(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.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2016.)
You are standing in a cave... is a parser-driven adventure of perennial adventuring. Stuck in the title cave with only a random collection of stuff in your pockets, you, the viewpoint adventurer, must unstick yourself and escape. The environment is full of props and clues designed to speak tantalisingly to each other in the language of puzzles via your adventuring brain. The climbable, the ignitable, the combinable; they're all here.
This is plainly not a game for people who dislike puzzles. It's straight-shooting meat and potatoes adventuring, roughly implemented, and with a title that could easily be read as a joke about banality. While cave's first room looks dull and prototypically cavey, things become more involving if you give it a room or two.
The game's tone is encouraging with a dash of wide-eyed. The adventurer seeks answers to age-old questions like, 'How do I defeat this giant venus flytrap?' or 'What really happened when I turned that dial?' The game is excited about the player's progress. Its positive tone acts as a helpful counterweight to the rough typological edges and programming oversights. Probably its weakest areas are in verb coverage and the offering of alternative phrasings for obvious actions, partly mitigated by it also going in for lots of USE phrasings. (e.g. USE A WITH B)
The game's generic USE leanings fit in with another observation I made: That Cave often feels like a graphical point-and-click adventure rendered as prose. I don't mean that in a redundant way, given that point-and-click adventures owe their existence to prose IF. I mean that it takes aesthetics that were added to adventures when they were transitioning into graphical form and brings them back into the all-prose realm. I refer to aesthetics like the extended depictions of transformations that occur in the environment when puzzles are solved. Objects revolve, rise, shine, glimmer or rotate at relative descriptive length. It's visual, and the physical movements are important.
I was able to clear the game without using the walkthrough, though I needed a little human help gleaned from another review. So, although Cave lists no testers and has lots of bugs, you can clear it. I had enough fun doing so.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
I thought I recognised the 'blob of goop evolves to starflight via all the stages inbetween' premise of Little Lifeform from somewhere. I've not played Spore but I've read about it, and that's the game. But I don't think Little is 'just' doing Spore via prose and the Choice Of Games engine. It has a particular aesthetic slant that is somewhat cute, somewhat dapper (hat-orientated) and generally encouraging. Simultaneously, it seeks to avoid throwing any eggs into particular baskets of peril. It presents a version of the universe that equalises all paths. Frankly this is not something I am used to, and in some bizarre way, I found it a little sinister. The most violent way through life turns out to be as good as the most arty, which is as good as the most capitalistic or the most dapper. That said, I don't think my subtextual reaction is worthy of any great dark spin. The goal of the game is obviously to let you play any way you want, give you a corresponding experience via its cute aesthetic, and allow your way to work. Then, if you like, you can try another way and see what humourous take the game offers on contrasting modes of behaviour.
Your stats in categories like Charm, Defensiveness and Patience are tracked, checkable at any time, and don't seem to lie, though I found the game's ultimate prose assessment of some of my performances a little off (one said I'd leaned on trade when all I remember doing was being the greatest artist and aesthete in the whole universe.) The game is otherwise pretty perfect at what it does, and it's charmingly written. I just missed having some emphases somewhere, because that's how I've always liked my games.
The Little Lifeform that could is certainly not the amoral spectacle of violent death in an uncaring universe that it could have been.
Or is it?..
No, it isn't.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Imaginatively, a fractally projected world of toilets. Practically, a few rooms with basic bad implementation and IFComp rule jokes. Game comes in three versions (web version, Z-code, Glulx) if you download it. All appear identical.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during IFComp 2015.)
The Insect Massacre is a Twine hyperlinks game about which it's possible to expose little more than the blurb if one is to avoid specific spoilerdom. That blurb is:
"A short murder mystery set aboard a space station."
The title is explained in a neat way which I will also not explain here. This review will be incredibly coy by my standards.
I found the game's mystery intriguing. The events of the story are concrete enough to provoke speculation, but blurry enough around the edges so as to ward off absolute explanation. Multiple plays are required to investigate multiple angles. Each session requires little time.
The game's aesthetic delivery was beguiling on the first playthrough, if a bit confusing in terms of indicating who was speaking in each scene. The speech is effected with colour-coded names matched to coloured lines of text. My proper gripe is that on the second and subsequent plays, the unskippable Twine delays, pauses and fade-ins that were enforced on material I'd already read felt pointless and tedious. Text is basically not a temporal delivery vehicle like music or film, especially text in a branching story.
Fortunately, The Insect Massacre is short enough that even on replays it isn't too hurt by its eternally slowly-fading-in text. It is particularly good at making the player guess at the implications of the choices it presents, and not because the choices are at all vague, but because of carefully deployed elements of the game once again not discussed in this coy review.
(A version of this review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2015. Paradise was withdrawn from IFComp because it had been released prior to the comp. It has since gone offline, so my review is here as a record of what it was like.)
Paradise is a text-based online world/system for any number of players/users in which anyone can create, walk around in and inject simple programming into textual objects. The objects aren't modelled to be anything in particular, but typical uses for them include making locations and putting choices and objects into those locations. Interaction is via a mixture of parser-like typing and clicking on hotlinked words.
