Reviews by Mike Russo

IF Comp 2021

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The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag

1 of 1 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

1 of 1 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.

Grandma Bethlinda's Remarkable Egg, by Arthur DiBianca

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Achievement-hunting fun, 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’ve played a number of Arthur DiBianca’s signature limited-parser games – including just getting to the first Grandma Bethlinda instalment a couple months ago – and have generally really enjoyed them, with last year’s Sage Sanctum Scramble being my favorite. GBRE has a different vibe than that unabashed word-based puzzlefest, and I took a little while longer to get into it, but by the time I was digging into the as-always generous post-game content I was definitely having fun.

As always there’s not much plot – you’ve managed to handcuff yourself, and you need to give one-word commands to the Rube-Goldberg-meets-Alexa egg to get yourself free – so it’s all about the gameplay as you explore the egg's functionality and unlock new commands by running through its autorepair sequence. Despite this setup, GBRE is actually much thinner on puzzles than I was expecting at first – there are maybe three or four that gate progress on the repairs, and they’re good ones, but mostly the gameplay is focused on exploration, as you try out the commands you unlock at each stage, figure out the potential interactions between them, and guess at other commands the egg might accept.

Until I got to the ending, I found this pleasant enough but not that engaging – it felt more like a toy than a game, and while it’s delightful to see what the egg will do next, by the end of a half-hour the novelty had started to wear off. Getting to the end unlocks a full Extra Credit list, though, which basically serves as an achievement system, with 21 different entries clued only by their titles.

This endgame content starts to require more focused problem-solving, while retaining the whimsy and discovery of the main section of the game. Some are really easy (Spoiler - click to show)(”Greetings” just requires saying HELLO to the egg), some yield after a modicum of thought (Spoiler - click to show)(”Grrrr” clearly has to do with the dog and the bone…), and some require a good dose of lateral thinking (Spoiler - click to show)(racecar ones, I’m looking at you). A lot of this is trial-and-error, but it’s the fun kind of trial and error where you smash toys together to see what will happen – it reminded me of the old Doodle God Flash games.

Amid a Comp that has lots of games dealing with really serious themes and ideas, it’s nice to get a playful palette-cleaner like GBRE – definitely treat it like a Marvel movie and stick around after the ending to get the most out of it, though!

Highlight: Figuring out Exterminator made me feel very clever.

Lowlight: I ran through every permutation of answer to the SURVEY command and was disappointed not to get any validation for my completionist instincts (I have a problem).

How I failed the author: After getting about a third of the Extra Credit points, I was figuring this was going to be it for me given that I have less time for IF Comp this year, but after putting GBRE aside I thought to start a hint thread, and using that was able to get all the points. So I lost out on some of the joy of discovery, but gained the hollow validation of checking every item off a long list – yay me?

Mermaids of Ganymede, by Seth Paxton

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
An enticing bouillabaisse, January 5, 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)

Mermaids of Ganymede is a Twine game that packs a lot into its hourlong playtime, as you help the crew of a research ship escape from a disaster that strands them under the waters of the eponymous moon – over its five chapters, it ranges in genre from survival horror to planetary romance and back, establishes half a dozen characters with mechanics for their morale and mental health, and includes a swap-quest chain and a devilishly timed maze, all wrapped up in a stylish visual design. None of these individual bits have much time to breathe or expand beyond their stereotypical aspects, but because the game is very well-paced, this doesn’t matter as much as you might think – there’s always a new twist to the plot, a new character to encounter, or a new challenge to navigate to keep the player glued to their seat.

The downside is that after reaching the end, I had the feeling that despite the plethora of choices and ways to engage with the characters, nothing I did mattered very much – the abbreviated ending text doesn’t help, nor do the couple small bugs I encountered (Spoiler - click to show)(the beginning of Chapter 3 seemed to assume I knew who someone named Undine was, but I’d never heard of them, possibly because I escaped Chapter 2’s city at earliest opportunity, and Chapter 5 also seemed to think I’d asked the said Undine for weapons, not just a ship) – but there’s nothing wrong with a linear roller-coaster that’s got a robust illusion of depth (little ocean pun for you there).

