(This is an edited version of a review I originally published in my blog during IFComp 2023)
I usually start any IFComp by playing a horror game that speaks to me. In 2023, the game that was plainly shouting at me was Barcarolle in Yellow by Victor Ojuel.
This parser adventure is an IF take on the cinematic subgenre known as giallo, in which I have some expertise. So even if this turns out to be my only IFComp 2023 review (spoiler alert - it did) I hope it's one that can help other players appreciate the qualities of this game in the context of its source material. I'm sure Barcarolle will entertain anyone who enjoys a hectic, lurid murder-mystery thriller with violence and some sex/nudity, for that's what it is, but I can still imagine a lot of "What was that about?" questions regarding some of its content in the minds of players who've never encountered a giallo or giallo-like before.
About giallo in general
Giallo is Italian for yellow. In Italian publishing, there's a history of classic mystery novels being released in cheap editions with distinctive yellow covers and sensational cover art. Their success led to newer pulp mysteries being published in the same style. When these stories began to take cinematic form, directors quickly turned to producing original murder-mysteries inspired by them, but with a modern outlook. These films were more psychologically-focused, erotic and horrific than the books that originally inspired them (though sometimes not more so than the covers that inspired them) and often featured innovative audiovisual styling, gore, nudity, and a high body count. This kind of film became known as the giallo and was at its international peak of popularity in the 1970s.
The majority of giallo came from Italy, followed by Spain. Some were coproductions that shared Italian and Spanish actors and production crew. The film's casts were often studded with internationals. In Barcarolle in Yellow the heroine PC, Eva Chantry, is English (according to her passport) and is off to shoot a giallo in Venice when the game begins.
The name and cover art for Ojuel's game are on the mark in their pastiche quality. Compare Barcarolles cover art to the real poster for The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) (link to the poster from the film's wikipedia page.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) poster
The international success of one particular giallo, Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) set off a copycat trend in the naming of these films. Numbers, animals and colours featured heavily. As did salaciousness. Consider these titles:
Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Cat'O'Nine Tails (1971)
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)
Strip Nude for your Killer (1975)
Watch Me When I Kill (1977)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)
The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)
It turns out that a barcarolle is a kind of Venetian gondolier's song. And for a giallo IF initially presenting to a giallo-unfamiliar audience, the colour yellow is an obvious choice.
Giallo, as they were unto themselves in the 1970s, aren't really made any more. Some thrillers have giallo-like elements, but never enough to fully qualify them or give them the giallo feel. What we do see produced today is the occasional hyper-loyal giallo pastiche, like the 1970s-set Abrakadabra or 1980s-set Crystal Eyes. Abrakadabra and its trailer are so amazingly accurate, I genuinely thought the film was a giallo from the 1970s when I first saw the trailer; the film was released in 2018.
Finally, one of the giallo masters from the day, Dario Argento, is still alive, and brought out a brand new giallo in 2022, Dark Glasses. For all its flaws, I still think it's his best film for a long time.
Spoiler-free play advice
The game uses few verbs, and mercifully, all talking is achieved just with a TALK (PERSON) command. All commands needed to play are listed in the HELP. The key advice I can give is to WAIT whenever in doubt, as many scenes progress on their own, TALK TO (PERSON) whenever still in doubt, save frequently (though UNDO is also your friend) and finally, pay attention to your wardrobe. It's both fun in an IF sense to change your clothes, but it also turns out to be policed in a practical sense by this game. Wear whatever your commonsense tells you is appropriate for whatever task you're about to undertake.
About Barcarolle in Yellow
In this giallo adventure set in 1975, the player takes the role of Eva Chandry, an actor whom the credits describe as starring "as herself". The credits are interwoven with the game's opening turns set in a police station, where an interview with Eva is beginning. Eva often finds that life is like a performance, or that life reminds her of her art more often than the other way around. Thus the game is presented to the player within the frame of it being a film, and is also about a film actor appearing in a giallo film to be shot in Venice.
Giallo films often blur the lines between reality, dreams, imagination, and false memories of the seen and heard, but they rarely enter the postmodern. Barcarolle in Yellow throws in a foregrounded fourth wall element that adds to the pleasurably discomforting pressure the game is always applying through its prose. Is the game reality the true reality? Or does that lie in some layer above or below what Eva experiences? What she does experience is all the mayhem of filmmaking, typically chaotic giallo plotting, and being the target of a mask-wearing killler in Venice, the same way her character is stalked in the script.
