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The Thick Table Tavern, by manonamora

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Bartender Hero, November 28, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp)

Rarely have I encountered as felicitous a coincidence between a game’s theme and my ultimate feelings on it as I have with The Thick Table Tavern, a high-production-value fantasy bartending sim. It comes on strong and heady, with a cool spinning logo upon startup and an enticing bear-foam animation behind the main menu, and the complex-seeming but ultimately straightforward bartending interface put me in mind of the sense of mastery that comes once you’re a few drinks in. The welcome I got from the companionable cast of characters, meanwhile, mirrored the warm, friendly flush you feel once you’re proper tipsy.

From there, though, things started to go awry. Bugs led to story events repeating themselves, making me feel like I was blacking out and losing my memory. Bartending started to become tedious, like when you’re drinking because that’s what you do, not because it’s much fun anymore. And ultimately, while I thought I’d saved enough money to realize my dream, somehow I must have pissed it all away without realizing it, ending the night broke and embarrassed.

Let’s circle back to the good stuff, though, because there’s a lot of it. This Twine game is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, with well-chosen colors and icons and an attractive but functional bartending system that makes it easy to pick out the host of alcohols, mixers, and garnishes you’ll use to construct cocktails for the inhabitants of the generic fantasy town you inhabit. Your co-workers are stereotypes – the gruff boss with a not-at-all-hidden heart of gold, the gossipy barmaid, the sensitive artiste of a chef – but they’re appealing stereotypes who are fun to hang out with, and they seem to care about the protagonist with a low-key affection that creates a pleasant, chill-out game vibe (it helps that the author has a good ear for dialogue). In general the prose feels like it’s translated from another language – there are some homophone errors, like “faint” for “feint” – and pretty much every passage could be edited down by 20 or 30 percent, but the writing is enthusiastic without going over the top. Here’s an early description of a hangover, by way of example:

"Still, you do not yet despair from your condition. Instead, you rouse yourself into acting on your behalf, even if blinded and quite alone. Waving your free hand around, you hope to find some sort of light switch to flick or some candle to extinguish, as a way to relieve your fragile glossy organs from this hellish torture."

The structure is a plus too. Each day, you come to work, and get ready for the shift to come – cleaning the bar, restocking it, and bantering with your coworkers. Then you need to fill three or four rounds of orders, with a special event of some kind usually coming around each day’s lunch rush. At closing time, you tot up your tips and measure your progress towards the goal you picked at the beginning – earning enough to pay for membership fees at the adventurers’ guild, buy the bar, or purchase a robot bartender (I think? I’m just judging by the dialogue option for that one so it might play out differently). You’ve typically got a few choices in how you interact with your colleagues and deepen your relationships with them – oddly for a bartending sim, the customers are nameless, faceless abstractions outside of the unique events where you’ll meet a fortune teller, or old married couple doing one last trip, or fourth-wall-breaking spirit dispensing endearingly self-deprecating commentary on the author’s shortcomings.

Most of what you do, though, is mix drinks. The barmaid will give you a set of orders, which you work through one by one using the aforementioned graphical interface. Everything has a whimsical fantasy name, but you can always toggle on a recipe card to learn that Wyrm’s Piss is just a fancy name for beer, or that the ingredients for Sailor’s Demise live up to their billing – gin, absinthe, grenadine, and orange juice, ugh, that’s a headache in a glass. There are three difficulty settings, and playing on Normal, it was always clear what I needed to do, modulo having to decode the icons to figure out that cherries came under the “berries” category (they’re actually stone fruit) and relying on some out-of-game knowledge to realize that I could get grenadine by clicking the syrup icon. On hard, apparently there are timers, but overall bartending feels like a pacing mechanism to help immerse yourself in your character’s job.

Unfortunately, I do think the pacing is a bit off. The game runs over 14 days, and it took me about 40 minutes to play through the first of them, which included mixing about 16 drinks, which felt like a lot. Subsequent days went quicker as I realized which bits of text were repetitive, and got more used to the interface, but still, I often wound up having to make 15 or 20 drinks to advance through each day, which feels like too much given the essentially repetitive and unchallenging nature of the bartending minigame. Despite this slight grindiness, though, I was enjoying myself as I wrapped up day seven, which involved the bar owner running a special promotion that saw seemingly the whole village come in for a drink (I mixed 31 of them) – especially since at the close of that day I’d managed to accumulate 321 coins, just over the 300 I needed to achieve my goal (I’d run into a strange bug that meant I only earned 3 coins apiece for the first few days, despite the end-of-day-wrapup screens indicating I should have been getting more like 60-70 each night, but fortunately it wound up correcting itself).