Highlight: I found the opening sequence surprisingly tense, as I tried to juggle the crewmembers’ moods and sanity while getting to the bottom of what was stalking the ship.

Lowlight: Chapter 4 is an extended maze sequence that turns into an extended timed maze sequence partways through – that’s a tricky bit of design to manage without creating frustration, and unfortunately I think this maze errs too much on the side of frustration, as I can’t imagine anyone could get through it without at least one death and restart (three or four is probably more realistic).

How I have failed the author: I was playing this on my phone with my left hand while Henry napped on my right arm, so even though I figured out I should really make a map to get through the Chapter 4 puzzle, I just bashed my way through with multiple trial-and-error deaths.

Ghosts Within, by Kyriakos Athanasopoulos

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A big mystery to get sucked into, January 5, 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)

Ghosts Within is a sprawling mystery, with a big map, myriad puzzles, and three distinct openings that shift the available puzzles and endings. It all adds up to a long running time that pushes it well beyond the Comp’s two-hour limit, even discounting the absence of a hint system or a walkthrough (authors: please don’t do this!). It’s the kind of game that’s ill-served by the Comp, since it’s one you’d want to sink into, taking careful notes and talking to all the characters about every topic you can think of, while mapping out the queer seaside town where the action takes place. The story’s also perhaps ill-served, I think, by a too-close fidelity to an old-school medium-dry-goods approach to gameplay. It’s still very much worth playing, but while Ghosts Within is a fun, engaging game, it falls a bit short of greatness.

The game’s opening is bewildering, as you wake up wounded in a forbidding forest, but intentionally so – we’ve got an amnesiac protagonist, natch. If that piece of the premise is par for the course, what happens next is novel, as your choice of which direction to stagger towards determines which of three vignettes will set the plot in motion. You’ve got a choice of starting at the village, the nearby research facility (as it turns out, the setting is roughly contemporary), or the hut of a local recluse. I stumbled hut-ward, which I’m guessing might provide the least-clear impetus for investigation. The lonely hermit there clearly has an agenda, but is rather tight-lipped. That opening also appears to mean the mysterious research institute is off-limits, meaning that I entered the large village map with only a rough sense of what I was meant to be doing.

The process of walking through the village’s environs and meeting all of its inhabitants is rewarding, but rather overwhelming. The map isn’t excessively big when you’ve finished running around it, but there are a lot of false exits and diagonal connections that make it hard to hold in your head. And while the cast is actually pretty small, each character is implemented with a very deep set of conversational topics that are fun to dig into, but again feel like a lot when you’re first meeting everybody. I wound up wishing there’d been some gating to separate off a portion of the village to make it more manageable, and give the player a chance for some puzzle-solving to break up the exposition.

This isn’t to say the exposition is uninteresting: to the contrary, the story that slowly emerges is compellingly drawn (the writing is also very clean – there are a few small infelicities of phrasing and tiny typos, but nothing that stands out given the amount of text here on offer). The village is still reeling from the aftermath of a decades-ago tragedy, and figuring out how each person is connected to that formative event, and seeing the details fleshed in one at a time, makes for satisfying gameplay. There are other narrative strands too, though they might not all be available after all openings – I learned that the scientists at the institute were very interested in the fog that cloaks the town, but never found a way to advance that piece of the plot. I finished with only about 80% of the points, though, so I could be missing a true ending that unifies the disparate pieces of the plot – the one I reached was satisfying enough, but felt a bit rushed, with a couple quick revelations culminating in an admittedly-stale twist (I would have gone back and tried for another, but I saved at what I thought was the point of no return, only to find out you’re locked into the endgame once the door to the final cave is opened up, regardless of whether you’ve entered or not).

