When I play IF with an eye towards writing a review, I keep a digital commonplace book – just a little text file where I copy and paste stray bits of writing that resonated with me, jot down inchoate responses that I might flesh out later, and keep track of typos and bugs to flag for the author. For most games it comes to a page or so, providing a nice jumping-off point for when it comes time to write a review.
I spent the better part of ten days playing Manifest No, and thinking about it, and thinking about how to write about it, and in that time my notepad for the game swelled to over twenty pages. I found one dead-end link (it’s “destructocreative”, in Chapter XX), and one thing that might be a typo (“mattrless”) – though that could be a joke about the center of things going missing. The rest is maybe the top 2% of the passages from the game that did something to my heart or my head or both, alongside my increasingly-frantic attempts to make sense of what I was reading. Here’s a random sampling just from my notes on chapter XIV (of XXVII):
“If we, if humankind loses its music, neither sigh nor sign to convoke voice, then what is of a struggle soundless?” Meluoi. “Require we respite religion, psalms of our spite forever afresh to worship day tatters. Submergence in another subjectivity is the only release our isolated souls will receive, this where is I guide you, hold you under the surface, strain out your struggling for air, until at last you slump serene, and we embrace on both sides of a mirror, drowned in each other’s airless, but I can’t make you drink the depths into your own air. You must yourself choose to, to… oh Yamicz, how I struggle to drown myself, let alone you, but I must, I, somehow I have to…”
Renaming sequence, cf all the above. “U, Emninu Leiru. Deiyanasz swa dieya vo. Yamicz.”
To want beyond your brittle limits thorns those on whom your thirsts lunge. No, that’s purposely too harsh. To want someone is suppression and therefore not virtue. Never want someone. Never want anything. No, that’s purposely too harsh. Why this perverse desire to feel worse, how much regret piles up to penance, when can I stop embracing the waste?
(Guess which of those words are Kaemi’s, and which are mine).
All of which is to say that there’s no way I can write a reasonable review that even manages to encapsulate everything I feel and think about Manifest No, much less pin down everything that it’s actually about and what it does. Partially, of course, this is down to sheer avoirdupois – opening the game’s html text in Word, it comes to just under 400 pages, and there’s not much in the way of fancy code inflating that – and partially it’s down to the dense, palimpsestic prose; the text is thick with neologistic portmanteaus, second-order homophones, and alliterative tricks that aren’t just naïve flourishes but carry a payload of meaning in their playful sporting, so you can read each sentence two or three times and take away a different set of valences each time.
(It occurs to me that what I just described has some resonance with the Hindu concept of lila, or god’s play – the idea that what we experience of reality is the divine separating itself into different forms (illusive, maya-forms) so that it can experience itself, extend itself in space and time, and reach deeper understanding through its reflexive game-playing. Is this a bit of a reach, even kind of presumptuous given that it’s a non-Hindu who’s trying to make it? I think yes, basically, but this is the kind of response Manifest No elicits, in some respects demands, so there’s blame to go around).
So there’s length, there’s density, but there’s also reach. While the plot of the game, to the extent I can make it out, can be reduced to a fairly standard postapocalyptic fantasy narrative, the thematic are much wider-ranging, again to the extent I can make them out. Without making a vain attempt to wrap my arms fully around things, there were two strands that primarily stood out to me: first, there’s a preoccupation with immanence; the world the protagonist experiences, we’re told repeatedly, is a hollow one, lacking in substance:
“Should dreams stream a little more lucid, who should wish for waking? Reality as changeful as those within it,” Myneme upon some lost wintry. "Contact between self and the ghostly sieve without the arid abstractions which plague day blears. Live in the conception truer than perception: the world unfinished, full of half shaped phantoms, rushed through real, even in nightmare is there a more fulfilling terror than in the encroaching of systems, structure ever increasingly predeterminative, riven into selfdefulfilling prophecies stripping you to actuals, simply throatsubmit to the swallowing semblancer.
Some of this is internal: the protagonist is running from significant trauma, including a seemingly-abusive mother, a recently-killed friend (or lover?), plus they kill someone early on. He’s not the only one who expresses feelings of alienation and emptiness, though: the theme is externally-driven as well. We’re post some kind of worldwide disaster that’s caused the seas to rise and the land to flood, with isolated capital-t Towers scattered in hostile oceans the last bastions of humanity (well, I suppose I should say “people” – the precise taxonomy of some characters can be challenging to fix, with a subgroup referred to as Vedas who might be biologically distinct (or it might just be that they’ve held on to literacy and have books whereas most other folks don’t), and one character who’s described as a lizard, which works well enough as a metaphor but could be that he’s like, a Gorn?)
I don’t think this is just a matter of life sucking and the protagonist being all grimdark, though: there are indications that whatever sundered the world somehow broke down the transcendent order that infuses meaning into gross matter (perhaps the title’s a clue, beyond being a dumb/awesome pun – this is a place where negation is made physical):
Hollowness of self precipitates hollowness of place.
