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Spring Thing 2024

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Luna Gardens, by Justin Kim
The tao that can be spoken is still hard to get the parser to understand, May 20, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

(This is a review of the Spring Thing version of the game; I understand it's since been updated to address some of the implementation issues raised below)

Having just written a review of a Back Garden game that could have just as easily been entered into the Main Festival, I turn now to one that clearly belongs where it was entered. In some respects that’s simply an acknowledgment of what’s on offer here, which is a self-contained tutorial or demo section of a larger game targeted for release next year – and in many ways it’s an effective teaser, with the Taoism-inflected magic academy setting hitting a nice balance point between familiarity and novelty, and a backstory involving a dead parent and their mysterious former paramour that I’m curious to further unravel. In other respects, though, in its current incarnation Luna Gardens is recognizably a clumsy first draft in need of further refinement.

The game’s central mechanic is emblematic of this duality. Appropriately for the setting, you’re required to perform an act of divination to successfully complete the opening section, and the basic outline for how this is done is solid: first you identify particular mystically-significant symbols by exploring the eponymous grounds and finding especially resonant objects, at which point you can try to guess which are most relevant to your present circumstances and construct an oracular reading from combining the correct set of three. That’s a nice way of embedding a magic system in behavior that’s well-suited to a parser game – wandering around and examining everything you can see – and leveraging a game-y but reasonable enough structure to lend narrative weight to what’s mechanically speaking a basic combination-lock puzzle.

The difficulty is that every step of this process has significantly more friction than it should. Start with exploration: getting around the garden is a little tricky, I found, since neither of the two navigation options on offer is completely intuitive. Traditional compass navigation works well enough, but exits aren’t always clearly marked, and the frequent use of ordinal directions made it hard to build a mental map. There’s an alternative keyword-based system that allows you to simply jump to neighboring locations, but I also found it occasionally leading to strange results. For example, each location tends to list adjacent landmarks in a final paragraph at the end of the description, but upon being told “farther away, you see a dark gate rising in the air and a rusted light pole” I was surprised that EXPLORE GATE just resulted in the game saying “You can’t see The gate.” I’m pretty sure that capitalization means you knew what I was talking about! Admittedly, this is partly to do with the barriers cutting off the demo area from the larger game’s map, but it can still make for a frustrating experience.

Finding the symbols also had its speed-bumps. I like taking my time checking out scenery, and Luna Gardens does a good job of making the process rewarding by sprinkling hints of backstory and worldbuilding into object descriptions. But there are some rough patches in the implementation that sometimes led to me tearing out my hair:

> x trees

…You notice a carving someone made on one of the trees.

> x carving

You can’t see any such thing.

> x tree

You can’t see any such thing.

I was eventually able to guess that the right answer was X INITIALS, which isn’t totally unreasonable but still, the protagonist obviously knows what they’re looking at so why make life hard for the player? At least this is just an incidental detail; I needed a hint to complete the game because X OCEAN at a cliffside overlook was insufficient to reveal the relevant symbol, with X WAVES being required to progress (X WATER just got my “you can’t see any such thing).

As for the actual divination process itself, the syntax is a little under-clued – I thought at first I had to type DIVINE [SYMBOL 1] [SYMBOL 2] [SYMBOL 3], but actually you just enter DIVINE and then get a follow-up prompt where you pick the symbols you’d like to try. Further complicating matters, you don’t actually slot in the short-form name of a symbol – there’s a FIND command that tells you that, say, the connection symbol translates into “a link between two poles”, and that longer formulation is the one you need to write in, magnifying the scope for typos and confusion. Meanwhile, the actual answer of which symbols are the “right” ones that trigger the end of the game is underclued – there’s a FORECAST hint command that gives you a strong prod in the right direction, but there aren’t really any diegetic prompts to help you avoid simple trial-and-error, so far as I could tell.

The good news is that the author’s indicated that the final game will be redone and written in Gruescript, rather than Inform, which strikes me as a smart idea – using that choice-based interface will remove some of the ambiguities and confusions around navigation and identifying relevant nouns, while giving more space for the prose’s wry mix of mysticism and observational humor.

(I haven’t mentioned the writing yet, but while it’s occasionally a bit convoluted due to complex syntax and the use of the passive voice, I generally liked it! Here’s a matter-of-fact bit of landscape description:

"A grove of trees forms a circle in the middle of this garden and shield from the outside world the bench you like to nap on in-between classes."

Or a later bit:

"In fact, the only things resting around here are students reaching the end of their wits as they journey through textbooks, dry lectures, and someone’s bright idea of putting everything on campus far away from each other.")

A clickable interface would also make the divination system more manageable, and generally reduce friction across the board. Hopefully the feedback from this and other reviews will help inform the future, final release of Luna Gardens, since there’s definitely enough promising elements here to make me look forward to it.

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The Kuolema, by Ben Jackson
Sink and swim, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2023, Spring Thing 2024

(This is a review of the Twine version of The Kuolema, as entered in Spring Thing 2024, followed by a review of the Spring Thing 2023 Google Forms version)

A year and three weeks ago, I said:

"even as I was enjoying myself I kept thinking '[the Kuolema] would work just as well, and be smoother, in Twine'."

It works just as well, and is smoother, in Twine!

…okay, the work the author has put into updating the game deserves a little more than that, but unlike my takeaway from One King to Loot Them All, where choosing between the Inform or Twine versions came down to a matter of taste, this is a clear upgrade all around. The Google Forms original pulled out some clever tricks to deal with the fact that that system was never designed for games – including not having any state tracking – but the Twine version is unencumbered by those awkward contrivances: the full game is all in one file, rather than being split between three password-gated ones, inventory and notes are easily available in a sidebar, along with a save-and-load feature, and the presentation has gotten an across-the-board upgrade including some attractive typography and graphic design. Puzzles do still require you to type the name of the object you’re using, the password you’re trying, or what you’re looking for into a text box, but I enjoyed this hold-over: the sidebar allows you to easily refer back to items and info you’ve collected to date, and the type-in requirement means you have to think a bit about what you’re trying to do, rather than just lawnmower through links.

There’ve also been some improvements to the meat of the story. The general shape of the narrative remains the same, but while I didn’t go back to compare things line by line, I remembered seeing some typos and clumsy phrases in the original prose that I didn’t pick up on this time out (I just saw one misspelling: “metalic” for “metallic”). There’ve been a couple of alternate solutions added to puzzles that perhaps felt a bit out-of-context in the initial iteration, and the endgame has seen some expansion – my sense was that the climactic conversation has been substantially fleshed out, and takes advantage of the game’s newfound ability to remember actions you took earlier in the story, while the set of factions you can potentially ally with has been expanded, with accompanying options seeded earlier in the game to set up those possibilities. It’s still recognizably the same pulp sci-fi thriller, but it’s got a bit more heft to it and the central character of Dr. Vrieman has some more psychological plausibility.

The game does include “AI” generated art, alongside hand-made graphics for the puzzle-relevant visuals and documents. As I’ve mentioned before, I am generally down on such things, but kudos to to the author for handling this well: using such tools wasn’t such a hot-button in 2022, when the game began its gestation, and their use is fully disclosed, with a post-victory survey even enabling players to weigh in on how they felt about their presence in the game. I still don’t like seeing them – and I personally don’t think they add much to the game, it would work just as well with the gameplay-relevant graphics being the only ones – but this helped take the sting out.

