Reviews by Mike Russo

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You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf, by B.J. Best

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Thanks but no thanks, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

So YWTMaFAYTaW – I feel like I need an acronym for the acronym, why don’t we just go with Thank a Werewolf – so Thank a Werewolf’s About text says that this is a “collaboration” with the GPT-2 text generation algorithm, which involved feeding the program bits of the author’s (static, I assume) fiction, then curating and arranging the output to form the game. I went into the experience deeply skeptical that I’d find anything interesting in it, and I have to confess that nothing in the game wound up changing my mind.

I can’t really talk about the story or the premise since this is all algorithm-driven gobbledygook – the blurb’s claim that it’s about “a lifelong romantic relationship” I think must be a joke about the relationship between the author and their work, rather than about anything depicted in the text. Format-wise, you get a couple paragraphs of prose then one or two hyperlinked lines at the end that lead to the next bit of the story; I assume there’s branching but given the lack of narrative coherence, much less cause-and-effect, I’m not sure what difference or impact this would have. Most passages have one or two footnotes, which expand when clicked: I think these might be the prompts used to generate the text, since they often used the same words as showed up in the main text, but were uniformly more coherent and interesting than what was above.

If there’s not a consistent narrative, there’s perhaps a somewhat more consistent tone, beyond of course the omnipresent surrealism – most of the generated text feels like it’s about younger people, late teenagers to twentysomethings, sad about stuff and unsure about what they’re doing (I mean, fair enough). And there were a few scattered bits that had some zing to them. This was probably my favorite:

"I began to write the descriptions of my wishes. Letters with descriptions of things I wanted to happen, wishes that were already in the cards. An ambulance for a sick child. A dog for its owner. A car so nice it needs a full-sized garage. My first kiss. Your first kiss with me."

But that’s almost immediately followed by:

"I was the best cheerleading man in high school, and you were the best kisser in college. But you never kissed me glumly, always raising your hand majestically, like a majestically colored bikini. You kissed me so high that my boots creased the carpet beneath you."


"This town doesn’t cook delicious, but it does let you eat whatever the fuck you want. Your ovaries are like television, only they are hooked on the news. You can’t even spell rhyme or reason correctly. The stagehands send out the correct notes. The comedian sets the tone; the crowd gets funnier. It’s all a matter of perspective."

For a tone poem, one or two high points might be enough, but this thing is also at least two or three times longer than it should be – once my brain twigged to the fact that it was just watching a slot machine, I found it really hard to push on.

I do get the appeal, if not fascination, this sort of thing can have for a writer: the prospect of looking at your work through a glass, darkly, so you can apprehend it in a new way. I wrote a (very bad) novel in my younger days, about high-school wrestlers who I must confess were far more foul-mouthed even than Tom Trundle, and when I finished the first draft I excitedly ran it through Word’s (I think now deprecated) autosummarize feature, only to see my 300-page novel turned into three paragraphs of this:

"Fuck. “What if Coach found out?” Jesus, Coach. The first match I wrestled? Fuck. Three matches. Fuck. Fuck. “Yeah.” “Right.” “Yeah, right.” “Oh, right.” “Right.” “Redford?” “Yeah, yeah. Fucking math. Shit.” “Fuck. Fuck. Fucking test. Very helpful, Redford.” Redford nods. “Right.” “Fuck.” “Ah,” sighs Redford. “If only.” Everybody likes Redford. Anais? Fuck. “Yeah.” “Uh, right.” Redford’s word."

I died laughing – this is actually my ghost writing this – and resolved to tone down the profanity somewhat. As a way to change perspective, or add a bit of surprising flavor to the hand-crafted sauce (this metaphor has gotten away from me), I can see the value of procedurally-generated text – and I’m sure in twenty or thirty years Skynet will have come for the writers the same way it’ll have come for everybody else – but in the meantime, the werewolf’s getting no thank-yous from me.

You Couldn't Have Done That, by Ann Hugo

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A focused look at a traumatic experience, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

There are a fair few pieces of IF that explore feelings of constraint or paralysis by seeming to offer choices but then negating the player’s attempts at agency – Rameses, most famously, or I was partial to Constraints from a couple years after. There’s also lots of IF involving neuroatypical protagonists, from your garden-variety aliens or disembodied consciousnesses to, as here, more grounded examples like autistic folks. I don’t recall seeing the two of these elements combined in the way YCHDT does, which makes for a marriage of theme and form that elevates this short story about a traumatic event.

