Reviews by Mike Russo

Spring Thing 2021

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Eleanor, by Rob

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Eleanor Riddle-by, April 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, where I got stuck on a puzzle; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.

This is a new game by the author of Radicofani from last year’s Comp (link is to my review). Much like the earlier piece, Eleanor has old-school trappings – the game delights in popping up new windows with low-res graphics and hard-to-read fonts – an obtuse parser, and near-unsolvable puzzles in the way of rescuing a female love interest. Despite these off-putting features, I wound up enjoying Radicofani on the strength of its setting – an old Italian hill town under the sway of supernatural evil, complete with charming café, musty library, desecrated church, and spooky castle. This time out, though, the setting is a metaphysical underworld loosely inspired by the music of the Beatles, and it’s sadly not a change for the better.

Preliminarily, let me say that I don’t quite get the Beatles thing. As far as I understand it, the premise here is that Eleanor – who’s I think the romantic partner of the player character – has died, seemingly by suicide, and you’ve decided to make your own suicide attempt to try to retrieve her soul from the afterlife. So far so Orpheus and Eurydice, I suppose, so having a musical link has some kind of logic. But I tend to think of the Beatles’ oeuvre as love songs and psychedelia – this kind of tormented, emo-y setup seems like it would work better with someone like Tom Waits or Nine Inch Nails rather than the Fab Four. Plus, given her name I think we’re meant to understand Eleanor as lonely-spinster Eleanor Rigby, but the idea of her being coupled up seems antithetical to the character of the woman from the song! The game does include other occasional nods to the Beatles – there’s an errant quote from Strawberry Fields Forever, and the ABOUT text notes in passing that “nothing is real” but the series of references never felt to me like they meshed with the subject matter.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with an idiosyncratic choice of inspiration, and it’s not like we’re talking about a gritty S&M-themed Care Bears reboot or anything too outré like that. The real difficulty is that gameplay consists of navigating a surreal, near-featureless void, with your only companions a clumsy parser, obfuscated prose, obscure puzzles, and a vicious time limit. Taking these in order: the parser is a custom one, and has a lot of idiosyncrasies, the main one being that it’s rarely clear whether or not it’s understood what you’re trying to do. There’s lots of response text that plays on a timer, and you’ll get different responses to what would be synonyms in Inform, like say if you type KNOCK ON BLACK DOOR versus KNOCK ON BLACK (in the former case, I got “I’m sorry, I’d like to understand more”; I the latter, I got “” – which might have been non sequitur text just playing in the background?)

Relatedly, even when the parser isn’t been a slippery little eel, the writing is awkward, with lots of typos and infelicities starting on the very first page. I don’t think the author’s a native English speaker, and fair enough, this is far better game than any I could write in another language, but getting proofreaders and testers who are fluent is really necessary in these cases!

These issues feed into a bigger one, which is the difficulty level of the puzzles. I found them pretty unintuitive, apparently operating on dream-logic (I solved two and a half, with the help of what’s actually a rather-nifty help feature that pops up images that prompt you towards the solution). But the thing about dream-logic is that you need to establish the rules of the dream, and create symbolic associations between the objects in the dream and the emotions or relationships that they represent, in order for the player to understand what role they’re supposed to play. Here, the necessary actions didn’t seem cued in any way by the situation, and instead are just random verbs you can apply to the contextless nouns on offer. For example (Spoiler - click to show)there’s a mirror in the first room, and you need to break it to make progress – but there’s no indication that the mirror is showing anything about the protagonist that he rejects, for example, or that there’s anything on the other side, which would motivate the breaking. Worse, after that you need to blow on the fragments of the mirror, which I guessed because it’s in the hint image but can’t even construct a post-hoc metaphorical rationale for.

What this means is that most of my experience playing Eleanor was trial-and-error, with the parser and language issues making me unsure whether my trials were actually producing errors. And then making things worse, after 20 or so turns failing to make progress, a timer ends the game. There are copious autosaves so it’s hard to lose too much progress, but running into the fail-state so frequently sucked much of my motivation – as did feeling like I knew how to solve the last puzzle blocking my progress, but couldn’t find the syntax to make it work ((Spoiler - click to show)I think you need to adjust the clock so it’s showing the time as midnight, but no version of SET CLOCK TO MIDNIGHT was accepted or even threw off a useful error).

Eleanor definitely boasts a compelling atmosphere, and I admit I’m curious to know how the Beatles stuff all comes together in the end (I’m waiting for Father Mackenzie to show up as a defrocked exorcist tormented by literal demons and living on the edge). With a lot more polish, and some additional resonance to the puzzles, I could see this being a lot of fun – alas, as it is I found it an exercise in frustration, without even Radicofani’s pretty cityscapes as a consolation.

ADDENDUM: the author made some updates, including making the guess-the-verb puzzle discussed above a little easier, so I was able to go back and finish it. The second half of the game isn't radically different from the first, but either the puzzles get a little easier or thematic or I just got more in tune with them, since I didn't find the remainder too hard to get through so long as I kept consulting the HELP function. I might have missed the "real" ending since I finished with 17 out of 18 points and were indications that another outcome might have been possible, but I'm satisfied with where the story ended (Spoiler - click to show)(the main character deciding to let go of Eleanor now that she's gone, and try to continue with his life).

The prose continued to have a fair number of errors and awkward phrases, but there were some nice pieces of writing too, including a short exegesis on Eleanor Rigby that helped knit the game's themes together rather nicely. It's still a little too abstract for my tastes -- there are a few memories or images of Eleanor that start to give her a bit of specificity as a person, but she remains largely a cipher throughout, which allows the themes to come through but drains away some of the emotional immediacy. Glad I was able to see the rest of this one!

Hand of God, by Dana Freitas

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Less buggy, still a bit ugly, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, which had a game-ending bug; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.

Oof, I have to say I did not get on with Hand of God. Partially this is because I couldn’t figure out how to get to the revolt of robot fanatics promised by the blurb, and instead got stuck in the white-collar drudgery also promised by the blurb. And partially this is because I noticed an ugly detail about the characterization I couldn’t unsee, and it killed my willingness to push past the bug that was blocking my progress.

First things first – this is a Twine game, in default style though with some animated text and changes to the font colors to denote when different people are speaking. The player character is a fortysomething husband and father who’s got a government job helping develop a robot interpreter, and those two strands – family life and robot stuff – are set up to bear equal weight, at least in the portions of the game I got to. You start out at home, going through your weekday morning routine and interacting with your family; then drive to work, and after a nose around the environs and learning more about the project, check in with your coworkers.

The first section is OK as far as it goes. The family interactions are pleasant and low-key, and if they seem a bit schematic (just about the first thing we learn about the player character’s wife is that she’s a GenXer, and the daughter doesn’t have much personality besides liking an MMORPG), well, there’s nothing wrong with starting simple. There are a few implementation niggles – there isn’t any branching but you can choose which order to do some necessary tasks before getting ready for work, and they’re repeatable, meaning you can eat infinite pop-tarts. And the commuting sequence managed to confuse me since I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be continuing on the highway or taking the first exit in order to get to work.

The writing throughout is a bit weak, with fairly unimaginative prose and a scattering of typos. The author also tends to really overuse certain words. Like, here’s a paragraph from a dream sequence that comes at the beginning of the game:

"The winds blow against your pale, fleshy body, scratching you thoughout (sic) your body. You sweat like a pig as the sun pulses upon your body. It will not be long until all of the water leaves your body and you die of dehydration."

Reading that many instances of “body” is actually kind of unsettling!

Where things really went wrong, though, is at the office. Most immediately, this is where I reached the impasse I described above – after I parked, checked out the other buildings on the campus, walked into the high-security area to check out the robot (whose name and function appear to be setting up a Tower of Babel allusion), then entered my office to greet my boss and coworkers, I got stuck in a similar cycle as at home, except this time I was unable to get a new option to appear no matter how many times I went to the water cooler or checked in with my cube-mate. From a quick look at the html source, there’s a lot more story to come, but it does seem like there’s a bug that blocks the way forward.

More significant than any bug, however, was an ugly realization I made after meeting all my coworkers. Here’s the receptionist, Julia:

"A brown skinned woman in her late twenties, her casual hoop earrings and red headband hide the wit of someone able to obtain an $80,000 job doing nothing."

Here’s Emily, a fellow coder:

"A woman of Chinese descent in a bright purple suit, her smugness radiates wherever she goes. You KNOW that she is the one to blame for your food poisoning. She will handle you (sic) being better than her at your jobs."

Here’s our boss:

"A dark skinned man in his 50s, his imposing 165 cm looks upon you from his shrub enshrined desk…. This man’s harsh demands will never cease."

And just by way of contrast, meet the aforementioned cube-mate:

"A bright eyed young man, his blue eyes light up the room… Andrew is a nice kid."

So to recap – we have a lazy, flashy-dressing black woman who’s living large in a government sinecure; a stuck-up, msg-dosing Chinese-American; a cruel, physically-imposing black man; and a nice friendly blue-eyed kid. I’m sure Hand of God is not intending to be racist, but – excuse my French – holy hell this is some racist bullshit right here. I think the problem is that, much like with the player character’s family, the author is relying on stereotypes to come up with the cast of characters, and possibly had the admirable impulse to make the game more representative by including some people of color. But the problem with doing that unreflectingly is that you can wind up regurgitating some really really ugly caricatures that draw on boogeymen first conjured up by reactionaries and then filtered into pop culture – and racist tokenizing is way worse than no representation at all.

Anyway, like I said this really killed my will to continue; hopefully there’ll be an update to fix the bug and the bad racial dynamics, since I like a good story about robot zealots (admittedly, there’s Battlestar Galactica and then I’m not sure what the second example would be). But for now, I’m taking a pass.

ADDENDUM: Since I wrote the above, Hand of God has seen an update that fixes the aforementioned game-stopping bug, so I went back and finished it. The story does work a bit better now that I’ve seen all of it – in particular, it looks like some of the main character’s negative traits are intentional, and are meant to provide a bit of a character arc (I didn’t mention it in my review, but he appears to have some anger issues and is overly nostalgic for his youth). The weird racial stuff remains as it was, however, including a “joke” about how one time the translator robot malfunctioned and ran around yelling racist slurs – and with the added twist that the enemy hacker the main character thinks is behind the robot rebellion 1) is actually innocent, so the rebellion is unexplained as far as I could tell; and 2) is a Palestinian Arab who’s assassinated in what’s meant to be a feel-good epilogue, completing the perfect record of unpleasant characterization and negative outcomes for POC in this story.

Speaking of the story and the rebellion, I found this rather unsatisfying too. The robots suddenly start killing or capturing humans while spouting Gnostic buzzwords, but their plot (to annihilate humanity via nuclear war) doesn’t seem to square with Gnosticism as far as I understand it. And then the stratagem the main character uses to foil their scheme is about the oldest, hoariest chestnut there is (Spoiler - click to show)(saying a paradox aloud, at which point smoke starts coming out of all the robots’ ears). Maybe the focus is meant to be more on the family dynamics, because that’s where the denouement wraps up, but even there, the final moral – “Your loved ones don’t have to be a shackle to misery. They can be the keys to enjoying life together” – feels oddly negative, and runs up against the overall flatness of the characters.

The choice mechanics of the second half of the game also felt a bit clumsy to me, since the story requires you to be captured – escaping the robots leads to unsatisfying bad ends, meaning seeing the full story play out requires making decisions that don’t make sense for a character who’d presumably be very focused on getting away from the killbots. There were no further bugs, at least!