Beyond the story, the other high point is the implementation. In addition to the aforementioned conversation system, scenery is always present, and usually modeled two or three levels down; SMELL is implemented with custom responses in nearly every location, too. Barring one tiny disambiguation issue with oranges, the parser is completely smooth. With that said, I did sometimes struggle with guess-the-verb issues. The puzzles here are pretty archetypal: you’ll be finding a light source, getting into locked doors, going on collectathons so NPCs will do you favors, and digging up two different patches of disturbed ground. They’re not very distinctive, though many of them do involve engaging with the well-realized cast of characters, which is nice. Many of them require very specific actions, though – I knew I needed the help of a security guard to get something, but had to try half a dozen phrasings to secure her aid, and there are a set of crates that only give up their secrets if you LOOK BEHIND them, with a regular EXAMINE or even MOVE or LOOK UNDER going nowhere.

This adds to the already-generous game length, and the puzzles are fun to work through, but they did sometimes feel somewhat disconnected from the character-driven mystery at the game’s heart – and again, the omission of hints or a walkthrough seems a disservice to players who are engaged by the narrative but left cold by the inventory-juggling. On the flip side, this does mean the game’s secrets are that much more enticing since they’re not handed to the player on a silver platter – I can definitely see myself coming back to this one post-Comp to see if I can get a better ending, albeit I might wait for some other kind soul to pull together a walkthrough first!

Highlight: The village and its inhabitants are really fun to explore – its eerie seaside environs put me in mind of Anchorhead, though the vibe here is much less menacing.

Lowlight: After a lot of effort, I managed to retrieve a missing bouquet of flowers and give it to the appropriate character – but as far as I could tell this didn’t lead to any new plot unfurling to pay off the effort (I did get a lot of points, though).

How I failed the author: I didn’t rank this one as high a it probably deserves, since after two hours of repeated 20-minute sessions – which involved a lot of going back over old ground to remember where I’d already been and what I’d already done – I hadn’t yet solved many puzzles, and I hadn’t come across much of the plot. Again, this is a good game that’s an awkward fit for the Comp!

A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Horrible but lacking in avoirdupois, January 5, 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)

One thing is clear straightaway about A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat: if the Comp were judged based solely on content warnings, it would be leading the pack. Just reading the list is enough to raise the hackles, even before starting in on this Twine game’s theatre of horrors. These aren’t idle warnings, either – while I’m not sure I ran into everything in my playthrough, based on what I did see, I’m more than willing to believe that the missing enormities were lurking behind some of the doors I left unexplored.

The parade of misery isn’t just here for shock value, either. The game’s plot sees its priest protagonist summoned to the 15th-century Vatican to present a prodigy of nature to the pope, but the structure is a descent through greater and greater depravity, with some of the contemporary Church’s well-documented crimes presented alongside supernatural violations that are polemical exaggeration, not mere fantasy. I’m running out of euphemistic synonyms for “really bad thing”, but suffice to say that I ran into Torquemada and one of the authors of the Malleus Maleficarum and purchased a plenary indulgence (albeit from a shrine dedicated to Mammon), but also found a brothel being run by an Abbess right next to the construction site for St. Peters, and far more besides.

The writing effectively conveys the awfulness of what you’re seeing, with some more modern touches to the dialogue preventing the distancing effect of history from undercutting the impact of what’s happening. Indeed, the way harm to children becomes a more and more salient motif as the game progresses makes it clear that it’s not just the 15th-Century incarnation of the church that’s being critiqued here. This is all fair enough – there’s a reason the Reformation kicked off shortly after the time being depicted here – but at the same time, it’s not exactly unplowed ground, and while the arguments land with a bit more force than usual given the luridness on display, I wound up wishing there was a bit more flesh on the bones, a bit more complexity in the portrait of how a horrible institution perpetuates itself that doesn’t rely on painting everyone concerned as a villain or a dupe. If the game was content with deploying its imagery just in the service of scares, that would be one thing, but since it’s clearly more than just a haunted hayride I wound up wanting more.

Commenting on the game-y aspects of The Church Cat feels a bit besides the point, but it’s well-structured, with choices allowing you to select which terrible thing you’ll confront next on your trip into the bowels of the Church (mercifully, you also are allowed to run away from some of the more disturbing scenes). There were a few aspects of the implementation that aped some parser conventions, like a persistent inventory link and occasional directional navigation – typically I like this sort of thing, but they’re best suited for a puzzle-based experience, which this definitely isn’t, so they felt redundant. Streamlining them away wouldn’t make it more fun, but would probably make it more focused on its core, horrible themes.