Relieved of the burden of focusing on filthy lucre, I was excited to see what the next day’s special event – so imagine my surprise when on the afternoon of day eight, the bar owner decided to run that same promotion, leading to the same ridiculous rush of patrons. And then imagine my frustration when the same thing happened on days 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14. On the plus side, that meant I finished the game with over 1,200 coins burning a hole in my pocket – but returning once more to the negative, perhaps that meant a counter looped over or something, since on day 15 I got a depressing ending indicating that I hadn’t earned enough for my guild dues after all, and would have to try again.

From my understanding, the author has since fixed these bugs, so hopefully future players will have a smoother time of it. And the game well deserves the effort – I’m bummed that bugs cut short my enjoyment this time out, but now that it's gotten a few more renovations, I suspect the Thick Table Tavern will be a rewarding place to be a regular.

Thanatophobia, by Robert Goodwin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A chatbot mystery, November 28, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I also beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)

There are various origin points for what we’ve come to call IF – Adventure, most obviously, but you can also trace choice-based games back to the print Choose Your Own Adventure series and its own early-20th-Century antecedents, and Aaron Reed defensibly started his 50 Years of Text Games series with the initial, purely-text versions of Oregon Trail. There is an eccentric uncle in the attic nobody really likes to talk about, though – or rather, aunt, since I’m speaking of the chatbot ELIZA. Viewed now as little more than a parlor trick – though how could it have been anything else, given the hardware constraints at its 1960s inception? – AI tech is finally catching up to the possibility of having a computer that can engage in a dialogue with you, even if the Turing Test is in no danger of falling anytime soon. So it makes sense that authors are now attempting to re-cross the streams and make a chatbot into a game, rather than something for pre-teen boys to feed dirty jokes into.

Of the runs at this idea that I’ve seen, Thanatophobia seems the strongest. I’m not equipped to evaluate the back-end of what makes it feel reasonably responsive, but there are some design parameters that are cannily set up to paper over the inevitable infelicities that will come up when trying to speak English to a robot. For one thing, the interlocuter character is set up as someone disoriented and not in their right mind, so the occasional odd interjection doesn’t seem too mimesis breaking. For another, the game’s built around a mystery with several pieces, so it’s less likely the player will spend so much time on one topic or area that they start trying increasingly-odd questions or statements. The author’s also done a good job of fleshing out various non-essential bits of backstory so that there’s room for the player to explore without quickly seeing the difference between the hand-tuned, critical path content and generic chatbot oatmeal.

The story being told here isn’t especially novel – there’s a little bit of a twist, but plumbing an allegory to discover someone’s hidden trauma is well-trod territory in IF by this point, albeit it does act as a clever homage to the psychoanalyst-aping roots of the chatbot conceit. And the characters inhabit well-worn archetypes without doing much to distinguish themselves. But for a formal experiment, keeping the narrative tame is probably the right call. Similarly, while the expected chatbot-friction is reduced, it’s definitely still there – but I do wonder how much of that would be smoothed if there were more uniform player expectations about how to interact with such things, much as there are by now for traditional parser games.

All told I found Thanataphobia a success, perhaps more intriguing for the directions it points to than for what it accomplishes in itself, but an entertaining way to spend an hour nonetheless.

The Last Christmas Present, by JG Heithcock

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A world-beating feelie elevates a sometimes-frustrating scavenger hunt, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

IF, it hardly needs repeating, is not real life. That’s probably for the best – blasé as I’ve gotten about managing spaceship crises after being woken prematurely from cryosleep, in actual reality I would not handle that well, and let’s not even bring up Great Cthulhu and his goons. Sadly, in the Last Christmas Present, the arrow flips the other way: this is a parser-IF rendition of a magic-themed scavenger hunt the author created for his daughter, which seems like it was completely awesome in real life, but unfortunately makes for a lackluster time when rendered into a video game. Partially this is due to the difficulties of translation – the hunt’s centerpiece is an elaborately-described map that doesn’t work quite as well in prose form – and partially due to some implementation issues that make what should be fairly simple puzzles much too hard.

Here’s the inevitable part of the review where I need to pause to clarify that the theme isn’t just “magic”, it’s “Harry Potter” – the map is a riff on the Marauder’s Map from the books/movies, what you’re looking for are papercrafted snitches, like from quidditch, and there are a few optional clues that rely on deep knowledge of Potter lore, though I suspect 99% of players will do better just searching at random rather than attempting to decode their obscure references. Per the ABOUT text, the scavenger hunt was conducted in 2013, back in the halcyon days when there was no reason to associate teenaged wizards with hardcore transphobia – which is unfortunately no longer the case in this fallen age of 2022. While the game very much seems to be offered in innocent fun, I can definitely understand some potential players not being able to look past the Rowling connection, though speaking personally, the fact that the puzzle was created nearly a decade ago and that this is a free fan game meant I felt okay about continuing.

