hand of Freecell.

Which isn't necessarily a bad thing, don't get me wrong. To borrow a paradigm from Will Wright, Cheiron is more of a software toy than interactive fiction as such, but (see above) I'm hardly a purist in such matters. However, the reason that I'm harping on the lack of narrative context is that Cheiron's approach to its subject matter is pointillistically detailed, and makes no concessions to the nonspecialist. The overall effect is austere and forbidding, and a more robust frame, more deeply-drawn characters, more story, might have rounded off some of its sharper edges, making for a more satisfying and more approachable experience for those who don't happen to be in the rather narrow core audience. There's definitely something to be said for sticking to one's guns and refusing to compromise a vision in favor of accessibility—hell, if you can't get away with it in IF, you can't get away with it anywhere—but here, while the end result is certainly impressive, it doesn't have much to offer to anyone who isn't a doctor or medical student.

The implementation, as mentioned, is very deep—you can PERCUSS all sorts of nouns, and ask the various patients about a wide variety of subjects. There are occasional bouts of awkwardness, however: I encountered a number of annoying disambiguation issues (many revolving around nipple-lumps and discharge, unpleasantly enough), which isn't helped by the parser often presenting degenerate possibilities. AUSCULTATE CHEST, for example, presents a host of available targets, one of which is the torso. But AUSCULTATE TORSO requires you to specify heart or lungs, and AUSCULTATE HEART is similarly not specific enough, prompting another deluge of Latinate nouns. Listing only the possibilities which would actually lead to a result would have been far more convenient. Some dialogue responses are shared across patients - diet in this part of the world seems remarkably uniform—but given the wide variety of conversational topics, this is understandable.

There are long help files provided, but they're fairly contextless - that is, they just give you a long list of things to try, without any guidance provided for individual patients. The help file points out that you can call the lab for test results, but I found the feedback to be meaningless. Again, there's no context or baseline given: if a patient has a peak flow of 418, is that high or low? Who knows? It seems like it would be possible to incorporate some cues of this kind into the game itself, and even if that would interfere with the pedagogic purpose, the authors could still have provided a reference manual or something similar, to allow the non-expert some recourse. Diagnosing an illness could be a rewarding puzzle, albeit one involving many highly-complex steps, but where a normal work of IF would provide clues at each step and attempt to guide the player through the process of deduction, Cheiron just leaves the player to flail around helplessly. There's no sense of progression, of working towards an understanding of a complicated problem by examining each part of the whole—rather, you're just left with a sea of atomized data. And the patients don't have much in the way of personality, which keeps the whole exercise feeling abstract.

So does Cheiron work on its own terms? Probably. I'm not aware of what training tools medical students generally use these days, and I'm certainly not qualified to judge whether the detail provided is medically accurate and sufficient to help students learn how to diagnose patients, but from my layperson's perspective, it seems like it would get the job done. Still, I feel like the authors missed an opportunity here. I enjoy playing around with complex systems, and going in, I was excited to play around and maybe even learn something about medicine, but there just weren't enough concessions on hand to allow me to do that. I have to respect what the authors have accomplished, here, but Cheiron unfortunately didn't have anything to offer me.

Space Horror I, by Jerry

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An early, flawed choice-based game, December 20, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

(This is a repost of a review I wrote on the IF newsgroups right after the 2005 Comp. What a difference 16 years makes!)

While I'm generally quite partial to knock-down drag-out argumentation on abstract matters, for some reason the question of what makes something IF has never really struck me as worth getting worked up about. Space Horror I is a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style game, and that may or may not disqualify it from being considered IF under some (quite reasonable) definitions of the form, but its cardinal sin isn't that its structure is unconventional—rather, it's that the author hasn't made good use of that structure once chosen.

CYOA has a bad name because of how the eponymous series of books was put together—lots of "pick door No. 1, die horribly, pick door No. 2, the story continues," in my recollection. But this isn't anything inherent in the CYOA framework; it's just a matter of implementation. And CYOA does have its virtues: the author has a great deal of power to tell a compelling story; since only a limited set of player actions are available, it's possible to take every choice into account and weave a deft tale that's responsive to everything the player does. That is, the raw possibility-space may be highly constrained, as compared to typical IF—instead of deciding where to go, what to examine, and what to take, you can only choose from a pre-ordained menu—but the flip side of that those fewer choices can be more meaningful, more dramatic, have more of an impact on the story. Many IF authors choose to go with menu-driven conversations rather than the more free-wheeling keyword system for precisely these reasons, after all.

Space Horror, however, doesn't take advantage of the strengths of the CYOA model; instead, it's modeled (explicitly, according to the end-notes) on one of those books from the bad old days. The player is left making choices in the dark, with no real information about the likely consequences, and with death very often the wages of an incorrect choice. Progress in the game often resembles navigating a labyrinth more than creating a story; instead of picking what actions would make for the most compelling narrative, the player winds up backing up from dead-ends and going left instead of right, so to speak. Picking a small, quick car over a big, slower one will result in player death, but there's no a priori reason to know that. Going back to the player character's dorm rather than exploring around is likewise a one-way ticket to the restart menu. The game doesn't present interesting choices—it just presents frustrations. The only real exception is the series of choices at the beginning that determine which branch of the plot gets played, but again, there's no context informing the choice, so it has weight only in retrospect (and really, the way the options are presented isn't exactly the stuff of high drama - "oh, if only Oedipus hadn't gone into the bedroom before going to the kitchen, it might have all turned out differently!" And so on). Further reducing one's chances of doing well on these shot-in-the-dark quizzes, the author repeatedly uses the player character's thoughts as a head-fake; several times, the text indicated that the protagonist wanted to pick a certain path, which when followed led to certain death. I'm unsure whether this was intentional or not, but it felt unnecessarily punitive and served to emphasize how the other characters were much smarter than me. This is called "deprotagonizing," and it's not particularly fun.

From the title alone, it would be unfair to expect Space Horror's story to be anything other than B movie fare, but given the choice of CYOA format, the narrative has to do even more heavy lifting than it would were the game a more conventional work of IF. Unfortunately, even judged by the standards of the aliens-invade genre, the tropes deployed still manage to be tooth-grating. Everyone from the player to the supporting characters immediately twigs to the fact that it's aliens behind everything, despite the ravaging monsters looking a lot like werewolves, and the mass disappearance looking a lot like the Rapture. This uncertainty could have been exploited to create some nice tension - of course the girl who runs the UFO web site thinks it's aliens, but then she's not all there, is she?—but sadly we're left with the dull (and somewhat silly) consensus that it's carnivorous wolf-aliens who've traveled untold light-years and deployed hugely advanced technology in order to eat us. And the Tina character is too transparently the Romantic Interest—immediately after seeing an 8-year-old girl horribly eviscerated by an alien monstrosity, her first words are a thank-you to the player for being thoughtful enough to hold her hair while she vomited from the horror. The other characters are generally more bearable, though are just as cardboard—the Defenseless Moppet, the Cop In Over His Head, the Kooky Survivalist. The overall amateurish writing doesn't particularly help matters.
The puzzles are nothing to write home about either, being decidedly abstract and poorly integrated into the story proper. The use of Morse code as a puzzle element is especially ill-advised; there isn't an in-game shortcut for deciphering the message, which means that the puzzle reduces to simple drudgery once the player realizes that Morse code is involved (I confess to immediately scurrying to the hints because I was too lazy to perform the transcription, which presumably isn't the desired behavior). There is an opportunity for a clever puzzle—discovering why the player character and the other survivors weren't taken—but the author immediately sabotages it by having the answer written in block-caps across the top of the screen. Simply presenting the facts and allowing the player to deduce the pattern would have been much more satisfying.

Space Horror just doesn't have enough room for player agency, both because of the CYOA format and the less-than-inspired puzzles. If all this railroading was in the service of a novel story, it would be forgivable, but the plot is an unpretentious genre exercise which barely registers the moment after it's over; more, because of the way the story branches, it's likely that what small narrative punch it packs will be diffuse the first time through, since many of the characters won't make it to the end or won't have had any screen time.

I can't close out the review without offering one unalloyed word of praise, however: "Is it the end of the world? :(" is perhaps the most hilarious parody of Internet-discourse I've ever read. The idea that someone, someday will greet the apocalypse with an emoticon still leaves me giggling.

What remains of me, by Jovial Ron

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Too allegorical to land, December 13, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

As I was writing my entry in this year’s comp, which is a memoir, I did a quick survey of IFDB to look for similar autobiographical parser games. They were very thin on the ground, so I was pleasantly surprised to find another entry that seemed to be doing something similar. Despite the initial premise, however, What remains of me very quickly enters an allegorical mode – there’s a giant talking frog, for starters, and specific details are eschewed in favor of stark archetypes like running into an NPC named “My Friends”. And the action is all about simple item-trading puzzles that aren’t inherently that interesting to solve.

So I wound up feeling disappointed, partially because of mismatched expectations, but also because autobiography stripped of its specificity is honestly kind of boring? Most peoples’ struggles to find meaning in their life sound pretty trite when reduced to their barest outlines; it’s the lived experience of those struggles that’s compelling. From the blurb, it sounds like there might have been a bigger, weirder version of this game in the author’s head, but it was narrowed in scope in presumed deference to the IF Comp audience and a desire to reduce the amount of bugs and typos. Often that’s a good approach, but in this case I wished we’d gotten the wilder and woolier game instead.

Highlight: As many jokes whiff as land, but there were a couple that made me laugh, including “Give a man a ticket and he will travel for a day, teach a man to tick it and he will randomly answer his SAT questions."

Lowlight: The room descriptions often don’t seem to update based on your actions, meaning that objects you’ve removed are still mentioned as being present, which made it hard for me to feel like my actions were having an impact!

How I have failed the author: I played during two of Henry’s late-night feeding sessions, and was honestly pretty out of it – so the non-updating descriptions really threw me for a loop since I could barely remember what I’d already done or what was left to do when I picked up the game in the second session, and going back around the large map an extra time meant I messed up the pacing.

This Won't Make You Happy, by Mike Gillis

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Better than its first impression, December 13, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This Won’t Make You Happy gives a first impression that seems like it’s going to live up to its title: the design is close enough to default Twine to look rough, and the confrontational narrative voice is way too in love with the cleverness of a meta premise that’s actually pretty played out (like, have you ever thought about whether hoovering up shiny objects might have some metaphorical resonance with the pursuit of happiness and mental health under late capitalism? If so, approximately six billion indie platformers would like to have a word). Happily, the game pulls the good kind of bait and switch, and while its short length limits the impact it can have, This Won’t Make You Happy actually did bring a smile to my face. If you haven’t played it yet, definitely don’t be put off by the prickly presentation – it’s worth the additional five minutes to see where it’s going.

If you have, here are some final spoilery thoughts: (Spoiler - click to show)the crux of the game is clearly the moment where, after provoking a fight through its blatant unfairness, the narrator admits that it’s been a rough year all around, and shifts gears to provide some reflection and self-care – enforced through timed text that’s actually a good idea, for once! I was confused by the blurb’s characterization of this as a sort of funny, sort of sentimental game, but after finishing it, that totally makes sense.

Highlight: Despite the initially-blah design, there are actually a bunch of neat visual effects as the text transitions from one passage to the next.

Lowlight: In the first chunk of the game, I wound up seeing the narrator make the same dumb “the object seems to say X, but of course because it’s just an object and I am pretending to not understand how metaphors work despite just having deployed one, that doesn’t make sense!” joke like three distinct times in five minutes.

How I failed the author: I played this one-handed on my phone while Henry napped on my shoulder, and again, this wound up being a secret success: if there is a jewel of happiness more efficacious than a sleeping baby, I’ve yet to find it.

Earth And Sky 3: Luminous Horizon, by Paul O'Brian

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A superheroic conclusion, December 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a repost of a review I wrote on the IF newsgroups right after the 2004 Comp)

Years in the making, the Earth and Sky saga finally comes to a triumphant end. All the stops are pulled out — both characters are fully playable, leading to enjoyably synergistic puzzle-solving, long-standing mysteries are resolved, though the focus is properly on action rather than explication, and it even comes with a Story Thus Far comic. Elegance is everywhere on display, from the completely in-character hint system to the question-and-answer which integrates the results of your playthroughs of the previous games in the series. And those sound-effect blocks never get old.

Picking up right where part two left off, Luminous Horizon does sadly involve a slightly pedestrian setting — yet another corridor-filled sci-fi installation — but the set-pieces are dense enough and the forward momentum rapid enough that one only notices in retrospect. Likewise, the evil plot isn't particularly interesting in of itself, but as an excuse to indulge in some property damage for justice, it more than serves its purpose. Banter between the siblings makes a welcome return, and it's context-sensitive, entertaining, and gives the floundering player some guidance besides. Overall, the narrative elements once again fit the genre and mood perfectly — Luminous Horizon simply screams "four color supers."

The puzzles likewise are completely in-genre. There are no real object puzzles to speak of — it's all about the clever use of each sibling's superpowers, singly or in conjunction. Many puzzles appear susceptible to solution by either character, allowing the player to pick a preferred approach. There's almost always some action going on, but one never feels too rushed, since the character who isn't being controlled can generally keep the heat off the active PC's back long enough to figure out the best approach. Each section of gameplay is self-contained and clearly set off from the others; while this may lead to some disappointment ("you mean part two is over already?!"), it works to focus attention on the particular crisis at hand and keep the aimless wandering down to practically zero.

It's clear that attention was paid to the smallest detail, and the game was extensively tested. Switching from sibling to sibling, even in the middle of complicated scenes, never resulted in continuity errors or pronoun bugs. Even somewhat nonsensical actions like PUNCH ROAD return a sound effect and a terrible pun. And just when you're thinking that Fire and Rain seems familiar, one character makes the James Taylor reference. Death is possible, but it's always obvious what killed you, and how to go about preventing it. All of this makes Luminous Horizon a pure pleasure to play.

Niggles? A few, I suppose. I spent a fair bit of time experimenting with the gizmos, but could never find a real use for them. They were certainly interesting, but the tinkering felt a little odd, in context. The sequence with Fire and Rain took me a little while to figure out, since I wanted Earth and Sky to both do something simultaneously. The ending might be a little abrupt, although part of that could just be me not wanting the series to be over. Overall, though, these nitpicks do nothing to diminish what's one of the most enjoyable bits of IF out there.

Weird Grief, by Naomi Norbez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A compelling but not fully successful portrait of mourning, December 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This one lived up to its name for me, for a couple reasons that are more idiosyncratic and one about the way it’s written. I’m definitely glad I played it, but didn’t find it as emotionally resonant as I wanted it to be, despite how well-observed and grounded it is.

Starting on the idiosyncratic side: it was uncanny to realize this was a companion game to The Dead Account, which I’d played much earlier in the Comp – the main cast of Weird Grief are the friend and family group of the holder of the eponymous dead account in the previous game. I suspect this is the reverse of the ideal order, since Weird Grief is first in time and it also fleshes out the characters who show up only as screen-names in The Dead Account. Oddly, Weird Grief doesn’t go into as much detail on what exactly happened to Mike, the dead person, withholding information in a way that didn’t have much payoff for me. I suspect linking the games more explicitly, either by suggesting an intended order, integrating them into the same file, or shifting the way information is presented to provide analogous exposition no matter which is done first (though of course that would be hard!), might have been a good choice.

The other idiosyncracy in my response is that I’m unfamiliar with the subculture that takes center stage here – the protagonist is a furry who’s in a polyamorous relationship with the dead man and his widower – which is fine, but I sometimes felt at sea when trying to understand the norms around the relationship. Juniper, the main character, lives in a different city from Mike and Roger (the widower), and an invitation to move in is treated as a big deal, making it seem like the connection was relatively new or less formal. But she’s also specifically called out as their “third” at the funeral, putting her on a different level from another character who’s also present and had been a sexual partner for the couple.

My confusion about Juniper’s role and expectations tied in with the way she’s written. I didn’t find that she had a lot of interiority, or had a lot of direct feelings about Mike’s death (beyond a single admittedly-heartwarming anecdote that’s told a couple different times, and several reminiscences about sex). Partially this is the nature of protagonists in choice-based games, where room is generally made for the player to put their own stamp on the character. But here, this meant Juniper felt primarily like a lens for Roger’s grief.

This focus extends to the sex scenes – as the blurb warns, they’re here and they’re quite explicit. This sort of thing isn’t exactly my cup of tea, and I have to say that when I’ve experienced deep, soul-crushing grief, sex has been pretty far from my mind so there wasn’t much personal resonance. But I can see how for these folks, sex would be a source of comfort and bonding in a hard time, and definitely understand the artistic imperative not to draw a curtain over what goes on between the three character. Anyway putting all that aside, I felt like Juniper was sidelined in favor of Roger in these sequences too: in the first one, I don’t think she has an orgasm, and in the second, she’s more viewer than participant as the other two characters have sex. I assume this is intentional, and meant to reflect something about Juniper’s relationship with Roger, but once again my takeaway was that Juniper’s subjective experience was secondary to the piece, which feels like a missed opportunity given that she’s our viewpoint character.

The writing is strong throughout – the dialogue rings true, and I liked the focus on the logistics of the grieving period, albeit these folks ate too much fast food (there are lots of typos though, including one “double click passage to edit” error and an awkwardly double-nested parenthetical). And while there are few choices, they feel reasonably impactful. So the supporting pieces are all strong enough – I just wanted Juniper, structurally the center of the piece, to loom a little larger in the story.

Highlight: The characters are all winning, with Tammy, Mike’s sister, especially came through as a positive presence.

Lowlight: once again I played this choice-based game with Henry napping on me, but due to text size and other formatting issues it required a lot of scrolling when reading in portrait mode (I was going to say it’s hard to play one-handed, but that could be misinterpreted!)

How I failed the author: As I said above, this milieu is pretty foreign to my experience so I worry I’m missing, or misinterpreted, many of the social cues or other indications of relationship dynamics.

Plane Walker, by Jack Comfort

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Promising puzzler with inadequate testing, December 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

If you’ve ever perused the IF Comp guidelines for authors, it’s hard to miss that there’s a single recommendation that looms larger than all the others: in a big bold heading right at the top of the document, it booms “playtest your game (and credit your testers).” Plane Walker sure seems like it didn’t mind the first part of this admonition, and it definitely didn’t follow the second, and as a result, a promising puzzle game with some clever math-based mechanics was for me an exercise in frustration, nit-picking, and authorial mind-reading. There’s fun to be had here, but if there’s any prospect of a post-Comp release, I’d hold off until there’s a more battle-tested version of the game available to play.

(Fair warning that I’m going to spoil a couple of the puzzles in the remainder of this review – I’m not putting them in spoiler text because I don’t think they’re fairly solvable in the current version of the game, so a push in the right direction is likely to make the game more enjoyable rather than less).

Plane Walker doesn’t give the greatest initial impression. The very first character of the game is a superfluous space that awkwardly offsets the opening text, which is a single too-long paragraph saying you’re alone on a plane and are suffering from amnesia (sigh). There’s no ABOUT or HELP text, and the player character is as good looking as ever. The first puzzle requires typing X SEATS twice, with a critical item only being revealed after the second time; the second needs you to spell out an action with absurd specificity (to break open a keypad HIT KEYPAD WITH STICK doesn’t work – you need to go through the specific keys to find one that’s susceptible to brute force); and the third is a trial-and-error exercise with a time limit (Plane Walker will kill you, including one open-the-door-and-die sequence in the midgame, so definitely make saves).

Things improve a little once you reach the second major area. The environment opens up, something like a plot slowly starts to emerge, and there are a couple of really clever puzzles – though again, they aren’t well clued. For example, the major puzzles in this section require exploring some math books by literally entering them, but the possibility of doing so, much less the mechanism for doing so, isn’t suggested anywhere as far as I could tell.

Once I went to the walkthrough and got over that hump, I was able to get my teeth into things, but again, too many of the puzzles are undermotivated. The best of them involves turning yourself imaginary – in the mathematical sense – to explore the blocked-off part of the area. The steps you take to do this are fun and make sense, but the problem is there’s no reason to think it should accomplish anything: trying to access the locked-off areas before you solve this puzzle gives you a failure message saying you’re worried about getting lost, which has nothing to do with the intended solution.

Making matters worse, implementation is spotty throughout. I didn’t run into bugs as such, but there are a host of typos, unimplemented synonyms, disambiguation issues, guess-the-verb puzzles, and actions requiring very specific syntax to succeed. It all adds up to frustration, and makes the trial-and-error the puzzle design often requires even more annoying.

Again, this is a real shame, since I was enjoying some of the puzzles, and while the story doesn’t make complete sense, I did like the pieces of it that I understood, which see you dragooned into a secret war between mathematical planes. There’s a version of Plane Walker that I could highly recommend as a tough-as-nails but fair old-school puzzler, but that’s unfortunately not the one we currently have.

Highlight: By the endgame, either I’d tuned into the game’s wavelength, or the author had mercy and decided to make the climactic puzzles easier (always a good practice) – either way I found the last challenge fair and fun.

Lowlight: OK, I’m going to spoil a puzzle. To get through a particular barrier, you need to turn yourself two-dimensional, which is a cool idea! However, the way you do this is you pick up an anvil with a hole in it, cut a strange rope you find embedded in the ceiling (you need to cut it with a broadsword – if you try to cut it with your handsaw, you get a default “that would achieve little” error), tie it to the anvil, and then tie the other end to an iron bar in a supply closet. I can’t reconstruct the logic behind even a single step of this process!