We know going in that the player character is autistic, and the opening does a good job of laying out what that means for the protagonist: challenges with eye contact, comfort in repetitive activities, difficulty speaking when triggered. There are small, well-drawn incidents or choices that establish each of these pieces before the main story kicks off, which helped me better orient towards how to portray the character. Indeed, they did such a good job that I don’t think I realized how the choices work until I did a replay: while you do occasionally get choices that would push against Theo’s boundaries, when you try to select these you get told You Couldn’t Have Done that and sent back down the other path. While this means I missed out on some of how YCHDT works on my initial foray, I don’t think that undermines the intended experience since I’d basically internalized the constraints.

The story is really about setting up, then relating, a single traumatic encounter, so it’s very focused throughout its short length. This does mean that there are some elements in the first half or so of the game that seem odd, as there are specific details and characters’ actions that seem to get disproportionate attention. The actions of the antagonistic character slowly escalate over time, and grow increasingly pushy and bizarre. Again, there’s a good synthesis of tone and theme here, since this gives an off-kilter, horror-movie vibe to proceedings.

When the traumatic event comes, it similarly has a lot of terrible immediacy, and again a few strange, specific details keep the engagement high (I think I saw another review mention that this is based on an actual experience of the author, which is awful). YCHDT doesn’t wallow in awfulness, though, and after this crisis the main character does get some support, which I was glad of as otherwise I was worried the game might feel pretty bleak. I will say I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more of the aftermath portrayed, though – I wanted to know a bit more about how Theo wound up processing the event, and how, if at all, it impacted her moving forward. But I think the game is quite effective as it stands, and was stable and almost entirely typo-free – I feel a bit dumb because I often say “this game does exactly what it’s trying to do”, but since there are so many different ways of writing good IF it’s worth acknowledging when one, like YCHDT, is exemplary for its type.

Where the Wind Once Blew Free, by No Sell Out Productions

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A deep world that's a little too hard to get into, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

I’m not sure what I ever did to it, but the Comp randomizer apparently has decided to punish me by stacking rock-hard games one after the other. WtWOBF (that’s an awful acronym, but I’m stymied for alternatives) is a Twine game with extraordinarily lavish production values – there are lovely paintings, some video, a fancy interface with plenty of neat flourishes – set in a compelling world that features hard-edged examinations of trauma and moral compromise in a fantasy version of the American Southwest. Unfortunately for me, I also found that the copious RPG-style mechanics layered on top of the story tended to take me out of it, and even when playing in “God mode” I hit dead ends, meaning I couldn’t finish the game in two hours.

Right, starting with the story side of things: the world is a major draw here, as there’s clearly a lot of thought that’s gone into the relationships between different sets of people, how to translate real-world events and situations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the meth epidemic into a fantasy context, and developing a big cast of distinct, appealing characters. Some of this world-building comes in a little clumsily (partially due to how it’s tied to the game mechanics, for which see below), and whenever it talks about guns the voice shifts into a hyper-detailed mode that I’m not sure serves the overall tone and worldbuilding well (like, was there a like were-badger engineer named Glock in this setting?) – but on the whole it’s compelling stuff, and the writing does a good job of anchoring these grounded themes and concerns in a world of magic and talking animals.

The situations presented by the plot are also pretty grabby. The opening frame story does a good job of evoking survivor’s guilt, and the other major segments I encountered, involving a teenager’s difficult relationship with her aunt, and a compromised man attempting to live a moral life in a world that doesn’t give people like him that choice, are also dealing with serious issues in a serious way. It definitely gets grim – pay attention to the content warning on this one, folks, and don’t discount it just because there are furries! – in a way that I sometimes found hard to take, but I think WtWOBF comes to those moments fairly.

The game side of things I thought didn’t work so well, and at times served to undermine the solid writing and intriguing dilemmas the narrative presents. There are several layers of mechanics at play here – the most obvious is an RPG system where you assign points to various skills or traits, like Brains or Swift Feet, during character creation. Then during play, occasionally these traits will be tested, and if you succeed you might see them increase while unlocking a bonus backstory, or if you fail they might decrease.

Beyond these traits, there’s also a “Lore” score that seems to gate progress, and similarly goes up or down with your choices – you can get a game over screen if your Lore number isn’t sufficiently high at the end of a chapter, and I saw a lot of these. Partially this may be because I was playing the RPG minigame wrong – I have to confess I wasn’t sure what rhyme or reason there was to when they went up or down, and since the viewpoint character changes several times, it was pretty unclear whether they represent anything in-game, or are just meant as a sort of out-of-world plot token. There also may be an element of (unexplained) random chance, because sometimes on replays I think the same choices I’d succeeded with earlier failed when tried again. I also found character creation challenging, since it doesn’t feel like you’re given a large pool of points, there’s no advice on whether specialization is better than going for a generalist approach, and feedback on whether e.g. a 5 in Brains is good, bad, or mediocre.

