Reviews by Mike Russo

IF Comp 2021

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Dr Horror's House of Terror, by Ade McT

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A meaty, creepy puzzlefest, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Is there a harder genre at this point to parody than Hammer horror flicks? By this point, not too many people have actually watched the movies, but we’ve all seen a million I-vant-to-suck-your-blood-bleh-bleh sendups that make it seem like the originals were just as silly. Dr Horror’s House of Terror manages the task, though, keeping the traditional comedy monster-mash angle while adding a meta twist (you’re not running around actual Transylvanian villages and Alpine laboratories, just movie sets) and playing some moments of horror just straight enough to land. To be sure, the main draw of this big puzzlefest is working through its just-hard-enough challenges, but the tone is also just-novel-enough to make the fourish hour runtime go quickly.

The other strong element here is the pacing. I find long games can often feel awkward on this score, with an intimidatingly-big environment at the beginning and a saggy late-middle as you run out of things to solve. Dr Horror does well out the gate, though, with a focused, linear opening that establishes the premise and stakes – the head of the horror-movie company moonlights as a cult leader and wants to give you a starring role in a sacrificial rite to summon their demonic patron to earth. Then the map leads you to a hub where you find five different themed soundstages where the bulk of the game plays out, but you need to solve the first one, and get a feel for how the puzzles will work, before all the doors unlock.

Indeed, the game actually winds up being a bit formulaic. To fight the cult and their demons, you need to build an army of undead, since turns out Dr Horror has been cutting costs by enslaving real-life (er) zombies, vampires, and mummies. On each soundstage, you’ll need to deal with a roving security guard (in gruesome ways that raise the question of who exactly is the monster here), then figure out how to find, summon, resurrect, or control the various flavors of monster before doing it again at the next stage over. There’s enough variety of theme – you’ve got your werewolf-stalked hamlet, your sun-blasted Egyptian ruins, your voodoo-y New Orleans – as well as puzzle style – there’s some traditional object manipulation, some messing around with NPC behavior, some light futzing with machinery – that this formula winds up being a strength, since it gives the player a framework to grab onto without making things stale. Then there’s an endgame that introduces a fun new puzzle-style that’s not too out of left field, nor too hard – often the bane of late-game mechanical twists.

Speaking of difficulty (what a segue!) I found it tuned well throughout. Most of the soundstages are self-contained, with only a few requiring bringing items over from other areas, which helps limit the possibilities, and several puzzles have alternate solutions implemented. The puzzles aren’t easy enough that I solved them immediately, but at the same time I only needed one hint (Spoiler - click to show)(I didn’t realize the animal cages were portable) which is impressive in a game as long as this. The implementation was also quite smooth, and once I had an idea it usually didn’t take any wrestling with the parser to make it happen. I did run into a couple of bugs, though – I encountered a thematically-appropriate resurrecting security guard in the sands of Egypt, and one time when I got thrown out of Dr. Frankenstein’s lab, the crematorium wound up accompanying me to the parking lot. But some quick UNDOing was enough to set things back to right.

The writing is another strong point, with jokes that generally land (I liked the main character’s perhaps-forced naivete about where their co-stars kept disappearing to) and some real moments of gross-out horror preventing things from getting too weightlessly silly (those poor security guards!) There are some typos, though, and I did find things got a bit overly wordy in places, leaving me scrolling through more than one page of text just to see what was happening in a location. These are small niggles that hopefully can be ironed-out for a post-Comp release – given its long run-time, I’m guessing some folks won’t completely finish Dr. Horror’s House of Terror during the judging period, but this would be a perfect one to revisit once the time-pressure is off.

Highlight: There’s one puzzle that was a standout for me, a Delightful-Wallpaper-style combinatorial riff that requires you to reenact a Cajun-spiced melodrama of family secrets and voodoo curses. The writing and puzzling are both really fun, and there are enough clues to prevent things from devolving into the trial-and-error slog that often reduces the fun-factor of these kinds of puzzles.

Lowlight: When you solve that puzzle, instead of recruiting the cast of messy antebellum ghosts, you just got a crowd of zombies to swell the ranks of your undead army. Boring!

How I failed the author: I played the first half of the game while keeping my wife company during one of Henry’s late-night feedings, when I was feeling pretty loopy – things got pretty wacky in my transcript as a result.

