I beta tested this game. My game Sting is also listed in the authorís note as one of its inspirations, a paragraph ahead of such lesser influences as Sylvia Plath. I can assure you that Iím no way biased by this, because Jesus, I canít go five minutes without being compared to Sylvia Plath. Like, if you asked me, ďMike, would describe Sylvia Plathís writing as lambent, incisive, and alive to the contradictory power and vulnerability that have been freighted into the concept of the feminine,Ē I would of course say yes; and if you asked me, ďMike, would you describe your own writing as lambent, incisive, and alive to the contradictory power and vulnerability that have been freighted into the concept of the feminine,Ē I mean, I wouldnít want to negate your interpretation, so Iíd have to say yes to that too. Plus we both have a love-hate relationship with Ted Hughes, weíre basically the same person.
More seriously, the reason I usually say my responses to games Iíve beta tested arenít reviews is less because of a fear of being biased Ė I generally have no problem giving polite but direct feedback even to my nearest and dearest when I think itís justified, which as my wife will attest is a delightful character trait Ė and more because I donít trust my own experience of game. Usually Iíll have tested a beta version just a few weeks before the final version is released, and itís really hard to revisit the game and put aside the impression I had of it when it was in a less-refined form and my brain was in testing mode, which can vary quite a lot from how Iíd normally approach a game.
Here, though, I think I last looked at the game in February, which is long enough that I feel like I was coming to it fresh when I just replayed it. So Iím confident in my judgment: this is a really good game, a compact jewel of a thing that only really does one thing, but that one thing is so complex, and so well-realized, that it feels quite big indeed.
On the most mundane level, this is true because the authorís implemented a bevy of helpful features that make this feel like a proper game, not simply an amateur affair. Thereís very helpful help text, a small number of evocative line-drawn images, an ASCII map, hints for the puzzles Ė well, riddles Ė on offer, and a good amount of quite complex ďconcrete poetryĒ, where words take on the shape of what they describe, which must have taken an ungodly amount of work to get right (plus thereís a screen-reader mode to make this all accessible to those with visual impairments). Itís easy to dismiss this stuff as trifles, but it makes an impression, communicating that this is something the author cares about and is trying very hard to create inviting on-ramps to all sorts of players, and engage as many of their faculties as possible.
Thatís just the mortar holding the thing together, though. To stick with the architectural metaphor, thereís also the faÁade. Prose in parser-based games is so often workmanlike, pressed into service of many masters at once; I can count on the fingers of one hand the authors who can achieve real literary effect under these constraints without landing the player in a hopeless muddle. Well, add Amanda Walker to that list Ė all the writing here is just lovely, but the landscape and wildlife descriptions are especial highlights. One early excerpt will stand in for many:
Shadows dapple and darken. A rabbit darts across the steps in front of you, its white tail bobbing briefly, and then it is gone into the undergrowthÖ Birds call. They flash bright against the naked branches: cardinal screams red; goldfinch blazes sun.
Still, the faÁade is just the faÁade, and weíve yet to talk of the bricks. What ultimately makes Of Their Shadows Deep so affecting is what itís about: aphasia, the loss of language as words are stripped from a once-vital mind. Thereís a layer of fictionalization here, via the magic realism of the puzzles, but even without the authorís note at the end stating the real-world background, it feels very obvious that this is an autobiographical work. Nothing in this dilemma feels abstract; thereís real emotional weight behind everything the protagonist does, from their game-opening flight from an unbearable situation to the final return and catharsis.
Impressively, this isnít just a frame around standard meat-and-potatoes gameplay. While you do solve such typical IF puzzles as lighting a dark area and chopping through a foredoomed door, all this is accomplished primarily through words Ė not in the degenerate way all IF is words, of course, but by solving riddles. Half a dozen times, youíll be confronted with an obstacle, only to find a sheet of paper with a bit of poetry that poses a riddle. Answer it correctly, and youíll be gifted with an instantiation of the thing youíve guessed, allowing you to progress.
Itís easy to overlook how smart this is, because of course riddles are a traditional part of the IF repertoire, but here the point isnít to tease the playerís brain Ė in fact the gameís riddles are all fairly simple, which is good because every single riddle is too easy or too hard, or both Ė itís to play the theme. The primarily gameplay consists of receiving intimations and cues pointing to an object, then, once youíve successfully carried out the act of naming, gaining mastery over the thing. Thereís an elemental, Adamic resonance to this that implicitly communicates its own negation: what happens when you canít summon the name? Does that mean losing the thing itself? Of Their Shadows Deep has an answer to that, in a lovely final puzzle that wasnít there when I did my testing, and which ends the game in an unexpected moment of grace.
If the reader will forgive my wrapping up this review by once again talking about myself Ė and spoiling Sting while Iím at it Ė I found this last note quite moving. I donít have the same experience Amanda writes about, of having a loved oneís mind eroded away bit by bit, but I did lose my twin sister to cancer two years ago, at the untimely age of 39 (Sting is a response to this, and the way it retroactively reconfigured pretty much every memory I have). Everyone always says people fighting through cancer are brave Ė and theyíre right Ė but even by that standard, Liz was a tough, ornery patient, refusing pain meds until literally the last week of her life. By that point they needed to give her very strong stuff, and over the course of the days she spent more and more time sleeping, or staring off in a daze, her use of language mostly fled as her mind and tongue went slack.