Beyond the RPG system that allows you to try different actions in the world, most pages also have a minigame of sorts embedded in them (though some of the aspects described here were altered in a mid-Comp update -- see the addendum below). There are numbered hyperlinks in many of the passages, some of which advance to the next passage, some of which expand the text on the page. The sidebar will usually have a “hint” listed – these start out easy, for example just as “2”, which indicates that if you click the link labeled 2 first, you’ll probably get a reward of stats gain or Lore increase or see your backstory codex filled in. These quickly get more complex, with wildcards thrown in and not all the options visible from the off.

Here’s an example from the mid-game - the hint here says “1, 2, ?”:

"Bobcat surveyed the slaughterhouse. Time had not been kind to it. The place was old, rundown. Yet surprisingly all the equipment had been well-maintained or replaced with new gear. A row of new galvanized steel pens occupied a portion of the left wall. There were a great many (1.) tools and machines.

"Long metal work tables occupied the back, along with cattle splitting saw, band saws, leg saws, and a giant (4.) Thompson 61000 Industrial Mixer Grinder.

"A handful of Synth crammed inside the pens started bellowing, as though pleading to be spared their grim fate."

This means I’m supposed to click the first link, which expands the text to show a link numbered (2), which I click in turn to reveal link (3). Then I’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing right and unlocking the reward (I clicked 3, and failed).

I found trying to engage with this minigame required me to go out of world, since success seems random rather than linked to the world or text in any concrete way. The interface also doesn’t help – I found the interface sidebar sometimes moved to the side, but sometimes was below the main text, so I had to do a lot of clicking and scrolling. Winning a test often unlocked a new bit of backstory or a mission in the sidebar, which involved more clicking and being out of the story. All told, it’s a lot of cruft that I found messed with the story’s pacing, creating a juddering start-and-stop rhythm.

It would be one thing if it were possible to opt out of this part of the game, but I don’t think that’s possible without activating the God Mode that maxes all your stats – I tried to replay the second chapter five times, but failed due to insufficient lore each time, which seemed disconnected from the actual choices I’d made (perhaps I’d just done too badly In the first chapter, so I was in a dead man walking scenario)? Even after I restarted in God Mode, I still reached a dead end, due to a choice that was probably risky, but which didn’t seem completely unwarranted by any means (Spoiler - click to show)(as Diamondback, using magic to blast Bobcat.

By that time I’d used up the full two hours of the judging period, sadly. Not to be a broken record, but I would like to see more of this story and this world (the Book I subtitle is hopefully a good sign on that front), but retuning the difficulty and de-cluttering some of the gamier elements here would be helpful upgrades.

MUCH LATER ADDENDUM: The game has seen a pretty substantial update since I wrote this review, so I went back to check it out. A bunch of the issues I mentioned in this review have definitely been addressed, but I’d say they’ve been reduced in salience rather than completely ironed out. The hints have definitely gotten better – they’re now cryptic little sentences incorporating words from the passages, and engaging with them is more immersive than the non-diegetic numbered hints in the previous versions. The progress-gating lore checks have been relaxed a bit, though not eliminated – in a non-God-mode playthrough, I was able to get into Chapter 3 before getting stuck when Pink Belly refused to reveal his secret.

Seeing a little more of the game, I was able to discover that some things that seem like choices are actually a bit on rails – which I was actually impressed by, since it does a good job of creating an illusion of choice. I was also able to get close to the end of the story, as the different characters’ paths began to come together, but unfortunately ran into a bug that prevented me from seeing the end (I was told I unlocked “the gem of quickness” and got a bonus applied, but then couldn’t click anywhere). So still a little bit of technical stuff to clean up, but this version is definitely easier to get into, and the writing and worldbuilding remain strong throughout.

What the Bus?, by E. Joyce

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Made me miss my commute, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Weird confession: I’ve been a public-transit user all my life, and now that I haven’t had a commute in over six months – I kind of miss it? Despite the fact that What the Bus? presents public transit commuting (accurately, at least by my experience living in LA!) as a surrealistic nightmare of mysterious delays, interminable transfers, and subterranean disorientation, I sank into it like a warm blanket, partially because it was scratching an itch I didn’t know I had. Again and again I smiled in fond recognition at things that are, objectively, awful:

“You follow signs for the Blue Line through a long tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a shorter flight of stairs, up another flight of stairs, through some sort of central lobby with an insane number of passages branching off of it, and then down a hallway that you feel like has one too many right turns.”

Yup, I’ve transferred from the 1 to the A-C-E in New York by going through that awful Times Square to Port Authority tunnel, this is exactly right.