Off-Season at the Dream Factory, by B.J. Best (writing as “Carroll Lewis")
A lovely melange, January 12, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The ingredients in this Adventuron game aren’t especially novel by IF standards – a dungeon-crawl with a combat system, an Alice in Wonderland riff, an inversion of the typical adventurer-vs-monster moral framework, a pun-filled scavenger hunt – but there’s something about the way they’re stewed up in Off-Season at the Dream Factory that feels fresh and coherent. The clean prose and fantastical yet grounded visuals help create a unified aesthetic that equally fits the orc protagonist’s dead-end job (he gets repeatedly slain by paying adventurers looking for a thrill) and his occasional visits to his fetch-quest setting uncle, who’s straight-up Lewis Carroll in orc drag. And the one element that’s thematically out of place – the occasional dungeon-delving segments where you’re a customer, not an employee, of the Dream Factory – is set off by bespoke vector graphics that make these sequences visually distinctive too.

(Side-note on my expectations on Adventuron games – by this point I’m unsurprised to find one with great visuals, but I also mentally prepare myself to struggle with the parser. But this time I didn’t, and that’s been true of other more recent Adventuron games I’ve played too. I’m guessing this is some combination of authors gaining familiarity with the platform and the system maturing, but it’s awesome to see).

The other thing that makes the disparate pieces work well together is momentum. I tend to like IF Comp games with a good number of easy puzzles – they make me feel like I’m a clever person making good progress through the big competition (this is not a flattering observation about myself) – and it’s an effective choice here. There's a good variety of puzzles, from figuring out viable combat strategies for different opponents to some maze navigation, but none of them are especially difficult, and many even solve themselves, with inventory items being used automatically if your command is even in the right ballpark. Combined with the interesting worldbuilding, solid writing, and pretty pictures, this makes Off-Season at the Dream Factory go down easy.

Highlight: I figured out one somewhat outside the box puzzle straightaway (Spoiler - click to show)(catching lightning in the bottle) which made me feel clever, though I also worried it was underclued. Then I kept playing and found it actually was well clued, I’d just gotten to the solution a little early.

Lowlight: The ending is generally satisfying, but I felt like one subplot (Spoiler - click to show)(the fate of the protagonist’s father) was left a bit hanging – though I didn’t get the Last Lousy Point, which I suspect might bear on that.

How I have failed the author: not by very much, I don’t think! Henry was sleeping and I pretty much banged through this one, despite my new-parent brain.

4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A full-featured CRPG, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Going into this year’s Comp, I knew that my time for IF would be limited, so I resolved not to get too sucked into any of the “longer than two hours” games on offer, to make sure I was able to play as many games as possible. Well, here I am, my resolve in tatters: I’ve probably put five or six hours into 4x4 Archipelago over the last few days, and immediately upon winning was tempted to start again to try a different one of the I think three possible main plots driving this slick, addictive Twine CRPG.

I call 4x4A a CRPG advisedly, not to imply it’s not IF – ugh to genre gatekeeping – but to highlight how far it goes to deliver the features you’d expect in a mainstream CRPG. As your randomly-generated adventurer embarks on a voyage across the 16 islands making up the titular archipelago, you’ll encounter a clever skill system that starts you with two skills out of a choice of fighting and noncombat options; a robust inventory tied to an economy that stays relevant throughout the playtime; a main hub boasting shops, services, a library, and more; a multi-step primary quest and numerous fleshed-out side quests; a host of dungeons and mines, many with a boss at the end; and random encounters out the wazoo. Oh, and an automatically-updating journal that puts all the key information you’ll need at your fingertips – seriously, this thing is better than the journal in any AAA CRPG I can recall playing. Plus it’s all randomly generated so replay value is high.

Of course, just as the game delivers so well on the CRPG genre’s positives, it also inherits some of the weak points too. It can feel grindy, with a few too many dungeons that are a few rooms too long. My main character was a magician, and I definitely wound up with a bad 15-minute-workday habit. Plus the early stages can feel a little tough, as you go from island to island building out a list of fun stuff to do but the ability to complete only like 10% of the tasks given how much of a greenhorn you are. But I can’t lie, there’s comfort-food pleasure even in these hoary irritants. 4x4A is the kind of game that isn’t always well-served by the Comp, since it’s long and a bit outside the genres that traditionally do well, but it’s super fun and I’m definitely looking forward to coming back to it post-Comp.

Highlight: The game sets out clear patterns and expectations around how side-quests work and the geography of the archipelago, but it also doesn’t hesitate to break those patterns to create some cool moments of surprise.

