In one review or other I know I mentioned a game I used to play with my college friends, where we’d try to determine the smallest possible unit of goodness in a particular field – like, we determined that when it came to music, Jimmy Eat World’s song The Middle was the example to pick, because while it was good, it was good in a minor, sort of boring way, and if it were any less good, it would be bad (I could not now reconstruct the rationale for this determination if I tried, but I remember we were very confident about it). The reason this memory came back to me while I was playing Jesse Stavro’s Compass is that I uncharitably wondered whether it might be the mirror image of the thing we spent so much time looking for: a piece of IF that’s somehow only an inch away from being good, but nevertheless winds up slightly, boringly bad.
You wouldn’t necessarily think that based on the setup: the game opens with the protagonist reaching an empty motel in the desert in search of his friend Jesse. All is not as it seems, though; Jesse and the protagonist are both part of an occult underground who can travel through space using what are basically magic portals, which are locked and inert unless you happen to know the key, and this motel happens to be a nexus of many different gates. Jesse’s been able to travel through time, too – last you heard, he was following the Dead – but he also might have run afoul of one of the various larger factions with their own agendas for the network of portals. It’s not a bad pitch – some of the specifics feel a little derivative of the DnD Planescape setting, but hey, I like Planescape – but it’s conveyed in a very dry, expository fashion via a series of short journal entries that communicate what’s going on but aren’t especially engaging.
This slightly-downer vibe of solid ideas with low-energy execution stuck with me through the rest of the game. There are fair number of different locations to visit, for example, including a nice apartment building and a riverboat, but the maps are too big, with multiple empty locations and redundant, copy-and-pasted descriptions that make exploration feel enervating rather than exciting. There are cutscenes that progress the story, but they assume deeper investment in the game’s lore than I was able to muster, and often go on too long (there’s an extended tarot reading where you need to sit through a maundering explanation of ten different cards, with the only interactive element an occasional “Do you understand? Y/N” prompt). There are a bunch of characters, but none of them have voices that stand especially out from the baseline, often-profane authorial style – like, there’s one rich guy who owns the penthouse apartment and we’re told his every gesture “conveys an aura of refined sophistication”, and after you take a shower he tells you that he’s glad that you “no longer look like ass”.
The puzzles and challenges are the same way, too, reasonable in theory but underwhelming in practice. There’s one where you need to lure a cat in from a ledge using some cat food, but if you drop the can right next to the cat or right next to the window rather than the intended spot in the middle of the ledge, there’s no feedback that you’re on the right track or rationale for why nothing’s happening. Midway through, one of the factions mentioned in the backstory mount a surprise attack, and you need to shoot your way through a bunch of near-identical goons; the combat is governed by chance, so all there is to do is blast away and undo-scum if things don’t go your way, which doesn’t lead to much in the way of pulse-pounding excitement (this sequence did elicit an emotional response, though, since I felt awkward when I realized that the only Asian characters in the game were a legion of interchangeable goons whose only purpose was to show up and take a bullet).
I should emphasize that there’s clearly been a lot of effort put into the game; it’s technically clean, the world is big, and there’s even an achievement system. Plus I suspect it suffers from being the middle part what appears to be a trilogy – the bottom-lined recap that opens the game presumably would land better if I’d actually played the prior installment, and the low-context infodump at the ending would presumably be more compelling if I could immediately see where it leads. Middle segments are hard!
Still, they’re not impossible – The Two Towers and Empire Strikes Back are the best parts of their respective trilogies, after all. For example, that dull summary that opens the game could have been turned into a more engaging flashback that actually gave the player a reason to invest in their relationship to Jesse, and did some showing rather than mere telling to establish the supernatural elements of the setting (honestly, this would probably have been a good idea even for folks who’d played the first installment, given that it was released almost a decade ago and under a different authorial nom de plume, at that).
Circling back to my extended and not-that-illuminating Jimmy Eat World metaphor from the top of the review, despite all these cavils I didn’t have an awful time with this one. But unlike how I would listen to The Middle, think to myself “this is fine”, but notice my foot tapping along nonetheless, I played the game, thought to myself “this is fine”, and then my foot resolutely refused to move. Jesse Stavro’s Compass could rock, at least a little, and it might not take big changes to get there – just a lot of little changes to flip all those moments of slight irritation, slight awkwardness, or slight boredom to their opposites.
The past couple of years have seen a mini-trend of multiplayer IF, kicked off I think by Milo van Mesdag’s 2021 IFComp entry Last Night of Alexisgrad. That was a narrative-driven, choice-based game where the players assumed oppositional roles – one protagonist was an invading general, the other was the leader of the city’s defenders – and the half-dozen or so choices each selected over the course of the game had a direct impact on the course of the story. Subsequent games have riffed on this same basic framework: van Mesdag’s 2022 follow-up, A Chinese Room, separated its player characters and obfuscated the effect each’s decision had on the other, while Travis Moy’s Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip collapsed the distance between decision-points, unlike its more sedately-paced predecessors, which required it to be played in real time. The Purple Pearl is the latest extrapolation of this multiplayer Nouvelle Vague, and perhaps the greatest departure yet, because here it’s a puzzle game rather than one that’s heavily story-driven, and parser-based rather than a choice game.
The plot here is intentionally disposable: two fantasy kingdoms are at war over a MacGuffin, and your home’s been getting the short end of the stick, so the king comes up with a test to find the best, cleverest team of two to send on the mission to recover the thingy. The game is the test – maybe there’ll eventually be a sequel to cover the actual quest for the eponymous purple pearl? – so there’s a built in rationale for the various puzzles and built-in contrivances that require the players to work together, which is a canny choice allowing author and player alike to concentrate on the mechanics rather than a fictional layer that could easily feel quite strained and secondary.