Back to the game: you play a tween who’s opening one last Christmas present from her parents, which turns out to be a map of your house. The thing’s lovingly rendered with all sorts of different folds, flaps, stars, and riddles, on top of the depictions of the rooms and yard which are all made up of words (in a neat touch, once you unfold the map to a particular region of the house, the description of exits will update to use the new magic-y room names). As a physical artifact to pore over, it looks really cool, a wonderful centerpiece for the puzzle (if you check the readme included in the downloadable zip file, there are links to pictures of the thing). But in prose – well, here’s the fourth of five folds:

"The lines of the fourth page show the Great Room and the Kitchen (marked House Elves Only on the map). Where the Christmas tree would be, there is a large label with the words “The Great Room”.

"Underneath that label, to the south, is what looks like a paramecium made from the words “Kitchen Island” repeated over and over. It is labeled “House Elves Only”.

"On the left, to the west is the doors to the front garden, labeled “Porticus Imago”.

"On the right, to the east, are the steps leading down to what would be the Guest Hallway with the steps up to the Balcony beneath.

"In the bottom right corner of the Kitchen area is a curved room labeled “The Cauldron Cupboard” that looks like it would be the larder. At the bottom is a round circle labeled “Flue Network” where the Pizza Oven would be.

"In the bottom left corner is a label “Way to the Forbidden Forest”.

"There is a star in the top left corner of the map, in what would be the south-west."

This is a whole whole lot to parse, even before you get to the fact that not all the locations or paths mentioned on the map are accessible to you – and it doesn’t help that the geography of the house is a little confusing, meaning I desperately wished that the loving descriptions had been truncated with an eye towards playability (playing alongside the pictures of the feelie might have been easier, but I only noticed the links in the readme once I'd finished the game).

Because this is a scavenger hunt that was conducted in real life, there aren’t many traditional object-manipulation puzzles – most of what you need to do is just search in the right place for the four MacGuffins. In theory, this should be easy, since there isn’t that much scenery implemented – and in fact it’s easy to blunder your way into at least half of them through simple trial and error.

I found the others rather challenging, though, largely because of oddness in the game’s implementation. Using the map is harder than it needs to be, for one thing – on the last fold are two flaps, a top flap and a bottom flap, which the game clearly flags are hiding something. But the simple action of unfolding them is way harder than it needs to be:

>unfold map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>open top flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>unfold flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>x flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>x top flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>open flaps

You pull apart the top and bottom flaps.

(Adding insult to injury, the main reward for opening the flaps is the set of deeply-abstruse clues I mentioned above, which didn’t provide much help).

Beyond thinly-implemented synonyms, the other major stumble I hit was changing scenery in one particular room – I’d realized that it had to be hiding a snitch, but searching everything mentioned in the room description got me nowhere. Fortunately, there’s a well-implemented adaptive hint system that pushed me to look at the room, and lo and behold, sometimes when I typed LOOK an entirely different set of scenery items was mentioned, one of which concealed what I was looking for – but without any rhyme or reason for why things were changing, this feels like an unfair puzzle.

I’m not sure whether these hurdles were intentional – if the game did more to make things easy for you, it would probably be over pretty quickly since again, most of what you need to do is just search every noun you see – but at the same time, if a significant part of a game’s running time is made up of annoyances, I’d just prefer to play a shorter game.

All told, this means that the smile that “magical Christmas scavenger hunt” put on my face was mostly gone by the time I got to the end. The bones of something fun are here, with a good idea for a puzzle and a well-realized setting – despite being set in the author’s house, this feels miles away from a my-dumb-apartment game. But while there are a number of testers listed, I don’t think The Last Christmas Present got quite the shakedown cruise it needed to work seamlessly when offered to more players than its initial audience of one (let me note here that the IntFiction beta test forums are a great, friendly place to recruit some experienced players to put a game through its paces). The beguiling premise and solid writing here suggest the author’s got some promise, though, so if they write another game that gets more testing – and starts with an idea that’s designed for IF from the ground up – I’d definitely give it a try.

Approaching Horde!, by CRAIG RUDDELL

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A real-time, mechanic-heavy management game (with zombies), November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I played Approaching Horde right after One-Way Ticket, a game that wore its art-house pretentions proudly, so it was nice that the Comp randomizer gave me something far more populist as a change of pace – Approaching Horde Exclamation Point is an old-fashioned zombie B-movie, with desperate survivors of an undead uprising scrambling to survive a surprisingly math-heavy apocalypse. It took me a minute to get a bead on the game, I confess. There’s a linear introductory section that’s jokey, but wordy and repetitive (“As you relaxingly try to watch your favorite TV channel from the comfort of your couch, you notice more gunshots than normal ring out in the neighborhood this evening for some reason,” is one of the first sentences, followed quickly by “At first the gunshots don’t even bother you as it’s fairly normal for this neighborhood”) – it also glosses way, way too quickly over the fact that you start your undead-fighting career by punching your never-named spouse to a second death.

