Reviews by Mike Russo

ParserComp 2021

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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

6 of 6 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.

Waiting for the Day Train, by Dee Cooke

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Small and lovely, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Aesthetics predominate in Waiting for the Day Train, a game of two parts: this Adventuron amuse-bouche presents a non-interactive pixel-art opening, and then segues over to photographs to accompany the puzzle-solving gameplay. Living up to my expectations for Adventuron, both parts are absolutely gorgeous, and while I’m not sure they ultimately cohere into a united whole, they’re individually well worth experiencing.

It feels a bit odd to lead off a review of a parser game emphasizing what you look at rather than what you read, but I suspect even the most prose-focused of players will have the same response I did. The prologue section is well-written, with an intriguing opening line (“The night is a different world”) leading into some efficiently-conveyed backstory about the main character’s efforts to escape a world of tormenting spirits about to be thrust into everlasting night. But it’s the pictures that accompany the writing that really make an impression: they’re moody, all black and beige and gray, with fat pixels of raindrops streaking the screen; your character, a robed, faceless figure a la Bobbin Threadbare, seems authentically beleaguered just from their posture and way of holding themself.

Once day breaks and you head to the station to catch your train, the visuals completely transform, with the night-time pixel art replaced by photographs. You’ve fallen asleep in the forest near the station, and the environment here is absurdly lush, with the green landscape half-concealing sturdy old wooden bridges and lovely, weathered stonework. These photos create a day-world that’s absurdly pleasant and welcoming, bucolic and nostalgic all at once.

Getting to the train before the time limit is a matter of solving three or four simple puzzles, none of which are very challenging on their own but do put you up against a time limit. While this did mean I had to restart my first playthrough due to overmuch faffing about, the short playtime made the replay painless, and without the deadline the puzzles might feel a bit thin. They’re standard sorts of thing – districting a flock of birds, feeding a hungry animal – enlivened by a bit of unexplained magic, but primarily serve to give you something to do as you explore the lovely setting. The implementation is largely solid, too, with the only niggle I ran into some confusion about how to retrieve a gem from the stream after I’d spied it trapped by some stepping-stones: (Spoiler - click to show)since it was described as being right near the stones, I’d thought a simple TAKE GEM should work, on one bank or the other – CLIMB ON STONES is what eventually worked to put me in the middle of the crossing, where I could pick the jewel up, but that seemed a bit unintuitive to me.

My only real critique is that it was hard for me to tonally reconcile the peaceful, welcoming daylit world with the foreboding and terrible nighttime (oh, and that reminds me, there’s a typo with “forboding” subbed in for “foreboding” – only error I noticed). The contrast certainly made me want to make sure I stayed in the daytime and didn’t get trapped in the world of eternal night. But while I intellectually understood my character as desperate, rain-soaked and rushing to reach their last chance for escape, the lovely photos made the daytime section so peaceful, homey, and pleasant that the urgency drained away, and I enjoyed it more as a hang-out game, with the challenges feeling less like barriers and more like a prompt to slow down and spend time in a beautiful place. Still, I can’t find much to complain about getting two different aesthetically engaging experiences in one short game, and I found Waiting for the Day Train very much worth a play.

Somewhere, Somewhen, by Jim MacBrayne

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Toilsome fantasy adventure, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

Reader, a confession: I have played a large amount of IF over the last few decades, but have never been able to dip more than the tiniest toe into Zork before I get bored and wander off. I’ve faffed around in the white house, reconnoitering the mailbox and display case and thinking “this will be fun!” as I lift the trap door and enter the Great Underground Empire – but despite making that descent at least half a dozen times, I have no clear memories of actually accomplishing anything down there, my impressions a uniform smear of over-large maps and exploration-punishing mechanics like time and carrying limits and the murderthief, which always lead me to abandon the attempt.

I’ve read a bunch of appreciations so I certainly understand why this works for others, and some of this is definitely down to expectations – I got into IF in the early days of this century, when a wholly different set of design aesthetics was in the ascendant, so while I’m as subject to nostalgia as the next person, I’m not nostalgic for Zork. And some of it’s down to the ridiculous plenty of the modern age – when Zork was the only thing going, beavering away at its devilish puzzlery was I’m sure the glorious work of many a late night and weekend. Here and now, though? It’s hard to justify the time investment to myself when I’ve also barely scratched the surface of Counterfeit Monkey, to pick one example from literally hundreds.