Project Arcmör, by Donald Conrad and Peter M.J. Gross

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Pretty, brutish, and short, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

(I beta tested this game)

Project Arcmör is a Twine horror/sci-fi hybrid that has no compunctions about killing you. Most frequently this will happen when half-glimpsed test subjects tear you apart, but the game’s true baddies aren’t the man-eating mutants: instead that’s capitalism in general and the Star Quorp corporation, your employer, in particular. This what-if-businessmen-are-the-real-monsters angle goes back to the birth of the sub-genre (i.e., Alien and Aliens), but it’s well-realized here, giving rise to some entertainingly dark satire and enlivening an otherwise-familiar scenario with a bit of social comment. Stir in some darkly-evocative pixel art and you’ve got a recipe for some good, bloody fun.

Let’s start out with that whole “you’re going to die a lot” thing. You play a colonist who’s been deep-frozen for the trip to whatever interstellar hellhole the company wants you to settle, and who’s unexpectedly thawed out when your ship encounters a derelict hulk mid-way. The ship’s computer has chosen you to head through the airlock and try to render assistance, which involves navigating through the defunct ship’s dark halls solving a few small puzzles (straightforward enough) while not being ripped limb from limb by the aforementioned monsters (much harder). Fortunately, unpleasant as these repeated gibbings must be to experience, they don’t set you back much – not because death is a trigger to reload a save (though I mean, you can if you must), but because the indefatigable ship’s computer will just defrost the next colonist in line to try again. Each is distinguished only by their ID number, which ratchets down by one after each gruesome killing, making me very curious what happens if you manage to run through the lot.

The lovely visuals help make this live/die/repeat cycle go down easy. I usually tend to tune out the visuals in IF, but here I found myself enjoying them just as much as the prose. They paint the derelict in moody blue-black tones, though of course there’s more than the occasional burst of red. There’s also some nicely understated animations that serve to enhance the mood, a sidebar map to make navigation clearer. Unlike some high-production-value pieces of IF, though, the graphics don’t mask weak writing, which on the contrary is nicely done as well, efficiently laying out the scene and boasting a bone-dry wit that helps the dark humor land. Your one companion (well, other than the monsters) is your ship’s computer, VAL, and in between bouts of puzzle-solving, you can call it up for a chat, allowing it can remind you of your goals and drop barely-coded hints about your ultimate expendability and low prospects for survival. My favorite bit of writing is from the best ending, which I’ll put behind a spoiler-block:

(Spoiler - click to show)You are greeted with a hero’s welcome.

“Congratulations! In recognition of your outstanding performance, StarQuorp™ would like to reward you with unlimited access to oxygen during the rest of your time on board this vessel.”

However, the StarQuorp colony ship was designed to operate without human supervision. The supplies of food and water on board have been sealed for transport.

Eventually, you starve to death.

I repeat, this is the best ending.

The game underlying all of this is, as mentioned, fairly straight-ahead. There are a few small inventory puzzles, and a climactic choice leading to one of three different endings. I also found a few easter-egg-like interactions using some of the many items left lying around the abandoned ship, though I wanted there to be more of these, or at least for them to have more impact on the world and story. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a focused game with a unified, effective aesthetic, which Project Arcmör boasts in spades.

So I Was Short Of Cash And Took On A Quest, by Anssi Räisänen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fun but underripe, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

So I Was Short of Cash… is a rarity in this Spring Thing, as it’s a story-light, puzzle-focused parser game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I found it a nice change of pace, though the implementation is awkward enough to prevent it from going down as smoothly as I’d like.

Plot-wise, SIWSOC jumps right into the action, with the title conveying the basic setup and then the opening text further relating that you’ve been hired to deliver an envelope to someone (you don’t know who), and you’ve entered a house (you don’t know whose – actually turns out it’s some kind of embassy?) to look for additional instructions that have been placed there for you. There’s a lot that’s vague about this, and I found myself unsure even of what the setting was meant to be as I started (the word “quest” to me conjures up a fantasy vibe, though what’s on offer here is more a light-hearted 20th Century spy romp). Turns out the game is all about the puzzles and you can just go with the flow without worrying too much about any of this, and I had a fine time once I did that – but still, even for a jokey game like this, it would have been nice to have a clearer sense of the premise.

So what are those puzzles like? They’re largely about following somewhat-cryptic notes left by your patrons to get around a series of locked doors, primarily through traditional object-manipulation actions. I found they were pitched at a good level of difficulty – the riddles usually give you enough to start poking around, but weren’t immediately obvious to me, leading to a couple of fun “aha” moments when I figured out the trick. The game also offers a few small nudges in the right direction, and was kind enough to explain one puzzle after I solved it by trial and error.

On the other hand, even as someone familiar with how Inform games work I found I struggled with the parser a fair bit – just about everything I tried to do took a little more effort and created a bit more friction than I wanted. I ran into some guess-the-verb issues (when trying to see if there was something concealed under an object, LIFT and PULL didn’t work, requiring TAKE or LOOK UNDER; emptying a bucket required POUR INTO rather than EMPTY); unimplemented synonyms (a device described as an “electirc [sic] lock mechanism… with another keypad” responds only to “keypad”, not “lock” or “mechanism”); and a lot of small conveniences I’m used to seeing in modern games are absent (automatically figuring out which key I want to use to unlock a door, for example). Again, there’s nothing game-breaking or that delayed me too long, but a bit more polish would have substantially increased my enjoyment.

The writing side of things is pretty similar – it’s easygoing, with some bits that actually made me laugh (including, mirabile dictu, a toilet-flushing gag). But there are some technical errors, including typos and spacing oddities, and some odd word choices, with a chicken left in the oven described as “getting ripe… maybe overripe?” Again, it’s nothing too bad, but bespeaks a game that could use another round of editing.

I don’t want to be hard on SIWSOC, since I did pass a fun half-hour or so with it, and it’s definitely got some charm. And it was entered into the Back Garden, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to have the same level of testing as a Main Festival or Comp entry. But I think there is a missed opportunity here – given the amount of work that went into making it, only a little more could have made it even more of a fun diversion.

Budacanta, by Alianora La Canta

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Worthwhile even though currently incomplete, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Rounding out the excerpts in this year’s Back Garden, Budacanta is a visual novel with ropey graphics but a neat conceit: you’re a voice in the head of the autistic main character, Alianora, helping her navigate challenges both logistical and social as she travels from the U.S. to Budapest to visit a friend and take in some motorsports (I think like F1 racing, maybe?) The piece of the game on offer covers her departure and a train journey through Prague, then ends on arrival in Budapest, with a few choices and vignettes along the way.

I led my description of the main character with her autism not to reduce her to her diagnosis but because the game is clear that it’s largely about the questions of why, and how, an autistic person would travel so far from home by themselves. There’s a satisfying answer offered – likening the unfamiliarity a neurotypical traveler feels in a strange place to the similar discomfort autistic people sometimes feel even in familiar surroundings – but the game intends to show as well as tell. As a result, it has a light pedagogical feel, with frequent asides to the player to better inform them about what it’s like to be autistic, and offering different potential strategies for navigating a world built for the neurotypical.

I thought these bits were well done – I was familiar with some of this information, like “spoon theory” (roughly, the idea that neurodivergent people or people with disabilities often have a relatively fixed pool of energy or capacity to do things that feel effortless to folks who don’t have those conditions, so deciding when to do those things can be a weighty task). But it’s all well-explained, and I definitely learned some new things – I was surprised when Alianora said that she enjoyed talking about being autistic, and saw her stock of spoons increased as a result, because I would have thought explaining these things over and over could get exhausting!

Per that reference to the stock of spoons, as far as I can make out the core gameplay of Budacanta looks like it will be about making resource-allocation decisions. At some of the major decision prompts, you’re shown your “spoon count,” and occasionally your cash on hand as well, indicating that some decisions will increase or decrease these finite quantities. Because this is just the first part of the game, there’s currently no risk of even coming close to running out of either, but I could see this working well to add a bit of additional engagement to a story that so far seems like it’ll be a pleasant, low-key bit of tourism.

The narrative voice is appealing throughout, friendly and casual in a way that feels authentic. The writing is generally good, too – I liked this description of a plane taxiing then taking off:

"Low primal rumbling sensed as much through the feet as the ears. To the sides, a thrumming blaze pulsed a beat of four."

There are some rough patches in this version of the game, though. The primary one is probably the graphics, which in most scenes are black-and-white sketches painted with a broad brush and which I often found hard to decipher. They do get more colorful as the journey progresses, so hopefully the visuals will see an upgrade as Budacanta moves to a full release. The choices can feel a little awkward, too – upon starting the game, I found several of them seemed pretty similar to each other so I wasn’t sure what each would do. And in important decisions, the first choice often lists the player’s spoon and money inventory, as well as stating the time, before adding an actual option after a hyphen. I think this is mean to be a way of updating the player about Alianora’s condition, but it would be clearer if this information was conveyed in a separate part of the interface. Finally, there was one odd bit of writing that likened neurodivergent people temporarily “passing” as neurotypical to Black people “passing” as white, which I found rather jarring given how fraught racial passing can be – but from how it’s described, I think the intended reference might actually be to code-switching.

Regardless of these small issues, I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so with Budacanta – even the graphics stopped bothering me after I focused my attention just on the text box. This is definitely another one where I’ll be anticipating the full release!

Manikin Demo, by Rose Behar

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The mannequins are legit terrifying, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

A demo with not much there yet, Manikin nonetheless does a good job of realizing its text-message conceit and presenting an appealing central character (who isn’t actually the player). It’s also got a heck of an inciting incident, which is the main character’s mom texting to tell them that their neighbor’s house-slash-compound-slash-terrifying-mannequin-museum has burned down overnight, claiming his life. Your mom, her suspicions raised, decides to investigate, and also decides to keep you abreast of her exploits.

This is a kind of loopy setup, albeit with some moments of fear when you see the photos of the burned-out mannequin hall of horrors. It worked for me, though, since your mom comes off as an endearingly loopy woman. She’s not really up on slang, she derisively refers to the cops as “the popo”, and she’s a brave enough mix of clueless and bullheaded not to have any compunctions about entering a taped-off crime-scene based on nothing but a gut instinct that something’s not right (based on her profile photo, she’s unsurprisingly white).

The game’s interface is a mocked-up smartphone displaying a text thread, and it commits to the gag – messages take a few seconds to arrive and come with time-stamps (there’s not much actual waiting, thank god, as the timed text moves very fast and occasional time-jumps take care of any downtime), and there are inline photos as she shows you what she’s seeing. After every half-dozen or so messages, she’ll pause and give you an opportunity to weigh in, either asking a question, trying to direct her investigation, or advising her on the best course of action.

The choices at this stage are pretty low-key, mostly coming down to either supporting or pushing back against your mom’s Nancy-Drew-themed mid-life crisis. The plot doesn’t appear to branch based on these decisions – at least in this early section of the game – though given the way she’s characterized, I wasn’t bothered by the fact that she’s undeterred by her kid’s attempts to rein her in. Things might open up later on, and it seems clear that the central mystery will get more elaborate, as there are already intimations that there’s something untoward going on with the dead neighbor’s mannequins.