In my first session in Paradise, I created Cafe De Los Muertos, placed it in a location recommended by the implementors and put something inside it.
As an open-ended project which began four years ago, and one which may not contain any goal-oriented adventures that are easy to find, Paradise was likely to have scored poorly in IFComp. However I think that whether you like parser IF or clicky IF, or both, Paradise might appeal to you as a creative tool. There's nothing to stop you building a game or experience in Paradise and then linking others to it. Another big plus is that neither creators nor players (and technically, the two aren't distinguished from each other) require accounts or passwords to log in or to protect their creations. You can just visit the website and start doing stuff.
Text objects in Paradise are called vessels and operate on a concept of enclosure. Such basic concepts are explained in tutorial vessels you'll encounter soon after logging in. Basically, every vessel is inside another vessel. So you could make a location (one vessel) by typing 'create grassy meadow', then put an object inside it (a vessel in a vessel) by typing 'enter grassy meadow' then 'create chest'. If the object has compartments, they could be vessels in the object vessel. But there are no actual programming rules about the nature of vessels. You could stick a whole new world inside an object if you like – after all, it's just another vessel. You can also pick up editable vessels and put them elsewhere, or embody them, the latter being the means by which you create an avatar. You wouldn't want to be driving a default object like the teapot forever.
The most basic kind of programming lets you attach any useable Paradise command to a vessel through a 'use' link, which can also be activated by typing 'use such-and-such'. You can then repaint the word 'use' as something else – read, press, etc. – whatever word you want the player to type to use (enter) the vessel. You can nut this stuff out by following tutorial topics which consist of locations and dialogue, not boring old instruction files, or by just typing 'help'. More advanced programming is available, but it would be possible to put together an adventurous structure or CYOA adventure with the basics alone.
I suppose what's annoying about the interface is the fact that you can't get away from having to keep switching between clicking links and typing things. Or clicking a link and then having to hit return to execute it. My other gripe is that allowed punctuation in creator content is quite limited. No apostrophes take, no capital letters take in some circumstances, no exclamation marks take (actually, maybe that last one is a plus), etc. For the more literate-leaning, these things might bug.
I'm personally interested in exploring more focused material than what I saw here thus far, but I don't even know how big the place is or what's already in there. I could easily have missed a lot of stuff.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles. Book I: The Departure --- Part I: Prelude to Our Final Days on Kyzikos is an extraordinarily long title for a game, or for anything else. Its multiple clauses of descending magnitude promise tons of episodes, galactic-scaled adventuring, locally-scaled adventuring, sci-fi societal sculpting, a cast of thousands (or at least dozens) and the highly agreeable portentousness of prolonged high fantasy. This is a set of promises no single IFComp entry can keep within the context of its IFComp; the two hour rule makes that physically impossible.
Folks can, have and will continue to use IFComp to introduce punters to their big multi-part IF. Aether is one of these introductory games, and it ends in a weird place and starts in a confusing one. The end is not inherently weird, but it's weird in light of the experience it just spent all its time imparting. That experience is a link-based sci-fi / fantasy adventure with a scaffolding of Greek idylls, philosophers and mythology. The first screen, a page of prose from a log, indicates rhetorically that the narrator is or was something like a familiar of the eponymous Zephyra, then confuses by setting the scene with a series of nested geographical relationships (paraphrasing: the moon with the woods orbiting the planet surrounded by the clouds in the Propontis system) and raising the spectre of a great many groups of people and other entities with unusual names involved in Zephyra's story. Plus there's a quote from Plutarch. It's a tad overwhelming.
Zephyra turns out to be a space pilot in the now who used to be a wandering fisherwoman in the past. Links in the prose passages lead to elaborations, courses of action or different locations. The trajectory is generally forwards with occasional gating of progress by character knowledge or events. There is no puzzling difficulty as such, but some patience is required.
Aether's opening, in which the heroine is piloting a starship that's about to disintegrate (the why, where or what of this aren't exposed) should be hooky, but it's handled a bit strangely. The game's structural tactic of looping asides back to already-read passage describing the current scene works later on, but not in this first scene, where it feels like it's slugging up action that should be screaming forwards. The other issue is that Zephyra's visions of divine help from giants and marble hands during this scene come across as pretty psychedelic. Altogether, an odd impression is made, and the whole spaceship scene is not explained or returned to later in this game, leading me to think it's grist for a later episode.
The game then cuts to a more rural (and presumably more modest) time in the past, with Zephyra wandering around and trading fish. The scenic descriptions paint a nice picture, but this prosaic exteriority prevails across all the writing. That's to say that although we're basically playing Zephyra, we barely get inside her, experience her thoughts, motives or feelings. This makes for a mostly inscrutable experience in a Greekish world that's not exactly inscrutable, but is not a world we've been given any reason to invest in yet. Who are these guys Zephyra playfully wrestles with? What does she want out of her days? What's the role of the satyrs she meets? I never learned the answers to any of these questions. Having no character goals and not much of a clear perspective on anything resulted in an uninteresting experience.