The dodgy writing quickly falls by the wayside, though, since once you’re in the meat of the game there’s very little of it. The intro concludes with you assuming command of a group of 10 people, and as the game proper begins, you’re confronted with a table interface allowing you to assign them to one of a half-dozen tasks, from farming to scavenging to researching, all of which work basically as you’d think – you need to balance feeding your survivors with recruiting new members of the group and building new fortifications. Complicating things, though, everything plays out in real time – there are sliders in the left sidebar that tick up to show your progress in each job, moving more rapidly as you assign more people to each task. The cherry on top is that this isn’t a sandbox, because there’s a giant undead horde approaching – er, spoiler warning for those who didn’t read the title – and in twenty minutes, they’ll steamroll your group no matter what preparations you’ve made, unless you’ve managed to dig an escape hole, or research a cure for the zombie plague, in time.

As a demonstration of how a tower defense slash idle game can work in Twine, I’d rate the game as pretty successful. As an overall experience, though, I’m more mixed. Partially this is because despite the cleverness of the gameplay hacking, for a game using an IF authoring system and entered into an IF competition, the writing is fairly minimal – once you’re in the game proper you mostly just get functional one-line updates as your survivors complete each piece of work, and it’s hard to get too excited about reading “your farmers just harvested 6 food from farms!” even once, let alone the thirtieth time (there are ending vignettes, of course, but they don’t meaningfully improve on the opening).

Partially, though, this is because I didn’t find the gameplay itself all that compelling. Ideally managing this paltry remnant of humanity would feel like a desperate exercise in plate-spinning, trying to balance short-term needs like food and the immediate threat of zombie patrols with the need to make long-term investments in research and infrastructure, with the horde serving as a final test of your decision-making prowess. In practice, though, the game was both too hard and too easy: too hard, because the twenty-minute deadline means that faffing about exploring your options will almost certainly mean you’ll run out of time with your victory conditions only half-completed, and too easy, because at least on normal, many of the tasks you can do, like attacking zombie patrols and finding new guns, seem mostly unnecessary and a simple strategy of booming your economy for the first ten minutes (getting to the survivor cap of 50 as quickly as possible, and researching farm tech to minimize the workers you need to maintain that population) then pivoting to cure research for the last ten (which also requires you to capture some zombies for study, admittedly) allowed me to win handily, barely touching the survivor assignment buttons for the last seven minutes, on my second try.

I don’t mean to be too harsh here – getting this system up and running was surely a challenging bit of programming, and the kind of difficulty-tuning it’d take to make the gameplay sing is typically the end result of repeated stages of testing and refinement, which is a lot to ask of a solo developer making a free game and facing a hard deadline. It’s mostly just a shame, because it seems like it’d be fun to explore some of the deeper mechanics here on offer, like searching for unique items, reactivating the radio tower, and training guards’ marksmanship, but the game as implemented seems to punish you for messing about with that stuff rather than mechanically zeroing in on a victory condition. Hopefully there’ll be a post-comp version that takes advantage of seeing how a bunch of players navigate the challenge to make some tweaks – and maybe revises the intro and ending vignettes to be punchier (er) and hit a more consistent tone.

Witchfinders, by Tania Dreams

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Recovers from a weak beginning, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

There’s recently been an IntFic thread about whether or not novice authors should be warned off the default Twine style – I think mostly the Sugarcube format? – for fear of turning off potential players. There was a substantial bit of back and forth without firm conclusions being reached, but I have to say, Witchfinder’s inelegant first impression makes me pine for the old comfortable white-black-and-blue. Per another review, there’s a font mixup that means that in my web browser at least, the letters come out looking chunky and, where bolded and highlighted to indicate a link, they’re smooshed into each other in a way that impacts legibility.

Meanwhile, I’m a sucker for historical fiction but the content of the intro doesn’t reassure either:

"Edinburgh, 1827.

"Age of Enlightment gave a way to Romanticism, leaving behind medieval brutality and aspiring beauty of Reneissance.

"Scotland regained their territories and started its way into the Industrial Revolution.

The typos are unfortunate, and the breezy nods towards alternate history beyond the witchcraft identified in the blurb (like, did the Act of Union get reversed? Which territories are we talking about exactly?) didn’t fill me with confidence. Luckily, the game does bounce back from this unpromising opening, turning into a reasonably entertaining, albeit low-key, experience helping your neighbors through the power of hedge magic, but I do wish a little more care had been taken to polish things up so it could put its best foot forward.

But for the supernatural elements – and honestly, even with them – Witchfinders would be best characterized as a slice of life game. Pace the blurb’s suggestion that the protagonist will be dodging witch-hunters in a high stakes game of cat and mouse, most of what you wind up doing is running errands to heal a friend’s sick son or keep the local cattle from losing weight. You do have a “witch score” that ticks up if you arouse too much suspicion, triggering a game over when you reach four points, but while there are a couple places where the score can go up despite your best efforts, for the most part it’s easy to keep a low profile unless you’re bent on drawing attention to yourself (like, when buying a potentially-suspicious item, you can either offer an innocuous excuse, or react with hostile defensiveness. Guess which one increases the score!)