I was definitely disappointed that more of the plot hadn’t come out by the time the demo came to a halt, though I have to say I was also starting to get a little restless. I’m not sure if this is because the pacing sometimes felt a little slow, or if it had to do with the accumulation of the short but very frequent pauses as messages came in. Still, while this again isn’t anything close to a complete story, it did enough to put the full game on my radar screen, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

Eyewear Cleaner 2077: Demo, by Naomi Norbez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Promising start, April 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

The NPC-eye view of a AAA video game is a genre I’m often a little hesitant about – it can easily devolve into a delivery vehicle for a million arrow-to-the-knee jokes – but this demo for Eyewear Cleaner 2077 makes clear that it’s about something beyond just making fun of how dumb games are, leaving me interested to see the final shape of the story.

As the title makes clear, in this Twine game you play a retail peon in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 – in a clever bait-and-switch, the piece opens by telling you you’re a cis white dude with all the best guns and gear, before admitting that nah, you’re a nonbinary wage-slave. This isn’t a one-note joke, though: the circumstances of the main character’s life are established not to throw a satiric light on the exploits of the (presumably, since I haven’t played it) terrifying murder-hobo who’s the protagonist of the big-budget RPG, but to create sympathy and resonance with real issues: capitalism, state violence, exploitation, the rights and dignity of trans and genderqueer folks… The world is also nicely fleshed-out – I’m not sure how much of this is drawn directly from the AAA game, but there are social media feeds to drown in, a choice of video games offering cheap distraction, and more.

Part of what makes this work is that Eyewear Cleaner stays relatively grounded, at least so far. The main character’s job and lifestyle definitely suck, but not in a parodic, over-the-top way. Sure, there’s an AI in their head that docks their paycheck if they have a stray thought during work hours, but once the day is done they can visit a friendly bartender, or display some common humanity to a homeless person in a way that isn’t immediately punished. I’ve often seen these kinds of stories come in with too heavy a hand, but an overdone miseryguts presentation can distance the player by making clear that this awful milieu is being conjured up in the service of polemic, or again, bad parody – Eyewear Cleaner steers clear of this.

As you navigate this proletarian life, the player is given a large number of choices. Some of these have more or less immediate consequences – you opt into or out of the pay-docking distractions mentioned above – but the ones given the most weight by the game turn on conformity versus revolt, with your status along the continuum tracked by a handy Rebellion Level meter in the sidebar. The choices are primarily small, like sympathizing with a complaint fellow-bystander’s complaint about brutal cops, though there’s one that seems to intersect with larger-scale concerns: (Spoiler - click to show)whether or not you alert the cops about the anti-corporate vigilante.

I’ve seen this mechanic handled poorly in the past, where rebellion is positioned as the only possible choice and immediately rewarded in a didactic orgy of wish-fulfillment that neither convinces nor satisfies. Eyewear Cleaner again does this well, at least so far. The more rebellious choices are more likely to lead to negative consequences, sensibly enough, but nor are they punished overly-harshly as of yet. I found this pushed me to engage with the story rather than just blindly pick one side or the other in every circumstance – keeping my head down sometimes seemed only reasonable given the risks, but it’s possible to get small victories helping others or asserting your dignity, which again kept me invested in the character and the story.

The demo gives you two days of a planned five, and while there are some missing images testifying to its incomplete state, I found what’s on offer well polished, without typos or bugs, which bodes well for the finished product. It’s hard to fully evaluate a story without knowing where the narrative and character arcs are ultimately going, of course, and I find dystopic sci-fi often doesn’t stick the landing, but I enjoyed this excerpt and suspect the remainder will live up to the good example it sets.

Theatre of Spud, by D E Haynes

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Not ready for opening night, April 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Theatre of Spud is another Python game requiring a bit of elbow-grease to get working on a PC. Unlike Space Diner, though, I found the installation process to be a pain, and the payoff not really worth it. I won’t belabor the former point, though will note that there appears to be an error in the setup files in the version I played, which required some manual tweaking to correct – see this post for details. The blurb on the festival page is good, though, seeming to indicate backstage amateur-theatre hijinks to come, so once I’d jumped through the requisite hoops I was excited to dig in.

Sadly, those hopes were frustrated and I found the game itself pretty unengaging. Largely this is because of excessively slow timed text that makes the simplest action take 10 or more seconds – timed text is enough of a pain in choice-based games, but when used in a parser game like this, with highly-granular actions and a medium-sized map, it gets excruciating.

But even putting aside this major technical issue, Theatre of Spud has problems with motivation and interactivity. First of all, it starts out confusingly: the blurb sets up a young boy named Spud as the protagonist and then the game asks for your character’s first name, so when the opening scene kept referring to someone named Alan I figured he was an important side-character, but it turns out he’s the protagonist. I was able to get Alan into the theatre/er, at which point there’s a monologue from the play’s director where he asks you to make sure the lights in the parking lot stay on to prevent the local hooligans from getting up to any mischief, so I guess Alan is a sort of dogsbody for the theater?

This seemed like the first task to take on, except the lights sure seemed to be doing fine on their own so I wasn’t sure what else needed to be done to harden them against chav-related misadventure. Compounding this aimlessness, the custom parser doesn’t have many actions implemented, including the ability to examine objects so far as I could tell. So my experience of Theatre of Spud was of wandering around a reasonably large map with not much in it and minimal ability to interact with what’s there – while the timed-text issue made everything treacle-slow. It’s a shame because again, I’m here for the premise, but I’m putting this one back on the shelf until a hopefully-refined final version comes around.

Cycles (Excerpt), by Mike Marttila

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A promising fragment, April 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Another incomplete Back Garden offering, Cycles has be interested to see what comes next but doesn’t offer much more than a teaser. From the blurb, it sounds like the plan encompasses a lot of interactivity and shifting social dynamics, which given the setting – a big family reunion colliding with some kind of mysterious secret – seems promising indeed. But what’s on offer here is just about 3,000 words of setup, with few choices and few cards tipped.

The prose is the main attraction here. The author writes in a light literary-fiction voice, featuring lots of metaphors, a focus on the interiority of the main character, and a skillful interweaving of present action with backstory. The writing could definitely use another editing pass as it’s occasionally over-wordy and clumsy, but it’s definitely a highlight, since this is a style I’m not used to seeing in IF. Here’s an early paragraph I liked (though again, it’d be stronger with like 20% fewer words):

"'You mean Tom?' asked Miranda. She realized she hadn’t really thought of her cousin since Gammy’s passing. Without even meaning to, teenage Miranda had made a protracted spring cleaning of her youthful fancies and pastimes, brushing them all to the back of her mind like whispy dust bunnies to make room for what she’d thought would be the much more serious preoccupations of her adult self. The “adult self” that followed seemed, embarassingly in retrospect, as likely to devote the new space to ripped jeans as to Sylvia Plath’s poetry."

Miranda’s the viewpoint character, and she’s engagingly drawn. You can play her as slightly more excited or slightly more standoffish at the prospect of one again meeting long-unseen family members, but regardless she comes off as a happy-go-lucky sort navigating a mild quarter-life crisis.

The excerpt concludes almost immediately after the reunion starts, with a few family members briefly sketched in a couple of short scenes; it seems unfair to ding them as coming off flat given how little space any of them get, and they’re clearly meant to develop as time goes by. This release wraps up with a cliffhanger portending a potential shift of tone and genre (Miranda and Tom go walking in the woods and meet someone with whom they appear to have a history; (Spoiler - click to show)he seems like one of the fair folk doing an evil Tom Bombadil impression?)).

All things being equal I probably would have preferred to see the story stay in Anne-Patchett-style light domestic drama mode, just because that’s so underutilized in IF, but I can’t deny that this does build interest for what comes next. But again, while what’s here is good, it’s very slight – here’s hoping there’ll be more to come.

Space Diner, by Marta and Alexej

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Comfort gaming, April 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Space Diner feels like a throwback, putting me in mind of oddball text games I’d find on late-80’s demo disks –an alien burger-joint simulator would fit right in amidst all the Wizard’s Castle clones and Drugwars-alikes of the era. Partially this is due to the slight obtuseness of the installation process: while the provided instructions are good, I did have to first install Python (easy), figure out where Windows decided to stash the Python executables (slightly harder), and launch the program via a command prompt (pleasantly nostalgia-inducing). The presentation, which opens with endearingly-primitive ascii art before dumping you into an over-complicated interface, and the gameplay, which involves typing in a large number of bespoke commands, reinforce this impression. Space Diner’s mimicry of the grindy, wonky games of my youth is more than skin-deep, but maybe only a little deeper – subcutaneous fat-deep? – though, because it’s actually got some satisfying systems, clever design, and nicely understated writing that make it surprisingly enjoyable and perhaps even slightly modern.

With that said, most of what you do in Space Diner is make burgers. Your character is the proprietor of a diner (in space, natch), and each day, you open up, chat with your regulars, take orders from your customers, then go back to the kitchen to prepare and combine ingredients to make meals. There’s a bit of complexity here – early on, you might not have all the ingredients you need to give each patron exactly what they want, and occasionally orders are vague (“something with milk”) so you’ll need to improvise to figure out what the customer might like. But it’s generally fairly straightforward, since there’s a recipe book telling you how to assemble the dishes on your menu, and the game helpfully lists all the verbs you’ll need to use.

This is the kind of system you could see working well in a mobile game, except here there’s no time pressure, making Space Diner a chill, relaxing experience. There’s this game design framework called MDA that includes as one of the aesthetic components of gameplay “submission” or “abnegation” – the idea that some games are satisfying because you can just shut your brain off and spend time performing a task. Space Diner scratches that itch. The difficulty is low – even if you screw up lots of orders, it’s still very hard to get into an economic death spiral – and there are few interesting choices – occasionally you decide how to spend your evening on one of a couple of low-key activities, and you can change your menu once a week, though some options seem clearly superior to others. So really it’s the cooking and serving sections that occupy the most time, where not much thinking is required. That could be a recipe for boredom, but here, because the mechanics of the parser mean that it takes a fair bit of typing to assemble a meal, the busywork was just engaging enough to be satisfying.

It helps that there’s a little bit of worldbuilding and some narrative vignettes that help move things along. Occasionally one of your regulars will invite you to spend time with them outside the diner, and these short scenes provide a cute, slice-of-life view of what it’s like to be a colonist settling a new planet. I especially liked the sequences on Mars, where your regular – an older matriarch from a cow-person species – takes you on outings with her grandkids and cooks you a meal that you can reverse-engineer into a new recipe.

The other thing that’s better than it needs to be are the scenarios. When starting out, you’re given a choice of opening your diner on the moon or Mars. I opted for the former my first time, and quickly got up to speed with my goal (amass $400 – I’m guessing there’s massive deflation in the future?), my ingredients (a half-dozen rather traditional ones, such as beef patties, pickles, and buns, plus the exotic and not-at-all-appetizing silkworms), and my customers (a mix of blue-collar colonists and big-spending tourists). This scenario is pretty simple and I hesitated on whether I wanted to try again on Mars after I won – but I’m glad I did, because Mars had many more, more creative ingredients, a customer base that included humans and two alien races, with different age profiles, and a new goal of getting good online reviews from a diverse set of diners. It’s a much more engaging scenario, and felt fairly different from the setup on the moon.

For all that I liked Space Diner, there’s definitely some cruft. The interface can be quite fiddly, with excessive use of TAB to autocomplete commands being required to stay sane. I also sometimes ran into disambiguation challenges – I was unable to purchase moss from one of the Martian stores because the parser kept thinking I wanted to buy moss milk instead. Some of the mechanics seem underbaked, too: I kept thinking there’d be a way to upgrade my diner’s décor, and I was never really clear what good upgrading my knife or napkin-folding skills was doing. And again, at the end of the day it is a repetitive game of doing the same limited set of tasks over and over. Still, in the time I spent with Space Diner, it didn’t wear out its welcome, and I’m tempted to check it out again once the promised additional scenarios are ready – and not just to get a whiff of nostalgia!