In fact, the setup resembles nothing so much as an escape room or old Cube Escape style Flash games; each player wakes up alone in an empty chamber with a series of odd devices and clues on each wall, and needs to work through them all in turn. The rub is the need for collaboration – the specific devices and clues are different for each player, because each is playing a separate game file, and at regular intervals, one player’s progress will be stymied, at which point the other player needs to send them an object to get them unstuck (this is accomplished via a keyword system – when the donating player manages to hand off an object, they’re given a three letter code, which when entered in by the other player creates the object in their version of the game). Clues and hints can also apply to the other player, requiring a near-constant thread of conversation to make sure everybody knows what’s happening.
None of the puzzles are especially novel, but they’re well-designed, largely hitting that sweet spot of difficulty between too hard and too easy; it doesn’t take too long to solve them, but you’ll feel satisfied when you do. They’re also relatively straightforward, which makes the burden of keeping the other player in the loop feel quite manageable (imagine having to narrate to another player how you solved a puzzle in Hadean Lands!) Its hour-long playtime is also just right, giving the game enough time to show off a few variations of its mechanics without overstaying its welcome, while the writing is as engaging and polished as you’d expect from an Amanda Walker game (which is to say, very much so on both fronts).
So this is a good proof-of-concept for this new kind of game – it works, it’s fun! I did have a few small niggles, but nothing really worth bringing up except in a parenthetical (here goes: I found one place where an object’s description didn’t update after the game’s state changes, and I found the introductory note saying of my partner that my “job is to figure out how to communicate with them to escape” confusing, since I thought it meant that I had to find some in-game way to talk to my partner before I was allowed to do so, which isn’t the case).
There was an interesting feature of how I experienced the game that I think is worth sharing, since it could point to some fundamental tensions in this kind of design that might need to be addressed by other games that follow this path without as much benefit of novelty. And that is that often as I was playing, I wound up being more engaged by what my partner was up to than what was going on in my version of the game. Partially as a result, several times I thought I was stuck and had to wait for them to solve a puzzle to make more progress, when actually if I’d just spent two more minutes considering the clues on my side, I would have figured out a solution to something I’d assumed required assistance from my partner.
This isn’t too surprising, I suppose – since one’s partner is an actual person, engaging with them is fun and interactive in a way that just playing a parser game can’t really compete with (it also typically feels way easier to solve other people’s problems than one’s own, of course). Plus, while I could poke around in my version of the game at my leisure, without access to my partner’s version, I was hanging on their every word to try to get a sense of what they could see and how to solve their puzzles, which of course required more active engagement and imagining on my part. And I think I had some FOMO, too – for a puzzle game, the puzzles are the game, so not being able to see or participate in half the puzzles would have felt like missing a big chunk of the game. As a result, I couldn’t help but wonder whether I would have enjoyed the game as much if it’d been a single-player game I was playing along with a friend – wouldn’t that have all the same advantages of collaboration and social engagement, while avoiding some of the challenges that two-player model requires?
I don’t think that’s exactly right, and even if it were, I haven’t actually played any IF with a friend in this way, so “two players required” tag does accomplish something. Still, I do think that future games in this vein – and I hope there are more – might benefit from thinking about ways to introduce asymmetries, or incomplete information, or other mechanics that might keep the player primarily engaged in their half of the game, rather than seeing themselves as part of a collaborative Voltron working on everything simultaneously (escape rooms of course do this through the imposition of draconian time limits, but that’s probably not the way to go here!) But again, this is pretty advanced speculation that’s not responding to any weakness in the Purple Pearl; it’s a pioneering work and has proved its concept so thoroughly that I can’t help thinking about what comes next.
Starting the last of Larry Horsfield’s trifecta of ParserComp entries, I was energized by my success in Bug Hunt on Menelaus – could I keep the streak alive? I was energized by the winning premise, too. Finn’s Big Adventure is a spin-off from the mainline Duke Alaric Blackmoon series – Finn is the Duke’s six year old son, and after his lessons with the local wizard, decides to sneak out of his room one night to investigate rumors of secret passages in the catacombs below the castle. Alas, much like X-X R I didn’t get too far in this one, but this time the game has to take its fair share of the blame, as I ran into two progress-stopping glitches in the opening section that sapped my will to continue.
The trouble first arose in the pedagogical sequence that begins the game. You’re given the opportunity to check out the wizard’s study and find the book that tells you about the secret passages, as well as some notes that seem to provide clues about how to open them. The game prompts you to write the clues down so you can refer to them later, which was a nice detail, so I jotted down a copy on the scrap of parchment I’d been using for my class notes. Feeling like I was ready for my expedition, I confidently typed OUT, only to be told that there was something I needed to do before I left. After twenty minutes of wracking my brains, I finally figured out what the issue was – rather than copying the notes onto the parchment, I was supposed to write them down onto a scrap of paper that had been left, forgotten, under the wizard’s desk. Sadly, once I’d copied the clues once, the game wouldn’t let me copy them again, so I had to restart in order to progress.
This was frustrating – why go to the trouble of coding an alternate solution to a puzzle if it’s going to make the game unwinnable? – and especially annoying because there was no in-game reason I couldn’t progress, just an out-of-game warning that was meant to be helpful. Still, I pushed on through the next sequence, as Finn faked going to sleep and snuck out of his room after his bedtime (as the parent of a toddler, I could relate to this part). I made it down the catacombs and found a series of manacles and chains that I think lined up with the clues I’d copied down, but I couldn’t figure out the right syntax to interact with them – TAKING and PULLING them occasionally gave hints that I was on the right track, but while the notes suggested I should be able to attach them to each other or ring-bolts in the dungeon walls, nothing I tried seemed to work, and the built-in hints didn’t have anything to offer.
