Reviews by Mike Russo

Spring Thing 2021

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Eleanor, by Rob

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Eleanor Riddle-by, April 24, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, where I got stuck on a puzzle; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.

This is a new game by the author of Radicofani from last year’s Comp (link is to my review). Much like the earlier piece, Eleanor has old-school trappings – the game delights in popping up new windows with low-res graphics and hard-to-read fonts – an obtuse parser, and near-unsolvable puzzles in the way of rescuing a female love interest. Despite these off-putting features, I wound up enjoying Radicofani on the strength of its setting – an old Italian hill town under the sway of supernatural evil, complete with charming café, musty library, desecrated church, and spooky castle. This time out, though, the setting is a metaphysical underworld loosely inspired by the music of the Beatles, and it’s sadly not a change for the better.

Preliminarily, let me say that I don’t quite get the Beatles thing. As far as I understand it, the premise here is that Eleanor – who’s I think the romantic partner of the player character – has died, seemingly by suicide, and you’ve decided to make your own suicide attempt to try to retrieve her soul from the afterlife. So far so Orpheus and Eurydice, I suppose, so having a musical link has some kind of logic. But I tend to think of the Beatles’ oeuvre as love songs and psychedelia – this kind of tormented, emo-y setup seems like it would work better with someone like Tom Waits or Nine Inch Nails rather than the Fab Four. Plus, given her name I think we’re meant to understand Eleanor as lonely-spinster Eleanor Rigby, but the idea of her being coupled up seems antithetical to the character of the woman from the song! The game does include other occasional nods to the Beatles – there’s an errant quote from Strawberry Fields Forever, and the ABOUT text notes in passing that “nothing is real” but the series of references never felt to me like they meshed with the subject matter.

Still, there’s nothing wrong with an idiosyncratic choice of inspiration, and it’s not like we’re talking about a gritty S&M-themed Care Bears reboot or anything too outré like that. The real difficulty is that gameplay consists of navigating a surreal, near-featureless void, with your only companions a clumsy parser, obfuscated prose, obscure puzzles, and a vicious time limit. Taking these in order: the parser is a custom one, and has a lot of idiosyncrasies, the main one being that it’s rarely clear whether or not it’s understood what you’re trying to do. There’s lots of response text that plays on a timer, and you’ll get different responses to what would be synonyms in Inform, like say if you type KNOCK ON BLACK DOOR versus KNOCK ON BLACK (in the former case, I got “I’m sorry, I’d like to understand more”; I the latter, I got “” – which might have been non sequitur text just playing in the background?)

Relatedly, even when the parser isn’t been a slippery little eel, the writing is awkward, with lots of typos and infelicities starting on the very first page. I don’t think the author’s a native English speaker, and fair enough, this is far better game than any I could write in another language, but getting proofreaders and testers who are fluent is really necessary in these cases!

These issues feed into a bigger one, which is the difficulty level of the puzzles. I found them pretty unintuitive, apparently operating on dream-logic (I solved two and a half, with the help of what’s actually a rather-nifty help feature that pops up images that prompt you towards the solution). But the thing about dream-logic is that you need to establish the rules of the dream, and create symbolic associations between the objects in the dream and the emotions or relationships that they represent, in order for the player to understand what role they’re supposed to play. Here, the necessary actions didn’t seem cued in any way by the situation, and instead are just random verbs you can apply to the contextless nouns on offer. For example (Spoiler - click to show)there’s a mirror in the first room, and you need to break it to make progress – but there’s no indication that the mirror is showing anything about the protagonist that he rejects, for example, or that there’s anything on the other side, which would motivate the breaking. Worse, after that you need to blow on the fragments of the mirror, which I guessed because it’s in the hint image but can’t even construct a post-hoc metaphorical rationale for.

What this means is that most of my experience playing Eleanor was trial-and-error, with the parser and language issues making me unsure whether my trials were actually producing errors. And then making things worse, after 20 or so turns failing to make progress, a timer ends the game. There are copious autosaves so it’s hard to lose too much progress, but running into the fail-state so frequently sucked much of my motivation – as did feeling like I knew how to solve the last puzzle blocking my progress, but couldn’t find the syntax to make it work ((Spoiler - click to show)I think you need to adjust the clock so it’s showing the time as midnight, but no version of SET CLOCK TO MIDNIGHT was accepted or even threw off a useful error).