Lowlight: The writing here is actually better than it needs to be – here’s the description of one island: “The forests of Old Oak Island remember ancient times. They are dark and foreboding, and hide numerous secluded gorges and valleys. Many islanders are woodcutters, hunters, or pig farmers; local long-haired, black pigs are grazed in the oak woods, where they gorge themselves on acorns.” But it’s too bad that the well-crafted text really fades into the background as the gamier aspects take over and you visit the same places and encounter the same monsters over and over.

How I failed the author: Henry was having some rougher days sleep-wise whie I was playing this one, so after starting out the game and getting about an hour in, I didn’t get back to it until a few days later, only to find my saves were wiped (there may have been an update in the interim?) Too bad, Titus the Swashbuckler, but Letho the Tinkerer found the Heavenly Spire in your place!

A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Ambitious but unfocused, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

This ChoiceScript game about a fictional online fandom is a lot. Before you start, there are two full pages of stats, eight or nine pages with background on the online personalities as well as in-universe info on the Nebulaverse, the tropey YA series the fandom focuses on, and a character-generation process for your blogger-avatar that comes complete with two “what Hogwarts House are you?”-style quizzes – and then gameplay itself involves going through five or six “rounds” of play, each of which has you first reading half a dozen different Tumblr-ish blogs and deciding whether to like or reblog (or possibly reply to) each of their 5-10 posts, then making choices about how to write your own fanfic set in the Nebulaverse, plus some optional additional engagement with other bloggers.

There’s a lot to be said for creating a detailed and consistent world, but there’s also a need to present the player with a compelling hook to bring them into said world – a resonant goal, some emotionally-engaging conflict, an interesting puzzle or strategic challenge, or even just a clever take on a familiar milieu – and here’s where I found APBW fell down. Notionally, you’re meant to be optimizing your follower count by reblogging good content and writing resonant fanfic, but this is presented in a pretty bloodless fashion and is clearly more a pretext than a motivating force for engagement. The breadth of the game also means there’s less time to go deep and make any particular character or mechanic stand out, plus the incredible tropiness of the Nebulaverse, while clearly intentional to help it resonate with more real-world fandoms, made it really hard for me to care about shipping the blank-slate chosen one, the genius love-interest, the blue-blood frenemy, the white-bread sidekick, or… the other one who I don’t remember that clearly two days on from playing.

Eventually the game reveals that it is about something specific, and I found it got a lot more engaging (Spoiler - click to show)(it ultimately hinges on a pretty much note-for-note riff on the Harry Potter fandom’s reactions to J.K. Rowling’s increasing transphobia). But it took too long to get there for my tastes, and didn’t integrate the fanfic stuff with this main thread tightly enough for me to stay invested. Works of IF are almost always in real need of a good editor, because all pieces of writing are in need of a good editor (the beta testing process isn’t a substitute, in my experience) and I think APBW suffers that lack – it puts in so much effort to create a plausible world, and has something to say, but needs some nips and tucks to better help the player find what's engaging.

Highlight: Despite the game making clear that I was making incredibly suboptimal choices in terms of follower count, it was perfectly happy to let me express myself as a normcore loser – I took a gleeful joy in choosing the most boring hero as my favorite one, eschewing shipping to focus on the setting’s lore in my blog posts, and even quitting writing the fanfic super early because of (Spoiler - click to show)the transphobia incident.

Lowlight: As I alluded to above, I found the blogging sections offered way too much granularity of interaction – so the game’s bow to realism by having characters re-post stuff you’ve already seen on the pages of other bloggers made for extra drudgery.

How I have failed the author: Due to a general lack of brain-bandwidth, I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to read the multiple pages of background info on the Nebulaverse, which probably reduced my engagement with those sections – and that in turn meant I was eager to stop writing the fanfic so I could skip those bits and get to the end faster, missing out on most of the thematic resonance that I’m sure exists between the different strands of the story.

The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A chilling, well-written character study, January 11, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

The Best Man sits firmly in a genre that’s typically less well served in IF than in static fiction: it’s a piece of literary fiction, with nary a spaceship, broadsword, dead body, or tentacle in sight. For all the mundanity of the setting, though – we’re at a wedding in a small, well-realized Irish town twenty-odd years ago – I found the protagonist the most bone-chilling character I’ve seen in the Comp. By dint of his predicament, Aiden could be sympathetic: after a stag night mishap, he’s called up to be the stand-in best man, with the twist that he’s been nursing a years-long crush on the bride. Being relegated to the friendzone is, I think, a broadly-shared experience, so heightening the drama around this common situation makes for compelling drama. The Best Man isn’t trying to create a universally-resonant story, though – it has a very specific narrative, with very specific characters, and what really drives the story is Aiden’s toxic self-involvement.