To imbue into the object ourselves to reverse our initial eternal traumatic separation so when it rebounds amplified it can incinerate the innate curse along with us, shall we say the rose is not its thorns?
all these, stupidly tactile chairs, this world of browns and bangs, it’s not the faintest figment of that, that uh, I don’t know, I don’t know! I just, when I woke up I immediately descended, physically to follow my soul aye, went all the way home, and I, swam in the port, dove and rose and dove and rose until I thought I might disturb the glue that keeps these opposites together… really wanted to die in that moment, I can’t, it’s hard to explain, like in fate’s pull only faster or slower floating, wanted in the dream wake to live out my meaning at a rate worthy of our blood’s pumping to panic attack amass.
The other major strand that resonated with me has to do with language, and the simultaneous criticality of and inadequacy of words to fix identity and grapple with the transcendent. There are echoes of Babel all over this game, from the gross level of the plot – it’s structured as a quest for something called the Submerged Tower, which has a whiff of the Flood and Atlantis, sure, but in a gnostic-inflected narrative like this there’s really only one tower that matters. Throughout, we find passages like this:
Cease your prayers to a demon so brutal as single say, certain word, solid sound, sunders our ice palaces to seep through the noxious underworld fuming caustic thoughts, our wild grasping backward in the evernight seeking the source of a separate light other than what our pearl eyes radiate.
Atrocity natural, who should not wish cleave a dream city? Unspeakable situation, how do we supernate beyond construction of tenses artificial imposed brutal upon the fluid?
Speaking and naming does violence to the true nature of reality; at the same time, words have incredible power. Those Vedas I mentioned above? Almost the first thing the regular characters note that sets them apart is that they know “the Literature”, and they’re frequently asked for songs or poems, in tones not dissimilar from a starving person begging for crumbs. In a climactic scene, one of the Vedas rechristens the protagonist, giving him a new name and creating within him a potential for difference.
Emptiness, fullness, language, confusion – there are paradoxes here, deep ones. Is there a singular, unifying theme that can knit all of this together? Mmmmmaybe. Gun to my head, I’d say the deepest current is a Buddhist one, since the empty contingency of reality and the essential nonduality of forms provide a frame for making sense of all this. But ironically, I think it’s my own identity and viewpoint that makes me say this, since that’s the ontological frame I personally find most congenial for making sense of the world – oddly, I’ve even run a tabletop roleplaying campaign where reality had broken down and become ontologically empty, and it also involved swashbuckling adventure on fantastic oceans (of course, the cabal trying to immanentize the eschaton were the baddies in that one…). Maybe this is a coincidence, or maybe it’s a just an indication of the richness of the text that it offered me this vein to follow to what feels like the mother lode but might just be one deposit among many (there’s a lot here about sin that I engaged with only superficially, to say nothing of how to understand the often-shocking violence throughout the story).
Manifest No is hard to cabin, in other words; there’s more here than you (OK, I) can fully understand, and I’m flattering myself if I say I caught maybe a third of what Kaemi is putting out. You’ve hopefully got a sense of the language by now, but it’s marvelous, and well above my, maybe anyone’s, head. One more excerpt, then I promise I’ll be less profligate:
Ever persist of permanence recursions individuation of moments to eternal flowvents superimposing samsara alternation carnatives of dayrise and wellgone, swimming in sphere Uyllia where arises equally descends in infinite recall unpopulated with possibility uniterated, precalculated anneal of every energy enumerated matrices accounting the conditions preconditions, endless pastness of advanceless present tense mirroring itself infinitely any future of felt so the same, nigh as gods we dallianced in sphere Uyllia, capsule world lavish lazuli, brightness whirlwind blinding the outer unshines to presume border to predicate a notional knownness facilitator of participatory adequation excessive consumptional in identificatory fretworks, these consistency energies which contextualize our worlds sufficient to prevent its chthonic roar alienation stripping adornments to bare serative seriatim discourse, knowledge closure brocade bricolage
Just think of the domains of knowledge this sounds in, just look at the words: samsara from Buddhism, anneal from chemistry, seriatim from law, chthonic from Greek myth… So yes, Manifest No is demanding. But, I belatedly realize I should point out, it’s by no means an overwhelming slog. I’ve mostly been quoting from the more elevated language that, in fairness, makes up like 85% of the text, but the dialogue of many of the minor characters along on the voyage is typically much more direct, and the contrast between their plainspoken natures and the recondite Vedas (and protagonist) helps make sense of the plot, and also sets up some real comedy. There’s one bit where the crew cajoles one of the Vedas into telling a story, which she promises will involve lots of excitement including some assassins, then she launches into this completely abstract song-poem:
Glinting mirrorlike the incantations
Surging ocher dust insisted shimmered
Great Vyekana, the City Dauntless,
Ruby set in canyons candelabra,
Lucre gleam in the squalid glare
Bubbled heatdrench tar crooked stars…
Grimoire poet of the vanish, howls harpist,
Thief of soul to hordes, riches of wrecks,
Dread fever fathom flashing in the fever spasms mortalia –"
“Where’s the assassins?” Mojyi. “Said assassins were there, was it?”