Highlight: Slight spoiler here: (Spoiler - click to show)the cat that speaks to quote from scripture is neat, and I appreciated that it lifted up some of the wilder bits of the Bible – the passage where a bunch of kids make fun of Elisha for being bald, so the prophet curses them and two bears maul them to death, is a personal favorite.

Lowlight/How I failed the author : Hopefully the author will not be offended if I say that the game was pretty much all lowlight for me – it’s gross and scary and horrible, and as a new father I was especially not excited to read about bad stuff happening to small kids. I still think it’s good at accomplishing what it sets out to, but man I did not enjoy it one bit.

Second Wind, by Matthew Warner

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A grown-up but rather punishing post-apocalypse, January 4, 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)

Typically for an Adventuron game, Second Wind makes a great first impression, with an awesome comic-book cover image and slick maps helping immerse you in the postapocalyptic setting. The premise is also refreshingly grown-up and grounded: the main character’s wife has gone into labor, some complications have arisen, and now she needs a c-section or she and the baby will die. Making matters worse, the only doctor around is the main character’s ex-wife, who lives in a neighboring settlement – and between the bad breakup and the trek though the postnuclear wastes, enlisting her aid isn’t going to be easy. I unfortunately left Second Wind less impressed than I was when I began playing it, largely down to some incongruous, mimesis-breaking puzzle design and a punishing time limit that almost requires a restart and retry, but it’s still worth playing through.

I found the story the most engaging part of Second Wind. It doesn’t get drawn too deeply beyond what you see in the blurb, but the simple dialogue and intense dilemma faced by the main character pulled me in. And in a sea of protagonists with no family ties, a divorced main character is a novelty – especially since it positions your character has having been in the wrong, since he cheated on his ex-wife, Wendy, with his current one. This lends the sequences where you’re groveling for Wendy’s help a queasy vulnerability that I haven’t seen in much IF before. The postapocalyptic backdrop works well enough to create stakes, but it’s the domestic drama that really drives the emotional engagement.

The gameplay is where things worked less well for me. Some of the challenges on offer do match the tone, like figuring out how to wrangle transportation for Wendy. But most of the obstacles gating progress feel very gamey. There are several different keycodes you need to find, one of which is drawn from Les Miserables in a way that’s just this side of reasonable, the other – a reference to Tommy Tutone’s 1981 hit “867-5309 (Jenny)” – a completely implausible choice for characters who we’re told were born around 2000. There’s also a word-scramble, and a series of puzzles that require out-of-game googling of some fairly obscure facts in order to figure out a safe combination. And then there’s the trial-and-error maze.

These aren’t awful puzzles in themselves, and I’d have enjoyed coming across them in a puzzlefest, but they felt at odds with the downbeat vibe created by the story and setting. And while none of them are too hard, some take a while to work through, which meant I ran afoul of the game’s strict time limit. A ticking clock definitely makes sense given the premise, but I wished it applied only to longer actions, like travel through the wilderness or building or fixing machinery, or at least was pitched a little more generously, since the time limit disincentivized exploring the world, and made the maze at the end feel like authorial sadism.

The writing is serviceable, with a few evocative notes here and there – we’re told that in the shelter, “filtered air hisses gently from behind recessed lights”, which is a nicely-considered detail. And I didn’t have problems with the parser -- sometimes an Adventuron weak point -- partially because the author does a good job of prompting the right syntax (this is usually done through out-of-world notes, and while I suppose it would have been smoother to integrate them into in-world descriptions, given the time pressure erring on the side of convenience was probably the right choice). I just wish the puzzles had done the same, either by being more organically connected to the plot or just being dialed back.

Highlight: there’s an effective late-game twist that ramps up the tension even further – and actually adds its own further time limit, which now that I think about it could have substituted for the overall one.

Lowlight: that safe puzzle, which had me going to Wikipedia to look up things like (Spoiler - click to show)the Japanese term for an a-bomb survivor. As far as I could tell, there’s no way to access this information in the game – I wasted time looking in the various computer systems to see if there was a library function – and the puzzle isn’t clever enough to justify this crime against mimesis.