Eleanor definitely boasts a compelling atmosphere, and I admit I’m curious to know how the Beatles stuff all comes together in the end (I’m waiting for Father Mackenzie to show up as a defrocked exorcist tormented by literal demons and living on the edge). With a lot more polish, and some additional resonance to the puzzles, I could see this being a lot of fun – alas, as it is I found it an exercise in frustration, without even Radicofani’s pretty cityscapes as a consolation.

ADDENDUM: the author made some updates, including making the guess-the-verb puzzle discussed above a little easier, so I was able to go back and finish it. The second half of the game isn't radically different from the first, but either the puzzles get a little easier or thematic or I just got more in tune with them, since I didn't find the remainder too hard to get through so long as I kept consulting the HELP function. I might have missed the "real" ending since I finished with 17 out of 18 points and were indications that another outcome might have been possible, but I'm satisfied with where the story ended (Spoiler - click to show)(the main character deciding to let go of Eleanor now that she's gone, and try to continue with his life).

The prose continued to have a fair number of errors and awkward phrases, but there were some nice pieces of writing too, including a short exegesis on Eleanor Rigby that helped knit the game's themes together rather nicely. It's still a little too abstract for my tastes -- there are a few memories or images of Eleanor that start to give her a bit of specificity as a person, but she remains largely a cipher throughout, which allows the themes to come through but drains away some of the emotional immediacy. Glad I was able to see the rest of this one!

Hand of God, by Dana Freitas

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Less buggy, still a bit ugly, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

NOTE: The first part of this review was written about an earlier version of the game, which had a game-ending bug; read on for an addendum written after I finished the updated version.

Oof, I have to say I did not get on with Hand of God. Partially this is because I couldn’t figure out how to get to the revolt of robot fanatics promised by the blurb, and instead got stuck in the white-collar drudgery also promised by the blurb. And partially this is because I noticed an ugly detail about the characterization I couldn’t unsee, and it killed my willingness to push past the bug that was blocking my progress.

First things first – this is a Twine game, in default style though with some animated text and changes to the font colors to denote when different people are speaking. The player character is a fortysomething husband and father who’s got a government job helping develop a robot interpreter, and those two strands – family life and robot stuff – are set up to bear equal weight, at least in the portions of the game I got to. You start out at home, going through your weekday morning routine and interacting with your family; then drive to work, and after a nose around the environs and learning more about the project, check in with your coworkers.

The first section is OK as far as it goes. The family interactions are pleasant and low-key, and if they seem a bit schematic (just about the first thing we learn about the player character’s wife is that she’s a GenXer, and the daughter doesn’t have much personality besides liking an MMORPG), well, there’s nothing wrong with starting simple. There are a few implementation niggles – there isn’t any branching but you can choose which order to do some necessary tasks before getting ready for work, and they’re repeatable, meaning you can eat infinite pop-tarts. And the commuting sequence managed to confuse me since I wasn’t sure whether I was meant to be continuing on the highway or taking the first exit in order to get to work.

The writing throughout is a bit weak, with fairly unimaginative prose and a scattering of typos. The author also tends to really overuse certain words. Like, here’s a paragraph from a dream sequence that comes at the beginning of the game:

"The winds blow against your pale, fleshy body, scratching you thoughout (sic) your body. You sweat like a pig as the sun pulses upon your body. It will not be long until all of the water leaves your body and you die of dehydration."

Reading that many instances of “body” is actually kind of unsettling!

Where things really went wrong, though, is at the office. Most immediately, this is where I reached the impasse I described above – after I parked, checked out the other buildings on the campus, walked into the high-security area to check out the robot (whose name and function appear to be setting up a Tower of Babel allusion), then entered my office to greet my boss and coworkers, I got stuck in a similar cycle as at home, except this time I was unable to get a new option to appear no matter how many times I went to the water cooler or checked in with my cube-mate. From a quick look at the html source, there’s a lot more story to come, but it does seem like there’s a bug that blocks the way forward.

More significant than any bug, however, was an ugly realization I made after meeting all my coworkers. Here’s the receptionist, Julia:

"A brown skinned woman in her late twenties, her casual hoop earrings and red headband hide the wit of someone able to obtain an $80,000 job doing nothing."

Here’s Emily, a fellow coder:

"A woman of Chinese descent in a bright purple suit, her smugness radiates wherever she goes. You KNOW that she is the one to blame for your food poisoning. She will handle you (sic) being better than her at your jobs."

Here’s our boss:

"A dark skinned man in his 50s, his imposing 165 cm looks upon you from his shrub enshrined desk…. This man’s harsh demands will never cease."