I bring all this up to lay the groundwork for my two central takeaways for Somewhere, Somewhen: 1) it’s pretty Zorky; and 2) I really didn’t get on with it, partially though not exclusively for the reasons I’ve never got on with Zork. If Acid Rain, the game I played right before it in the Comp, was an example of an old-school game whose archaisms don’t stand in the way of contemporary enjoyment, Somewhere, Somewhen serves as a caution for how easy it is for this approach to go awry. A custom-parser fantasy adventure with a wacky mix of magic and anachronistic technology is certainly appealing to a specific audience, but I think even their patience would be tested by SS’s sprawling, red-herring-choked map (including one literal red herring – no, this doesn’t make it better), arbitrary puzzle design, and too-dense prose. There are some individual puzzles that aren’t bad, and the custom parser is pretty well implemented, but ultimately I didn’t find much to enjoy.

The game doesn’t put its best foot forward, which is part of the issue. After a quote from The Raven that doesn’t connect to anything in the game so far as I could see, you get a vague but wordy introduction where you’re plucked from your ordinary life (in the regular, real world? It’s unclear) and told by a mysterious voice from beyond that you’ve been chose to retrieve an unpronounceable MacGuffin that the mysterious voice and pals have somehow lost (adding insult to injury, when you finally find the MacGuffin at the end of the game, it has only a default description, underlining the arbitrariness of proceedings). Then you show up in a deserted labyrinth, and well, this is the description of the initial location:

"You are in a high-domed and circular chamber suffused with a soft ambient light, which seems to have no obvious direct source, but which appears to emanate from the very walls and ceiling. On those walls, at some distance above your head and spaced at equal intervals around the periphery of the room are six inscriptions deeply inscribed into the vertical stony surface. There are thus first, second, third, fourth, fifth, and sixth inscriptions. In the very vault of the dome and well above your head there’s an aperture. Deeply embedded into the floor of the chamber there’s an inlay. Beside you there lays a lamp and sword."

Yes yes, lamp and sword, but it’s too wordy, and the parser doesn’t allow you to abbreviate the inscriptions to FIRST, SECOND, etc., so you’re in for a lot of typing to fully explore things. And before you’ve gotten a chance to get to grips with your surroundings, the mysterious voice comes back and tells you how to solve the first puzzle, which by that point I’d only started to dig into.

After this rocky beginning, it does improve for a bit – that initial puzzle gives you some magic words that open portals to various other locations, which each have a couple of puzzles to resolve, mostly hinging on unlocking doors and collecting kit. And the writing starts to get a bit more fleet, though it’s never a real draw. By the time I was about a third of the way in, though, I started having additional complaints. First, the various locations you explore are fairly monotonous – there’s a castle, a cellar, and a hall that all felt pretty much interchangeable, though a deserted village at least somewhat changes things up – but have large, sparse maps. There’s an EXITS command to help with mapping, but it has some issues, like closed doors not being listed and a few exits opened by puzzle-solving not being included even once they were available. There are also one-way connections that require a lot of step-retracing, and non-cardinal directions (northeast, southwest, etc.) are used without much rhyme or reason, which complicated getting around to no real benefit.

The other issue that reared its head at that point was the inventory limit. Its existence was predictable enough, but what was less predictable was that worn items still count against it, and the conveniently-provided carryall you get towards the end of the first act also has its own limit. And as mentioned above, there are rather a lot of useless items and red herrings scattered throughout the game – in addition to a number of critical ones only findable via SWEEPING DUST and LOOKING UNDER and LOOKING BEHIND – so you will run into this limit, and it will require a whole lot of inventory-juggling and backtracking, which combined with issue number one (remember those sprawling maps?) makes much of the mid-game an unfun exercise in logistics.

