Reviews by Wade Clarke

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Navigatio, by P. James Garrett

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Medieval Introcomp intro has me keen for more., November 23, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Introcomp 2020, Inform

(This is a review of the 2020 Introcomp version of Navigatio. The review is edited from a blog post I made during the competition.)

Navigatio (The Confession of the Second Man) is a parser-driven IntroComp 2020 entry from P. James Garrett. It's the first chapter of the prospective longer adventure and took me about twenty minutes to complete.

The PC in Navigatio is a monk's assistant at a monastery in the middle ages. The prologue about his rough upbringing and how he got to where he is is catchy and confidently delivered, even if there was one element of it I didn't quite understand. Then comes the first prose of the game proper –

Frozen Northern Bank

It is the third of a series of strange mornings. Lauds was late, but time has been misbehaving. So have the monks of this community.


– which I really like. It conveys a lot, moving through levels of awareness and connecting ideas quickly.

In the vein of 'assistant' games, the PC is tasked with fetching news and objects, communicating between different NPCs and solving environmental puzzles that get in the way of his goals. The monastery environment is compelling, and apparently the product of some research, sporting religious and manuscript-making details that evoke time and place. The implementation of the physical details is light, and probably the area of the game I'd most like to see beefed up in a later release.

The puzzles in this intro are simple and well-cued. I also nabbed some items that I expect will be of use in a subsequent chapter. The transition to chapter two has several elements that are hooky, including the continuation of a mystery thread set up in the first chapter and a suggestion that the metaphysical nature of the world might change as the game continues. I'm keen to see more either way. Some typos aside, Navigatio is well-written and well-directed, with a strong sense of place (including a few random environmental elements for flavour) and effective characterisation between the PC and his mentor. I would like to see stronger implementation of the environment in an expanded version, mostly so that the game would have a means of elaborating on its world's interesting details.


Letters, by Madison Evans

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Well-judged Twine letting you explore a teen relationship through letters , November 23, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2016, Twine

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

In Letters, you're a teenaged girl reading, tracing and clicking your way through a pile of letters from your ostensibly cool school friend Cadence after certain events have occurred.

Both main characters have solid writing chops and some wisdom beyond their years, and they communicate everything to each other by handwritten letters in the year 2008, give or take a few years. I felt this setup was a bit of a contrivance, the kind of thing that is outrageously possible in real life yet which takes a certain amount of feinting or explaining when delivered as fiction to get people to buy it. I decided to accept the premise and move on once I acknowledged I was enjoying Letters's sparky, emotional teen writing, and that I was also being prompted to think about how I was interacting with this IF. It worked for me both as emotional writing and as something with a bit of a puzzly feel, an experience I've rarely had with similarly presented IFs in the past.

I spent about twenty minutes with Letters and felt that I had satisfactorily experienced most of its content by that point, though probably not all of it. It's not easy to track which links you've previously clicked, unless perhaps you lawnmower them, or have a better memory than I do. It was a testament to the game's effectiveness that I had no interest in mowing the lawn. I was clicking particular links I wanted to click for reasons I possessed or imagined in relation to the story. Contrivances accepted, I liked Letters a lot.

More detail with spoilers below.

Letters is not outwardly gamey, but part of the blurb is a challenge – "Can you find her?" (your friend, figuratively) – and there's a certain labyrinthine quality to the link structuring. The 'Start Over' end nodes often occur after emotional climaxes or relatively drastic events. Something about them makes you want to avoid them, or just nervous about encountering them. This sensation probably emerges from a basic desire to avoid premature closure of the story. And there's a feeling that if you choose wisely, maybe you can in turn eke out wiser decisions for the characters. For instance, an ending that's not too deep in the structure and which occurs immediately after you tell Cadence to piss off, suggests that maybe by doing so you harmed the friendship so early in the piece as to preclude its development. In light of moments like this, I don't interpret the pile of letters to be a bunch of static found objects that you're going through. They feel more like your interface to a story that has an unchanging core but which you can get into more deeply if you're persistent, or sometimes deflect off if you're unlucky.

The key things I liked about Letters are that I wanted to find more ways into the story, that it wasn't entirely elementary to do so, and that there was a good balance between links that made me feel narratively rewarded for picking them and links that capriciously made the story crumble and sent me back to the (not too far away) start.