Solving these quotidian problems does require a bit of work, and indeed, it’s possible to fail at least one of them. These aren’t puzzles, exactly, since you’re typically either straightforwardly completing a task (e.g., upon being told you need willow bark, you go to the one willow tree in the area), or on the flip side, inadvertently locking yourself out of full victory (e.g. by exhausting all your options in the Esplanade before making a purchase in Lawnmarket, with no indication of why you’d need to do the one before the other). Still, the game lets you eke out a marginal victory even if you make a mistake, and replaying goes very quickly, so it’s hard to hold this against it.

For the most part the prose isn’t trying to be especially authentic, sticking to a direct, slightly anachronistic YA-ish style, but there are a couple nice touches. First, whenever you pass through the hub area, you can read a randomly-generated broadsheet which is drawn from real examples of the form, and second, there’s a butcher who speaks in – well, the author describes it as a Scottish accent, but I think towards the end this is getting into straight-up Scots:

"Aye, amurnay sure whit’s th’ issue thare, bit th’ animals we git lest time keek a bawherr puggelt.”

I was following up until the point where he started talking about a cake decorated with a naked Puggle.

Ultimately I found Witchfinders a lightweight bit of fun, and coming up on halfway through the Comp, that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at – not everything needs to swing for the fences, after all. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but there are worse things to be, and I have to say the bug that meant I scored 110 points out of a possible 100 brought a smile to my face – albeit wonkiness towards the end is always more forgivable than issues at the beginning, and not all players will be willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt after a shaky opening. Authors, make sure those first five minutes are airtight!

Zero Chance of Recovery, by Andrew Schultz

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A chess dilemma, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

It’s a funny coincidence that the Comp randomizer picked the alphabetically-last game as the final one in my queue. Zero Chance of Recovery is a nice bit of comfort-food to end on, too. I’ve played and enjoyed Andrew Schultz’s three previous IF chess puzzles, with his endgame-focused entry in this year’s ParserComp, You Won’t Get Her Back, being my favorite of the trio. The present game is quite similar to that one: again, there are only a few pieces on the board – in this case, white and black each have a king and pawn apiece – with the outcome hinging on pawn promotion. And again, the presentation and interface are very slick, with multiple options for how best to display the chessboard (there’s also a screen reader mode), intuitive syntax for how to direct your pieces, and a host of help screens to orient you to the challenge.

One point of difference from the earlier game is that You Won’t Get Her Back actually boasts three slightly-different scenarios, based on the varying strategies the black side can adapt – roughly, whether it prioritizes moving its own pawn down the board, threatening your pawn, or striking a balance between the two. This initially wrong-footed me, as black’s freedom of movement meant I wasn’t sure why it was making some choices instead of others, but it only took a little bit of trial and error to work out a potentially viable approach; once I solved the first scenario, the others were significantly easier, which was satisfying since it felt like I’d figured something out!

There’s a final bonus challenge, too, which ties in with the conceit of the plot, because just as in Schultz’s earlier chess games, there is a story here. This time out it’s a rather slight thing, with an inciting incident where your king is waylaid by mercenaries hired by black, providing the justification for the white king starting off on the far side of the board. It works well enough to set up the action, but I confess it wasn’t as engaging as the political satire of the Fivebyfivia and Fourbyfourian games, or the unexpected relationship pathos of You Won’t Get Her Back – these narrative riffs are fairly superfluous to the core mechanics of the puzzle, I suppose, but I missed the extra allegorical heft they provided to the initial trio. For all that, the writing here continues to be well-done and entertaining, hitting a breezy tone that provides some well-considered nudges in the right direction, and boasts a surprising level of detail (the descriptions of the different pieces shift depending on where you are and what they’re doing, which is delightful).

My only other complaint is that the aforementioned bonus challenge did stymie me – I’d made one assumption based on the hints the game was giving, but managed to get the wrong idea entirely (Spoiler - click to show)(I understood that I needed to “cheat” by getting the black king in trouble with the mercenaries, who he was only going to pay once the black pawn promoted – but I thought that meant that I needed to prevent the pawn from promoting so that the angry mercenaries, cheated of their pay, would go after the opposing king. Instead, you’re supposed to let the pawn get promoted, but only then take the queen and force the draw; the idea is that only in those circumstances does the king need to pay up). It’s plausible enough once I knew the trick, and provides a fourth distinct way of getting to stalemate, but for whatever reason it just didn’t click, robbing this one of the “aha” moment I felt in some of the other games.