The puzzles themselves are a mixed bag. Most are pretty traditional and straightforward – collecting ingredients for a witch’s brew, navigating a maze, solving riddles, getting an iron key with a (Spoiler - click to show)magnet – but there are a few that rely on authorial mid-reading. One late-game puzzle requires realizing that a safe has a key lock rather than a traditional dial one, but there’s no indication of that in any of the descriptions I found. And then there’s the riddle that had me tearing out my hair – I’m going to spoil it, because if you try to play Somewhere, Somewhen you’ll need it spoiled to. Getting into the witch’s cottage requires entering a code on a keypad (remember what I said about the wacky mix of magic and technology?), clued with the following message:

"Winifred accepts digits
spider’s legs and octopus
arms on weekdays."

Right, so that’s 885, easy enough. But no! “Digits” is meant to indicate that you should type a 10, and “weekdays” translates as 7. Maybe this is a Downton Abbey joke (you know, “what’s a week-end?”) but it sure requires some trial and error. And some of the puzzles like this are item-based, so playing the game straight would require a whole lot of item-hauling to enable you to run through the red herrings and figure out which are actually useful. Others might have the patience for this, but I very much don’t, especially when the rewards of advancing the story and exploring more of the setting are pretty lackluster – I started having regular recourse to the hints about halfway through, and didn’t regret it one bit.

I’ll close by repeating that the custom parser is actually pretty good for such things. It doesn’t like abbreviation of objects, and you can’t interact with objects in containers or on supporters, even to examine them, without first taking them (I haven’t mentioned the inventory limit yet this paragraph, have I? Yes, this makes the inventory limit even more annoying. And it applies to the caryall too). But other than that, it affords most of the conveniences of a modern system, including being able to recall recent commands. It’s clear a lot of time, energy and enthusiasm went into coding it, and I’m sure that’s true of this big game as a whole – and for someone looking for another Zork to pour hours and hours into, I could see Somewhere, Somewhen being the most fun they’d have in this Comp. But for someone like me, who’s barely ever been eaten by a grue and sees a flood control dam and just wishes the whole thing were over, it sadly misses the mark, especially with a bunch of other games I’m excited to get to.

Acid Rain, by Garry Francis

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Old-school but approachable, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The gods of randomization decided I should play both of Garry Francis’s games back-to-back, so here we are with another older-school Inform game – but instead of the tepid parody of Danny Dipstick, with Acid Rain we’ve got a puzzle-y adventure that I quite enjoyed. Sure, it’s got some player-unfriendly archaisms, like an inventory limit that adds nothing to the gameplay and a too-tight time limit that required a restart, but there’s definitely pleasure to be had in scratching a familiar itch in a well-designed, well-implemented playground.

Per the ABOUT text, this is actually a reverse-engineered reconstruction of a game from the late 80s, which helps explain the title – I grew up in the northeast U.S. in a similar time period, and remember hearing lots of worrisome news stories about acid rain, so using it as an ominous near-future setting element makes sense in world before a regional cap-and-trade system (the endearingly-named RGGI) got the problem under control. Acid Rain isn’t about getting recalcitrant Reagan Administration officials to take Canadian concerns about trans-national pollution seriously, however – instead you’re some flavor of scientist driving home from a conference when your car dies due to a drained battery. Good thing your car fetched up right outside the mansion of a mad scientist, who’s surely got a replacement battery stowed somewhere amidst all the junk from their electrical engineering hobby!

It doesn’t take long for the structure of the game to emerge – you’re quickly trapped in the house, and in addition to finding a new battery, you also need to gather a bunch of components to create a door-opening gadget so you can escape. There are also a host of strangely-behaving animals scattered throughout the mansion, serving as both barriers and occasional sources of assistance. Some of this is explained (the animal stuff), but some of it you just have to chalk up to text adventure conventions (why the mad scientist made the front door automatically trap visitors inside, but then also provided a sign clearly laying out the situation and a note with a list of the parts needed to build the opener).

This isn’t the only way Acid Rain is a bit of an archaism: as mentioned above, there are some retro design touches that maybe provide some aesthetic pleasure to grognards, but serve mostly to annoy in the here and now. The refusal to allow X NOTE or X SIGN to reveal what’s actually written on them is just a niggle, and the inventory limit isn’t too harsh, though I ultimately found it rather pointless since it doesn’t force any decision-making or interesting gameplay, just a bit of backtracking tedium. The time limit is the worst offender here – you start out with a flashlight with limited battery power that will die if you take too long exploring the dark house, which I don’t believe you can recover from. There are new D-cells available within the house, and they appear to function indefinitely, but they’re not in a place you’d reasonably expect to find them meaning it’s pretty much blind chance whether you come across them in time to avoid a restart.