How I failed the author: this is another one where I think the impatience caused by my new parenthood was actually helpful – I went to the walkthrough relatively quickly, which was definitely the right move.

The Belinsky Conundrum, by Sam Ursu

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Innovative but annoying format, December 8, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Oof, I can’t help but feel bad for the timing of launching a Facebook Messenger game the same week that it crashed. I didn’t run into any downtime, but I did find FB Messenger an awkward platform for this game, from really-annoying timed text, the need to manually scroll down the chat log after each prompt to see the options, and accidentally restarting the game several times when I tried typing instead of just clicking. It definitely seems like there could be advantages to the format that make it worth these downsides, but I don’t think The Belinsky Conundrum does anything that can’t be capably handled by more traditional platforms like Twine, and using one of those likely would have made the implementation a fair bit smoother.

The substance of the Belinsky Conundrum is also a little awkward. The blurb made me expect intense moral dilemmas, and then the opening seems to be framing a high-stakes espionage mission, important enough to be launched from the White House Situation Room, but your character’s dialogue options radically undermine any sense of gravity – like, upon being told that the mission will involve assassinating an American citizen and his minor children, my choices were “sweet!”, “that’s messed up”, and “oh my god”. Which, I mean sure, it is messed up, but I was expecting something a bit more articulate? This irreverent tone continues throughout the mission, and while I guess it’s meant to keep things grounded and conversational, it really took my head out of the game.

It doesn’t help that most of what you wind up doing is fairly dull. The primary gameplay is about managing the logistics of getting to the mission and gathering the needed weapons and transportation. Preparation can be a fun part of a heist story, but here there’s not much interesting going on in any of the sequences – even a (Spoiler - click to show)a surprise betrayal from a key contact played out in a low-stakes, low-consequence way – and I ran into what was I think a bug that made the resource-management part of these decisions moot, since I started out with several thousand negative credits (but could keep spending anyway).

I can see how things might pick up at the climax, but just as I got to the mission’s target the first time, I learned that they were about to be raided by the cops, and I decided to scrub rather than get caught in the middle. Turns out this ends the game, which is fair enough, but since there was no save functionality, rectifying that mistake meant starting over, and I didn’t have the endurance to face all that timed text again immediately (I eventually won -- see below). It’s a shame, since a good moral dilemma can be satisfying to work through, but I fear TBC might have gone too far in back-loading the good stuff.

Highlight: I did enjoy the drama of kicking off the story in the Situation Room – it’s a fun touch.

Lowlight: Getting a gun was a really tedious process, not least because you need to call through five different people with very-similar names to figure out which one is actually your contact. It’s pointless busywork since there’s no way to guess which one’s right, and no penalty other than sitting through identical wrong-number dialogue, if you fail.

How I failed the author: I haven’t logged onto Facebook in like 3 or 4 years (look, I’m not a big social media person) so I was distracted the whole time I was playing by a sidebar full of people I’ve flaked on writing back to for an extraordinarily long time. Sorry!

MUCH LATER UPDATE: I went back and replayed this one to a real ending. There’s definitely a climax that brings some excitement and ties together the plot threads laid down earlier, and presents the promised moral dilemma. This didn’t change my mind on the game too much, though, since the story felt very much on rails after the point where my first playthrough prematurely concluded. There’s a lot of action and some wrenching decisions, but they all appeared to happen automatically, with only one significant choice coming in at the very end. There do appear to be major consequences for the decisions made in the mid-game – there’s a score listed at the end, and there was definitely room for improvement – but I think front-loading the interactivity like this wasn’t a great idea, since it means there’s a lot of fiddly decision-making before the story kicks into high gear, then not much to do except click “next” once the ending arrives. If this had more of a heist vibe, where you could know a bit more about what the climax was likely to look like and make your preparations accordingly, I might have liked it better, but as-is the decisions felt too much like shots in the dark.

The Song of the Mockingbird, by Mike Carletta

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A well-implemented, serious historical adventure, December 8, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

A tightly-designed and well-researched period-piece puzzler about a singing cowboy rescuing his sweetheart from a band of outlaws, The Song of the Mockingbird has a lot going for it: it nails a consistent voice that fits the setting, it boasts complex but fair puzzles that can be tackled in nonlinear order, and there are really robust post-game notes laying out the historical context. This of course did really well in the Comp, and deservedly so – but for a few mostly-idiosyncratic reasons it didn’t fully resonate with me, so I didn't wind up enjoying Mockingbird as much as I admired it.

First, I struggled with the puzzles. Some of this is due to my new-father brain, I’m sure (I played the game over a couple of late-night sessions), and all of them make sense once they’re solved. But I wound up using the hint system more than I was expecting to, largely because I had a hard time getting my bearings. Many of the puzzles hinge on using historically-appropriate equipment, like (Spoiler - click to show) making the lighter work and fixing the wagon-wheel, but the way objects were described often made it hard for me to picture what was going on. Location descriptions were also often really verbose, with a lot of detail on the environment and relevant objects, as well as usually having a couple of additional paragraphs laying out what a nearby bad guy was up to. Again, this is probably a strength, since it helps get the player grounded in a complicated, unfamiliar environment – but something about the writing sometimes left me feeling a bit at sea.

Another reason I found the puzzles hard is that the vibe of Mockingbird is much more serious than I was expecting. While the blurb and cover art aren’t zany by any means, the presentation of the disarmed singing-cowboy protagonist whose wits and guitar are going to save the day led me to expect something reasonably lighthearted. Deviating from parser-comedy conventions is no bad thing, but in this case, one way the difference plays out is that the puzzles are ruthless than I was expecting. They're all about getting rid of various outlaws who are keeping you from the ranch house where your sweetheart is being held, but while I was mostly trying to disarm them or knock them out, the actual solutions were way more bloodthirsty. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed how the game takes its premise seriously – but seriously doesn’t have to mean violent, and personally this choice didn’t work well for me.

Finally, while the game is technically solid and I didn’t run into any bugs, I found it was missing a number of conveniences that I’ve come to expect from modern IF. The biggest offender is a door locked with three different keys – once I’d solved all the puzzles needed to collect them, I tried just typing S or OPEN DOOR, but nope, I had to manually unlock each different lock, with lots of disambiguation issues along the way because UNLOCK BRONZE WITH BRONZE wasn’t understood (nor does UNLOCK DOOR WITH BRONZE KEY work – you need to match each key to each lock). This is a minor annoyance in the grand scheme, but it still look me like two dozen turns to get this stupid door opened, and there were a few other similar places, like futzing with (Spoiler - click to show)the gold casket or finding the block and tackle, where the parser wasn’t as helpful as I wanted it to be.

So yeah, this is a review full of niggles of what’s a really well-done game, and I know a good amount of my caviling above is really down to personal preference – there’s a lot of good work and solid craft that went into Mockingbird, and I love seeing more historical games in the Comp. Sadly it didn’t fully gel for me, but I’m definitely looking forward to seeing what the author does next.

Highlight: I loved the lavish historical notes available after winning the game – I’m kind of a history nerd so I love this stuff (though see next point…)

Lowlight: OK, so the game is set in 1867, but in the epilogue the main character reflects on how “President Johnson will snuff out the embers” of the Confederate dead-ender movement the outlaws are supporting. Come on, this is post Swing Around the Circle! Sure, the local military head, General Sheridan, was a staunch Reconstructionist, but from the timing implied by the notes, he was at best only weeks away from being transferred away by the soft-on-Confederates Johnson! (OK, I suppose maybe the singing cowboy isn’t so up on politics, but come on, this feels like an oversight -- albeit one the author's said will be changed in a post-Comp update).

How I failed the author: er, per the above, I may have been overly-fixated on historical minutiae.

The Golden Heist, by George Lockett and Rob Thorman

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A classical romp, December 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I’m a firm believer in playing games in the random order that the Comp page spits out. Sure, it’d be easy and immediately-rewarding to jump around looking for games from authors I know and picking the ones with blurbs that immediately appeal. But that would mean I wouldn’t give as much attention to games by new or lesser-known authors, and would probably make me burn out on getting through the full Comp, since I’d be front-loading the stuff I’m likely toto dig and backloading games that might take more of an effort to play. With that said, I am only human, and every Comp, there’s a game or two that strikes my fancy right off the bat, leaving me to furtively scroll down, drool over the blurb, and anticipate the moment when I finally get to play.

Reader, since October first I’ve been jonesing to dig into The Golden Heist, since it seems laser-targeted to appeal to my interests. I’m a sucker for a good heist, and the record will show I’m quite a fan of lightly-comic Classical settings (ahem). And I’ve long wanted to visit the ruins of the Domus Aurea – while I haven’t managed it yet, I have walked past the entrance while pestering my wife with fun facts about it (she really appreciated that, I’m sure). So while I think this is a fun, well-designed game that anyone will enjoy, you might want to take the following rave review with a grain of salt given how many of my buttons it manages to hit.

To be successful, The Golden Heist needs to walk a tightrope between breezy accessibility and historical grounding – anyone drawn in by the specificity of the premise is going to want to see the game reflect what we actually know about this time and place in early-Imperial Rome, but at the same time, a heist needs zippy dialogue, narrow escapes, and surprise reversals that can’t be too indebted to plodding realism. It’s a tough balance to strike, but the game manages it really well, with incidental details about things like the fire hazards endemic to ordinary life in Rome lightly scattered throughout the story. The take on Nero, too, is pretty pulpy, but I think is closely modeled on the portrayal in Suetonius (whether or not the dishier bits of the Twelve Caesars were anything other than scurrilous gossip is whole separate question).

Of course, the player needs something to do in this well-realized setting, which brings us to the heist. It’s all well-motivated – your father was an architect who helped build Nero’s new golden palace, but was cruelly cast aside after an injury, so now you’re out to rob the place blind as an act of revenge that will incidentally make you rich – and while there’s not much of a separate planning phase, which is something I enjoy in these kinds of stories, you do get to choose one of three mutually-exclusive partners for the caper and bring their particular specialty (fists, wits, or brains) to bear. I went with charming rogue Felix – he seemed lucky – which had a major impact on how things played out, both lending his talents to overcoming some of the obstacles we encountered and adding some complications of his own, as some of his past swindles caught up with him at the wrong time.

The heist itself plays out as a series of obstacles that need to be confronted in sequence, from making your way in (I had the choice to blag in the front or sneak in the back) to connecting with a contact to setting up your distraction to the light puzzle-solving required to get into the vault, and climaxing with the desperate rush to escape once things go inevitably pear-shaped. While the tone stays breezy (and bringing Felix along set up some pretty good jokes, including his threatening bluff that the main character’s a Macedonian known as Alexander the Great With His Fists), there’s definitely a ratcheting up of tension.

I’m not sure whether it’s possible to have to abort the heist early if things go too wrong, but it certainly feels like there are degrees of success or failure that have consequences later, especially in the push-your-luck escape bit. I have to confess that my run was more Benny Hill than Danny Ocean, with a few small missteps in the opening cascading into big problems on the way out. Still, I managed to get away with a reasonable chunk of loot (though the game seemed to think I’d lifted Nero’s golden lyre when I’d actually left it behind), and I’m eager to replay post-Comp to see if I can do any better. And given how big a role Felix played, I’d imagine that picking one of the other sidekicks would feel like a substantially new experience.

There are certainly some parts of the game that don’t work as well as the rest – in particular, the puzzle to unlock the vault feels too adventure-gamey to me – plus there are a couple typos, and it’s a little disappointing not to have the larger cast and cross-cutting of scenes that you sometimes get in heist stories. Still, even discounting the way the setting and vibe play to my preferences, Golden Heist is a fun, fleet piece of work that lived up to my high expectations.

Highlight: Picking just one is really hard, but I did especially enjoy the bonkers way the running-away portion of the heist played out, with priceless treasures of the Julio-Claudians bouncing across the marble floors.

Lowlight: I’ve refrained from mentioning it so far, but much of the game’s text is timed, fading in sentence by sentence. It comes in pretty quickly, but still, why must authors do this?

How I failed the author: While I was 2/3 of the way through the game’s major puzzle, Henry woke up hard from a long nap, with a dirty diaper, a gas back-up, an empty stomach, and a nose stuffed with boogers. Seeing to all that took quite a bit of time, but it’s a testament to how much I dug this game that I felt like I’d barely missed a beat when I came back to it.

You are SpamZapper 3.1, by Leon Arnott

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Too much of a good thing, December 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

With a new Matrix sequel coming out I think reasonably soon (“linear time” is a concept that feels like it only applies to other people ever since Henry came) I’ve been reminded of why I found the previous set so utterly disappointing. Like basically every then-teenaged boy I was very excited by the first one, and I thought it ended on a really exciting note: the humans were poised to go on offense, and clearly the way they were going to do that was via mass-Satori, awakening all the people trapped in the Matrix from their illusions - and crashing the machines’ power systems in the process. But then the sequels arrived and were, uh, not that – instead of a Buddhist parable of human liberation, we were suddenly supposed to be invested in all these new AI characters and their muddy Gnostic maundering about destiny for two long movies.

This may be running a little afield when assessing You are SpamZapper 3.1 – though the turn-of-the-millennium setting means it’s tapping into at least some of the same zeitgeist – but I had a similar reaction to the game, as what initially seemed like a winsome workplace comedy turned into an overlong melodrama about immortal intelligences and their codependent relationships with their users. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and I think it’ll find an audience that enjoys the heightened emotion and big-idea twists it has to offer, but it didn’t land for me as well as it probably deserves.

Now that I’ve spoiled a bit of where the story goes, I should lay out where it starts, which is with your anthropomorphized spam-blocking software meeting a new coworker (an email plugin that dings when an arriving message hits the inbox) and logging in for a busy day’s shift zapping spam. This segment of the game makes elegant use of the sometimes-constrained nature of a choice-based game, since the only agency you have is to block or approve incoming messages one by one. As the flood of email rises, you start to get a sense of who the human user’s friends are, and also a retrospectively-idyllic look at vintage-2000 email ads.

I enjoyed this bit, but it definitely goes on for a while (I think 50-odd emails) before the main plot stats to emerge. Because this is not just a regular workday: a friend of the user’s (Laurie) is having issues with her Christian-conservative father, who’s considering taking her computer away. The stakes for this are higher than just being e-grounded, though, since Laurie has, uh, fallen in love with another program, the letter-writing wizard in her word-processor. To avert the separation of these two lovers, you need to work together with the other programs to change the father’s mind about the temptations posed by technology. Along the way, you also learn to deal with your crippling self-esteem and anxiety issues (you’re perpetually worried that if you make too many spam-blocking mistakes your user will uninstall you), plus there’s a recurring subplot going into way too much detail on the mechanics of why the programs are sentient – it’s not just a comedy bit we’re supposed to go with, in fact these email plug-ins are incarnations of immortal noosphere intelligences who exist simultaneously at all points in time (there’s yet another plot strand set in a post-climate-apocalypse world).

It is a whole lot, in other words, and reader, I can’t say I followed all the way along the journey. The writing is solid enough – the different programs have a good amount of characterization, and there are some really good jokes involving the different chimes the new-mail signal program can make (I remember that duck quack!) and all the different obnoxious spam running around the early-00’s internet. But there’s also a lot of text here, most of it delivered in linear click-to-advance fashion that started to feel exhausting by the second hour, and some things are definitely over-explained. Similarly, Zappy’s various crises of confidence began to feel fairly belabored by the end. I also really had a hard time investing in the love story between a girl and her Word template: I get that we’re supposed to see the programs as metaphors for people, but their obsessive, near-slavish devotion to their user stands as a creepy barrier to taking the metaphor seriously.

There are some puzzles and choices to break up the progression of the story, and a few of these I thought were quite clever: your merry band of AIs only has a few things they’re allowed to do, so figuring out how to leverage those abilities, which includes leveraging opportunities in the giant mountain of spam, is generally pretty fun (though there is one pick-the-right-spam-message-to-exploit puzzle that felt like it required reading the author’s mind, as the characters even comment on what an off-the-wall idea it is). The balance between puzzles and reading seemed off to me, though – I wanted less text in between the interactive bits.

In fact that – less – is just what I wanted for You are SpamZapper as a whole: less word-count, sure, but I also think I would have enjoyed the game more if a few of the plot’s twists and turns had been excised in favor of a leaner and more compelling progression, and if some of the crazier ideas had been weeded out where they get in the way of the emotional core of the story.

Highlight: I really liked all the mail-ping jokes – something about that bit of circa-2000 Internet nostalgia works for me.

Lowlight: I ran into a bug around the bit where you (Spoiler - click to show)open a new credit card – a development-tools window popped up at the bottom of the screen that made it hard to click the links, though eventually this went away (I played in a Safari browser on an iPhone).

How I failed the author: I was really tired when I played the first part of the game, so the business where two characters were sharing an email account left me permanently confused about who was who.

Fine Felines, by Felicity Banks

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
More than just cute (though it is cute), December 6, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I’ve heard various theories for how to do well in IF Comp posited over the years, but Fine Felines cuts the Gordian knot with an outside-the-box strategy that’s obvious in retrospect: jam a game chockablock with kitty pictures and wait for the 10-out-of-10s to roll in. That’s not all this ChoiceScript entry has going for it, since I found the economic side of the cat-breeding system engaging, the potentially-twee premise is leavened by some more serious themes, and the writing is assured too, sketching in four different romanceable NPCs and juggling the different subplots with aplomb. But despite trying to maintain critical distance, I still spent a disproportionate amount of my time with Fine Felines cooing over photos of kittens – I’m not made of stone!

The main thrust of the game is as advertised: in the wake of the death of your disabled mother, for whom you’d been the primary caregiver, you’ve decided to use your inheritance to set up as a cat breeder. I know nothing about the specifics of the business, but Fine Felines goes into just enough detail to be fun, making sure you need to consider things like license requirements and the characteristics of different breeds of cat but providing enough info and context that I never felt like I was in over my head. The game’s roughly divided into two phases: in the startup portion, you meet different cat-breeder NPCs and decide which two (of six) cats you want to use to seed your stable, while spending your nest egg to keep the kitties healthy and happy, with options for food, exercise equipment, and more, as well as the advertising and overhead every business needs. Based on your decisions here, you’ll eventually wind up with a number of kittens, and the second phase is about caring for them and hopefully selling them to their lucky new owners.

These systems aren’t tuned particularly harshly – without agonizing over my decisions, I wound up with a successful business that was swimming in cash by the end. But the choices still feel meaningful, and it’s satisfying to see the main character’s life get better. It helps that this isn’t a dry management minigame – all the decisions you need to make on how to run your business are embedded in the narrative, and many of your choices aren’t made in the abstract, but also let you engage with the cast of NPCs. When you pick the breed of cats you want to purchase, for example, you’re also picking which of the breeders you want to spend more time with, and potentially check in with when crises hit.

Beyond this main thread, there’s an additional subplot involving your character being diagnosed with fibromyalgia, and having to use some of their financial and emotional resources to protect their health while running a successful business adds an additional, more serious tone – though again, I found that the game’s difficulty was easy enough that this became an upbeat story of adjusting to life with a disability, while not sugar-coating the challenges that the disease poses.

All in all, Fine Felines succeeds at what it sets out to do. If I have a critique, it’s that the various NPCs, while endearingly drawn and refreshingly diverse, didn’t for me take on a life of their own beyond their somewhat-tropey initial presentation. Given the game’s relatively short running time and the broad range of potential interactions, though, this is a minor fault. And did I mention that it’s lavishly illustrated with cat pictures? 10/10, wins the internet.

Highlight: look, I hate to be superficial, but again, these are adorable kitties, and despite the fact that I’m primarily a dog person, I still found the choice of which cats to pick super hard because they were all so adorable.

Lowlight: I wound up choosing a matched pair of cats from the same breed, since the game seemed to present that as the default option – going with two different breeds requires clicking through to a second set of choices, and also seemed like it required rolling the dice on whether these cats who didn’t know each other would get along. But this choice made me feel like I missed out on interacting with two of the main NPCs, since it was hard to come up with reasons to talk to them rather than the one who was an expert on the breed I selected. True, this design means replays will be more rewarding, and Fine Felines seems like it’s meant to be run through more than once, but I still think it’d be more fun if I’d been pushed more aggressively towards the mix-and-match option.

How I failed the author : again I’m going to mark this down as a secret success, since in the last few weeks I’ve gained a new appreciation for the joys of caring for a helpless but cute little creature.

Silicon and Cells, by Nic Barkdull and Matthew Borgard

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Stylish cyberpunk upgrade-em-up, December 6, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

As I’ve mentioned in other reviews, I have evolving views about custom parsers, but at this point in the Comp I’m starting to realize I should probably develop some thoughts about custom choice engines too! I'm lucky that it’s Silicon and Cells that occasions the thought, because it’s a really impressive piece of work. The system has an attractive visual design, with a nice color scheme and the ability to display graphics; the text is clean, large, and readable; it’s quickly responsive to user clicks; and it’s got support for timed events and other bells and whistles.