And just by way of contrast, meet the aforementioned cube-mate:

"A bright eyed young man, his blue eyes light up the room… Andrew is a nice kid."

So to recap – we have a lazy, flashy-dressing black woman who’s living large in a government sinecure; a stuck-up, msg-dosing Chinese-American; a cruel, physically-imposing black man; and a nice friendly blue-eyed kid. I’m sure Hand of God is not intending to be racist, but – excuse my French – holy hell this is some racist bullshit right here. I think the problem is that, much like with the player character’s family, the author is relying on stereotypes to come up with the cast of characters, and possibly had the admirable impulse to make the game more representative by including some people of color. But the problem with doing that unreflectingly is that you can wind up regurgitating some really really ugly caricatures that draw on boogeymen first conjured up by reactionaries and then filtered into pop culture – and racist tokenizing is way worse than no representation at all.

Anyway, like I said this really killed my will to continue; hopefully there’ll be an update to fix the bug and the bad racial dynamics, since I like a good story about robot zealots (admittedly, there’s Battlestar Galactica and then I’m not sure what the second example would be). But for now, I’m taking a pass.

ADDENDUM: Since I wrote the above, Hand of God has seen an update that fixes the aforementioned game-stopping bug, so I went back and finished it. The story does work a bit better now that I’ve seen all of it – in particular, it looks like some of the main character’s negative traits are intentional, and are meant to provide a bit of a character arc (I didn’t mention it in my review, but he appears to have some anger issues and is overly nostalgic for his youth). The weird racial stuff remains as it was, however, including a “joke” about how one time the translator robot malfunctioned and ran around yelling racist slurs – and with the added twist that the enemy hacker the main character thinks is behind the robot rebellion 1) is actually innocent, so the rebellion is unexplained as far as I could tell; and 2) is a Palestinian Arab who’s assassinated in what’s meant to be a feel-good epilogue, completing the perfect record of unpleasant characterization and negative outcomes for POC in this story.

Speaking of the story and the rebellion, I found this rather unsatisfying too. The robots suddenly start killing or capturing humans while spouting Gnostic buzzwords, but their plot (to annihilate humanity via nuclear war) doesn’t seem to square with Gnosticism as far as I understand it. And then the stratagem the main character uses to foil their scheme is about the oldest, hoariest chestnut there is (Spoiler - click to show)(saying a paradox aloud, at which point smoke starts coming out of all the robots’ ears). Maybe the focus is meant to be more on the family dynamics, because that’s where the denouement wraps up, but even there, the final moral – “Your loved ones don’t have to be a shackle to misery. They can be the keys to enjoying life together” – feels oddly negative, and runs up against the overall flatness of the characters.

The choice mechanics of the second half of the game also felt a bit clumsy to me, since the story requires you to be captured – escaping the robots leads to unsatisfying bad ends, meaning seeing the full story play out requires making decisions that don’t make sense for a character who’d presumably be very focused on getting away from the killbots. There were no further bugs, at least!

Project Arcmör, by Donald Conrad and Peter M.J. Gross

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Pretty, brutish, and short, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

(I beta tested this game)

Project Arcmör is a Twine horror/sci-fi hybrid that has no compunctions about killing you. Most frequently this will happen when half-glimpsed test subjects tear you apart, but the game’s true baddies aren’t the man-eating mutants: instead that’s capitalism in general and the Star Quorp corporation, your employer, in particular. This what-if-businessmen-are-the-real-monsters angle goes back to the birth of the sub-genre (i.e., Alien and Aliens), but it’s well-realized here, giving rise to some entertainingly dark satire and enlivening an otherwise-familiar scenario with a bit of social comment. Stir in some darkly-evocative pixel art and you’ve got a recipe for some good, bloody fun.

Let’s start out with that whole “you’re going to die a lot” thing. You play a colonist who’s been deep-frozen for the trip to whatever interstellar hellhole the company wants you to settle, and who’s unexpectedly thawed out when your ship encounters a derelict hulk mid-way. The ship’s computer has chosen you to head through the airlock and try to render assistance, which involves navigating through the defunct ship’s dark halls solving a few small puzzles (straightforward enough) while not being ripped limb from limb by the aforementioned monsters (much harder). Fortunately, unpleasant as these repeated gibbings must be to experience, they don’t set you back much – not because death is a trigger to reload a save (though I mean, you can if you must), but because the indefatigable ship’s computer will just defrost the next colonist in line to try again. Each is distinguished only by their ID number, which ratchets down by one after each gruesome killing, making me very curious what happens if you manage to run through the lot.