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.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An empty plenum, April 15, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Weight of a Soul, by Chin Kee Yong

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Excellent if slightly lacking in avoirdupois, April 14, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A rumination on memory, in wiki form, April 12, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Perihelion, by Tim White

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Not for the impatient, April 11, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Perihelion is a well-done game that I admired more than enjoyed. It’s got a compelling, hypercompressed and occasionally poetic prose style that’s really well done, and the aesthetic pleasure is compounded by some neat color-gradient backdrops that do double-duty to indicate time of day. The setting is an elliptically-described alien world with awesome vistas to explore, and there a few gentle puzzles that help give the player some direction in what’s otherwise a fairly abstract story space. Unfortunately, I found my appreciation of it to be held back by the game’s occupying an uncanny valley between the abstract and the literal, and by its overuse of an awful timed-text mechanic.

The opening and closing are the strongest parts of Perihelion. In the beginning, you (some kind of alien – (Spoiler - click to show)I think a sort of air-elemental?) witness a comet breaking up and ejecting a (different) alien, in a sequence that’s compellingly written and prompts you to come up with adjectives to describe how you perceive the novel form of this interloper into your world. In the ending, the viewpoint shifts to that of the interloper, who describes what they’ve experienced and recontextualizes the events of the game.

In the middle sections, you guide the first alien as you decide to help the second – OK, look, this is getting unwieldy, I’m going to call the first alien “Fred” and the second one “Sam”, OK? – you guide Fred as you decide to help Sam return to the stars. Or at least, you decide to do that if unlike me you head first to the Mausoleum-Museum to chat with Sam, rather than saving it for last – I spent much of the middle section wandering around unsure of what I was supposed to be doing, and in retrospect wish the game had opened up free navigation only after the initial sequence with Sam imparted some direction.

Getting Sam spaceborne again involves going to three different locations on Fred’s planet and accomplishing a series of small tasks. These are barely puzzles – you’ll go to an observatory and be told that it’s cloudy, so you need to wait until it clears up, or try to slip into a guarded location and be told you need to do that on a weekend night. Once you’re past these barriers, there’s only one option to take in the different locations (except with the (Spoiler - click to show)lava, where you can choose to do a kinda-risky thing or a stupidly-risky thing), so it’s a quick matter to do everything you need to do.

Or at least, it should be a quick matter. The overwhelmingly worst part of Perihelion is that much of the text is timed. When you move from one area to another, there’s about a five second lag. When you sleep, there’s a similar pause before time resumes and you can act again. This is frustrating enough on its own, but when making progress meant waiting around for half a week to be able to access one of the locations, I wound up alt-tabbing to read Twitter to kill time during the delays, which really reduced my enjoyment and immersion in the story. I’m not a blanket no-timed-text person – I think there are times when, if used sparingly, it can emphasize a really critical point in a game – but its use here is just awful.

My other critique is a little harder to pin down, but I wished Perihelion had committed a little harder to either being an abstract art-game, or a more grounded space-adventure instead. It sits in an awkward middle where key pieces of the situation are under- or un-explained, just alluded to through obscure allusions and complex language, but the player’s primary engagement is still a more traditional model of traveling around a map and solving puzzles. The puzzle-solving is undermined by the player’s weak grasp on what they’re trying to accomplish in each location (I still don’t think I could really explain what Fred actually did to help Sam, on a literal level), and my engagement with the rich, dreamlike language was undermined by having to shuffle back and forth trying to circumvent obstacles. As a result, even though I really liked pretty much every individual part of Perihelion other than the timed text, I don’t think it made as much of an impression on me as it deserved to.

Sunny's Summer Vacation, by Lucas C. Wheeler

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Vacation shouldn't be this much work, April 11, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I really dig the premise of Sunny’s Summer Vacation – you play a Very Good Dog (a corgi) whose person, Emma, is headed to the beach for a weeklong vacation with one of her parents (you get to pick if it’s a mom or a dad). The serious part of the backdrop is that Emma’s folks are in the middle of getting a divorce, so it’s your job to take care of her and cheer her up. This is a relatable set-up that allows for Sunny’s cartoony antics – playing volleyball with a seal or helping Emma build sand-castles – to sit alongside a plot arc with some depth and resonance, as lots of people have been on one side or another of this particular experience.

Structurally, the way this plays out is that each day, you help Sunny have fun with Emma by playing one of a series of minigames, with success rewarded by shells you can use to upgrade her treehouse-cum-shanty. Then each evening, there’s a vignette between Emma and her parent that advances the story of their relationship and the divorce. In the story sections, you often have a few choices about how to interact with Emma, though these usually reduce to either being playful or being really playful. When it comes to the minigames, you’re in the driver’s seat, and that’s where the large majority of the game winds up being spent.

This is where the issues come in, since I found the minigames dull and unrewarding. There are four of them, and they remain the same each day:

• A scavenger hunt where you hover your mouse over some highlighted words to find out whether you found treasure; after doing this about 20 times, the round ends.
• A stone-skipping challenge that plays out like a Twine version of a golf game, as you need to click to stop fast-moving counters the determine the orientation, angle, power, and spin of your shot (either I didn’t understand what I was supposed to be doing or the coding here is wonky, though, since my best throw came when I released a stone at a 97 degree angle to the water!)
• A sand-castle building game where Emma describes her plan, and then you dig sand and use differently-shaped buckets to build walls, gates, fountains, and castles in a 3x3 grid.
• A volleyball game, played against an easy, medium, or hard opponent, where you click to serve, bump, set, and spike.

These are all good ideas for beach activities, but the problem is that many of them are overly complicated and drag on way too much, while offering zero in the way of interesting choices. The volleyball one is the worst offender – you need to click to serve, click up to three times to see if your opponent manages to bump, set, and spike it back to you, then make up to an additional three clicks to bump, set, and spike yourself, then click again to see if your shot succeeded… you or the opponent can fail at any stage, but against the toughest opponent, a single point can take up a couple of shots back and forth, so it’s a lot of clicking with no strategy or choices to determine whether you win or lose.

Compounding the boredom, the notional goal of the minigames – winning sea shells with which to pay the gopher for upgrades to the shanty – wasn’t very motivating. You get almost the same number of shells for mediocre performance as for a perfect run, and I got more than enough shells to finish the upgrades midway through the vacation. Plus the upgrades didn’t appear to do anything to change the description of the shanty, or open up any new options – all that happened was a number indicating my shanty level ratcheted up.

Besides the minigames, there’s not really much to do during the day – if you explore all the locations you’ll find a few small treasures that wind up getting featured in your shanty’s trophy cabinet and win you an achievement. But you’ll do this on your very first day and after that the environment stays static, despite indications that a fair will be coming to town and a shift in the tides might open up the way to a hidden cove (the about text indicates that a later, commercial release is planned, so possibly these locations are meant to be fleshed out at that point).

Happily, the evening sequences are well-written (though the author’s got maybe a touch of adjectivitis), and I enjoyed seeing the dynamic between Emma and her parent develop. Sunny’s attempts to play with her and cheer her up are heart-warming and satisfying, though I wished there was a way to get a fuller view of how Emma feels about the divorce, or what her relationship with the absent parent is like. Also, indications that the vacationing parent still has feelings for their former partner, and the wistful way they talk about their absence, took me aback – it sometimes feels like the divorce is something that’s happened to the family, rather than a choice being made (I almost think game was originally about the other parent dying, then was quickly rewritten to be about a divorce). But given that you’re playing a Corgi, I suppose this muddiness in understanding the marriage is appropriate.

Anyway the result of this mismatch is that by a couple days in, I started skipping the minigames so I could get to the good stuff, except then Emma complained that she was said and feeling like she wasn’t making the most of the vacation. So I forced myself to suffer through at least a couple for each of the remaining days, but I still only got a mediocre ending that didn’t seem to hold much in the way of catharsis or character development for anybody. Part of me wanted to replay again to see if I could get a more satisfying resolution – but the thought of having to go through all that filler to get to the good stuff dissuaded me. With that said, the core of Sunny’s Summertime Vacation is solid, and if the later release retunes the minigames, it’d be well worth another look.

An Amical Bet, by Eve Cabanié

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Not much at stake, April 11, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Much like Lady Thalia and the Seraskier Sapphires, An Amical Bet is about a dashing lesbian thief committing crimes in a lavish setting, but unfortunately this one doesn’t rise to nearly the same heights. The premise bodes well – unwinding after a big score, the protagonist and her lover relax by seeing who can be the first to steal something shiny, something useful, and something unexpected while at a party in Rome. Unfortunately, the implementation doesn’t live up to the hook.

Partially this is because of the writing. There are a host of typos and strangely-written passages, including the title which I think is supposed to be “Amicable”, and some of these phrases are so tortured I can’t even tell what the mistake was – like the corridor that’s described as “fastuous” (that could be a typo for “fatuous”, but that still wouldn’t make any sense?) With that said, occasionally some humor gets through the tangled prose – this response to TAKE STATUE made me snort:

"'Yes and to do what exactly? My God, I really have to stop drinking wine.' you say, drinking wine." [all punctuation issues sic]

The major issue is that the scavenger hunt, such it is, doesn’t hold any interest. Unlike the locked-door puzzle in fellow Quest game A Strange Dream, it is possible to complete this one. But there aren’t actually any puzzles to solve – you just go from room to room looking for portable objects, and if you take something that satisfies one of the conditions, the game will tell you in bolded text that you’ve got one of the three necessary items. None of the objects are hidden or gated in any way – it’s just a matter of hoovering your way through the dozen-odd locations – and for the “unexpected” and “useful” objects, I have to confess I didn’t fully understand the logic behind their selection.

There is a small, fun twist at the ending, and the game definitely wouldn’t have been better if it took longer to get where it’s going. Still, An Amical Bet is a very small, very slight thing that serves to pass five minutes of time but not much else.

Lady Thalia and the Seraskier Sapphires, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A delightful heist-fest, April 11, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Thalia is the Greek muse of comedy, and she’s an apt namesake for what’s the most purely fun game I’ve yet hit in the festival. It felt like LTSS was grown in a lab to plaster a grin to my face – I’m a sucker for anything involving British twits, heists, libraries, and museums, and here we’ve got the eponymous burglar planning not one but three heists (at a library, a museum, and a British manor), all to tweak the nose of a supercilious society doyenne. Oh, and there’s an extended game of cat and mouse played against a sexy art-theft consultant to Scotland Yard. Still, even if these particular tropes aren’t your specific cup of tea, the breezy, clever LTSS is a rewarding gem of a game.

Admittedly, I went into this one expecting to like it – one half of the authoring duo, E. Joyce, previously wrote What the Bus? for the 2020 Comp and Social Lycanthropy Disorder for last year’s EctoComp, both of which I’d played and really enjoyed. And the gauntlet thrown down by the ABOUT text got me even more excited:

"[The game] has been lovingly researched; much of this research was subsequently thrown out the window for reasons including plot convenience, genre convention, wanting to have female characters do things that women shouldn’t historically have been doing, and things just being funnier that way."

Happily, LTSS lives up to this initial promise. The opening does a great job of establishing the milieu, the antagonist, and the player character, who’s a social climber with a masked alter-ego and a fondness for relieving snobs of their possessions. Hearing her stuck-up hostess brag about the gems she’s about to parade at a fancy party, our heroine takes it upon herself to lift not just the jewels, but also a rare book and valuable painting in the lady’s possession.