"These are the assassins! That’s, aren’t you listening?”
It’s hard to read this as anything other than Kaemi poking fun at herself – I laughed, at least.
Are there criticisms I could level, beyond Manifest No just being too much? Sure, though I hope I’ve learned my lesson from my review of Kaemi’s previous game, Queenlash, where I spent 2/3 of it nitpicking and acknowledged its brilliance only in passing. Flipping the script this time out: the hypertext-novel approach to navigation can be confusing, with the association between world-link and the resulting passage obscure in the extreme, which made me feel FOMO when I came across a passage with like a dozen different links. I also came up short when I hit what I think is the one actual branch in the game, where you can choose either the high road or the low road in ascending a Tower – maybe this is another joke about how choice-based games traditionally function, but it still feels deeply weird. And yes, the language swings for the fences and while I think it hits almost all of the time, it does occasionally whiff:
Closed shops on crooked roads bloating roundabout goiters these eaves so easily which could hide loiterers like a cue shooting you on a shuffleboard.
(Yes, that’s the source of the “oof, goiters” comment above).
Keeping track of the characters is also really hard, given their multiplicity of names and sobriquets, especially since many of them are deeply unfamiliar (from googling I think many might be central and east African, which is cool and plays the Babel theme given that most Anglophone readers are probably similarly going to lack context for them, but still left me belatedly writing up a cheat sheet). Perhaps most damningly, the ending didn’t land especially heavily for me – I think an inescapable downside of the fever-dream prose that makes up most of the text is that while you can dial it down, as Kaemi does with the crewmembers, it doesn’t leave you much room to dial up in a climax.
If these are sins, they’re venial ones at worst. Manifest No is an astonishment (and the fact that it comes only a year after the comparably-miraculous Queenlash is a feat of literary production I can barely contemplate); it’s literature of the most rarefied order, somehow showing up in the back garden of an IF festival. I have no more words. Read it.
Fairy tales are tricky things. As creations of folklore, most of them lack definite authors, or definite shapes. The Grimms and Perrault are touch points, of course, and their styles and sensibilities have a significant influence on what we understand a fairy tale to be, but their work was as much curation as literary creation, wrangling a mass of pre-existing stories into some form of shape. That’s perhaps one reason why they’re simultaneously so stable – there’s a version of the Cinderella story that goes back 2,000 years, to Strabo! – and so protean, as the chthonic elements of the tales (love, marriage, death, inheritance, social mobility) are continuously reconfigured to speak to contemporary audiences. So the same story can give rise to the enjoyable pabulum of a Disney movie (themselves already continually sequelized, rebooted, and remade), or the feminist lex talionis of an Angela Carter novella: it’s just a matter of squeezing the kaleidoscope just so…
Perhaps too this is one reason why fairy tales are a fertile source for IF: they’re broadly-accessible stories that provide a nice familiar hook without imposing too much of a fixed structure on how the narrative progresses, allowing for the author, and potentially the player, to decide whether they want the story to lean more towards traditionalism or subversion, without thereby doing too much violence to the premise. There are currently 54 games with the “fairy tale” tag on IFDB, with Fairest riffing most specifically on Emily Short’s games in this area (per the author’s end note, at least) but bringing plenty of its own ideas to this venerable subgenre.
Another reason fairy tales work well for IF is that their protagonists are always haring off on some quest or other, and so it is here, with Prince Conrad – the introduction efficiently conveys the premise, which is that despite being the eldest son you’re generally rather feckless, so you must jump through some hoops to convince your father the king to ignore to importuning of your stepmother and give you the throne rather than to one of your younger stepbrothers. There’s a court magician on hand to give you a magic feather, an impossible-seeming task to retrieve a splendid carpet from somewhere in the poor part of the town… it all scans so neatly that you’d be forgiven for not consciously noticing that the game asked you for your name when you started it, but regardless of what you type Conrad is always called Conrad (and, more importantly, is always a prince).
You will notice, however, that the game greets you with a help screen that, beyond an introduction to IF, also provides all sorts of play supports, from a verbs list that eliminates annoying guesswork to a TASK command to make sure you’re always oriented towards the next goal. I’ve seen folks say they played this as their first parser game, and I think it’s a really outstanding choice, since the author’s gone above and beyond to make it so welcoming.
Implementation is butter-smooth throughout, with simple navigation and talking sufficing to resolve most challenges, and more unique actions sufficiently well-cued that recourse to the VERB command shouldn’t be all that necessary (pains have been taken to make moving in and out of doors painless, for example, which sounds simple but isn’t given that the player could try to enter a house by knocking, opening the door, or trying to go in the relevant direction). It helps that this isn’t a puzzle-focused game, of course – though there is one, and it’s clever – but even still, Fairest is impressively and invitingly realized.
