Reviews by Mike Russo

ParserComp 2021

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The Time Machine, by Bill Maya

4 of 4 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 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 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

5 of 5 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

5 of 5 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

4 of 4 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

3 of 3 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

3 of 3 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

5 of 5 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

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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