I suppose the Google Forms version does still retain some novelty value, and future players might enjoy checking it out just to see how far one can torture the system, but the Twine version is very much the definitive edition of what, per my 2023 review, was already a heck of a good time. Nice job, year-ago-Mike, you were spot on!

------Review of Spring Thing 2023 Google Forms version------

Ah, dilemmas! The overwhelming temptation I’m facing here is to open this review by talking about the novelty of the format, since The Kuolema is a choice-based game implemented in Google Forms – but I’m going to resist that temptation, if only because I’m a lapsed Catholic who’s belatedly realized Lent is almost over and I haven’t done anything to mark the occasion. So what would my first paragraph be if it were just another Twine game? Let’s see…

What is it that makes a ghost ship so compelling? The idea of a derelict vessel, devoid of life and presenting an enigma equally intriguing and fatal to investigate, is a freak occurrence here in real life – there’s what, the Mary Celeste? – but beyond literary antecedents like Dracula’s Demeter, it’s become a common motif in gaming, from historical takes like Obra Dinn to yer sci-fi Dead Space-alikes, and has launched a million direct-to-SyFy Bermuda Triangle movies. From a production point of view, this is understandable enough – you get spooky atmosphere, isolated protagonists, and a built-in reason you don’t need too many speaking parts. For an audience, though, the appeal is a bit less obvious. After noodling on it a bit, I think part of the answer is that a ship is both a place and a machine – the empty spaces on an abandoned vessel aren’t just rendered forlorn by the lack of people, they become purposeless and useless, adding poignancy, sure, but also danger (what if part of the machine malfunctions?)

The eponymous ship in The Kuolema fits this model twice over – because it’s not built just for travel, but also to perform novel experiments in clean energy. It was on the verge of some great breakthrough when it suddenly went dark, before popping up again, adrift and on the edge of Chinese territorial waters. As the representative of some unnamed agency, it’s up to you to keep it in international waters, figure out what disaster led to its abandonment, and discover the secrets its crew were keeping from each other.

A story like this could lean a couple different ways, and despite a few technothriller touches, we’re firmly in pulp territory – there’s a mysterious antagonist in a gas mask, the scientific genius has delusions of grandeur, an inevitably spy is working for the Russians, and you’ll probably work out what the deal is with your mysterious contact within five minutes of meeting him. All of which is to say the story beats feel very familiar, but when I stop to think about it I can’t remember anything that deploys exactly the same tropes The Kuolema does, which speaks to how effectively it inhabits its genre.

The prose is of a piece with this unpretentious approach. Here are some excerpts of descriptions from a few early locations:

"The top deck (Deck 4) is open to the elements and the rain-slick deck reflects the glinting lights as they shine and flicker through the downpour. The wind is howling and the white crests of the sea are visible out in the darkness.

"The stairs are awash with water and the ship continues to sway and lurch. You concentrate on keeping your footing as you cautiously step down into the darkness. There are a few dim lights still on below deck, just enough for you to make out your surroundings.

"It’s pitch black, with the only light coming from the corridor behind you. You move towards one of the windows to see the foaming waves outside. Suddenly the room is lit by a flash of lightning - giving you a brief imprint of the space you’re in. There are several tables and faux-leather seats spread around the room, along with a canteen serving area and a separate bar. Glasses and bottles litter the area – some rolling across the floor casting long, dark shadows – making it seem like creatures scuttling away from the flashes of light."

This effectively conveys a vibe, and that vibe, clearly, is “dark”. Sure, it’d be stronger with some more synonyms (and fewer comma splices), but given the kind of game this is it’d be easy to tip into ridiculousness by banging on about the tenebrous murk of the gloaming, so there’s nothing wrong with taking the safer path. Also, the writing isn’t stuck doing the heavy lifting all on its lonesome, since the game’s well illustrated with various 3d renders, documents, and diagrams that all fit the menacing mood. And once the game moves into its final acts, the one-note chiaroscuro gets replaced with some surprisingly-punchy action sequences.

The gameplay also doesn’t make waves. The Kuolema is one of those parser-aping choice game, with map-based navigation and puzzles that primarily involve getting through locked doors, figuring out computer passwords or safe combinations, and collecting three parts of an important device. It’s all stuff you’ve seen before – heck, you even need to solve a crossword to get one key clue! – but it’s workmanlike, with the various bits of gating making exploration feel rewarding, and the barriers putting up enough of a fight to seem satisfying without being too tough (with the possible exception of that crossword, which does rely on knowing some nautical slang).

And now, finally, we have to get to the Google Form-ness of it all, because the process of moving around and solving these puzzles is heavily influenced by the game’s format. Google Forms, for those of y’all not familiar, is Alphabet’s answer to Survey Monkey*, allowing for radio-button style selection of choices as well as text input. Interface-wise, then, it seems like it would offer the best of both the choice-based and parser worlds – but the wrinkle is that it doesn’t track world state. That means that the game doesn’t know what you have in your inventory, or what you’ve already talked to an NPC about.

The author’s done a clever job of getting around this limitation, it must be said. For one thing, the game’s broken into three different files, making it easy to jump in and out (a necessity, since the lack of persistence means there’s no save function) and also allowing for the progression of the plot to alter the environment after each major chokepoint is reached. Inventory puzzles are also handled by typing in the name of the object rather than the honor-system approach taken by old gamebooks (“if you have the crowbar, turn to page 58, but please don’t cheat”), and each usually has some nickname or codeword associated with it, so random guessing won’t get you anywhere. There’s still some wonkiness (I saw options about the computer password needed in the security room before I first visited said room and learned there was a computer) but between careful design and careful writing, the game works much better on this score than I expected it to. There are even a few places where the player’s choices can lead to different outcomes, though these all appear to be in the final section, of necessity.

Still, for all that it’s hard for me to imagine a better implementation of IF in Google Forms, I’m not sure The Kuolema justifies its choice of systems. This is a well-done but straightforward piece of IF that doesn’t seem to take advantage of any unique affordances of Google Forms (it could have been fun to see what choices other players made at different parts of the story, for example); as a result, even as I was enjoying myself I kept thinking “this would work just as well, and be smoother, in Twine”. I’m guessing the advantage is that Google Forms doesn’t require any programming chops, but of course that’s immaterial to the player – and considering how complex this thing must have been to orchestrate, learning a standard IF language might have been less work!

Turn that around, though: towards the beginning of this review I talked about how one thing that I like about ghost ship stories is that they present idle machines, inviting the question of how they broke down. If The Kuolema, in a postmodern twist, is itself a mechanism whose workings are clunkier and more exposed than they could be, perhaps that’s just function following form? At any rate, this is a wreck that’s worth investigating, and I hope to see more IF from this author (though I wouldn’t be sad if their next game used a more conventional system).

* I was going to include a crack here about how big tech companies can be threatened by anything, but then I looked up some financial data and learned that Survey Monkey has a $1.5 billion market cap, which I guess is what it is but sure feels like it’ll sit next to in some future textbook about the ridiculousness of the various turn-of-the-millennium tech bubbles.

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The Time Machine, by Bill Maya

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Time after time, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2021, Spring Thing 2024

(Note: this is a review of the Spring Thing 2024 version of The Time Machine, followed by my original review of its ParserComp 2021 incarnation).

(I beta tested this game).