The game thus plays out as a trio of heists, each proceeding according to a well-paced structure: there’s an initial planning meeting with your sidekick Gwen, who’s a seamstress and gadgeteer of no mean skill, then a sequence of casing the joint incognito, before the final nocturnal visitation to put the scheme into action. Of course, the best laid plans of mice and muses gang aft agley, so even the most meticulous preparation doesn’t save you from occasionally having to improvise. And then after each heist is done, you get to read about your exploits and get debriefed – and rated – by Gwen.

These sequences are all really well done – none wear out their welcome, and each builds momentum into the next as you’re eager to see how the groundwork you’re laying will pay off. Each works differently, too, which helps keep interest high. The briefing scenes are pure dialogue, primarily giving you a chance to add some shades to Lady Thalia’s characterization as the outlines of the plan get established. When you hit the streets, you usually get a choice of three or four leads to pursue to gather information, hide your tools of the trade in a useful spot, or recruit confederates, before time is up and it’s time for the heist. It’s possible to succeed or fail at each of these subtasks, which could make the actual burglary sections faster and easier, or more time-consuming and challenging – these bits are set up as linear gauntlets, and can be appropriately nerve-wracking, though generally you’re more in danger of making a mess of things and having to endure Gwen’s mockery than of losing life and limb.

The challenges are varied, too. Most of the social challenges use a system where you choose an approach from a menu of direct, friendly, or leading (this last meaning you’re asking leading questions aimed at getting more voluble types to share more than they ought). This is a nice framework, since it creates some structure around what could otherwise be very fuzzy social challenges, and it also prods the player to think about the personalities and desires of the other characters rather than as mechanical obstacles to circumvent (admittedly, sometimes using the direct route with servants and employees can feel a bit like bullying, though Thalia typically stays on the right side of that line). One heist largely hinges on a word puzzle; another’s all about planning ahead; and a third involves Burke’s Peerage, because of course this is that kind of game.

The writing is just as good as the puzzle design, in particular when it comes to the protagonist. Thalia herself is a joy to inhabit, and has some of the best lines. Here’s her reflecting on how her status has risen after many successful jobs:

"You are at the level of wealth where you can get people to do you favours by giving them money, but not quite at the level where people will do you favours because you said you might give them money, so you are here in disguise."

And here she’s sizing up a potential mark:

"She has the air of a spinsterish academic — which you don’t mean as an insult; you can appreciate a bluestocking. You’ve appreciated some of them quite a bit in your day."

(Yes, Thalia is unashamedly randy).

There are a few flies in the ointment: I ran into a couple of small bugs (when faking a swoon in front of one of the museum guards, I got a “cannot execute macro” error, and when chatting with Lady Satterthwaite’s maid, one of the friendly dialogue options appeared to redirect back to the same passage, so I had to choose a different approach to progress). There was one sequence that I found hard to parse –the duel of wits with Mel in the museum – where I understood what Thalia was planning but wasn’t clear on how to implement it given the options available (this was the one place where I save-scummed). Gwen also scored my performance on the first heist as a 15 out of 13, which could be an error or just an indication of how awesome Lady Thalia is, I suppose. But these minor flaws do nothing to detract from the zippy, cannily-designed pleasures on offer – LTSS is a must-play, and here’s hoping this isn’t the last we see of its dashing heroine.

Picton Murder Whodunnit, by Sia See

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A random mystery, April 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I can certainly see the appeal of the randomized murder-mystery. More than most genres of IF, once you know the solution to a mystery there’s not much to hold interest on subsequent replays – and even on the initial play-through, if the author’s telegraphed the true culprit too strongly it might be even less compelling. On the other hand, mysteries tend to be really engaging puzzles for players. If you could write a good mystery that could be randomized, so the player knows the game is playing fair and can be surprised the second, third, fourth, and fifth time they run through it – that’s a game you could enjoy for a long time.

While I think I’ve played maybe half a dozen iterations of the concept, though, they’ve always left me cold. Some of this is I think is down to the fact that I tend to be less interested in randomized narratives – I’ll gladly sink untold hours in a pure, zero-story roguelike, and I’ve 100%’ed every single Assassin’s Creed game save the most recent one. But even in those often-grindy games, if there’s a system for randomly generating quests, my brain just flips a switch and is completely uninterested, even if functionally the random ones are almost exactly the same as the bespoke quests I just put a hundred hours into playing through. But I think my diffidence at the sub-genre isn’t due to personal preference alone: it’s hard enough to write one mystery, much less a mystery that can be reshuffled multiple times and still be satisfying.

Picton Murder Whodunnit – yes, we’re finally getting around to it – is, of course, a randomized murder mystery. It’s built using the Strand system, which I wasn’t previously familiar with, but looks like it was designed to create updated versions of some of the old Magnetic Scrolls games. Anyway I like the engine well enough, offering the option of choice-based or parser-based interaction, though there isn’t the ability to play offline so far as I could tell and the online version was sometimes laggy.

The conceit here is about as traditional as you can get: you play a police inspector called to a country manor to investigate the suspicious death of a peer of the realm, and you’ve got to identify which of a quartet of suspects (the conniving widow, the vicious son, the grasping brother, or of course the supercilious butler) did the deed. The game discloses that the solution is randomized each time, so while e.g. the widow is always portrayed as conniving, only one time out of four does this tip over into a murderous motivation.

As you can tell from the characters straight out of central casting (the butler’s even named Jeeves), the milieu is spot on, and the writing is full of cheerfully over the top Britishisms that I quite enjoyed – the brother is described as wearing a “pompous cravat and tweedy, shoulder-patched green shooting jacket,” which definitely conjures the character. This is where the randomized nature of the game starts to pose problems, though, as every character is described in dark, unpleasant terms, even if that seems to make little sense. Here’s the ten-year-old son, Jimmy: “piercing, piggy blue eyes stare back at you fiercely. You get the impression he totally despises the police and you in particular. He’s probably guilty as Hell!” I mean, steady on there, matey, he’s not even a tween. But in order for the randomization to work, everyone has an equally-plausible motive, and everyone has a key to the gun cupboard (yes, even little Jimmy) which I thought felt artificial – at least give us one character who doesn’t seem to have a reason to off the Major!

The investigation is also less fun than I wanted it to be, though here the randomization is only partly to blame. There isn’t any physical evidence to examine, nor are there any clues to uncover or forensic details to analyze. Solving the mystery reduces to asking every character about their alibi, then doing another round to ask about everyone else’s alibi to see who’s the odd one out. This is made slightly more difficult by the fact that the murderer, of course, is happy to lie, and by the fact that I found some of the clues ambiguous, though possibly that’s down to me not fully understanding the manor’s layout rather than fuzzy writing. The alibis are also functionally the same in repeat playthroughs (like, maybe the brother will be writing a novel instead of smoking a pipe, but he’s always in the drawing room and always relies on Jimmy for corroboration), making the investigation feel repetitive even though the ultimate culprit may be different. This is especially the case because after the first run-through, which took maybe ten minutes, I managed subsequent replays in maybe two minutes apiece since there are so few things that need doing.

All of which is to say that while Picton Murder Mystery works fine and supports at least one or two fun go-rounds, the nut of the tightly-plotted but randomized mystery remains uncracked, and I’d personally trade it for a non-replayable but deeper investigation with the same setting and characters in a heartbeat.

A strange dream, by Anaïs Tn

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A fragment of a dream, April 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

A Strange Dream doesn’t seem finished. The first sign is that the game’s file name is “test.aslx” and opening it pulls up the Quest editor rather than launching into the game proper. The intro text positions the player character as confused and discombobulated, waking up with a pounding headache in a strange, decrepit mansion, so perhaps this is a fourth-wall-breaking bit of metafictional slyness? But given the slapdash quality of what’s on display, unfortunately it’s more likely a sign of a game entered into the festival before it was ready.

Your goal is to unlock the front door and escape this crumbling manor, but within a few short actions it’s clear that it’s not that the place works according to dream-logic, it’s that it just doesn’t work. Interacting with the game is simple, with a subwindow allowing for compass navigation and another for examining and manipulating nearby objects via a menu. But if you exit and then re-enter the lobby, every time you look around you’ll see the exact same text about confusedly waking up that you get at the beginning of the game. Objects that the text implies should be hidden – like a silver key that’s described as being revealed when you pull out and look behind a book on a library shelf – are clearly listed in the subwindow from the get-go. It appears there’s meant to be a light puzzle, as upon lighting a match the game says “you can now go downstairs”, but you only find the match in the one downstairs room in the house, which you can get to and explore just fine without any extra light.

I found some flat-out bugs – trying to re-open the table after closing it threw off a scripting error – and wonkiness in the taking code meant that while the game cheerfully told me I was picking up keys and trying them in the front door, they never actually showed up in my inventory. After getting stuck, I wound up pulling up the editor to see if I could figure out what was supposed to happen – again, maybe this is what the author intended? – and as far as I could tell, a gold key I’d found in the upstairs office was meant to have allowed me to escape. Entering that office and taking the key appears to be the only actual puzzle, unless some of the other keys were also supposed to have gated other parts of the house?

The premise here would allow for a good bit of puzzle-y fun, and I did enjoy the use of pictures to show the often-beautiful furnishings of the house. I also laughed at the sentence “looks like you are in an old mansion, falling apart” (we’re all getting older, let’s not throw stones). But unless it’s all meant as some kind of ironic commentary and I’m just too thick to get the joke, it sure seems like A Strange Dream just isn’t a complete game at this point.

Some Space, by rittermi

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Thoughtful sci-fi let down by its last act, April 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Graham Nelson’s adage about an adventure game being a crossword at war with a narrative doesn’t fully apply to Some Space, but it came to mind when I was playing because while both the puzzles and the story are robustly worked out, it didn’t seem like they interacted with each other all that much. There were some loose thematic links, and some minor fallout for success or failure, but nothing that felt commensurate with the difficulty of the puzzles, which are occasionally quite involved. And then I got to the end and it turned out the game’s concerns were actually quite different than I thought they were, and I felt like the narrative wasn’t just at war with the crossword, but with itself.

Backing up, said narrative is one of space-immigration, as the main character is a human who’s decided to take a new job on an alien planet. The overall setting is lightly sketched – it appears to be somewhat Star Trek-y, with multiple species all more or less getting along in a single interconnected society, albeit the economy is clearly still capitalist and the different species still strongly retain their native culture. That sketchiness works because this isn’t a space opera with deep politics or galaxy-shaking revelations: the main character’s new job is in marketing, and the story is about being far from where you come from, trying to make new friends and fit into a new home that plays by very different rules.

Some Space starts in medias res, as the main character is chatting with a fellow human expat also on his way to that same alien planet. We never get much of the main character’s backstory, but this expat – named Amar – plays a significant role in the plot, as he’s one of those gregarious types who makes friends everywhere, and as it turns out is soon the only other human the main character knows on the whole planet. The story’s structure alternates between three kinds of scenes: the main character starting the new job; exploring the city and running errands on their own; and hanging out with Amar and, eventually, his friends. Transitions between the scenes are usually punctuated by the main character checking their phone for news and messages, usually getting one from Amar or another friend – which will typically lead into another scene – and almost always having one from the main character’s mom – which they invariably ignore and leave unread.

