I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson's novel Treasure Island for the first time. As is often the case with far-reaching, pop-culture-influencing entities when one finally experiences them, the source material wasn't quite what I expected. I'd anticipated a lot more looking for the treasure, rather than that activity being confined to the last twenty percent or less of the book. I probably didn't expect such strong characterisation as I found, either. And X does mark the spot, but I don't think anybody actually says, 'X marks the spot.'
These musings sent me back to replay the Apple II version of Scott Adams's second adventure, Pirate Adventure (1978). Doing so in 2023, I'm interested in looking at the game from a few atypical angles rather than thoroughly overall, as the typical ones are well covered by now.
The first thing that stands out about Pirate Adventure is its setup. The player doesn't start the game in a fantastic world or scenario, but in a flat in modern day London. It's their finding in this flat of a copy of the novel Treasure Island that prompts the adventure. An annotation in the book says, "Long John Silver left 2 treasures on Treasure Island". In a sense, the player is really picking up the gauntlet left by the characters of the novel, as if the novel's events were real in this world.
After a bit of puzzle-solving, the player gets from the flat to the adventure proper's island setting by magic. In this light, the fact Adams put the flat in London when he could easily have set it in his home country, or just anywhere else, is a nice atmospheric touch that reflects the way the novel itself begins in England.
The sharp-eyed player will note that the first island visited is called Pirate Island, not Treasure Island, so they won't be surprised that there's no treasure there. Pirate Island is the setting for the majority of the game, and what happens here is all about getting the player ready for their expedition. It's also a home to all the trappings of the novel: rum-drinking pirates, talkative parrots, and the machinations of the tide. These elements make it easy to feel transported in time as well as place, but it's clear the player's still in the present, or has always been in the present, due to the presence of objects like sneakers and water-wings. I don't know how much the author thought about the sense of the whole, but there is a kind of anachronistic time mashup going on in Pirate Adventure. Of course, there's no way for the game to offer any comment on its own setting; there's no RAM available to allow more prose that could do so. It's up to the catalogue of things in the game alone to suggest or create the whole aesthetic.
There are two talking characters, the pirate and the parrot, and though neither says a lot, what they do say amounts to important cueing (of state changes) and hinting. The pirate exhibits enough independence of mind to be a solid NPC. While he offers sailing advice, he also has his own schedule, sometimes needs to be bribed or cajoled, and might tell you to get "THAT ACCURSED THING" off his ship before he'll set sail. In having so many functions that delineate bits of the story, indicating when something's begun or ended or is ready or not ready, the pirate might be the first entity in an Adams game who really makes time in that game progress as a function of the story and puzzle-solving.
The final trip to Treasure Island was exciting for me. Though the island's only a few locations, those locations (including a deserted monastery) suggest mystery and danger of the kind I'd hoped to find more of in the source novel. A joke set up much earlier in the game gets its payoff when the player tries to sic a certain animal on the deadly mambas, and there's also a false anticlimax of the kind that's extremely satisfying in any big treasure hunt story, where the player is temporarily led to believe they've done all that work for nothing.
The side-effect of the pragmatism of scoring in Adams's games can be a degree of inscrutability in the ones that have few treasures to find. All treasures are worth the same amount, and the total for all treasures is always 100 points, whether there are two or ten. In Pirate Adventure, there are two, so essentially the player's score remains at zero until the last five percent of the game, at which point it will become either 50 or 100. Very few players would stagger all the way back to that flat in London with only 50 points. It's a bit strange to me that Adams kept this system in place, but perhaps after Adventureland, he figured that most of his games would make (more) use of it, and it's true that most do.
Pirate Adventure seems to have a bit of a reputation as an easy Adams game. I don't think I ever found it necessarily easier or harder than most, but I suppose that its manner of grouping puzzles into what could be called sub-quests (e.g. the whole of Pirate Island is about gathering the resources needed to leave Pirate Island) means the player's attention isn't split across myriad tasks with completely unrelated solutions, the way it can be in the more danger-oriented treasure quests like Adventureland. If half the game or more is devoted to one larger task, concentration on that task gathers, and belief in that aspect of the story and world gathers, and maybe that's why this is ultimately a particularly charming Adams game.