“The train is packed, other than one conspicuously empty seat, which you avoid.”

This is obviously correct behavior.

After complaining to a friend about delays:

“Yeah, I hate that, Chris replies. Especially when it’s due to an unspecified emergency or the existence of seasons. Those are the worst.”

Indeed, who at a transit agency could have ever predicted seasons!

Admittedly, there’s not much to the game besides navigating the Kafkaesque labyrinth in search of the ten endings, which are helpfully tracked for you – though I like to think the fact that I got to my office successfully on my second try indicates that real-life skill with public transit translates. But there’s plenty to enjoy along each of the branches, and the “Back” button at the bottom of each passage makes it easy to check out other paths. And now that I’ve played What the Bus?, I think I miss my commute a little less!

The Wayward Story, by Ralfe Rich (as Cristmo Ibarra)

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A story-driven game that takes some effort to enjoy, December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

The Wayward Story lives up to its title – this is a narrative-driven piece of IF that wends through a bunch of different characters, settings, times, and even genres. There is an overall structure that unifies the whole, but ultimately I think it plays its cards a little too close to the vest. Players who do the work to make the puzzle pieces fit will experience a satisfying click, but I can’t help wishing TWS did a little more to invite the needed effort.

It’s tough to talk about the game without going into a little bit of detail on at least the structure of the game, so expect some light spoilers from here on out (I’ll still spoiler-block anything major). Briefly, there are three major types of scenes: first, there’s the core thread of the game, which follows an isolated loner who falls asleep while watching TV and then finds himself in a strange, dark castle. Then while exploring, he’s drawn into three scenes, each set in a different genre of escapist fiction (post-apocalyptic, fantasy, Indiana Jones-style adventure) – these are the gamiest parts of the piece. And finally there are a series of vignettes set in the real world, at varying points in time and with different viewpoint characters.

There are a variety of linkages between all these different parts, some of which are clearer than others, and working through them is where the real meat of the game lies, since there aren’t really challenges or puzzles in the traditional sense. In each of the three genre-y scenes, you’re given a single clear task or direction, but it’s simple enough to follow directions to reach the end. However, each of them also has an optional alternate path. In retrospect it’s clear these are moral choices, and the game responds accordingly, but one of my quibbles with TWS is that some of them are very easy to overlook (the one in the post-apocalyptic scenario is straightforward enough, but the desert one requires what may be a tricky leak of logic, and whether or not you even notice that there’s a choice at all in the fantasy vignette turns on whether you explore off the beaten path when there’s reason not to do so).

There’s nothing wrong with hiding some pieces of a story, but here I think there are a few design decisions that compound the risks that some players will miss out on what’s really going on. First, depending on what choices you make in the three game-y scenes, you appear to either get different real-world vignettes, or none at all. Second, there’s a fake-out that I think is too effective (Spoiler - click to show)(after you reach the end, the game appears to restart – you need to keep playing and see what’s changed to get to the real ending, but there aren’t immediate indications that this is intended and not a bug so it’d be easy to assume you’ve reached the end and it’s time to quit). If a player starts poking around and gets to some of the harder-to-find bits, I think they’re more likely to be hooked and keep exploring to try to fully understand what’s happening – but if they don’t, I’m not sure they’d even notice that there’s stuff they’re missing.

This is a shame because there’s a lot to like here. The writing isn’t overwrought, but it conveys the main character’s isolation effectively through some simple but smart tricks: for example, the apartment where the game begins has its furniture described with each piece broken out on its own line, and called out as being empty, or standing alone. Effort is made to make sure the narrative voice is distinct for each of the various characters, and while this sometimes leads to overcorrection – I found the tone in the first vignette, where you play as Jack, a bit over-the-top – in general it works. Different scenes also use color to create or shift the mood, which worked well for me, as well as helping make the structure clearer. The text is close to typo-free, and the parser is implemented well as far as I can tell, though again, as a beta tester, that’s hard for me to really assess. Overall TWS is very much worth playing – it just takes a little bit of work to get to what’s good about it.

Vampire Ltd, by Alex Harby

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
So funny it's scary (it's not actually scary), December 13, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

(I beta tested this game)

It’s an iron law of comedy that nothing’s as funny the second time around (leaving aside things like the Simpsons rake gag where repetition is the point). It’s still fun to see the punch lines form up and get ready to arrive, and a solid joke is a solid joke no matter whether it’s your first time seeing it, but robbed of the surprise, it’s just never going to land the same way. Why, then, did I find myself giggling when I just replayed Vampire Ltd, despite having run through it two or three times while testing it? Partially I’m sure it’s my sieve-like brain – it has been a couple months since the testing – and there are definitely a few new gags since then, but mostly it’s that the writing has bite.