Thinking that I might have missed something back in Finn’s bedroom, I sneaked back upstairs, and found that sure enough, there was a “war belt” hanging on a clothes hook on my door, complete with my trusty dagger. This find was soured by two flies in the ointment: 1) despite Finn clearly knowing that the war belt was there, and it being described in such a way that it should have been clearly visible from the interior of the room, it wasn’t mentioned in the top-level room description – X DOOR was required to disclose its existence, which feels like it’s taking unfair advantage of a gap in knowledge between the player and the protagonist. More galling, though, was 2) the discovery that now when I tried to get back down to the catacombs, I was told “There’s something in your room that you have forgotten!”
This sure seemed like a bug, since I couldn’t find anything else in the room, and the fact that it hadn’t fired when I’d left the war belt behind, but did fire after I’d found it, sure suggested that something had gone wrong somewhere. Not feeling up to restarting once more and seeing which hoops I had to jump through to avoid this second progress-stopping issue, I abandoned the game there, which was a shame – Finn was an engaging protagonist, and it’s hard to go wrong with a hunt for secret passages in a maybe-haunted castle. But Finn’s Big Adventure needed a bit more testing (and a more robust hint system!) to live up to its promise.
(This review was written for the initially-released version of the game; per the author these bugs have now been fixed, so I'm hoping to give it another play and update this review accordingly)
I am a sucker for a good Wodehouse pastiche. So when Murder Most Foul introduced its English country house murder plot with prose that was more focused on cracking wise than anything so vulgar as establishing a mood of suspense – seriously, you start the game across from a lordling wearing “moustache which looks like a big, fat slug curled up on his top lip and died some time ago” – I was excited to dig in to what was sure to be a jape-filled caper. Some four hours later, I finally came up for air and took stock: the game wound up trying my patience, my wits, my sense of direction, and my sense of the absurd, all quite sorely. I was quite frequently giggling, I had to admit, but I still wish the author had imitated Wodehouse a bit more closely, especially in terms of pacing and (especially especially) tonal consistency – this is a big, impressive game, but it makes some big, impressive missteps.
From the off, the setup is a bit more cynical than your classic Blandings or Jeeves romp, but not irredeemably so: the player character is a woman on the make, rocking a stolen dress to sneak into an upper-crust party and find a prospective husband with pockets as deep as his mind is shallow. Sadly, these mercenary plans are disrupted by the quite inconvenient bumping off of the host, Lord Montrose – and since death has a way of ruining the romantic mood, you take it upon yourself to solve the crime (the fact that the coppers are likely to finger you for the killing once they realize you’re an imposter provides a further motivation).
You do this by – well, solving adventure-game puzzles. Murder Most Foul isn’t set up like a conventional Infocom mystery, where there’s a timer and suspects are flitting around up to various bits of suspicious business and you need to play multiple times to work out a timeline. Instead everybody sticks around, but has a fetch quest of some flavor or other you need to work through in order to get their aid, or get rid of them, or hook them up with the love of their life in order to get rid of them… They’re generally amusing, but the game does suffer from ADRIFT’s weak parser; I ran into more than a few guess the verb issues, some of which felt like issues where the author hadn’t sufficiently clued the needed action (FOLDing up a painting to sneak it past some guards didn’t seem physically possible, for example), but others of which were just weaknesses of implementation (there’s a bit where you need to steal a suit, and while GET SUIT will succeed, TAKE SUIT ends in failure).
The game’s size and length wind up magnifying these foibles; while few individual puzzles are especially unintuitive, the large number of rooms and NPCs made it harder to narrow down the areas where it’s possible to make progress. It’d be one thing if the plot needed a cast this size, but despite most of the characters making a strong first impression, in the event most of them play only incidental roles in the narrative, with a fair bit of redundancy (there are two different pairs of characters who got in two different fistfights right before the game opens, which feels less like a comment on the pugnaciousness of the aristocracy and more like padding). Indeed, it quickly becomes apparent that the core characters are just the victim’s wife, the manor’s Jeeves-analogue Joves, his son Satan, the omnicompetent handyman Micawber, and the feckless policeman investigating the crime, with the all the others fading into a uniform sort of background wash.
The perspicacious reader will have noticed a certain thematic drift in the naming conventions here; isn’t Micawber Dickens, and Satan (er) Milton? There’s something jarring about these details, and repeatedly as I played I got the sense that the game was growing unmoored from its notional inspiration and introducing plot elements that didn’t cleanly fit with what came before.
I’ll just mention one in detail, but it’s a doozy: midway through the game, you find out that the horde of servants staffing the manor were not always servants, but in fact were originally held as slaves by Lord Montrose. This is elaborated on in one conversation – apparently he was running out of money so this was a way of running the place on the cheap, but then he started sleeping with one of them and he was worried about the secret getting out, so he ultimately freed them and started paying them wages.
I have questions:
1) This is set in the modern day, not the Antebellum South or anything, so where exactly did he get these slaves?
2) Seriously, all the servants have typical English names (well, except Satan) and aren’t described as being identifiably from any particular country or ethnicity of origin, so are we meant to assume there are just roving slave gangs in this world rounding up stray people and selling them to the local grandees?
