Reviews by Mike Russo

IF Comp 2005

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1-5 of 5

Unforgotten, by Quintin Pan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A New Life, by A O Muniz

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Awesome setting, OK game, December 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2005

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

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

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

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

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

Gilded, by John Evans

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheiron, by Elisabeth Polli and Sarah Clelland

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Space Horror I, by Jerry

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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