Speaking of messages, that’s also where the puzzles come in, because your new hosts, the Koilians, communicate via “puzzlespeak,” which means that you can’t read an orientation memo without looking for hidden meaning. There are a number of puzzle types, mostly different kinds of ciphers, and you need to demonstrate you’ve solved them by choosing the right option for where and when a meeting is being held, or occasionally by typing the answer into a text box. I’m not a cryptographic maven, so I found the puzzles rather challenging, or at least I did until I decided to bend the rules and use various online solvers to expedite matters – I figured the main character has a smartphone and access to a forum for expats swapping tips about how to understand puzzlespeak, so it’s not implausible that they’d be doing the same thing!

For the most part the puzzles don’t gate progress – rather, you can solve them and behave appropriately, or fail to solve them and irritate the Koilians by your inability to follow simple directions. As far as I could make it, there aren’t significant consequences, though, with a missed message meaning that you might be in for some minor embarrassment but no real plot impact. Puzzles that lack much narrative impact are fine, I think, so long as they’re simple – which these aren’t – or if they’re thematically connected to the narrative. Here, the puzzles are all cryptographic, and as an immigrant, the main character faces lots of difficulties communicating, so there’s some general linkage – or at least I thought there was, until I got to the last fifth or so of the game.

Despite appearances, Some Space isn’t primarily about the immigrant experience. I’ll put the rest of this discussion behind spoilers, but to summarize, a different theme becomes very prominent towards the end, and I thought it didn’t fit well with what came before as well as not having any resonance with the codebreaking puzzles.

(Spoiler - click to show)What Some Space actually wants to talk about is domestic violence. This is part of the main character’s backstory – a primary reason we’ve left earth and are ignoring our mom, it appears, is that our brother hit his kids, and our mom is defending him. And it’s also part of the main action, as the final sequence hinges on Amar being beaten up by his Koilian boyfriend, and then arrested by racist (Koilian) cops who blame him while letting the abusive boyfriend go free. I didn’t feel like this twist worked. First, it undermined the rest of the story for me – I was enjoying the experience of learning about another culture and trying to fit in with it, so seeing that society and one of its main representatives suddenly portrayed in this way made it feel like the main character’s efforts to get along with the Koilians were misguided. Second, it didn’t feel like it rang true with Amar’s characterization, as he’s portrayed as a kind, outgoing, talkative person, while his boyfriend comes off as a monosyllabic grump even before he’s revealed as an abuser; it was very hard to understand what we were supposed to understand Amar saw in him. I get that it’s hard to write this stuff in a way that doesn’t come off as melodramatic Lifetime-movie-of-the-week material, but all the more reason not to cram such a plot into a small part of the story. And finally, the swerve into melodrama made all the time spent on letter-substitution ciphers seem even more incongruous and unrelated to the story Some Space is telling.

It didn’t help matters that I sometimes found the game a bit clunky. There’s timed text, and I thought the custom font the author used wasn’t easy on the eyes. I did run into a few technical issues, with the game once hanging and forcing a restart after I failed to type in the correct answer to a puzzle. And while the writing is generally good, beyond the characterization issues mentioned above sometimes I found the worldbuilding didn’t fully hold together. For example, even though the Koilians are portrayed as hard for humans to understand, the main character often decodes their emotions with no difficulty, noting that one looks aghast, or perks up when you enter, which is at odds with the sense of displacement that the main character should be feeling.

Still, none of this slight wonkiness did much to detract from my enjoyment of the game, since for the first 80% of the game I was having fun as a code-breaking fish out of water – but for me, unfortunately the final act left Some Space less than the sum of its parts.

Misty Hills, by Giuliano Roverato Martins Pereira

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Misty Hill Hop, April 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I feel like there are a lot of chill, hang-out-y games in this year’s Spring Thing. I don’t know if that’s a coincidence, or a result of the past year meaning that spending some low-key time with other people seems especially appealing, but I’m all in favor of it – I’ve beaten a lot of evil overlords in a high-stakes race against time, so sometimes it’s nice to just smell the roses. This is pretty much the setup of Misty Hills, in fact: the main character has just come through an adventurous journey with only a few coins and miscellaneous possessions to their name. There’s one final step left in their quest – since you just missed the funicular to take you up the hill to home, now you’ve got half an hour to kill before the next one arrives.

You can definitely find some dangerous situations in Misty Hills – in fact you can even die, though the choices leading to those ends all but have neon signposts on them so it’s pretty much an opt-in affair. But you can also spend the time just chit-chatting with some locals, browsing a merchant’s wares without buying anything, or playing a dice game with the funicular operator for a few coppers. The time limit means you could even fritter away the thirty minutes taking half-hearted stabs at all of the above and not accomplishing much of anything before it’s time to run to the funicular.

While I usually find timers irritating, this one I didn’t mind it at all, since it’s integral to establishing the proper way to play: Misty Hills isn’t a game where you’re trying to optimize a complex series of tasks or beat the clock, but, as the author’s note says, you’re basically playing someone waiting for the bus. I’ve often been in that situation myself (is it weird that public transit is one of the things I’ve missed most during the pandemic?), and it definitely rings true that if you have one positive exchange with someone else, or notice one neat thing in the neighborhood, that’s more than enough to have gotten out of the experience.

This isn’t to say that the different diversions on offer aren’t interesting. I really enjoyed figuring out what was going on with the merchant and experimenting with the various items you can buy, learning a bit more about the funicular operator’s philosophy and backstory, and taking my tea a bunch of different ways, to say nothing of the more game-y exploits of exploring the well and the magic forest – the gambling game I thought was a little too random to be as enjoyable, but oh well, that’s how I feel about most gambling in real life too. There are a number of different interactions to discover, depending on the order you visit the different areas and what, if anything, you’ve gotten in your inventory. There are some typos, and I found a few small bugs (sometimes the game lost track of how much money I had, and one time after I restarted, it seemed to remember my previous interactions with some of the options in the well) but none of it’s especially goal-oriented: my biggest accomplishment was being adopted by a cat, which is actually a pretty big deal!

That was the only thing I did that I noticed changing the ending text – and that only slightly, because of course the story always ends in the same place, with the main character riding the funicular up the hill. But that’s all right – this was just a stop along the way, an opportunity to kill some time and maybe create one or two small memories to bring home.

Miss No-Name, by Bellamy Briks

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Breezy and good-natured, April 10, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

So this is the second entry from Bellamy Briks, and in a completely different development system (this one’s Twine, while Heroes! was Quest), which shows some impressive versatility. Though the settings are also quite distinct – we’re in a contemporary high school, not fairytale high fantasy – the vibe is once again high-energy and enthusiastic. This extends to the appealing visual presentation, which is all bright color and emphatic text effects (no drawings this time), as well as the prose, which is again appealingly bubbly. Structurally speaking, Miss No-Name isn’t a time cave and is actually fairly linear, though there are a couple of branches depending on your choices, and seven different endings; since it’s a short game, it’s easy to reach all of them, and while there are maybe only really three distinctly different ways the story can wind up, it’s zippy enough that I was glad to be a completionist.

It’s hard to talk too much about the story without spoiling it – the setup is that you’re the coolest kid in school, and you’ve taken a bet to learn the name of the mysterious new girl who just enrolled mid-year. For the most part this plays out about how you’d expect, with your choices either offering different strategies to pursue your goal, or giving you the option of having the main character stick to the bet or start to develop a real friendship with Miss No-Name. While there’s the possibility of a couple of different twists depending on how you play things, the game doesn’t have anything especially surprising in story – but that’s OK. Its strengths are using breezy prose (I loved all the little asides about how cool of a guy the main character is) to create a fun, relaxing mood, rather than in ratcheting up high drama. The mystery of Miss No-Name is mostly an excuse to hang out in this pleasant world, which is no bad thing.

Mean Mother Trucker, by Bitter Karella

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Keep on trucking, April 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

The setting and protagonist of Mean Mother Trucker are pretty novel for parser IF – you’re a transwoman big-rig driver in a last-chance truck stop at the desert’s edge – though the goal (taking the pretty waitress away from all this) and approach to puzzling (a traditional collect-a-thon) are more conventional. Still, it knows not to wear out its welcome, allowing the player to get in and out before the novelty’s worn off.

I can’t place the exact antecedents of MMT’s style, since this isn’t really a sub-genre I’m that familiar with beyond having played Full Throttle back when dinosaurs ruled the earth. But nonetheless I can tell the author’s doing a good job of capturing the tropes of truckcore or whatever we should be calling this. Here’s what you get when you examine the jeans you’re wearing:

"Empire-waisted relax fit jeans that still show off the ropy thigh muscles you built up from slamming on the gas pedal and the wide ass you built up from sitting in the cab 23 hours a day."

There’s the inevitable biker gang (though they’re born-again), truck-stop sexpot, and salty short-order cook, with the descriptions and dialogue all hitting a gritty, sleazy vibe that fits the material without going too far over the top. There are some flies in the ointment in the form of some small typos (quotation marks sub for apostrophes a couple of times) and spacing errors, but nothing too bad.

The puzzles are less interesting, though they’re fine enough as far as they go. To convince the lovely Flo that you’re lucky enough to make the Devil’s Taint run (like, to successfully drive through the bit of desert called the Devil’s Taint), you need to collect a pair of good-luck charms. This is accomplished through a pretty straightforward sequence of puzzles that typically boil down to USE OBJECT ON PERSON/THING. None of them are too brain-teaser-y, and while there are some unneeded objects, there aren’t so many red herrings that it gets confusing, and if it’s not always clear how any particular sub-puzzle contributes to achieving your goal, each of them is cued sufficiently well that the player can take on trust that they’re making progress.

I did find the technical implementation a little iffy. There are a couple of bugs – I was able to take my truck’s rear-view mirror, which I’m pretty sure should stay attached, and there’s one puzzle that, per some conversation on the IntFiction forum, is broken in a way that made me unsure how I solved it (it’s the one about getting the roadkill that’s stuck to the road, (Spoiler - click to show)which I later realized is supposed to require using the spatula, but the bug mean that if you just try to take it twice, you’ll get it on the second go). And overall there were fewer synonyms or alternate syntaxes than I’d like – for example, as I was trying to dislodge the roadkill with a stick I’d found, I couldn’t find any versions of PRY ARMADILLO WITH STICK that the parser would accept ((Spoiler - click to show)even if that’s not the intended solution, it does seem the sort of thing that should lead to a useful failure message).

None of these niggles really did much to undermine the fun I had with the game, though – solving a bunch of easy puzzles creates a lot of momentum, and the short length meant that the enjoyment I got from the setting and characters didn’t wear off through the drudgery of repetition. MMT is a lightweight, but it’s endearing while it lasts – I can picture a graphic-adventure version of it fitting in seamlessly among the more offbeat LucasArts classics.

Copper Canyon, by Tony Pisculli

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A mine-r pleasure, April 9, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

I didn’t have “Old West YA adventure” on my Spring Thing bingo card – and wasn’t shedding tears over its absence since neither are my favorite genre – but lo and behold, here’s Copper Canyon and it’s a lot of fun. This Ink game is canny about deploying its tropes: the player character is a plucky, appealing youth in a mining town whose life is upended by an inciting incident (a big earthquake that apparently kills his dad and shuts down the town’s raison d’etre), and who gets a team together to fight back against the black hats who take over in the resulting power vacuum. There’s nothing too surprising here – there’s a shocking twist or two, but they’re the kinds of shocking twists you’d expect to see in this kind of story – but there can be a lot of pleasure in playing the classics so long as they’re done well.