The last night but one, before I headed to bed, I hugged her and told her that I loved her, and that Iíd be the one sitting up with her tomorrow night (we were taking turns to make sure someone was there, just in caseÖ nobody completed the thought). Iíd done this before, and she mostly wasnít able to respond Ė but this time, with difficulty, she got her arms around me too, and was able to grunt something incomprehensible, then did so again, just about the only sounds sheíd made that day.
Iím aware that sounds like a horrible story when I tell it, but maybe if youíve ever been in similar circumstances, youíll believe me when I tell you those few seconds were the happiest Iíd felt in months. Moments like that canít change whatís going on, but in those situations, when youíve lost so much but thereís somehow so much more still to be lost, theyíre all thatís left Ė and that can be enough. I canít being to imagine how to render that in prose in any real way, though Ė all Iíve done here is kind of describe and gesture at the experience Ė but I think Of Their Shadows Deep captures something of that intuition, which on top of everything else it does, is a hell of a crowning achievement.
(I beta tested this game, so this is more a series of impressions than a full review Ė and full disclosure, I donít even get to the game until paragraph six, so itís not even short)
Iíve enjoyed seeing other folks sharing their histories with chess as part of their reviews of You Wonít Get Her Back, so here goes with mine. As a nerdy kid, I was course into chess: before the internet and the long tail all nerdy kids were pretty much into the same five things, plus whatever you randomly stumbled across in thrift store-used bins or bootleg tapes from a friend with relatives in Japan. And so since chess was part of the package, so I was in the chess club in middle school.
This basically just meant that during lunch periods, Iíd play chess against other kids, and occasionally Mr. Young, the teacher who ran chess club. He was a short, powerfully-built ex-player for the Israeli national soccer team Ė with some level of celebrity, we kids were dimly aware, though now that Wikipedia is a thing I can confirm he was definitely the real deal Ė who now coached sports classes in a suburban New York school. In retrospect, he was straight out of a Philip Roth novel, though that wasnít one of my main reference points as a 12 year old. Anyway every once in a while heíd play against one of us, and he didnít hold back in the slightest, chortling with demoniacal glee as he slashed a queen into the back ranks or wove an ineluctable web of pawns to pin down a free-floating rook.
There was one time, though, when I was playing him, and playing the game of my life Ė I mean I donít remember it in any detail, but I must have been, because I actually made it to the endgame with him, and in better position. What I do remember is that I had a bishop in reserve, that once I got it out from behind a yet-unmoved pawn, Iíd be able to set up long-range checks that would let me clean up his remaining pieces, probably advance that pawn, and finally, finally win against Mr. Young.
Then he giggled, and somehow took the pawn with one of his that was next to it, putting my king in check while he off-handedly told me about the en passant rule. That was pretty much the last time I enjoyed a game of chess Ė something about the idea that there was this secret, hidden rule to the game that nobody had ever bothered to explain to me, just lurking until it was sprung like a trap to deny me this one moment of glory, profoundly offended my sense of fair play
Years later, I became a lawyer, an irony that Iím only now noticing.
If this has anything to do with You Wonít Get Her Back Ė and it doesnít, that was just an incredibly self-indulgent lead-in, sorry Andrew Ė I repeat, if I were to try to reverse-engineer some relevance to the actual game Iím theoretically reviewing, it would be to say that I came to it with a predisposition to dislike gimmicks in chess, and it must be confessed that this chess puzzle in parser form has even more of a gimmick to it than the authorís previous games in this genre. Those Ė Fourbyfourian Quarryiní and Fivebyfivia Delenda Est (best title of 2021) Ė involved placing different pieces on a shrunk-down chess board to set up a favorable endgame scenario. Here, weíve got a straight chess puzzle, like you read in the newspaper, with the playerís actions actually moving the pieces and the opponent moving their pieces in turn Ė and it all hinges on pawn promotion. Despite that predisposition, though, I really dug YWGHB.
Partially this is due to the narrative content of the game, because itís not just a dry exercise in piece manipulation. The setup involves the white player being down to just one pawn and their king (the player character), partially because the king couldnít bear to see any harm come to his wife (the queen) and played too conservatively. Black has their king and a rook, so definitely has the advantage, but of course thereís a chance to succeed, as your king sets his sights on getting his pawn to the enemyís back rank and promoting it to bring back his queen (thus the title). The writing takes this situation seriously, which I found surprisingly effective Ė I was definitely motivated to win not just because I wanted to solve the puzzle, but because I wanted to reunite these lovers cruelly torn apart by war.
Still, the game is 99% chess, and the other takeaway from the above story is that I havenít played the game even semi-seriously in 30 years, so I pretty much suck at it. As a result, my progress through YWGHB primarily involved trial-and-error bashing as I got to the right solution after trying pretty much every incorrect one I could think of. Thankfully, even this rock-stupid way to play is still satisfying, because much as you accumulate knowledge through your failures, you also get a bit of fun ending text describing how youíve fouled things up, and also get an achievement for your trouble. Iíd like to tell you that Iím annoyed by achievement mechanics and how ridiculous it is that weíve gamified our games. But Iím not made of stone, achievements are fun, and there are a ton of them here so even if winning felt beyond my grasp much of the time, I could at least try to lose in ever-more-exotic ways.