The lovely visuals help make this live/die/repeat cycle go down easy. I usually tend to tune out the visuals in IF, but here I found myself enjoying them just as much as the prose. They paint the derelict in moody blue-black tones, though of course there’s more than the occasional burst of red. There’s also some nicely understated animations that serve to enhance the mood, a sidebar map to make navigation clearer. Unlike some high-production-value pieces of IF, though, the graphics don’t mask weak writing, which on the contrary is nicely done as well, efficiently laying out the scene and boasting a bone-dry wit that helps the dark humor land. Your one companion (well, other than the monsters) is your ship’s computer, VAL, and in between bouts of puzzle-solving, you can call it up for a chat, allowing it can remind you of your goals and drop barely-coded hints about your ultimate expendability and low prospects for survival. My favorite bit of writing is from the best ending, which I’ll put behind a spoiler-block:

(Spoiler - click to show)You are greeted with a hero’s welcome.

“Congratulations! In recognition of your outstanding performance, StarQuorp™ would like to reward you with unlimited access to oxygen during the rest of your time on board this vessel.”

However, the StarQuorp colony ship was designed to operate without human supervision. The supplies of food and water on board have been sealed for transport.

Eventually, you starve to death.

I repeat, this is the best ending.

The game underlying all of this is, as mentioned, fairly straight-ahead. There are a few small inventory puzzles, and a climactic choice leading to one of three different endings. I also found a few easter-egg-like interactions using some of the many items left lying around the abandoned ship, though I wanted there to be more of these, or at least for them to have more impact on the world and story. Still, there’s nothing wrong with a focused game with a unified, effective aesthetic, which Project Arcmör boasts in spades.

So I Was Short Of Cash And Took On A Quest, by Anssi Räisänen

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fun but underripe, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

So I Was Short of Cash… is a rarity in this Spring Thing, as it’s a story-light, puzzle-focused parser game that doesn’t take itself too seriously. I found it a nice change of pace, though the implementation is awkward enough to prevent it from going down as smoothly as I’d like.

Plot-wise, SIWSOC jumps right into the action, with the title conveying the basic setup and then the opening text further relating that you’ve been hired to deliver an envelope to someone (you don’t know who), and you’ve entered a house (you don’t know whose – actually turns out it’s some kind of embassy?) to look for additional instructions that have been placed there for you. There’s a lot that’s vague about this, and I found myself unsure even of what the setting was meant to be as I started (the word “quest” to me conjures up a fantasy vibe, though what’s on offer here is more a light-hearted 20th Century spy romp). Turns out the game is all about the puzzles and you can just go with the flow without worrying too much about any of this, and I had a fine time once I did that – but still, even for a jokey game like this, it would have been nice to have a clearer sense of the premise.

So what are those puzzles like? They’re largely about following somewhat-cryptic notes left by your patrons to get around a series of locked doors, primarily through traditional object-manipulation actions. I found they were pitched at a good level of difficulty – the riddles usually give you enough to start poking around, but weren’t immediately obvious to me, leading to a couple of fun “aha” moments when I figured out the trick. The game also offers a few small nudges in the right direction, and was kind enough to explain one puzzle after I solved it by trial and error.

On the other hand, even as someone familiar with how Inform games work I found I struggled with the parser a fair bit – just about everything I tried to do took a little more effort and created a bit more friction than I wanted. I ran into some guess-the-verb issues (when trying to see if there was something concealed under an object, LIFT and PULL didn’t work, requiring TAKE or LOOK UNDER; emptying a bucket required POUR INTO rather than EMPTY); unimplemented synonyms (a device described as an “electirc [sic] lock mechanism… with another keypad” responds only to “keypad”, not “lock” or “mechanism”); and a lot of small conveniences I’m used to seeing in modern games are absent (automatically figuring out which key I want to use to unlock a door, for example). Again, there’s nothing game-breaking or that delayed me too long, but a bit more polish would have substantially increased my enjoyment.

The writing side of things is pretty similar – it’s easygoing, with some bits that actually made me laugh (including, mirabile dictu, a toilet-flushing gag). But there are some technical errors, including typos and spacing oddities, and some odd word choices, with a chicken left in the oven described as “getting ripe… maybe overripe?” Again, it’s nothing too bad, but bespeaks a game that could use another round of editing.