3) If that’s the case, what was keeping them from escaping to freedom? There are a few guards in the mansion, but as servants presumably they’d have been enslaved too and anyway there are too few of them to credibly act as overseers.
4) Isn’t it kind of creepy that Montrose was sleeping with a “slave girl”, with the game even saying he “fell in love with her”, without any character or the narration even hinting at acknowledging that that’s rape?
5) Why is none of this ever mentioned again after the conversation where it’s initially brought up, like ho hum, guess the dead guy was a massive enslaver and half the NPCs are dealing with the trauma of having been reduced to chattels, we’ll just file that fun factoid away?
6) What the absolute fucking fuck am I doing asking these questions about a Wodehouse pastiche?
I am harping on this, but really, it deserves to be harped on – this is probably the single most ill-advised subplot I have ever experienced in a work of IF. I don’t get the sense that it’s meant to be taken seriously, but that’s a problem, because it’s slavery; if you include slavery in your game, it isn’t a game that happens to have some slavery in it, you’ve now made it a game about slavery.
The thing is, I don’t think that was at all the author’s intention; this seems like a passing idea that was incorporated into the game’s structure without significantly impacting anything that came before (there’s no buildup) or after (again, there’s no follow up either). And there are several elements like this – none as morally jarring, thankfully – but similarly out of place, feeling like they were grafted onto the core without much thinking about how well they meshed with the pre-existing narrative or themes. The game indicates it was written over the course of five years, and I think this is one that got away from the author, growing organically in ways that undermined its cohesion and its pacing. And rather than pruning this unruly profusion back under control, the author just ran with these tendencies.
That’s a real shame, because while Murder Most Foul is a bit of a mess at four hours, there’s probably a tight, two-hour version of the game that chucks much of the padding, winnows the cast down to the narratively-significant characters, sharpens the puzzles so they don’t feel like busywork, and maintains a consistent and amusing writing style, while saying good riddance to the moral enormity that’s currently squashing the plot. It’s possible to get glimpses of that other, quite good game sometimes when playing the current incarnation, but sadly that’s not what’s available to us here.
Late-Imperial Sky Witches (I guess the short title is more properly “Meet Cute”, but come on, between that and “Late-Imperial Sky Witches” you know which I’m going to pick) is another jam game, but unlike Dream Fears, it doesn’t have a statement as succinct as “this was made in a day” to help orient the player to the ways in which the game does or does not represent the author’s completed vision. This means I’m finding it hard to evaluate on its own terms, because while there’s a lot here that’s intriguing, there’s also a lot here that feels missing, and I’m underconfident that I can sort the intentional obfuscation from the blank canvas.
That’s the job, though, so I guess I’ll try. The game drops you into an interrogation scenario without much by way of introduction: “You’re in the cellblock. A panel of red light separates you from the prisoner.” You’re carrying “your truename” (this turns out to be an identification card) and an empty pyramidal box that belonged to the prisoner. Beginning the investigation is easier than you might think because this is a Gruescript game – that is, it’s a choice-based game that uses buttons for nouns and verbs to mimic a parser interface. So just flailing around with the limited options you’ve got available suffices to move the story forward; you start some light verbal sparring with the prisoner (the interface calls her Rahel, but the parser commands generated by the interface call her irae, “of wrath”), eventually you press her on what was in the box, she gives you a flip answer and you gain a new inventory object: “poetic bullshit” (the game quickly adds a “(literal)” tag at the end there in case you think it’s being metaphorical. And yes, this means you can drop the poetic bullshit).
Which is to stay, the conversation progresses, in ways that are interesting but not especially linear; clearing up the box mystery, to the extent it’s cleared up, leads to one or two other topics that are similarly beguiling, but nothing resembling a narrative or even a moment of relationship catharsis (I thought this was a meet cute?) had cohered by the time another character abruptly barged in and put an end to the interrogation, and the game.
I checked the source code and it doesn’t appear that I missed anything; this is what’s on offer. And I liked it, I have to say – the progression of literalized inventory objects corresponding to ideas or conversation topics was a novel way to make the mechanics clear and the world strange, and the setting implied by the few details I turned up was one I wanted to learn more about. The only trouble is I couldn’t, since it ended just as it was getting started. So again, I’m stymied: is this an intentionally obscure experience, the “meet cute” a romance-genre feint to lure the player into a playable shaggy dog story and impute emotional engagement that’s at best only hinted at? Or is this a placeholder or statement of intent, crystallizing one moment in what was meant to be, or may someday be, a longer piece? Without any extrinsic prompting, it’s hard to decide which scenario is right. Either way, this is a promising vignette with some evocative elements, but in its current version it’s a bit too evanescent to make a lasting impression.
I’m fairly certain that in some review of some ParserComp game past, I’ve had occasion to muse on the difference between a jam (typically meaning a less-formal event where games are newly-written under the pressure of an imminent deadline, where participation and coming up with a clever idea are highly valued) and a comp (generally entailing games that were started well before the formal opening of the event, placing a high value on completeness and polish, and of course, resulting in formal rankings and the crowning of a winner). Due to a strange confluence of factors, ParserComp straddles this line in an occasionally awkward fashion: it’s got “comp” in the name, and it comes out of the mainline comp-obsessed IF community, but it’s run on itch.io – a hotbed of jam culture that doesn’t so much as have a category for competitions, meaning ParserComp is in fact technically a jam.
(Ah yes, I am repeating myself – I went into a longer, more interesting soliloquy on this subject in my review of Anita’s Goodbye from last year; consider it incorporated by reference).