Unlike the other New Game Plus entries, this updated version of The Time Machine sticks to the same system as its original ParserComp 2021 release, and retains the same plot – you’re a friend of H.G. Wells who’s attempting to prove him sane by showing that he really did travel through time and isn’t suffering from a delusion. But where that was mostly a standard Inform affair, version 2.0 has gotten quite the coat of paint: the status bar tells you where (and when) you are while providing a small map of exits; subwindows offer character portraits, an inventory list, and a character interaction area telling you which NPCs are present and suggesting some topics of conversation (there are also graphics for each location; while I’m not sure of their provenance, they’ve unfortunately got a bit of an AI vibe to them, and regardless it would be nice to note where they came from in the ABOUT text). It’s about as slick a presentation as a parser game can offer, down to the scroll-bars that make it easy to navigate long menus or go back to earlier sections of your playthrough.

Looking back at my review of the original game 1, I spent a lot of time harping on niggles of implementation – missing synonyms, unwinnable states, endemic typos, objects that you couldn’t pick up again after you’d dropped them – but I found the updated version smoothed out all of these issues and more besides. It also addresses my other major complaint, which was a faint whiff of anticlimax: the author’s added a final act involving an escape from the Morlock’s tunnels, which creates some excitement before the end and ensures all the iconic elements of Wells’ novel are brought on-screen.

This is still a comparatively small game, though – there are only three or so puzzles, and neither the characters, the plot, nor the themes are especially deep. Ordinarily I’d say there’s nothing wrong with that – better to get in and out while you have something to say – and The Time Machine, in its current form, feels neither over-short nor padded. Still, I do find the 2.0 release’s robust package of interface features and implementation improvements risks coming across as overengineered compared to what, in context, may seem a relatively slight story; three years is a long time to add polish, after all. But that’s not really a critique, and if anything, the issue may just be that my standards for parser game presentation are too low. There are always lots of forum conversations about how to make these kinds of games more appealing to new players, and while that task certainly has gameplay and narrative elements too, in addition to its own solid merits it’s worth checking out the Time Machine if only to see just how modern an Inform game can feel.

-------Review of 2021 version--------

The Time Machine by Bill Maya is an Inform follow-up to The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, a confusing state of affairs that highlights the challenges of writing an unplanned sequel. If the initial work was conceived of as part of a series, that’s an easy enough situation – presumably there are enough hanging plot threads and unresolved conflicts lying about to let you to whip up a plausible plot. But where a story’s been resolved, the protagonist’s journey completed, where is there to go? Sure, a Hamlet sequel would have to be a spin-off, given that everyone north of Horatio in the dramatis personae snuffs it before the final curtain, but even murder-light fare runs into this problem: count ourselves lucky we’ve been spared such enormities as 2 Secret 2 Garden, or Catch 23 (actually, there is a sequel to Catch 22. It’s not great!)

The author’s solution to the dilemma is elegantly done in the present case: there’s a switch of protagonists, from the time machine’s inventor to his friend and lawyer (like, the friend is a lawyer), and the task at hand is to prove Wells’s rantings about Eloi, Morlocks, &c. shouldn’t get him hauled off to a late-Victorian sanitarium by retracing his travels through time. It’s a good setup, allowing the player to re-experience the highlights of the novel without forcing you to go through the remembered steps of a familiar story.

Sadly, the game still requires the player to adhere to a script, though this isn’t always communicated well. My first full playthrough ended in an unwinnable state because immediately upon activating the time machine and finding myself in the Edenic surroundings Wells had related before being hauled off in an ambulance, my first instinct was to return to safety and tell the censorious alienist he’d gotten it all wrong. But when I got back to 1890 and related my wild story, the doctor only listened, “with an accepting look on his face.” That was admirably open-minded of him after he’d stuffed Wells into a strait-jacket for telling much the same story, but that was as far as things went – and since the fuse on the machine burned out after that trip, there was no opportunity to return and bring back more definitive proof. In fairness, the game does signpost that he’s looking for a particular piece of physical evidence – a flower to match the unique petal Wells had shown him right before the game opened – but it would have been polite to fire off a losing ending to bring the story to a close, rather than leaving it to peter out.

Being on rails wouldn’t be so bad if the story the game was out to tell was a gripping one, but despite solid prose, the plot is sadly rather pedestrian. First, most of the game’s playtime is spent in the present day, trying to get into Wells’ workshop and get the machine up and running by solving a few desultory puzzles. Once in the far future, you can explore a single two-location building and have a brief interaction with some Eloi, but it’s all functional at best, and only recapitulates more exciting incidents from the book. If you want to explore off the beaten path and solve a mildly-annoying guess the verb puzzle (to get through a rusty grate, (Spoiler - click to show)TAKE GRATE will work but PULL GRATE and BREAK GRATE won’t), you can have a run-in with Morlocks, but it’s likewise abbreviated and completely optional.

The puzzles are fine, though with the exception of the first (figuring out where Wells’s workshop key has gotten to, which requires a bit of deduction) they’re very straightforward – putting a machine part in a machine, showing an interesting object to an interested NPC, that sort of thing. I had more trouble with them than was probably warranted, though, because there are some infelicities in the implementation. Prior to the nobody-cares-about-your-time-travel-story restart, I’d actually already had to restart because I’d put a watch down on a desk – after being prompted to do so by an NPC – but then was told “it’s hardly portable” when I attempted to retrieve it. And when I grew frustrated at my inability to find the workshop key and considered resorting to violence, BREAK WINDOW WITH POKER just elicited an empty command prompt, with no acknowledgment or rejection of the command. And there are a good number of typos throughout (including a missing period in the opening sequence).

I still had a good time with the game, because the writing is solid, the premise enjoyable, and the setting a pleasant place to spend time (well, modulo the tunnels where blind inbred cannibals live, I suppose). But it felt quite dry, and I was left wanting a little more there there – a little more interactivity, a little more story, a little more puzzling, just something more to create emotional engagement and make The Time Machine feel like a real sequel and not just a retread.

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One King to Loot them All, by Onno Brouwer

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Weapon of choice, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023, Spring Thing 2024

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp COMBINED WITH a review of the Twine version entered into Spring Thing 2024 -- scroll pas the original review for that).

Without context, One King to Loot Them All would be a weird game. Not so much in its premise – it’s a limited-parser sword and sorcery pastiche set in a funhouse-dungeon that wouldn’t be out of place in an early-80s D&D module, with dracoliches, logic puzzles, and pit traps set cheek-by-jowl without excessive regard for rhyme or reason – but weird in its gameplay, especially the way it provides information and responds to player commands. For one thing, location descriptions are typically quite long and detailed and print out the player’s inventory at the bottom, while examining most objects just unedifyingly reprints the details already included in the location description. For another, it’s extremely solicitous of the player – maybe even sometimes veering to the pushy – in how it prompts you towards the next action. More so than most parser IF, the experience is of being on a ride (uncharitably, one might say a railroad) where doing the one right action gets you a mini-cutscene and moves you on to the next sequence, and anything else is quite unrewarding.

There’s nothing wrong with linear IF in my view, but this is an approach at odds with the traditional strengths of the parser game, where tootling around a map and examining every detail that catches your fancy is typically a big part of the draw. So coming to the game without any context, the player might be scratching their head about why the author took this particular tack. Fortunately, the ABOUT text reveals the secret origin of One King to Loot Them All, which explains quite a lot: the game was originally intended for this year’s Single Choice Jam, where games had to have only one moment where the player could do more than one thing, but missed the deadline.

Viewed in that light, many of its odder features make sense: the descriptions works the way they do, for example, because originally, looking or examining random scenery or even checking inventory would have been disallowed, so all that information needed to be conveyed automatically when entering a new area. Similarly, the limited-parser approach would cut down on the frustration of most commands not doing anything, and since the player could similarly easily get fed up without being able to uncover clues by investigating a scene, these likewise need to be extremely obvious.