This is all extremely well-motivated: long-term romantic disappointment can be tough to weather for anyone, but Aiden has a combination of vain self-regard, social awkwardness, and inability to self-regulate this emotions that means his infatuation with Laura immediately curdles, and by the time of the wedding, he’s developed a whole alternate universe in which his sense of his own intellectual and emotional development means that he is now a fitting romantic partner for her (or at least will be after the inevitable divorce). The twist of fate that’s led to his brevet promotion is reinterpreted as meaning he’s now playing a leading role in the wedding, and I felt a queasy sense of anxiety as he ran pre-ceremony errands for fear of what awful gesture he had planned for the big moment of the best man's speech.

Fortunately for my enjoyment of the game, we’re not locked into Aiden’s claustrophobic viewpoint the whole way through. In addition to chapters alternating wedding business with flashbacks to Aiden and Laura’s college days, there are also several that follow residents of the town incidentally swept up in the nuptials: the widower Aiden bumps into mid dog-walk, the partner of the Civil-War-obsessed florist (Roundheads vs. Cavaliers, not Blue vs. Gray), the church organist who could have been so much more (maybe?) Besides providing some relief for the reader, these vignettes also highlight Aiden’s self-absorption, laying out the rich seams of life he’s oblivious to in his inability to see anything but (his distorted image of) Laura. There’s also a sequence from the viewpoint of another wedding guest, Nick: a pleasant fellow who tries to make friends with Aiden but is instead ruthlessly judged, partially on the basis of his lower-class food preferences (though being a vegetarian from California, I share some queasiness at Nick’s love of white and black puddings).

Literary fiction lives and dies by the quality of its prose, and The Best Man for the most part gives a good account of itself, with lots of well-observed details and generally naturalistic dialogue. I’m adding caveats because I found the Aiden sections to have noticeably weaker writing than the rest of them. Given the contrast, this is clearly the result of authorial choice: his voice is generally intense to the point of histrionics, and the thing about histrionics is they do sound clangy when written out. Still, I found the dialogue of some other characters also felt clumsy during these sections – the opening exchange with Laura I think has some of the weakest writing of the game, unfortunately – so feel like another editing pass wouldn’t have gone amiss.

I’m quite deep into this review and haven’t mentioned anything about interactivity yet, which isn’t necessarily a kick against how the game deploys its choices but just an indication that they aren't what’s of most interest here. There are opportunities to decide on different high-stakes courses of action for Aiden – most notably how he behaves when it’s time to hand over the rings mid-ceremony, and what he says in an impromptu post-wedding speech – but in most passages, there are options to expand different sections of the text through inline links. While this is definitely a game with a specific story to tell, and you can’t change the viewpoint characters into people that they aren’t, the process of playing The Best Man definitely feels engaging enough.

I can see this game bouncing off of some people, given the comparatively low-key setting and the off-putting central character (the closing narration from Aiden made me think that in the years since the wedding, he’d become an incel or something – he’s that awful). But anyone who likes literary fiction, or a good antihero drama on TV, will find some real enjoyment here.

Highlight: I really, really loved the sequence with Bill, who can turn even the most innocuous of questions into a disquisition on the New Model Army – it made me sympathize with what my loved ones put up with.

Lowlight: The whole sequence with the bride’s 15-year-old sister. Ugh. Just ugh.

How I failed the author: I don’t generally listen to sound when playing IF, and that’s true a fortiori now with the baby since I’m typically playing while Henry’s napping and I don’t want to wake him up (or not hear if he makes noises). From the listing in the credits, though, it seems like there’s a great soundtrack for The Best Man that I’m bummed to have missed – though if there was going to be a Pulp song, I question going with This is Hardcore when Disco 2000 seems to have by far the clearer thematic resonance.