Anyway I of course bring this up because Dream Fears in a nutshell, in a nutshell, is a jam game. Its entry page says it was written in a day, it apologizes twice for being shitty, and the author admits they had no time. Judged in jam terms, and given those constraints, it’s actually not bad! It’s got a single idea that I haven’t seen before – what if you did a parser game as a completely linear audiovisual spectacle, where at regular points the main character (a blocky sort of Minecraft fellow soaring through a neon-soaked nightmare and confronting his fears) finds his progress blocked by a prompt that tells you what you need to type next. If you type the required phrase, you move on to the next bit; if you don’t, well, you can always just type it again.
That’s it. That’s the game, modulo one late “twist” where you’re given a purely cosmetic choice of which of your top three fears you want to face as the final boss.
This is a novel idea – I’ve never come across it before – and I’m not sure whether that last decision-point is meant as a joke, but I certainly found it funny. But it’s also not an idea that cries out for expanding or deeper examination; it’s just a jam idea, quick and to the point. Judged in comp terms, it’s clearly a fiasco.
How are we to resolve the dichotomy? Is there a Hegelian synthesis allowing us to transcend this seemingly ineluctable dialectic? I dunno man, I sure can’t think of one. I think it’s kind of cool that experiments like this end up in ParserComp; it’s certainly worth the five minutes it takes to play. But at the same time, I feel bad for well-meaning jam-oriented authors who unwittingly wander into what I’m sure is a buzz-saw of negative criticism. And, well, I have to cop to being part of that buzz-saw, because I can’t say I rated Dream Fears well. So I guess I’ll just post this review as an almost-apology, and shelve the conundrum until it inevitably recurs next year.
Having seen me heap 1,500 words of scorn on The Fortuna for the various crimes arising from its use of AI tools, the reader with a vicious streak has perhaps been waiting for me to arrive at Cheree, in anticipation of another evisceration. This is another game that’s built around AI tools, though in a quite different way: instead of being structured like a traditional text adventure, instead it’s built as an extended chatbot session – the conceit is that you’re conversing with the ghost of a young woman who was murdered in Victorian times, and helping her to recover her lost memories. It’s by far the longest game I’ve seen in this format – my playthrough took maybe two or three hours? – and while there are a few traditional puzzles mixed in, the gameplay goes pretty much as you’d think: you’re just talking to a chatbot. Yet despite that, and my by now well-established anti-AI bona fides, I think it’s actually rather good?
(The reader with a vicious streak will be disappointed, but at least the game tangentially touches on the Whitechapel murders, so perhaps that will provide a measure of appeasement).
Explaining why requires talking through the game’s structure and plot in some detail, so let’s dig into that: as mentioned, the eponymous Cheree is dead, doesn’t fully remember the circumstances that led to it, and has come to the player character – turns out you’re a powerful medium, don’t you know – for help. This involves a methodical investigation of locations significant to her, which fortunately she can whisk you to via the powers of astral projection. Sometimes familiarity will spark a memory and she’ll share a few sentences of reminiscence. Then by asking probing questions you can help her remember more and more, which sometimes triggers a cryptogram puzzle. These puzzles are blatantly there for pacing reasons – they aren’t especially difficult and lack any in-game explanation – but they are successful at breaking up all that talking, and don’t outlast their welcome. Anyway, once solved, each will give you a clue; collect all nine clues and you reach the endgame.
The story that unfolds is pure pulp, but it’s well-made pulp; as mentioned, it feints in the direction of the Ripper killings, but doesn’t go too far in that direction and generally treats the subject tastefully. Instead, the story is more of a domestic gothic, featuring a gloomy, religion-obsessed patriarch, a pushy mother, a jealous sister, and her dangerous ex-military fiancé. The present-day section of the story also gets more complex with the introduction of one of Cheree’s still-living relatives who astral-projects her way into your little tete-a-tete. There are lots of twists and turns, and while it perhaps goes a bit over the top in the ending, it succeeded in keeping my interest throughout, and even surprised me once or twice.
Of course, rendering a plot like this as a chatbot rather than a more traditional form of IF is a very risky maneuver, since chatbots can be fragile beasts. The author has been very canny about this, however, disarming some of the most obvious traps through clever narrative and systems design. Like, one of the ways things can go wrong is if the player references something that the character could plausibly know about – often, the bot will either not understand, or err on the other side and start spouting Wikipedia summaries. This came up for me when Cheree made some comment about how it’s better to be better off, rather than better off than others; I told her that Thorstein Veblen would disagree. She responded by saying oh, she’d heard of him and his most famous book. From a systems perspective, this hits the sweet spot – it’s identifying the reference without going into too much detail – and it makes sense diegetically too, because as a ghost who’s been hanging around for more than a century but who can’t physically open up books to read them, she should be familiar with a bunch of stuff but not able to discuss them in depth. Sure, this isn’t infallible – at one point I asked her to go to a lighthouse, which she interpreted as reference to the Woolf novel – but it’s really quite well done.
Another common flaw is the way dialogue can sometimes become one-sided, leading the player to mechanically type in one thing after another in hopes of progressing. Here, Cheree has some agency, doing things like suggesting the player move on if the conversation isn’t progressing, and occasionally quizzing the player on some piece of trivia if they’re quiet for a while. There aren’t any consequences to guessing right or wrong, and yes, it’s clear that this is a game mechanic to sustain engagement, but it’s still fairly successful at accomplishing those goals while once again making sense in the world: if you were a bored ghost with a century to kill, you also would accumulate a ton of random knowledge and be bad at making small talk!