(This is an edited version of a review I posted in my blog during IFComp 2022)
Nose Bleed is a clicking-choice-based story with graphic elaboration ostensibly about social anxiety that elicited a combination of visceral nausea and hysterical laughter from me; a pretty strong combination for a ten-minute (to play) game.
The player-narrator of Nose Bleed works in an office. They're meant to be doing something with spreadsheets but they feel barely capable. The details of the work, or indeed of anything but the narrator's flustered mental space, and later, their spectacular nose bleeds, are omitted by the game. Their headspace and the negative self-talk going on in there are the main event the content warning says "social anxiety". In the protagonist's distorted mindset, they expect to be negatively evaluated by others all the time. The narration is a spiral of feeling incompetent, incapable, distressed, depressed, and wanting to flee situations.
When the PC's nose starts to bleed during the work day, it comes in like a metaphor for their anxiety. It starts, it can't be stopped, it seems uncontrollable, others can see it and evaluate them negatively as a result. The bleeding gets worse. The PC is invited to an event they can't get out of, and the blood keeps-a-coming. Choices about what to do next are made by dragging words on the screen to nouns that light up. The actions tend to be basic ones that are either ineffectual (rub nose) or fobbed off upon selection by the protagonist's own self-defeating brain (apologise).
What makes Nose Bleed so nauseating is the way the blood is animated on screen. The paper-white backdrop is stained first by a single streak, then as spots that appear, and finally as an unstoppable animated splatter that follows the cursor about. Coupled with selectable prose options like "Lick" (the blood off your lip) the effect of all this was to begin to induce in my arms that strange weakness that precedes blood-related nausea for me. And then I began to laugh. The whole thing was reaching the intensity of a skit where a patient sits in a waiting room while geysering blood. As much blood gets all over the prose in Nose Bleed. It piles up on the on-screen choices and nothing can stop it.
Nose Bleed's finale has a kind of twisting escalation that reminded me of a David Cronenberg film or two. I'm not sure what meaning I ascribe to the very last event in the game, but the overall design is very good, moving quickly from banal office work and equally banal thoughts, via the start of a typical nose bleed, through the discomfort of being unable to stop the bleed, to an eventual wittily programmed and (to me, hilarious) graphical geyser.
If all that animated blood is in danger of having an eclipsing effect, I could say that having all one's thoughts eclipsed by one panicky thing is like social phobia, after all.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
SOUND is sufficiently small (for me, a few minutes per play) that my whole review amounts to a spoiler:
In the text-on-black Twine SOUND a woman known as Orange seeks treatment for her stutter and communication problems from one Doctor Thee. The doctor is a sailing champion and island dweller. An island is the venue for the therapy. The prose follows a conversation between Orange and the doctor in which neither is necessarily the point-of-view character. I was interested to note I identified, functionally, with the doctor, just because the doctor was the interrogator, but technically the links that change the progression through the conversation can fall to either character.
There is something a bit cute about the dialogue and the situation. Orange's anecdotes of work difficulties are realistic but the actual prose isn't quite. It reminded me of serious-leaning dialogue delivered by videogame or Manga characters. They say 'Haha,' and someone winked at some point.
Orange posits a theory of sound (that may validate her stuttering) that the doctor appreciates as new. It also seems to be bound up with semiotics. While she doesn't just go and say "semiotics", she does talk about the disconnection between sign and signifier in the supermarket aisles, even though she doesn't use the words "sign" or "signifier", either. It's unfortunate that in this precision-requiring moment, the prose is just a bit off. I'm not sure if it's the proofreading, or English is the author's second language or something else.