I wonít say too much about the solution, except that it does involve a really cool aha moment, so I can see why Schultz was motivated to implement this puzzle, specifically, in IF Ė plus it doesnít require too much chess knowledge to hit on the answer, and the game does a good job of providing a few nudges after the obvious moves fail. Thereís also an included walkthrough if the going gets too tough, alongside the authorís characteristically-extensive help and meta commands to orient the player (I realize I also havenít yet mentioned that the chessboard is fully implemented in ASCII art).
I suppose there are expert chess players for whom YWGHB will be too lightweight to be enjoyable, as they just buzz-saw through the puzzle with their superior knowledge. Similarly, as someoneís first introduction to chess, itís likely too punishing, with that damned rook jumping on the slightest misstep and resetting things back to the beginning Ė one critique might be that stalemate doesnít feel much better than a loss, which may be true in the land of chess puzzles but maybe makes less sense given the conceit that this game is a war between countries, where the difference matters a lot. For folks with some experience of chess but who donít solve the thing as soon as they look at it, though, I think this is a satisfying puzzle to chew on, with really robust implementation and some nice narrative grace notes.
(I beta tested this game, so this is more a short series of impressions than a full review)
One of my favorite games of last year was Christopher Merrinerís ParserComp entry The Faeries of Haelstowne, and Adventuron game set in an English backwater where supernatural doings are transpiring. Comes now Things that Happened in Houghtonbridge, and Iím happy to report that IFís hottest mini-trend, ďgreat ParserComp entries in Adventuron with an implausibly-named British village in their titleĒ has continued into its second year.
Okay, the resemblance is mostly superficial, and plotwise the two games donít actually have much in common Ė this is set in the present day, with an appealing teenage protagonist whoís investigating some strange goings-on that have a family connection. If anything, though, THH goes even further than Haelstowne did to make the sometimes-finicky Adventuron parser feel just about as smooth as the far more mature Inform or TADS ones, and it boasts engaging prose thatís incredibly clean (even in the version I beta tested, I didnít detect a single errant typo in this largish game).
Much of what I enjoyed about the game was delving into the mystery of what exactly was going on with the disappearance of the protagonistís aunt Ė thatís a stereotypical setup, but the truth of whatís going on boasts some creative zigs and zags, and the game does a great job of presenting different pieces of the puzzle through varying means, including but not limited to well-written letters and diaries. The structure is well judged to support this slow unlayering of the onion, too: much of the game revolves around unlocking different rooms in your auntís kinda-spooky house, but you also travel to a handful of other locations which helps change of the vibe, and time passes as significant plot points are reached, giving the story time to breathe. The puzzles are likewise there more to help pace things out and provide a sense of engagement than to melt the brain Ė youíll have seen most of them before Ė but theyíre generally well done, solidly clued, and satisfying to solve; the release version also has integrated hints.
Thereís a late-game turn thatís not exactly a plot twist, nor even a shift in genre Ė I guess Iíd call it a tweak to the vibe? (For those whoíve played the game: ). I could see it being somewhat polarizing since it isnít especially heavily telegraphed in the first two-thirds of the game. Still, I enjoyed it; the early parts of the game clearly establish that thereís some unexplained strangeness thatís been hovering over the town and the protagonistís family, and itís satisfying to encounter said strangeness and instead of it just being ghosts of Cthulhu or whatever, itís actually still really strange!
Regardless, THH is a really fun time, with good writing, characters, story, puzzles, and implementation; I have a hard time picturing the IF fan who wouldnít dig this one. Definitely recommended, and Iíll be keeping my eyes peeled next ParserComp for any game set in like Chipping Sodbury, or some Welsh town without vowels, in hopes of a three-peat.
(I beta tested this game, so this is more a short series of impressions than a full review)
If ever there was a tough act to follow, The Impossible Bottle is it. Co-winner of the 2020 IF Comp Ė out of a field of 103 Ė TIB dazzled with a space-warping gimmick for its puzzles, but was more than merely clever, adding winning characters and impeccable implementation. It also proved an excellent demonstration of author Linus Ňkessonís bespoke IF system, Dialog, allowing for interaction just as smooth and deep as anything you can manage in Inform or TADS while also letting the player get through the game without typing and just using hyperlinks instead. Anyone of sound mind would think twice before asking players to compare their game to TIB, but thatís just the situation The Impossible Stairs is in: the present author, Brian Rushton, offered to write a sequel game as a prize in that yearís Comp, Linus picked that prize, and here we are.
Wisely, TIS mostly doesnít try to one-up TIB; itís a smaller game, and while it too has a gimmick (thatís actually a rather elegant complement to that of the former game, messing with time while TIB messed with space), said gimmick is comparatively straightforward, and the scope of the game, and difficulty of the puzzles, are both much more modest this time out. Thatís definitely not a bad thing Ė thereís nothing here like that &^% dinosaur from TIB, for one thing, and this is still a satisfying slice of game, probably taking an hour or so to solve and offering at least one or two aha moments as you figure out how to use the strange properties of the titular staircase to resolve the trickier conundrums.