How I failed the author: it’s unfair to hold this against the author, but the risk of harm to a pregnant woman and baby – and actually the reality, because they do both die if the time runs out – landed pretty heavily on me give my circumstances, and I kind of resented failure at these silly puzzles leading to such a dire outcome.

Hercules!, by Leo Weinreb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A mythological romp that's childish in a good way, January 4, 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 to confess to finding the initial presentation of Hercules! off-putting. Sure, the twelve labors provide a sturdy framework for a puzzley parser adventure, and I’m hardly in a position to object to injecting comedy into old Greek stuff after my IF Comp game from last year, but the blurb, from the sophomoric premise (Hercules is a puny asthmatic) and use of profanity to the content warnings’ promise of scatology to come, seemed to promise a game with an annoyingly middle-school sensibility.

Happily, though, while that impression isn’t far off, Hercules! wears its relative immaturity well, exuberantly boasting jokes that mostly land on the entertaining side of dumb (I appreciated being told that the shoals weren’t hard rocks, but classic rocks, for example) The mostly-simple puzzles are usually pleasant to work through, with polished implementation and a plot that hits enough of the classical beats to show the author’s done the work while making some welcome tweaks to better accord with modern tastes (there’s no wife- or child-murder here, thankfully, but there is a climax calling back to all the friends you’ve made along the way).

Highlight: one of the most charming aspects of Hercules! is its map – you’re plopped down in a geographically-accurate but much-compressed version of Greece where a simple “GO SOUTHEAST” will take you from the shore of the Peloponnese to Crete. And while the available geography is large, if you go to a location too early, Hercules gets a bad feeling, which helps keep the scope manageable (all the labors must be done in order, understandably enough).

Lowlight: while the puzzles are mostly straightforward object-manipulation exercises, there are a few that feel underclued or fiddly (Spoiler - click to show)(falling asleep so you can hunt the hind in a dream world, for example, which doesn’t seem to be an idea suggested anywhere, and having to do the pendant rigmarole four times with four different mares is annoying busywork), especially I think in in the second half of the game (though see below). Exacerbating this, you can pick up a large number of junk items during labor number seven, which clogged up my inventory in the latter half of the game and made sussing out what to do more challenging – other labors get rid of unneeded items once they’re concluded, and it’d have been better if the same approach was taken here.

How I have failed the author: I was able to get through the first two thirds of the game in an hour, with baby napping next to me. He started to stir, though, about when I was trying to get the mares from Diomedes, and let me tell you, there is no video-game timer mechanic more stressful than trying to finish a parser game before a newborn wakes up! As a result I kind of panicked and wasn’t thinking very clearly for the last chunk of the game, and had recourse to the hints if I couldn’t solve a puzzle in like thirty seconds. On the plus side, I did get Hercules to his happy ending just before Henry needed a diaper change, so that’s doubly a win.

I Contain Multitudes, by Wonaglot

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A wonky game wedded to an enticing setting, January 3, 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)

Reading the blurb for ICM, I realized that just as this Comp has been thin on fantasy adventures, it’s been positively skeletal on mysteries. I really enjoy them despite being awful at them, and this Quest game has a compelling setup: we’ve got a cruise ship for the pampered elite of an Italianish steampunk world, a dead bishop, and a creepily clever mechanic where you can don different masks to vary your aspect as you interrogate the array of witnesses and suspects. Sadly I ran into some technical issues that meant I couldn’t finish the game, and the puzzles lean more fetch-quest-y than mystery-solving, but I still enjoyed my time with it – I’ll be keeping an eye out for a post-Comp release.