Fortunately, the outcome is unaffected, and it's the most interesting part of SOUND. It seems that Orange's theory transforms reality (if only all theories were this easily actualised!) and the IF's words rearrange and repeat on the screen to create the effect. The links wander, as well, but this is no "find the correct link to click" moment this is indeed, the end of SOUND. And for me, it falls in the right spot that is specific enough to the story, and also abstract and poetic enough to be satisfying without over or under-doing anything. It did prompt me to think on it in a manner outsized to the conversation's face content, and the coda text suggests a beginning for the new communication ("You embark to find that voice") and, cleverly/eerily, is exactly what the game's blurb promised, because that is SOUND's blurb.
This IF is so short I replayed a couple of times to see the other elements and to experiment with the end screen. The repeat plays also improved my overall understanding of the conversation. It's not like it's complicated, but in general I find it hard to keep track of who's speaking during long direct speech outings. SOUND is brief and the payoff is good. A multiplication of effect at the end of something (and definitely not its opposite) is always a fine way to go out.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
Due to this Twine's size, my whole review below must be considered a spoiler.
"Carla thinks about all the things she loved, Brutalising the Dead by Sadistik Execution, not being on fire, Paris, and herself healing in the future."
The above line was produced by The Place at one point to describe the actions of its heroine, whom I'd named Carla. The parts in bold were typed in by me earlier in answer to questions posed by the game (e.g. What is your favourite song at the moment?) This output, the joint result of all our creativity, made me laugh a lot. Since the game's (weird!) blurb had endorsed meaninglessness, I then thought, "Oh do cheer up, nihilist, you have helped to make me laugh." Place is another case of a Twine IFComp blurb being way off course and in danger of swamping the content of the small IF itself.
The story is about a young woman (whom you name) who's bored, depressed and troubled due to her home life. She's struggling to find meaning, not finding it in places like Paris (or whatever city you typed in) and ultimately having a look inside herself, plus perhaps in some other location you typed in. It's an optimistic ending.
The small scale of the whole makes it difficult for this piece to succeed. The Place describes an arc of troubledness most people would recognise, and the story struggles to rise above common experience by adding some specificity it obtains from the player by asking them for input. As I've demonstrated, the input scheme can backfire. But even if I'd typed more harmonious things, that wouldn't have changed the feeling for me. The prose is more fuzzy than precise and the story is well-worn and too general, though by asking me the questions, it did at least add an extra frisson of the commonality across human passions. One thing I couldn't work out was why the game kept asking me about some lottery draw order. It was the one question I didn't understand, and I was asked it at least three times. Perhaps some language/culture misunderstanding?
I think there's something to the overall idea of using input this way in a short story of this kind, but it would take more careful thought and application to craft the effect.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)
I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In 2020's entries list, I could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM). It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.
BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.
The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are implemented, players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation, and almost no synonym support, are typical shortcomings of the old Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.
I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.
In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.
The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and textadventures.co.uk website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline.
Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.
I'm not sure either of BM's endings are great. The most positive spin I can come up with on the solid/regular ending is the idea that the future people's faintly interested reaction to the detective machine (the one that you "were", or inhabited to solve the crime) and the most famous case it solved, is a sad-leaning reminder that we can easily forget about the realities of those who preceded us, and maybe now and then we should take some time to remember them... I hope this isn't too off course, because I lost this piece of the transcript when I tried the other ending.
The other ending is far-fetched in the sense that I think it's almost contrived beyond intentional logic (go west ten times in limbo?!) but it could be hit by accident. And with the walkthrough handy, I think players will probably try it anyway. While it's novel, it's totally removed from the bulk of the game. It reads as: 'Forget about Jenny Lee! I'm now a self-actualised AI out in the world!' Which is almost a different game altogether. I suppose it's cute as a novelty ending, and there have been a lot of bonus endings of this type in Playstation console games. Unfortunately this one wastes BM's remaining locked cabinet passcode puzzle in the process.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
AardVarK Versus the Hype (AVH) is an extremely funny parser adventure about a bunch of teens whose rock band, AardVarK, suddenly becomes very important for the project of life's continuance when a corporate/alien entity known as Hype starts flogging its soft drinks ("sodas" for the handful of Americans out there) to innocent high-schoolers. The brew's side-effects include mindless shillism and bleeding from the orifices.