One King to Loot Them All, in the form we’ve gotten it, has lifted the most extreme constraints of the jam – commands other than the intended ones are allowed and sometimes marginally useful – but the gimmick is still imprinted deep in the game’s DNA. It has some fun with the concept, too, with a consistent meta joke being the way the protagonist (an off-brand Conan the Barbarian) never met a complex problem he couldn’t solve with immediate violence – when all you’ve got is a hammer… (I kid, but really, the solution to the hoary old “one guard always lies, the other always tells the truth” problem made me snicker).

On the down side, I found the game sort of… lulled me? I’ve played easy games before, of course, but even in an easy parser game there’s typically at least some decision-making incumbent on the player, and again, there’s always the temptation of noodling around (I am an inveterate noodler). Knowing that actually, I should just do the thing I was supposed to do and then move on to the next thing meant that I was acting in as direct a fashion as the protagonist, but also made me feel like my job was just to figure out what the author wanted me to do and then do it – this got me into a flow state of a sort, but it was a sort of inattentive flow state, if that makes sense (it doesn’t).

Of course, you typically don’t just say something “lulled me”, you say it “lulled me into a false sense of security.” And that’s my excuse for why when One King to Loot Them All got to the point where I could make my one choice, I was incredibly slow on the uptake. I’m spoiler-blocking this bit, since it’s the cleverest part of the game:

(Spoiler - click to show)so knowing that there was only one point in the game where more than one action would be productive, I naively assumed it would either come at the beginning or at the end. When the opening half hour was completely linear, I relaxed and, as mentioned in the paragraph above, just played on autopilot, figuring I could turn my brain off until I got to the final scene of the straightforward kill-Foozle story. Even when I went through an odd timey-wimey bit, I still contented myself with doing the most obvious thing at every juncture – and was surprised when it turned out that wasn’t working.

It took me astonishingly long to realize the game’s twist – the choice isn’t so much a choice as a puzzle, and it’s embedded in the middle of the game, not the end. It’s an impressive bit of misdirection that left me clapping my hands, but it also left me a bit frustrated. There’s a fair bit of drudgery involved in experimenting, since I wound up replaying the whole game to that point to confirm that what I’d tried didn’t work, and the logic of the puzzle still doesn’t fully make sense to me: you meet a mysterious sage who blesses your axe, then tells you you need to rewind time to change something that happened before the game starts. So after a bunch of UNDOs you can actually slingshot your way beyond the opening scene and try to change history – but crucially, the axe remains blessed even though you’ve turned back the clock to hours before you met the sage. It’s fair enough, I suppose, since who knows how a diegetic UNDO should work, but in my fugue state, I wasn’t quick enough to figure out the trick, and I didn’t notice any clues (like a telltale new sparkle about the axe, say) that would have helped me out, and I had to use the walkthrough.

To briefly summarize all that blurry text: there’s a really cool twist, but I was too dull to appreciate it, which is mostly my fault though I think some elements of the design could have mitigated the risk of the player being a big old dum-dum like me. I also think the game could have cut itself freer of its single-choice origins while retaining its impact. In particular, making the descriptions more conventional would have made the gameplay a bit more engaging by rewarding player investigation, and kept certain sequences, like the multi-part puzzle to get across the river, from feeling overly constrained.

While I’m picking nits, I also felt like the writing could have been a little zestier. It’s technically solid and hits the genre tropes in a satisfying fashion, but I like my sword-and-sorcery prose to be more over the top, with extravagant superlatives and overly-baroque locutions, as in Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest; One King to Loot Them All is more workmanlike. Similarly, sometimes the barbarian-y synonyms chosen for the limited-parser actions were strained; OPEN being remapped to LOOT made good sense when I was pillaging a chest, but less so when I had to LOOT a wineskin already in my possession to drink it. But these really are nits, and my complaint above might just reflect that I was a bit tired when I played the game and not sufficiently with it to appreciate its uniqueness and smarts.

------Twine version review starts here ----

This is a remake in Twine of an Inform game entered into last year’s Comp; it was originally intended for the One Choice Jam, whose requirements called for games that only had one moment where the player had any options. One King, in its original incarnation, had a clever interpretation of the theme, and its essential linearity was disguised by its nature as a parser game – having a whole bunch of potential options, only one of which is productive at any particular point in time, can be de rigueur for such things, after all. The plot, characters, puzzles, and text all seemed unchanged to me, so on all those points I’ll just refer back to my review of the original game; the short version is that this is an entertaining Conan pastiche with straightforward but satisfying challenges and solid prose. So how has it been changed by its new choice-based interface?

Some things that I found frustrating in the game’s first iteration have definitely been streamlined; the sometimes-cryptic limited-parser verbs are no longer a barrier, for one thing, since you just need to click on stuff to interact with it. The use of an inventory sidebar also helps make one of the harder puzzles fairer by making obvious an option that previously required a bit of a leap of intuition. While navigation links aren’t highlighted, leading to some potential confusion – the opening scene has two separate “broad dark stain” links, one of which provides additional detail text, the other of which advances the plot – the game’s linear nature (and the always-available undo button) means this is no big deal.

There are some places where the interface does get a little awkward – trying to open a chest can require clicking two or three times, which is a few too many in the abstract and also creates challenges if the player’s also trying to use an inventory item to break it open and isn’t sure when they’re supposed to do that. And while it’s nice that there’s a new achievements feature, it’d be nice if the game told you when you’d unlocked one, or told you the names of ones you haven’t found yet, since as is I just looked at them at the end of the game, went “huh”, and closed it down.

All of which is to say that this is a clean and faithful translation of the parser game: that trick with the one meaningful choice is still really smart, the puzzles and story seem to work just as well as they did in the original, and that one puzzle at the end about heading off a “circling” enemy still makes my head hurt. If you’ve played the game already, there’s probably not much need to revisit it unless you’re interested in doing comparative analysis on the different interface schemes (which is totally legit, I actually enjoyed doing that!) But if you’ve hesitated to take the plunge, this is version hits all the same high points and is more accessible to the parser-averse to boot.

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Deep Dark Wood, by Senica Thing

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A wood of forking paths, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

Theme and variation is a solid approach for an anthology, and Deep Dark Wood – a collation of seven small Twine games written by Slovakian students ranging from six to thirteen years old – picks a classic for its hook: as the title says, each of the heptad sees the player lost in a spooky forest and facing a variety of dangers. There are structural similarities too, as they all implement Time Cave or gauntlet structures with plenty of deaths and bad endings lurking to claim the unwary; generally there’s not much by way of cluing to differentiate the safe from the dangerous paths, but fortunately the always-available undo button and the games’ short lengths make exploration painless (in fact some of the bad endings are as much if not more fun than the successful ones).

The fact that there are so many similarities here, though, helps throw into sharper relief the differences in approach taken by the various authors – which largely turn on writing style and implementation of the choice framework. So I’ll provide some quick thoughts on each of the seven in turn, focusing on those elements:

Back to the City, by David (8)

The most immediately engaging thing about Back to the City is its enthusiasm: almost every choice ends with an exclamation point. This upbeat vibe extends to the narrative as well, as this is the rare Deep Dark Wood that doesn’t threaten the player with peril. Per the title, all roads eventually lead back home, but the player’s able to explore as they desire, perhaps having fun at a Christmas Eve party or helping a lost horse get back to the farm. None of these incidents are sketched in too much detail, but they effectively move the story along and are introduced and resolved in a satisfying fashion, lending the longest playthrough a bit of a picaresque vibe (the shortest playthrough traverses only three links and isn’t nearly as satisfying). It’s a gentle, slight game, and I can’t help but suspect that it was put first in the collection to ease the player into the more dangerous woods to come… (OK, it’s also first alphabetically).