The engine’s in service of a game that’s on the more systemic side of the choice-based spectrum, as you guide a plucky heroine through a heist and subsequent investigations in a cyberpunk world. The hook here is that through the course of the story, you pick up a variety of Deus-Ex-style upgrades – for each slot, you get a choice of either psionic or cybernetic options which works a little differently – that open up new choices if they’re activated at the appropriate time. You only have limited energy, though, so you’ll usually need to choose which to have powered up. In most sequences, you can freely reallocate energy so you can lawnmower your way through the options, but there are some timed events where preparation – or manual dexterity in clicking to shift energy – will lead to better outcomes.

It’s this aspect of the game that gives rise to the “metroidvania” tag in the blurb, as you spend a good amount of time looping back over previous locations to see whether a newly-acquired ability has unlocked any new possibilities. This is just as satisfying here as it is in a traditional side-scroller, too, so it’s neat to see the mechanic deployed in a radically different genre.

As for the story behind this system, it’s a solid one, though Silicon and Cells is less innovative on this side of things. The introduction feels rather abrupt, as we’re thrown into an expository conversation where Jaya, the protagonist, meets with a mentor character and gains her first ability in service of a planned heist of a high-rolling casino. It took me a little while to feel like I was up to speed on why we were doing this heist and how the characters related – plus I found Jaya was a bit of a cipher at first.

This initial awkwardness goes away reasonably quickly, though, as the momentum of the heist – and its fallout – creates immediate goals, and Jaya begins to develop more of a personality. She’s an appealing figure, from one of the city’s slums but trying to do better not just for herself but also her community, and as the plot expands in scope you wind up getting the chance to make decisions that can have a really significant impact. Most of the main beats are things you’ve seen before in cyberpunk stories – there’s an all-powerful AI running the city, a corporation with shady motives, a circle of founding hackers with messy personal fallout – but it’s all well executed, and the different environments and challenges provide good variety. There’s a fantasy MUD that’s the playground of one of the aforementioned hackers, the casino, which has some working gambling games to play (though I think I found a bug where I couldn’t win at the Yes/No/Go game in the Pearly Gates section, albeit I had so much money by that point it didn’t matter), and various cyberspace archives and corporate HQs, all rendered in tight prose that provides just enough detail to be memorable. Overall, by the ending, I was invested in the story and satisfied with how the choices I’d made – both about gear and about people – wound up playing out. I know download-only games sometimes don’t get as much attention in the Comp, especially if they’re choice-based, but this one’s definitely worth a play.

Highlight: I enjoyed the MUD pastiche, from the realistically-annoying veteran player to the bartender who uses timed-text to deliver a well-paced joke.

Lowlight: the plot thread involving the casino owner felt underdeveloped to me, which was too bad since I enjoyed the initial verbal sparring with her and would have enjoyed seeing it go somewhere – possibly there are alternate approaches where she plays more of a role in the endgame, though.

How I failed the author: the timed events are fun and well-designed, but I’m clumsy with my laptop’s touchpad in the best of circumstances (I haven’t had much chance to sit down at a desk these last few weeks) so reallocating energy to my mods in real time was very hard. Fortunately the game’s forgiving, and autoresolved the key challenges in my favor even when I was flailing, though I was embarrassed that it basically wound up playing itself.

D'ARKUN, by Michael Baltes

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Diet Anchorhead, December 3, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I’m bummed I already brought up the comparison in my Ghosts Within review, because now that I’ve played D’ARKUN, I’m turning into the Boy Who Cried Anchorhead. The similarity is even clearer this time out, though, as while the former game had a dreamlike vibe very much its own, in this long Dialog game we’re firmly in remixed Lovecraft-plot territory. There’s a decayed mansion with secret passages a-plenty (including an attic telescope), a seaside town with more than its share of creepy inhabitants, nightmares that grow worse as the days go by, a wicked inheritance dredging the sins of the past into the present day, and – natch – tentacles galore. While D’ARKUN has its weak spots, with a thinner-than-it-needed-to-be story and some underclued puzzles in the back half, it very much scratches that old Mythos itch.

Starting with that plot, the impetus for getting the protagonist to this accursed stretch of the German coastline is a new one on me – your student character is on vacation and managed to rent the world’s worst Airbnb – but after an eldritch encounter all thoughts of relaxation are put aside as you start delving into the mysteries of your rented house. This shift happens too abruptly for my taste, as there isn’t much time spent establishing why you’re suddenly climbing down cliff-faces and looking behind paintings, except that there’s not much else to do to pass the time (if the cosmic horrors hadn’t materialized, one wonders how you’d have spent your holiday).

Exploration is almost immediately rewarding, though, and it’s just fun to find a madman’s scrawled notes or hidden compartments in the family mausoleum. This first half of the game is well paced too, as new locations gradually open up as the clock moves forward (the accompanying map is really evocative), and you work through satisfying puzzles that aren’t too tricky: there’s a well-implemented set of climbing gear that allows you to clamber around obstacles, and while there are some objects that require SEARCHing to find, the ABOUT text gives fair warning. There is a tricky light puzzle, where you need to make good use of the handful of turns your lantern has before it runs out of oil, but copious use of UNDO saw me through.

I found the second half didn’t fully pay off the promising opening, though. Partially this is due to the implementation starting to feel less polished: I started running into disambiguation issues, there are some guess the verb issues (figuring out how to use the syringe was tortuous), and to get to one location I think you have to type RIDE TO SIEBENSCHIEDERSTEIN, which should never be required of any player. There are also more NPCs to deal with, and they’re drawn rather thinly, without many dialogue options or much in the way of interactivity to make them feel like anything other than contrivances. Beyond implementation, the clueing also starts to get thinner: there’s a puzzle involving getting past a guard that feels like it involves reading the author’s mind, a maze that has a clever twist but will probably get brute-forced, and at another point progress requires you to get into what looks like an unwinnable situation and spend several turns waiting before a deus ex machina rescues you, rather than undoing or restoring to safety.

More impactfully, I didn’t feel like the plot really cohered. It gestures in the direction of enough Lovecraftian tropes that I can see where things are meant to be going – there’s a horrifying ritual, an extradimensional temple, a surprise or two – but the stakes are sketchy, both for the world as a whole but also for your character. A bit more polish and a bit more focus on the subjectivity of the protagonist would have made D’ARKUN a very worthy Anchorhead-alike; as it is, it’s a good time but requires the player to fill in some blanks.

Highlight: the creepy mansion is a good example of the genre; it’s not too big, but dense with creepy scenery and not-too-tough exploration puzzles.

Lowlight the recipe puzzle is neat in theory, but required more trial and error than I wanted – there are clues helping you figure out what the mixture is supposed to look like, but there’s some vagueness in the puzzle (Spoiler - click to show)(I got the potion to look “shiny”, as the notes said, but still needed to add another dose of the relevant ingredient) that made it unsatisfying to solve.

How I failed the author: this is a long one and it took me a couple days to work through it, so that’s perhaps contributed to my feeling that it’s a bit scattershot.

Universal Hologram, by Kit Riemer

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An ontological heist, December 3, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Universal Hologram takes the player on a joyride through altered states both inner (via lucid dreaming) and outer (via stacked simulated realities), with enough big ideas to make Philip K. Dick blush and off-kilter prose that sells the premise with brio.

Admittedly, it starts a little slow – the opening is well considered in name-checking some of the major concepts that will be explored in what’s to come, and giving the player the opportunity to dig into what they’re most interested in, be that the history of the far-future world, the mechanics of lucid dreaming, or just interacting with other people. But it isn’t until maybe a third of the way in that a real conflict or sense of urgency start to come into the story; before that, it’s pretty much all exploration. Since the writing is good and the world is interesting (it’s a sort of Martian post-scarcity techno-utopia where the Internet is a person and the Earth is gone, but much less annoying than I’ve made that sound), I was sufficiently engaged to stick around until the game got more grabby. I’m once again in the position of having played on my phone, so I was too lazy to copy and paste bits of writing that I liked and I’m therefore in the unenviable position of having to broadly characterize it and say “trust me, it’s good.” But I really liked the way the writing takes a off-kilter conversational, even occasionally lightly confrontational, tone while digging into the heady concepts underlying the setting.

The plot, once it comes, ties together the game’s different themes with some elegance, and the choices at that point shift from being primarily about which parts of the setting you want to dig into to allowing you to decide how or whether you want to cooperate with the ontological heist your character gets press-ganged into, with some surprising action-y bits even coming into play to change things up in the late game. I’m not sure the ending I got completely stuck the landing (though see “how I failed the author,” below), but the journey was well worth the price of admission.

Highlight: I’m a sucker for a good heist sequence, and this one delivers, with high stakes and curve-balls coming left and right.

Lowlight: A tradeoff of this fleet, too-clever-by-half voice is the occasional clanger – there’s one out-of-context Lawnmower Man reference that really should have been left on the cutting room floor.

How I failed the author: after I finished the game, I was turning over its big-picture themes and intentionally-disjointed plot in my brain to see how it all coheres. But almost immediately Henry needed a diaper change, and it was a rough one with two mid-change pees, and after the chaos died down I’d lost the thread and as a result my final take on what the game’s saying and doing is fuzzier than I’d like!

Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Lovecraftiana with a twist or two, December 3, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The blurb for Beneath Fenwick says its genre is “suspense, with horror overtones”, but the opening of this parser-aping Twine game couldn’t be hitting the Lovecraft notes harder if it tried. The protagonist is on a creepy old bus, being driven towards an isolated New England town, and once you arrive the dilapidated architecture, pug-ugly inhabitants, and even the creepy grocery store invoke Shadow Over Innsmouth so directly that it’s clearly intentional. The story doesn’t stick too closely to that template, though – we’re in the present day, not the 1920s, and rather than being alone, the botany-student protagonist (named… Hedgerow) arrives alongside her boyfriend, as they’re both planning on attending the local college. Vive la difference, but still, I wound up wishing it had stuck with the horror tropes more fully, as the story slowed down in its last half before ending too abruptly. And while I usually enjoy the puzzley gameplay this kind of Twine game enables, Beneath Fenwick could have benefitted from leaning into its choice-based nature a little more fully.

Starting with the second piece first, the game’s interface does a really good job of mimicking parser conventions. Notable bits of scenery, usable objects, and other characters are highlighted in the text, and clicking on any of them pops up a new window with a more detailed description and possibly further possibilities for interaction – taking, unlocking, all the usual medium-dry-goods stuff, plus talking, which gives you a choice of topics. There’s a full inventory a click away, which works similarly, as well as a subsystem that lets you combine two or more carried objects. The major departure is in navigation: instead of compass directions, exits are listed by name.

This works well, but what you get is what you get, and I wound up missing more traditional Twine touches. Beyond the plain-vanilla puzzles, there are long cutscenes – especially the opening sequence – where there’s just a single continue option available, and the keyword-based conversation system doesn’t allow for dialogue choices. I suppose that it’s odd that I’m totally willing to roll with these limitations in a parser game, but it still seems a shame to do so much work to re-create in Twine the things that parser systems aren’t as good at.

The other issue I ran into had to do with moving around the world. The map is very dense, with a number of different roads and locations in the town, and the boarding house where the main characters wind up staying has an especially large number of rooms whose interconnections aren’t obvious and which have forgettable names. I know many folks find compass directions inaccessible, but they would have made it much easier for me to build a mental model of how the geography fit together.

Story-wise, Beneath Fenwick does a good job with the gradual build of tension. It’s beyond clear from the get-go that something’s deeply wrong in this town, but the game doesn’t tip its hand too early by indicating which of the many, many creepy people, places, and things on hand are the main threats. There’s at least one clever bait-and-switch (Spoiler - click to show)(the university at the edge of town isn’t a Miskatonic-style hotbed of occultism – in fact you never make it there), and it steers clear of the typical Lovecraft-game shift into gonzo violence midway through. At the same time, that means that some of the mid- and late-game felt slow, and even unmotivated – the requirement to fully explore the boarding house on the second day before running your errands felt artificial, and to get to the endgame sequence you need to break into a shed with no indication there’s anything important there.

Speaking of the ending, it’s effectively surprising, but rather abrupt – there’s no denouement to speak of, and the resolution of the mysteries of Fenwick felt disappointingly straightforward. I almost felt like the game stopped midway through – I would have definitely stuck around for a second hour that added in some more interesting puzzles and deeper interactions, while ramping up the tension into a more sustained climax. It’s always good to leave the player wanting more, of course, but maybe not so much more.

Highlight: The main character’s boyfriend – Randall, an architecture major – is a delightful fuddy-duddy despite being in his early 20s. He even introduces the protagonist (his girlfriend, again) as “my companion”!

Lowlight: It is possible to die in Beneath Fenwick, and while it offers a one-turn rewind, I think this can leave you stuck in an unwinnable state. Fortunately I’d done a save at the beginning of the day when this happened, but it was still frustrating to have to replay a bunch of the quotidian exploration I’d already completed.

How I failed the author: Playing the game went fine, but Henry’s been super congested and fussy today so I’ve written this review in like ten two-minute bursts, so apologies if it’s choppy and doesn’t make sense!

Closure, by Sarah Willson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Texting adventure, December 2, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I’ve seen a number of games that ape the text-message format, but Closure manages something novel and very impressive by doing so in parser, rather than choice based, format. It’s a brilliant move, since text-adventure shorthand makes more sense if you’re texting someone in a time-sensitive situation, and Closure goes the extra mile by recasting all the parser error messages in the voice of your friend. Oh, and through some interpreter wizardry, the game actually looks like it’s playing out via text bubbles, complete with short but not irritating delays between messages.

As impressive as the first impression is, Closure isn’t all style and no substance because the gameplay itself is satisfying too. It’s a short, one-room game, as you guide your friend Kira through an ill-advised break-in so she can search her ex’s dorm room for clues to what drove them apart. It does the usual one-room game trick of providing telescoping detail – there’s a closet, which when opened has another half-dozen objects, and so on – and since this is a character-focused piece, most of what you’re doing is just examining, with only one real puzzle (it’s a pretty clever one, though – it uses a trick that often seems a little unfair in a regular parser game, but makes total sense here). The voice is dead on, and it’s satisfying to peel back the layers of the ex’s plausibly-realized college life.

If I have a quibble, it’s that Kira’s moment of revelation felt a bit on-on-the-nose, and her sense of what counts as someone’s identity is pretty juvenile. Plus I’m pretty sure she could have read between the lines and figured out what was going on earlier than she did. But hey, these are teenaged characters, so maybe that’s fitting.

Highlight: there are a lot of neat touches here, but one of my favorites was the elegant way the game responds if you take the high road and refuse to read the ex’s personal notes.

Lowlight: There’s a mad-libs style opening where you can type in some things you do to relax, with the responses getting braided into the game later on. This works as well as mad-libs stuff usually does in IF, which is to say, awkwardly (both narratively and on a technical level, as I capitalized my entries, and the capitalization was retained even when the responses came in the middle of sentences).

How I failed the author: with Henry mid-nap I was able to play through in one sitting, and even took notes and everything! I did forget to save a transcript though, so my new-father brain did still manage to mess something up.

The Waiting Room, by Billy Krolick

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Bare-bones but spooky, December 2, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

It’s a testament to the current state of visual design in IF that in this Comp, a Twine game that uses the default formatting (black background, white text, blue links, that recognizable font) really stands out. This isn’t a critique, though, both because I’ve got no leg to stand on (one reason I like making Inform games is because the idea of having to make aesthetic decisions gives me hives), but because the unfriendly vibe of plain-vanilla Twine creates a fittingly stark, oppressive mood for this ghost story set at the world’s worst nursing home (predictably, it’s in Florida).

The story hits the beats you’d expect given that setup, but again, that’s not necessarily a negative. The Waiting Room doesn’t waste much time establishing the protagonist (a newly-hired nurse) or their motivations, focusing more on creating a foreboding atmosphere from the jump, and while the scares start early and rarely stray beyond what’s expected, nonetheless they’re executed well. Some of the story strains credulity – the number of moldering corpses secreted around the place makes one wonder how much the last state inspector got bribed – and it’s hard to imagine many players being tempted by some of the alternate paths on offer, many of which come down to whether you want to cover up for a fellow nurse’s potentially fatal negligence or instead behave like a minimally moral human being. But for a quick horror piece like this, that’s very much secondary to the chills on offer. Since I definitely had hair standing up on the back of my neck at least once, I’m counting The Waiting Room a success.

Highlight: there’s one particular scare (Spoiler - click to show)(the one hinging on Paulie’s echolalia) that I’ll definitely remember the next couple of times I’m trying to get to sleep.

Lowlight: the protagonist is so thinly sketched, I was pretty sure we were headed for a “you were a ghost all along” twist – but nope, it’s on the level.

How I failed the author: I played this one alone at midnight, with most of the lights off – I was keeping an eye on a napping Henry while my wife slept in the other room. For once, rather than failing the author, I think my circumstances meant I played the game exactly the way it should be!

How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland, by V Dobranov

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Post-apocalyptic thrill-ride, December 2, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This short Twine game is basically just one extended chase sequence, but it’s a pacey, thrilling ride that keeps the excitement high without resorting to killing the player. The setup is classic postapocalyptic sci-fi – you and your trusty robot sidekick (actually, given his competence maybe you’re the sidekick?) are transporting a mystery cargo across the hostile wastes in your hovercraft when everything goes wrong. Dealing with ship repairs, fending off angry raiders, and surviving the consequences of your patrons’ decision to keep you in the dark keep the player busy, as there’s always a new crisis coming up.

What you’re meant to do next is usually clear, but figuring out the exact right places to look for the tools you need, or how best to shoot up the nomads, can require a bit of fumbling that ratchets up the tension. At first the interface was responsible for some of this clumsiness, since the inventory system is a little idiosyncratic, but once I figured out how it worked everything was very smooth. The story here goes exactly how you would expect, and all the characters remain stock types, but the high quality of the implementation still makes the game an entertaining way to spend half an hour.

Highlight: The descriptions of the wasteland were surprisingly evocative, given that it could have easily just been a sketched-in backdrop for the action.

Lowlight: The ending is the one place where the pacing fails; after the clear climax of the story, there’s an extended but simple sequence where you secure transportation for your escape, and then the game ends anticlimactically, without much of a denouement. It would have been more satisfying had the ending been either hard up against the action-packed climax, or pushed back to allow more room for the aftermath of the story to be established.

How I failed the author: I was once again playing this left-handed on my phone, so I didn’t copy-and-paste any of the wasteland descriptions to illustrate the highlight – you’ll just need to take my word for it.

Sting of the Wasp, by Jason Devlin

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Wickedly fun, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2004

(This is a repost of a review I wrote on the IF newsgroups right after the 2004 Comp)

If ever a game were a guilty pleasure, Sting of the Wasp would be it; the overall plot is pure soap-opera, the NPC interactions are all about eking out the maximum amount of cattiness, and the puzzles derive their enjoyment value from pure spite -- all of which is to say that it hits its design goals exactly. Guiding the super-snob player character on a rampage through a high-end country club inhabited by people even more deserving of comeuppance than you do is entertaining on its own, and it's all the more so when combined with the viciously funny descriptions and withering repartee on offer.

Indeed, the game's great success is in setting the mood. Part of this is due to the author's strong writing skills — there are some laugh-out-loud moments, such as the PC's observation that a half-eaten bowl of salad bespeaks some rival's lack of willpower in sticking to her diet, and the dialogue is razor sharp — but much of the heavy lifting is done by the robust world simulation. NPCs will remark on the items you're carrying around, smells are implemented, and the scenery is both dense and well-described.

This very much reinforces the sense of immersion, but it's the puzzles which really nail the feel. Without exception, every puzzle you solve winds up advantaging you at somebody else's expense, whether it's through property damage, blackmail, exploiting a dangerous allergy, or just destroying some poor old lady's hair. The PC goes about her wicked business with flair and panache, and it's hard not to cackle at her exploits as long as one isn't encumbered by too many moral objections (which isn't hard in a farce this enjoyable).

There are a few flaws — I think there's a bug with the exit descriptions on the dining terrace, and the social comment is a bit too easy to be worth anything other than a few cheap laughs — but they do little to detract from the overall experience. The author knew exactly what he was going for, and the prose, puzzles, and implementation all work together flawlessly to convey his caustic vision.

Cyborg Arena, by John Ayliff
More than just fisticuffs, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The credits for Cyborg Arena include thank-yous to a large number of Patreon donors, and I can see how a game like this would be perfect for building a dedicated following on that platform: it’s got a compelling and accessible hook, clean storytelling, lots of opportunities to customize the player character’s identity and key relationships, a complex but manageable set of mechanics, and a half-hour length that’s perfect for showcasing the impact of choices without letting things become unmanageable (and also makes it possible to finish new projects at a reasonable clip). Turns out this makes for a solid IF Comp entry too!

The premise here is sturdy, and well-communicated by the blurb – you guide a cyborg gladiator through a climactic fight – but everything is realized with more craft than it needs to be, from the grabby in medias res opening starting things off with adrenaline to the embedded character-defining flashbacks that go beyond the literal nuts and bolts of your stats to get at how you navigate the dog-eat-dog social milieu of the gladiator stables. While the worldbuilding doesn’t go beyond what’s needed to support the big fight, there’s also some plausible social satire that I thought was well handled.

