Reviews by Mike Russo

Spring Thing 2021

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Blue November, by Lawrence Furnival

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Incomplete but intriguing, April 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Blue November isn’t a complete game, but based on this Back Garden offering, I’m hoping to see it finished while also being worried about the scale of the task the author’s taken on. This choice-based piece has a really intriguing premise – it presents a game within a game, as a graduate-level cybersecurity class embarks on a simulation of an assault on the 2020 U.S. elections. So we’re in the realm of the technothriller (the title’s I think a tip-of-the-hat iteration of Tom Clancy’s Red October) but at a remove, as a bunch of 20-something students attempt to inhabit the shoes of hardened GRU operatives, beleaguered American election-security specialists, teenaged North-Korean hackers, and Anonymous gadflies.

That is a lot of sides for a scenario, and since most of the teams have three or four players (plus the professor) there are a lot of characters, motivations, and strategies to keep track of, made all the more complex by the secret objectives some of the game’s players have. At first the game makes you think you’ll be guiding the leader of the “blue” U.S. team, stuck playing defense, but the game’s main interaction so far is to allow you to shift to different sides and see what they’re plotting. Blue November adds to this drinking-from-a-firehouse feeling by adding layer after layer of references, strategies, and in-jokes: one character speaks only in Patton quotes, the Panama Papers and bellingcat get namechecked, the North Korea hackers are actually based in Uganda…. It’s a whole whole lot, but it generally stays on the right side of plausibility – I’m pretty sensitive to how politics is portrayed in games since it’s usually quite awful, but this one sure seems to be written by someone who knows what they’re talking about.

After a fairly involved introduction that walks through the setup, the major characters, the sides, and their briefings, the rules of the simulation are revealed: it’s intended to play out in six rounds over multiple days, and in each round the teams all get to take both a public action (announced openly and subject to counterarguments from the other teams about why it wouldn’t work) and a secret one, with actions where the outcome’s uncertain resolved by dice rolls. When I saw that framework laid out, I had visions of a combinatorial explosion since even if the only variable is whether pre-defined actions succeed or fail, the potential outcomes would quickly get out of hand.

I’m not sure how the author’s planning on handling this, though, as the game ends as soon as a team tries to take their actions. There are other signs the game’s unfinished – much of the prose is unpolished (including a discrete/discreet error), jumping between teams is often clumsy because it’s not clear whether shifting will just change the perspective or actually move time forward, there are empty passages marked “TODO”, and the dice resolution system is described inconsistently. Still, I found this version of Blue November an effective teaser – the originality and geopolitical nuance of the premise are intriguing, the characters are introduced as stereotypes but are appealing nonetheless, and the simulation seems like it would be really fun to see play out. I’d say the game is worth a gander even in this very rough state, and definitely will be keeping an eye out for a future, more complete release.


Fish & Dagger, by grave snail games

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Hilarious, meta satire, April 20, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

This was the last game I played in this year’s main festival, and oh what a treat when things end with a bang, not a whimper. Fish and Dagger is a stylish Metal Gear parody with sharp jokes and all of the production values, taking a silly premise and running with it about as far as it’s possible to run. Even as someone who’s only glancingly familiar with the specific works that are being taken to the woodshed, the game had me giggling throughout, and the fleet pacing, clever gameplay, and truly gorgeous visuals elevate the package further.

It’s tempting to just lead off with a recitation of my favorite jokes, but since the humor is well-integrated into the story of Fish and Dagger, I’ll endeavor to do the same in my review. Things start out with a character creation sequence that skewers tropes with gleeful savagery – you select options by clicking on changeable blue text, for example allowing Agent Red, the protagonist, to specify which part of the postapocalyptic milieu they call home by choosing from “a safe pocket town,” “the center of the bloodbath,” “a top-secret military base,” or “Ohio” (I went for the final, most-chilling option). You can also select your spy’s cardinal virtues or special skills: I went with an agent who’s “a walking hair-toss” and “cold” (given that the mission is to infiltrate Shadow Iceland, I figured I’d do some roleplaying).

The tale that unfolds starts out simple – you’re a spy for a secret pan-governmental agency, inserted into an enemy base to rescue a captured double-agent with critical information – facing easy but creative challenges, like using an animated flashlight-cursor to find the text on a darkened page. Things quickly ramp up, though: the plot starts twisting and twisting more, the humor does the same, and there’s a set-piece puzzle that involved using my smartphone to access a subsite and get a code to feed back into the main game, in a satisfyingly meta bit of design (per the help text, there’s a way to short-circuit this puzzle if you lack the technology to do so).

It goes well over the top, in other words, and does so with real panache. Parody is easy to overdo, and Fish and Dagger is completely unrestrained – there’s a gag where the text describing a storm at sea is funny because it escalates to the point where you intuit it should stop, but then it escalates again, and then it escalates again. Somehow though it doesn’t topple over, knowing how to leave a joke at exactly the moment it reaches peak funniness, while keeping the betrayals and reveals coming quick enough that you never have time to get bored.