Still, there is one area where itís at least competitive with TIB, and dare I say it, maybe even one-ups the original, which is the cast of characters. Both games are family affairs, casting you as a daughter doing chores before a party. TIBís Emma is a child of six, and her interactions with her loving but distracted parents Ė and kinda-jerky older brother Ė are sweet but donít draw from too rich of an emotional palette given her youth. TISís CJ, though, is an adult (well, mostly), and gets to interact with a broader set of relatives, including her father, grandmother, a cousin, and an uncle, in the course of checking the items off her (well-implemented) to-do list. These conversations are also spread over several different time periods, with characters aging, changing personalities and circumstances or even sometimes passing away as the decades progress. The gameís definitely not a downer, donít get me wrong, and while the menu-driven dialogue is well-written it isnít an elaborate focus of gameplay like in an Emily Short game Ė but still, thereís a surprising poignancy to seeing these kind, well-meaning people at different stages of their lives, and learn to hold on to their memories once some family members are no longer there.
A couple days ago as of this writing, Sylfirís games vanished from itch, without so far as I know any explanation. Iíve seen speculation that this was an attempt to withdraw Lantern from ParserComp, which I suppose is plausible though in that case Iím not sure why they got rid of all their other games, as well as their account information, too. Given the gameís current unavailability, and the uncertainty about why that is and whether it will ever be available again, itís perhaps inappropriate to write anything about it. But as I said in another thread, if we listened to Virgil the Aeneid would have been destroyed in antiquity, and despite Kafkaís posthumous autographopyromanic wishes the consensus is in favor of reading and engaging with his previously-unpublished stuff. Those are maybe too-exalted reference points, but Kafka at least didnít have much of a predecease reputation; it mostly came later, based on the work. Anyway to square the circle, I resolved the check out the game, but only review it if I had positive things to say.
Given that youíre reading this, of course, itís clear that I did. Lantern is a bit rough, and I must confess I played it almost entirely with the trackpad rather than using its parser, but itís creative and has some charm. Itís part of the escape-the-room (well, three rooms) mini-genre, with the uncharacterized player character dropped into locked oubliette without explanation and forced to rely on their wits to solve a series of contrived puzzles and break free. To be clear, Iím not harping on the lack of plot or realism as flaws: theyíre part of what I expect from this kind of game, and their presence helps to set player expectations accordingly. What departs from the standards of the genre, though, is that while you start out unable to see anything, that isnít a barrier thatís quickly vanquished by the titular bringer of light: no, youíve somehow been deprived of your sight, so you need to navigate your way through these brainteasers with your other senses.
This is a conceit thatís actually ideally suited for IF, I think, since depriving the player of sight in a graphics-based game would be perverse and probably lead to significant interface issues. Here, though, itís just a matter of changing how the world is described to the player, forcing them to feel around rooms to find out whatís there, listen for movement, and lick and smell to identify objects. The author doesnít make this too taxing a process Ė and in fact does a nice job of updating the names of objects as you investigate them with your different senses and figure out what they are Ė but itís an effective gimmick that works well with the obsessive investigation escape-the-room games typically require.
While the concept works, there are some foibles in implementation. Most obviously, there are a host of typos littering pretty much every description of a room or object, which is fairly distracting, and there are a couple of bugs (one itemís name appears to incorporate fragments of code, and I was able to simply reach through a locked closet without first finding the key). The interface can also be frustrating if you go into Lantern expecting to type your way through it. The game engine appears to be primarily choice-based, with descriptions highlighting certain clickable keywords and ending with a likewise-clickable inventory list that includes your sense organs (you can click an item once to select it, then click it on another to combine them or use a sense; double-clicking does a closer inspection of the thing). The game allows you to type commands as an alternative to using the links, but this implementation means, however, that if youíre examining an object the keywords for the other objects in a room, or those denoting your inventory and senses, usually arenít displayed. This means that typing TOUCH TABLE, then TOUCH PAPER might fail, whereas the commands would work fine if you tried them in the opposite order. I can see this being hideously frustrating, but I switched to playing exclusively via clicking very early, and found the interface worked just fine that way.
Clicking also makes it easy to exhaust all the different action combinations, which I had to do a couple of times. Thereís at least one puzzle here that defies all logic and I canít imagine a player solving it except by lawnmowering through the possibilities on offer (Spoiler - click to show) (using the knife on the scratches reading HELL to change it to HELLO, which summons another character to a different room). But again, I kind of expect that from these kinds of games, and the number of potential actions is sufficiently low that itís not too onerous to power through.
So weíve got a puzzle game with a fun gimmick, many rough edges, not much plot to speak of, and an interface that can feel like rubbing your face against a cheese grater if you try to play the game the way its entry in something called ParserComp seems to imply you should. I whiled away a pleasant enough half an hour on it, but I canít say it moved me or made me laugh or clap with delight at its cleverness. So I suppose by some standard itís no big deal that itís not online anymore, and wouldnít even be a big deal if it vanished completely with nobody ever the wiser. Iím not sure I can muster a rigorous rebuttal against that argument, but it still makes me kind of sad Ė and if thatís where the standard is set, I think a lot more of us than just Sylfir are in trouble. 98% of pretty much everything pretty much every one of us does is imperfect, compromised, wouldnít stand up to even the flimsiest scrutiny Ė and oblivion is the destination itís all hurtling towards. Call me sentimental, but Iím not inclined to hurry the process along.