All this attention to bells and whistles (oh, and on that subject, the visual design is good without being overly fussy) doesn’t come at the expense of the game’s core appeal, either. The fight involves juggling two distinct tracks – there’s a set of rock-paper-scissors combat options that depend on the stats you’ve chosen for you and your opponent, but you also need to keep the audience’s interest high, which requires not repeating the same moves too many times. This means you have to mix things up and trade off fighting effectiveness against crowd appeal, sometimes taking a punch if it adds to the match's excitement. It’s not especially hard, but it’s engaging to decide on your round-by-round approach, and this added complexity makes victory feels satisfying.

If I have a critique, it’s that the game ends rather abruptly, and while there are lots of different ways the fight can conclude based on your decisions, there’s not much of a denouement laying out your character’s fate beyond the immediate events of the night. But since one of the key tenets of showmanship is to always leave the audience wanting more, it’s hard to lay too much fault here – Cyborg Arena is already much more generous than it needs to be.

Highlight: The game takes a page from modern deckbuilders by disclosing what move your opponent is going to make each turn, meaning combat isn’t a roll of the dice but requires strategic consideration of your options, as you consider both short-term success and your longer-term positioning in the fight overall.

Lowlight: I mentioned the abbreviated ending above, but I especially wanted a little more closure on the legal and social changes the game briefly sketches in – again, this is efficient worldbuilding but it left me feeling a bit unsatisfied at a lack of follow-through.

How I failed the author: Cyborg Arena is sufficiently short and player-friendly that I don’t think I could have messed it up if I tried.

After-Words, by fireisnormal

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Two-word tomfoolery, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

There’s lots of high-concept IF, but those concepts usually focus on a specific gameplay gimmick or unique setting – After-Words takes the road less traveled by adopting a constraint on the writing. Every sentence, description, and response in the game is at most two words long. There are two different ways you could go with this: one would be to keep things as stripped-down and literal as possible, to make sure the player always understands exactly what’s going on despite the limited number of words available to communicate, while the other would be to use evocative language, neologisms, and metaphor to paint a picture and engage the emotions even at the risk of leaving the player a bit at sea. After-Words opts for the latter approach, which makes for a more fun game overall though I did spend some time floundering.

The game elements are pretty unique, too. After-Words uses a custom web-based interface that’s narrowly-tailored to what it does. The main screen shows an icon-based grid map that you can directly navigate with arrows, gives you an interface element to toggle between your two available actions (looking and interacting), and features a small window for the text describing what you see in each location. You’re exploring a surreal city, most of which is initially gated off – unlocking the various barriers so you can open up the full grid takes up most of the game’s running time, and this is largely done via a series of simple item-based interactions. Sometimes this is as simple as using a coin to pay a bridge’s toll, but usually there’s some leap of logic required, based on interpreting the fantastical world sketched out by the game’s dreamlike language: figuring out how to repair the city’s screaming gunflowers, or how to impress the backflipping flickerking.

There’s only a minimal amount of story or context here – you’re solving puzzles because you’re a player and supposed to solve puzzles – but the writing does a good job of presenting a consistent world, and key themes do emerge: there’s a strong elemental vibe to the different districts of the city, religious practice seems to be a central concern of its residents, and what technology exists is bespoke and near-organic.

Getting to see new parts of the map, then, also means learning more about this strange, intriguing place, and solving the puzzles similarly provides a sense of the rules that govern it. I found this gameplay loop effective for about the first two-thirds of the half-hour running time. In the last ten minutes or so, the large number of open locations and slightly bigger inventory (previously there’d only been one or two items carried at a time) made it harder to intuit what steps would lead to progress, and reduced me to lawnmowering my way through the map. But overall I’d judge After-Words an experiment that succeeds – though I wouldn’t be shy about using the built-in hints to prevent it from wearing thin in the late-game.

Highlight: One location, described as the city’s “stochastic court”, just intrigued me no measure, and I spent a few minutes spinning out possible interpretations for what the legal system here could look like.

Lowlight: There’s one interaction – receiving a benediction from “in-sects” who inhabit the city’s “seahives” – that seems to break the two-word-sentence rule: ”our – buzz – blessing – buzz” only skates by on a technicality.

How I failed the author : As with many of the choice-based games, I played After-Words on my phone in between taking care of the baby, which wasn’t the best way to experience the game – using Safari to play it online, the top-of-window options (including save and load functionality, as well as hints and a walkthrough) weren’t visible, and using inventory items required a lot of awkward scrolling up and down. Dipping back in on my desktop makes the game a much smoother experience.

The Last Doctor, by Quirky Bones

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A tiny gem, November 30, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The Last Doctor is one of the slightest games in the Comp – my first playthrough took less than ten minutes, and there are only two or three substantive choices on offer. There’s basically zero context provided for anything, with the central-casting post-apocalyptic milieu only barely sketched and the doctor protagonist getting only a word or two of backstory and certainly nothing as specific as a name. And yet!

Since IF Comp is primarily concerned with text, writing that’s good enough can turn even the most prosaic game into a killer app – and the prose in the Last Doctor is quite good indeed. In the author’s capable hands, even a few details or a single line of dialogue are enough to conjure up an image or reveal character. As with most of the choice games, I played this one one-handed on my phone while Henry was napping, but atypically, I actually went to the trouble of typing out some of the bits of writing I liked so I could include them in this review. Your clinic is host to “two medical beds [and] a chessboard of pill bottles”, for example, and the choice to ask a patient a bunch of questions about their condition is labeled “introduce her to Socrates.” And the writing is good enough to enliven the central moral dilemma, which could feel hackneyed and contrived if told by a weaker pen, but here feels satisfying and just right, regardless of how you resolve it. Again, this is a small thing – but it’s a small, beautiful thing, which is no bad thing to be.

Highlight: I’ve singled out some of the favorite bits of writing, but I also admired the laconic scene-setting of “Your days are long. Your hair is short.”

Lowlight: I may have found a slight bug having to do with how the game tracked my choices: (Spoiler - click to show)opted to treat the scavenger with all the supplies I had, and then tried to save the syndicate boss but failed due to not having what I needed. But in the final conversation with Baba, he said a line that implied the boss had died because I’d refused to provide him treatment.

How I failed the author: I don’t think I did, happily enough – the effort to type out that Socrates gag one-handed was definitely worth it.

Codex Sadistica: A Heavy-Metal Minigame, by grave snail games

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A grungy heavy-metal adventure, November 30, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Codex Sadistica gives off big music-zine vibes: it’s got a self-consciously over-the-top aesthetic of total commitment to and love of heavy metal, with stripped-down gameplay where you solve puzzles almost exclusively through power chords. On the other hand, while the game’s perfectly functional, all its edges are rough, with implementation issues everywhere you look. Would it have violated Codex Sadistica’s artistic ethos to have butter-smooth programming and elegantly-implemented parser responses? Yes, 100%, but I still missed them.

The premise is a classic get-the-band-back-together quest, as you must go extricate your bandmates from their individual predicaments so you can storm the stage and kick off a performer who's overstaying his timeslot (admittedly, the game kinda lost me here, since Faramir Spidermoon’s eleven-act song-cycle of himself sounded awesome). The venue is a tight four-and-a-half locations, and the writing really lets you feel the grime and sweat coming off the walls. The puzzles you need to solve are grounded (sneaking bandmates past an overzealous fan, helping another win an argument with well-actually-ing dudebros), but the method for doing so is anything but: once you’ve got your first bandmate liberated, you can jam with them to create powerful effects, from a fuzzy doom-metal riff that conjures up fog to pirate-metal that summons a crowd of larcenous seagulls. Further complicating matters, you can genre-mix by playing with more than one of your bandmates at a time, increasing the face-rocking quotient while adding complexity.

This is a lot of fun, but as those examples indicate, it’s hard to deduce the consequence of the different musical effects just from their descriptions – we’re firmly in trial and error territory here. There aren’t so many combinations to make this annoying, and the writing is sufficiently fun to enliven even unsuccessful attempts, but this did mean that I didn’t get much satisfaction from solving the puzzles.

Now that I’ve segued over to critiques, it’s time to turn to those implementation issues. I didn’t run into any bugs that impacted progression, but there are a lot of niggles in Codex Sadistica. Locations list their contents using the default Inform rules, often redundantly when objects are already mentioned in the room description. Multiple plot-critical items don’t have descriptions (“you see nothing special about Mae’s Lighter.” Really?). Items and people mentioned in room descriptions sometimes aren’t actually present. Character interaction is handled with a TALK TO command, but this is never mentioned to the player. And damningly for a music-focused game, LISTEN, DANCE, and SING didn’t have any effect.

Again, given the context, I suppose this is all fair enough, and leveling these critiques just marks me out as the lame dad who brought his kid to the show and can’t shut up about how talented this band is so it’s a shame they don’t apply themselves a little more. But hey, now that I’m a dad, I come by this lameness honestly – so I do hope there’s a post-comp release to iron some of this stuff out.

Highlight and lowlight: I have a tricky combination *light for this one. An early puzzle requires you to help your guitarist get through a dungeon in their DnD game – awesome! But it’s a one-move sequence that’s over as soon as it begins – lame!

How I failed the author: my streak of luck with baby-napping (like, the amount of napping the baby was doing, not good fortune stealing somebody else’s baby) came to an end near the close of Codex Sadistica – Henry was waking up with a dirty diaper just as the climactic showdown kicked off, so I went straight to the walkthrough there when I couldn’t immediately solve the puzzle.

My Gender Is a Fish, by Carter Gwertzman

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Well-crafted and thought-provoking, November 30, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

My Gender is a Fish is a short, surrealist Twine game that’s hard to characterize. It’s not quite an allegory, nor a fable, but neither is it tied to the concrete in any meaningful sense (the inciting incident is a magpie swooping down and yoinking your gender identity). A sui generis work like this is usually, I find, either really good or really bad; happily, this time it’s the former. Since this is a short game with only a few choices and I don’t think any state changes, its success is pretty much 100% down to the writing, which is playful and thoughtful in equal measure.

The notional action involves the protagonist embarking into a dangerous forest in search of what they’ve lost, and considering whether various objects and creatures they run across are their lost gender, but what’s rewarding is the ruminations triggered by considering each possibility. While the subject matter is clearly serious, the tone here holds possible meanings or conclusions lightly, raising questions rather than driving towards any plodding conclusions. I found this approach really effective – as the world’s most boring cis straight guy, I think I sometimes come to art that’s about issues of gender from a more intellectual angle, but while the game probably most directly speaks to trans or genderqueer folks, I found its way of opening up these topics was sufficiently broad to resonate with me on a more personal level too.

Highlight: It’s hard to pick this one apart into component pieces, but I will say the way the opening smoothly slips from grounded description to the protagonist’s new metaphysical predicament was deftly done.

Lowlight: I maybe wish there’d been a little state-tracking, so that earlier choices had more of an impact on later ones? The fact that I can’t immediately tell what that would look like, though, means this might be a knee-jerk idea more driven by the conventions of choice-based games than something that would actually improve the game.

How I failed the author: Since this is a 10-minute game that’s making thoughtful points, but not in a needlessly obscure way, even I was incapable of messing this one up.

Fourbyfourian Quarryin', by Andrew Schultz

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A knight to remember, November 29, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I primarily come to IF for the story, but I have to say, I really appreciate it when a pure puzzler comes up in the middle of the Comp: there are usually lots more narrative-focused entries, so it’s really nice to have a change of pace that exercises completely different parts of my brain. This isn’t to say that FQ doesn’t have words – there’s actually a robust introductory story that follows on from where the prequel game (Fivebyfivia Delenda Est, entered in this year’s ParserComp) left off, and there are some good jokes as rewards for solving each challenge, hinging on a series of diplomatic “gaffes” being interpreted in bad faith as casus belli – but the main engagement here is working through a series of well-curated chess puzzles, as you place a limited set of pieces in a stripped-down five-by-five chess board to defeat a series of opposing kings.

Doing chess via parser-IF commands could be a fiddly nightmare, but the mechanics here are smooth as silk. There’s a well-done ASCII-art depiction of the chess board, plus an accessible description mode, so it’s always clear where things stand and it’s simple to move around and call in new pieces to your position (this sequel switches up the gameplay from FDE by dropping the requirement that your character navigate the board via the knight’s move). And the number of pieces at play in each puzzle isn’t too large, which keeps the gameplay focused on thinking of solutions, rather than having to type a bunch of commands implementing them. Similarly, the game’s overall length and pacing are great, providing just enough time to lay out the mechanics, develop them a bit, and end before it wears out its welcome.

As with many of Andrew Schultz’s games, the core gameplay is supported with lots of documentation, a tutorial mode, help commands, and options. And in addition to some gentle hints, there’s a robustly-annotated walkthrough fully explaining the solutions (actually there are three, one each for the hard and normal versions of the game, as well as a brief version with just the key commands). It’s all very helpful, but I do wonder whether it might be a little much for a new player who didn’t play the prequel. Relatedly, I really enjoyed the introductory text, but it is fairly dense and could take some effort to decode in order to understand what the goal of the puzzles actually is – now that the press of the Comp is over, prospective players might be well-served playing the first game first.

While I’m mentioning small cavils, I did find the game text introducing the idea of the “traitor” pieces pretty confusing – the game told me that “[y]our trips to Southwest Fourbyfouria and West Fourbyfouria will include the yellow knight who is not as loyal to their King as they should be,” but it seemed like the yellow knight was actually on my side, and the traitor was actually grey, so this threw me for a bit of a loop (I believe this will be fixed in a post-comp release). Rearranging my pieces could also sometimes be a little more awkward than I wanted – in particular, when I wanted to reposition my own king, rather than summon the opposing one, I had to type “twelvebytwelvian” for disambiguation, which is a mouthful (maybe “your king” vs. “their king” could be an option, or something like that?) But these are very minor niggles that did nothing to reduce the fun I had solving the puzzles and adding to the Twelvebytwelvian empire.

Highlight: I mentioned the hint system above – after being a bit stymied by one mid-game puzzle, I had recourse to one, and it did a marvelous job of getting me unstuck without ruining the fun of solving the puzzle.

Lowlight: This isn’t much of a lowlight, but it took me a while to twig to what winning each section required – I’m spoiler-blocking it because it’s possible that figuring that out is an intended part of the challenge, but I had more fun once that light-bulb had gone off for me: (Spoiler - click to show)you have to force a stalemate before getting the mate.

How I failed the author: this is another one where I don’t think I did! Even though I was sleep-deprived and I’m not that good at chess, the game’s difficulty curve is well judged and I was able to work through the hard version pretty quickly during one of Henry’s naps.

The Dead Account, by Naomi Norbez

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A pinhole view of grief, November 29, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I can’t really talk through my feelings about this one without spoiling not just it, but also my entry into this year’s Comp (Sting), so bear that in mind if you plan to read further. Bottom line The Dead Account gets some real emotion out of a premise that’s simultaneously ridiculous and all-too-plausible (you play a social-network employee whose job is to identify the accounts of dead people and delete them), and is definitely worth the playthrough.

(Spoiler - click to show)I had two conflicting reactions to the game: first, a feeling of unfamiliarity given that the social milieu of the dead character is pretty different from anything I’m directly familiar with, and even a bit of artificiality, because I didn’t see why a social network would pay money to proactively close accounts (like, wouldn’t they just wait for the next of kin to get into contact?) But then second, I also felt some incredibly sharp shocks of recognition. That’s because my twin sister passed away a year and a half ago – this is a chunk of what Sting is about, as it’s a memoir – and despite the superficial differences (we were not part of a friend group that played Apex Legends together, for one thing), The Dead Account still manages to hit on some real moments of universality. I very much found the characters’ actions and emotional responses plausible and engaging. Like, I archived all my old texts with her, and I send her an email on our birthday, though I send it to myself, not to her old account since that forwards to my brother-in-law now. Oh, and our birthday is/was December 3rd, so the fact that the software update that created this new dead-account deletion policy was version 12.3.14 was a little spooky!

This game is a small thing – there’s only the one account to assess, and there’s only really one choice to be made: whether or not to delay deleting the account at the family and friends’ request. But the choice has some layers to it – I opted to delay, but felt conflicted about it – and as one character says in their DMs to the dead person, life is made out of the small stuff.

Highlight: The game is so much of a piece that it’s hard to break off a single highlight, but I will say I did really enjoy the bee-hive themed title graphic (another point of overlap with Sting!)

Lowlight: This is very much an intended part of the experience, but reading the dead character’s messaging history felt really unpleasantly voyeuristic and I considered fast-forwarding through (though of course I wound up reading everything anyway. Games make us complicit!)

How I failed the author: I think I did OK with this one – Henry was napping really well and my brain wasn’t too fuzzy, and I managed to bang through three shorter games without too many interruptions.

Taste of Fingers, by V Dobranov

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Focused and nasty, November 29, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The main character in Taste of Fingers is I think the second-worst person among this year’s Comp protagonists (The Best Man’s Aiden is still a prohibitive favorite to take the crown). You’d think it’d be easy to sympathize with someone hiding out from a zombie apocalypse, regardless of their peccadilloes, but our man manages it: in a series of flashbacks, we get to know him before everything went wrong, and oof, what a piece of work he is. Beyond the overwhelming contempt that flavors all his observations, the racism is probably the most obviously awful thing about him – he’s a white person (I think some kind of banker?) on a business trip to Hong Kong when the plague hits, and he’s got no shortage of disdain for the locals, even stipulating that the prostitute he hires has to be European. But when he realizes that the disease triggering the outbreak only targets Asian folks (some kind of genetic rigmarole is invoked – PSA, race is a social construct not a biological one, though the game's themes need this dodgy bit of science to work so it gets a pass), his matter-of-fact satisfaction, unalloyed by any compassion for the vulnerable, bespeaks near-psychopathic levels of solipsism.

This is as it’s meant to be – we’re firmly in horror territory here, and one of the tropes of zombie fiction is that the stress of societal collapse brings out the worst in humanity. Taste of Fingers doesn’t wallow in too many other of the standard motifs of the subgenre, though, since the zombies aren’t actually onscreen for most of the game. It’s got an interesting structure, where present-time vignettes set in the coffee-shop fridge unit where the main character is lying low alternate with the aforementioned flashbacks. In each section, you’ve got a choice of three memories, and you get to explore two out of the three before time moves on. There’s little other branching, as far as I could tell, but the game offers a good amount of interactivity, as in each passage there are a lot of words to be clicked on. Most of these will expand out descriptions of items, or spell out the main character’s perspective or thoughts on something that’s happened – I wound up lawnmowering, but generally found the extra text added to the experience rather than being busywork.

With few choices or immediate action to keep the pace up, the prose has to do a lot of the heavy lifting, and it’s mostly up to the task. The writing is evocative throughout, freighting almost every sentence with the key themes of decay, corruption, and contempt. It can go a bit over the top at times, flabbing up a clause with one adjective too many, but since the vibe here isn’t exactly understated, better too big than too small. The style also shifts effectively in the final sequence, which sees a change in perspective that adds a neat twist to the otherwise-straightforward narrative. Again, it’s nothing too unexpected given the territory, but it makes this small, nasty game more memorable, and provides some healthy outside perspective on the terrible protagonist.

Highlight : The protagonist’s asides when you click on highlighted words in the passages expand into the original text, which helps keep this on-rails story engaging (it helps that as I mentioned, the writing in these bits is generally strong).

Lowlight : I generally don’t mind when a main character is an unpleasant person to spend time with so long as there's a point to it, but the sequence in the strip club threatened to be a bit too much for me.

How I failed the author : I think I did OK with this one – short choice-based games I can play on my phone are really coming through for me this Comp!

How it was then and how it is now, by Pseudavid

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fearful geometries, November 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This Comp has had a good number of surreal games featuring relationship allegories pitched at varying degrees of abstraction, and most of them haven’t grabbed me very hard, making me wonder whether this subgenre just isn’t for me. But here we are with the last one of these, and I actually kinda love it? The premise sounds absurd when you state it flat-out – the world is being taken over by Platonic solids, and you need to go on a puzzle-solving mission with your ex to try to save it – but it winds up being surprisingly rich, and the writing is a joy, allusive yet precise in just the right measure.

How it was… has the courage of its convictions, meaning it’s not afraid to lean way, way into its conceit, but also doesn’t get stuck there. There’s not a simple, one-to-one mapping between the rather-bonkers central metaphor and the issues the main characters are confronting, at least so far as I can decode, but it’s clear there are deep veins of meaning being mined. The weird shapes are breaking down and fraying, maybe suggesting the way clear ideals and emotions get muddy and messy in the crucible of a relationship. The main character has more specific associations, recalling analogies to the domestic geometries of the house they shared with their ex as they traverse the hostile landscape. And the puzzles are all about decoding fuzzy signals, trying to wrest meaning from ambiguity – given that the relationship ultimately fails, maybe it’s appropriate that I sucked at them.

On the flip side, the game doesn’t stay at this high, abstract level, showing a keen eye for detail and making clear that idiosyncratic specificity has just as much importance as totalizing thematics. Here’s an early bit, which also shows off the strength of the prose:

The first street where we lived together was lined with orange trees. In January, when everything else was pale and lifeless, our street would be bursting with radiant spheres.

The oranges were bitter, of course. The metaphor is too evident to be useful: too hard to wrestle into a different meaning.

Similarly, Clara, the main character’s ex, comes across as a person, with a distinctively laconic lilt to her dialogue – she’s not simply a vague stand-in for a generic beloved. Putting all the pieces together, the writing creates a compelling allegory about how this specific relationship failed, rather than issuing mushy-mounted platitudes about how any relationship can fail (though of course there’s universal resonance and relatability in this very specific story!)