I don’t want to be hard on SIWSOC, since I did pass a fun half-hour or so with it, and it’s definitely got some charm. And it was entered into the Back Garden, so perhaps it’s unfair to expect it to have the same level of testing as a Main Festival or Comp entry. But I think there is a missed opportunity here – given the amount of work that went into making it, only a little more could have made it even more of a fun diversion.

Budacanta, by Alianora La Canta

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Worthwhile even though currently incomplete, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Rounding out the excerpts in this year’s Back Garden, Budacanta is a visual novel with ropey graphics but a neat conceit: you’re a voice in the head of the autistic main character, Alianora, helping her navigate challenges both logistical and social as she travels from the U.S. to Budapest to visit a friend and take in some motorsports (I think like F1 racing, maybe?) The piece of the game on offer covers her departure and a train journey through Prague, then ends on arrival in Budapest, with a few choices and vignettes along the way.

I led my description of the main character with her autism not to reduce her to her diagnosis but because the game is clear that it’s largely about the questions of why, and how, an autistic person would travel so far from home by themselves. There’s a satisfying answer offered – likening the unfamiliarity a neurotypical traveler feels in a strange place to the similar discomfort autistic people sometimes feel even in familiar surroundings – but the game intends to show as well as tell. As a result, it has a light pedagogical feel, with frequent asides to the player to better inform them about what it’s like to be autistic, and offering different potential strategies for navigating a world built for the neurotypical.

I thought these bits were well done – I was familiar with some of this information, like “spoon theory” (roughly, the idea that neurodivergent people or people with disabilities often have a relatively fixed pool of energy or capacity to do things that feel effortless to folks who don’t have those conditions, so deciding when to do those things can be a weighty task). But it’s all well-explained, and I definitely learned some new things – I was surprised when Alianora said that she enjoyed talking about being autistic, and saw her stock of spoons increased as a result, because I would have thought explaining these things over and over could get exhausting!

Per that reference to the stock of spoons, as far as I can make out the core gameplay of Budacanta looks like it will be about making resource-allocation decisions. At some of the major decision prompts, you’re shown your “spoon count,” and occasionally your cash on hand as well, indicating that some decisions will increase or decrease these finite quantities. Because this is just the first part of the game, there’s currently no risk of even coming close to running out of either, but I could see this working well to add a bit of additional engagement to a story that so far seems like it’ll be a pleasant, low-key bit of tourism.

The narrative voice is appealing throughout, friendly and casual in a way that feels authentic. The writing is generally good, too – I liked this description of a plane taxiing then taking off:

"Low primal rumbling sensed as much through the feet as the ears. To the sides, a thrumming blaze pulsed a beat of four."

There are some rough patches in this version of the game, though. The primary one is probably the graphics, which in most scenes are black-and-white sketches painted with a broad brush and which I often found hard to decipher. They do get more colorful as the journey progresses, so hopefully the visuals will see an upgrade as Budacanta moves to a full release. The choices can feel a little awkward, too – upon starting the game, I found several of them seemed pretty similar to each other so I wasn’t sure what each would do. And in important decisions, the first choice often lists the player’s spoon and money inventory, as well as stating the time, before adding an actual option after a hyphen. I think this is mean to be a way of updating the player about Alianora’s condition, but it would be clearer if this information was conveyed in a separate part of the interface. Finally, there was one odd bit of writing that likened neurodivergent people temporarily “passing” as neurotypical to Black people “passing” as white, which I found rather jarring given how fraught racial passing can be – but from how it’s described, I think the intended reference might actually be to code-switching.

Regardless of these small issues, I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so with Budacanta – even the graphics stopped bothering me after I focused my attention just on the text box. This is definitely another one where I’ll be anticipating the full release!

Manikin Demo, by Rose Behar

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The mannequins are legit terrifying, April 23, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

A demo with not much there yet, Manikin nonetheless does a good job of realizing its text-message conceit and presenting an appealing central character (who isn’t actually the player). It’s also got a heck of an inciting incident, which is the main character’s mom texting to tell them that their neighbor’s house-slash-compound-slash-terrifying-mannequin-museum has burned down overnight, claiming his life. Your mom, her suspicions raised, decides to investigate, and also decides to keep you abreast of her exploits.

This is a kind of loopy setup, albeit with some moments of fear when you see the photos of the burned-out mannequin hall of horrors. It worked for me, though, since your mom comes off as an endearingly loopy woman. She’s not really up on slang, she derisively refers to the cops as “the popo”, and she’s a brave enough mix of clueless and bullheaded not to have any compunctions about entering a taped-off crime-scene based on nothing but a gut instinct that something’s not right (based on her profile photo, she’s unsurprisingly white).