Weíre getting close to the end of the Comp now (of the remaining five games, Iíve beta-tested four of them, and the remaining one has been pulled from the competition at least for now, though I may still write a review), and for me itís closing at it began, with a game whose interface pushes the limits on what counts as a parser game Ė in Cost of Living, you type into MadLibs style boxes embedded in the dialogue of two characters discussing a short story from the Golden Age of sci-fi, with your input affecting some of the finer details of their conversation. In fact, the game was briefly disqualified from the competition before an appeal brought it back, and while as Iíve said Iím not especially fussed about policing genre boundaries, I can see why, since while the only interface element is typing text and seeing more text get spit out at you in response, it departs from some of the deep unwritten rules about how parser IF works, like the playerís typing corresponding to some actor taking some distinct and discrete in-world action.
One could argue about the epistemological status of the game all day, of course, but I had my fill of arid formalism back in law school so I return to the principle I outlined in my Kondiac review: if itís in ParserComp, it gets a ParserComp review. So how does this work? On the whole, not great, in my view, though this isnít so much down to the novel interface as specific thematic and narrative choices the author made in the flame story which conflict with the text being riffed on. Itís hard to explain why that is without going into some detail on the embedded short story, so fair warning for 70-year-old spoilers.
The story, also titled Cost of Living and apparently in the public domain so itís fair game for reuses like this, is by Robert Sheckley and while it was published way back in 1952 it has some moments of spooky prescience in the way it depicts a far-future family living lives of convenience, swaddled in a home featuring numerous labor-saving appliances that spring to life with a single press of a button, and an omnipresent voice-activated assistant thatís not too far off of Alexa. Itís also modern in the way that it shows the corrosive impact of a rampant consumerism thatís displaced all other aspirations and values Ė the central conflict is about whether Carrin, the family patriarch, whoís more than maxed out his credit to buy all the gizmos and gadgets he barely uses, will effectively sell his son into debt peonage to finance yet more useless consumption that will keep him level with his neighbors.
This crass materialism and keeping-up-with-the-Joneses status anxiety are juxtaposed against the hopes of the aforementioned son, who dreams of one day getting to be one of the few skilled laborers remaining in this static society Ė fixing the automatic machines rather than being effectively infantilized by them Ė or escaping it entirely by piloting a rocket ship to Mars and fulfilling a long-promised, but long-deferred, colonization effort.
In other words it isnít saying anything you havenít heard of, or thought of, before, as a person actively participating in the world circa 2022, but it is certainly relevant in a way a lot of 1950s sci-fi no longer really is, and while itís written in functional prose that lacks much in the way of subtle emotional shading or nuanced dialogue, Sheckleyís a good enough writer to make it work for the ten pages or so it takes for the story to unspool.
(Parenthetically, I should say that the whole debt peonage angle doesnít really make sense. The family is in hock for millions of dollars, with an annual salary of 30k, while the monopolistic company that makes all this expensive-to-produce junk pushes yet more stuff on them in order to heap up ever more implausible IOUs. This doesnít make sense given how these kinds of debt arrangements work in real life, which is to drive down the cost of labor and put it under the thumb of the owners of capital Ė think of the sharecropping system Ė because itís clear that the labor the father performs is completely useless, and itís not so much the high cost of labor inputs thatís holding back the companyís profitability as it is their habit of giving loans to people already leveraged a hundred to one. There are hints in the story that this is more a matter of political economy, as the company has secured legislation that makes some purchases mandatory, so maybe the idea is that the corporation is trying to substitute itself for the state by effectively privatizing the generational public debt that governments carry to steward society Ė that would be interesting to dig into, but the story doesnít really go there).
Again, all of that is completely non-interactive and just as Sheckley wrote it in the 50s. The part thatís interactive is a dialogue between two bodiless, backstory-less, quality-less characters (they have names, thatís it) who are discussing the events of the story. As they talk, one of them will say something like ďWhy is Carrin ____ about Miller?Ē (Miller being a neighbor of Carrinís who committed suicide before the game opens) and you get to type something into the blank. Then the next bit of dialogue will incorporate and respond to what you typed in. As I said, it looks like MadLibs, and sometimes that seems to be exactly how itís implemented, with your input mechanically parroted but not meaningfully impacting the course of the conversation. Other times the game does pull off the neat trick of seeming to understand what you wrote Ė I think at minimum, itís got a word list or algorithm that allows it to know whether a word has positive connotations or negative ones, so the dialogue can proceed accordingly.
Hereís an example of it working well. I got a prompt asking me to characterize the sonís mood after he responded somewhat sullenly to Carrinís overtures, and I wrote in ďenthusiastic.Ē The game recognized this was an inappropriate response:
Harris: What made you think Billy was in a enthusiastic mood?
Vesper: I was just being sarcastic. Itís obvious Billy isnít happy about something.
Itís a neat trick (even if now that I paste it in, I notice the game canít figure out how to get a/an to work). However, the reason I was being kind of a jerk and pushing back here is that Iíd first tried to type ďdisaffectedĒ, which I thought was a good explanation for Billyís mood, only to be told to check my spelling, and then hit the same rejection message after trying two or three more options. If this restricted approach was needed to keep the game on track, that would be one thing, but sometimes the decisions for whatís accepted and what isnít seem bizarre. In that above-mentioned ďWhy is Carrin ____ about Miller?Ē I tried putting in ďthinkingĒ, only to be rebuffed and asked whether I meant ďthinningĒ instead, which it was happy to accept when I dutifully typed it in. And due to the failure to characterize either of the conversationalists in any real way, it never felt like I was playing a particular role, or even that their disagreements had anything behind them other than airy abstraction, which further reduces the stakes and creates an aura of artificiality.