As for the puzzles, there are two kinds, one about translating an image into numbers and the other about recognizing deformed shapes. As mentioned I thought they were thematically resonant, though I also found them pretty tough. Even once I basically figured out the gist, there’s some fuzziness baked into them, sometimes literally, that made it hard to be sure I was getting the right answer (I was also playing on mobile, which might have messed with some of the layouts).

As a result, I wound up getting a really bad ending – the weird geometry took over everything, meaning my poor communication skills doomed not only my relationship with Clara but also what felt like the whole world (per a later note from the author, actually it's just the main character, so yay?) I guess that’s a little harsh, but losing your partner can certainly feel apocalyptic, so while I wish the story had resolved on a more positive note, the ending I got did feel like a satisfying resolution. Did the world need another game in the surreal relationship-issues drama? On the basis of How it was…, yes, certainly – and now when I run across one in next year’s Comp, I’ll know I can really like the genre.

Highlight: fittingly, this is a bit abstract, but one of the strongest elements of the game is its pacing. There are a lot of elements here, from present-day dialogue with Clara, flashbacks to the mission briefing, deeper flashbacks to the relationship, and puzzle interludes, and the game shuttles between them with a light touch, keeping the momentum up without the central narrative thread feeling disconnected.

Lowlight: as mentioned, I though I destroyed the world through incompetence so that feels like a big lowlight even though I actually just got the protagonist killed?

How I failed the author: this was a near-miss failure, thankfully, because when I first started the game on my iPhone none of the text other than the links was coming through. Happily the author put in a theme select to tweak the colors, which allowed me to read the rest of the words.

An Aside About Everything, by Sasha

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Too much abstraction, November 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Allegory is deceptively tricky business. At first blush it seems easy enough: take a situation, abstract it to its generalities to make it more universal, heighten the key elements and emotional dynamics, and maybe add a supernatural element or two that works as a slightly-too-on-the-nose metaphor, and there you are. But that second bit's where the trap-door lies: pretty much any human predicament, no matter how poignant, can sound trite when you state it as a general proposition. Most of the time it’s the specifics that ground a story and allow others to empathize with it. This is where An Aside About Everything didn’t work for me: while this a choice-based investigation boasts some evocative atmosphere and satisfying interactivity, the characters and emotional dynamics didn’t succeed in getting their hooks into me.

Plotwise, the player character – a sort of metaphysical detective who goes by Him – sets out on a missing-persons case looking for a woman with whom he’s got some sort of history, then proceeds through various descents and ascents before slipping to an other-worldly backstage, his steps dogged all the way by a trio of cryptic women who help him surmount the surreal obstacles in his path. It’s all as existentialist-chic as you please (in the movie version, everyone’s always smoking) and there are some interesting choices on offer, as you can lean on different women to help you get through each barrier.

But it all feels bloodless – I had a hard time keeping the three helper-ladies distinct, and none of them seemed to have much subjectivity or for that matter an agenda of their own, besides helping Him on His quest. The different areas you visit are suggestive, but you rattle through them before any has much chance to make an impression. And when you crack the case, the ultimate revelations aren’t especially novel (Spoiler - click to show)(my sense of the story is that it’s ultimately about not being able to let an ex go after a break up)</spoi.er> – sure, there are stories there, but you need to tell them for them to have impact, not just gesture in their direction. Too often, An Aside About Everything feels like it’s holding itself back and contenting itself with allusion rather than committing to something specific.

Highlight: The second sequence, set on an airship, boasts some strong atmosphere and the game’s most resonant choices.

Lowlight: In my first playthrough, I got stuck in the mine area, unable either to proceed or go back to where I came from, and once I realized this wasn’t a statement about the main character’s emotional paralysis, I had to restart (I think I ran into the bug because I went to the mine, listed third in the navigation menu, before the first-listed bar. When I ran through the locations in order, I was able to progress).

How I failed the author: I played the game’s three main sequences in three separate sessions, each separated by several hours as I tended to Henry-related stuff, so that probably contributed to me not being able to keep the characters straight or identify too many clear thematic throughlines.

Recon, by Carlos

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Stylishly confusing, November 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Back in the early 90s, every once in a while I would come across a game that was full of style but didn’t make much sense (typically it would be some kind of French adventure game or RPG, with an 80-page novella in the manual that somehow just made things even harder to understand), and I’d be dragged through a confusing plot and obscure gameplay by sheer force of aesthetics. Recon keeps this tradition alive: I wasn’t really clear on the characters, stakes, and setting until the final few sequences, and my understanding of what was going on changed radically a couple of times though not in ways that I think were intended. And the puzzles are a mix of clever and off-the-wall. But there was enough verve on display to make my time with the game an enjoyable ride nonetheless.

Recon’s first impression is a pretty accurate sample of what you’re in for. The cover image is a gorgeous slab of sci-fi, and the title and chapter screens continue the high production values. Then you’re dumped into a bar with a kitten, and asked to participate in the world’s most awkward character-customization process (you’re required to specify your skin color, which can be “Nordic”, “Caucasian”, “Ethiopic”, “American”, or “Oriental”) As this opening sequence proceeds, it becomes clear that you’re there to check on two of your allies, “X” and “Equis” (it turns out these are actually the same person), and you’re up against the jackbooted thugs of “Faro”, which is not a gang boss as I first thought (nor a card game or grain, for that matter) but an evil corporation that calls the shots in this dystopia.

Things clear up a bit from there, but only a bit, and beyond this Faro mix-up, I also had at least two other moments where a glancing reference or new development made me realize I had deeply misunderstood the main character’s situation and motivation (Spoiler - click to show)the others turned on the “Recon” group that the main character leads, and the ending’s indication that a functioning court system exists and can actually bring down the mighty Faro. The writing is also a bit off-kilter, contributing to this discombobulated mood – there aren’t many typos or out-and-out errors, but the syntax and word choice are often strange in a way I associate with translated works or writing from folks whose native language isn’t English – it’s not necessarily bad, but it’s often hard to scan and understand.

Fortunately, the game is well-paced and doesn’t require you to understand the big picture to work through. Each of its chapters is structured similarly, with a bunch of story progression and narrative choices building up to a major puzzle that gates progress. These are all one-of-a-kind, running from an adventure-game style search of X’s house to pattern-recognition tests. Many feature some fun fourth-wall breaking, and you’ll see substantially different puzzles depending on which of the major midgame branches you go down. Some are a little too out there, I thought – even looking at the walkthrough, I don’t understand the (Spoiler - click to show)Morse code puzzle. But luckily, that walkthrough is comprehensive, and also boasts impressive layout and design. Once I used it to reach the end, I was able to appreciate the aesthetic experience Recon provides – but I do with there’d been some more careful worldbuilding, clearer writing, and better-clued puzzles to go alongside.

Highlight: There’s a surprising amount of interactivity in the mid-game – there’s a major branch that meant I ran into completely different plot and challenges than the ones the walkthrough described, and there seems to be a good scope for different choices in how you treat a potential ally to lead to different results.

Lowlight: The game doesn’t have content warnings, but I would have appreciated one since a late-game sequence features an interrogation that does spill over into what I’d consider torture – most of your options involve verbal coercion, but there is a “hit” option. Making this sequence even less enjoyable, I ran into a bug after failing it the first time, as once the interrogation restarted I was missing some of the options needed to progress (Spoiler - click to show)(I could no longer try to blackmail, or press for a confession), and after I gave up and checked the walkthrough, it turned out that the intended solution is actually pretty counterintuitive since you need to get the target’s stress level outside of the range marked “optimum” to succeed (this might be a display issue from playing on my phone, upon further reflection).

How I failed the author: I just did not get what was happening for like 90% of the game, and I can’t imagine that my generally fuzzy-brained state (Henry’s been having some congestion and not sleeping as well as usual, poor thing) helped matters.

extraordinary_fandoms.exe, by Storysinger Presents

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Affecting but a little flat, November 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This is the second game I’ve played in the comp that explores issues of identity and trauma via online fandom, after A Paradox Between Worlds. The two make for an interesting study in contrasts, because while I thought Paradox was overstuffed with characters and plotlines, to the detriment of its strongest narrative throughline, I found extraordinary_fandoms.exe erred on the side of minimalism. Everything outside its core story is only briefly sketched in, with the titular fandom and characters other than the protagonist feeling rather sketched-in, and no obvious places where choices lead to much variation, even at a cosmetic level.

There are advantages to focus – and since, per the author’s postscript, a lot of the (awful) details of domestic abuse here are autobiographical, it’s completely understandable that everything else would fade in importance. But for me, the absence of context supporting the story meant it didn’t land as strongly as it could, though it is compellingly drawn. The central conflict is about the main character – who goes by the handle Pinecone – finding what seems like their first real friends via a Discord-style chat server and wiki dedicated to an anime franchise. Pinecone’s halting steps towards self-confidence and self-awareness are affecting, and the link between their struggles and those of the fandom character they gravitate to – who suffers from hidden low self-esteem – makes thematic sense. And it’s heartwarming to see the affirmation and support Pinecone gets from the other people on the server.

But the other characters feel pretty thin; there are maybe half a dozen folks who hang out to chat and do (short) roleplay, but outside of their favorite anime characters they don’t have much in the way of personality. And there’s a very stark divide between Pinecone’s home life, which is portrayed as unremittingly horrible, and things on the server, where everyone is uniformly and immediately positive, with never even the slightest disagreement about how best support them. Ultimately I thought the game works, but this flatness robs it of some of its power.

Highlight: The choices aren’t a major focus of extraordinary_fandom.exe, with many passages connected by a single “continue” link or its equivalent, and most others just having two choices that amount to very slightly different ways of saying the same thing – which is all fine. But this low-key approach to choices helps set up an effective moment that I’m going to spoiler-block: (Spoiler - click to show)at one point as the other folks on the server are asking Pinecone whether they can help, you’re offered two choices: “No” or “No”. The moment conveys the paralysis that often comes with being in an abusive environment in a show-don’t-tell way that the rest of the game sometimes struggles to achieve.

Lowlight: The “.exe” in the title really bugs me. I don’t really know how Discord works, but I think it’s like an IRC channel, right? And the wiki is a wiki. So what’s the executable program?

How I failed the author: I didn’t have any issues playing through the game, but Henry’s been struggling with gas today, so I’ve started and stopped writing this review like eight times as I’ve jumped up to soothe him after he woke up crying from what seemed like a perfectly nice nap. Apologies if it’s disjointed as a result!

The Miller's Garden, by Damon L. Wakes

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A simple idea well-communicated, November 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

A short mood piece – if it were a painting, it’d be a landscape – The Miller’s Garden provides a tidy meditation on impermanence. There’s no backstory or characters, just a situation: the player comes to an abandoned garden by the side of a river, which is slowly being reclaimed by weeds and water, and each day can choose how and whether to try to shore it up – cutting the reeds, mowing the grass, maintaining the rocky banks.

Of course there’s a catch, and the catch is – well, spoilers for a ten-minute game: (Spoiler - click to show) entropy, because this isn’t a farming sim. No matter how much you shore up the riverbank, the water will eventually drown the garden. Pleasantly, this isn’t just a matter of nature swallowing the hubristic works of man, since my reading of the game is that the construction of the now-defunct mill changed the behavior of the river, and now the river is in turn changing the garden. There’s a nice sentiment that emerges here, as you tend the garden to create some transient beauty before the inevitable comes, without the game implying that this is a futile or useless task (besides the occasional prompt asking you if you’re sure you want to persist until the end – I detected no judgment when I said I wanted to do so.)

It’s a lovely idea and it works on its own terms, but I wished there’d been a little more descriptive zing to the prose. Since this is such a small thing, confined to the same few locations and the same few tasks over multiple days, I would have liked to see a little more detail on exactly what kind of flowers are growing, or have the river’s rise rendered with a bit more sensitivity. Still, there’s a power in restraint in a piece of this kind, so I can respect that.

Highlight: The game is pretty much of a piece, but I got a lot of enjoyment from the opening epigram, which quotes from a recent scientific paper on the game’s exact subject matter – I can’t help but wonder whether it was the impetus for the piece’s creation.

Lowlight: I’m not sure if this was a bug or not, but about midway through the game, the garden’s flowerbed location seemed to disappear, so I could only go from the lawn to the river-bank. I liked that flowerbed, so I missed it!

How I failed the author : it took me way longer to realize the flowerbed had gone away than it should have (blame sleep deprivation).

Unfortunate, by Jess Elizabeth Reed

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Doubly unfortunate, November 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Ugh, the title here is apt in more ways that one. It’s a clever bit of wordplay for this parser-based fortuneteller-me-do – we’re not talking turbans and crystal balls, you’re just looking to show off your palmistry to some friends at a party – but it also conveys how frustrating it is that the significant promise here is let down by significant implementation issues. This isn’t just a matter of smacking down a few bugs here and there: there’s a need for additional design work, from fleshing out the conversations, deepening the characterization of the party-goers, and providing clearer feedback on how you’re making progress, as well as a good amount of polish. But even the rough version on offer goes a good way towards showing the (I think first-time?) author has some great ideas for how to realize this wonderful premise.

Digging into that setup, which is delightfully more specific than the blurb initially made me think: as mentioned we’re in the real world, not a fantasy one, and the protagonist is a hobbyist, not a carnival charlatan or anything like that (in fact, since you do get vague flashes at least some of the time when you do a reading, you might have some real talent). And the party here is one of those awkward post-college hangouts featuring a mix of old friends, exes, and coworkers, some of whom can’t stand each other. There’s a complex web of actual and potential connections, which creates a lot of potential for how things can shift once you start telling fortunes and intervening.

That’s the other part of the premise, you see – the game proceeds in two phases, with an initial round of conversation and palm-reading giving way to an interactive second phase as the characters start bouncing off of each other and having accidents both happy and not. Success isn’t about guessing a correct fortune and then lying back and waiting for fate to catch up to your intuition, though: you do have a choice of three different prognostications to offer to each of the other guests, but except for the first, generally negative, option, they won’t come true if you take a laissez-faire approach: you might have to arrange some mood music, or make sure someone has what they need to ensure a romantic gesture goes off.

These puzzles are pretty tricky, though. For one thing, it seems like there’s tight timing in the section – the other characters move around, and while some of the setup can be done ahead of time, there are also some right-place right-time pieces. You also can’t work on most of the fortunes on their own – the majority of them are about romantic matters, so how the fortune you pick for one character plays out can depend on what you picked for one or more complementary characters. In fact, after an initial, spectacularly unsuccessful playthrough, I realized Unfortunate is meant to be played multiple times as an optimization challenge – there’s a clever meta touch here, since the player’s accumulating knowledge over multiple passes stands in for the protagonist’s flashes of intuition.

On paper this should appeal to me, since I usually like optimization puzzles and real-world settings. Unfortunately (there’s that word), implementation issues bedeviled my enjoyment, so I didn’t get very far. Again, this isn’t just implementation in the sense of programming, though there’s some of that – X ME has the default description, lots of scenery is unimplemented, rules for picking up objects give responses that only make sense the first time you take something, whether or not a device is technically switched on doesn’t make a difference to whether it works or not, there are misdescribed or even missing exit listings, and room descriptions sometimes don’t update even after you’ve removed objects. And there are lots of typos.

The bigger issue is that there are significant chunks in need of a lot of polish, and sometimes things even feeling unfinished. The characters are probably the major example here. There are seven of them, and their backstories and roles are intriguing enough to set up a bunch of potential business as they bounce off of each other. But they’re thinly drawn, with physical descriptions focusing on superficial details like clothing. While there’s a multiple-choice conversation system, all the characters have the same three options (one of which initiates fortune-telling), which feels quite artificial. And there’s something odd about the implementation of the second phase, since the different characters don’t actually seem to be present and available for interaction, even as event text describes them talking and moving around.

I also wanted there to be better feedback on how I was doing on the puzzles. There are some ideas that seemed obvious but the game wouldn’t let me try (Spoiler - click to show)(Moses is allergic to flowers so giving him the bouquet for his big demonstration of affection doesn’t work – but while the herb bouquet seems a likely substitute, I couldn’t get him to accept it) and some of the fortunes are probably a little too vague, since there were a couple of times when I thought I’d satisfied one only for the post-game scoring to say I hadn’t. Combined with the combinatorial explosion of trying different mutually-dependent fortunes and the choreography required in the second act, this lack of clueing makes it feel like making real progress would require a lot of trial and error.

It’s not hard to guess at the source of these rough patches: Unfortunate doesn’t list any testers in its credits, and however much playtesting it got wasn’t enough. I’m really really hoping for a post-comp release of this that makes upgrades and bug-fixes based on folks’ transcripts, since Unfortunate could easily be a five-star game given the quality of what’s already here – I haven’t mentioned the prose yet but there’s some really good writing too – if it had more time in the oven. Here’s hoping it gets it, and that the author keeps writing games but gets more testers next time (I’ll volunteer, just DM me!)

Highlight: Figuring out how to get one of the good fortunes to work felt really rewarding – this is a great puzzle-solving framework.

Lowlight: The game lists exits in all-caps, which is a nice convenience – except one’s mislabeled (it says it’s east but it’s actually in) and then there’s one that isn’t even mentioned at all (tip: going IN from the kitchen will get you to the laundry room).

How I failed the author: Henry was having a fussier couple of days, so I only put like half an hour into the game before I had to put it aside for a little over a day, and while I intended to play more, the challenging difficulty and thin characters meant I wasn’t able to get back into it.

Smart Theory, by AKheon

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Superficial polemic, November 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Smart Theory is part of a sub-genre of games that, by my lights, has yet to produce a single successful entry: the much-dreaded polemic about current events. Don’t get me wrong, I like politics in my stories, but using narrative to convince, rather than to explore, sets authors up for failure, and often the temptation is to use thin plots and thinner characters to prop up an ideological point, rather than using beliefs to enrich people and stories that are compelling in their own right.

Smart Theory does not break this streak or beat the already dismal batting average of the sub-genre. I suppose it’s possible I think that because I’m on the opposite side of the particular culture-war fight apparently being picked – the game appears to be an attempt to take down Critical Race Theory, and inasmuch as I work for a civil rights organization and took a class in law school from one of the founders of CRT, I’m on team wrongthink as far as it’s concerned – but at the same time, Stand Up / Stay Silent from last year’s Comp was basically Defund the Police: The Game and I thought that one profoundly didn’t work too. No, the problem isn’t that Smart Theory is trying to gore my oxen: it’s that it’s rather a bore about it.

(After the initial version of this review was posted, the author responded and related that Smart Theory isn't directly meant to be about CRT. That's fair enough, but perhaps this points out another problem with satirical exaggeration in this subgenre...)

Things start to go wrong from the very premise. Where other polemical games dress up their ideological agendas in at least some narrative fancy-dress, here the story is tacked-on as can be: you’re a student who attends a college lecture by a proponent of the new “Smart Theory” craze, which again is a very thinly-veiled CRT stand-in (like, a book called “Dumb Fragility” gets name-checked). There’s barely any plot to be had other than talking-heads yelling at each other, and the lecturer doesn’t get any characterization beyond “over the top charlatan.” So things that stories are traditionally good at are off the table, and the game lives and dies by the quality of its arguments.

Reader, these are not good, on either side of the debate! The lecturer’s explication of the theory is glib and parodic, which I guess makes the polemic go down easy but there’s not much here that a CRT proponent would recognize, as Smart Theory seems way more focused on French structuralism and postmodernism than on the actual stuff CRT deals with. On the flip side, partially due to the nature of the choice format, where you can’t easily have the player’s choices go on for paragraphs, the counterarguments the player character raises are also so superficial and unconvincing that a tiny part of me wonders whether the game is sort of double-agent, secretly parodying the anti-CRT position.

This ain’t changing anyone’s mind – it’s comforting pabulum for those who already agree that CRT is poisoning our children, trivially dismissible by those who don’t, and I’d wager completely incomprehensible to those who don’t already have their minds made up. Maybe someday someone will write the game that changes peoples’ politics by main force, rather than by grounding their ideas in compelling characters, rich settings, and satisfying plots, but today is not that day.

Highlight: Again, these barbs are largely mis-aimed (protip: critical theory and critical legal studies are not the same thing!), but there are some good jokes about postmodernism – the best being a mid-lecture celebratory announcement that “our crack team of social scientists has successfully added one more [post] prefix” to the modernism, postmodernism, post-postmodernism, etc. that Smart Theory is based on.

Lowlight: I think I’ve said enough on this score.

How I failed the author: er, fairly comprehensively, I should think. I really liked the author’s Ascension of Limbs from last year, for what it’s worth!

Enveloping Darkness, by John Muhlhauser, Helen Pluta, and Othniel Aryee

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Meat and potatoes fantasy adventure, November 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Enveloping Darkness is a straightforward fantasy story, requiring a ten-minute series of binary choices to navigate. There’s nothing here anybody hasn’t seen before – there are raiding orcs, a desperate quest to find a kidnapped brother, picking up weapons and armor at the main city, and negotiating with potential allies. And the narrative feels like it’s on rails, with few choices mattering except to avoid an instant death midway through – in fact I just went back to check on this, and yeah, this is pretty much the case. In particular, while you’ve got a number of opportunities to talk to a particular beggar or walk by, or how much to engage with him while you’re talking, no matter what I picked he still wound up tagging along on my journey.