Fortunately, Copper Canyon does it quite well indeed, largely on the strength of its choices. There aren’t too many of these, but I found a high percentage of them to be tough, engaging decisions. One of the best comes early on as Tom, the player character, is gathering his team: one of the other teenagers who’s been invited to the meeting is your classic heel, bad-mouthing everybody’s plans and generally irritating the group. When given the choice whether to kick him out (because he seemed like a liability) or to keep him in (since better to keep tabs on him than have him angry and likely to blab to the baddies), I actually stopped for a couple of minutes to think it through. And most of the choices are like this, getting good dramatic milage out of only two or three options.

Making this even more impressive, I was surprised when I replayed the game and tried making all the opposite choices that not very much changed. This does mean there’s not as much branching as you think on your first play-through – I believe the choice of whether to be brave or clever in the opening determines who becomes your main sidekick, and I was able to die at the end by making what were pretty clearly dumb choices. But it also allows the author to keep control of this tightly-paced story while still making it feel like the stakes are high and the player’s decisions are significant ones.

As for the story itself, it’s workmanlike enough. Again, you’re pretty much looking at tropes all the way down, but it’s still fun to play through e.g. a sequence when you drive a dandyish gunman out of town by ruining all his suits. And the game does occasionally touch on some more serious and darker emotions – largely through the prism of melodrama, but it still gives Copper Canyon a note to play besides Boys Own Adventure (not to say that there aren’t female characters, as the Chinese-American Lin was my favorite of the sidekicks).

The prose supporting the game is sometimes over-verbose – we’re introduced to Tom as he’s “carving a face into an old apple as a gift for a girl he thought he might be interested in” – and there’s the occasional typo or anachronism, my favorite being the description of a drunk old coot of a miner as being recently “let go,” though it’s mostly good enough, and zippy enough, to keep things moving. But really it’s not the writing but the choices that provide the real motive force here.

Queenlash, by Kaemi Velatet

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Cleopatras Wake, April 8, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

There’s a bit midway through the Bell Jar where the protagonist – a top-of-her-class college student with incipient mental health issues – takes a crack at reading Finnegans Wake, since she’s planned to write about it for her thesis. She gets about two paragraphs in, trying to decode the meaning of Joyce starting the novel’s first sentence with a lower-case word, noticing that there are a hundred letters in a long made-up bit of onomatopoeia, and wondering if Eve and Adam’s is a Dublin pub as well as a Genesis reference. Soon the letters are swimming on the page, “grow[ing] barbs and rams’ horns,” and she contemplates giving up on her thesis and maybe being a waitress instead. Within a couple chapters, she’s toying with suicide, then overdoses on sleeping pills and crawls into a crack below her house to die.

The reason I bring this up is that Queenlash is Finnegans Wake except instead of it being about Irishness (I think?) and a wake (probably?) it’s about feminism (sorta?) and the end of Ptolemaic Egypt (I’m on firm ground on this bit). Oh, and sometimes armies get annihilated by giant laser beams shooting out from the Pharos of Alexandria, plus it’s hypertext. While my experience of reading it went much better than did the aforementioned attempt at Joyce’s novel, I definitely felt frustrated and lost much of the time. Some of that’s about me going into it with incorrect expectations (this is a serious literary work and not much of a game – and very long), but there are two or three really significant flaws in the work that undermine its accomplishments – I’d peg it as maybe 30% successful. But given the scope of its ambitions, that’s still more than enough to make Queenlash a kind of masterpiece.

It’ll probably be helpful to go into a little more detail on how the piece works before getting too deep into talking through what works and doesn’t, though. What we’ve got here is a Twine novel in 22 chapters, centering on Cleopatra (VII, the one you’ve heard of) and running from the last phases of her internecine struggles with her siblings through her personal and political alliance with Caesar and ending with her death after his assassination and the ensuing Roman civil war. There’s clearly a deep knowledge of the history (including understanding which bits of the received story are likely scurrilous lies made up by unfriendly chroniclers), though the author does make some departures from fact, of which see more below. The writing is a dense, dreamlike, allusive stew – it’s basically a series of prose-poems, over 200,000 words’ worth from my quick peek at the html source. The introduction positions itself as an “eliuma” – a neologism meant to signify interactive novel – but I think the way the interactive elements work make it quite similar to literary hypertext: in each passage there are usually several highlighted words, and clicking on them takes you to a following passage according to an allusive, typically obfuscated, logic. Each reader starts and ends every chapter in the same place regardless of the path taken through the middle bits, and there isn’t continuity of choices between chapters.

I worry the nature of the prose didn’t sufficiently stand out in the above summary, but it’s very much the overwhelmingly salient feature of Queenlash. Here’s an example from the first chapter, where Cleopatra’s sister Arisnoe reflects on Alexandria’s great library:

"What about the library I love is it does not need me, will survive me. I am in it unnecessary, yet without me merely is it, is not in this, whatever I make of it. In a scroll there is the certainty of once bled to newly unstables, I harness in agonies their majesty celestials, in darkness they are not in they forever shine, I cannot see but how they break into me. Tens of thousands of pinpricks through the shroud scintillate lives I will never."

The key idea of the passage is a lovely one to me – humility in the face of so much knowledge, the agglomeration of books likened to the majesty of the stars – as well as revealing a strand of self-abnegation in Arsinoe’s character. With that said, I think there’s some clear awkwardness in parts – the “without me merely is it, is not in this” part is hard to parse with no clear benefit that I can see. Here’s another bit, though, that I think works less well (Cleopatra is describing a storm that may or may not be metaphorical):

"Lightning looms through clunking tons of clattering metal severed to shards to the lightless a rain each equally thirsting the skykiss, sizzlespear of a sacred violence, in their amalgamated I mosaic selfsame storm, stormtwin venomerator prorated in violence a violence, stunned by the sublimity of toxtricity, irradiated swampcore at critical mass fizzling the thunder toxic, pandemic vector voltburster."

There’s still some great use of language, especially the early clauses about lightning, but by the end of the passage, the neologisms and wordplay get overwhelming and, at least to my eye, a little silly (“irradiated swampcore at critical mass” being the worst offender). The whole piece is like this, and as mentioned, it’s very very long, so reading it is definitely work, albeit work that’s usually rewarded.
I mentioned a few critiques beyond some overwrought prose, though. I have three, though they’re all related and the first two are maybe just aspects of the last.

First, I repeatedly found myself wishing this were a novel instead of an interactive work – not because reading this much dense prose in the default, ugly Twine style made my head hurt (though it did in fact make my head hurt), but because I found the choice mechanics detracted more than they added from my experience of the story. As mentioned, so far as I can tell each chapter is shaped something like a diamond, with a single opening spreading out into many different passages that then cohere to a single end-point before passing off to the next chapter. The reader navigates by clicking individual highlighted words in a passage – usually there are between two and four options, but occasionally there are more, sometimes many more, like in a sequence where Cleopatra’s going to meet Caesar (I think riffing on the story of her being rolled up in a carpet), which boasts a dozen hyperlinks.

These links aren’t actions anybody in the story is taking, to be clear – in that library passage above, the links are “library”, “bled”, “majesty”, and “scintillate.” “Bled” leads to a passage where Arsinoe relates a vision she’s had to her tutor; “majesty” to one with a new vision of violence featuring Cleopatra; “scintillate” has Arsinoe coming ashore from a journey and having a different exchange with her tutor; and I confess that I can’t easily summarize the nature of Arsinoe’s self-reproaches in the passage linked from “library” (this kind of linking scheme is I think what the literary hypertext folks tend to use). I can see it being really meaningful for an author as part of their writing process, since seizing on a resonant word and spinning out its meaning and implications into a new scene seems like a valuable compositional tool. And If you’ve got deep familiarity with the work, I think it’s easy to appreciate the way pursuing different chains of allusion recast the overall story. But for a first-time reader, it’s pretty unengaging, since it can often feel like you’re just clicking random words with no rhyme or reason or impact on the narrative.

The second issue with Queenlash’s approach to interactivity is that crucially, while the branches don’t usually weave back together – or at least, where they do, it’s hard to discover that without copious use of the “undo” button – it appears that the bits of the story that you miss are still canonically meant to have happened. One example will stand for many more: after Arsinoe burned herself mostly to death in a thwarted suicide attempt and Cleopatra planned to finish the job, I’d thought she’d died, but according to the plot summaries the author helpfully includes in a nod to accessibility (out of perhaps-misplaced pride, I didn’t look at these until after I’d finished), it turns out that a different character –Porcia, the wife of Brutus – interceded with Caesar to spare Arisnoe and imprison her in a temple to Diana. When I played that chapter, you see, the choices I made in the opening passage skipped over that piece of the narrative and went right into some light politicking chez Cicero, meaning that I had no idea Arsinoe had survived – and I was deeply confused by who this new person in the temple of Diana was meant to be and why I should care about her!

My second overall criticism is also related to some surprises upon reading those plot summaries. I’d realized that there were departures from history here and there, but hadn’t fully understood until I dug into the recaps that the story also incorporates some over-the-top fantastical elements. Some of these work OK on their own terms, or aren’t too meaningful in the grand scheme of things – characters having visions of dead relatives which serve as links to their backstories are a nice trope, and the detail of moving the temple of Diana mentioned above from Ephesus to Rome certainly makes the logistics of the plot more convenient. But others felt to me like they undermined the story’s engagement with history. The characterization of the pre-Augustus Octavian, for example, as a self-loathing, gender-dysphoric obsessed with Caesar and lacking all agency took me out of the story since it seems less like an extrapolation of the historical figure, and more like a radical substitution. And this is especially the case with some of the fantasy elements – like, partially the reason Octavian is so weak is that in this story, actually “Augustus” is some sort of semi-undead gestalt of his corpse conglomerated with his psychotic twin sister. Perhaps this is just a genre preference and others who don’t care so much about their historical fiction being grounded would skate right by this stuff, but to me it felt unnecessary and weakened the thematic heft of the game’s engagement with a really rich historical period and set of characters.

Beyond issues of taste, though, I think use of these elements is also in tension with the requirements being placed on the reader to decode the challenging, incomplete prose and comprehend what’s happening. Since so much deduction is required to sift out meaning in many of Queenlash’s passages, including such out-there elements feels unfairly obscure, since I think most readers wouldn’t be likely to figure out that they’re reading about such strange events and would tend to interpret things metaphorically or allegorically.

This review has grown dramatically overlong, so it’s not without a certain sense of hypocrisy that I turn to my third criticism, which is that Queenlash is very much need of an editor. This isn’t a role that’s typically filled when it comes to IF – we tend to think in terms of “testers”, who do something different – but over and over, I would brush up against a frustrating element of the piece and wish the author had been able to work with a sympathetic reader to smooth out rough edges, strengthen the key themes, make sure the reader gets a sufficiently-good understanding of the story regardless of the path they take, and work out the pacing. As it stands now, it feels to me like an incredibly impressive first draft, but one in need of tightening in all the ways first drafts always require. Take the prose – I’ve lifted up some of the infelicities I noticed, but there are also some idiosyncrasies that a good editor could help iron out, like an overuse of words like “purls”, “gawps”, “icicle”, or “actress” being used as a verb, which are neat to come across once or twice but stick out with repetition, as well as some typos (“chilton” for “chiton”, “Cambryses” for “Cambyses”). Thematically, there’s a strand of anachronistic scientific imagery that runs through the prose, like the “critical mass” and “pandemic” stuff in the passage I quoted earlier, or mentions of “industrial flourescents” (sic, though this might be a pun) and, heavens forfend, a “volt turbid turbine”. As I read it, the piece doesn’t engage with technology or science in any significant way, so these bits of metaphor felt like were taking space from images and metaphors that would be more thematically resonant.