I’ve spent a lot of time comparing Zero Chance of Recovery to those previous three games in this review, because there really isn’t anything else like it and because it’s very much of a piece with those. But for all that I’d say it’s my least favorite of the now-quartet, I still enjoyed playing with it – the high production values and attention to detail make it fun to fiddle one’s way through the puzzle, and as I said at the top of the review, it very much felt like comfort IF, as though I were sinking into a warm bath at the end of the Comp.

Am I My Brother's Keeper?, by Nadine Rodriguez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A sibling bond gone wrong, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I’m a sucker for stories about siblings. Much of that’s probably for boring autobiographical reasons – most things are when you get right down to it – but even without that personal link, I’d stand by the opinion. They allow you to have strong connections between characters outside of a romantic relationship, with a potentially richer palette of emotions – for one thing, there can often be more pain, resentment, and ugly history between siblings because even after doing things to each other that would be unforgivable in a friend or a partner, they’re still related – and unlike with parent/child relationships, who has power or who’s in control in a particular situation often needs to be continuously negotiated, and can shift drastically with little warning.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? is a short choice-based thriller that centers on one such bond, following the protagonist as she searches for her missing sister. Sofía’s got a drug habit, which means everyone else is prone to write her disappearance off as simply ducking off the grid for a while. But you’re sure something terrible has happened, and after a late-night phone call, you get a lead that could take you to her, if you’re got courage enough to brave some sketchy warehouses and even stranger places…

This is another game written in Texture, and while I’ve enjoyed several of the Texture games in the Comp, for some reason the system didn’t seem to work too well for me this time. For one thing, I had to start over since when I played on the phone, I hit a point a third of the way in where I couldn’t drag one of the action-boxes I needed to in order to progress – and then once I switched over to my laptop, had to start over again because the game reset itself after I alt-tabbed for five minutes. For another, the game largely uses choices not to present different paths through the story, but to expand on details in the text – and these are added inline, which dynamically shrinks the font so that the full passage stays on a single page, meaning the writing was often uncomfortably small for my aging eyes.

These minor gripes aren’t all the author’s fault, of course, but they perhaps made me grumpier at its weak points than it deserves. There are very much some pieces of Am I My Brother’s Keeper? that I enjoyed; the investigation is pacey, and introduces supernatural elements in a gradual, grounded way that kept me from immediately guessing the truth behind what was going on. And when you share a scene with your sister (there are flashbacks, so that’s not a spoiler), the sibling rivalry and banter definitely strike me as authentic.

But there are other aspects that aren’t as successful. For one, while much of the joy of this kind of procedural is running through the beats of an investigation, the process of finding and decoding clues here feels overly abstract or unrealistic (there’s a sequence where the cop assigned to your sister’s case suggests running down a lead together, then later lets you explore an evidence-containing warehouse on your own, as thought they’ve never heard of the concept of chain of custody). The writing also aims for a neo-noir patter that’s effective at communicating a vibe of omnipresent gloom, but lands in Max Payne territory more often than not:

"A journal on a coffee table in between two seats. Compared to the rest of the building, it’s immaculate, unburdened by the marring of abandon."

The game’s almost entirely linear – there’s one choice at the end that might have an impact on the outcome, but other than that you almost always need to use all the actions available to you in a passage in order to move on – which I often don’t mind, but again, for what’s framed as an investigative game, makes progress feel unearned. This extends to a sequence where you’re told you can only take a single item into the final confrontation: but rather than this being interactive, the game just railroads you into bringing a gun, surely the most boring choice imaginable.

The other exception is very early on, when you’re given the chance to answer the title’s question in the negative, and abandon Sofía to her perhaps-deserved fate. This takes you to what’s clearly a premature, unsuccessful end, but along the way the game also plumbs the relationship between the two sisters with more nuance than comes out in the faster-paced rest of the game. With more of this, and less of the soft-boiled narration, Am I My Brother’s Keeper would be substantially stronger; as it is, it’s pleasant enough to play but is unlikely to stick with me for very long.

The Pool, by Jacob Reux

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Goofy but zippy horror , November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I’ve a couple times in my reviews done the gimmick of presenting a game by harping on its most hackneyed or weakest elements, then doing a lame rug-pull and revealing that Actually It’s Great. I’m not doing that here – The Pool is objectively not that good of a game. It’s a horror thriller that’s simultaneously underdeveloped and overbaked, with a premise (sci-fi monster aquarium research base attacked by inside-man saboteurs and also the fish monsters turn you into zombies and also some are psychic octopi or something plus you have social anxiety) that has way too many details yet makes way too little sense to hang together. It’s a default-Twine presentation, with all the typos and sloppy writing that black-and-blue color scheme often signifies. It boasts multiple branches, but they don’t work that well on their own, throwing out-of-context character betrayals and plot twists that seem to presuppose multiple replays to be coherent, let alone effective. And at every point it manages to step on its own theme, as the story ostensibly presents the protagonist learning to grow past their anxiety but in reality brutally punishes you nearly every time you step outside of your shell and trust someone else or behave the slightest bit altruistically.