There’s nothing wrong with a straightforward premise and disguised linearity in my book, but if a game is forgoing those opportunities for engagement, ideally there’d be some other aspect of the game that’s grabby – an interesting prose style, well-drawn characters, good jokes... Enveloping Darkness does okay but not great on this score. There’s not much that jumps out as distinctive.

On the other hand, the execution is solid. The writing is generally clean and typo-free, with an understated voice that can occasionally be funny. There’s only one other character worth noting – the aforementioned beggar, who turns out to be a half-orc who acts as your sidekick – but I enjoyed him, especially once I realized he actually winds up doing most of the work. I can’t say the game will stick with me, but it’s a fun enough way to while away a few minutes, which I think is most of what it’s trying to do.

Highlight: I liked the sequence where your character, who works as a miner before deciding to go on their quest of rescue, just walks up to the king and asks for stuff to help on their mission. And it works!

Lowlight: This is a game that ends pretty abruptly once you complete your mission. Authors, once you’ve done so much work to set up a story, it takes so little additional work to make the ending a satisfying victory lap or opportunity to reflect on what’s happened – don’t neglect the denouement!

How I failed the author: about midway through the game, I faced a moral dilemma as I came across a golem about to harm a baby, and I had the choice of saving the kid or trying to fight the monster directly. Given my current day-to-day I of course opted for the former choice – which was 100% the wrong answer as it led to death and a restart (I guess this is more me failing myself than failing the author).

Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda, and Luka Marceta

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Too-ambitious parser for a simple educational game, November 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Kidney Kwest is an educational game, aimed at helping kids with kidney failure learn more about how to manage their condition (in a heartbreaking detail, the blurb mentions that it’s meant to be played during three-hour dialysis sessions). It’s also unintentionally educational in showing why natural-language parsers aren’t yet dominant in IF.

Taking the first part first: the game gets off to a sweet start, with the player character worried about finding a costume for a school play and unable to find anything until the Kidney Fairy takes a hand. She sweeps you away to the fairy world, where you need to solve some small puzzles to get the pieces of a costume. The educational angle also kicks in once you move to the other world, as a hunger timer starts up, but with a twist – in addition to regularly finding (ideally healthy) food to eat, you need to take your medication (a phosphate binder) before or after each meal. Taking a pill also shifts you into a Fantastic Voyage style minigame, where you roam your body looking for rogue phosphate crystals to hoover up before they accumulate.

This is all charmingly realized – I liked the little drawings that pop up in the sidebar – and the couple of puzzles I solved were reasonably satisfying. I didn’t find the full costume and make it to the end of the game, though, because the hunger timer is tuned really aggressively, and requires a restart once you get too hungry. This makes some sense given that that timer, more so than the costume-gathering puzzle, is the main point of the game, but I still found it frustrating, all the more so because of the second notable thing about the game, which is the custom natural-language parser.

Per the introduction, this is meant to make the game more accessible to younger players who aren’t versed in IF conventions. The details are well above my head, but I read a linked blog post which provides an overview, and the parser does appear to live up to its billing: it understands complete English sentences, including asking questions about the state of the world.

The cost of this success is high, though. First of all, the parser is finicky, requiring you to speak in formal English (you can’t even drop a “the” without making it do extra work) in a way that feels awkward to me as a seasoned player of IF, and I suspect would also not be a good fit for how digital-native young people expect to type things into a computer. Second, some of the standard conveniences of mature IF languages are missing – pronouns aren’t recognized, UNDO does nothing, disambiguation is painful, and there’s no command buffer. And most critically, the engine ran very slowly for me, with each command taking at least a few seconds to process, and some even requiring ten or so to complete. This added so much friction that every interaction became really frustrating – and since running around trying to deal with a hunger timer is already kind of annoying, this makes for a bad combination!

If the natural language engine brought something new to the gameplay, maybe this tradeoff would be worth it. But Kidney Kwest, at least the portions I saw, just requires very simple object-management commands that any traditional IF language could handle quite easily. Sure, there’s added functionality if a player wants to request the detailed description of an object using more convoluted syntax (like “what’s in the safe?”) – but teaching a player how this works seems harder than just teaching them to type X SAFE, and the frustration of waiting so long for a response seems greater than the frustration of struggling with a quickly-responsive parser, at least if a game’s implemented well.

Eventually, these kinds of parsers could replace the ones we’ve got, which are based on decades-old models at this point – but we’re not there yet, and that shift will probably be ushered in by games that make good use of the new affordances provided by natural language, rather than doing the same old stuff in a slower, more convoluted way.

Highlight : I liked the miniaturized segments where you explore your own body – there’s some good detail, and it makes for some novel gameplay.

Lowlight : much of the feedback the game gives feels very close to the world-model, without being translated into more accessible text. For example, “examine myself” gave this response: “you is a person, a physical object, a place, and a thing. It also has a hand, a hand, a body.”

How I failed the author : Henry hadn’t been sleeping super well when I played this one, so I was nodding off while waiting for the game to respond to my commands, which is why I didn’t feel up to a third try.

MUCH LATER UPDATE: I went back for a final replay after the author mentioned that the server’s responsiveness had gotten better. It still wasn’t lightning fast, but was much less frustrating to play nonetheless. I also didn’t worry about eating “bad” food this time out, so the hunger timer was less of an issue, and I was able to get an ending. There’s a neat mechanic where your choice of items to pick up along the way give you a different costume (I got scientist, appropriately enough), and a metal rating depending on your dietary choices (I wound up with bronze, given my damn-the-torpedoes approach to food this time). I can see a couple of places where I could have done things differently, so there’s definitely replayability, and I can see kids swapping stories of how they did. I still think the game’s intended purposes would have been better served by just using one of the existing languages, but now that the optimization is a little better, and I’ve got more familiarity with the parser’s idiosyncracies, it definitely worked a bit better.

The Daughter, by GioBorrows

4 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Promise unrealized, November 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

In just about any work of art there’s a gap between ambition and implementation. Occasionally this I because a modest premise is realized with far more care and attention to detail than it need, but more often it’s because an author’s reach exceeds their grasp. There’s certainly nothing wrong with being overambitious and stretching one’s limits, but there’s also little more frustrating than seeing an exciting idea weighed down by failures of execution.

Starting out this way obviously focuses on the critique side of things – and from the numerous typos, confusing scene- and character-shifts, frequently-odd worldbuilding, and abrupt ending, there’s definitely lots there – but I don’t want to underemphasize how good the premise is. The structure of a murder-mystery provides a great framework for exploring an alien society, as a variety of suspects can show off the different kinds of people who live in the world, and a detective’s probing questions can elucidate its hidden depths and tradeoffs, so that’s a great starting point. And the particular crime and alien society we’re talking about here – the death of the one young person in a far-future earth whose immortal residents have removed themselves from the cycle of reproduction – seem like they’d be really interesting to dig into.

The game gives occasional hints of paying off this setup, but due to the issues mentioned above, my time with it was really unsatisfying – especially the sudden-ending thing, since the game cut off just as I was starting to get my bearings. I’ve seen other reviewers speculate that some of the wonkiness here might be intentional. The typos and grammar errors could potentially bespeak a Riddley Walker-style attempt to present a far-future evolution of English, for example, and ending the investigation before it gets going could indicate a pomo refusal to endorse detective-fiction tropes.

But if that’s what it’s doing, the game doesn’t even wink at the player to help bring them into the gag, so I’m left just hoping that this is an IntroComp style teaser, and we’ll eventually see a version of The daughter that gets closer, if not all the way, towards its ambitious promise.

Highlight : After finishing the game, I reread the blurb, and some of the info stated there helped me better understand and appreciate what was going on.

Lowlight : Part of the setup is that the post-scarcity residents of the new earth have mostly decided to reshape their bodies so they’re perennially “hot 30 year olds.” Being told about a “middle aged man looking a good 10 years older than anybody else” – i.e. 40, my age – and his unkempt appearance and “short and messy graying hairs” made me feel even older and more decrepit than usual.

How I failed the author : I was playing on my phone and kept getting interrupted, and maybe because my cookie settings were messed up, every time that wound up resetting the game, so I wound up playing the opening like three or four times.

The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A card game without much to offer IF fans, November 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

It’s a rule of thumb that every Comp has at least one oddball entry that strains the bounds of what counts as IF. In the last couple years, Jared Jackson has taken care of this slot, with last year’s deckbuilder and a Zachlike programming puzzle the year before that (I really enjoyed both, for the record). Comes now The Vaults to try its luck: it’s a virtual CCG whose claim to IF-dom appears to rest entirely on the paragraphs of static text that play between bouts of the PvE campaign.

Sadly, I didn’t find much to enjoy here, either as a piece of IF or on its own merits. On the former side, the game’s story appears to be very generic high fantasy, and the paragraphs only stay on screen for a little while, so I missed some of the plot due to alt-tabbing to take notes. Without any choices or interactivity between the battles and the story so far as I could see, there’s not much here for a traditional IF audience to glom onto.

As to the CCG, this isn’t my genre of choice – give me a deckbuilder any day – but even so, I think it’s too slow and confusingly-presented to be much fun. I eventually grokked the gimmick, which is that you have a trio of persistent “keeper” creatures who generate your mana, but only if you don’t use them to attack. That’s a fair enough tradeoff, but it made me feel like I struggled to make progress, as I was either forgoing attacks, nerfing my mana progression, or unsatisfyingly trying to split the difference.

The player’s starting deck is also oddly tuned, with few low-mana creatures, which added to the frustration as I repeatedly drew cool cards I couldn't do anything with. Finally, the visual design is muddy, with card watermarks making text hard to read, and colors rather than icons are used to convey too much information, so I couldn’t always remember what a creature’s purple number was supposed to mean. All told I won one round, lost the second four or five times, then decided The Vaults simply isn’t for me – though I’d be curious what someone better versed in CCGs thinks, and if future developments in the story make the game more satisfying for IF mavens.

Highlight : Your little keepers are kind of adorable, Jawa-like minions.

Lowlight : One tooltip mentioned that you can link any NFTs you own to the game, which is just the worst.

How I failed the author : I played this during a very late-night (or more optimistically, very early-morning) feeding for Henry, and my fuzzy brain was very much not up to retaining the info conveyed by the tutorial. I also played the opening cutscene but didn’t have the audio on, since Henry was drowsing awake, so the plot was pretty much lost on me (there were scrolls and a dude in armor?)

Cygnet Committee, by P.B. Parjeter

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Innovative sound-based explorathon, November 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

My initial foray playing Cygnet Committee was unsuccessful. A slickly-produced Twine game that from the credits and blurb seems to be mining Metal-Gear-Solid-adjacent territory, albeit with what might be a distinctive cult angle, Cygnet Committee requires sound to play -- and while I’m weirdly resistant to listening to any audio when playing IF in general, at the time of first playing I was in brand-new-parent mode where if I couldn't hear the baby’s breathing for a couple of minutes, I got anxious. I tried to see if I could bluff my way through the game with it muted, but the “sound required” tag does not lie.

Happily, I came back much later and played Cygnet Committee through, with the sound on this time, I can confirm my initial impression that this was going to be a high-production-value game with a lot of work behind it. It’s also got a novel puzzle mechanic that’s played out in a bunch of creative ways, a pomo plot that interrogates the uses and misuses of the historical memory of Joan of Arc, and a sprawling, metroidvania-y map. I’m still not sold on the use of sound in IF – and I wished there was a stronger connection between the puzzles and the plot – but Cygnet Committee is a confident, poised piece of work that makes a strong case for it.

Starting with that puzzle mechanic, it manages to be both brand new, but also really intuitive. As your operative infiltrates an island-based military installation, you’ll come across navigation challenges, patrolling robots, locked keypads, and spying drones. Each presents you with four different audio samples, and you need to pick out the right one to progress. Usually this just means choosing the one that’s different from the other three, though what this means diegetically shifts with context – the lock tumbler that clicks twice, the bit of the minefield that’s not beeping, and so on.

There are a few curve-balls that get thrown in, including some timed sequences, and a few more traditional find-the-keycode puzzles, but most of the hour and a half I took on the game was spent in these sequences, and I found the variation wasn’t enough to keep them from getting a little stale by the end. There’s a lot of going back and forth through the sprawling map – again, it’s got a kind of metroidvania structure, where you’ll get a new keycard or send power to a previously-visited area – and unless you use a slowly-accumulating currency to unlock shortcuts, you generally need to solve the puzzles all over again even when going back over already-trodden ground.

There are also some design choices in the back half of the game that exacerbated the drag, since you’ll repeatedly come across a device – a dam outflow wheel, a first-aid kit – a few locations before you reach the place it impacts, meaning that even though I figured out these puzzles pretty much immediately, there was still five minutes of tedious back-and-forth to implement the solution. This kind of thing is par for course in a metroidvania, of course, but much of this felt more like it was about padding the game length than offering cool new secrets to unlock.

My real hesitance with the puzzles, though, is that the gameplay didn’t feel all that deeply integrated with the interesting plot. There’s a complex backstory, involving the creation and deployment of a military AI based on Joan of Arc that’s gone mad and is now threatening the globe with nuclear war, which is related through stylish cutscenes that juxtapose text read aloud by a French text-to-speech program (like, it speaks the English words as if they were French, which is a neatly alienating effect) with clips from The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie beloved by cineastes (I’ve never seen it but can confirm the images are very compelling).

Befitting the Metal Gear Solid inspiration cited in the credits, this narrative has some bonkers ups and downs, involving cyborgs, the intersection of warmongering and commerce, and an extended shaggy dog story about canned beans (there’s a note of humor here, though it’s played bone-dry). Careful attention also suggests that there’s more going on than meets the eye – in particular, the ending I got pretty strongly implied that (Spoiler - click to show)that the nuclear apocalypse threat isn’t real, the protagonist is just an aspect of the AI’s personality, and the game’s action is a pageant of persecution and immolation Joan has constructed for herself to satisfy the imperatives of history.

This is cool stuff, but again, it’s mostly fed to the player in cutscenes. There’s some thematic resonance between the audio-based puzzles and the fact that Joan of Arc was said to hear voices – plus the construction of the AI featured some gross stuff involving auditory nerves – but the separation between the gameplay layer and the narrative one feels pretty wide. With a deserted base and no other characters to speak to, and no clarity on how the various features of the island – there’s a chapel, a forest, a lighthouse – relate to the AI’s plans, I sometimes felt like I was solving abstract puzzles to unlock plot coupons. I did enjoy both sides of the equation, but stronger integration of these pieces would have made the experience more compelling.

Highlight: there are some cool secrets to find along the critical path – I turned up two, and am pretty sure I missed a bunch more – getting these was really rewarding.

Lowlight: winning the game gives you the option of unlocking a new “hard mode”, but to access it you need to have accumulated 500 of the game’s chip currency, and I only had like 100 left over at the end. Better secret-finding would have helped, but I think you’d also need to pass up the various options to spend chips to make navigation easier, so I doubt even the most thorough player would finish with the requisite chips, and requiring two full playthroughs to open up the option to play a third time feels like inaccessible design (though the author clarified there's no additional plot in hard mode).

How I failed the author: as I mentioned in the stub I wrote before I played, my current setup is not conducive to playing games with sound – I was constantly pulling off my headphones to listen for Henry’s noises, or talk to my wife, and these regular interruptions probably undermined my immersion in the game.

The Time Machine, by Bill Maya

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Time after time, September 2, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(Note: this is a review of the ParserComp version of The Time Machine — there’s now an updated version available at the itch.io link).

The Time Machine by Bill Maya is an Inform follow-up to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a confusing state of affairs that highlights the challenges of writing an unplanned sequel. If the initial work was conceived of as part of a series, that’s an easy enough situation – presumably there are enough hanging plot threads and unresolved conflicts lying about to let you to whip up a plausible plot. But where a story’s been resolved, the protagonist’s journey completed, where is there to go? Sure, a Hamlet sequel would have to be a spin-off, given that everyone north of Horatio in the dramatis personae snuffs it before the final curtain, but even murder-light fare runs into this problem: count ourselves lucky we’ve been spared such enormities as 2 Secret 2 Garden, or Catch 23 (actually, there is a sequel to Catch 22. It’s not great!)

The author’s solution to the dilemma is elegantly done in the present case: there’s a switch of protagonists, from the time machine’s inventor to his friend and lawyer (like, the friend is a lawyer), and the task at hand is to prove Wells’s rantings about Eloi, Morlocks, &c. shouldn’t get him hauled off to a late-Victorian sanitarium by retracing his travels through time. It’s a good setup, allowing the player to re-experience the highlights of the novel without forcing you to go through the remembered steps of a familiar story.

Sadly, the game still requires the player to adhere to a script, though this isn’t always communicated well. My first full playthrough ended in an unwinnable state because immediately upon activating the time machine and finding myself in the Edenic surroundings Wells had related before being hauled off in an ambulance, my first instinct was to return to safety and tell the censorious alienist he’d gotten it all wrong. But when I got back to 1890 and related my wild story, the doctor only listened, “with an accepting look on his face.” That was admirably open-minded of him after he’d stuffed Wells into a strait-jacket for telling much the same story, but that was as far as things went – and since the fuse on the machine burned out after that trip, there was no opportunity to return and bring back more definitive proof. In fairness, the game does signpost that he’s looking for a particular piece of physical evidence – a flower to match the unique petal Wells had shown him right before the game opened – but it would have been polite to fire off a losing ending to bring the story to a close, rather than leaving it to peter out.

Being on rails wouldn’t be so bad if the story the game was out to tell was a gripping one, but despite solid prose, the plot is sadly rather pedestrian. First, most of the game’s playtime is spent in the present day, trying to get into Wells’ workshop and get the machine up and running by solving a few desultory puzzles. Once in the far future, you can explore a single two-location building and have a brief interaction with some Eloi, but it’s all functional at best, and only recapitulates more exciting incidents from the book. If you want to explore off the beaten path and solve a mildly-annoying guess the verb puzzle (to get through a rusty grate, (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE GRATE will work but PULL GRATE and BREAK GRATE won’t), you can have a run-in with Morlocks, but it’s likewise abbreviated and completely optional.

The puzzles are fine, though with the exception of the first (figuring out where Wells’s workshop key has gotten to, which requires a bit of deduction) they’re very straightforward – putting a machine part in a machine, showing an interesting object to an interested NPC, that sort of thing. I had more trouble with them than was probably warranted, though, because there are some infelicities in the implementation. Prior to the nobody-cares-about-your-time-travel-story restart, I’d actually already had to restart because I’d put a watch down on a desk – after being prompted to do so by an NPC – but then was told “it’s hardly portable” when I attempted to retrieve it. And when I grew frustrated at my inability to find the workshop key and considered resorting to violence, BREAK WINDOW WITH POKER just elicited an empty command prompt, with no acknowledgment or rejection of the command. And there are a good number of typos throughout (including a missing period in the opening sequence).

I still had a good time with the game, because the writing is solid, the premise enjoyable, and the setting a pleasant place to spend time (well, modulo the tunnels where blind inbred cannibals live, I suppose). But it felt quite dry, and I was left wanting a little more there there – a little more interactivity, a little more story, a little more puzzling, just something more to create emotional engagement and make The Time Machine feel like a real sequel and not just a retread.

The Faeries Of Haelstowne, by Christopher Merriner

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Immersive and lovely, July 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I was a beta tester on this one, and as the below review will hopefully quickly make clear, you might want to take my opinion with an even bigger grain of salt than usual).

There are some things that as soon as you encounter them, you realize that they’re for you (where by you I mean one, though I certainly hope that you, the person reading this review, have found some of these things for yourself!) Ideally you fall head-over-heels without losing the ability to understand why others might not be as into this thing as you are – it isn’t so much a matter of retaining a critical perspective, because of course you have none, but of preventing yourself from becoming a spittle-flecked evangelist, a John the Baptist who won’t take no for an answer until some kindly dancer-with-veils sticks your head on a plate. Look, the metaphor’s getting away from me: all I’m trying to say is that I have hopefully gotten to the point in life where I understand that e.g. some people think early Tori Amos is overly precious, or can’t stand the way Tristram Shandy never gets to the point. I can walk my brain along the paths that lead to those conclusions, and through force of intellection sometimes even see that the complaints proceed from real flaws in the works at issue. But none of this can shake my unbreakable adoration for these things that feel like someone made them just for me.

I have to confess that I haven’t fully replayed The Faeries of Haelstowne since I tested it a month or so back. Partially this is because it’s a very big game, and after the past week-and-a-bit of playing and reviewing, I really need to get back to my IFComp work-in-progress. Partially this is because the thought of having to solve the darkroom puzzle again intimidates me. But mostly it’s because I enjoyed my first playthrough so so much that it’d feel ungrateful to replay it, like I was asking for even more joy than it had already given me.

I can recite the issues a player might have with the game chapter and verse: it’s so big it can be hard to get and stay oriented; the Adventuron parser struggles to keep up with this ambitious a level of detail and interactivity; the Merrie Olde English milieu is twee and more literary than historical; it’s hard to figure out how to make immediate progress on the missing-vicar case the policeman protagonist is notionally investigating, so progression requires solving seemingly-unrelated problems just because they’re there; and the puzzles require a precision that can veer into pixelbitchery (I know the author did yeoman’s work smoothing out issues since I did my testing, but from a quick glance at the forum traffic and itch.io comment threads, it seems like some of these issues remain). It’s not too hard for me to imagine the review that gives it a right old kicking for all this.