Voice can also break down in AI-driven conversation systems, as chopping a bunch of training text up and putting it into a blender can either lead to pure oatmeal or a wild swing between different tones. There’s a little of that here – Cheree’s set-piece narration of her memories is written in a faux 19th Century novel style, while she gets more informal in conversational back and forth with the player. Once more, though, her unique biography provides a plausible excuse: she’d presumably revert to the language of her living years when recalling them, while outside of that context she’d be more likely to use the colloquial language she’s picked over the decades since.
The final guardrail is the relationship system – progress in some places is gated by Cheree’s level of affection for you, which I assume means that players intentionally trying to mess with the game will hit a wall and have to behave in a way more appropriate to the narrative conceit in order to move the story forward. This seems like another smart, plausible safeguard, though I confess I can’t comment on the execution since I didn’t try to test the edges of the simulation.
Cheree is not without blemish, though. One clear misstep is that there’s far too much empty space. I can see how limiting the potential locations just to those where clues may be found could have made the game feel too mechanical, but the author overcorrected by providing lots of places that are just there to establish Cheree’s love of sightseeing – the graphics of some of these scenic overlooks are nice, sure, but in a game that’s already fairly long, I got bored of the filler. And actually, while we’re on the subject of the graphics, I was not a fan of the 3D models used for Cheree and her relative – they’re relatively low-poly, but what’s worse, Cheree is depicted in full loligoth style and often walks straight into the screen, meaning the camera clips into her crotch, while the relative is dressed in her underwear and spends a lot of time gyrating around in the corner regardless of what’s happening in the plot. Look, I’m not averse to a bit of sex appeal, but if that’s the remit, for me personally seeing a nubile young woman cavorting in her underthings while her friend talks about finding where her murderer dumped her body does not achieve the goal.
This rather cringey aspect of the visuals also combines poorly with a much cringier aspect of the narrative, which is the romance plot. Yes, as you’re building a positive relationship with Cheree, she starts to develop a crush on you, and the other girl isn’t averse to some light flirting either. On a certain level, I can understand her being a bit of a horndog – girl’s been dead a century! – but like many video-game romances, this one suffers from feeling like it goes way too fast. It also creeped me out because the chatbot format made me default to playing the game as myself: Cheree sometimes asks the player personal questions, I’m guessing as another way to keep up engagement, and I tended to respond on my own behalf rather than making stuff up. This means the whole time she was coming on to me, she knew I was married, which again, super awkward! The game does flag that it has a romance element, in fairness, but I think it would have been helpful to provide a little more instruction up front about how the player could engage with this aspect – as well as tuning Cheree to make it easier to put her in the friendzone, because she was persistent.
For all that these are real issues, though, they don’t have anything to do with the game’s fundamentals – another game using similar development tools and approaches could easily avoid them. As such, I think Cheree works on its own merits, but also as a positive example of why the IF community might want to engage with AI tools – this game would look radically different if the author had attempted to make it with traditional techniques. Notably, the author’s note indicates that it doesn’t use one of the existing LLMs or a firehose of scraped training data. Cheree is clearly hand-tuned, with human creativity creating strict boundaries for the AI sandbox; add in the smart design and narrative choices that mean the game plays to AI’s strengths rather than its weaknesses and you’ve got a recipe for success.
I’ve tried to write this metaphor three times now, but it keeps getting away from me. Part of me would love to keep tuning it until I get it right, but another, larger part of me would love to clear my review backlog before the Comp kicks off. So we’re going to go with draft number four, no matter how it turns out.
Imagine you’re looking at a cake. And not just any cake – this one’s colored mauve, let’s say, and has little pitchforks of spun sugar crammed into it at odd angles. Now that you look at it more closely, in fact, the whole thing is asymmetric, the various tiers all stacked off-center in a compellingly lurching way, though the structure is impressively solid. You cut a piece, and the cake itself is a marbled red and black with an anarchy sign somehow baked in, the verdigris frosting veining it almost seeming to pulse. Filled with excitement (and maybe a little trepidation) you fork a piece into your mouth – it’s … well, it’s good, and there’s a hint or two of some nonstandard flavoring in there, but actually, it mostly tastes like vanilla cake? Not that you dislike vanilla cake or anything, and again, this is a pretty good example of the form. But wow you were expecting something else.
Okay, I’m not too unhappy with that. I’m going to dive into a more direct discussion of Hinterlands colon Delivered exclamation point now, but keep that cake in mind.
Delivered! is the second in a series of Hinterlands games (the first, Marooned!, was a one-move game with a lot of jokes and even more gore), and its setup promises a slice of blue-collar sci-fi – a driver for the interstellar Parcel Express service, the protagonist gets caught up short on fuel and has to stop off at a godforsaken rock to gas up. Unsurprisingly, what starts out as a straightforward errand quickly winds up going off-track, but the twists and turns are anything but predictable, involving stealing a golden bucket from a sacred well, befriending then betraying some space moonshiners, drug abuse (like, using it for something other than its intended purpose, though yeah, people also use it to get high), mail fraud, freelance espionage, cross-dressing, blasphemous pyromania… oh, and here’s what X ME gets you:
"You are a more or less average specimen of Outer Lumpan heritage. Your leathery skin is pale blue and completely hairless. Your large spherical eyes are solid black. Your mouth is a lipless slit below an eggplant-shaped nose. Your small rounded ears protrude from the sides of your head in a way that is (apparently) comical to anyone who isn’t from Outer Lumpus. On top of your bald head are several dark blue nodules, which your dermatologist assures you are perfectly normal. Your build is tall and lanky, but you slouch (as your mother is always so keen to mention)."