Of course none of that would mean very much unless it was a fun, engaging game. And happily it doesn’t take long to realize that Fairest has a lot to offer to experienced players too. Much of this has to do with its expert foreshadowing – it knows that you know how fairy tales work, so you’ll be squirming in your seat when you read an exchange like this between Conrad and a woman who definitely isn’t the evil stepmother from Snow White, not even a little bit:
She says, “I’d be happy to make you the most majestic carpet ever seen, only I have no thread with which to weave it. If you can find me some suitable thread, made of gold, I’ll make the carpet from it, if you promise me my heart’s desire when you are King.”
“Of course. I promise,” you say lightly.
Any player worth their salt sees that as a shoe waiting to drop, and a signal that we’re not just going to be blindly recreating a series of fairy tales before being ushered off for a happy ending. Then there are the metafictional flourishes that quickly start to seep in too, with the fourth wall breaking under the stress of several important characters, all of them girls or women… There’s a lot that’s set up, many balls thrown in the air, as you run through scenarios based on Rumpelstiltskin, Sleeping Beaty, Little Red Riding Hood, and more, the game gives your plenty of hints of dramatic events to come without tipping its hand too heavily.
Puzzles are also well foreshadowed, too – you encounter many before you can solve them, which helps keep things feeling open and engaging even though the game’s almost always entirely linear. Admittedly, sometimes I felt like the game did veer on playing itself: there’s one puzzle about restoring a statue to life that describes what you need to do fairly directly, then has Conrad do some kibitzing that spells things out even more directly. But again, Hadean Lands this isn’t, and Fairest wants to get you to the ending, or rather endings, where the complex threads the game has been weaving come together.
I won’t say too much about the details here, even in spoiler-text, but as someone who finds endings almost invariably disappointing, I think Fairest’s finale works really, really well, as the interplay between protagonist, player, and parser begins to collapse, fairy-tale tropes aren’t so much subverted as inverted, and some telling points about the commodification of female beauty (hell, girls and women in general) land with a light touch in amongst the popcorn fun of an Avengers-level crossover hitting its climax. For the player, at least, everything ends happily ever after, as they’ll have experienced one of the real highlights of this year’s Spring Thing.
(I beta tested this game)
Hopefully, dear reader, you are as happy as I am to dispense pretense that the reviewer is an objective figure, an unmoving mover floating serenely above the aesthetic object and rendering dispassionate, not-to-be-gainsaid criticism. And I further hope that in my reviews I make clear were my personal biases and subjective preferences lead me to judgments that might not be shared by a different player with different biases &c. But even taking all that as read, I feel like I need to issue some extra disclaimering here, because I went into Custard and Mustard’s Big Adventure strongly predisposed to like it – not only was I a tester on it, I also tested the author’s previous game, The Faeries of Healstowne, which was my one of my two favorite games of 2021, and plus he’s tested both of my games, as well as penning a review of Sting that’s quite possibly the single most laudatory thing anyone’s ever written about my work (and I include the toast my mom made at my wedding in the competition).
With that out of the way, though, let’s all pretend I didn’t just light my credibility on fire as I tell you that my expectations were completely right and Custard and Mustard is great. It’s great fun, first of all, to play as a pooch, and here you get to play as a dynamic duo of doggies – designated-protagonist Colonel Mustard, and his bashful-but-rising-to-the-challenge sidekick Ernel Custard (if you can somehow read that without giggling, I am sad for you). This is no superficial re-furring, too: your canine nature is well-implemented, with a rich odorscape awaiting your SMELL commands, an inventory limit that actually makes sense given a logical one-mouth-per-customer policy, robust BARKing options, and waggable, chasable tails. Each protagonist also has distinct strengths – saying more would risk spoiling some puzzles, but suffice to say each gets their moment in the sun – so you’re able to switch between them at will, which again is handled cleanly, with a single command sufficing to swap and the one you’re not controlling automatically following the other unless there’s a need for them to split up.
So much for mechanics, though. What are these handsome hounds up to? After a prelude where the two protagonists meet cute and give their owners the (temporary) slip, they’re simply excited to experience everything a traditional British village fete has to offer. There’s a generous map on offer with lots of places to go and explore, which can feel a little overwhelming at first. But even in this phase, the game’s gentle humor makes nosing around very fun. To take an example, there’s a small monument in the park memorializing its dedication:
Opened by H.R.H The Princess Mavis, Countess of Spelnose
This is like the smallest imaginable unit of comedy, but the whimsy made me laugh. It doesn’t take too long to get your feet under you, though, as there’s usually only one area where there’s much activity happening, allowing you to focus your efforts, and you quickly wind up getting caught up in a series of hijinx, from helping a magic show go off to interrupting some beer-drinking. Each involves solving a small puzzle, all quite reasonable, and it’s all quite enjoyable though it perhaps doesn’t live up to the game’s billing as a Big Adventure.