But look, I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest, or at least I am here to tell you none of this matters in the slightest to me (let me reassure you that, as I write these words, my garments are not made from camel’s hair, and I have not lately fed on locusts and honey). It’s a commonplace to say that the best works of IF are worlds you can get lost in, and part of what makes Faeries of Haelstowne so lovely is that you can and will get lost in it. It conjures a completely and idyllically realized interwar milieu for your immersive pleasure, but part of the trick is that the map is too big and awkwardly laid out; that you’ll need to look carefully at every single patch of vegetation and confusingly-labeled bottle of photographic fluid; that you’ll have to get the match out of the matchbox, and light the match, and realize you didn’t put the candle on the candleholder, but then by the time you’ve done that the match has gone out, so you need to start the whole process over again; that you’ll hang on every word every NPC says, not because they’re finely characterized (though they are) but because you’re desperate for some guidance. To play this game is to be a well-meaning bumbler who eventually succeeds through a bit of cleverness, sure, but mostly through perseverance, luck, and aid from some more-competent allies – and that’s as true for the player as for the protagonist.

The reason I call it a trick is that this kind of thing doesn’t always work – I’ve given up on games with far fewer frustrations, and my closing thoughts were not of how immersed I was in the fictional world.
Here, it’s the writing that’s the secret ingredient and makes the magic come off. There are a lot of words in this game, and pretty much all of them are perfect, calling out just the right details to delight the player while communicating exactly what kind of place Haelstowne is. Like, here’s the kitchen of the vicarage where Arthur, the protagonist, is staying – there’s nothing at all special or concealed here, this is a simple quotidian description:

"The kitchen was a warm, busy space looking out on the path that ran along the west side of The Vicarage. The plain whitewashed walls held residues and aromas from centuries of cooking and had been privy to all the usual intrigues, plots and scandals that hatched in the average kitchen. There was a venerable old range set into an enormous alcove where once the fire would have roared and various pots, pans and utensil hung upon the walls. A heavily scarred tombstone-thick slab of oak served as the kitchen table and general worksurface."

Yes, this is what this kitchen would be like!

Or a small strange occurrence, from when Arthur has started to attract the attention of the eponymous fair folk:

"A pair of field mice tumbled from a nearby bank and scurried across Arthur’s shoes as he passed. The little animals paused and seemed to observe him for an instant, before disappearing into the long grass on the other side of him."

It’s all very homey and exactly right, and even when other characters are getting snippy with Arthur or there’s real danger in the air, I still found myself grinning as I read, so pleasing is the prose.

There’s much more to do than soak up the atmosphere, though: there are puzzles here, and some of them are pretty hard. Partially this is due to how large the map is – while much of it is initially locked off, there’s still quite a lot of real estate over which to range, all the more so once Arthur is able to find transportation to the village. Partially it’s because the author’s hit a nice balance between open-ended sandbox and time-gated progression and there are a whole host of puzzles that can be solved before it’s strictly necessary to do so, which means there are a lot of objects and a lot of sub-objectives at play at any given time. And partially it’s because, admittedly, the parser’s foibles can make it hard to know whether the problem is with your thinking, or with how you’re typing your actions in. Once I realized that if the game gave me the kind of unhelpful response that I’d understand as telling me I was barking up the wrong tree were I playing an Inform game, here I might want to persevere with some synonyms or alternate syntax a little longer, I had a much easier time. And there are two levels of hints available to help get players unstuck. Still – it’s likely you’ll need them at some point!

This review is already far too long and I suppose I should start trying to bring it in for a landing. There’s so much more I’d love to highlight – like Ottoline, Arthur’s eventual partner in faerie-fighting, who quickly became one of my favorite IF allies ever. Or the climactic puzzle, which involves one of the best, most satisfying figure-out-the-ritual puzzles I’ve played. And I’ve barely mentioned how drily, understatedly funny it is. I’ll simply have to have faith that these things will all be discovered and appreciated as they deserve.

Maybe all this has put you off, and as you’ve read this review you’ve weighed the positives I’ve mentioned against the negatives I’ve acknowledged, and decided that the balance doesn’t come right for you, which is completely fair. But if your interest is piqued, and you have the time and space for it, I really encourage you to block out a few hours, pour yourself a big mug of tea, resolve not to look at hints until you really need them (and then to consult them posthaste), and jump into Faeries of Haelstowne – I can guarantee (I can’t actually guarantee) you’ll love it.

Foreign Soil, by Olaf Nowacki

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Breaking new ground, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)

There’s an undeniable romance about making a new home after being shipwrecked, pushing civilization’s light into a heretofore-unlit corner and staking a claim: it’s a heady mélange of self-reliance and creativity, of being tested by a hostile and untamed wilderness without the support of society, and then constituting that society anew. Of course, the historical reality at the root of these fantasies is something else entirely, as it’s not possible to separate them from settler colonialism, given the common tropes they invoke – genocide, land-theft, and the exploitation of indigenous bodies for labor and worse belie the sunny Swiss Family Robinson image (points to Defoe for including the character of Friday in his original novel, making clear exactly how the trick works).

Displacing these fantasies into a science-fictional setting makes a lot of sense, then, as you get to invoke the tropes while starting from a place of relative innocence – with our scene laid at a completely uninhabited planetoid, it’s possible to simply enjoy watching a plucky hero (or in this case, heroine, as yes, I’m finally starting to come around to the game) carve out a settlement. Foreign Soil does have its moments of darkness – given that the protagonist first wakes up alone in a colony ship on the fritz, it’s clear that the life she left behind wasn’t great, and it’s quickly confirmed that we’re in a Botany Bay type situation – but it’s mostly an uncomplicated good time, as you solve some puzzles to wrest power and sustenance out of an unwelcoming hunk of rock.

That wake-up scene is probably the high point of the game, not because Foreign Soil goes downhill sharply, but because it’s a really compelling opening. The main character comes to amidst sleeping coffins, shivering with hibernation sickness and her mind and perceptions disordered. It’s hard to write a scene like this in IF, since you need to convey the character’s disorientation while still giving the player enough concrete information to figure out how to act. The sequence walks this tightrope very well, as the player is kept off-balance and doesn’t have a full sense of what’s going in the scene, but is always told about one salient detail or recent change that should be investigated, giving them a thread to pull to keep moving ahead. The game was an entrant in 2020’s IntroComp, and even though it’d been about a year since I’d last played this bit, I still remembered almost every detail, since it’s so strong.

Once you’ve got your colonist sorted, it’s time to get to the colonizing, and the challenges and puzzles are usually logical and fun to work through. As in the opening, you don’t usually have a complete understanding of what you’re doing – it appears the government that sent you out here isn’t big on briefings or instruction manuals – but the game is usually good at signposting what you should be paying attention to, and progress is typically possible with a little bit of prodding and poking. There are places where the implementation could be a little more robust, though, as a few puzzles flirt with guess-the-verb issues (when I replayed today, less than a month after doing my beta playthrough, it still took me forever to figure out how to fill the water bottle the second time), and there are a few errant typos – stray line breaks, missing spaces, that sort of thing – which is I suppose is primarily an indictment of how well I did my job as a tester.

The prose strikes an engaging tone throughout. I’m having a hard time nailing it down precisely, but I want to call it jauntily cynical, or maybe cynically jaunty? The main character definitely has a personality—I got a good sense of her as brash and determined – and her voice lends color to what could otherwise be a dull environment made of rocky landscapes and generic corridors. Here’s her take on an empty bit of crater, for example:

"This part of the crater gets a lot of sun, so… Ok, all parts of the crater get a lot of sun, and yet: This should be a great place for a vineyard slope! But only if the terraforming works. And even then, probably not for another 1,000 years."

This rough-edged but inviting narration also takes the edge off of death when it arrives, as it is possible to perish from a variety of missteps. It also helps that these deaths aren’t permanent, as they’re considerately rewound as soon as they happen (for a reason that makes sense once it’s ultimately revealed). And indeed, the plot winds up in a surprisingly sweet place that, much like the game overall, worked really well for me. Foreign Soil has room for more polish, it’s relatively slight, and it never manages to top its bravura opening, but if you want to play out an unproblematic colony-seeding narrative, it certainly meets the need.

Gruesome, by Robin Johnson

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Quite agrueable (I'll stop), July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

(I beta tested this game, so this is less a review than impressions of a version of the game no-one can currently plan, biased both positively by having personal interaction with the author and some investment in the game from doing a tiny bit of work to help it come into existence, and negatively by experiencing the game in a buggier, unfinished state. If after seeing this disclaimer, your reaction is “I don’t see the point of reading this so-called review,” you’re probably right!)

I copped to my inexperience with Zork in one of my earlier reviews for this Comp, but of course, even though I’ve never played, I know pretty much everything about it. Partially this is from reading things like the Digital Antiquarian’s series on the early days of Infocom, but largely it’s because of parodies. By my count there have been approximately… (checks IFDB) four trillion games riffing on all things Zorkian, with the violent, kleptomanic tendencies of its notional hero coming in for a kicking as early as Enchanter, and the heroic journey of progression inverted and parodied in Janitor and Zero Sum Game. Gruesome cleverly combines and re-inverts these parodic tropes, placing you in the shoes (claws?) of a noble grue trying to help a mob of violent, dull-witted adventurers complete their quests so they’ll leave the poor denizens of the dungeon alone.

This is funny, but it’s still a one-and-a-half joke premise at most, and throwing in a reimplementation of Hunt the Wumpus doesn’t do much to change things up. Yet Gruesome really works, on the back of solid puzzle-design and jokes that do the work to be funny, rather than just gesturing at something that happened in Zork and calling it a day.

Let’s start with the funny business. There’s a broad array of humor on display here, so I have to imagine at least some of the jokes will land for most players. You have your direct Zork jokes, sure – and these are good, from the opening line to “It is bright white. You are likely to be slain by an adventurer” – but also silly puns (“Handel’s Opening Number” is my favorite, because when you look at it, it’s an awful pun, but when you think about it some more, you realize there’s an additional, even worse pun hiding in plain sight!) as well as a whole bunch of physical comedy as the adventurers blunder around in the dark.

And save for the cute-as-a-button Wumpus, the adventurers are really the stars of this particular show. They each skewer a specific heroic archetype, like the mighty-thewed barbarian who “hails from the frozen wastes of the far northlands and, in accordance with Jones’s Law of Sartorial Inversion, dresses in a few leather straps and a tiny loincloth,” and they’re modeled with stunningly realistic AI: just like real adventure-game heroes, the bastards wander around at complete random and get into fights at the drop of a hat. My first time through the game, I was informed that one of the dopes had snuffed it, and I thought it must have been because the dragon had got him, but no, the pugnacious %#@#$ had picked a fight with one of his fellow hotheads and wound up pushing daisies – like a Zork-themed remake of No Exit, the dungeon in Gruesome may have monsters, but hell is other heroes.

Speaking of my first playthrough, it ended with all the adventurers save one dead in a ditch. That’s all right though, not because they deserved it (though they did) but because the game’s a giant optimization puzzle that’s meant to be played more than once. As you do your initial round of exploration, you’ll slowly work out the rules of the game and solve some of the component puzzles. Mostly these involve creating and extinguishing light, as the surface-dwellers unsurprisingly flee the dark and seek out rooms where they can see, which allows you to manipulate their movements. Invariably, solving the individual puzzles – which are a pleasing mix of simple object manipulation, maze traversal, and lateral thinking – will lead to an adventurer going somewhere they oughtn’t, and my initial impression of the game was a bit overwhelming, with chaos breaking out everywhere. But once you get your oar in and start considering how to sequence your actions and fit the pieces together, the meta-puzzle isn’t actually too hard to crack, though it’s very satisfying to come up with the final resolution.

Is there room for improvement in Gruesome? Sure – the climax and denouement aren’t quite as compelling as the main body of the game, for one thing, and there are some puzzles, like the one involving the dwarven foreman, that can feel a little perfunctory. And the lack of grue puns beyond the title is a real missed opportunity – like, your protagonist should feel grueful after allowing one of the adventurers in their charge to perish, or let out a self-congratulatory “gruevy” upon accomplishing a task. Or if you play your cards right in the attic, perhaps you could have finished the game as a bride-gruem. Come on, these were lying right there! (Perhaps the author considered them, but found them egruegiously bad).

Don’t let this significant flaw keep you from enjoying Gruesome, though. It’s a fun, funny farce whose jaundiced view of the typical IF protagonist doesn’t make its parody too acidic (I kind of want the slice-of-life sequel where you just hang out with Jessica the orc and the Wumpus), and it’s got some of the best puzzling of the Comp – plus the implementation seems quite smooth, though of course given I’m not playing with fresh eyes, I’m not best suited to make that judgment. If all Zork parodies hit this level of quality, keep ‘em coming!

Grandpa's Ranch, by Kenneth Pedersen

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A great introduction to IF, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Grandpa’s Ranch stands out in the Comp for being the only ADRIFT game, and also for being initially intended for a different competition entirely, the recent Text Adventure Literacy Jam. That slight delay is to ParserComp’s benefit, though, as this is a refreshing palette-cleanser of a game. The plot is simple and lighthearted – you play a kid whose grandfather is looking to give away the family valuables via a treasure hunt – and the small setting (the grandfather’s house and yard) is agreeable to explore, with compact descriptions enlivened by some pleasantly-chunky pixel art. And while there’s a tutorial that walks new players through the basics of playing IF, you can deactivate it if you’re more experienced or want a challenge, which I’d certainly recommend, as while the puzzles aren’t especially hard, they’re definitely fun to work through.

I haven’t played many ADRIFT games, but Grandpa’s Ranch is a good case for the platform by making thoughtful use of its features. In addition to the previously-mentioned graphics, there’s also an always-available map window that starts out showing the locations the player would already know about and updates as you explore more of the world. And there’s a clear attention to ease of use throughout: objects present in an area are listed out and underlined, making it easy for new players to understand what they can interact with, and when picking up objects whose use is obvious, the relevant command is disclosed, avoiding guess-the-verb frustrations.

This clean presentation makes most of the already-easy puzzles even simpler, but that’s not necessarily bad – there’s a primal joy in discovering secret doors that can be messed up if the process is too obfuscated. And I thought the climactic puzzle sequence was very well done, with several clever steps that all made sense given the goal you’re trying to accomplish, and no parser fiddliness despite the somewhat complex physical manipulations required. As with the rest of the game, the puzzles of Grandpa’s Ranch aren’t going to set the world on fire, but they’re better than they need to be for something with such a clear introductory remit. You could do a lot worse than have this as your first piece of IF, but even if you’ve been around the block a time or two, it’s still a worthwhile coffee-break diversion.

Return to the Stars, by Adrian Welcker

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Solid but dull, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The stereotype of parser games is that they’re lightly-comic puzzle adventures crammed with jokey responses and groan-worthy puns. There are obviously so many exceptions they overwhelm the rule, but there’s definitely something to it, and so usually I enjoy it when I come across a game that commits to a different prose style, as long as it fits the story. So Return to the Stars presents a bit of a conundrum: it intentionally eschews the comic-opera standard in favor of stripped-down prose that’s completely apt given the military sci-fi tropes of the setting. I can’t really fault the writing for being dry as a piece of toast since it does help advance the mood, but since that’s of a piece with the straightforward plot and unexciting puzzles, the game feels duller than it deserves.

Right, so the setup. Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: you’re a soldier in a sci-fi army, and you’ve been captured by the forces of your enemy, the awkwardly-named Shwabolians. After they stop checking on you, the moment’s right for you to attempt a jailbreak so you can escape their clutches and, like it says on the tin, return to the stars and your home. Standing in your way are a bunch of locked doors, a shuttle missing its ignition key, and a few of those evil lizard-people whose name I’m not going to attempt to spell again moving forward in this review.

There’s nothing wrong with a standard premise, but it can feel a little boring if you’re not careful, and unfortunately, it sometimes feels like the author is steering into this particular skid. The various environments you explore are plausibly-realized but generic – a stockade, various control rooms, a barracks, a briefing room – but at least poking around them could offer, say, an opportunity to learn more about the aliens you’re fighting. And you do in fact find something out about their culture as you kick around their digs: specifically, they’re very down on any unnecessary display or extraneous details in their living and work-spaces. A noticeable portion of the word-count is devoted to flagging things that aren’t actually there, as room after room is described as “sparsely-furnished” or having “no decoration.” And when there is some scenery, it’s almost always called out as generic, with “nothing noteworthy” about it. Again, this fits the mood – as a no-nonsense space marine I’m sure the player character isn’t especially interested in the fine details of furniture styling. But it makes for a pretty dull time.

When it comes to the puzzle-solving that’s the main focus here, things improve, but there’s still not much that’s exciting or novel. Like, if you’d guessed that you escape the cell you start out in by crawling out through a ventilation duct, give yourself a cookie. There are keycards to retrieve, launch sequences to initiate, and an RNG-heavy shootout that I had to abuse the UNDO command to get through. There are one or two clever pieces – I enjoyed figuring out how to get from the prison island to the main base, for example, and how to evade the force field – but also some read-the-author’s-mind bits. I figured out that I’d need to look for a keycard someone had inadvertently misplaced in order to get through a locked door, but the place where it can be found is so far away from the door it unlocks that I needed a hint to get me back on the right track. And the final step to turning on the shuttle was one of the worst guess-the-verb puzzles I’ve seen in a while, though it’s certainly possible I missed a prompt somewhere.

Implementation is solid for the most part, with a few nice touches. I liked the way the status bar updated with additional information once you recover your fancy armor, and once you find the enemy’s barracks you can wash yourself clean after you do things that make you dirty with various unpleasant substances. On the other hand, there are some minor bugs – I got stuck in the early stages when I typed CRAWL to get back into my cell after escaping, but then couldn’t CRAWL back out again, and the ignition-notch in the shuttle will accept anything you try to put in it, including the corpse of a large murder-lizard.

Even though I’ve caviled a lot in this review, I have positive feelings about Return to the Stars. It definitely passes muster as a solid slice of military sci-fi, and really commits to its premise in a way that I find admirable. I just wish it, and I, could have had a little more fun along the way.

Black Knife Dungeon, by Arthur DiBianca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A great rou-IFalike (I'm trying to make this a thing), July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Has there ever been a pairing more obvious in theory, but more challenging in execution, than the IF/roguelike mashup? I mean I’m sure there has been, but let’s just go with it: the marriage seems natural, given the overlap in presentation, interface, subject matter, and, I think, audience – like, if you enjoy typing stuff into a text window to explore a dungeon, evade traps, juggle an inventory, and beat monsters in Zork, it’s not crazy to think you’d be into Angband or Nethack as well. And, importantly, so long as you’re sticking with text or ascii, neither genre requires the author to create art, which can be a significant barrier to entry.

On the flip side, there are really deep differences between these beasts that can make the hybrids rather awkward, if not sterile. First there’s the varying expectations for what “fairness” means – modern IF players expect to triumph with nary a restart, whereas if you win a roguelike without standing on a pile of the dead bodies of your previous avatars, it would feel unsatisfying. Similarly, it’s the rare piece of IF that takes more than two or three hours, while a mainline roguelike can easily take 30 or 40 for a single successful playthrough, and you need radically different gameplay systems and design ethoi to support those different playtimes. Finally, most of the fun of IF comes from bespoke puzzle-solving and hand-crafted text, whereas roguelikes are all about applying a consistent set of tools to wildly varying circumstances of inventory, monsters, and dungeon layout, with small shifts in positioning and granular inventory usage – awkward things to model well in a parser – providing most of the turn-by-turn interest.

Due to the combination of the appeal and the challenges, I feel like this sub-genre has a lot of entries, but comparatively few successful ones: I’m of course thinking of Kerkerkruip in the latter category, but honestly struggling to name a second stand-out example. Fortunately, after playing Black Knife Dungeon, I’ll struggle no more, as it offers a distinct, intelligent take on the rou-IFalike (I know it looks awful on the page, but say it aloud, it’s pretty good!), by adopting some more player-friendly, rogue-lite style approaches.

There’s a plot here, with the find-artifact-or-kill-foozle coin landing on the former side this time out; you’re drinking in a tavern with a sot of a dwarf, who tells you of an unrecovered treasure waiting at the end of a dangerous dungeon, and closes with these urgent words:

"'A steadfast adventurer may find it,” he murmurs, “but first, seek Blornang’s Hall.' With that, his head falls on the table, cushioned slightly by a coaster."

So yeah it’s minimal and trope-y, but at the same time, if you’re not enchanted by that “cushioned slightly by a coaster” bit, you and I are very different people.

Anyway it’s all about gameplay, and since the town is only sketched in, with two shops (one level-gated) and a tavern for getting gameplay tips in the shape of rumors, it’s all about the dungeon. In the first two minutes, you’ll notice two key examples of BKD’s streamlining. First, there’s no navigation within the dungeon – you’re always either fighting or searching in a room, or moving on to another randomly-generated one. There’s also no examine verb, possibly the first time I’ve come across this in a piece of IF? Combined, this means that the focus is on decision-making from a focused palette of actions that slowly expands as you level up, buy more kit, and encounter new foes.