The pacing is where I think there’s the biggest gap between what Queenlash is and what it could be. Obviously this is far harder to wrangle with an interactive piece than a work of static fiction, especially here where any individual chapter could be much longer or much shorter depending on a reader’s choices, but still, there are some critical areas that feel either like a slog or too rushed. I found that the story sagged after the end of the Egyptian civil war and the transition to Rome – there were a lot of new characters introduced and the politicking felt lower-stakes since of course everyone knows where things are headed. And some of the sequences here, like Porcia’s dialogues with Arsinoe at the temple of Diana, sometimes felt interminable. Then when Caesar is assassinated, there’s immediately a long digression through Greek myth that serves a thematic purpose (it transitions Calpurnia’s fury as a woman scorned into cathartic violence by connecting her to antecedents like Medea) but it drains momentum at a time when action should be rising to the climax. And that climax felt quite hurried to me, with the last three or so chapters feeling underdeveloped as they rushed towards the inevitable suicides, as though the author was just ready to be done (to be fair, at that point I kind of was too).

There’s still so, so much more I could say about Queenlash – I haven’t touched on the FAQ or the primer, which are helpful resources that I wish I’d looked at before reading (though the FAQ made me feel bad for the author, who seemed to picturing a really hostile reception!). Nor have I talked about my favorite characters (Charmian was the best, and I really dug Octavia too) – and as is my wont I’ve spent far more time moaning about faults than celebrating what’s a unique, beautifully written, and thematically rich work that I could honestly see winning literary awards, after that round of editing, if it were a traditional novel. Since I do want to get to the rest of the games, I’ll leave things here – and just say for all its warts and somewhat forbidding aspect, Queenlash is a monumental effort that very much deserves to be read.

Ned Nelson Really Needs a Job, by Eric Crepeau

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Take this job and kick it, April 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Ned Nelson really needs anger management classes, was the sense I got when the option "punch Mr. Jett directly in his face" popped up at the very beginning of Ned’s interview with his prospective new boss. Admittedly, said boss is an irritating tech-bro caricature, but beyond Ned’s titularly-established desperation for work, the violence seems completely out of scale with Jett’s fist-bumping, profanity-overusing ways, annoying though they may be. Ultimately, it turns out that he is more than deserving of Ned’s rage, but in this case the game’s jumping ahead before doing the work to get the player – or the protagonist – in the proper headspace, which is a flaw that threads through an otherwise well-executed game.

Since I’m also now running the risk of getting a bit ahead of myself, let’s take a step back: NNRNJ (which sort of looks like the noise the Hulk makes when he’s trying to lift a building, now that I type it out) is a Twine game in three acts, in which the down-on-his-luck Ned tries to work his way into Mr. Jett’s good graces, and thereby into employment. It’s linear, with success-or-failure checkpoints at the end of each of the first two sections, and then a number of instant bad ends once you’re in the climactic third. While I found it easy to get through the last act, the first two required a fair bit of trial and error. Fortunately, there are checkpoints to zoom you to the start of each of the sections, three levels of hints on offer every time you go wrong, and no overly-slow timed text or anything awful that would make replaying a pain.

The plot winds up being pretty solid – while the premise is all about acing the job interview, Ned also faces some challenges in navigating his first day on the job, with a few reveals, surprises, and triumphs along the way. It’s not at all subtle about its satire of startup culture and mores, with Jett’s boorishness completely over the top – not all the jokes landed for me, but there are some good ones. Like, I’ve had this interaction:

"You stand up and go to shake his hand, but halfway there he changes to a fist bump. You wind up awkwardly grabbing his fist. He then pulls you close to him and claps you on the back about three too many times."

And towards the end, you have the opportunity to call Jett out on his habit of assigning nicknames to his staff, and one hapless employee notes that he “would actually rather die than be called Sam the Clam.”

What works less well is that it feels like the game’s mostly working backwards from the third act. When you get there, it all generally works, but there’s oddness on the run up. As mentioned, the option to attack Jett shows up far too early to make sense – it needs to come after Ned, and the player, have more reason to detest him – but this isn’t the only misstep like this. When the receptionist is walking Ned into his interview, she has an oddly intense, familiar moment with him that makes sense in retrospect but feels jarring when first experienced. The idea that Ned hasn’t bothered to learn what the company does – and doesn’t think to do a quick search on his phone in the opening scene, when he realizes his mistake but is still waiting in the lobby – isn’t very believable either, indicating an authorial impatience to get to the fun reveals of the mid-game without laying the groundwork. And the one real puzzle sacrifices logic in service of paying off that “punch” option, again without at least lampshading it: (Spoiler - click to show)at the climax of act II, Jett takes you into one of the puppy-kicking booths to test your performance, giving you a choice of weapons to use to assault the poor dog. Obviously this is the moment you need to attack him and turn the tables, but the story only progresses if you’d picked the brass knuckles, which allow your punch to knock him out. But if you opt instead for say the nunchucks, the game for some reason has you drop them before making the punch, which of course is too weak to knock him out.

My other complaint is more personal and may be idiosyncratic, but I have to say the violence was less cartoonish than I would have preferred. The description of Jett’s long-awaited face-punching goes into detail about his septum snapping under the force of Ned’s fist – and the idea that this is the best experience Ned has ever had is just ugly. There’s also a reference to Jett being subjected to prison violence once he’s locked up. And then of course there’s the whole reveal – (Spoiler - click to show)literally kicking puppies, which is described more robustly than it needs to be. The satire isn’t sharp enough to go this dark, I don’t think, leading to some tonal clashes.

I’m harping on flaws, but I did enjoy NNRNJ once it caught up to itself, and Jett eventually does blossom into a good villain – it’s just a shame it doesn’t have the full scaffolding to get there.

Heroes!, by Bellamy Briks

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
IF just for one day, April 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Pure enthusiasm will get you pretty far in life, and Heroes! is proof this applies just as strongly to IF as it does anywhere else. Stripped to its essentials, what we’ve got here is just a time cave – literally the oldest structure for a choice-based game, with an initial choice of three different characters further ramifying into completely different adventures depending on whether, say, you opt to explore the woods or the castle. And the setting is just another fantasy world, with goblins and princes and creatures with silly names, and happy endings that typically involve cozying up to an age-appropriate opposite-gender companion of royal birth. But it works!

So first, about that structure. Time caves have lots of branching, with few choke points and many different endings – but whereas in the classic Choose Your Own Adventure version, many of those endings are unfairly sudden deaths, here it’s pretty hard to get a truly bad ending. True, there’s one correct “legendary” ending for each character, but there are a host of near-miss endings where you save the day or make friends for life, even if you do fall just short of achieving everything you ever dreamed. And the game does a good job of mixing up the kinds of choices on offer – mainly they are about pursuing different branches, but there are a few false choices that just offer a little bit of different scenery on the way to the same goal, and right answer/wrong answer binaries that either allow you to progress or bring your journey to an end. Combined with the modest length of any given path through the story, the choices being restricted to only offering one or two options at a time, and a fast Quest implementation that makes it simple to skip previously-seen passages, this means it’s fun to play Heroes! and easy to replay it to search out different threads of story.

Meanwhile, though the stories aren’t the most original things under the sun, they’ve got moxie (and fun illustrations with have a colorful, doodle-y energy to them). The eponymous heroes are all plucky underdogs out to prove themselves, and while they may occasionally be a bit naïve or act too rashly, they’ve got big hearts – getting the legendary endings typically involves finding a friend, building their self-esteem, and prioritizing their safety over anything else when the confrontation with the big bad goes down.

Sure, this means the different characters do sorta blend into each other; sure, obstacles are bottom-lined and solved almost as soon as they’re introduced; and sure, there are a good number of typos and odd bits of worldbuilding (one leader of bandits is referred to as a “drug lord”, for example). But it feels churlish to dwell on such things in light of how winning and feel-good the whole thing winds up being –just when you notice a flaw, the narrator will interject to make the player understands that ogres really do eat people so are you sure you don’t want to run away instead of helping a new-found friend (but of course you should stay and help. What else would a hero do?)

Take the Dog Out, by ell

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A lovely chill-out game, April 7, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

In the last few comps and festivals I’ve played, for some reason the first game that’s come up in the randomizer has been something edgy, grimdark, and/or violent. What a pleasure, then, to start off instead with a winsome entry in the slice-of-life genre – and parser-based too, which tends to be my favorite. The premise is all right there in the title: there’s a dog needs walking, but our PC isn’t all that great at keeping track of either time or possessions so there’s some light puzzling to get through before Muffins’ micturitions can moisten the meadows (thankfully, despite the on-screen clock, there doesn’t appear to be a time limit).

Like many IF players, I’ve seen approximately eleventy-billion games by first-time authors – which Ell, from the credits, appears to be – where you start in an apartment and are faced with a series of quotidian household tasks, typically involving doors and/or screwdrivers. Here, the puzzles and implementation are good enough for the job at hand, but it’s the writing that stands out. I’ve already applied “winsome” to the game as a whole, but it’s the best description of the prose, too. It’s written informally and hits the ear easily, with a high density of gentle gags, but has more tricks than just the chatty voice – like the habit of responding to many instances of X [PIECE OF FURNITURE] with a dry, one-word summation like “lumpy” or “beige”. And the author’s done a good job of parceling out fun bits of writing to reward poking around this basically one-room game. Here’s a favorite sequence:

A pink sparkly collar with a link to hook a leash. It has a tag that says “MUFFINS.”
You give Muffins a scritch-scrotch and take off her collar. She looks confused and licks her nose, then trots over to the part of the living room where there should really be a rug but isn’t.
Oh, you had to get rid of your rug after your old roommate spilled matcha on it. You’re completely over it, though.
You put Muffins’ collar back on. Muffins looks like she wishes you’d make up your mind, but you could just be reading too much into her beady little expression.

None of that was at all helpful for reaching my objective, but for a low-key game like the one in hand, this is just what one wants, with random exploration yielding small conversational asides instead of the player being channeled towards the solution by overserious parser-responses.

With that said, while most of the game is easygoing enough, there is one puzzle where its laissez-faire approach provides insufficient direction: the last hurdle to getting Muffins to the park is to find your missing shoes, which don’t turn up no matter how assiduously you look under or behind the furniture (I should say that it’s nice that these options are provided for!) The hint that I “always have trouble finding them in daylight”, since they’re apparently going-out shoes, made me think I needed darkness, put I couldn’t figure out how to make that happen. Fortunately, there’s a walkthrough provided that got me unstuck, but the intended solution – (Spoiler - click to show)TURN OFF LIGHTS – doesn’t feel like it’s playing fair, (Spoiler - click to show) since electric lights or switches aren’t described anywhere even if you examine the walls or ceiling, and beyond that the game starts at 9 AM so I assumed daylight was the bigger problem.

As mentioned, the implementation is generally solid. I ran into a few niggles – when I tried to give Muffins commands, the game understands MUFFINS, SIT as asking her to sit on her collar, which doesn’t make much sense, and I missed getting full points since I found the superior leash before the inferior one, which appears to have prevented me from getting points for picking up the latter. Plus I saw a couple of line-break issues. But especially for what appears to be a first effort, it’s well put-together in terms of coding, as it is in every other area, save that one iffy puzzle. Take the Dog Out is a lovely bagatelle, and hopefully a good omen for the other games to come!

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