Then the other shoe drops, though, and the second half of the game raises the stakes, as your innocent enjoyment of the fair is interrupted by learning of a criminal plot to rob the local museum. This counterheist has twists and turns aplenty, with the challenges getting more difficult but funnier too – I especially liked decking out Mustard in fancy dress so he could infiltrate the town’s snootiest restaurant for a spot of eavesdropping, and shook my fist at the screen as a seemingly-helpful cat revealed its perfidy. While I thought the puzzles in Faeries of Healstowne were satisfying but could skew a bit too hard, here the difficulty level feels just right for this more all-ages-friendly adventure, with none of the puzzles putting up too much of a fight but sending up a lovely dopamine hit of reward as solving each unspools the next delightful bit of the story.
In fact the whole thing is just delightful – Custard and Mustard’s Big Adventure is the veriest romp. If you have the slightest soft spot for silly British things, or like dogs, or just have the smallest spark of joy in you, you won’t laugh harder all year.
(I beta tested this game)
The first three sentences of Bigfoot Bluff land like a clap of thunder:
"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to Bigfoot Bluff."
This opening crawl efficiently answers every question you could have about the game – you have your who what where and why all cleanly laid out, albeit “how” is a bit trickier since you don’t start with a camera – while raising a whole host of new ones a player wouldn’t know they had to ask, like “wait, can you just choose to stop being a sasquatch?”, “have I been like photographing celebrities in Santa Monica sushi joints for the last decade? As a sasquatch?”, “couldn’t I just do the exposé on myself?”, and “wait, shouldn’t it be paparazzo or is that not how Italian works, because I’m pretty sure ‘paparazzi’ is Italian” (maybe that last one is just me).
To its credit, Bigfoot Bluff is adamant about not answering any of those questions – it’s given you all the backstory you need, and now it’s time to just roll with it. Beyond just the disorienting setup, the overall vibe of the setting took me a minute to get a handle on, before realizing that the author’s riffing on early-90’s tabloids, from the blurrily-photographed cryptids to a late-game cameo that I won’t spoil. In fact the ending pulls out a number of rugs, questioning the premise and raising significant questions about what’s going on outside the eponymous park. Squint, and you can see the game touching on questions that go beyond the terminally silly, about media production and overzealous parenting and identity – which it then comprehensively undercuts, so maybe the joke is on me for starting to take it seriously. Regardless, it’s a uniquely-combined set of reference points that come together into a mélange that’s memorable even if it might not be to every player’s taste.
The gameplay is also something of a rara avis. Bigfoot Bluff bills itself as a sandbox game, which calls to mind a certain structure – of a fairly open map where the player has a lot of freedom to solve puzzles, which are largely of the medium-dry-goods variety – but here also speaks to the mechanics. Rather than requiring you to run through a linear chain of barriers to unlock the endgame, though, the game takes a more systemic approach. Instead of points, you have a stealth score, that abstractly represents how noticeable you are; the finale is gated behind getting a sufficiently high score, on the theory that at that point you’re sneaky enough to get sufficiently close to your bigfoot dad to snap a pic.
Even more intriguingly, this doesn’t only increase monotonically – while solving many puzzles will increase your stealth, as will wearing the appropriate disguises, but some actions can also decrease your stealth. Sometimes these are signposted, but sometimes what feels like ordinary IF-protagonist behavior gets you dinged. For example, you might think that wearing sunglasses would help you blend into the crowd, but in the park environment, the glare they give off winds up drawing attention to you. The game is clear that you can always regain lost points by taking appropriate actions, which adds an interesting wrinkle, though it also necessitates disabling UNDO to prevent the player from ignoring this aspect.
I’m of two minds about this – on the one hand, this moves the gameplay in a roguelike direction, creating the expectation that part of the fun for the player is rolling with some punches, but on the other, sometimes it can set up situations that feel like gotchas, which hits doubly-hard when the player convenience of taking back the offending action is removed. I personally like roguelikes, and given the large number of ways to get points none of these setbacks wind up being that punitive, but at the same time keeping UNDO enabled might encourage players to opt into the chaos, rather than leaving them to start save-scumming or declining to poke at dangerous-seeming situations. At any rate, experimenting with traditional gameplay axioms like this is exciting – it gives me lots of ideas for other ways to import roguelike or immersive sim mechanics into IF.
I keep using, or circling around, the word “unique”, because there’s very little that Bigfoot Bluff does that’s conventional. It’s notable that the author has previously made choice-based games, I think – I’ve mentioned my thesis that the long-established division between these two kinds of works is breaking down, and BB may be an example of how that hybridization is shaking things up, since my sense is that the kinds of systemic design it uses are more prevalent in the choice-based space. If it’s an experiment, though, it’s a generous one, letting the player choose how deep they want to get into the puzzling and allowing them to roam the (nicely-illustrated) map to their heart’s content. Even though I mostly wound up wittering on about design, here, it’s still very much a fun, playable game – it just might leave your brain bouncing in a bunch of different directions when you’re done.