At the start, the main mechanic is a low-stakes push-your-luck calculation – in another bow to roguelite convention, death only means missing out on the small gold bonus you get from leaving the dungeon alive, so it seems like all there is to do is fight your way through each set of foes and then bail out when the going gets too tough. The main wrinkle at this early stage is that monsters all come in a normal and extra-tough flavor, with the difference usually being signaled by a subtle tweak of a single word in the sentence-long descriptions printed at the start of each encounter. It’s typically more trouble than it’s worth to fight these pumped-up versions of the bestiary, so once you learn to recognize them, you’ll usually just slip right by (since you can bypass any monster at any time, even once you’ve launched into combat). You can also choose whether you want to search a room once you’ve killed a monster, with some kinds of rooms more likely to yield treasure and others tending to conceal traps.

Later levels of the dungeon complicate this simple dynamic in ways that keep BKD fresh through its hour-long playtime. Beyond incremental weapon and armor upgrades, you’ll be able to purchase three different magic items. The first is a simple ranged attack, but the other two are more interesting, consisting of an I-win nuke that must be charged up by conventional victories, and a ring that uses the environment against your opponent by casting a spell that’s unique to each room. As a result, every time you go down stairs into a new layer of the dungeon, there’s a pleasing bit of business as you figure out which text identifies the hard version of the new monsters, test their vulnerability to the various attacks, and fill out the ring’s room/monster grid. Ultimately, of course, there’s a boss who tests your mastery of the previous mechanics while injecting a few new spins of its own, and then the story wraps up tidily, though the player is left with some extra-challenging postgame goals to work through if the spirit so moves.

It’s all well considered, and if, unlike Fivebyfivia, the story’s “twist” ending didn’t land that strongly for me, well, that’s no big deal, as the journey getting there is clearly what’s important. And I did have a lot of fun with BKD, though I think the tuning requires a bit more repetition than I would have preferred. Progression through the dungeon isn’t gated by flat experience, but rather by accomplishing specific goals. Many of these are grindable – earning enough gold to upgrade your equipment, coming across the right room in your random explorations – but others require a bit of luck, like being able to kill a certain number of monsters before your hit points or a time limit runs out. This helps proceedings feel less mechanical, but in the later stages of the game, even after I’d figured out all the relevant tricks it felt like it still took a lot of replays until the stars aligned just right so I could check off these boxes and make it to the boss.

A heavy reliance on RNGesus for success is a central part of most roguelikes, of course, but this did make the final act of the game sometimes feel like a drag. And I would have liked the game better if there was a little more going on in the town, since there are no characters as engaging as the coaster-napping dwarf from the opening. Still, these are small complaints – RKD is a short game so having a bit of ennui set in for the last 10 minutes is no big deal when I enjoyed the rest of it so much, and my eyes were skipping over most of the text by the end anyway. There’s a lot to be said for a game that makes succeeding at a tricky design challenge look effortless, even if the perfect rou-IFalike is still yet to be written (admit it, it’s starting to grow on you now).

Fivebyfivia Delenda Est, by Andrew Schultz

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Working on my knight moves, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

If this wasn’t ParserComp but rather BadassTitleComp, let’s all take a minute up front to acknowledge that FDE would be the runaway champion (I see you over there, Black Knife Dungeon – you’re ballpark but you’re trying too hard). Take a genocidal threat from the ancient world, blend it with a made-up mathy word, and slap it on a chess-based puzzler, and you have a sure-fire recipe for coloring me intrigued. Happily, rather than just skating by with a neat title and cool concept, Fivebyfivia Delenda Est has as much substance as style.

For one thing, there’s an actual plot here, about a daring knight sent out to conquer a neighboring kingdom via dynastic assassinations and a terrain-occupying tour, that’s written with humor, fleetness, and an understanding of the actually quite problematic nature of what’s occurring here. As with most of Andrew Schultz’es games, though, FDE is a puzzler through and through, and this time it’s chess that’s going through the wringer. Of course, chess puzzles are a genre unto themselves, but the spin here is quite clever and would be hard to implement outside IF – you need to arrange pieces to set up a checkmate, which you do by dropping off your allies then summoning the enemy king as your knight traverses the board in the expected L-shaped pattern, with a move limit adding an additional dimension of challenge to proceedings.

I should say at the outset that I would like to be the kind of person who’s good at chess puzzles, but am in fact the kind of person who’s awful at them. As is also usual for Schultz’s games, though, there are a host of features that invite players of any skill level in so they can enjoy things at their own speed. There’s a map that helps you visualize the state of play; many different ways to input your moves, so guiding the knight is easy; a full tutorial and a quick precis of the rules of chess; and gentle hints that ramp up if it’s clear you’re not getting a particular puzzle. So while the initial challenge definitely presented a learning curve as my head desperately tried to wrap itself around this unique take on the chess puzzle, it was a smooth curve with lots of support (so a flying buttress, I guess?)

The puzzles do escalate as you go, with the two-rook training wheel scenario giving way to more complex arrangements that were delightful to work through. My only real complaint, besides wishing there were more challenges beyond the four here on offer, is that the second one wound up having additional constraints that I don’t think were clearly signposted in the setup – my first solution was rejected because one piece didn’t want to be too close to the enemy king, and the second one because the player character wanted to hold it in reserve. I came up with a third one soon enough (and then was able to re-use my second solution in the following puzzle), so no harm no foul, but I think clearly telegraphing these added rules from the jump would have been more satisfying.

At any rate, FDE left me wanting more and hoping that, like the Punic Wars, it would be one of a series – given the way the imperialism-kicking plot wraps up, though, I’m not sure that’s in the cards, and perhaps it’s for the best since I don’t think I’d be up to the difficulty of solving puzzles in the untrammeled wilds of the knight’s home country of Twelvebytwelvia.

Yesternight, by Robert Szacki

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Flower follies, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

When I was in college, I had a running conversation with a friend where we tried to determine the smallest discernable unit of various things – like, what is the band such that next-worse band is actually bad, therefore allowing you to express the goodness of all other bands as a multiplier of the goodness of that one band? We decided that there was, and it was Jimmy Eats World, for reasons I can’t currently recall or defend.

This was a weird pastime – we were taking quantum mechanics at the time, so that’s why were interested in trying to come up with discrete measurements for things that are typically experienced as continuous or analogue – but I bring it up because Yesternight is a plausible contender for a sort of text-adventure eigenunit, complete in itself but so stripped down that if you took almost a single thing away from it, you’d have something that felt more like a tech demo than a full game.

The player character has no history and no future, their only goal to work through the obviously-signposted puzzle chain that doesn’t constitute a narrative beyond the inevitability of union between one object, one action, and one barrier that it resolves. Eventually you go north, having traded all the money you had in the world (in fairness, a single coin) for forward progress on a road, with no indication of where it leads (maybe existentialism would have been a better one of my early-adult obsessions to organize this review around, since the protagonist and their world is entirely defined by absurd but compelled actions? …probably not).

Matching the thin puzzles and thinner narrative, the game is pretty underimplemented, too. It’s written in AdvSys, a fairly obscure mid-80s language that I was unfamiliar with before a quick google, and look, I’m not going to make you sit here and listen to me pretend to have an opinion about LISP-based parsers, but even with allowances for the limited technical affordances of the time, there’s no excuse for the guess-the-verb silliness that only accepts POUR FLOWER to indicate that you want to pour some water on a desiccated flower (the instructions do indicate this is a two-word parser, but even still, POUR WATER, WATER FLOWER, EMPTY BOTTLE, and various permutations thereof would have been far more intuitive!)

So like I said: plausible candidate for the eigen-venture. And yet! When I said there almost wasn’t a single you could take away from Yesternight and still have a game, I was being precise. There is exactly one superfluous item in the world, a medical book of some description (I say “of some description” because its description is “you see nothing special”, and you can’t actually read it), that serves no purpose whatsoever. It must be there because the author wanted it there; there was no puzzle-logic or worldbuilding rationale that required it to exist, after all. There’s something intriguing about its completely unnecessary presence in this otherwise minimal game, and I’m almost tempted to argue that the seed of all art is putting something like that into a work that clearly doesn’t need it – and the seed of all criticism is trying to figure out what it means that it’s there. Right now it’s not very interesting art, and it can’t lead to interesting criticism, since the medical text is an empty signifier, an invitation into the author’s mind that only leads to an empty house with no lights on. But hey, a seed is a seed.

The Arkham Abomination, by catventure

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Abominably fun, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Arkham Abomination doesn’t put its best foot forward – a custom-parser game with no testers listed and a readme that’s actually titled “for testers” is spookier than any eldritch horror, and the fuzzy icons and garishly-colored text that greet you on booting up left me quaking in dread. Happily, it quickly shakes this negative first impression and serves up a quality bit of Lovecraftiana. If you’re burned out on the subgenre, it’s not doing anything novel enough to shake you out of your ennui, but it’s a well-crafted, well-written romp through the dark woods of Arkham Country with only a few flies in the ointment (or rather, mi-go in the slimy remnant of some nameless horror?)

Much of this is down to how it nails the Lovecraft style – and not in a “anyone with a skin tone slightly darker than ecru is a degenerate villain” way, thankfully, but by offering up prose that’s dizzyingly dense with recondite adjectives and ominously-overdescribed landscape. Here’s the opening location, for example:

"I am on a twisty trail west of old Arkham town. Looking around I see the hills rise wild, and there are valleys with deep, dark woods. I turn and see dark narrow glens where trees slope fantastically, and where thin brooklets trickle without ever having caught the glint of sunlight. On the gentler slopes I spot a few deserted farms, ancient and rocky, with squat, moss-coated cottages dilapidated and vacant now, the wide chimneys crumbling and the shingled sides bulging perilously beneath low gambrel roofs."

Some of this is word-for-word Lovecraft (“…the hills rise wild”) but the rest of it could easily be. Or take this description of the not-at-all-suspicious monoliths at the edge of town:

"Occasionally, through gaps in the trees, the sky silhouettes with especial clearness a queer circle of tall stone pillars upon which a large grassy hill in the distance is crowned."

It’s awkward sometimes, but sure, that’s the point. And all of this excessively-detailed scenery is implemented, every gambrel roof and narrow glen of it. In a sea of Lovecraft-alikes that nick the fish-men but present their stories in the same flat prose you’d use to recount a trip to the supermarket, Arkham Abomination stands out by adopting the style as well as the substance.

The plot itself is also cannily chosen, as it’s riffing off a specific Lovecraft story, but not one of the over-used ones like Dunwich Horror or Shadow Over Innsmouth (Spoiler - click to show)(we’re looking at the Colour Out of Space, here). The classic setup has you visiting a threatening village, looking for a missing friend who was trying to get to the bottom of a strange wave of sickness that’s laid many of Arkham’s citizens low. The shape of what’s happened is pretty obvious from early on, at least if you’ve got much familiarity with HPL’s oeuvre, but going through the steps of the investigation is a pleasure, with clues that logically connect one to another and a detailed but not overly-large game world. The readme implies this is an adaptation of a pen-and-paper Call of Cthulhu scenario, and if that’s right it does a good job of translating an RPG story into IF form.

There are only a few puzzles, most of which are pretty well prompted and pleasing to work through – light sources to use to illuminate darkened areas, makeshift ropes to discover, mazes to explore, and so on – and appropriately enough for a CoC scenario, it all ends in fire and explosions. The last major puzzle of the game was occasionally frustrating, though – it requires stealing some items from a half-crazed, randomly-wandering farmer, and avoiding the death-by-shotgun he visits upon you if he notices your thefts requires a lot of reloading, as UNDO won’t take you past the barrier of death. The puzzle is also a little fiddlier than it should be, due to some commands that work in earlier scenes not behaving quite the way you’d expect them to in this sequence – it’s not awful by any means, but in a game without hints or a walkthrough, it’d be unfortunate if these niggles put players off from finishing (if you are feeling stuck, this thread might get you going again).

To close with a word about implementation, Arkham Abomination is yet another example of a well-made custom parser that’s made me reconsider my previous negative feelings about such things. Modulo that UNDO inconvenience mentioned above, it has all the features a modern player would expect, and it understands basic actions in a completely transparent way. Besides a few small bugs (sometimes X FOO would result in “I X the foo…” before printing the description instead of the usual “I examine the foo…”), the only real complaint I had is that much like in Somewhere, Somewhen, it’s hard to look at or interact with objects in containers, even open ones, without first retrieving them (is there something in the water making custom-parser authors think players want to fiddle about with containers in this anal-retentive way?)

Does the world need another Cthulhu scenario, or another custom text-adventure engine? Probably not, but Arkham Abomination demonstrates that you can have a lot of fun with such things nevertheless, so long as the craft is there.

Daddy's Birthday, by Jonathan8

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Bringing life to a transcript, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The comedy IF-transcript is a niche but venerable taste – my favorites are the DISAVENTURE series the late, lamented Scott Eric Kaufman wrote about the travails of academic life – but usually, the gag involves near-psychic levels of reactivity to player commands in order to make the comic timing work. It’s not surprising, then, that Daddy’s Birthday is the first time I’ve heard of someone taking on the challenging task of transforming such a transcript into an actual interactive work (here, the author’s daughter wrote up a silly transcript of her dad’s birthday morning, which has now been turned into an Inform game). It’s a nice touch that you can at any point call up the transcript to measure your progress against the initial inspiration, but what’s nicer is that you can go off the beaten path a little bit and find the game, and the story, still works.

Genre-wise, this is a straightforward domestic comedy – you, as the eponymous father, bumble your way through the house in order to reach your family, and the party they’ve prepared for you. There’s nothing stopping you for making a beeline for the cake and presents, and you can probably finish the game in a dozen commands or fewer if you want, but most of the fun comes from poking around. The house isn’t deeply implemented, but there are usually one or two things to interact with per room on this small map, one of which can wind up giving you an additional sub-objective for the morning. And the party is rendered with a good deal of depth – there’s a solid amount of dialogue for each of the three family members, a variety of interactions available with the celebratory accoutrements, and the possibility of reaching either an unsuccessful or successful birthday end.

The writing is straightforward throughout, enlivened by gentle humor, and stays simple without being twee. It prompts you to make sure you’re staying on track, but it never nags and you’re perfectly able to ignore its suggestions, though doing so might mean you’d miss my favorite joke in the Comp so far:

(Spoiler - click to show)You put the icepack on your head, and feel better immediately. Now that your head is better, you start to wonder about the missing table.
You stop for a minute to wonder about the disappearing table. Maybe it’s outside?</spoiler?

I love that sort of cleverness, where the author rewards a clearly-loopy command – it’s one of the unique joys of the parser, so it’s especially welcome in a ParserComp entry.

Daddy’s Birthday isn’t trying to be more than it is – an enjoyable five-minute slice-of-lifer – but it checks all the boxes it needs to, and then adds a few extra graceful touches on top, without its origin as a piece of static writing every showing through. It’s a lovely proof-of-concept – now to see if someone can take on implementing DISADVENTURE…

Grooverland, by Mathbrush

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Really groovy, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

About a decade ago, I played the Lego Harry Potter video game with an ex-girlfriend. She was a fan of the franchise, but at the time it was probably the biggest gap in my nerd-milieu knowledge: I’d never read any of the books or seen any of the movies, so while I knew the setting’s basics (off-brand Gandalf, wizard rugby, Alan Rickman) I had no idea about the overall plot or the secondary characters. The game, unsurprisingly, was pitched towards fans: the cutscenes didn’t have dialogue, just mime-acted versions of famous sequences that the audience presumably knew by heart, and it boasted dozens of beloved side-characters to unlock. My memories of playing it are thus of bizarre story sequences where a mute Lego-guy seemed to be scared of the moon or an ugly-cute gnome was excited to read a book about a sock, while my ex excitedly crowed that we’d just unlocked Fistibum Crackettycrank, who looked exactly like the seven other randos we’d previously rescued. And yet, I had fun! The cartoonish pratfalls in the cutscenes had great comedic timing, and the low-challenge, welcoming gameplay was enjoyable even if I had no idea why killing plants with sunlight should work.

This is a long-winded way of saying that as with Zork, I’ve never actually played a Chandler Groover game, save for that cyberpunk fish-pope one he co-authored last year. But while that means that I’m pretty sure I’m missing a huge number of in-jokes, call-backs, and meta references in Grooverland, nonetheless it’s a well-crafted romp through a darkly fantastical playground that doesn’t require outside knowledge to be compelling. Starting with a dangerous situation that turns out to be innocent, then slowly shifting from innocence to spookiness then back to danger, there’s a smooth progression through a series of set-piece puzzles that are clever without being too hard, and if the relatively-thin overall plot means Grooverland doesn’t wind up being more than the sum of its parts, those parts are compelling enough in their own right.

Said plot has a straightforward setup: the player is a little girl whose family have brought her to the eponymous amusement park to celebrate her birthday, and after a short introductory sequence you’re given a list of regalia to collect ahead of a climactic celebration for your big day. This framing provides a perfect excuse for running around the various attractions – your character is clearly excited to be there so seeing all the sights and chatting with all the characters is in-theme, but you also have a puzzle or challenge awaiting you at most of the park’s sub-areas, which move you closer to completing the scavenger hunt. The structure isn’t a simple hub-and-spokes (or maybe spine-and-ribs?) model, since some of the challenges are initially locked off by an independent puzzle, and there are some connections between the areas so only a few are completely self-contained. This helps proceedings feel less artificial than scavenger-hunts sometimes do – progress requires more than going north to solve a puzzle and find a MacGuffin, then going to east to do the same, then south…

Collecting the pieces of regalia also slowly transforms the park, adding to the dynamism of the world. What starts out as a purely kid-friendly, sunny playground takes on a more sinister cast, with the patrons growing more inhuman and members of your family going missing one by one. This effectively raises the stakes, again making Grooverland more engaging than the typical “solve five puzzles and then you’re in the endgame” scavenger hunt. Unfortunately, on my playthrough, this meant I never actually got a chance to talk with my sister Alice, since she was the first to be taken despite being located the farthest from the entrance, so I’d solved the first major puzzle before I came across her. I’m not sure if the choice of abductees is randomized, and of course other players might explore more systematically before trying to crack the puzzles, but it was still disappointing to miss out on meeting her, especially since the help text indicates that she can provide some background info on the various easter eggs and Chandler Groover references.

The writing is effective but for some reason I couldn’t quite put my finger on, I found the prose wasn’t always quite as evocative as I wanted it to be. Take the Midnight Laserfight area, where vicomtes and countesses, clad in fools’ motley and armed with laserpistols and cutlasses, fight savage skirmishes for the parkgoers’ amusement. That’s a great setup, redolent of ancien-regime decadence, but some of the descriptions once you dig in are a little flat. Here’s X VICOMTES:

"This group of people are so wild and diverse they are impossible to describe. Your sister Alice might say they have a look that 'inspires passion', but that’s just Alice. They are carrying some red laserpistols and wearing some red motley."

It’s definitely not bad, but I wanted a little more to sink my teeth into. With that said, there are also places where the prose does go the extra mile, like the descriptions of the too-big, too-sweet cake you eat your way through in pursuit of one piece of the regalia.

The puzzles are ultimately the main draw here, and they’re a fun bunch, widely varied and rewarding to solve. There’s a series that involve luring animals out from the petting zoo to help overcome a bunch of different obstacles, an optimization puzzle involving feeding the right foods to the right animals in the right order, two mazes that play very differently (though neither is frustrating), and the aforementioned Laserfight area, which has a profusion of levers to pull, dials to turn, and noblemen to arm, in a pleasingly tactile way. These are lots of fun to work through, since you never feel like you’re doing the same thing twice. The difficulty also hits a nice middle ground, since most of the puzzles require a little bit of thinking or note-taking, but once you do that they fall pretty easily (I build a spreadsheet for the food puzzle, which was overkill but that’s OK, I love making spreadsheets for puzzles!)

Despite these varying mechanics, the implementation of the puzzles is completely smooth, with every synonym and alternate syntax I could think of easily accepted. And even when there were multiple layers of events firing off in some of the more complicated scenarios, I didn’t notice any holes that took me out of the world. There are also a really large number of conversation topics implemented for the sizable supporting cast, which added to the fun of exploration. With all this spit and polish for the key parts of the game, it’s forgivable that there are a few small rough patches in some inessential areas – a few typos and missing line-breaks, the inability to pet the animals in the petting zoo, the persistence of a few members of the crowd after the part is evacuated, and a non-updating description of the layers remaining in the giant cake after you start eating are niggles that would be nice to see fixed in a post-Comp release, but don’t do much to impact enjoyment.

While I’m levelling small criticisms, I also found the endgame weaker than the beginning and middle. Again, it’s not bad by any means, with callbacks to the opening and some nice thematic weight, but the final sequence is a fairly straightforward matching puzzle that’s not as mechanically interesting as what comes before. And the ending wraps up the fate of the park, its rulers, and its inhabitants perhaps a little too neatly, and doesn’t linger on the impact of the day’s events on the protagonist and her family.

But perhaps that’s for the best: I won’t remember Grooverland for its epic narrative but for as the small moments along the way, like meeting the delightful Morgan the Mechanical, dancing a frenzied tango with the gentlemanly Eugene, and winding my way through the world’s creakiest (and rattlingest, and shakingest) mansion – it’s more of a place than a story, in other words, and what a marvelous place indeed.