It also helps that the parody gets sharper as it goes. While Fish and Dagger starts out as a relatively straightforward riff on techno-thriller video-games, its true conceit is even funnier once revealed. You’d better believe I’m putting spoiler tags on this one: (Spoiler - click to show)so the major twist is that the real baddie here isn’t the scientist who rules this island installation – it’s you, or more specifically, it’s the narrative voice that’s attached to you and keeps throwing nonsensical plot twists and action-movie tropes into the story. Your informant friend and the scientist are staging an intervention to try to decouple this parasitic, destructive force from you, leading to the best jokes of the game as you attempt to weaken it by denying it the things it loves. When you recall your struggling days as a night-shift worker in a bleak, dead-end town (details customizable, of course), it pleads for mercy : “WHAT?! IS THIS. OH GOD— IS THIS DOMESTIC REALISM?! NO. PLEASE. I’M SORRY. YOU WIN.” And then, the unkindest cut of all: after the narrative voice’s “thirst for any kind of dramatic tension was destroyed… with no other options—it fled Red and returned to reinfect its original host with its tropy convoluted bullshit: JJ Abrams. Nobody noticed.” Ouch.

Fish and Dagger is a real gem, checking all the boxes with style and being just a bit funnier, a bit cleverer, and a lot more gorgeous than it needs to be (there are animated backgrounds of waves crashing in the dark, and retro-cool character portraits, that left me drooling). It's not faultless -- there are some typos, and some of the story-advancing links are an off-white that's near-impossible to distinguish from the regular text. But if you can get through it without grinning, you’re made of sterner stuff than I.


Baggage, by Katherine Farmar

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An abstract fable, April 20, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I’ve noted in several of my other reviews that I prefer games that get specific, providing details to ground their narratives in a particular context and add texture to the emotions and themes of their stories. Baggage takes the opposite approach: it’s a parser-based game that presents an allegorical vignette about the difficulty of moving on when you’re feeling weighed down by, well, see title. It’s all plausible enough, but because of the game’s commitment to an abstract presentation, I didn’t find it as resonant as it maybe deserves.

To give a little more detail on the setup, you’re a nameless, faceless, genderless protagonist on a road to nowhere, hemmed in by high hedges and toting a satchel freighted with half a dozen abstract concepts. Some of these are coded positive – there’s hope, and a good memory – and some negative – you’re also toting some fear and resentment. You can examine them, but you don’t get much to grab on to if you do. Here’s regret:

"Blank years and empty months and wasted weeks and dull days. You could have done so much more."

So yes, checks out, that’s regret, but it’s not a description with much emotional weight.

After I’d finished the game and was looking through the hints and help text, I found that there’s a nonstandard THINK ABOUT command implemented. This is only mentioned if you tell the HELP command that you’re new to interactive fiction, though, which I think is a misstep: if your game has a bespoke command that’s not specifically cued by the game, it should really be mentioned in the top-level ABOUT or HELP text if you want a player to find it. Anyway, it didn’t change things that much – here’s THINK ABOUT REGRET:

"Ugh. The embarrassment. The shame! It’s a hot cramp in your stomach, a shiver creeping up your spine, a sharp taste in your mouth."

That’s more specific but doesn’t actually seem much like regret to me?

There’s more to do in Baggage than just contemplate your baggage, though. You eventually come across a fellow traveler (confusingly referred to throughout as a “traveller” – the prose is otherwise clean and free of typos, modulo the occasional linebreak error, so I wasn’t sure if this was an intentional misspelling) who serves as a cautionary example of letting your obsessions rule you, and while you can give in to despair if you let the time limit expire, there are also a few positive endings possible.

Reaching these requires solving a small puzzle to reframe your baggage in new, potentially-transformative ways. I actually liked the writing of these bits – the text finally starts giving details, with the main character’s regret revealed as being about not seizing a chance to get out of a dead-end job by trying for a (perhaps intimidating) training program. And the message here seems right – you can’t get rid of your regret, but you can change it from a backward-looking fetter into a goad not to let opportunity pass you by the next time.

Do enough of this, and the protagonist can eventually escape their stasis, and even maybe help the other traveler. The puzzles behind this weren’t my favorite, since they’re not too far off from guess-the-verb challenges (the latter in particular requires the player to use a command form that I think is a bit obscure for a modern Inform game: (Spoiler - click to show)CHARACTER, DO SOMETHING) and seem a little facile (spoiler for the former set of puzzles: (Spoiler - click to show)you just type CHANGE REGRET) though I suppose that’s fair enough since we’re in the realm of allegory.

I noticed a few niggles in the implementation – besides the aforementioned line break issues, some synonyms weren’t implemented, most notably when upon being told that I thought there was something strange about the shadows around the roots of one of the hedges, I found that neither X SHADOWS or X ROOTS was recognized. Overall though it’s solid, especially for a first game, and while I didn’t personally find the prose compelling, I think it hits the mood it’s trying for. If you’re in the market for an interactive riff on the Pilgrim’s Progress, Baggage has you covered – I just prefer my fables with a bit more flesh and blood.


Medicum Veloctic, by Lawrence M Marable

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Grimdark superhero melodrama, April 18, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Those Days, by George Larkwright

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A sharply-written pleasure, April 18, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Sovereign Citizens, by Laura Paul and Max Woodring

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Secret of Nara, by Ralfe Rich

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A deer's life, April 17, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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


Wintervale, by Ethan Erh

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An interestingly-lumpy lump of coal, April 16, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Ultimately entertaining, April 16, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


A Blank Page, by Edu Sánchez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A specific take on a universal experience, April 15, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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