Pleasantly, this isn’t a matter of individual jokey bits coming at the expense of a consistent, well-realized world, nor is it a case of funny writing making up for wonky design or buggy implementation. The humor comes straight out of the premise and characters, so before I get to the fun part of highlighting some of the bits that made me laugh the hardest, let’s get the setup out of the way.

We’re in a revenge-cum-corporate-espionage caper, with the vampire main character hell-bent on getting back at their former mentor, who’s now running a green-energy company. Vampires, as it turns out, have set their sights higher than just sucking the blood out of humanity one at a time, and now scale the loftiest heights of capitalism (and in the game!) The player character, however, is a bit of a failure (“Just because of a handful of failed startups and lawsuits and bankruptcies?”, he asks himself incredulously, and looking at the state of American politics at least it’s hard to fault him), and so decides to infiltrate his rival’s corporate campus looking to wreck and/or steal the new energy breakthrough (it is not exactly a well-laid plan).

This kicks off a series of gentle puzzles, all of which are well-clued, with one great gag that’s also completely logical thrown in there (Spoiler - click to show)(the bit with the grapes). A particularly clever touch is that as you go about the early stages of the game – acing your interview for a customer-service job, gaining access to all corners of the corporate campus, guessing an idiot’s computer password – it teaches you about the weaknesses vampires have in this setting. They’re almost but not exactly the same as what’s in traditional vampire law, but it’s especially handy to have all of these reminders before the inevitable confrontation with your rival. And implementation is rock-solid throughout, with nary an unimplemented bit of scenery or overlooked synonym. My favorite example is what happens if you try to drink the blood-bag you’ve brought along as a snack in the first scene, where you’re amidst the crowd watching a press conference – after you write BITE BAG, the game spits out “(first turning discreetly away from the audience)” before describing your nosh. That’s an awesome bit of attention to detail, plus gains additional kudos for using the word “discreetly” correctly, which basically never happens in video games!

All this means that the writing is given the support it needs to shine. The humor is really all about how much capitalism, er, sucks, but it doesn’t rest on that perhaps too-easy premise and goes the extra mile with sharp, specific jokes. The entire job interview is a highlight – turns out answering that “what’s your greatest weakness?” question is more complex if you’re a vampire! – but even the throwaway gags are great. There are a set of construction workers early on, and if you try to talk to them, the main character rebuffs you, saying “you don’t like being outnumbered by labour.” The janitor on anti-vampire strike was another highlight, explaining her protest this way:

“It’s against vampires. Especially our guy in charge. It’s against vampiric systems. It’s against the exploitation of labour on long hours and low pay. It’s for changes at the highest level for Lunarcel and every other company which lines its own pockets at the expense of workers. It’s for radical new ways of being which aren’t built on blood and toil.” (You don’t like this woman.)

There are maybe one or two places where the prose could be pared down a little (the job interview scene is great, but the responses to the joke answers are maybe 20% longer than they need to be). But in general the writing’s got snap. I mean, here’s the villain of the piece crowing about his great invention: “Oh, some of the staff carped at me about inefficiency, and how hard it is to safely contain a nuclear explosion, and how it shouldn’t have a window.”

All in all, Vampire Ltd has it where it counts – ulp, I’ve just been informed I’ve exceeded my vampire-joke quota and this review is now over. Sorry folks!

Vain Empires, by Thomas Mack and Xavid

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Prepare to feel very clever, then very dull, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

This is a hard review to write – both because my transcript didn’t wind up getting saved so I’m bereft of notes, and because my take on the game shifted a fair bit over the course of my time with it, and I’m having a hard time reconciling my views. If you’d asked me an hour in, I’d have said Vain Empires was a commanding Comp front-runner, with clever puzzles that lead to lots of self-satisfied “aha” moments, an archly funny tone, and a diamond-bright polish on its implementation. By the time I finished – which was about two hours later, after I’d locked in my score – though, some of the bloom had come off each of those roses. The first half is legitimately great, and it was compelling enough to keep me playing after the two-hour cutoff despite 70-odd more games still waiting for me, so I don’t mean to undercut what’s a significant achievement, but I think some of the late-game missteps are worth drawing out too.

Let’s lead with the good, of which there’s rather a smorgasbord. The conceit is that the player is an incorporeal demon, a lawyer-spy on the front lines of a supernatural Cold War who’s been tasked with cleaning up some codebooks from a spy-post that’s been compromised by their angelic opposite-numbers. Said codebooks are all hidden in spiritually-inviolable containers, requiring the demon to enlist various humans to its cause, by judicious use of an intention-planting mechanic that’s inspired (with attribution) by Andrew Plotkin’s Delightful Wallpaper.