The bigger issue is that, perhaps in recognition of the fact that making this kind of natural-language input work well is really, really hard when engaging with ideas of any complexity, the authorís chosen to have the dialogue focus less on the ideas of the story but on having the Greek Chorus try to figure out the emotional states of the various characters. This is not very interesting because nothing here is at all mysterious; itís a sci-fi story from the 50s written by a white dude, everybodyís motivations, desires, and feelings are pretty straightforward throughout. Having the peanut gallery constantly interrupting the story to say stuff like ďDo you think Billy is ____?Ē also has the effect of flattening out what ambiguity there is, and making the story feel clumsier (itís also strange that itís not clear whether they think theyíre responding to a piece of fiction Ė they donít seem familiar with the storyís world, but they also appear invested in the charactersí emotional well-being and eventual fates in a way that felt deeply weird to me, a metafictional construct seemingly playing dumb).
As the story comes to a conclusion, the framing dialogue also goes off on a weird tangent Ė I donít think I can coherently talk about this by blurry-texting spoilers, so fair warning the rest of this paragraph discusses the latter portions of the frame narration. Without any solid textual prompting, the two characters decide that part of why Carrin is upset is that a throwaway reference to life expectancy now being 150 years means that there are life-extending drugs available, but these are unpleasant to take and his son being indebted means that he, too, will need to take these unpleasant medications to live long enough to work off the increased debt. Again, thereís no basis for this turn towards the more overtly dystopic Ė itís clear this remark is just Sheckley filling out his picture of a post-scarcity society, with no indication there are downsides to living longer Ė and itís at odds with where the story ultimately goes, which is an ironic coda showing that the characters have become so stunted by their situation that when they imagine the great adventure of going to Mars, all they can picture is pushing a button. Thereís no comparable final tag to the frame dialogue, or last moment of interactivity, so it feels like that whole thread just peters out.
Thereís clearly innovative thinking that went into presenting this story in this way. And I definitely get the draw of trying to create an interactive Socratic dialogue that uses textual input without being limited to the medium-dry-goods model of traditional parser IF. I can even see that this approach has some potential advantages, since at least with a keyword-based system you donít need to deal with the challenges of parsing grammar and can focus on understanding nouns, verbs, and adjectives that might not be bound by concrete physical objects, actions, or properties Ė which is still a hard enough nut to crack!
But I donít think Cost of Living qua game is a good advertisement for the power of this model; while there are moments where the game does seem to respond in a nuanced way to the playerís input, even then it comes off as a parlor trick, not just due to the limitations of the current implementation but because thereís a fundamental disconnect between the engagement the interactive frame offers and the themes the static fiction is presenting. In the end, Iíd have to say that Iíd have probably enjoyed this story more if Iíd just read it in a book, rather than playing through it like this. Thatís a damning indictment, I recognize, but I repeat that itís not because I think any departure from parser conventions is doomed to failure, or even that this particular departure is likewise preordained for perdition: itís primarily that the cogs in the two pieces of the game just donít mesh at the basic literary levels of theme, character, and tone. In theory these are fixable problems Ė though theyíre also generally the hardest problems in any kind of writing Ė and at any rate thereís value, and honor, in a failed experiment. From some of the conversation on the gameís itch page, itís clear the author is looking to refine their model, so I hope this critical review is useful for that, and Iíll be around to check out what they come up with next.
Hey, python game, you still around? I know I said some mean things about you, but it wasnít anything personal; just a little tough love, you know? Anyway I hope youíre here, because see this ^? All in bold up there? Now that is a title, funny and intriguing and creating a vibe as well as doing some real work grounding the player in the situation theyíre going to be inhabiting once they load the game up. Why settle for less, when you could have something like that for yourself, too?
(Although, now that I think about it: Iím hoping that ďSelf StorageĒ rather than ďSelf-StorageĒ is just a typo).
OK, the unkind might say that beyond a killer title there isnít all that much to Midnight at Alís. Itís got a quotidian premise that doesnít fully exploit the craziness said title seems to promise and which only twists late in the day, pivoting to the less-than-compelling Generic Horror Plot #17 (Spoiler - click to show)(woooo it was built on an old Indian burial ground woooo Ė kinda problematic!) at that. Thereís only one real puzzle, and fewer jokes than youíd think. And thereís some wonkiness to the implementation, including one game-ending bug thatís really easy to trip into.
I canít deny that the unkind have a point, and weíll return to those complaints in due course. But despite the flaws I had a good time with this one. Partially, I admit, is that itís just nice to sink into a nice, familiar Inform 7 game after a Comp thatís been heavy on custom parsers and old-school text adventures Ė this is my IF comfort food, and I donít think Iím alone on that. But itís also the case that that one real puzzle is very satisfying to work through, requiring you to think about what youíre trying to accomplish, deduce whatís going on with a non-obvious but clearly-implied barrier making the simplest way of solving the problem fail, then reassessing your options and capping things off with a nice aha! moment. Iím being intentionally vague here since thereís just the one puzzle so for folks whoíve played the game thereís no ambiguity about which one I mean, and itís fun enough to solve that I donít want to spoilt it even a little.