The game’s interface is a mocked-up smartphone displaying a text thread, and it commits to the gag – messages take a few seconds to arrive and come with time-stamps (there’s not much actual waiting, thank god, as the timed text moves very fast and occasional time-jumps take care of any downtime), and there are inline photos as she shows you what she’s seeing. After every half-dozen or so messages, she’ll pause and give you an opportunity to weigh in, either asking a question, trying to direct her investigation, or advising her on the best course of action.

The choices at this stage are pretty low-key, mostly coming down to either supporting or pushing back against your mom’s Nancy-Drew-themed mid-life crisis. The plot doesn’t appear to branch based on these decisions – at least in this early section of the game – though given the way she’s characterized, I wasn’t bothered by the fact that she’s undeterred by her kid’s attempts to rein her in. Things might open up later on, and it seems clear that the central mystery will get more elaborate, as there are already intimations that there’s something untoward going on with the dead neighbor’s mannequins.

I was definitely disappointed that more of the plot hadn’t come out by the time the demo came to a halt, though I have to say I was also starting to get a little restless. I’m not sure if this is because the pacing sometimes felt a little slow, or if it had to do with the accumulation of the short but very frequent pauses as messages came in. Still, while this again isn’t anything close to a complete story, it did enough to put the full game on my radar screen, so I’ll be keeping an eye out for it!

Eyewear Cleaner 2077: Demo, by Naomi Norbez

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Promising start, April 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

The NPC-eye view of a AAA video game is a genre I’m often a little hesitant about – it can easily devolve into a delivery vehicle for a million arrow-to-the-knee jokes – but this demo for Eyewear Cleaner 2077 makes clear that it’s about something beyond just making fun of how dumb games are, leaving me interested to see the final shape of the story.

As the title makes clear, in this Twine game you play a retail peon in the world of Cyberpunk 2077 – in a clever bait-and-switch, the piece opens by telling you you’re a cis white dude with all the best guns and gear, before admitting that nah, you’re a nonbinary wage-slave. This isn’t a one-note joke, though: the circumstances of the main character’s life are established not to throw a satiric light on the exploits of the (presumably, since I haven’t played it) terrifying murder-hobo who’s the protagonist of the big-budget RPG, but to create sympathy and resonance with real issues: capitalism, state violence, exploitation, the rights and dignity of trans and genderqueer folks… The world is also nicely fleshed-out – I’m not sure how much of this is drawn directly from the AAA game, but there are social media feeds to drown in, a choice of video games offering cheap distraction, and more.

Part of what makes this work is that Eyewear Cleaner stays relatively grounded, at least so far. The main character’s job and lifestyle definitely suck, but not in a parodic, over-the-top way. Sure, there’s an AI in their head that docks their paycheck if they have a stray thought during work hours, but once the day is done they can visit a friendly bartender, or display some common humanity to a homeless person in a way that isn’t immediately punished. I’ve often seen these kinds of stories come in with too heavy a hand, but an overdone miseryguts presentation can distance the player by making clear that this awful milieu is being conjured up in the service of polemic, or again, bad parody – Eyewear Cleaner steers clear of this.

As you navigate this proletarian life, the player is given a large number of choices. Some of these have more or less immediate consequences – you opt into or out of the pay-docking distractions mentioned above – but the ones given the most weight by the game turn on conformity versus revolt, with your status along the continuum tracked by a handy Rebellion Level meter in the sidebar. The choices are primarily small, like sympathizing with a complaint fellow-bystander’s complaint about brutal cops, though there’s one that seems to intersect with larger-scale concerns: (Spoiler - click to show)whether or not you alert the cops about the anti-corporate vigilante.

I’ve seen this mechanic handled poorly in the past, where rebellion is positioned as the only possible choice and immediately rewarded in a didactic orgy of wish-fulfillment that neither convinces nor satisfies. Eyewear Cleaner again does this well, at least so far. The more rebellious choices are more likely to lead to negative consequences, sensibly enough, but nor are they punished overly-harshly as of yet. I found this pushed me to engage with the story rather than just blindly pick one side or the other in every circumstance – keeping my head down sometimes seemed only reasonable given the risks, but it’s possible to get small victories helping others or asserting your dignity, which again kept me invested in the character and the story.