The game is set in 1997, a time when popular culture was still dominated by the recent explosion of alternative music into it but before the internet had made any excursion onto the same turf; the game is blissfully free of the internet. If I was going to hazard a cultural thought of the kind I don't know that Truthcraze would approve of in the case of AVH, I'd suggest the simplicity of The Kids versus The Hype conflict is already a bit nostalgic for the eighties, a time when individuals-sticking-it-to-commercial-behemoths plots were easier to articulate. The film Reality Bites (1994) captured the zeitgeist of young Americans of the 1990s trying to retain their cred in a culture that was beginning to facilitate the commodification of everything.
Such drama is not what AVH is about. It's about the eternal comedic struggles of being a teenager (well, eternal since the 1940s or so, so not very eternal at all, actually) and about the nineties version of them in particular. The player gets to control all four members of the band AardVarK at different times with a SWITCH TO (PERSON) command. The switching isn't bound up with complex puzzles. It's essentially for narrative purposes. These teens are boys and girls, punks, goths, would-be frontpeople, singers and guitarists. The nineties wack is clearest in their dialogue stylings. There is a ton of multi-option dialogue in AVH wracked with a mixture of self-consciousness and excitement as the teens try to blurt out their explanations of weird shenanigans and corporate shills.
It's not so much what the characters want to say to each other that changes across options, only how they're going to say it. Bravado, hostility, coolness, honest dorkiness and cluelessness are some of the modes the player can choose amongst. Just reading all the different options, including the 75% not chosen, makes for a good chunk of the comedy. There's rarely any revisiting of unpicked dialogue paths because the story and conversations are too busy screaming forward for that.
The seat of the game is a wonderful repeating set piece joke involving the Gas'n'Stop convenience store, a location that has been thoroughly plundered and destroyed by the time all the main PCs have abused it. There are also jock-guarded parties, night-time trees to be climbed, cars that are rocking, and condom-purchasing jokes executed in good taste. Furthermore, AVH has some cool tricks of delivery up its sleeve. One is the way it will suddenly override the player's typed commands with replacement evil ones if the current PC gets possessed by The Hype. Another occurs in a situation where the PC's car turns over, at which point some of the printed text does the same thing. I don't remember seeing that joke in a parser game before.
AVH is a game that wants to help you finish it. It has graded HINTs you can ask for, but it's constantly prompting for free anyway in an amusingly harried voice. I think part of this stems from the fact that it's trying (successfully) to create a sense of lively action, and having players stand around examining everything is anti-action. The game would rather remind you of the next thing you're meant to be doing than let you gawp. There's also a decent amount of fourth-wall-breaking, and its version of the parser voice versus character voice dance is a cute one. I hit some bugginess across the game (remember paragraph one: I am now hitting myself with a stick) but the only thing that actually tripped me up was a guess-the-verb moment which was cleared up by the HINTs.
I admit I'd have liked some more reinforcement of differentiation amongst the teens identities across the game, what with all the SWITCHing amongst them that goes on, but this isn't a major complaint for a story this funny and engaging. The victory scene, which felt felt rushed in the original IFComp version of the game, has also been updated to make it much more satisfying. While playing AVH, I laughed aloud a lot, admired the many forms of comedy wielded by the writing and loved the Gas'n'Stop situation.
(A longer version of this review appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
The House on Highfield Lane or The House... on Highfield Lane if you believe the punctuation on the cover image and which in any case I shall now on refer to as House bills itself as 'horror without the horror'. I would probably bill it as a mystery, fantasy and sci-fi parser adventure, which ironically covers all the major genres minus horror and romance. The PC is sassy teenaged Mandy who, fresh from school one afternoon and still done up in its accoutrements, finds herself compelled to enter this house in her neighbourhood after finding a letter addressed to its occupant. Wide-ranging, puzzly adventure game shenanigans ensue in a steampunk-leaning environment. There are big-small spatial gags, some quirky NPCs, a Frankenstein-styled laboratory and creepy silver-faced background folk who always manage to run away.