Funicular Simulator 2021, by Mary Goodden and Tom Leather

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Sublime, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

When looking over the list of entries into this years Comp, I found myself looking forward to Funicular Simulator 2021 just on the strength of its title. Oddly, I’m a sucker for a good transit-themed game – I’m thinking of the waking-dream fugue of What the Bus in last year’s Comp, or the meditative hangout-game Misty Hills in this year’s Spring Thing. I’m guessing this is partially because I miss my public-transit commute, 18 months into COVID (I used to get a lot of reading done!) Beyond this personal bias, though, I think public transportation is actually a great match with IF: transit is a liminal space, where you can encounter different people whose lives are very different – and while the destination is your own, someone else is driving, so you can sit back and enjoy the journey. Funicular Simulator 2021 is not really a transit-game in the sense I was expecting – there’s nothing quotidian about this trip, as the protagonist is climbing a very special mountain on the night of a once-in-a-lifetime aurora. But it wound up scratching the itch nonetheless, because it provides some of the same pleasures.

Belying its title, Funicular Simulator isn’t about the vehicle but about its passengers. The main gameplay consists of extended conversations with four different people, all of whom are ascending the mountain for the same basic reason – to check out the mountain’s mysterious phenomena – but who ascribe very different meanings to what they’re about to experience. You get to learn more about their backstories and what they’re hoping to find, and while the protagonist is a blank slate, by responding to the various characters and validating or denying their motivations, you can define what's brought you to the mountain. Without spoiling too much, my takeaway was that this is about allowing the player to explore some of the common human responses to the numinous: to look to it for escape, for study, for comfort, or for distraction.

The game doesn’t posit these as exclusive choices, I don’t think, and doesn’t put its thumb on the scales for any one in particular, allowing you to see the value in, as well as the counterarguments against, each worldview (though with that said, I found the artist to be too callow to take seriously – perhaps that’s more about where I’m at in life than about anything in the game, though). You get multiple opportunities to engage with the four characters, and you can spread your attention equally among them, or focus on just one or two to explore their conversations more deeply. Replay shows that there isn’t a huge amount of branching in the content of what they say, but the different choices do feel like they portray the protagonist in a significantly different light, so I found them satisfying.

The writing is strong throughout, taking sentiments that could be cliched and events that could be too abstract to resonate and making them sing. The understated visual design – which portrays the night progressing from the initial golden hour through midnight – aids the immersion. It all leads to a final choice that’s lightly shaped by how you’ve spent your time on the journey. The stakes for this choice weren’t completely clear to me, nor am I sure how much changes based on your decision. But the ending I got was poetic, and felt like it organically built on what came before, so much so that I don’t feel tempted to take the journey again and make different choices just for the sake of it.

Highlight: I found the conversation with the pilgrim character really well-done and personally impactful – her situation could be played for melodrama, but the grounded dialogue and unique worldview she offered made her stand out.

Lowlight: Some of the sequences when you reach the mountain struck me as a little too oblique, but if so it’s a close-run thing.

How I failed the author: I played this one late at night, after a day of Henry not sleeping well at all. But I think this wound up being good, since even though this meant I didn't appreciate the prose as much as I should have done, my zonked-out brain found a lot emotional heft in the game that I might not have been able to experience clearly if I’d been feeling sharper (you ever notice how pregnant with meaning the world can seem at 5 AM when you’ve been up all night?)

we, the remainder, by Charm Cochran

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A parade of horribles, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

My favorite band is indie-rockers the Mountain Goats, on the strength not just of the songs but also the witty, humane stage banter. There’s this one bit that's stuck with me ever since I heard it: the frontman talks about how when he first started writing songs, all the romantic ones involved protagonists stalking the objects of their quote-unquote affections, because what’s more emotionally intense than stalking? But of course beyond the super problematic nature of this approach, this means all your songs are kind of the same, and have nowhere to build. So pretty soon he wised up and moved on.

One glance at the content warnings for we, the remainder should indicate why I bring this up – I thought A Papal Summons was going to run away with the Most CWs sweepstakes, but it’s actually a close-run thing. The game is about a disabled girl who’s been left behind when the cult she and her mother belong to transcends their earthly fetters. This is a compelling premise, but I found myself exhausted by the author’s decision to twist every dial to 11. There are piles of dead bodies, gross-out scenes with spoiled food, and a bingo-card’s worth of abuse heaped upon the young protagonist as well as comprehensively meted out from the prophet to all his followers. It’s certainly effective at setting a mood of well-nigh-postapocalyptic horror – and there are indications that some of the terrible things on display are hallucinations brought on by trauma and starvation – but I found it hard to immerse myself in such a grand guignol spectacle, as the comprehensive awfulness put me at a distance. It also made the cult members seem less like real people who’d made understandably-bad choices to trade off their autonomy for a sense of belonging, and more like cardboard cutouts in a cabinet of horrors.