There's some tension, while reading a letter, between wanting to click particular links as soon as you encounter them, and holding off and reading the whole letter first. Sometimes reading to the bottom of the letter reveals more links that were initially out of range. Maybe they'll be more interesting? Or maybe you're effectively changing events in the story by disregarding later parts of a letter to move laterally earlier? I also like that I never entirely resolved all this stuff, and the answers probably aren't set in concrete anyway.


Snake's Game, by Nahian Nasir

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Weird imagery attacks repeatedly across mulitple short plays that are encouraged, November 22, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: browser-based, IFComp 2016, choice-based

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

Snake's Game is an exotic, pretty inscrutable prose'n'clickable choices piece in which a man walks into an eatery when some manifestation of existential evil – Snake, aka The Vermin – visits his brain and starts having a natter with him about a not-forecasting-the-future game they could play. If they do, the resulting conversations lead to the 'several psychedelic experiences… with demons, monsters, and some more!' promised by the blurb.

The inklewriter engine presents Snake's prose handsomely, and aesthetically it's very good prose, sometimes ripe, only wavering in a bit of proofreading and a rare mistake of the kind that makes me think English is not the author's first language. For other reasons, it is not easy or transparent writing. Not just because of its poetic leanings, but because I don't claim to really know what it was going on about half the time.

The game actively requests replays, encouraging you to build up a bigger picture of something, plus it thanks you every time you reach an ending. (I was thanked five times. That's a fair bit of thanking.) I almost quit after my first play because that first path I happened down was short and, in retrospect, still one of the least scrutable I ever read within the game, and not even in an abstract way. It was just like reading the middle few pages of a wacky book. So I was unlucky in that sense. I tried again, grew more interested, tried again, tried again. Ultimately I played one more time than I thought I would (and for about twenty minutes overall) feeling that I was building up some enjoyment, but there still seemed to be a cap on things making much sense, which is why I didn't continue on to try all the endings.

If you like, or think you might like, any of these things – existential psychedelia, flying into the sky suddenly with a cat, vivid visions of gore, celestial types chatting like they're in the pub, religious-leaning imagery – you might like Snake's Game. I can as easily imagine people hating it pretty quickly. I admired it but in the end I like written fiction to make more coherent sense. I can say that Snake's Game shifted my perception of it significantly on each iteration, and that's something of a feat in a pretty abstract work.


Night House, by Bitter Karella

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Spooky and mildly confusing, with a lot of old Quest stickiness, November 22, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Quest, IFComp 2016

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

Night House is a mystery-horror parser adventure of some spookiness. It mobilises a combination of vintage object-based puzzling (use A on B, B on C, C on D) and methods of backstory revelation popular in both horror films and games of the last couple of decades. The protagonist is an eight year-old child who wakes to a mysteriously empty version of their home and unseen menaces.

If you love amassing a huge inventory of doodads and using them to hurdle hurdles in all kinds of laterally conceived practical ways, Night House will whet that appetite, though the old Quest interface gets in the way A LOT. (In old Quest, when in doubt about verbs, use the phrase USE (A) WITH (B). If still in doubt, right-click any lit objects to see if the action you've been agonisingly trying to phrase correctly happens to be a contextual choice that then shows up.) If you don’t have enough horror tastebuds on your tongue, you mightn't find Night House sufficiently distinguished from things you’ve experienced before. Overall it's a dense puzzler with a pretty good, mildly choppy story that I basically followed but didn't completely follow; I will express some of my ignorances below.

Questions of which character you're playing amongst those presented, and by extension, which sex, come up early in Night House. This element of the game was probably experienced as the mystery element it was probably intended to be by some players (see other reviews) but I fixed on it so hard I began to perceive implementation flaws through it and got bogged down. For instance, controlling how objects are described is one of the best methods for characterisation in IF. And Night House wasn't consistent about this. Some objects were described with typical IF snark. Others were character-specific ("Your sister would kill you if you touched this!" (her Trapper Keeper)). This just made it even harder to decide who I was.

So I didn't get off on the best foot with this adventure, but once I found the flashlight (TORCH) and descended from the top floor, things began to pick up. Progress was well gated by various means. I found things to do now and portals and devices to open later.

The house contents show the game is set in the 1980s-1990s. If this doubles as nostalgia for folks of that vintage (e.g. me. I mean this house has an Apple II in it) the game is still wise enough to stay properly in the child narrator's character and make nothing anachronistic out of the situation.