Dark Dream, by Baily’s Sisters (11)

Dark Dream shares the exclamation-point-at-the-end-of-the-choices trick with Back to the City, but is a much more challenging story to navigate. Per the dream theme, the forest-and-cabin setting this time boasts surreal touches – you can find your headlong flight through the wood interrupted by running straight into a fox’s mouth, and there’s one branch that leans into the way absurd details can pile up in dreams:

"Finally, you find a doctor that is also a dog. He gives you pills and you take them.

"You feel great but you are lost. The dog asks you if you have money. You have some."

Structurally, Dark Dream is more of a Time Cave, with different decisions in the opening leading to distinct, nonoverlapping episodes that all quickly lead to an ending. Again the game leans into its themes, because in each ending you’ll eventually wake up – but per the conventions of the horror genre, there’s always a twist where whatever happened to you in the dream will recur when you’re awake. Sometimes this can be as subtle as a bad taste in your mouth if you finished the dream gorging yourself on bear meat, but it can also go in hilariously metaphysical directions too, as in the various endings where you wake up only to find yourself dead. Another nice bit of craft is that the final passage is always introduced with an ellipsis, creating drama about what exactly is going to happen when you find yourself in your bed, which adds to the punch-line nature of the endings and makes the bad ones just as much fun as the good ones.

Halloween, by Hailey and Milka (11)

Halloween also leans into the surreal, though doesn’t adopt anything as straightforward as the “it was all a dream” explanation from the previous game. Instead, you might enter a creepy cabin, get bitten by an evil doll, and then find yourself whisked to the bottom of a lake. As a result, it plays like a roller-coaster ride – you don’t know where you’re going to go, but you can trust that it will be entertaining. My favorite vignette is the one where you wake up from a dream (okay, some of the bizarre branches do use this cliché, but not all of them) only to find that your fingers have vanished, and your only choices are to pray to Jesus or try to go back to sleep. There’s also one where you find a duck and then get abducted by aliens – it’s zany, in other words, though there’s another branch that mixes in a note of social realism by telling you that your parents have recently gotten divorced, which is “a usual thing in Halloween stories”.

Once again the approach to endings is a highlight – the authors are aware that much of the draw of a game like this is collecting the different endings, so they judge each as good or bad, let you know whether you’ve been awarded any trophies (these are numbered, but no explanation of the numbering is provided, which paradoxically made me more excited to try to collect them all), and then let you click one final link for good measure – though that just confirms that the story is over and you can stop clicking.

IXI in the Forest, by Leontine (6)

IXI in the Forest distinguishes itself less by its plot – once again there’s a child lost in the woods, who can try to befriend and/or flee from a variety of animals, with a gauntlet structure funneling the player to the best ending, where IXI, a bird, and a rabbit enjoy a picnic together – than its approach to choices. Rather than playing as IXI, you function as a co-narrator, deciding what outcome for each particular small vignette to pursue: for example, when IXI meets a doe who turns out to be dangerous, your choices are either “let IXI escape” or “let IXI not escape.” This adds a bit of distance to the player’s engagement with IXI – who isn’t characterized in any notable way – but also pushes the player to think about the choices differently, looking not for the most advantageous strategy but for which option might lead to the most interesting narrative.

Little Frogie, by Natalie (12)

Little Frogie is the game in the anthology that departs the most from the walk-through-the-spooky-forest vibe – there’s one branch where the eponymous frog gets restless and decides to leave their cabin, with a trip to the woods being one of the options, but other than that they’re just going about their froggy business: making a meal, drawing a picture, taking a bath. Despite this, Little Frogie has a strict gauntlet structure, with only one correct path allowing you to make it through each episode in turn and get to the best ending. As with other the other games, though, it takes the sting out of the bad endings with a bit of humor: starving to death will elicit a wry “a sad moment”, while more successful ones might be judged “most adventurous moments”. It also provides some judicious hints to help the player navigate some of the trickier choices, like reminding you that it’s a hot day outside when you’re picking the temperature for your bath. The final set of choices – those ones allowing you to leave the cabin – feel like a bit of a shift from the rest of the game; beyond leaving the cozy setting of the frog’s hidey-hole, they also amp up the danger, which makes for some heightened drama in a story that could have otherwise petered out in a low-key fashion.

Survive or Die, by Unicorn Sisters (13)

Survive or Die takes us back to the core of the Deep Dark Wood theme by modeling itself on a horror movie: you’re lost in the forest in the middle of a storm, in need of shelter, when you stumble across an old house… There’s of course a monster, and danger lurking everywhere, but what’s clever about Survive or Die is that succeeding requires you to embrace genre tropes. You can pick whether you’re by yourself or with friends, for example, and of course the movie is more fun with other people around. Similarly, when there’s a loud noise you’re prodded to ask whether they heard the scary sound too. It all leads up to an entertaining twist ending, a perfect capstone for this self-aware genre exercise.

The Dark One, by Mushroom (13)

The anthology closes as it began, with a relatively friendlier entry. There’s still quite a lot of danger, don’t get me wrong – structurally, this is a combination gauntlet and Time Cave so there are quite a lot of ways to reach a bad end, including monsters and poison. But in addition to the welcome return of choices mostly punctuated with exclamation points, the narrative voice is also companionable, providing positive reassurance like “I like your way of thinking” when you make a wise decision and commiserating with you when things don’t quite go your way. After the often-solitary escapades of the prior six games, it’s nice to have a friend along on the adventure, and the game recognizes that this is one of its key draws: one of the ways to fail is to refuse to trust the narrator. And being told “I’m so happy for you, my dear friend!” brings an extra warmth to the best ending.

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A Dream of Silence, by Abigail Corfman

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Throne of Bawl, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

(This is a review of the incomplete version of the game entered into 2024's Spring Thing Festival)

I’ve got a conundrum: what’s the opposite of a chocolate-and-peanut-butter situation? I’m a big fan of Abigail Corfman’s mechanically-engaging Twine games, and while I haven’t played Baldur’s Gate 3, I’m sufficiently into Bioware-style RPGs with relationship drama to make the prospect of melding these two things into a fangame where you need to help a BG3 companion explore and escape a traumatic dream-prison via judicious stat-juggling and trust-enhancing conversation immediately appealing. But instead of a delicious Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup, I feel like I’ve just bitten into – I dunno, a Swedish Fish Oreo? Onion-ring mints? I’m just goggling weird candies now, somebody help me out.

I should say up front that this is an incomplete chunk of what will eventually be a larger game – it consists just of a prologue that sets up the main action, and then a first act that ends just as there’s a glimmer of hope of rescue. Per some notes from the author, it sounds like there’ll also be some beefed-up options for specific kinds of characters to flesh out the interactions. And I think I am at a disadvantage from not having much pre-existing familiarity with Astarion, the game’s central character – I’m dimly aware from the BG3 discourse that he’s a popular character, and Dream of Silence provides an efficient summary both of the larger game’s plot, and Astarion’s basic deal as an elven vampire, that I understood the plot, but I didn’t have any feelings about him one way or the other going into things. So it’s possible my current reactions won’t make as much sense once the full game is out, or for a player who’s already Team Astarion.