In other words, this isn’t just blue-collar sci-fi, it’s Heavy Metal sci-fi, full of louche characters, oddball aesthetics, and shaggy-dog plots. This subgenre is pretty thin on the ground these days, so it makes for a refreshing change of pace, and Delivered! is a well-implemented take on the theme – the protagonist even after his triumphs remains firmly a loser, it feels like every single character you meet is running a scheme or scam (or is a gigantic dupe), and the setting boasts a scuzzy detail to go alongside every exotic one. And crucially, there’s some actual worldbuilding on display – unlike some games that are wacky for the sake of being wacky, here the setting is there to play host to jokes, rather than just being a joke. Speaking of implementation, things are solid on that front too. There’s a lot of depth in Delivered!’s medium-sized map, with tons of scenery, some complex set-pieces, characters with a ton of non-obvious conversation responses, and prose that communicates the weirdness of the world without getting overly prolix. There is an occasionally bit of guess-the-verb annoyance – I quickly figured out how to (Spoiler - click to show)drill holes in the wall to spy on the neighboring hotel room, but getting the syntax right took some trial and error – but nothing too bad.
So this is overall a fun, unique game that I really enjoyed. I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t add a few critiques, though. First is that the puzzles, while generally reasonable in terms of their difficulty, are occasionally unmotivated. For example, after suffering a certain reverse that meant that the most logical source for more fuel wasn’t going to pan out, I was stymied for what to do next – turns out the solution was to open a certain package, with no indication so far as I could tell that it would have anything to do with resolving my dilemma. And I had a similar experience two or three more times, when I took an action because it was the only thing available to do, rather than because it seemed likely to advance the protagonist’s goals.
As for the other point: remember that cake? Delivered! has a lot of off-kilter aspects, but both the overall structure of the plot (look for MacGuffin, suffer reversals until finally obtaining MacGuffin) and the details of the puzzles (there’s a disguise one, and a couple swap-stuff ones, and some keys to find) actually wind up being pretty normcore. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing – heck, I’m wearing khakis right now! But given the lurid, gutterpunk vibe Delivered! so capably projects, I think I wound up feeling a little disappointed there wasn’t more gonzo on offer. In fact, for the author’s first full-bore piece of IF, the game is admirably controlled. From a design perspective, that was probably the right call, but I can’t help but hope that a notional third Hinterlands game will really cut loose.
Folks, I am too excited to bury the lead on this one – after trying and failing with seven or eight of them, I’ve finally won a Larry Horsfield game! True, it took an excessive amount of save-scumming and UNDO abuse, and it’s clear that the difficulty on this one is pitched way more towards beginners than is typical for his work (modulo one punishing design decision that’s thankfully pretty easy to work around). But I am still going to take my victory lap while I can.
Bug Hunt has one of the oldest video game premises there is – you’re a space marine, there are aliens, go shoot them and win. Much like Xenon-Xevious Resurgence*, it’s part of a larger series of games, though the grounded sense of place I noted in that one didn’t come through as strongly for me here; it really does feel like generic military sci-fi. There are a couple twists in the setup, though, viz: a) instead of playing one space marine, you actually swap between members of a squad, each with a slight difference in skillset or role, and b) rather than terrifying acid-blooded xenomorphs, per the cover art you’re hunting down overgrown but still-cute tardigrades.
After a brief bit of context-setting, the game quickly establishes its structure: the team splits up to explore each corner of a besieged colony, and you need to guide them in turn as they find, and hopefully best, an alien. The vignettes are all quite brief – the longest might take fifteen minutes or so – and all involve classic puzzles, but with a little bit of variety; one involves getting an elevator to work so you can explore an abandoned building, another finding an alien who’s hiding among others in a zoo. And again, none are too challenging on their own – sure, I got jumped a couple times, but some judicious UNDOing was usually enough for me to turn the tables on the beasties. The one wrinkle adding to the difficulty is that there’s a tight 80-turn timer, and some of the larger scenarios can easily eat up 50 or 60 of those to fully explore. Good thing the party separates, so the timer resets every time you swap characters!
Except, er, no, it doesn’t. I assume there’s some technical reason in ADRIFT behind this implementation decision – it’s similarly kind of annoying that you can only save and load the game as the initial protagonist – but as a result, the timer just keeps on clicking linearly as you hop from character to character, as though when the commander said “let’s split up!” and left, everyone shuffled around aimlessly waiting until he radioed back to say he’d killed a bug, at which point one more person left and the whole process repeated itself. Given this constraint, the 80 turn limit goes from tight to ludicrous – I’d imagine a reasonably-efficient playthrough that explored the full play area and checked out every bit of scenery, while solving the puzzles expeditiously, would still easily reach 250 turns or so (that abandoned office building is big – I confess I checked the walkthrough to avoid having to check out a dozenish empty, nondescript locations).
Fortunately it wasn’t too hard for me to savescum my way around the issue: every time I wasted an alien, I restored an earlier save, typed in the optimized path, then saved again. As a result the timer did little more than add a pleasant frisson of challenge, making my victory all the sweeter. Horsfield has written better games, I think – as mentioned, while this one is technically solid and has fair, well-clued puzzles, it doesn’t have as much of the immersive detail I’ve enjoyed in other, harder games – but Bug Hunt is still recognizably of a piece with that larger oeuvre, and so I feel quite satisfied in finally taking the W.
* I know, I know, this isn’t actually its name, but without looking, do you remember what the game’s called?