House took me a bit over two-and-a-half hours to complete. I spent more than an hour just exploring and fiddling with things without managing to solve any puzzles, though thoroughly in the mood all that time and not with any sense that I wasn't getting anywhere. I then turned to the provided invisiclues webpage for help, and used it a fair bit from them on because of time pressure, thinking (in vain as it turns out) that I might be able to get through the game in less than two IFComp hours.
House induces curiosity and enchantment, demonstrates interesting and sometimes challenging design, and is a great first outing for the latest iteration of the Quest authoring system. Indeed, in 2021 it was the best-implemented Quest game I'd ever played. House is kind of hard, though, in a complex way. I don't mean that the puzzles are all complex. I mean that what's hard about it is complex to tease out, and has a nature I suspect will fall quite differently across different players, as might its third person narration. Ultimately, I loved the atmosphere of House, and quite liked the puzzles in spite of my troubles with some of them and the invisiclues.
* Note that the heroine swears A Lot! Mostly with the two most common rude words. I'm not going to say them here because this review is not a home to filth.
I found the key joy of this game to be its development of a prolonged atmosphere of unyielding mystery. There's a derangement of reality at work that reminds me of Alice in Wonderland, as do Mandy's flip reactions to this reality. And like in Alice, there's a sense that there is some overriding meaning behind the weirdness. That's mandatory in this kind of game to prevent the feeling you're just solving a bunch of arbitrary puzzles.
The prose is narrated in third person present tense
"Conscious that dust is about ninety percent dead skin, Mandy decides not to study it too closely."
which is one of the less common viewpoint choices adopted for IF. I think the first way this choice helps House is that it gets the player through the unreality barrier faster. The game starts with what is arguably a lot of unexplained weirdness. My initial sense of separation from Mandy (she's not 'You' or 'I') helped me accept the lack of explanation. Once inside the house, Mandy quickly runs into some major discrepancies of physical scale and geography. Perceiving Mandy in the third person helped me appreciate the scale of theses scenes visually, as if I really was standing back and seeing a film frame of a relatively tiny girl in a room hundreds of metres high. Over time, Mandy's flip comments on the situation brought out her personality, and made me feel closer to her.
Returning to the topic of the game's puzzle challenge: That the first relevant puzzle entry I looked up in the invisiclues after playing for close to 70 minutes was named for an object I hadn't yet seen or heard of speaks to the difficulty of writing comprehensive invisiclues. This event did worry me, though. Was I really so out of touch with this game? Or had I missed some fundamental mechanic?
Fortunately, neither case applied, but I would say House's puzzles lean hard for a variety of reasons. First, some of them are old-school-styled, involving a lot of mechanical experimentation and repetition (rotate the object, look outside, see if anything happened. If it didn't, rotate the object again, check again etc. And have the idea to do all this experimentation in the first place). Second, this game is rich with interesting objects that seem like they'd help solve multiple puzzles, but usually only one solution is acceptable. I could think of several objects I possessed that could very feasibly be used to catch another falling object, amongst them a giant floppy hat and a magically embiggened chamber pot, but the game didn't have any programming in place for these attempts. The solution to this particular problem involved roping in an NPC I didn't even know I could communicate with, since he didn't speak when spoken to. Teaching players all the ways they can interact with NPCs in your game is vital for any game. Since the base level of game content here is solid, I don't see it as a great omission that House didn't have heaps of alternate solutions in place already, but I do see it as a necessary site for improvement when a game is at this level.