(I beta tested this game)
The Box is a test bed for a bespoke IF system created by the game’s author, and I have to confess that my reaction to such things has previously been to consider them reinventions of the wheel, given the number of robust, mature authoring languages currently out there. Those feelings have shifted in recent years, though, as systems like Dialog and Adventuron have proven themselves to offer distinct advantages to authors and players; it’s obviously too soon to tell whether Kreate will join that list, but based on the present evidence, it definitely justifies its existence.
Like many modern systems, part of the draw here is that Kreate allows for both parser- and link-based play; you can type in traditional commands using the typical Inform/TADS syntax, but you also have links and buttons enabling you to do everything you need to with a click. The links are contextual, though, so you’re not overwhelmed with choice; the names of objects are underlined in descriptions, and you can examine them by clicking them, while potential actions are suggested in little buttons right by the command prompt.
This works well, but what’s more exciting is that the system also seems to allow for less standard input approaches too – and here’s where talking about the game itself might be useful. The Box doesn’t have much of a plot, being an escape-the-room affair that’s primarily focused on the puzzling. As the title suggests, the main business involves fiddling with a mysterious box that’s got a different puzzle on each of its sides, largely based on clues you find in the environment. Some of these are standard object-manipulation affairs, but there are also some that, while old chestnuts, are newer territory for parser IF, including a cryptogram and a tile-selection puzzle. It’s possible to engage with these via the parser, but it’s a little awkward – the cryptogram requires a bunch of commands like SET DIAL-X TO LETTER-Y – fortunately, though, Kreate enables a little drop-down menu you can interact with via the mouse that makes things easy.
Speaking of mice, there are some cute touches that elevate the game above just being a grab-bag of tech-demo puzzles – the most notable being the cute white mouse who you can get to join you in your endeavors. Similarly, while the puzzles are primarily old chestnuts, they’re implemented well and are satisfying to work through, pitched at a reasonable level of difficulty. So even though it’s primarily been written as a shakedown cruise for Kreate – and I think succeeds on those terms – on its own merits too The Box is a pleasant half-hour’s puzzling if you’re in the mood for such things.
The premise of the Wolf and Wheel is dynamite: this visual novel consists of a series of folk-horror vignettes spinning off of a frame story set in a tavern, as the inhabitants of a small village eat and drink to take their minds off the fact that the sun stopped rising several weeks ago (I believe this is set in the same Eastern-European-inflected world as last year’s IFComp entry Last Night in Alexisgrad, by one of the present game’s authors). This isn’t quite the same structure as the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, but squint and you can see the family resemblance; it’s a good way of hanging together a bunch of semi-related stories, and the atavistic contrast between a warm place of safety and a newly-terrifying night creates a push-pull frisson of tension between the pieces of the game. There’s a lovely, homey art style, too, with appealingly idiosyncratic character designs and a few nice touches of animation, like snowflakes blowing past a window. This is the kind of game to sink into, drinking a mug of tea on a cold day (unfortunately it was 80 degrees in LA when I played it, though at least I had the AC on).
Given the overall high production values, and robust hour-plus running time, the game’s placement in the Back Garden isn’t immediately obvious, but the blurb discloses that it’s a chopped-up demo of a longer work, consisting of random event scenes (these would be the vignettes) connected by a newly-written frame story. Given this provenance, it’d be easy for the game to come off as a glorified clip show, but to its credit, it stands on its own pretty well. Some of the vignettes are stronger than others, of course, and some feel more fleshed-out and relevant to the frame plot than others, but that seems reasonable given the weird vibe of the supernatural happenings they depict. It also helps that the protagonist of the frame story – one of the workers in the titular inn – isn’t a passive recipient of the tales of others, but somehow finds themself (you can choose their name and gender) sucked into the memories of each taverngoer in turn, reliving their decisions and experiences. There are also characters and situations that escape from some of the vignettes and enter the frame story, meaning that this feels like a full narrative and not just a thinly-sketched framework for a series of self-contained, non-interacting stories.
As for the flavor of the vignettes, I called them folk-horror, but maybe folkloric is a better word? Some of the early ones are simply eerie, and even when later ones escalate into threat and violence, there’s still an otherworldly vibe. Some of the most memorable encounters are simply conversations, too – one dialogue with a psychopomp boatman especially stood out. They’re weakest where they stretch for meaning and try to press the player to make big philosophical choices – there’s one where you come across a werewolf in human shape, naked and raving in despair over what he’s become, but his desperate questioning comes across far too bloodlessly:
"I have not been able to work my way through that question: 'why live?' I presume a meaning or purpose, but what is it and am I wrong in that assumption?"
Truly, Socrates, put some clothes on.
Even this comparatively weak sequence is redeemed, though, when you realize that this werewolf isn’t a man bitten by a wolf, but a wolf bitten by a man – what torments him isn’t his red deeds, since as an animal he could kill and eat his prey with no qualms, but that his intermittent transformation into human form has given him a view of morality, and transformed his killings into murder.