The practical-going-on-impractical puzzle solutions are probably no weirder than some old Infocom, but eventually I had trouble identifying puzzles because there were all these seemingly unrelated story threads floating about. A father worried about his son. A moral panic involving dinosaur cartoons and toys, complete with a spoonerist joke description of the dinosaur who's similar to Raphael of the Ninja Turtles ("Raphael is cool but crude."). Old newspaper articles about yokel weirdos and Halloween. Collectively, these things didn't offer me much direction about what I should be trying to do in Night House other than solving anything that looked like a puzzle. I don't think the threads integrated fabulously at game's end, but at least I knew what my own character's situation was. And in retrospect, the game's story was denser than first appeared.


Tentaculon, by Ned Vole

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Impressive squid simulation, somewhat annoyingly delivered., November 21, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Twine, choice-based, IFComp 2016, science fiction

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)

This review is entirely spoilery.

Tentaculon is a link-driven Twine game that initially appears to be an eat-or-be-eaten squid simulator. Its prose is keen, a bit gooey and very slightly uncomfortable-making as one cruises around trying to kill and eat stuff while not being subject to sudden spasmodic jerking motions at the same time. I admit I feared some kind of cheap game-ending blow to the back of my head was imminent, for instance a message saying 'HA! You killed to live! You lose!' – but this was unfair misapprehension on my part based on past negative experiences.

Instead, the game cut to a Philip K Dickensian scenario in the present day. I was really a human. The squid I'd been brainjacking was safely across the room in its tank.

Placing what could stand as a whole Twine game in its own right (the short history of this design tool mostly being about short works) within a larger one which turns out to be about neurobiological research and realities within realities is conceptually a very attractive design move, and one I also felt aesthetically. In retrospect of the whole of Tentaculon, I really liked its sci-fi story and its idiosyncratic humour. But actually playing it I found to be a curiously disorienting slog. It brandishes a large variety of interface and delivery approaches that kept me in a place between irritation and aggravation.

There's no consistent way to move between sections. Sometimes it's by clicking the specifically crafted back button, which I'm used to reading as an UNDO button in Twine. Sometimes it's by clicking an acknowledgement ('OK'). Sometimes it's by clicking a particular option amongst several others which are only asides. The variation which bothered me the most, because I didn't realise it was happening for awhile, was when it was necessary to simply wait for the viable link to appear amongst additional text further down the screen after a fixed amount of time. I have complained about the use of text delay timers in Twine games before and will do so again now in light of having discovered a new way in which they can hamper your experience.

I'd say Tentaculon's interface inconsistencies stand out because considerably more Twine games prior to this one have been broadly abstract or linear than have not. Tentaculon features locations connected by stable geography, exits, gettable items and conversations with NPCs. In other words, it's got a light world model, currently a minority mode in Twine, and players need to be able to have some kind of reliable relationship with that model in order to grasp or visualise the results. I struggled with all the chopping and changing of the presentation, links being all over the place and in different styles, and I often felt I didn't have much of a hold on things.

In spite of my troubles, I made it through Tentaculon, relieved that the keycard puzzles were easy, that I was able to link-mash my way through some other bits when I'd lost the plot, and really glad that I'd encountered the fictional work Life Chutney.


Pilgrimage, by Víctor Ojuel

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A country per move is the Pilgrimage groove., November 18, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2015, Inform

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)

Pilgrimage is an atypically macro-scaled parser adventure which impressed me with one brief-prose-vivid, new and geographically far-flung location after another. It's also a game whose finishability, as in the player's ability to complete it without being severely gated by a walkthrough, I'd rate as close to nil. Even with the walkthrough, I wasn't able to clear the game. Pilgrimage does list several testers, so I'm going to assume I ran into a circumstantial bug rather than that the game is literally unfinishable.

Pilgrimage's PC is a Roman woman (ancient Rome) of significant alchemical learning who leaves her hometown seeking further knowledge of an existential entity known as The Great Work. She's like Carmen Sandiego in that each move she makes in one of the traditional IF compass directions tends to take her to an entirely different country. I've hardly played any parser games that place a series of huge environments (cities, countries, et al.) in a series of discrete locations like this one does, so whether by not knowing conventions or ignoring them, Pilgrimage sports a novel style.

Some kinds of historical realism or likeliness are important to Pilgrimage and some aren't. I don't think learned Roman woman really set out on globetrotting missions like this one. How many of them got to be this learned in the first place? It was when the heroine met a dragon early in the piece that I clocked I was going to be encountering both fantastic and ahistorical elements in the gameworld.