To give a (made-up so as not to spoil any puzzles) example: say you’d discovered that one of the codebooks was hidden in a closed piano, but the piano player has the DRINK intent and is just pounding down cocktails instead of doing their job. You might nip out to the sidewalk, see a child chalking hopscotch squares in the sidewalk, and take the PLAY intent from them. One GIVE PLAY TO PIANIST later, you’d have solved the puzzle.

This is just a simple example, but the puzzles even from the off are significantly more complex than this. Most involve manipulating the intentions of two or more characters, out of a list that starts around half a dozen and soon grows even larger. The second major segment adds an additional complexity (mechanical spoiler: (Spoiler - click to show)adverbs), and timing and sequencing are critical, and so while the concept is simple, there’s a lot of satisfaction in looking through your tool-belt and figuring out how to best manipulate the sheep, er, humans, around you. The game also does a good job of keeping each codebook puzzle relatively self-contained – while there are ultimately a fair number to find (one I think is optional), they’re segmented into three major sections, and within each section you can generally solve in any order you like, with the humans you need for a particular puzzle clearly grouped around the codebook you’re going for.

The puzzles are definitely the main draw here, but the writing and implementation are highlights too. The protagonist has a devilishly sly voice (go figure), intent on its mission while taking time to comment on the incomprehensible foibles of the humans it observes. The metaphysical Cold War idea is not fully novel, but it’s a spry premise that makes good sense of the gameplay, and the authors offer some clever repurposings of supernatural tropes into the new spy-thriller idiom (Spoiler - click to show)(using the bell, book, and candle as a direct line to a hellish Q knock-off was an especially fun touch). The mundane setting – a glamorous hotel and casino – is described with just the right amount of detail, and the implementation is as smooth as butter. You can be sure just about everything mentioned in a room description will be available to examine, without drowning the scene in detail; and there are some nice implementation touches, like the way the game limits the combinatorial explosion inherent in the mechanics by saying that some intents only impact a human “vaguely”, implying that this isn’t a fruitful avenue to pursue. There’s also a gorgeous blueprint map always visible on the top of the screen, which helps make sense of the fairly large world.

If I’d stopped after the hour and a half that’s listed on the tin – I think about the time I finished the second of the main segments – that would be all she wrote, and I’d have stamped “MODERN CLASSIC” upon its brow and we’d be done. Sad to say, there’s a lot of game after that second segment – a full third area, then a transitional escalation sequence, before a multi-part finale. And here, things don’t feel quite as polished. On a prosaic level, that’s because I suddenly started seeing some typos and missing scenery, which earlier had been notable by their absence (for the typos; for the scenery I suppose notable for the absence of their absence?)

But the plot also takes a turn for the more earnest and raises the stakes, in a way that didn’t feel particularly well-aligned with what had come before (Spoiler - click to show)(if there was a major arms agreement happening in the hotel, wouldn’t there have been some sign of that in the hotel and casino areas, or some mention made before arriving there – or even some relationship to the boring trade deal that you actually wind up engaging with in the third segment, which seems a weird thing to be doing on the sidelines of something like this? And isn’t it awfully coincidental that the compromised demonic spy-den also just happens to be the site of said conference?). Plausibility is one thing, but this also shifts the tone: instead of a cynical, omnicompetent operative, the protagonist becomes a self-righteous hero (Spoiler - click to show)trying to preserve a delicate détente against Heavenly adventurism. Again, this feels like a left (or rather, right) turn from what’s come before, and is less fun and funny to boot.

All of this would be forgivable but for the way the puzzles tip over into overcomplexity. Whereas most of the puzzles in the previous sections have clear, physical goals that you can achieve by manipulating two or at most three characters, the puzzles in this next section were an order of magnitude more challenging. Partially this is just the accretion of intents – these aren’t used up as you go, so by the end you’ve got a huge inventory to juggle. While in the early going, punny or non-obvious interpretations of intents led to some fun moments of lateral thinking, in the late stage they become de rigueur, which made me resort to rote trial and error (for a flavor of this, (Spoiler - click to show)giving OPEN to a diplomat leads them to want to start negotiations, while EXPLORE makes them want to simplify the language of a potential trade deal by looking at different wording options). Combined with the added system I mentioned above, this means the player is often staring at a giant toolbox and not sure what any of it will do.