Again, they’re not all like this – there are some vignettes that lean more action-oriented, or have a light investigative cast – and they move pretty quick, so you’re guaranteed to at least get a powerful image or two out of each (the one with monsters growing in the trees was pleasingly nightmarish). You are given what feel like significant choices in each too – usually hinging on whether to flee, combat, or engage with the weirdness on display – so you’re not a passive observer.
As for the frame story, it’s serviceable enough. My favorite part here is getting to know some of the other villagers, from motormouth scholar Elisabetta, Nat the infallible timekeeper, and tortured doctor Fyodora. I’d look forward to digging into these relationships in the full game, since as written you only get one or two encounters with each. Indeed, my main complaint about the frame story is that it seems to end rather abruptly, and while there are 11 endings, the connection between my choices and the outcome I got felt unclear (though this may be setting- and genre-appropriate, I suppose). If I was ultimately more enamored of the game’s constituent parts than how it finally came together as a whole, though, I still very much enjoyed by time with it – and given that the Wolf and Wheel is a reconfiguration of how those parts were originally meant to fit, I suspect I’ll really like the full game once it’s released.
An anthology of seven short hypertext poems about UFOs, Phenomena boasts some clever wordplay and a nicely-realized theme (the title of the final poem gives the game away: “guess this was never really about ufos, haha” – it proposes the night, or death, the possibilities we invent from sign and portent). There’s some effective imagery here, and the way it engages the reader worked well for me: each poem can be read “down,” by just reading it top to bottom as it first displays, or “through”, by clicking each line to change it into one of a half-dozen or so different variations. Time – or at least narrative progress – usually progresses as you read “down”, while the “through” options typically elaborate a single idea, introducing a set of potential options and often including one that serves to undercut things. For example, here’s the second poem as it first appears (which riffs on a historical account of strange lights in the sky of 13th-century Japan):
We have been camping near Hermit’s Pass for nearly two months.
Our orders come from the empress herself.
But we search the night sky and see nothing.
The stars flex, relax.
Not a star out of place.
Her ever expanding empire.
The hunter draws her bow.
Then for the “through”, if you successively click on the second line, it runs through this sequence:
Our orders come from the empress herself.
Confirm what has been seen in the sky.
Accounts come in from all corners of the empire.
A topic to pray upon.
But I am no priest.
I seek only to fill my belly and find a comfortable place to shit.
…before running back to the beginning with one more click.
It’s clever that the poems work this way, but because there are strong throughlines both ways, it’s easy to turn the poems into ridiculous self-parodies if you’re not careful with where you stop clicking – an issue that’s exacerbated by the author’s repeated tic of interposing a single short phrase to punctuate most lines, like the “peculiar signs” above. Here’s another way of rendering the second poem:
Seen by the paper maker:
Xnth farts in his sleep.
Of course, if the player does this they’re not really entering into the spirit of the thing, so that’s not necessarily much of a complaint. I will say that this style of verse isn’t my favorite; there’s not much in the way of complex imagery or highlighting specific words with jewel-like care, but I can’t make much of the meter, is the main thing (these could also be the complaint of a philistine – I’m not very well read in poetry!) I do think the sixth poem, which is couched as a dialogue between the witness to an abduction and their therapist, worked best of the bunch for me, because the relative informality of the spoken word felt like a good fit for the author’s relatively unadorned prose. But anyway this is a matter of style and personal preference; you should be able to tell from the excerpts above whether you vibe with Phenomena, and regardless I still enjoyed the way it smartly runs through a number of different perspectives on aliens and what they symbolize for the human condition.
5e Arena is neither fish nor fowl, straddling the gap between choice-based IF and a combat-focused gamebook. I’m only glancingly familiar with the latter tradition – I played one or two of the Lone Wolf books when I was a kid, and am dimly aware that the Fighting Fantasy series was a really big deal across the pond, but for the most this is one element of nerd culture that’s passed me by – and I suspect my lack of experience here is part of the reason why I found 5e Arena a little awkward.
Don’t get me wrong, the premise is straightforward enough: it’s an arena-based combatfest implementing Dungeons and Dragons Fifth Edition rules, but goes beyond the bare-bones concept by including a card game that allows you to gamble between bouts, opportunities to use your noncombat skills to learn more about your opponents’ personalities and potential tactics, and a couple of funny twists, like the chaos-producing Wheel of Magic in the final fight that injects a random buff or penalty each round. The fact that the announcer highlights that said wheel is sponsored by a local jeweler, and rattles off the shop’s slogan, in the pre-fight patter made me laugh – less intended by the game, when I got to the fill-in box with “Name or Alias?” I typed in “Alias” and emitted a self-congratulatory snigger.