Admittedly, that puzzle does have more than its share of fiddliness Ė thereís part of it that involves unlocking something, and despite the game clearly knowing exactly what I was trying to unlock and with what, it took me like six tries to phrase the action so that it would be accepted. And it also plays host to the game-ending bug: fair warning to players, if you try to enter the freight elevator youíre never getting back out (heartbreakingly, Iím 99% sure I know exactly what gave rise to this bug Ė Iím also not one to criticize, since the initially-released version of my entry in last yearís IFComp could lead to the player get stuck in the middle of a swarm of bees being stung forever, which we can all agree is infinity times worse than anything an elevator can get up to). And outside of this, there are several places where things feel a bit more duct-tape-and-chewing-gum than they should, like the ability to cram inappropriately large objects into your backpack and a too-sudden ending that maybe indicates the author ran out of time.
Again, though, I think the pros outweigh the cons. Iíll wrap up with one more thing I liked about Midnight at Alís: despite the fact that her characterization didnít come through much after the opening, I enjoyed the protagonist, a disaffected teenager with a dumb summer job and a predilection for hardcore bands (I assume ironically, unless maybe itís hardcoreís time to come round again?) She seems scruffy but scrappy, the kind of underdog you root for, much like the game itself. The winning sequence promises that sheíll return for future adventures, which Iíll definitely be down for, though hopefully those will get a bit more testing first!
A game gains a lot by its setting, especially, perhaps, parser IF Ė back when dinosaurs ruled the earth in the early aughts, I remember it being a commonplace of newsgroup conventional wisdom that the way parser games allow the player to freely roam a landscape or edifice, subjecting each of its features to minute inspection, is a good thing to lean into in oneís designs. You could argue this is making a virtue of necessity Ė parser IF, at least out of the box, definitely isnít best-suited for narrative development proceeding over time, or depth of characterization, so what of fiction are you left with except the boring landscapey bits? Ė but I think thereís something to it: ďimmersionĒ is a fuzzy concept that richly deserves the scare quotes Iíve gifted it, but all the same I undeniably enjoy loping around a well-realized setting and getting to know it.
That sense of place is probably one of the strongest suits of Radio Tower, a custom-parser game written in something called Godot (thankfully the loading times are reasonable). The eponymous tower Ė and its connected station, since decommissioned and turned into a combined rural retreat slash dimension research lab by the protagonistís friend Ė is strikingly realized, with a simple title-screen graphic, moody rain effects, and plausible layout elegantly depicted by a blueprint-aping map system. Itís a creepy place to wander, but also makes for satisfying exploration, as you see how different rooms connect up and anxiously push towards the inevitably-bloody revelations in the depths of the compound.
Notably, however, that vibe is only intermittently communicated by the prose Ė usually, of course, the main attraction in a piece of IF. Itís atmospheric enough, but itís riddled with typos that start with the first sentence of the first locationís description and increase in density as time goes one (ďThis rooms severs as Desiís art studio,Ē runs the tagline for a mid-game location). The game itself also feels unpolished, with the second half of the complex feeling much more thinly implemented than the first, lacking much in the way of puzzles or even scenery elements to check out. And the design is reliant on a very random-seeming health mechanic: there are regular fights with monsters hiding under various bits of scenery, which use up the various one-use weapons you can carry around, which is all well and good, but many of them inflict unavoidable damage so even if youíre well-prepared, you still might not make it to the end. Further, almost all of the encounters are avoidable if you donít poke around the environment or decline to investigate a strange noise that you heard, which seems like a bad approach inasmuch as it teaches the player to avoid content and ignore anything that isnít obviously a puzzle.
Similarly stripped-down is the parser. The custom system is set up to only accept a very narrowly-defined set of commands Ė and idiosyncratic ones by IF conventions, with the check-out-an-item verb being INSPECT, not EXAMINE, and not admitting to any abbreviation. Fortunately these are all explicitly listed in a side panel, and all the nouns you can apply them to are highlighted with a particular color in the main screen Ė gold for scenery, blue for stuff you can interact with, red for exits, green for takeable items. So this makes things transparent enough, though the parser is really unforgiving Ė it doesnít understand pronouns, and E wonít substitute for GO EAST, nor will INSPECT CHAIR do for INSPECT CHAIRS or (less justifiably) ATTACK WITH MACHETE for ATTACK MACHETE. And the main interaction verb is USE, but you can only USE inventory items, meaning for example thereís nothing to do with the computer in your home other than INSPECT it. The overall effect winds up not too dissimilar from something like Gruescript, so itís playable enough but sucks enough of the fun out of using a parser to make me wish itíd been implemented with a point-and-click option.
Add to this slightly sloggy interface an inventory limit and the lack of a save game (I mentioned you can die, right?) There are also some bugs Ė trying to USE WAND led to ďError Ė tried to use an item with an invalid typeĒ, and I had a bunch of inventory items on the floor go missing after progressing the plot. Plus there was at least one gold-highlighted scenery object that the game told me wasnít there when I tried to INSPECT it.
As is my way, Iím carping Ė I think justifiably, because there are a lot of niggles that make playing Radio Tower less engaging than it deserves to be. But it does have its strengths, and since it ends on a cliffhanger, thereís a possibility the authorís going to be coming back to this story. With some tightening of the system, a little more polish, and either loosening up the parser to allow it to play to its strengths, or eschewing it entirely to allow for a mouse interface, I could see a sequel working well, and even as is, itís still worth a dip into the game to enjoy wandering around its precincts for a while.