The biggest positive here really is the setting. There’s an air of decadence that oozes from every overdone decoration or costumed passenger on the ship, and hobnobbing with slumming sopranos and vicious empresses is quite the good time. Poking your head into all the nooks and crannies makes the initial exploration lots of fun, while the on-screen map and compact layout still make it easy to get around when it’s time to dig into puzzle-solving. The prose doesn’t go too far over the top, either, relying on a few well-chosen details rather than slathering adjectives about willy-nilly. This restraint holds true for information on the overall society, too, with a few optional books and throwaway references hinting at an interesting world without getting bogged down in exposition. Sometimes the writing can err on the side of providing atmosphere and a general vibe rather than nailing down specifics of furniture, which can make some of the locations feel bare once you’ve read the introductory paragraph, but this again makes it easier to shift into progress-making mode. And there’s clever attention to detail, too: when you pick up a knife while wearing a bestial devil-mask, an extra sentence appears saying that it “reminds you of one of your fangs.”

Speaking of the mask, that’s the other immediate standout. Masks are a big deal in this setting, and besides going bare-faced, you have the choice of four to wear as you do your work: a devil, a cherub, a widow, and an anonymizing half-mask. Some puzzles revolve around having the right one on at the right time, with different dialogue options or actions being unlocked. I wasn’t really clear what this looked like from the perspective of the other characters in the game world – like, if there’s something supernatural changing their behavior when they see you don a mask – but it adds a needed additional bit of business to interacting with other NPCs: mysteries in IF are often tricky to solve because they can require repeat play, with careful tracking of NPC schedules, but things are more straightforward here, with movement only being triggered by your actions.

NPC autonomy isn’t ICM’s only departure from mystery orthodoxy, though. There’s some evidence to be gathered, primarily through SEARCH, LOOK BEHIND, etc., but for the most part you’re doing favors for the cast of characters, and at least in the first stages, they’re largely well-signposted scavenger-hunts. This makes it easier to make progress, since you usually have a list of specific tasks to accomplish and places to poke around. On the flip side, for the portions of the game I saw, I felt less like a detective creating a web of deductions to snare a murderer, and more a traditional adventure-game protagonist doing favors for people until they explained the plot.

This might change in the final section of the game, though, since I ran into some bugs just as thing were starting to come to a climax. After showing a piece of evidence to someone, I started getting repeated out-of-memory errors printing out down the screen. I was eventually able to type some commands which appeared to make the errors stop, but when I attempted to save, the interpreter froze (I was playing offline, per the recommendation in the blurb) – and what’s worse, this seemed to have corrupted the save. Since I’d already gotten close to the two-hour mark, that’s where I left things. There’s a lot to enjoy here, and depending on how the finale goes I could see ICM tipping over into something really special, but I’ll wait for a post-Comp release to find out.

Highlight: the ship’s library has a book with extensive excerpts from an in-universe opera which provides a lot of cool flavor for the world.

Lowlight: there are a few puzzles that have guess-the-verb issues – in particular, when a particular character asked me for some medical help, asking or telling the doctor about them does nothing (I had to ASK them FOR MEDICINE instead).

How I failed the author: life’s been pretty busy the last few days, (including Henry getting some vaccines yesterday that led to a stomachache and bad sleep last night), so I had an extended pause after my first forty-five minutes in the game that meant that when I came back to it, I had to spend a bunch of time reading back over what had happened – which in turn meant that when I ran into the bugs, I didn’t have enough time left to start over.

The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A grounds-eye view of a bureaucracy failing a child, January 3, 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)

You don’t hear much about the uncanny valley these days – we all remember the term for the creepy middle-ground between CGI characters that are too real to scan as cartoonish but too plastic to scan as real? Despite being everywhere around the turn of the millennium, I haven’t heard anyone sling the phrase in quite a while, whether because CGI’s gotten sufficiently good, or – more sinister – we’ve all just become inured to hyperreal hyperpolygonated faces.

I bring this up not to critique the graphics in Corsham Witch Trial – it doesn’t have any, natch – but to explain the trap my brain got stuck in when playing it, due to an awkward mismatch between me and the game. The premise has a young paralegal tasked by their boss with reviewing documents from an unsuccessful case from a couple of years previous. Despite the title, there’s nothing supernatural going on: the eponymous witch hunt is a question-begging label for the suit, which involved bringing an English child protective services staffer to court on charges of criminal negligence after they failed to act to prevent the death of a child. It’s presented largely through primary sources, with IM messages between the paralegal and a colleague (this is where the game’s few choices are made) framing a collection of documents like trial transcripts, incident reports, email threads, and so on. There’s a lot of verisimilitude here, with links in the main narrative often going to Google Drive files that are impressively mocked up, featuring convincingly-deployed acronyms and reasonable-sounding invocations of procedural rules.