The Great Work, about which the heroine wants to know, is a 'real' figurative thing (I had to look it up) but the 'De secretus resilio', the cypher she carries at the beginning of the game, is not. So the whole adventure is a kind of 'What If?' with infrequent intrusions of complete fantasy. It enforces the idea of a pilgrimage by having you continue to move towards your goal, or goals, without turning back. Early on, the puzzles are gated in such a fashion that they tend to be self-contained within locations. This means the player doesn't have to worry about missing things or having to backtrack.

Most parser games involve browsing locations on a small scale and revisiting them. Pilgrimage is far more episodic, but whenever it departs from this linear itinerary it becomes very difficult as a result. It also invokes a large range of methods for interacting with the environment and other characters without teaching the player whether any of them are particularly good, or which ones might be of use more than once. As such, in its later stages it too frequently becomes impossible to guess what you're expected to do next. You mightn't be able to fiddle around; you'll just have no clue at all.

I had especial ire for a section in which I was expected to TELL SULTAN ABOUT (name of a city previously visited in the game) at a moment I felt I could have tried to tell the Sultan about anything from my whole game-life experience. Admittedly, Pilgrimage shields the player from this kind of thing most of the rest of the time by having all the characters speak different languages so that they don't even have a shot at understanding each other.

To say that the heroine has a wide range of adventures would be an understatement. Her character seems unclear and merely pragmatic at the journey's beginning, a typical situation at the head of an IF parser game, but she is quickly revealed to be capricious and somewhat ruthless, especially when weary of her pilgrimage. (Spoiler - click to show)She manipulates the knight into service, sacrifices him, threatens the alchemist, burns down a church, steals from the church, et al.

The overarching joke of the game for me is that it presents the pilgrimage as being a relatively noble undertaking when it begins, but it pans out badly enough for the heroine that she devolves into a tired, angry, cursing character who detests all the exotic foreign lands she has traversed and just wants to go home.

I got a lived aesthetic meaning out of this game that I really liked, and a sense of briefly touching the weird little customs and behaviours of a wide range of characters; the plague doctor, the superstitious natives, the wary caravanmaster, the macho knights. And a sense of doing so across different lands. But admittedly, since I couldn't complete the game, I'm missing whatever the end might have given.


Pit of the Condemned, by Matthew Holland

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A simple dodge-and-chase game., November 18, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: fantasy, IFComp 2015, Inform

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)

Pit of the Condemned is a short Evade-The-Wumpus-like game in which you play a convict sentenced to die at the hands of The Beast. The site for your intended death is an abandoned city that's now used only to host deadly spectacles. A bloodthirsty public watches your struggles from innaccessible locations overhead.

Part of the info in the preceding paragraph comes from the game's blurb and isn't present in the game itself, a fact which accurately speaks to the minimalism of the game. The implications of the game's setting or vaguely Hunger Games-sounding society don't really come up during play. It's purely about the mechanic of moving through a large network of empty rooms and searching for a weapon or escape route while the beast chases you.

I won on my first try by setting a trap for the beast in the Royal Palace and then wiggling around a lot until the monster followed me into it. It's probably too easy to avoid the creature in general thanks to the proximity warning messages the game delivers. These are handled well technically, as is the occasional warning generated by line of sight programming.

When the beast isn't close, the game tends to dullness. Almost all locations are empty and there are a lot of them. I was tempted to start mapping, but didn't, and it ultimately proved to be unnecessary. Some obvious commands aren't covered. The very first thing I wanted to do in the game was try to KILL MAGISTRATE, the guy who had sentenced me to death. I expected that the result would be that his sidekick guard would immediately kill me. The game's reaction was to instead print the default Inform anti-violence message, 'Violence isn't the answer to this one.'

Pit of the Condemned is good mechanically, but I found it too unexciting given the premise.


A Wind Blown From Paradise, by N.C. Hunter Hayden

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Too-buggy short game of underground train travel, November 16, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2013, Inform

(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)

A Wind Blown from Paradise is a small parser game that uses the drudgery of underground train travel and the wind blowing down the train tunnels as a metaphor for a greyed-out life not lived in the present; the siren song memories of the past are in technicolour. It's an idea well suited for delivery in IF format, but the delivery of this game is unfortunately frustrating. The solution shows me I had almost reached an ending after about 10-15 minutes of play, but I still quit at that point because I was tired of being thwarted by the random train travel mechanic and interrelated technical problems: the game failing to properly note when I was on a train or off it, turns being out of sync, some commands failing to give any response, a lack of basic synonyms, etc. These common problems could have been sorted out with input from folks with a little Inform 7 experience, but unfortunately the author hadn't spoken to any of them prior to IFComp 2013 (I know I because I spoke to him online at the time). There are also subtler design problems in that the game's responses don't give enough information to indicate that the game state may be changing, or that you may be progressing. It's too easy for the player to wander around in this one feeling lost, stuck in a repetitive loop with no guidance.