The demo gives you two days of a planned five, and while there are some missing images testifying to its incomplete state, I found what’s on offer well polished, without typos or bugs, which bodes well for the finished product. It’s hard to fully evaluate a story without knowing where the narrative and character arcs are ultimately going, of course, and I find dystopic sci-fi often doesn’t stick the landing, but I enjoyed this excerpt and suspect the remainder will live up to the good example it sets.

Theatre of Spud, by D E Haynes

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Not ready for opening night, April 22, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Theatre of Spud is another Python game requiring a bit of elbow-grease to get working on a PC. Unlike Space Diner, though, I found the installation process to be a pain, and the payoff not really worth it. I won’t belabor the former point, though will note that there appears to be an error in the setup files in the version I played, which required some manual tweaking to correct – see this post for details. The blurb on the festival page is good, though, seeming to indicate backstage amateur-theatre hijinks to come, so once I’d jumped through the requisite hoops I was excited to dig in.

Sadly, those hopes were frustrated and I found the game itself pretty unengaging. Largely this is because of excessively slow timed text that makes the simplest action take 10 or more seconds – timed text is enough of a pain in choice-based games, but when used in a parser game like this, with highly-granular actions and a medium-sized map, it gets excruciating.

But even putting aside this major technical issue, Theatre of Spud has problems with motivation and interactivity. First of all, it starts out confusingly: the blurb sets up a young boy named Spud as the protagonist and then the game asks for your character’s first name, so when the opening scene kept referring to someone named Alan I figured he was an important side-character, but it turns out he’s the protagonist. I was able to get Alan into the theatre/er, at which point there’s a monologue from the play’s director where he asks you to make sure the lights in the parking lot stay on to prevent the local hooligans from getting up to any mischief, so I guess Alan is a sort of dogsbody for the theater?

This seemed like the first task to take on, except the lights sure seemed to be doing fine on their own so I wasn’t sure what else needed to be done to harden them against chav-related misadventure. Compounding this aimlessness, the custom parser doesn’t have many actions implemented, including the ability to examine objects so far as I could tell. So my experience of Theatre of Spud was of wandering around a reasonably large map with not much in it and minimal ability to interact with what’s there – while the timed-text issue made everything treacle-slow. It’s a shame because again, I’m here for the premise, but I’m putting this one back on the shelf until a hopefully-refined final version comes around.

Cycles (Excerpt), by Mike Marttila

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A promising fragment, April 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Another incomplete Back Garden offering, Cycles has be interested to see what comes next but doesn’t offer much more than a teaser. From the blurb, it sounds like the plan encompasses a lot of interactivity and shifting social dynamics, which given the setting – a big family reunion colliding with some kind of mysterious secret – seems promising indeed. But what’s on offer here is just about 3,000 words of setup, with few choices and few cards tipped.

The prose is the main attraction here. The author writes in a light literary-fiction voice, featuring lots of metaphors, a focus on the interiority of the main character, and a skillful interweaving of present action with backstory. The writing could definitely use another editing pass as it’s occasionally over-wordy and clumsy, but it’s definitely a highlight, since this is a style I’m not used to seeing in IF. Here’s an early paragraph I liked (though again, it’d be stronger with like 20% fewer words):

"'You mean Tom?' asked Miranda. She realized she hadn’t really thought of her cousin since Gammy’s passing. Without even meaning to, teenage Miranda had made a protracted spring cleaning of her youthful fancies and pastimes, brushing them all to the back of her mind like whispy dust bunnies to make room for what she’d thought would be the much more serious preoccupations of her adult self. The “adult self” that followed seemed, embarassingly in retrospect, as likely to devote the new space to ripped jeans as to Sylvia Plath’s poetry."

Miranda’s the viewpoint character, and she’s engagingly drawn. You can play her as slightly more excited or slightly more standoffish at the prospect of one again meeting long-unseen family members, but regardless she comes off as a happy-go-lucky sort navigating a mild quarter-life crisis.

The excerpt concludes almost immediately after the reunion starts, with a few family members briefly sketched in a couple of short scenes; it seems unfair to ding them as coming off flat given how little space any of them get, and they’re clearly meant to develop as time goes by. This release wraps up with a cliffhanger portending a potential shift of tone and genre (Miranda and Tom go walking in the woods and meet someone with whom they appear to have a history; (Spoiler - click to show)he seems like one of the fair folk doing an evil Tom Bombadil impression?)).

All things being equal I probably would have preferred to see the story stay in Anne-Patchett-style light domestic drama mode, just because that’s so underutilized in IF, but I can’t deny that this does build interest for what comes next. But again, while what’s here is good, it’s very slight – here’s hoping there’ll be more to come.