Finally, there may be a stylistic issue that obscured some of the game's numerous props, all those paintings and windows and pipes and levers and bureaus and drawers spread out all through the text. Most IF games cater to this angle of interpretive difficulty by using presentation systems or logic to set elements off; the exits, or prominent objects or geographical features, etc. House wasn't so great at this, presenting most of its prose in solid blocks, so I forgave myself for missing some stuff.
The lead character of Mandy isn't built out of personal details, but out of a lot of behaviours and attitudes players might recognise from girls in this age group. I especially like the way her cynicism for schoolwork is tempered by the occasional excitement she experiences whenever she realises she can apply something she learned at school to real life. Her frequent sarcasm makes her a good fit for the classic strain of sarcastic parser voice that also gets a workout in House.
I feel I have to address the game's final riddle. Nno spoilers to the actual answer here, though if you want to know even less about the question than a measure of spoiler-safe info, stop reading now...
... it is, as a joke, pretty good. As a puzzle, it's probably terrible because it relies entirely on the player's own knowledge if they want to be able to solve it themselves, with the out that they will soon be given the answer if they can't. But they don't know there's an out coming when the riddle happens. And the game had previously enforced a PC/player knowledge divide in the opposite direction, with a riddle to which most players would know the answer but which they weren't allowed to solve until they had first made the PC research that answer in-game.
The kindest spin on all this is that the game adopts two opposite positions as a joke. Even then, I'd ask is it worth doing this when there's a high risk of annoying players on one or both occasions? The upshot is that I don't think ending any game with this kind of riddle is a strong way to go out, and even in the case of this game, which at least gives you the answer if you can't get it, it will be received as an unrewarding ending by a subset of players.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
The Spirit Within Us is a parser-driven thriller with crime and mystery elements that opens with the injured and bleeding PC waking up in a bedroom. Amnesia-game-fearers need not fear per se; the amnesia is well justified and quickly overcome. The whole game plays out around this house setting in what feels like real time, and ultimately with an emphasis on realistic action.
The author describes Spirit as psychological, but I found the prose too sparse and some of the content too vague for it to succeed at that level. It is evident English isn't the author's primary language and its use here is functional. The section of the game based in the house presents as an almost default set of IF content: a bunch of rooms, doors, fiddly doors, openable things and plain objects from daily life sinks, toilets, boxes, etc. If it weren't for the timed interjections of the PC's returning memories and the few interesting book props, this phase could pose a boredom challenge for the player.
The author wrote the game and its parser from the ground up using C. While that parser effects the basics, the game's needs have definitely outgrown it. My transcript shows I once entered seventeen commands trying to eat a pill from a packet of vitamins before I succeeded, and twenty-three trying to execute the last action required by the game.
The story that is revealed and the violent situation that grows out of it in light of the player's explorations and recollections are more compelling on paper than in the game. They're particularly filmic, as well. I've seen a lot of thriller and horror films make good use of the "waking up in a messy and potentially violent situation" scenario when they're also withholding some information from the viewer. Spirit is in this terrain, but unfortunately doesn't have the prose detail to sell it.
There's also a health timer element for the PC that induced a bit of unintentional amusement for me. The PC starts losing hit points from his injuries as soon as the game starts, and the player has to keep finding enough food and supplies to keep them up until the end. This mechanic does seem to be well balanced in terms of raising player stress levels while not being too savage under the hood. I finished the game without dying on my first play, and with plenty of health left, and this only took me about twenty-five minutes. (I acknowledge that geographically, I had good luck during my playthrough. After I'd made the whole map in my head, I could tell I'd fluked the ideal direction to explore in on a couple of occasions.) But the amount of time I'd spent rummaging around for food fruits from gardens, leftovers from kitchens et al. seemed to be too great a portion of the game experience. It's the major mechanical feature atop the find-and-use puzzles and some semi-randomised combat.