The Golden, by Kerry Taylor

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Some folks love this short pre-apocalypse CYOA, but it's too elusive for me., November 14, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: spring thing 2020, Twine, choice-based

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2020.)

The Golden is an elusive, faintly ominous Twine CYOA about a sister, brother and father stuck together in a seaside house in an unspecified end-of-days situation.

There are some tense character bits involving familial strain – a tortured card game especially on the first run – but the characters aren't specific enough for these to have full effect. For instance, if the blurb hadn't told me the heroine was seventeen, I wouldn't have suspected it from the writing. She seemed much younger to me, partly because of a sense that she looked up to her brother and partly because she didn't express anything too complex. She just didn't express enough. I don't really know what the problem was with the brother. Only the father had enough tics to make him stand out to me. Geography is a little fuzzy, too, a not uncommon situation in a Twine in which you can move around a little.

I don't know if there's a standard model in Twine that involves making the last word in a passage the link to the next page, a typical strategy in this IF, but if there is, I'd say – beware it. Words should generally be lit with intention. When 'God' on the end of 'Thank God' is the only link on a page, that looks highly significant, but proved to be no different than other standard forward links when clicked.

I liked the end of the story because of the aforementioned ominousness. I also felt that the game worked to build an anticipatory mood for it. Characterisation was the thin area. A piece this compact, written from one character's point of view and clearly indicating its characters are specific, needs to specify those characters more. There's not a lot of time to do it in, but maybe that means what time there is can't be handled as gently as I felt it was here.


The Living Puppet, by Liu Zian

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Minimal interactivity doesn't underwhelm a fundamentally good horror story., November 14, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, horror

(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2017.)

The Living Puppet is a creepy and classically-styled horror IF about a pupeteer’s mysterious relationship with the doll that is the sole source of income for he and his wife Li Shaoxian. It’s delivered in a web browser as long passages of click-scrolling text broken up by several major decision branches that the player can choose for Shaoxian. I played several times to different outcomes over 40 minutes during IFComp 2017 and enjoyed it. I can recommend it generally, and to horror folks specifically, accepting that a couple of its presentation choices may be too irritating for some players. The game sports horror themes and one explicitly violent scene.

Puppet does a couple of things with the text that I found technically annoying, but it’s a testament to the qualities possessed by an essentially good story that I decided to keep playing in spite of them to experience the whole thing. The first problem is that the player must click or press keys to elicit each line of text. The text scrolls at a fast but not instant speed, with the result that when you come back for your second game, for example, you need to hold down the space key for a minute (I timed it) just to reach the first choice again. Puppet’s second text issue is that against the second of its backdrop friezes, the text is partly unreadable due to colour and contrast issues. I’ve noticed I have a high tolerance for text colour variation, so I assume there will be players with lower thresholds who may simply quit on this screen.

The game is set in China, presumably at some time in the past as no mod cons are present and the world of traditional puppeteering is writ far more largely than I expect it would be today. The English version of the game is an ESL entity, so some of the writing is a little off around the corners, but important ideas are expressed clearly enough, and little details like falling snow flakes, breath in the snow, characters cupping their hands and the like, make their mark. The emotional intensity of the husband and wife as they deal with his gruelling performance schedule and her mounting loneliness also come through effectively. The game is about being on the outside of a relationship defined by a Faustian bargain, and its denouements are correspondingly harrowing and gruesome, emotionally and physically. This is what I most appreciated about The Living Puppet; it pays off.

Puppet’s IF mechanics are simple and won’t be enough for some players. There are few choices, but they are highly divergent for the story when they are offered. I also like the fingerprint graphic that appears on choices previously taken. It has both a practical function and seems to emphasise player responsibility for the choice. The network of choices is also a logical one. That’s to say that information learned from one ending can be wielded in one’s own mind to decide where a different earlier choice may have lead, or will lead to if the game is replayed. There are no narrative tricks here, just a good story with several outcomes. There are a handful of discrete sound effects, too, plus a decidedly non-discrete background music loop that becomes too bombastic too quickly for the prose on a first playthrough, but which lines up weirdly well with the later intense goings on.



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