Space Diner, by Marta and Alexej

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Comfort gaming, April 21, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2021

Space Diner feels like a throwback, putting me in mind of oddball text games I’d find on late-80’s demo disks –an alien burger-joint simulator would fit right in amidst all the Wizard’s Castle clones and Drugwars-alikes of the era. Partially this is due to the slight obtuseness of the installation process: while the provided instructions are good, I did have to first install Python (easy), figure out where Windows decided to stash the Python executables (slightly harder), and launch the program via a command prompt (pleasantly nostalgia-inducing). The presentation, which opens with endearingly-primitive ascii art before dumping you into an over-complicated interface, and the gameplay, which involves typing in a large number of bespoke commands, reinforce this impression. Space Diner’s mimicry of the grindy, wonky games of my youth is more than skin-deep, but maybe only a little deeper – subcutaneous fat-deep? – though, because it’s actually got some satisfying systems, clever design, and nicely understated writing that make it surprisingly enjoyable and perhaps even slightly modern.

With that said, most of what you do in Space Diner is make burgers. Your character is the proprietor of a diner (in space, natch), and each day, you open up, chat with your regulars, take orders from your customers, then go back to the kitchen to prepare and combine ingredients to make meals. There’s a bit of complexity here – early on, you might not have all the ingredients you need to give each patron exactly what they want, and occasionally orders are vague (“something with milk”) so you’ll need to improvise to figure out what the customer might like. But it’s generally fairly straightforward, since there’s a recipe book telling you how to assemble the dishes on your menu, and the game helpfully lists all the verbs you’ll need to use.

This is the kind of system you could see working well in a mobile game, except here there’s no time pressure, making Space Diner a chill, relaxing experience. There’s this game design framework called MDA that includes as one of the aesthetic components of gameplay “submission” or “abnegation” – the idea that some games are satisfying because you can just shut your brain off and spend time performing a task. Space Diner scratches that itch. The difficulty is low – even if you screw up lots of orders, it’s still very hard to get into an economic death spiral – and there are few interesting choices – occasionally you decide how to spend your evening on one of a couple of low-key activities, and you can change your menu once a week, though some options seem clearly superior to others. So really it’s the cooking and serving sections that occupy the most time, where not much thinking is required. That could be a recipe for boredom, but here, because the mechanics of the parser mean that it takes a fair bit of typing to assemble a meal, the busywork was just engaging enough to be satisfying.

It helps that there’s a little bit of worldbuilding and some narrative vignettes that help move things along. Occasionally one of your regulars will invite you to spend time with them outside the diner, and these short scenes provide a cute, slice-of-life view of what it’s like to be a colonist settling a new planet. I especially liked the sequences on Mars, where your regular – an older matriarch from a cow-person species – takes you on outings with her grandkids and cooks you a meal that you can reverse-engineer into a new recipe.

The other thing that’s better than it needs to be are the scenarios. When starting out, you’re given a choice of opening your diner on the moon or Mars. I opted for the former my first time, and quickly got up to speed with my goal (amass $400 – I’m guessing there’s massive deflation in the future?), my ingredients (a half-dozen rather traditional ones, such as beef patties, pickles, and buns, plus the exotic and not-at-all-appetizing silkworms), and my customers (a mix of blue-collar colonists and big-spending tourists). This scenario is pretty simple and I hesitated on whether I wanted to try again on Mars after I won – but I’m glad I did, because Mars had many more, more creative ingredients, a customer base that included humans and two alien races, with different age profiles, and a new goal of getting good online reviews from a diverse set of diners. It’s a much more engaging scenario, and felt fairly different from the setup on the moon.

For all that I liked Space Diner, there’s definitely some cruft. The interface can be quite fiddly, with excessive use of TAB to autocomplete commands being required to stay sane. I also sometimes ran into disambiguation challenges – I was unable to purchase moss from one of the Martian stores because the parser kept thinking I wanted to buy moss milk instead. Some of the mechanics seem underbaked, too: I kept thinking there’d be a way to upgrade my diner’s décor, and I was never really clear what good upgrading my knife or napkin-folding skills was doing. And again, at the end of the day it is a repetitive game of doing the same limited set of tasks over and over. Still, in the time I spent with Space Diner, it didn’t wear out its welcome, and I’m tempted to check it out again once the promised additional scenarios are ready – and not just to get a whiff of nostalgia!

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