From the epilogue, I learned that the author's stated intention was to create a game with some moral challenge/choice. But again, the psychological content wasn't evident enough during play to make it clear I was making any moral path choices, at least in terms of my choosing them against apparent alternatives. If an action seems the obvious one needed in a game, I will take it. I don't come to these games to test my own morality, and I know this a difference between me as a player type and some other player types out there. Certainly the ending text I received was of the kind to indicate what the other endings might be compared to the one I got, but I'm not interested in replaying to see them.
I like the kind of story and situation this game presents, but its sparseness of writing and implementation mean the story doesn't really land, or with the right impact. The game's title is also too vague, in retrospect. I'd still say Spirit may be of interest to players who like a game with a bit of contemporary grit. And its mystery remains a little abstract, which is to say, I have questions about the backstory and I'm not sure whether I'm supposed to. This situation could just be due to the limitations of the prose. Even if it is, the particular degree of vagueness where the details have ended up is not a bad one.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
In Sarah Willson's parser game Closure, teenaged Kira has snuck into the dorm room of her newly ex-boyfriend TJ (using her spare key) intent on nabbing a particular photo of the couple for future reminiscence purposes. As she commits this rummaging crime of the century, she texts her best friend, YOU, THE PLAYER, detailing her every move and asking what she should do next at each juncture. The result is a charming game of rummagey revelations, presented in one's browser with an excellent marriage of content and aesthetic framing, and which took me twenty-three minutes to complete.
I think it would be easy to oversell the game's presentation as the answer to the question of why it works. When Closure is played in a web browser, it certainly puts the player in the right frame of mind to see the speech-bubbled messages appear onscreen as messages do, but what's considerably more important is the dynamic flow of the prose and its accuracy as (pretty articulate, considering the situation!) text message writing. The divisions between successive messages indirectly convey the flow of thoughts in Kira's mind, and also lead the player to visualise the physical actions Kira might be taking between texts. The game can't mention all of her lurching about, lifting and dropping things, her gaze alighting frantically on this and that, her occasional standing back to consider the situation, these things that she must be doing, but I experienced them in a peculiarly vivid way for their absence.
I was actually playing Closure offline initially (I play almost any game offline if given the chance) and even in that situation where the messages didn't appear in bubbles, I already appreciated how well the game was presenting as a text messaging simulation.
The game is well-implemented in terms of cleverly fobbing off many typical parser actions in context, or translating them into the game's context in cute ways. For instance:
i'm using that picture from new year's as your contact photo!! hahaha
Mechanically, it is a one-room game in which you need to search everything in the room to reconstruct the backstory as to why TJ broke up with Kira. This isn't a particularly difficult task, but the revelations are laid out well, with Kira realising things about both TJ and herself in the process and the player being compelled to keep digging.
The next paragraph is 100% spoiler:
From what's learned, it's clear neither character is a titan of complexity (au contraire), nor was their situation. This all suits a still-in-high-school relationship. From being on the outside of Kira's experience, I moved into it a bit, and could think things like, "Yeah, you should have tried to understand TJ's extensive sneaker collection a bit more if you really wanted this relationship, not just made fun of his extensive sneaker collection." Outwardly, this sounds superficial, but I can buy it. People have broken up over infinitely dumber things. I also don't know the nature/extent of the sneaker-teasing; maybe it wasn't actually so dumb an interaction in reality. Also, it wasn't only the sneaker-teasing; there's the liking-metal-music teasing. The conceit is that Kira is texting in harried fashion as she snoops a dorm room, so I can also accept the lack of details regarding these events within the context of the game. Can the game stand up without such details? I've argued here that it can, except that the final revelation of TJ's having run off to marry someone else felt weird and extreme. It's clearly not an impossibility, but it didn't feel like the right end for this game to me.