But – of course there was a but coming – I enjoyed it quite a bunch, laughing at it as much as I was laughing with it but laughing all the same. For all that I take IF sufficiently seriously that I’ve written a review engaging with a game through the lens of Brechtian “epic theater”, sometimes all it takes for me to have fun is playing a dopey monster mash on Halloween, as I was lucky enough to do.

Look, this thing is ridiculous, with shifts in tone that make gold-medal slalom look like a lazy inner-tube ride down a gently winding river. One second you’re about to bash a sea-zombie with a rock but focused more on how that’s scary because it’s taking you outside your comfort zone than because you’re about to bash a sea zombie with a rock (who does have that in their comfort zone?), the next you’re facing down a terrorist who’s unleashed all this chaos because “I just wanted to escape all of this. This monotony. Don’t we all?” (protip: if your villain’s motivation could equally well apply to starting a D&D club, taking up swinging, or unleashing a seamonster apocalypse, it could probably use more time in the workshop).

There are a ton of instadeaths, too – again, many cued by doing something seemingly in-genre and innocuous like extending a moment of mercy to seemingly-beaten enemies – gorily described but so many in number, and so lightweight due to the omnipresent undo button, that I started to relate to the protagonist as though he were Wile E. Coyote, fated to be dismembered, drowned, and zombified for my amusement.

My instinct is of course to overcomplicate this, to bang on for hundreds more words unpacking why I enjoyed it despite its flaws, perhaps delve into what “so bad it’s good” really means and assess whether liking something ironically is meaningfully distinct from liking it directly. But for once I’m going to resist, save for noting that for all its warts, this is a game that moves, setting up and resolving conflicts quickly and efficiently. Due to some of the storytelling issues noted above, the transitions can sometimes be a little rough since you don’t know what all the characters’ deals are, and the worldbuilding is pretty arbitrary so what happens next can feel a little random. But once you’re in a scene, the stakes tend to be established clearly and concisely, and nothing feels belabored or like it overstays its welcome. Lots of IF – especially choice-based IF, which tends to have longer gaps between player input than parser games – can feel quite plodding so it’s nice to play a game with some zip in its step, and as the rest of the review demonstrates, good pacing can make up for a whole lot of other faults!

Bottom line, The Pool is trashy and dumb, but if it catches you in the mood for something trashy and dumb, and you don’t overthink it – for god’s sake don’t replay it to fully understand how all the strands of its plot fit together – and read it quickly so you don’t notice the typos as much… well, you still might dislike it, because it’s a rickety contraption. But you might find it scratches an itch, and catch yourself thinking “sea zombie” to yourself with a giggle for a day or so. Some games aim for more, some settle for less, but here we are.

The Staycation, by Maggie H

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Maybe broken psychological horror, November 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

I have a really hard time writing reviews when I haven’t enjoyed a game much, but can’t tell how much of my dissatisfaction was due to the design and writing, and how much to bugs. I try (though often fail, I know) to spend at least part of the time in my reviews assessing how well a game achieves what appear to be its goals, and if it doesn’t meet them because the gameplay is at war with the theme, or the characters need to support a level of emotional engagement they’re just not up to, or what have you, that’s fair enough and I feel like I can evaluate those shortfalls in good faith – likewise it’s no big deal to identify discrete bugs, even potentially far-reaching, gamestopping ones. But when I can’t get a sense of the creative agenda, and there appear to be bugs whose scope I don’t fully understand, it’s really challenging to figure out what to say that’s at all useful: were things largely working as intended, and I’m pinning my confusion on a few minor bugs to avoid owning up to being a big thicko? Or was there actually a masterful design whose shape I didn’t get to apprehend due to some unfortunate bugs? Either way, besides the author hopefully realizing they have some fixes to make, I doubt anyone would get much out of my virtual gum-flapping.

(I know, I know, how is that different from any of my other reviews, etc.)

Anyway, I’ve got that dilemma here. Staycation didn’t work for me, but I’m flummoxed to pinpoint what specifically went wrong. Maybe it’s best to just recount my experience with it? This is another Texture piece, whose premise is that you’re a young New Yorker whose housemates (who are romantic partners – you must feel a bit of a third wheel) decide to go for a trip to warmer climes to escape the northeastern winter. You decline, however – this is railroaded despite there being various options, which show up as emoji (?) though thankfully you get a preview in words of what each potential action will be. Apparently you’re a bit of an introvert and looking forward to some time alone? After some painting and lighting some incense – relaxing! – you turn in, only to be woken by scratching in the middle of the night: your cat, which can either come off comforting or menacing depending on the actions you pick.