Killers in giallo films are often motivated by Freudian traumas from their past. As often, the traumas are revealed to the audience in piecemeal flashbacks cued by the developing investigations of the murders. While I'm used to giallos going back, I laughed when Barcarelle went way back (to 1862) and to another country (USA) in what appeared to be its first flashback. In its typical rug-pulling style, this was revealed to be a scene from a Western Eva was acting in.
Overall, Barcarolle in Yellow turns out to be a dangerous and tricky game, with frequent physical threats to the PC, death on the cards and numerous abrupt changes of place and reality. However, it also has a strong, often linear trajectory that keeps it from being too hard. I found most difficulty stemmed from under-implementation. It doesn't cater to enough synonyms and possibilities for the amount of prose there is. This combined with a few timing-critical scenes makes for some frustrating passages. On the plus side, the THINK command will almost always point the player in exactly the direction they need to go. I didn't use THINK on my first playthrough, but used it a lot on the second to shore up identify-the-noun moments that had repeatedly held me up.
As the attractive Eva, the player must get around an excitingly compressed version of Venice, occasionally act in the film she's in (by following its script!) investigate the stalker who appears in both Eva's life and the film, and manually handle her wardrobe. Cue giallo-typical nudity, both appropriate (having a shower) and justifiable but glamourised (being nude in a prolonged dream, except for a mask). This being a giallo, the game comments, via Eva's thoughts, on the way the camera observes the female body through an exploitation film lense.
There are a lot of entertaining scenes and tricks that toy with agency as an IF player, as a woman PC and as an actor in a film. The world of the game is as aggressively sexist and sexual as many giallo films were, and those films already experimented a lot with people's roles. The agreed-upon prototype giallo is Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) which foregrounded, in one stream of the genre, a kind of outsider female experience. The American heroine in that film takes a holiday in Rome, witnesses a murder there and eventually solves it. Eva is Barcarolle's outsider protagonist. She visits a city in another country to shoot a film and also has to play a tourist in that film. The player even has to shoot photographs during Eva's acting scenes.
Some giallo could be very gory, with particularly outré deaths that are now regarded as proto-splatter-film. Barcarolle hits these genre notes, too. It features a knife murder committed through the eye, a speedboat attack and a hanging by designer scarf. The fresh and well-informed performance of so many giallo notes in the game is impressive.
Giallo films were ultimately open to exploiting any dimension of cinema sensation they could in their commitment to producing involving, shocking, thrilling and twisty murder-mysteries. Bigger twists and shocks were better, even if they didn't make a lot of sense. Some giallo were tightly plotted, others lurching shock machines, but most had their eye on overall audience satisfaction. This hectic quality can be perceived in Barcarolle in Yellow, too. Some of the game's shocks involve unexpectedly sudden endings or upendings, or the placement of moments of fourth wall breakage. There are in fact multiple endings to the game that riff on the bizarre nature of solutions to giallo murder mysteries; I found four endings so far and can tell there's at least one more.
I've played a couple of Victor Ojuel's other games over the years. They both featured vivid or innovatively-realised geography, and that's true again of Barcarolle's handy version of Venice. The games also needed more implementation work to my eyes, and that's also true of Barcarolle. Because I like this game very much, I would also like to see a solider version of it, without all the excess line breaks, with the typos cleaned up and all those synonyms added and programming beefed up to remove the bumping-against-the-walls moments. However, with its strong hint system, Barcarolle won't leave a player stranded if they do hit the walls, and that's more important for today and for players' IFComp experience with the game. I also appreciate what programming an IF game as event-driven as this one is like.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Barcarolle in Yellow. It shows great and affectionate knowledge of the films and related cultural milieu that inspired it.
In 1984, Usborne published Island of Secrets, a fantasy text adventure not delivered as software, but as a book enabling players to generate the program themselves by typing its BASIC listing into their computer. The book doubles as an illustrated reference to the world of the game, containing the background story, character and location guides, coded hints and a map. The game’s prose and engine are so sparse that the book comprises at least half the experience, making it considerably more fundamental to the accompanying game than, say, Infocom feelies are to Infocom games. The story concerns Alphan, a young scholar tasked with collecting objects of power in order to restore a war-darkened Earth.
The Island of Secrets book was a great inspiration to me when I was a kid. The illustrations have a lot of mood and character, the allusions to all the mysteries in the game’s world are intriguing, and the book is full of footnotes about text adventure design and programming. I had to take considerably more from the book than from the game because I never succeeded in getting the game running; I made too many mistakes while typing it in. I was in my twenties before I found a working copy on a public domain disk.