The situations themselves also become less concrete (Spoiler - click to show)(such as concluding a three-party trade deal or sabotaging a diplomat’s speech), and the descriptive text setting up what’s happening in each also starts to get less useful (Spoiler - click to show)(I still don’t really know how the briefcase made it onto the chandelier, or why OPEN and FOLD are used to start and stop the speechwriter’s radio feed). By the end, I was using the hints copiously – and even then got stuck on one of the finale puzzles for half an hour because I wasn’t sure exactly how to do what it was saying (there’s no walkthrough, just the hints). It doesn’t help that the finale also feels like it goes on too long: twice, I solved what I was sure was the final puzzle, only to groan when it only opened up another, even bigger, puzzle.

I don’t like wrapping up my review with grousing, since Vain Empires at its best is very very good indeed, and it stays at its best for a long time. And even when it hits the weaker final part, I’d still say it’s quite good! But it’s hard to avoid feeling like there was a missed opportunity here, and that with some judicious cuts and tightening this’d be one for the record books. My advice? Walk away after finishing the hotel segment, vanishing into the air like all good spies should (and await, perhaps, a post-Comp release that brings the latter sections to the same high polish as the first).

Under They Thunder, by Andrew Schultz

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Erwhelming Ovay, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Friends, I have a confession. I have now played two Andrew Schultz games (this one and Very Vile Fairy File from last year), and they both have the same effect on me: as I stare at the words on the screen to try to make sense of them and respond in kind, my vision starts to swim, I begin to babble, language dissolves as words themselves decay into meaningless nonsense-sounds, and I feel the cold immensity of a vast, amoral universe that cares nothing for humanity and our feeble attempts to apprehend it through logic, mathematics, and language. Great Cthulhu can do his worst and Yog-Sothoth can get in line: I have played Under They Thunder, so all your threats are empty.

If the title doesn’t give it away, the central gimmick of Under They Thunder is pig Latin: the player character embarks on an epic adventure to help a big-box retailer defeat an angry monster-fae army (I think? See above, my sanity as I took my notes was questionable), all through the power of inverting a word and adding a friendly “ay!” syllable to the end. There are relatively-simple fill-in-the-blank puzzles where you need to take the prompting of the name of an object or location and de-piggify it, guess-the-noun puzzles where given a certain pattern of phonemes, you need to run through all the options you can think of, and a set of more traditional puzzles where you need to read a particular book (or, I think, hum a particular tune) to teach you the lessons, or put you in the mood, needed to see off an overbearing interloper.

I should say, I can tell this is a very well-crafted game – both because it’s huge, with the central puzzle mechanic run through its paces and ramified in every way imaginable (each language puzzle seems to be worth a point, and there are 144 of them!) and because there are a thoughtful set of helper gadgets, hint features, and speedrun options that try to meet every player where they are at. This is a game for a very specific audience, but the author also provides every possible on-ramp to help you figure out whether you might be part of that audience and just don’t know it yet.

This is commendable, and I totally can intellectually see the appeal, but it just doesn’t work for me. My mind doesn’t bend the right way to make the puzzles comprehensible, and privileging wordplay over the merest sop to mimesis (do we still talk about mimesis?) takes me out of the world because the whole thing feels like chaos. I got maybe five percent of the way in under my own steam, looked to the walkthrough to eke out a couple of additional points, then used the fast-forward options to zoom to the end, though unsurprisingly didn’t find the finale especially edifying given all I missed.

By all means, give this one a try – Under They Thunder wants you to like it, it’ll invite you right in – just don’t be surprised if your brains are running out your ears before too long.

Ulterior Spirits, by E.J. Holcomb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Great main character, plodding pacing, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

Ulterior Spirits has a lot going for it. There’s a well-realized setting that certainly takes inspiration from things we’ve seen before (Mass Effect is name-checked in the blurb), but has some nice bits of world-building all its own. The protagonist is immediately engaging, a middle-aged bureaucrat and mother who’s haunted by her actions in the past and her prejudices in the present. And there’s an unexpected framing around Christmas, foregrounding family, forgiveness, and generosity, which are not typical themes for something with these sorts of genre trappings. On the other side of the ledger, there are some UI and pacing issues that make the game feel longer and slower than would be ideal, and before the ending sequence, the choices on offer aren’t very interesting either in terms of revealing character or impacting the plot. This is still one to play, but unfortunately I did feel like I was ready for it to end a good fifteen or so minutes before it finally wrapped up.

My favorite thing about US was getting to play as Renee Bennion. A high-ranking functionary in a multi-species coalition government, she’s dedicated to her job, quick on her feet, and is a loving though occasionally exasperated mother to a twenty-something son. She also has a fun rapport with her old commanding officer -- the vibe is friendly but still with a note of deference -- who’s also got a position on the space station where the story takes place. As the plot kicks into gear and she realizes she’s the target of a plot by an old enemy, you get a sense of who she used to be when she was her son’s age, and how hard to rattle she is in the present. She’s drawn with real flaws, too – notably, some ugly prejudices about other species – making her a well-realized protagonist.