Either way the vibe goes from cosy to horrific in the course of one like 50 word passage; my first time through, I somehow jumped forward in time, staying I think with my parents and reflecting vaguely on something highly traumatic that had just happened – at which point the game ended. So I tried again, making slightly different choices, which led to much the same events except upon the cat entering, the game seemed to rewind to the painting sequence – which I thought was a bug, though from looking at the blurb it sounds like repetition is supposed to be part of the experience? This time I made slightly different choices once again, and wound up at a passage reading “You choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow,” with a check and an X as my verb options, but nothing to apply them to, making it impossible to progress further in the game.

I assume some of what I encountered wasn’t intended – at least that last game-ender has to be a bug – but based on this sort of heap of incidents, I’m having extreme difficulty figuring out what was supposed to happen and how I was supposed to be feeling. Partially this is due to the fact that the game moves really, really fast. Despite the two hour playtime listed in the blurb, each of my tries lasted maybe five or ten minutes, and the shifts from socially-anxious interactions with housemates, to laid-back alone time, to night terrors played out with virtually no transitions between them, leaving me with an emotional hangover that had me still reacting to the previous sequence while a new, tonally distinct one was playing out. The writing doesn’t give much in the way of prompting, either, consisting of workmanlike but not especially evocative prose, with the occasional infelicity:

"Incense alights in its holder."

That must be magic incense!

I can try to reverse-engineer a sense of what’s supposed to be going on in Staycation. Maybe we’re awkward with our roomies and not going with them because even in the opening of the game, the protagonist is already on a repeat of the time cycle, so they know this is how things have to play out? Perhaps the attempt at painting shifting the mood from satisfaction to fear indicates that we’re a creatively frustrated type? None of these interpretations quite work, and I can’t say that even on repeat plays things cohered enough for me to even figure out how my expectations were being disappointed. Certainly some combination of bug fixes, more focus on establishing the protagonist’s mindset, and improved pacing would have made the game more successful, but I honestly can’t tell you what combination, or what success would wind up looking like, though I’d be very curious to find out!

Lost at the market, by Nynym

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A shaky Gruescript allegory, November 21, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

Lost at the Market is I think the first Gruescript game to be released by anyone other than the language’s creator, Robin Johnson. It’s a system that aims to make it easy to create parser-like choice games, allowing the player to easily click their way through the kind of actions and object interactions that typify the parser experience. Sadly Lost at the Market isn’t much of a showpiece; there’s a potentially compelling story here a protagonist trying to change the moment when they gave up on their dreams and walked away from a career in music, but it suffers from slapdash implementation, perfunctory puzzles, and stripped-down writing. There’s the germ of something good here, but it needs elaboration and refinement to be memorable.

In terms of the gameplay, what we’ve got here is yer standard allegorical journey of self-reflection. You start out at a beach, ruminating on the hubris of whoever built the sand castle that’ll inevitably be swamped by the tide – to progress, you need to kick the castle over, reflecting how the protagonist has self-destructively surrendered their dreams in order to protect themselves by beating the world to the punch. There’s the germ of something here, but the action is too abrupt – there’s not much else you can possibly do – and the writing isn’t quite crisp enough to do the idea justice:

"Once in a while you see something like this and wonder what your dad would say, the point in building sand castles that are here waiting to be swept away by the ocean is the same dream that keeps the world moving, yet can anyone move the ocean?"

There are a few more puzzles after that one, which generally require both a bit more object-manipulation to solve, and a bit more mental engagement to decode, before fetching up at the climactic performance where you can choose to change the past and play your music – or, alternatively, go south at an unmarked intersection and find yourself forced to once again walk away from your passion (at least there’s an UNDO).

The interface for doing all this is reasonably functional – a set of buttons let you move around and examine objects at your location, which in turn pops up more buttons to further interact with them, plus you have an inventory that works on the same principles – albeit it’s pretty ugly, with the main screen subdivided into too many short, narrow rectangles with a color scheme that even I can tell clashes horribly. This isn’t the only way the implementation feels slapdash – actions often have awkward names consisting of multiple words linked with underscores, and while I’m not sure if this is a limitation of Gruescript, even if it is the author should have found a less immersion-breaking workaround. And there are a fair number of typos, including one in the subtitle on the Comp page (oof).

I don’t want to be too hard on Lost at the Market. It’s trying to communicate something that clearly has personal relevance for the author, and stretching to try out a new authoring system is good for the IF community as a whole (man does not live on Inform and Twine alone, I suppose). Some of the elements do show promise – there’s a choice at the end, about whether to adapt your music to what the crowd wants to hear, that points to something that’s more engaging than the more mechanical puzzles before that point, and some parts of the story do have some thematic resonance even if the writing needs a few more passes to make this resonance effective. Still, it’s disappointing to see a new platform not shown off to its best effect; hopefully this won’t be the last Gruescript game the Comp sees, or the author writes.

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