With that said, I think there are some interrelated design and narrative decisions here that wind up yucking what should be a yum. On the story side, after an intense, confusing opening that again probably works much better if you’ve played BG3 and know who the various name-checked characters are, things slow way down. See, your party is under attack from a dream-eating monster, which has lead to Astarion being trapped in what appears to be a nightmare based on memories of when he was enslaved by the vampire who turned him. Said nightmare is one of isolated captivity: he’s stuck in a small, near-featureless crypt, slowly starving to death while his mind frays. You’re able to project yourself into the dream to try to rescue him, but only appear as a sort of wraith, with limited ability to interact with Astarion or the environment. While there are a few events that liven things up to a certain degree, for the most part all that happens for the game’s half-hour-ish playtime is fiddling around, unable to accomplish much or have much by way of conversation, while hopefully finding some way to put off his seemingly-inevitable demise.

This is all accomplished via a parser-like interface where you can zoom in on different sub-areas of the crypt and engage with the objects and characters there to the extent of your abilities, which are quite restricted. While you can pick a Dungeons and Dragons class at the outset, as far as I can tell this only provides a very few rare one-off options. For the most part, your capabilities are restricted according to an energy gauge (you get ten points at a time; resting replenishes them, but also reduces Astarion’s HP and sometimes his mental health) and how much you’ve levelled the three core skills of sight, touch, and speech. Speech 1 only lets you produce a vague susurrus of whispers, while higher levels allow you to say single words or even a few at a time; similarly, higher levels of sight give you more insight into your surroundings (and Astarion) while touch helps you interact with your surroundings.

That’s a reasonable enough framework, but the I found the implementation really drags. Partially this is because you need to level up the skills a fair bit to be able to do much, and at the default “balanced” difficulty level, it can take multiple rests to get some skills even up to level two or three (you choose how to prioritize the skills so that there’s one that’s relatively cheap to level, one that’s fairly punishing, and one in the middle). The game does provide you with specific targets to aim for by graying-out options you can’t yet access, but telling you what skill level you’ll need to unlock it. The nature of the tiny playing area, though, is that each level-up only opens up one or two new things, and as far as I can tell it’s not really possible to specialize just in one or two – you’ll eventually need all three to a certain extent. So that leads to a lot of thumb-twiddling gameplay just to move the ball forward a small amount, mechanically speaking.

What’s worse, the narrative impact of your abilities is often quite disappointing. For example, I was excited to get Touch 2, since that would let me pass through walls. But exiting the crypt just revealed that I was tied to Astarion and couldn’t go far, and unlatching the door to make it easier for him to escape required Touch 3. The only other thing I could do was enter a particular, prominent sarcophagus – but popping in just revealed that there were two items there that required Touch 5 to retrieve. This wasn’t a one-off anticlimax, either – once I got Touch 3 and opened up those latches, a skeleton immediately came and re-locked them, with no positive impact. It’s possible that if I’d had my speech skill leveled up further I would have been able to tell Astarion to try something with the door (though I didn’t see even a grayed-out option for that when I checked), but again, levelling up multiple skills is a time-consuming slog.

The nadir probably hit when I tried to use my special paladin power. There was a monster who showed up to menace Astarion, and I was excited to see that I could try to SMITE it – except I needed at least Touch 3 to unlock that option, and in my first playthrough I’d made that my lowest-priority skill and therefore was nowhere near being able to use it. On a subsequent playthrough, I made the appropriate investment so that I could try out the shiny, exciting choice – only to find that smiting the monster didn’t hurt it in the slightest, but drew its attention to me so I lost all my energy for the day and faced ongoing penalties even after resting, which is a far worse result than what you can get by just mumbling “hide” with no class powers and Speech 2.

It could be that these mechanical choices are the game trying to push you to worry less about the environment and more about the NPC, but sadly I didn’t find Astarion himself that engaging, even when I did a playthrough investing heavily in speech. He’s not a very garrulous conversationalist, which is fair enough given that he’s talking to a disembodied ghost, but still, the perfunctory way most exchanges play out is both a bit dull and mechanically punishing since you need to pay energy to keep each back-and-forth going. He also comes off as lightly characterized, despite a few hints of an enjoyably-spiky personality in some of his lines; likewise, nods to his backstory occasionally come to light but since that’s all spelled out in the pre-game infodump there’s not much intriguing about them. And outside of dialogue, he also isn’t especially proactive in taking any actions on his own to try to get himself free. Again, this is narratively reasonable: by the time the game opens he thinks he’s been held captive for fiveish months, so presumably he’s already explored around and tried everything he can think of, but the result is that without the benefit of how he’s established in BG3, I found him a passive, somewhat-generic character who couldn’t bear the weight the game’s structure puts on him.

All of which is to say that on both the mechanical and plot levels, the game creates a lot of tedium and frustration which is thematically relevant but doesn’t provide much for the player to glom onto – and the slow pacing and unrewarding narrative progression are exacerbated by the difficulty level, which at the default “balanced” level required me to start over several times to make progress. The easy “story” mode was slightly faster on the mechanical level, at least (I shudder to contemplate the unlockable hard difficulty), but that didn’t provide much of a patch on the game’s other issues; heck, I got to the end successfully in that playthrough, but it still wasn’t clear what I did to trigger the deus ex machina event that caps off the demo, adding lack of agency to my complaints.

I realize this is a lengthy review that’s more negative and less balanced than I usually try to be, so it’s worth repeating that this is probably due to my frustrated expectations – I went in expecting to really like A Dream of Silence, so I’m still working through the whiplash of bouncing off of it instead. I’m interested enough to still check out the full game, I suppose, but I’ll be sticking to the easiest difficulty and hoping for substantial changes behind the scenes.

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Provizora Parko, by Dawn Sueoka

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Birds, flight, baggage, May 16, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

I am not usually one to police genre boundaries – these are useful shorthands for discussion, analysis, and (mostly) marketing, nothing more – but I have to admit my ears pricked up when I saw a slight inconsistency in the tags the author provided for Provizora Parko (which as far as I can tell is Esperanto for “provisional park”, reinforcing my conviction that Esperanto is just a monoglot American putting on a fake accent and pretending to speak Russian). The primary genre is tagged as surreal, you see, while there’s also a content warning cautioning about implied violence “in a magical realist context.” And while the border between these two things is admittedly vague, there are real differences, beyond just that I tend to like magical realism and am more frequently left cold by surrealism. The former is more likely to accord with the traditional plot dynamics of a literary novel, with occasional fantasy elements introducing moments of illogic into a familiar structure, whereas in my experience the latter eschews linear narrative and tends to put conventional elements and outré ones at the same level. My complaint about surrealism is that it can often feel lightweight: a bunch of stuff happens, but there’s no throughline of dramatic progression ensuring that actions beget consequences in a comprehensible way. For a poem, that’s completely fine, but for a story – and most IF is structured as a story, of course – it’s a riskier proposition.

Provizora Parko definitely falls much more on the surrealism side of the line. But! Like a good poem, it’s also admirably disciplined about the language, imagery, and themes it deploys, which mitigates that feeling of weightless contingency: this is definitely not a world where anything could happen. As you (it’s unclear who “you” are) explore the titular mostly-abandoned zoo, there are certain elements that recur: crowd scenes, birds, travel, disaster. While you’ve got freedom of movement (this is a Twine game that allows you to navigate, though there’s no compass directions or inventory or any other parser-like touches) the map imposes or at least suggests a particular progression through the space that leads to something resembling an arc, with individual, memorable set-pieces gaining significance by the way they’re juxtaposed.