Gameplay-wise, we, the remainder is curiously parser-like, with compass navigation links off to the sides of the screen and each location in the large map offering three or so different objects to interact with. Some are just there for atmosphere, but a few of can be picked up (there are inventory puzzles, but they’re handled automatically so long as you’ve been to the right place to get the right item). And others trigger flashbacks, as the protagonist recalls one or another instance of abuse (there’s a suppressed-memories trope here that feels a bit icky). The writing is effective, as these vignettes do convey a sense of what life was like in the cult – and in fairness, there are a few moments that leaven the near-unremitting darkness of the story with at least potential rays of light. The ending too is reasonably positive, at least the one I got (apparently if you’re less efficient at exploring, you can get different ones). I think it would have rang truer if the path to get there had been less choked with muck, though.

Highlight: There’s an effective bit of characterization early on, where you can decide what single talismanic object you’ve kept hidden from your controlling mother – and once you’ve picked it, there are numerous callbacks to you touching it for comfort as you encounter the compound’s terrors.

Lowlight: Since I was playing on mobile, I accidentally clicked through the aforementioned passage really quickly, and didn’t see a way to undo to see the other choices. I wound up with an Orioles baseball cap, which I guess was OK?

How I failed the author: since I played on my phone, the cool ascii-art map didn’t display properly, which made navigation difficult. Though east and west seemed to be flipped on my screen in a confusing way, and having the map available maybe would have made me feel like I was playing Angband, so perhaps it’s for the best!

Finding Light, by Abigail Jazwiec

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Shapeshifting fantasy adventure, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Puzzley fantasy adventures don’t tend to be my favorite IF subgenre, but they’ve got deep roots and an undeniable cozy appeal. I was surprised it took me about 2/3 of the way into the Comp to get to one on this year – they’re typically thick on the ground, so maybe they’re falling out of favor? Fortunately, Finding Light does a good job flying the flag, with enough of a twist on the hoary standards of the genre to stay fresh and puzzles that go down easy. It’s not going to set the world on fire, but it’s a worthwhile way to scratch this kind of itch.

Let’s start with the twist, since it’s tied up with the premise: you play a familiar spirit, bound to a boy with magical abilities and able to swap between human and fox shapes at will (the human shape kind of threw me for a loop since it gives the whole nonconsensual soul-binding thing a creepier vibe). The game starts with him being kidnapped by raiders, so it’s up to you to sneak into their fortress and set him free. Your different forms have different abilities – as a fox, you can track scents and talk to other animals, whereas as a human you have hands and er, color vision? Really, the fox gets the better end of the stick here – which come in useful as you work through a series of simple obstacles, from a maze with a twist to a couple of fetch quests.

None of these puzzles are anything too tricky, but they’re not trying to be too brain-melting and they don’t overstay their welcome. Similarly, the setting sketched-in, and the boy you’re bound to doesn’t register as much of a character, but they work well enough to justify what you’re doing. There’s a topic system that makes conversation with the various animals you encounter go down easily, too – these are actually a highlight, since while your master is rather a bowl of oatmeal, the raven, rat, and horses you meet have personality.

Implementation-wise, there are a few small niggles. I ran into a bug where trying to go in non-cardinal directions either didn’t produce any output, or gave a response that only made sense in the maze, and there were some missing synonyms or fiddly action phrasing required in a few places. But it's nothing too major, and the puzzles are well-clued and smoothly implemented. I think this is the author’s first game, and it’s an impressive debut both in terms of programming and design – I'm definitely looking forward to seeing what they do next!

Highlight: The raven was my favorite character, and it was fun to take reading material back to her to decode.

Lowlight: The game doesn’t have any ABOUT or CREDITS text as far as I can tell, so I’m not sure whether there were testers – if not, this is impressively smooth, but regardless, always have testers!

How I failed the author: I was reasonably tired when playing this one, so I appreciated the overall gentle difficulty, but I was thrown for a loop by what was supposed to be a hint: the rat says he has exactly three things to trade, so after I got three things from him I thought I was done, without realizing that one of them was a freebie that didn't count as an additional swap, and I had one more left. Fortunately this didn’t hold me up for too long.