The universe she inhabits again isn’t the world’s most original, but it does have some clever touches. Though this is a bit underdeveloped, one of the primary alien races in the setting appears to archive entire dynasties’ worth of identities and memories in each individual, and the details about how human traditions like the holiday season have been translated into a post-alien-contact context are well thought through. There are hover-over hyperlinks that demystify some of the technobabble, though I found myself wishing they’d have focused on different pieces of the setting – I feel like there were a whole lot that went into detail on the timekeeping systems used on-station, but comparatively few on the culture and background of the various alien races.

The central plot, once it kicks in, is solid enough, but my main complaint, as mentioned above, is the pacing. Renee is being pursued by agents of a long-dead adversary, with threatening messages and recordings of her past being sent to her, and unsavory characters skulking around the dark corners of the station. To determine what’s going on, she consults with station security and old friends, while still trying to go about her day job of setting trade policy for the coalition. This is a strong structure, but it takes a while to get going, and most of the sequences go about how you’d expect but with maybe 20% more words than would be ideal, with few surprises in store for the middle part of the game. Exacerbating this, few of the choices here seem like they have much of an impact.

The interface is partly to blame too – while it’s very pretty, it was slow on my machine, and each paragraph of text fades in one at a time, meaning I was often impatiently waiting to click my way through to the next bit. I also ran into a couple of small niggles that might be bugs, though they’re from late in the game (Spoiler - click to show) (after I finished the climactic conversation with my old enemy, a security team burst into my room, as though I’d been locked in and they were worried for my safety, though nothing like this had previously been mentioned as far as I could tell. And after making the heartwarming war-orphan donation, the text made a note that my extra supply-points were now zero, but the interface display still showed me as having 700-odd. Since these are never otherwise used in the game, it’s odd to include that detail on every screen, then not update it the one time it’s relevant, so I assume that’s a bug)..

All told I think Ulterior Spirits is one editing pass away from being something really special – with some tighter prose, a speedier interface, and tweaks to one or two aspects of the storytelling (Spoiler - click to show)(I thought the decision to never show the actual conflict with Ruuaghri in any of the copious flashbacks was a misstep – we never get a visceral sense of Renee’s hatred and fear of her, which undermines the intensity of the final conversation, and means there isn’t a contrast to draw with the old, decrepit person she’s become) this would be great. As it is, it’s still a really strong comp entry, which delivers some real sentiment and an internally-focused, character-driven story in a genre that doesn’t typically prioritize those things.

The Turnip, by Joseph Pentangelo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Diminishing returns, December 12, 2020
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2020

This is the second game from this author in the Comp, after The Pinecone, and it shares a bunch of similarities: it’s written with a real literary flourish, it’s got a very appealing presentation, it’s adapted from a pre-existing piece of static fiction, the central action is surreal, and it’s more hypertext-based than choice-based. We’ll get back to all of that in a minute, but meantime what I’m really wondering is whether the author has just like a giant stack of flash-fiction about conical plant-matter. Will next year see The Bell Pepper, The Cyprus Tree, and The Top-Heavy Carrot? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since I’ve enjoyed both contributions to this year’s Comp, though in a reverse of how nice they’d be to eat I liked Turnip much less than Pinecone. The strong points are pretty similar in both – the fonts and colors really are lovely to look at, and the writing continues to be really well-considered, with the short length allowing for a huge amount of craft per square inch of text.

The downsides are bigger here, though. While this one has a dog (point: Turnip), the protagonist’s world and job are odd and alienating, with the weird focus on deer-meat and the business with the holes – and the crazy description of your neighbor:

"Today is the day that your neighbor’s balance between vision and myopia finally tilts towards oblivion. As of midday, the whole world is a swirling, colorful omelet. She sees what seems to be a slice of ham wobbling beside a burnt piece of toast, but can’t distinguish hallucination from garbled reality just yet. She will need to call a doctor."

This is well-written, but is disconnected from the main thrust of the story and is I thought a bit too silly. Anyway, all this oddness means the turnip seems less strange when it invades this already-weird status quo – a shame because obscurely threatening vegetables are a good trope (did someone ask about a pickle?)

The game is also less responsive than the Pinecone, I thought – where that game had two different places where you could make choices and see a slightly different result, the Turnip really only had like half a dozen opportunities to click some text and get more detail, before going back to the linear trunk of the story. All told this means I didn’t find the game all that engaging, though I enjoyed the O Henry-ish button at the end. Definitely include a dog in next year’s The Coconut But It’s Sort of Mashed Up All Weird So It Looks Like A Cone If You Squint At It, though.

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