On the flip side, the game is well implemented, with a surprising amount of scenery implemented and some nice conveniences too. It’s definitely possible to die, but a quick UNDO sorted any trouble out, and there’s a character who provides in-game hints. I didn’t need to use this feature much, though, since the puzzles are typically well clued and fit the world reasonably enough once you grant the premise. There’s nothing you haven’t seen before, but they’re satisfying to work through, with a bunch of keys to juggle and animals to feed on the easier end, and a secret passage to find and a code to decipher on the harder side. The code was probably my favorite puzzle, as it’s possible to solve via brute force but also has a good number of clues for those who don’t like grinding through such things.

Is Acid Rain anything other than a scavenger hunt through a medium-sized map of rooms that primarily hold one gettable object and one bit of scenery? No, and if that kind of thing isn’t your jam, or you’re easily turned off by clunky gameplay elements that haven’t stood the test of time, nothing here is going to change your mind. But if you’re the sort of person who sometimes looks at a long list of ice cream flavors and picks a vanilla – occasionally, one just wants the simple thing – Acid Rain fits the bill.

Danny Dipstick, by Garry Francis

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A more polite Leisure Suit Larry, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

If you are a gamer of a certain age, you will look at Danny Dipstick’s title and blurb (“You need to find a girlfriend, but all the girls think you’re a dork. Try to overcome your dorkiness to pick up a girl”) and feel a cold pit of dread form in your stomach, suffused by a terror far beyond what your quotidian Amnesia-clones could ever hope to induce: yes, in space-year 2021, we’re looking at a Leisure Suit Larry parody (though apparently this is a reimplementation of a 1999 original, which is still late in the day for such a thing but is a bit more understandable).

I never really played any of the LSL games (one friend had a copy of the third one but we couldn’t get very far, so my only memories were of answering dry trivia questions to defeat the copy protection, and then making a beeline for a set of binoculars that allowed you to see an at-the-time-exciting pair of pixelated boobs), but my understanding is that to the extent they worked, it was because most of the jokes were at the protagonist’s expense and the games weren’t nearly as lecherous as they seemed to be. This is a delicate balance to strike at the best of times, and given the way parody heightens and deforms its inspirations, my hopes were not high.

The good news is that Danny Dipstick isn’t going for parody or exaggerated laughs, so it mostly avoids the kinds of gratuitous offensiveness I’d feared. The bad news is that I can’t tell what it actually is going for. Neither the puzzles, the plot, nor the writing seem to be trying to stand out in any way – the game is perfectly functional and moves the player from point A to point B, but I’m couldn’t tell you why the author wrote this game in this way at this time. There’s perhaps a clue in the ABOUT text, which reveals that this was originally an assignment in a computer science class, and while Danny Dipstick is polished far above the level that implies, I couldn’t shake the feeling that the game was written to build and demonstrate familiarity with programming, with the player experience coming second, not because it’s actively bad, but because it’s frustratingly flat.

The gameplay provides a good example of what I mean. You’re told from the jump that there are three things you need to do to get a girlfriend: fix your bad breath, get some better clothes, and develop social skills (one of these seems harder than the others…) These objectives are available at any time via the STATUS command, and each can be met in a single, clearly-signposted step. The game plays out over a small map of maybe a dozen locations, most of which offer up two or three possibilities for interaction. There are a number of characters, all of whom are looking for one and exactly one item, and who as far as I can tell respond only to TALK TO, with ASKing about other topics not leading to anything interesting. The author provides frequent prompting, if not hand-holding, to make sure you’re able to progress (my transcript is littered with a lot of “You should…”s), which keeps things on track but drains the sense of agency.

The puzzles are of a piece with this general approach. There are two main puzzle chains, both of which require a little bit of poking around to start, but which run quite similarly: once you find the initial object, it’s very clear who you should give it to, which then leads to you acquiring a second object with a likewise obvious use, and then there’s an even more obvious final step to take to wrap up the game. Everything works fine, but there’s nothing distinctive or interesting about any of it.