The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A multiplayer experiment that doesn't live up to its promise, January 7, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

Alexisgrad has a grabby premise and a killer gimmick I don’t think I’ve seen before in the Comp. Start with the premise: we’re in a fantasy world, albeit a grounded one whose politics and social organization seem quite resonant with our own circa the late 18th/early 19th century. The title city wrested its independence from an authoritarian monarchy some time ago, but has recently been weakened by a bout of Paris Commune-style internecine violence, and now the monarchy’s armies are coming to reclaim what they lost so long ago. And as the blurb makes clear, they will succeed: the game is about how Alexisgrad falls, not whether it will.

I love this setup – the time period and politics being invoked are ones that personally appeal to me, and knowing the outcome makes it fatalistic, sure, but that gives the player more freedom to try to create an interesting story, rather than focusing on optimizing their outcomes. Or I should say “players”, since that’s the gimmick: this is a two-player game, with one person making choices for the city’s dictator and the other taking on the role of the kingdom’s general. Here again the foreordained result is a good design decision, setting up this multiplayer experience as one of collaborative storytelling rather than an opportunity for cutthroat PvP.

Unfortunately, I found the actual implementation of the story didn’t live up to my (perhaps too-high) expectations. I played through twice, once on each side, and while the dictator’s side of the story was more engaging, both times the experience fell a bit flat, and petered out rather than reaching a satisfying climax. Partly this is down to the writing feeling like it could use an editing pass to tighten up – there’s a lot of description of the city’s architecture and history in the early going, as well as ruminations on the current situation, and while the substance is good it sometimes feels repetitive, with the same idea or fact being restated two or three times without offering any new information. Relatedly, the game features long passages between choices, which is a solid decision that minimizes the amount of back-and-forth required between the players, but can exacerbate the sometimes tension-deflating flabbiness of the prose.

The bigger issue, though, is that the choices generally didn’t feel especially interesting or consequential, with no real surprises or aces up their sleeve on either side. The early decisions primarily focus on the defense of the city, but the kingdom’s forces are so overwhelming that the stakes didn't feel high – not only is the outcome never in doubt, I never felt like the dictator had much ability to exact any pain along the way or play for extra time. Then in the second half, there’s an extended negotiation between the two characters over the terms of surrender, but again the dictator doesn’t have any real leverage and it’s not clear whether the general has the autonomy to create significantly different post-war settlements. The most interesting options in this section involve digging into the recent history of the city, and the attitudes of the two characters towards the revolution are satisfying to explore, but this feels like idle conversation, with no substantial impact on future events.

It’s a shame because I can imagine some fun dilemmas spinning out of this setup, where the two-player gameplay would add a note of uncertainty. If the dictator had some card to play in negotiations, it could set up interesting tradeoffs: they could be forced to decide which of the city’s freedoms to protect, for example, or the general could decide whether they want to prop up one of the city’s factions against the others in the occupation. So while I don’t think this incarnation of Last Night of Alexisgrad quite succeeds, it’s definitely a promising proof-of-concept for an IF two-hander and I hope there’s more to come from this author in the future!

Highlight: The dictator’s opening text is very compelling, dramatizing the impact of the invasion by describing the dictator’s recent political work, and how it suddenly no matters in the slightest.

Lowlight: In my second play-through, where I was making decisions for the dictator, I tried to make the conquest as painful as possible, and be more confrontational in the conversation with the general. None of my efforts seem to slow them down in the slightest, and then the general had me summarily shot.

How I failed the author: I couldn’t schedule a time to sit down and play through the game in a single sitting with a partner, so I had to play asynchronously, with gaps between DMs with my partner. It still worked OK, I thought, even though that wasn't the intended experience.

Goat Game, by Kathryn Li

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Too many endings, January 6, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

I have conflicting feelings on Goat Game, a short-for-each-playthrough choice-based game about the queasy moral tradeoffs forced on us by capitalism. It tells a grounded story well, with just enough worldbuilding to connect this city of anthropomorphic goats to our own situation without getting bogged down. But it also has 15 different endings, and between the two-hour suggested game length and some intimations in the game, it seems like the intended experience is for the player to reach all 15. Replaying made me like it less than I did the first time out, though, and I bailed after only seeing three, making me wonder whether a more curated narrative experience would have served the story better.