I think Closure presents its situation as a game about as well as anyone has ever presented this kind of thing in IF. The texting conceit, the thoughts of the responding character as modified by this mode, the prose used to convey it, the dynamics of the text itself and the thoughtfulness of how Kira responds to conventional parser instructions are all handled wonderfully. The only misstep for me was the final revelation.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
Bigfoot Bluff is a busy parser adventure game of bizarre comedy. You play a paparazzi Bigfoot trying to snap a picture of your dad, also a Bigfoot, in a national park he controls. You're doing this for reasons that are hard to understand at first and hard to articulate later. Plus the park has other cryptids in it and you're photographing them. Why to both? Well, it works out eventually, but this doesn't feel like the kind of game in which one should be fumbling for understanding as often as one is.
BB taps the vein of fun eight-bit adventures with its tons of amusing objects to collect, little puzzles all over the place and a sarcastic parser voice. It's quite compulsively enjoyable already, but simultaneously frustrating to play. Part of the trouble is in the realm of combinatorial explosion. With so many crazy objects in the game (you can sling a goat over your shoulder, dig chocolate out of a pie, wear a falconry glove, take photographs of things, build disguises out of bits of park detritus, etc.) interactions amongst them are underimplemented. This much stuff calls for that much more development work. Many great ideas I typed in received default rejection messages, making my perception of puzzle difficulty go up. There are also minor bugs and almost no synonyms, which leads to time spent retyping and rephrasing good commands.
And, for a good while, I genuinely thought the game was trolling me. Part of the HELP says:
"... Try to do various things that will help you stay hidden in the park. As you do, your score will increase and you will be able to track down Bigfoot Senior and catch him on camera...
Bigfoot Bluff is a forgiving game even though undoing is disabled. If you lose points, don't worry! Just keep playing and you will more than make up for the lost points."
So the score is related to stealthiness. If you act stealthily or increase stealth, your score goes up. But if you bumblingly draw attention to yourself, you lose points. I grew to find the numerous ways you can lose points increasingly hilarious, and suspected that the game's help message about its forgiving nature might be part of the joke.
Here are examples.
What if I...
Put on some aviator glasses I found on a crash dummy in a downed plane?
The glare from the reflective coating gives your position away
Score minus two
Examine the drone I saw hovering near the plane?
The drone focuses its lens and you hear a click as it photographs you.
Score minus one
Try setting a weather-altering machine to SNOW in hopes of making me harder to see?
>set weather to snow
You set the weather machine to snow.
It begins snowing. Your tracks will only make you easier to follow.
Score minus one
Try setting the same machine to WINDY instead?
>set weather to windy
You set the weather machine to wind.
The wind picks up; this will only blow your scent around.
Score minus one
After twelve score-altering events had occurred in the game, I had made a net gain of only three points.
It took me a long time to get on the wavelength of BB. To really understand the premise, and what I was trying to do, and why, and how I should be going about it. I think part of this may be that the intro is too sparse. The premise is deliberately silly, but it's also sophisticated. The opening line is:
"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 bit of prose requires unpacking and raises a lot of questions. But the game just starts with you standing in a Parking Lot of short description. Probably the HELP text would be better placed as part of the introduction, and it could all stand to be more focused. I don't think having to make sense of everything slowly by playing the game is the best fit for BB.
The game builds up an effective aesthetic that is simultaneously funny and a little menacing. The emphasis on surveillance inevitably makes you feel like you're being watched. The descriptions of the park don't need to be extensive to create a strong sense of place, a naturally beautiful wilderness with your father's menacing cabin sitting in the middle of it, and the PDF map helps, too. There are wacky cryptids about the place, such as the Garbogriff, for you to photograph, and the taunting announcements / nature talks your father is strangely obliged to give by loudspeaker at such times are amusing as well as truly weird. His later revelations are even weirder and wilder.
BB describes itself as a sandbox game. I don't think I've ever really understood the term, but here it seems to refer to both the nature of the map, and perhaps the mechanic whereby there are many puzzles to be solved, but that you don't have to solve them all. I found this to be a relief because I had a good amount of unused stuff left in my inventory at game's end. And that end is quite spectacular.
BB is a detailed and very funny game, but its implementation isn't a match for its content, and I believe it's unnecessarily hard to get into. I'd like to see these issues addressed in a future update.