As for the writing and plot, they’re certainly there? Again, this is largely a positive, because when I went onto the dance floor and saw two women described primarily via the colors of their dresses and hair, I cringed. But it turns out once you solve the relevant puzzles and talk to them they’re reasonable people, partnered up but happy to chat with Danny and help him out after he does them a good turn – and while his opening lines are awfully smarmy, they’re not too bad in grand scheme of things, and once it’s clear they’re not interested in a date, he’s basically respectful. This is much much better than gratuitous offensiveness, of course, but it’s also kind of boring! There aren’t many real jokes, or at least few that landed for me (there’s a bit about a guy taking up collections for the Society for Retired Adventurers…), but it feels like the game isn’t even trying for laughs.

(I should point out that the exception to this overall inoffensiveness is the character of the convenience store clerk. He’s described as ethnically Indian, with a thick, hard to understand accent, and his main personality trait is extreme indolence. And after you complete a transaction, he says “thank you, come again.” So this is Apu from the Simpsons, again presented not so much as a parody or the opportunity for a joke, but just as Apu from the Simpsons, plus calling him lazy. Not great!)

Danny Dipstick at least doesn’t wear out its welcome – it takes maybe ten minute to go from utter loser to having a beautiful girlfriend – and it’s cleanly implemented in Inform 6, with no parser awkwardness to speak of. But I found it a quintessentially inessential game, and there’s not much I’m taking away from it beyond the mild relief that it wasn’t as bad as I’d feared.

Loud House 'game on', by Caleb Wilson

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Promising first effort, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

A quick disclosure to start out this review: while I don’t know him personally, Caleb Wilson was an early and perceptive tester on the game I wrote for last year’s IFComp. I don’t think that dramatically undercuts my ability to assess a game with a reasonable degree of impartiality – one strives for professionalism, after all – but I definitely went into this one with some goodwill.

That goodwill was quickly tested, though, as Loud House ‘game on’ doesn’t make the best first impression, with doodly cover art, no ABOUT text, and a default X ME response. The basic setup – you’re a kid who wants to buy a new video game, and needs to collect some stuff from your siblings to make that happen – is fine enough, the writing is enthusiastic in a way that’s occasionally catching, and while the jokes are juvenile a good number land, but there are still tons of typos, objects with default descriptions, takeable scenery, and guess-the-verb challenges. Trying to figure out what Caleb was getting at with this was bewildering, and I wondered if it was aiming at parody, or if there was a meta layer I was missing? Eventually I got to a point where I couldn’t figure out how to progress, and in frustration I checked these forums in search of hints or a clue as to what was going on, and I came across this post.

If you have the common sense God gave gravel, you’ll see where this is going: Loud House ‘game on’ was written by a different Caleb Wilson, who is ten and entered a fan-fiction game about a cartoon he likes into the Comp (as one of approximately ten million Mike Russos, including at least one other who posts about IF stuff occasionally, you’d think I’d be more attuned to such things). Upon finding this out, I blinked, looked over the transcript I’d been annotating with increasingly-snippy complaints about spelling and grammar issues, and felt like the worst human being in the world – and then went back to the game and, expectations appropriately reset, had a much better time with it.

So yes, there’s nothing pomo here, it’s just a first game from a young author with a good amount of first-game-itis, but actually some real promise too. What starts out looking like a simple collectathon of running around hoovering up every quarter you find actually goes through two game-changing shifts, with a second act that riffs on a bunch of additional cartoons in a bunch of higher-action mini-scenarios, and a riddle-y finale. This change of pacing enlivens the mid-game, and I found the humor in this section landed better for me (I especially liked the joke that sees a lion suddenly pop up in your inventory), though maybe that’s because I was more familiar with its references and tropes than the Nickelodeon cartoon that’s the basis for the first bit.

While a couple additional passes for polish wouldn’t go amiss to iron out grammar, tweak some puzzles (I was stymied by the football puzzle since it didn’t seem to make sense given the rules of football), and add some synonyms (a hint for anyone else having trouble using weapons – try throwing them rather than hitting or stabbing with them) Loud House ‘game on’ is actually quite a good time. So now the next time I see a game from Caleb Wilson, I’ll still be looking forward to playing, regardless of which of them wrote it!