The main reason the book is so essential to playing Island of Secrets is that at least half the findable objects in the game are only cued by their appearance in the book’s illustrations. Island has about sixty locations, but is limited in its overall capabilities by having to support such a wide range of microcomputers out of the box (the Apple II, the C64, the VIC-20, the BBC, etc.). This means the whole thing has to sit and function in about 32kb of RAM after a single load. There’s no space left to hold descriptions of most objects, or to describe or implement scenery that could conceal those objects. All of that work and more is passed off to the illustrations and clues in the book. Mercifully, by holding the back page of the book up to a mirror, a player can obtain the short list of supported verbs and nouns.
Technically, the gameworld’s sophistication is above the level you’d expect from an adventure that presents itself mostly using the Scott Adams aesthetic. There’s a food and drink system, random events such as a storm, and characters who can move around. The characters have histories and motivations detailed in the source book. Amongst them are a Charon-like boatman, a scavenger who’s lost his memory, a depressed swampman and a missing scholar. You need to consult the book to guess at what might variously turn these people into allies, get them out of your path or help you defeat them. The particular solutions the game wants in these departments can be a tad abstract. While the source material is rich, the feedback delivered by the necessarily lean game program is poor. In this respect, Island of Secrets is definitely a story and a game whose visions seriously outpace its game engine. If I’d got it running back in the day, I can see that it would still have been a challenge to complete (without cheating) due to its sparseness, but I might have had the patience for it. In revisiting the game for this review, I was momentarily saddened to acknowledge I no longer have the time or patience. I used a walkthrough.
In its time, the Island of Secrets book provided a way to deliver to kids an adventure game with a deeper story than a BASIC program alone could normally pull off while teaching those kids about programming and game design. As a kid in the relevant demographic, I found all of the related Usborne books exceptional at doing these things, and official versions of them all have now been released as free PDFs. (scroll down on the target page):
Island of Secrets – along with The Mystery of Silver Mountain, Usborne’s other major type-in game presented using the same book and BASIC program combination – now seem unique in the way they’re meant to be experienced. That said, that way did grow out of necessities presented by the limitations of BASIC and the computer hardware of the time. IF players still seem to like feelies, so maybe there’s some weird mine of book-game interdependence that could be retapped for a new project today.
(I give the Island of Secrets book five stars in any year. As a text adventure played today, I can only give Island of Secrets two stars.)
I played a Commodore 64 version of Castle Dracula. The original BASIC game was published in CLOAD magazine, later distributed commercially by Microdeal and much later received further porting attention to other systems.
This adventure shares the most typical set-up for 8-bit Dracula adventure games: It plonks you roughly outside the castle and tasks you with going in and killing Dracula. I don't know the source of the flavour-adding blurb text concerning your missing wife but it goes unreferenced by the game.
For what was originally a magazine game, Castle Dracula has a big map. It is otherwise perhaps the epitome of elbow-grease-requiring two-word parser adventuring. The defining annoyance for the modern player is that almost nothing has a description if you EXAMINE it. If nothing's worth examining, then all you have is the ability to collect objects, or to try to VERB them on rooms and objects. There are no additional nudges towards solutions beyond the initial prose presentations of anything.
Again, this kind of solving-it-in-your-head approach is the bread and butter of a lot of games of this type. I found it too tedious in this one. For instance, there's a plank. There are so many great things you could think of doing with the plank (smack a zombie or hunchback or annoying suit of armour with it, build a ladder, cross a pit) and none will work or give much feedback except the correct ones performed with the correct verbs in the correct locations. And there are a ton of locations, so even just testing one idea across the board is too much slog.
There's also an inventory limit (leads to huge back-and-forthing on the map), some finite supplies (fortunately not the light source!), a slightly mazey forest, and one command that's crucial for more than one puzzle and which I'm not sure I'd have come up with myself. If you want a single bit of advice for Castle Dracula in general that will really improve your experience, here it is: (Spoiler - click to show)GIVE doesn't work, but OFFER does.
I'm a (blood)sucker for all things Dracula. This one has a good Dracula setting with forest and church and castle, but is otherwise more a haunted house adventure with a cute attitude; as well as the zombie, you'll meet a Quasi Quasimodo. And when I say meet, I mean he'll be present in a room a the same time as you. Communication is beyond the scope of this game. You can refer to him as QUA because only three letters are read by the parser.
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.