This is one for the books Ė a parser-based text adventure where, other than a few out-of-world commands, the only text is what the player types (those books must be comic books). This works sort of like those old Sierra graphic adventures that still used a parser, where you could see your character and their surroundings, but would direct them by typing Ė except where those games would similarly drop a text paragraph to tell you the results of your actions, here everything is depicted graphically or iconographically, as your stick-man protagonist ponders the unlikelihood of success when rejecting a proposed course of action, or holds out his hands to reveal the inventory. So this is a gimmick game, but itís a fun gimmick that rests squarely within the four corners of the ParserComp rules, which makes me like the gimmick even more.
The game itself, I liked less well. The order of the day here is juvenile comedy, which I think is the right call given the comedy inherent in the interface Ė youíre a stick-dude, a hand with googly-eyes (played I presume by the author(Ďs hands)) kidnaps your stick-girlfriend, you need to raid his castle to save her. Thatís all well and good, and some of the jokes are solid, including the inevitable twist ending. Unfortunately, the gameplay overcorrects with tough-as-nails puzzles which donít always make sense even given cartoon logic (Spoiler - click to show) (the high salt content means peeing on plants is generally a no-no rather than a valid watering strategy, is my understanding Ė or rather, thatís one of the reasons itís a no-no). This high degree of difficulty helps the game last longer Ė there are only four locations, and only two real puzzles plus a (pretty easy) guess-the-verb challenge Ė but it means that playing Gent Stickman means replaying it.
This wouldnít necessarily be so bad, since the various fail states are generally pretty amusing, but I ran into some technical difficulties that increased the annoyance factor. Most notably, the graphics that show the response response to your input loaded really slowly for me, which was a pain on its own but also meant that sometimes Iíd take an action and see two or three blank windows pop up in sequence before dumping me into a game over, which isnít especially helpful! There are also some places where the design conceit makes progress more difficult than it really should be, like where it took me forever to figure out how to read the text on a plaque mounted on the castle wall Ė READ PLAQUE didnít work, and I couldnít help thinking that in a regular parser game, Iíd be told exactly how the parser wants me to refer to the object, while in a graphic adventure Iíd just be able to click on it, so this was worse than the worst of both worlds (turns out I was a dummy and I just needed to READ SIGN).
All this means the middle part of my playthrough was kind of rough, as the novelty of this clever rethinking of how a parser game works wore off and the hard puzzles kicked my butt. After I got OK with abusing the (also entirely graphical) hint feature and powered through to the end, though, I looped back to being amused again. This is a funny, clever game, and I can forgive its Dark-Souls-ish difficulty level even if I canít endorse it. Iím not sure I need a bunch more games using the same interface, but as a one-off gag, Gent Stickman is hard to beat.
Points for truth in advertising: this is a game, kind of, in Python, certainly, and the low-effort approach to naming Ė and capitalization, for that matter Ė carries through to the three minutes or so of content here (well, quintuple that if you donít already have Python installed and need to wrestle with setup). Upon starting the game, youíre greeted with a dense list of commands, then dumped into a tutorial where you (who are you?) are fighting a wolf; in a battle of your fists against the wolfís claws, you appear to be guaranteed of victory.
I admittedly have never attempted to punch a wolf, but I have read the anticlimactic last chapter of Robinson Crusoe where he gets jumped by starving wolves in the Pyrenees, and based on what I learned there this seems unlikely to work.
(Also: Robinson Crusoe is way weirder than you think. There are also two sequels; in the first sequel he goes to Siberia, and the second is a book of metaphysical essays. One neat thing about novels in the 18th Century is authors hadnít figured out how they were supposed to work. See also Tristram Shandy).
(And why yes, Iím grasping for things to talk about that are more interesting than python game).
(Seriously, read Tristram Shandy, itís hilarious).
But so anyway you win the tutorial fight against the wolf, then you fight a bear, and the tutorial warns you to run (I have also not attempted to punch a bear, but this time my intuition and the authorís appear to align in terms of the likelihood of a positive result when boxing wild animals). If you do, you encounter a trader, whoíll let you swap assorted wolf bits for coins, and then for health potions. And with that introduction done, youíre now set loose into the gameís wide world!
The gameís wide world consists of two locations, which appear to be interchangeable, to the extent that all you can do in either is nap until another trader comes along. Per Dan Fabulichís review, this is because thereís a bug, and napping should also fire off a risk of a random encounter with another wolf or another bear. But thereís no additional content beyond that, even were that bug to be fixed, no progression or ending or plot or anything else. Just a man punching a wolf, forever.
I donít want to punch a wolf.
I donít want to punch a bear.
I donít want to play python game.
Look, I hate to be negative Ė I try to be a positive person, for my own sake and that of others! But this is a half-completed programming exercise Ė maybe eventually, after a lot of work, it could provide the skeleton for a worthwhile experience, but the gameís clearly nowhere near that yet. I will say, this did have the easiest launching process of any bit of Python IF Iíve played, so thatís not nothing, and hopefully the authorís decision to enter this into ParserComp bespeaks a desire to get public feedback on a work in progress. But after getting that feedback, I hope they figure out how to incorporate it into a game that does something singular or unique or personal, so that the generic title ďpython gameĒ will no longer feel so apt.