Snowhaven, by Tristin Grizel Dean

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Moody in a good way, July 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021

The central business of this evocative Adventuron game is cooking, and appropriately enough, on starting up you’re given a choice of seasonings: the story can be served up pleasant, “emotive” (said emotion being melancholy), or sinister. Of course, sometimes chefs who vary a dish too many different ways find their reach exceeds their grasp, and Snowhaven unfortunately runs into same coding issues that add a sour note to proceedings. But like the old family recipe the protagonist cooks for their visiting sibling – a hearty mushroom stew – its warm, earthy flavor overcomes such minor mistakes.

I haven’t played many Adventuron games, but almost uniformly, I find they set a very strong mood – and that’s the case here, too. The austere, near-ascii graphics are certainly a draw, but the prose isn’t far behind: it’s typically unobtrusive, but every once in while I’d come across a line like the one describing freshly-dug parsnips as “white and wrinkly as a witch’s finger” and smile. The two variations I played – pleasant and emotive – share the same map, plot, and most of their puzzles, as well as a similar wintry, lonely vibe. But they each put their own spin on things through a few well-recast details. Praying at the grave of your grandfather in the pleasant version leads to a wistful reflection on how one generation cares for the next before passing on, for example, whereas in the emotive one the grave is your wife’s, and prayer leads to a moment of sadness and regret.

There’s not so much a plot here as a situation: we’re in a primeval, near-abstract wilderness – a person, their dog, a stream, some books – with Snowhaven suggesting a few reasons why they might be out there and how they might feel about it. Then the business is all about gathering some ingredients so you can welcome a long-unseen relative with a gift of food. The puzzles are similarly low-key, as most of them just involve finding bulbs of garlic or hardy herbs in the places you’d expect them, then chopping and throwing them in the pot.

There are a couple harder puzzles that skew more traditional – guessing a locker code from careful examination of the protagonist’s home, building a snare to catch rabbits. And contrarily, there are also a few places where the game requires the player to be assumptive about what they want to do in a way that doesn’t comport with text-adventure conventions (I’m thinking of the puzzles where you need to find the lost soap, or get bait for the fishing rod – the solutions are completely logical, even obvious once you know the trick (Spoiler - click to show)(FIND SOAP and DIG WORM) but they’re nonetheless tricky since you need to interact with objects that aren’t “really” there). Both these approaches mix things up, but I still preferred the more quotidian tasks that make up the bulk of the game, as they better fit the gentle, lonely mood that’s the major strength.

I have a second expectation I bring to an Adventuron game, which is that I’ll struggle with the parser – I understand action construction isn’t as robust as in TADS or Inform, and it has some distinctive foibles, like the way it sometimes bluffs you about the existence of objects that aren’t actually there. Snowhaven suffers from these issues, but unfortunately adds some significant bugs on top. Some of these are just silly, like being told I couldn’t leave the cabin without the soap in the same response that then told me I’d successfully left the cabin without the soap. But my first emotive playthrough dead-ended when TIE ROPE led to an attempt to tie it to itself, and then the thing simply vanished. And I didn’t win my second time either, since I couldn’t get carrots out of the storage locker – TAKE CARROTS led to “You take a few carrots out of your store of frozen vegetables”, which seemed promising, but after a line break I saw “You can’t do that,” and in fact no carrots were ever taken.

There’s definitely been some care taken with the implementation – there’s a lot of scenery, I only found one typo (“No sooner than you sitting down to rest”), there’s an achievement list, and unnecessary actions like the aforementioned PRAY are rewarded (speaking of rewards, there’s also a potentially-remunerative easter egg that I felt clever for finding). But the coding of the actual game logic doesn’t have the same attention to detail, which is an awful shame. A similar misstep is the requirement of pinging the author to get a password to access the third, “sinister” take on the story – I’m already fairly sure I’d get less enjoyment from a less-gentle version, and it’s probably not wise to add an additional barrier to entry when there are 17 other Comp games waiting to be played.

But in the end I didn’t find these drawbacks all that meaningful. Snowhaven isn’t a game you play to be a completionist, or for bragging rights for working out all the puzzles – it succeeds at creating a place and a mood, with everything you do in that place rather incidental. I’ll look forward to an update or smoother post-Comp release, and maybe one day check out the version where I can be eaten by a bear, but I don’t need anything more from Snowhaven beyond what I’ve already gotten.

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