I want to zoom in on the language, since to my mind that’s the primary draw here. It’s evocative and clear while still remaining elusive, like this bit of landscape description:

"Rainbow shower trees with sherbet-colored blossoms border the plaza and cast crisp shadows in the midmorning sun."

This approach extends even to the unfamiliar or fantastical elements – it’s sometimes hard to tell which is which, in fact. Take this bit:

"Sunlight dances on the path, which is carpeted with layers upon layers of exploded figs. In the heat and humidity, the sugar sculptures are beginning to sweat, the beads of moisture hardening into tiny pimples."

I don’t really know if that’s how a sculpture of sugar really starts to melt, and that tentative sense of alienation, that tension between the alien and mundane, helped keep me engaged. It also helps that there’s a real sense of variety to the half-dozen different areas: one uses timed text to create a delightful emulation of luggage coming down an airport’s baggage claim carousel, while another takes the shape of an extended, absurd dialogue with a man and his perhaps-imaginary bird.

For all that I enjoyed much of the experience of playing Provizora Parko, I ultimately did find that its surreal aspects were too distinctive for my tastes. In particular, while I can identify some of the game’s key concerns, and squint at the endings to see how the theme of substitution or transformation that runs through them finds echoes in earlier parts of the game, it didn’t feel to me that this was an organic climax that brought everything that came before into coherence. This might just be a reflection of wanting the game to be more prosaic than poetic, but even very abstruse poems usually strive to leave the reader with a pop of insight at the end that refigures what’s gone before. Someone else more on the game’s wavelength might feel differently, though, and just based on the quality of the writing I’m certainly satisfied by my visit to this park.

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Ink and Intrigue, by Leia Talon

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Apostrophes and archetypes, May 15, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

There are of course innumerable ways you can divide people in two – by which I mean, do the whole “there are two kinds of people in the world” thing, not literally bisecting them – but the opening passage of ChoiceScript demo Ink and Intrigue provides, I suspect, a handy litmus test for an IF-relevant difference of viewpoints:

"Chapter One: The Call of the Kitherin

"The approach to Ra’zai is best made in the last hour of darkness. So say the books you’ve read, the innkeepers you’ve chatted with on your month-long journey across Rzskador, and the ferrymaster who took your coin at midnight and welcomed you aboard."

Some people will perk up at this reasonably-well-written excerpt, curious to learn more about what’s surely a mystical world of legend and excitement. Others, seeing the profusion of unexplained proper nouns and especially sensitive to that “Ra’zai”, will feel their stomachs sink at the realization that they’ve unwittingly wandered into the domain of Apostrophe Fantasy.

Reader, I confess that I am of the second party; it’s a totally valid preference, but so too is liking this stuff, and I fear that I had a hard time separating my ennui at the game’s genre from my response to the game itself. In trying to evaluate it objectively, I think it’s a reasonable enough teaser – there’s a potentially compelling premise, the writing is generally solid, the plot, characters, and mechanics all seem like they’d support the kind of game the author is going for. The stuff that I disliked, beyond the generic fantasy setting, is also somewhat down to personal taste: the pacing is perhaps slow, the character generation section sometimes dwells on what seem like trivialities to me, and the love interests a bit schematic, but my sense is much of that’s standard for the Choice of Games style, which places a premium on role-playing and tries to create space for players to project their own perceptions and preferences onto romanceable characters. So it’s tempting to just do the mealy-mouthed “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing you’d like” dance and call it good.

That’s not the kind of lazy reviewing y’all are paying for, though, so we’re not going to do that! No, instead I’m going to dig into a couple aspects of the games that I think count as strengths, and then some weaknesses, without hiding behind a subjectivity dodge.

On the positive side of the ledger, the opening bit where you define your character’s background and abilities deftly weaves together mechanical choices with bits of worldbuilding: you’re a spy for your royal uncle, but “spy” is one of those job descriptions that can be interpreted rather creatively, while lending itself to interesting missions, and picking things like how I chose to infiltrate a decadent cabaret that presumably hosted clandestine meetings and furtive assignations was way more engaging than just deciding whether I wanted +2 to dexterity or charisma. You also get some cool bonus elements to define, like your relationship with your pet hawk, that sit nicely between the choices that are obviously purely cosmetic (seriously, why are these kinds of games so insistent on making me choose an eye color?) and the clearly mechanical ones (to Ink and Intrigue’s credit, these are more frequently personality-based than attribute-based).

On the flip side, I think the game gets in its own way when it comes to establishing stakes, which meant my engagement generally fell off after the stronger-than-expected chargen system. See, this isn’t just a fantasy James Bond scenario – your mission is largely a diplomatic one, as you visit a secretive order of warrior-mages in an attempt to recruit them to your monarch’s side in an upcoming war. Except as soon as you enter their enclave, the magic alarm-bells they put in the gate announce that you’re a Chosen One and you get dragooned into being initiated into their order. The game is clearly much more interested in these guys than in your original mission, which is established in a couple of bottom-lined backstory paragraphs that once again feature apostrophes; further, the chargen section heavily prompts you to think that the king is kind of a bad dude and you might want to think about other options. And beyond that, it drops heavy hints that these Jedi-ish folks are too cool to get enmeshed in petty mortal struggles anyway, since they’re all about preserving the balance between different realities. So that initial motivation is quickly sapped of urgency; I think the idea is that the desire to go through the monks’ (apparently very long) list of initiations and tests to unlock your new powers will replace it, but without any clear sense of why you want these powers and what you’ll do with them, I found my interest flagged.

The other place where I think the author puts a definite foot wrong is with those romance options. Again, I think it’s fine for them to be stereotypical in order to increase the odds that a player will find at least one appealing. But these bunch often seemed more bland than archetypal to me. Partially this is because most of them don’t really do much; they’re all either fellow initiates or mentors who play some vague role in the tests, so outside of infodumps and light socialization there’s not much for them to do, at least in this opening section of the game. The writing also can be excessively didactic in laying out their personalities:

"You lower your voice. “Is your sole motivation the mission you’ve been denied, or is there something more?”

"A wry smile tugs at his mouth. 'I think my motivation is an alchemist’s mixture of rage, vengeance, and optimism. I’ve been planning my revenge for most of my adult life, but I push myself for bigger reasons than that.'"

(I should note that there are optional graphic sex scenes that are part of the game, if this kind of talk turns you on; I opted into one, largely to have something to do. It seemed fine, though the diffuse nature of my engagement with the characters likewise made the hook-up likewise feel perfunctory).

This is a demo, and given the average length of Choice of Games works I’m guessing there’s a lot more to go, which makes it somewhat unfair to judge the narrative and characters just on this limited slice, I suppose, just as it’s unfair to keep moaning on about how jaded I am about generic fantasy stories. But I do think tightening up these elements would increase the pitch’s appeal, even if it’s not going to hook everyone, and give those of us outside the target audience a little more to enjoy along the way.

Or just add more apostrophes to stuff, everyone likes that!