This is one of those stories where everybody’s an anthropomorphic animal – I think it’s 100% goats – but it’s not about jokes, it’s about social comment. You play a young researcher who works for the city’s hottest tech company, which has introduced groundbreaking innovations in biotech (I praised the lightness of the worldbuilding above, but I will say I would have liked a little more detail on what exactly the company made, and how the technobabbley magic purple pearls behind the processes worked). The early sections of the game are very slice-of-life, as you decide how to spend your workday, choose your general attitude and morale level, and interact with coworkers and family. These choices impact a triad of stats: “social”, “work”, and “opportunity”, the first two of which are clear enough though was a bit confused by the last.

The game quickly reveals it’s about a small set of major decisions rather than the accretion of lots of little ones slowly impacting these stats, though. A Big Event happens that implicates the company, and there are a few heavier-weighted choices about how you respond that determine which ending you get. Without spoiling things too much, it’s all very Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, with a satisfying range of options that let you articulate how you’re attempting to mediate the tensions that are pulling you in multiple directions at once – and while it’s not a direct allegory, there’s clear, strong resonance with any number of modern corporate scandals that I suspect would ring true for anyone who’s ever worked at a big, profit-driven institution.

The writing is a strength here, understated, with a good ear for dialogue, and rarely didactic – while some characters will push a Manichean worldview, the game itself doesn’t feel too judgmental… until you hit an ending, which is where my troubles with Goat Game began. My first time through, I picked generally positive options when asked about my attitude towards work, but when the opportunity came to take action to improve the company, I jumped on just about all of them (Spoiler - click to show)(I signed the petition and organized a walkout, though I didn’t badmouth the company on live TV and didn’t quit), putting myself clearly in a reform-from-within mode.

The ending I got, though, was labelled “inertial paralysis” and saw me disempowered and obsessing over work to the exclusion of all human (er, goat) contact, despite having finished with a “medium” ranking in the social stat. This didn’t feel like an organic capstone to the choices I’d made, and came off like a blunt authorial intervention judging some decisions as good and some as bad. And indeed, when I replayed and intentionally made choices that I felt were more about drifting through life and shutting out other people, but quit the company in my final decision, I got a much more hopeful ending that similarly rang false.

It’d be fine for the game to have a strong point of view – like, I think it’s totally great to make a game arguing that attempts to use inside tactics to reform a corporation are doomed to failure, that’s actually pretty close to what I personally believe! – but Goat Game presents itself as more ecumenical than this and I didn’t think it indicated that this stuff was being ineffective as you’re making these decisions. The structure also makes it hard for the game to stake out a specific angle, because of all those endings and the strong implication that you’re supposed to collect a bunch of them, rather than there being a single “true” or “best” ending to achieve. There’s an omnipresent set of asterisks marking which of them you’ve already achieved, and after getting a third ending, I got some new concluding text suggesting there’s some kind of meta progression being tracked.

This is pretty standard practice in visual novels, I think, but there you usually have convenience features to help zoom through stuff you’ve seen before, more narrative branching (here you pretty much always get the same events – choices are primarily about shifting a paragraph or two in how you respond to them), and tools to track which you’ve gotten to. Here, it’s not clear to me how the different choices and stats translate to specific endings. I’d already made the decision I thought were most satisfying after my first time or two through, so getting all fifteen feels like it’d require building a spreadsheet and doing some rote lawnmowering, which wasn’t appealing this late in the Comp. It’s possible that completing the grid would reveal more of what the game’s about and resolve some of these contradictions, but I’m left wishing the significant effort that went into Goat Game had delivered a more focused experience rather than such broad but less-rewarding replayability.

Highlight: I really liked the main character’s cousin, Miriam. She clearly cares about the protagonist and is looking out for her, but also has her own stuff going on. So often in games it can feel like the world revolves around the protagonist so it’s refreshing to see someone who sometimes doesn’t have time for you.

Lowlight: conversely, the character of Ira, the union organizer, really took me out of the game. He seems realistically teed off at the company’s management, but also has a scorched-earth approach that doesn’t jibe with the labor folks I’ve known, who are keenly aware that if a workplace is “brought to the ground”, as Ira boasts at one point, all their folks are going to be out of a job.

How I failed the author: as with many of the choice-based games in this year’s Comp, I played this one on my phone while Henry napped on me. It worked perfectly well, but unfortunately that meant the lovely art was displayed at postage-stamp size – from looking at the cover image I can tell that means I missed out so this was maybe me failing myself.

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