The combat encounters are the real meat, though, and here’s where I think I was tripped up by gamebook conventions. In a paper version of such things, the player is expected to keep a copy of their character sheet and do all the bookkeeping – recording their hit points, rolling the dice, and so on. Which makes sense, as traditional books are not very good at rewriting themselves in response to how they’re read! Computers are good at that sort of thing, though, so I was surprised that 5e Arena doesn’t automate nearly as much of the gameplay as I would have expected. For one thing, there’s no character generation module, nor is there a way to input your character information so the game knows what class you’re playing or your current armor class or hit points; instead, the player needs to roll up their own character and keep track of all that themselves. For another, while there’s a cool little movement grid integrated into the combat window, the game requires the player to manually move the monster as well as the PC but leaves you on the honor system as to how far you go.
The game does do some work, admittedly – beyond listing the monster’s statistics, it also chooses an appropriate attack each round (using melee strikes when it sees that it’s close enough to do so), keeps track of ongoing effects if you’re hit with something like a heat metal spell, and makes rolls for the monsters. But playing the game is a significantly higher-overhead prospect than I would have thought. Again, I’m guessing that this is primarily because folks who play gamebooks enjoy the tactile aspects of flipping through their character sheet, erasing their hit points, and adding up their gold-piece rewards. But that appeal is frankly somewhat lost on me, and I’d have personally preferred to be able to just use the game to play some DnD – all the more so because there’s not much plot to speak of and the fun to be had is just to bash through the roster of foes. So while the game is well-implemented and probably will be appreciated by its target audience, I’d rather just play something that takes advantage of the affordances a computer provides, like the excellent 4x4 Archipelago, instead.
So much like Adrift, this is a teaser for a yet-to-be-completed game; much like Adrift, it made a favorable impression on me and I’d look forward to playing it; unlike Adrift, though, it didn’t provide me with a sense of what the gameplay would actually be like in the finished version.
On the positive side, the protagonist, world, and setup are all sketched in a winsome, appealing way. The main character is on her way to visit her friend (the eponymous witch) to tell her that she’s got a crush on her (the eponymous confession), and it made me smile to read about her thoughts racing as she walks through the nicely-described, bucolic scenery on her way to the cottage – the protagonist works as a florist, so there’s a lot of good detail on the different plants and flowers. Of course, when she arrives, she realizes something’s gone wrong and her friend is missing, leaving behind only the scrap of a recipe for a counterspell and her adorable cat familiar…
On the down side, though, this all proceeds just as a linear progression of passages with only a single link on each. From the way the demo ends, it seems like the game will open up from there, and you’ll need to do a bit of a rummage through the cottage to turn up the ingredients for the spell, which is a sturdy but enjoyable adventure game premise. Still, to really provide a taste for the full game and start to hook the player, it would have been nice if a little bit of this gameplay had been on offer, with maybe a small puzzle to solve to see how the mechanics will be set up. The scavenger-hunt model does make it harder to break off a sampler than a linear sequence of puzzles like the one that opens Adrift, of course, so the omission is understandable – still, it strikes me as a missed opportunity, albeit not one that would hold me back from playing the full game.
(So the annoying title is actually clever, because the added spaces indicate the letters are drifting apart from each other – get it, drifting? – but I’m not typing it that way).
The opening of Adrift is eerily reminiscent of that of the main festival’s Orbital Decay – sure, “astronaut must fight for survival after an EVA gone wrong” isn’t the world’s most recondite premise, but it’s been almost ten years since the movie Gravity (sidenote – it’s been almost ten years since the movie Gravity???) and I don’t remember playing any other bits of IF with this exact setup, so I’m very curious about what’s in the water that led to this coincidence.
At any rate, it’s a grabby way to open a game and it’s effective here too. Unlike Orbital Decay, Adrift is a parser game, so proceedings are unsurprisingly more puzzle-oriented. It’s also unfinished, consisting of just the first two challenges and ending after you manage to get back to your shuttle. This isn’t a completely polished slice of the game released separately as a teaser, mind – there are lots of indications that the game still needs some love and care, from a fair number of typos to the noticeable fall-off in scenery objects as the excerpt reaches its end. The puzzles also suffer from a bit of guess-the-verb-itis, with the second in particular requiring the player to type a vaguer approach to the solution because the more specific commands aren’t recognized (Spoiler - click to show)(I’d realized that I needed to swing the crate on my spacesuit’s tether, but all my attempts to TIE or ATTACH it failed; turns out you just need to SWING CRATE).
This is all fair enough for the Back Garden, though, and I was still able to enjoy the teaser for what it is, and would look forward to playing the completed game. For one thing, there’s more worldbuilding and personality on display here than the lost-in-space setup strictly requires, with integrated flashbacks lightly sketching an alternate history where the Soviet Union stuck around and showing our cosmonaut hero pining for his Lyudmilla, which mixes up the more-typical all-American space fantasy (albeit the war in Ukraine makes this less fun than it could be, sadly). There’s also some cool pixel-art headers that shift as you play, helping to set the mood, and I liked the physics-based nature of the puzzles, which made them satisfying to solve. As a result, it’s not too hard to squint and see what the more robust finished product would look like after completing the design and some rigorous testing, so I hope this review sends a strong signal to the author to get working!