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Escape From the Tomb of the Celestial Knights, by Megona

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Not worth raiding, May 15, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

There’s not much to say about Escape From the Tomb of the Celestial Knights – as its charmingly awkward, late-period-Planet-of-the-Apes-sequel-ish title suggests, this is an author’s first parser game set in a generic deserted dungeon that doesn’t do more or less than you’d imagine it would. After playing the first couple of rooms I thought to myself that the prose was cleaner than I’d expected, and then immediately ran into a series of capitalization errors and an its/it’s typo soon thereafter. There’s a little bit of spooky atmosphere conjured by a statue of the eponymous knights that conspicuously doesn’t reveal what, if anything, is under their armor, which is undercut by all the rest of the tomb’s décor consisting of variations of that one statue (well, except for the parts that are skulls or coffins, both generic). There’s a gimmickless maze, but it’s basically fine; of course there’s no plot to speak of but that’s as much a relief as a negative. When playing online there’s a noticeable lag (there’s no local download option), the parser’s a bit finicky, and I couldn’t get the transcript to work, but this is a Quest game so it’s hard to hold all of that against the author.

It’s understandable why you’d take this kind of approach for your initial foray into writing a text adventure: the simple, sturdy setting and gameplay make it maximally likely that you’ll be able to complete the hardest step of the game design process, which is to say, finishing something. But it also puts a ceiling on what you can achieve – even if all the little niggles I mentioned above had been resolved, so that rather than dichotomies each sentence was unalloyed praise, it’d still be faint praise indeed. It’s in theory possible to implement this generic scenario with such quality that it’s nonetheless memorable, I suppose – as I write this, I’m recalling a game from maybe a couple years back that had a similar start-at-the-bottom-of-the-dungeon setup and was also a first-time effort, but had some interesting ornamentation and dressed up the puzzles fairly well? Ah yes, The Hidden King’s Tomb: but the fact that I had to struggle to come up with the name (this took a solid ten minutes of scrolling through my old reviews to find), and that it turns out I rated it only a 2 out of 5, perhaps makes this less of an exception than I thought when I began this anecdote.

Sadly, I doubt Escape From the Tomb of the Celestial Knights will have much more staying power – besides the funny-ish title, my main takeaway is that I continue to really struggle with even simple puzzles in games with two-word parsers where USE is the main action you’re meant to use. Still, this is a first game, and it is entered into the Back Garden, so it’s probably unfair to set expectations too high. I’ll wrap up by paraphrasing what I said in that Hidden King’s Tomb review: this isn’t the kind of first game that’d be of much interest to anyone but the author, but it is the kind of first game that the author might have had to write in order to write a much better, much more interesting second game – and I look forward to playing that second game.

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The Portrait, by dott. Piergiorgio

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Body art, May 15, 2024
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2024

I throw around the term “old school” a fair bit when discussing IF, but it’s worth remembering that the scene has never been a monolith. For all that the term conjures up the bad old days of hunger daemons and time-limited light sources, it’s also now been a full quarter-decade since the launch the IF Art Show, a series of BREASTS events that aimed to explore the boundaries of parser IF by asking authors to eschew complex puzzles or melodramatic narratives and instead, by analogy with a museum’s offerings, present still lives, landscapes, or portraits – which is to say deeply-implemented single objects, locations, or characters. For all that there are some celebrated works that came out of this tradition, most notably Galatea, a portrait entry that unsurprisingly won best in show in 2000, it represents something BOSOMS of a road not traveled; the events themselves petered out in the mid-aughts, and while modern IF certainly prioritizes deep implementation, it’s almost always in service of plot or gameplay rather than the more reserved, intellection engagement that the very name “Art Show” evokes.

It’s notable, then, that the Portrait explicitly situates itself within that moribund tradition, down to including the actual guidelines from the original 1999 event in an “extras” folder accompanying the download. It’s certainly DECOLLETAGE the case that there’s a story visible in the margins – the game is a small, self-contained excerpt of a forthcoming game titled “Isekai” which, per the eponymous genre, will presumably involve a person from the real world being sucked into and engaging in adventures in a fantasy world – but this nondiegetic framing, and the parsimonious amount of plot available in the excerpt, push the player to engage with the game in a less-directed, contemplative manner. The four BOOBS rooms that constitute the game have a fair amount of scenery to explore, but not much in the way of items to pick up or obstacles to overcome. Instead you’re encouraged to just wander around and examine as many details as you can – especially the details of the painting that gives the game its title.

This is a style of gameplay that I enjoy, since I think it leverages the exploratory strengths of the parser game while making a virtue of its often-pokey pacing and issues creating UNDERBREAST plausible, interactive characters. I’m more than happy to just stroll around an environment or cast my virtual gaze on each element of a scene in turn, even without much extrinsic motivation. But the thing about eschewing those more atavistic drivers of engagement is that it puts a lot of pressure on what exactly you’re asking the player to spend so much time on. And here, while I admire the PELVIC MOUND Portrait’s formal approach, I have to admit that I found the content somewhat lacking.

The portrait itself makes a reasonable first impression: it’s a picture of three women native to the fantasy world that the protagonist has found himself in, namely a demonic-looking one, an angelic-looking one, and one who seems to be an elf. And there’s an element of personal relevance, because once you find a mirror the protagonist realizes that although he’s a he in the real world, in this fantasy milieu he’s somehow taken on the shape of the elven woman who’s center stage in the portrait. So trying to learn more about her and BIG AND GORGEOUS D CUP BREASTS her world by closely studying the portrait is an understandable step. But I found there wasn’t much payoff to this setup: it doesn’t take much observational acuity to realize that the trio are a throuple, which isn’t very interesting since the player never makes their acquaintance, and the hints of personality given off by the visual detail are as bland as the fantasy world seems to be, from this short preview: would you believe the demon girl is a brunette and seems passionate, while the blonde angel is full of strong will to protect the other two?

Similarly, the implementation feels deeper than the substance supports. There are apparently 46 sub-items that can be examined within the painting, and the game provides a score system to help you track your progress, but the level of detail feels excessive. Even after looking at the ODDLY SEXY BAT-WING picture’s background elements, each of the three figures, their clothing and jewelry, and their faces and significant parts of their bodies, I only found 39 of them – but even then, there were many details that gave near-identical descriptions to others when examined, making this feel more like an exercise in box-checking than in discovery. The often-haphazard nature of the game’s prose is likely an understandable consequence of the author’s first language not being English, but it still often winds up coming across as vague and awkward, as in this description of a “stand”:

"the large and prominent stand, clearly a permanent fixture, is elaborately adorned, in a very festive but at the same time solemn manner, giving out that the context depicted in this portrait is of a very significant and joyous ceremony, like a rite of passage."

Or this early glimpse of the portrait itself:

"On the centre of the southern wall, flanked by an arched passage on its left and a larger archway on its right, hangs, an huge life-size painting, so detailed and realistic that you can’t exclude that is actually a photograph, no wonder that has catched your attention."

Some grammar-checking and beta reading could help tighten up the prose, but as it stands the writing isn’t enough to reward the obsessive poking about that would be required to get full points.

In fairness, the game provides an early off-ramp, with an authorial stand-in entering the scene and telling you you can stop at any time after you find SINGLE AND SPECTACULARLY ILL-CONCEIVED REFERENCE TO GENITALS about 15 details – and I think that probably is about the number of actions, and depth of implementation, that would feel right. So the fact that I kept going past that is mostly on me, and to a certain degree on the scoring system that I suspect won’t be the same in the full game. And in the context of the bigger story that’s teased here, this intro might work well enough to give the player a chance to slow down and get their feet under them before being swept away by a grand adventure, like an opening CGI cutscene lending gravitas to an action RPG. But presented on its own, framed as an objet d’art, I’m not sure it’s up to the amount of scrutiny it invites.

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