The RNG has been getting its laughs in – after putting the two games starting with X together, it also gave me the duo of Adventuron games back to back. There the commonalities end, though; for one thing, the protagonist is a Russian soldier fighting “the 19th century Eastern war” (is this Crimea?), but more importantly, while we imagine the protagonist of The Last Mountain as an intensely moral figure, here we’re playing someone with distinctly darker ethics. The opening crawl tells us that after volunteering to fight, Sidorf’s “ideals were quickly replaced by a survival instinct… he wants to do one last thing perfectly. Whatever the cost.”
Going into the game, I had several ideas for what that one last thing might be, and what cost might have to be paid. Points to the author: all of those ideas were completely wrong. This is a story I haven’t seen before, at least in exactly these contours. But partially I think that’s because while Sidorf’s motivations present a compelling enigma, once they begin to resolve things slightly fall apart. To dig into why, I’m going to need to spoil the plot, so fair warning that you might want to finish the game before reading the rest of this review (it’s short and worth playing, in my view).
To provide some padding before getting to the spoilery bits, let’s talk briefly about the mechanics and the prose. We’ve got here a linear series of set pieces, which makes sense because Sidorf is a grunt following orders – he shouldn’t have free rein to wander. The game uses a relatively stripped-down command set, and runs into some of the syntax foibles out-of-the-box Adventuron is prey to, but because it’s quite direct about prompting you about what action you’re supposed to take next, I generally didn’t have too much trouble, with just a few notable exceptions (Spoiler - click to show)(I knew exactly what I wanted to do in the late-game sequence where you need to sneak around the back of a tent and blow up some explosives, but it definitely took some wrestling with the parser to get that across).
The prose takes a similarly blunt approach. BLF boasts a translation credit, so it was clearly written in another language first, but the English is solid enough; the game’s prone to simple, declarative sentences that are closely grounded I the first-person narration, which is an effective way of communicating Sidorf’s voice. There’s the occasional off note – him calling his fellow Russian soldiers “comrades” feels like an anachronistic Soviet-era touch – but overall it fits the game quite well, with the relatively straightforward language not getting in the way of establishing the ambiguities of the protagonist’s desires and goals.
In fact, this combination of straightforward prose and aggressive prompting of the player is doubly important because Sidorf’s motivations turn out to be quite idiosyncratic – if the player were given more freedom or a muddier picture of the situation, the game could easily have turned into a frustrating experience, since they’d almost certainly wind up chasing the wrong goals. Sidorf doesn’t dream of performing an act of heroics, or of surviving to go back home no matter what: no, he’s resigned himself to death in battle, but wants to make sure the last letter home that’s found on his body is the best-written, most compelling letter anyone has ever seen. He’s also fixated on a very specific way of accomplishing that goal: purloining bits and pieces of the letters his fellow soldiers write. Understandably, none of them are especially likely to share their missives back to their sweethearts or tearful farewells to their children with someone who, as it turns out, is quite the socially-awkward weirdo; fortunately for Sidorf if not for the others, he’s willing to go to any extreme to get them to cough up the goods.
The game thus has a regular rhythm to its half-hour runtime: meet a new soldier or soldiers, then follow order for a while until you have a chance to kill them and take their stuff, until you have all the raw material you need to write your masterpiece, bringing the game to a close with a brief narration of Sidorf’s inevitable death. In its favor, this resolution is compellingly demented; against this, though, I simultaneously found it both annoyingly obscure and a little too pat.
On the obscure side of things, besides that one sentence in the intro talking about the death of Sidorf’s ideals and the triumph of the survival instinct, we don’t get any sense of how Sidorf hit on his ideas – they’re just taken as givens (and, one feels obliged to point out, they don’t seem to have anything much to do with survival). Beyond his monomaniacal acquisitive zeal, Sidorf doesn’t have much characterization, and indeed, the climax feels frustratingly anticlimactic. The contents of the final letter are never so much as hinted at, nor do we get any clue about who Sidorf’s family are, what they might think of what he’s going to tell them, or why he’s so concerned with making such an impression on them (and again, we don’t even know what war this is!).
Sure, to a certain extent this is beside the point; psychologizing a character who’s clearly meant to be an allegorical figure risks crushing an intellectual argument with banality (the game would hardly be more compelling if we found out, say, that Sidorf is desperate to impress a father who used to beat him). And there’s no indication that there’s something about the contingent facts around this particular historical conflict that brought on his mania. But to my mind fiction works best when it manages to ground its ideas in personality; to stick with the game’s milieu, Tolstory is surely working with abstractions in War and Peace, but the novel has survived because Pierre, Natasha, and the others feel like specific, idiosyncratic characters with depths that go beyond their mere function as elements in an argument about history. We don’t get anything like that here, and so Sidorf dies as he lives: a cipher.
As for the other way of looking at the game’s themes: I mean, writers are vampires, film at 11. To its credit, BLF stages this idea in a novel way, but as far as I was able to engage with the game, the novelty felt only skin-deep, and actually winds up undercutting the effectiveness of the argument. Like, even if we consider the intensely negative case of an amoral author who takes the stories or emotional trauma of their loved ones and turns them into a crass commercial product, we’d still say “compared to Sidorf, this isn’t so bad!” The things authors do to get ideas or inspiration from others don’t look very much like the stuff Sidorf does so he can steal letters from the corpses of his friends, so while the parallels may work intellectually, they feel schematic rather than visceral.
I always like to see parser games that are going for a literary effect, and BLF certainly looks good on that score; the plot, characters, writing, puzzles, and gameplay are very clearly arranged to advance a very specific set of themes. But for all the grubbiness of Sidorf’s experience, I found the perspective offered wound up being too high-level; there’s not enough blood in the veins to make the various dilemmas and atrocities here truly sing.