This is where things went awry with my expectations, though. I’ve got a law degree (albeit from the U.S., and the only times I’ve been in a courtroom were for jury duty - I know just enough to get myself in trouble), so I ate all this up. But very quickly, my outside knowledge started taking me out of the story – it’s sufficiently grounded that I couldn’t put on Phoenix-Wright goggles and ignore departures from plausibility, but it also has some plot points I found ridiculous. This happens all the time when I try to watch shows like Law and Order – readers of my reviews will be unsurprised to learn I can get nitpicky – but I was able to put many of the niggles I noticed aside and chalk them up to differences with the U.K. legal system. But unfortunately one of the issues I couldn’t get over had to do with the conflict driving the game’s plot.

We know pretty much from the off that the case fails, but its publicity contributes to the government launching some child-protective reforms that are framed as positive things. This seems like a fine outcome, but the case had collateral damage: one of the main witnesses is the child’s school teacher, who brought repeated complaints raising her suspicions that her student was being abused at home. In the course of representing the civil servant in the dock, though, the defense attorney wages a vicious campaign to undermine the teacher’s credibility, and dredges up her own history of abuse. Much of the framing conversation in the last part of the game consists of a dialogue over whether this damage was worth the middling-positive outcome.

The mechanics of this had me jotting down incredulous exclamation points in my notes – again, I know the UK legal system is different from what we have in the US, but I sure hope the idea that you can subpoena the confidential notes of a witness’s therapist on a fishing expedition, and then introduce them into evidence with no notice to opposing counsel, is as bonkers on that side of the Atlantic as it is here. But beyond these details, it’s not at all clear why the defense counsel is allowed to pursue this line of argument at all. There’s no suggestion that any of the reports the teacher filed included false information, so whether or not the conclusions she drew from the evidence she saw were credible seems completely irrelevant to the question of whether or not the civil servant satisfied a reasonable duty of care towards the child when the evidence came to his attention. In other words, it’s his subjective decision-making process that matters; the teacher’s views have nothing to do with anything.

I can totally see the argument that this is law-nerd stuff and most readers wouldn’t notice or care. But at the same time, it felt like a failure to clearly establish the stakes and terms of the conflict that I feel like a lay reader would at least intuit. While I admire the work that’s gone into creating the story and presenting it in a fresh, engaging way, this blankness at the center really undermined its effectiveness for me. The other downside is the lack of a denouement – throughout the framing instant-message conversation, it’s made clear that the boss wants to discuss the case with the paralegal main character after you finish your review. But the game peters out before that happens. On the one hand, I can see why, since you’ve already had the chance to make your views of the case clear through the choices you make in the IM conversations, so the talk with the boss would likely feel like a retread. But pointing towards a climax, then not putting that climax on-screen, seems like an oversight.

Speaking of choices, I’ve seen other reviews ding the game for not being especially interactive, but I that didn’t bother me much. Digging through the various documents felt engaging to me, and the couple times I could weigh in with my take on the trial felt satisfying. I think this is a perfectly valid way to present IF, and in fact kind of exciting – I’d definitely play something else by this author, even if I’d still be gnashing my teeth over perceived legal weirdness.

Highlight: The incident reports the teacher fills out are spot-on, capturing the bureaucratic language these things have to be couched in while still conveying the desperation and impotence behind the teacher’s repeated complaints.

Lowlight: I was disappointed that the game seemed to unproblematically endorse the idea that more activist child protective services are an unmitigated good, and the only reason not to have them is budget cuts. Maybe things are different in the UK context, but in the US this is a vexed question that runs into snarled issues of racism and the criminalization of poverty and mental health and substance abuse disorders. You can squint at the title’s implications, I suppose – maybe this trial is like a witch hunt because society is looking to the civil servant as a scapegoat for broader ills? – but that reading feels strained to me.

How I failed the author: This entire review probably counts as the “how I failed the author” blurb.

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