There are a fair few links to explore throughout the game – sometimes a crippling-feeling number, like the fifteen on the Fishing District of Kyzikos page – but not many incentives to be thorough. And I got the impression the game expects you to be thorough, since some later asides present information that obviously assumes earlier optional asides were read. Some state-tracking would help address this kind of thing, and will surely be essential in later episodes of this tale if it holds to its mammoth projections.
The finale of Aether is dramatic and ominous, but also oblivious of the fact the player just spent the whole game with Zephyra. The arrival from the sky of a space-faring Jason and his Argonauts, and the promise that they will carry out 'dark deeds' that will wreck everything on Kyzikos, amount to a deus ex (in the broader modern sense) that will remind most players that Zephyra didn't do anything that had anything to do with these things. She might in the future, but so could any other character. In this rural episode, Zephyra has really yet to do anything of significance.
This is what the narrative troubles of Aether boil down to: The game is meant to be an establishing experience for the character of Zephyra, but she has yet to show any personality or do anything of note. The ending only underscores these problems. While they're obviously the biggest ones, the authors don't seem to have any trouble being prolific or riffing on Greekery, and the CYOA-style wandering sections are mechanically effective, though it would take me awhile to get used to negotiating so many links on single pages when those links are interspersed throughout the prose. Aether needs structural recalibration and prose that addresses the interior of its heroine, and so interests us in her, if it's going to succeed.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
As much as I dislike dwelling on the concept of tropes, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of splattery horror film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with the TADS engine under the hood, and the author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations. And there are a lot of locations.
The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors.
I mildly enjoyed ticking off a variety of silly death scenes, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random.
The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that from any of the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.
In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of blood'n'excrement scenes aren't woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.
In spite of Slasher's shortcomings, I still got moderate amounts of fun out of it.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2013.)
Ollie Ollie Oxen Free is a primary school-based adventure of rigourous puzzling in which you play a teacher who must rescue a series of trapped students in the wake of some kind of bombing. The source of the threat isn't specified, or ultimately important, at least as far into the game as I reached before giving up, which I did after 145 minutes.
Ollie's ambitious design supports all of the students independently. You can talk to them, order them about separately and have them act as the instruments of puzzle solving for you, which is necessary because the attack has left you too weak to perform any dexterity-demanding tasks. To successfully marshal them to help you help them rescue each other is the kind of feat which will convince you that you could organise a team of green berets. But with great mechanics must come greater implementation. The tools the game gives the player to do what is being asked of them are underpowered, and there are a lot of bugs and oversights. Also, I don't consider it acceptable to have a parser game say things like: "If that command didn't work, please enter it again," or "It looks like you've completed that part of the walkthrough, but I'm not sure." My guess is the author ran out of development time before IFComp.
Detailed discussion with spoilers ahead:
The layout and presentation of the school building has a realistic logic and a pleasing adventure game aesthetic in terms of the distribution of remarkable features. The descriptions depict a school environment for little kids through an adult's eyes. The teacher's observations on the naff posters and simplistic kiddie artworks express light cynicism, but his subsequent earnest interactions with the kids show how he can compartmentalise adult thoughts.
The game is good at introducing new gameplay mechanics, sometimes through cueing in the prose and sometimes through explicit help messages. And there are a lot of mechanics: SHOUTing to locate kids, THINKing about people or topics, ASKing kids about people or topics, and ordering kids to perform actions. Kids can be spoken to from up to a room away, made to follow you around, or to collect and use various props. They also have different personalities and fears that you need to manage, and these are a source of cute and touching observations of the kids' personalities, as well as a source of puzzles.
The interplay of all of these elements is particularly complex in light of the game's microscopic-leaning scale. The children don't react to broad commands, only to specific ones like SAMIR, GO WEST. ASHLEY, PUSH THE MAT NORTH. TYRONE, GET THE YARDSTICK. In turn, you are limited in being able to have only two children follow you at any particular time, and that each of those children can only carry realistic amounts of equipment.
I am not of the school of players who universally reject inventory limits. In terms of generating interesting logistical challenges, I think Ollie's limits are clever ones, but the trouble for this game is that the number of commands required to try out even a moderately novel puzzle solution can be huge. You need to muster the right children in the right locations, have them carrying the right things, then find the right commands. If your idea doesn't work out, it will probably take at least twice as many commands to undo everything that has been done and to redo it in a slightly different way. The problems of logistical optimisation currently comprise the game's major challenge. And again, I don't oppose this per se. Such challenges can be satisfying to solve, leading the player to a deep engagement with the gameworld. But the player has to be able to have great faith in the reliability of the game's feedback if they're not to feel that they're in danger of wasting their time. Ollie did not generate that faith in me.
I hit all kinds of bugs and problems during play. The prose made incorrect assumptions about what knowledge I had acquired so far, characters spoke out of turn or from out of earshot, crucial conversation topics didn't register, vital items weren't mentioned in room descriptions, mid-puzzle feedback failed to suggest I was making progress.
Bugs and oversights can be fixed, though in the meantime the game much harder than need be and a frustrating vision of what it could be. I think the trickier issue lies in the realm of speculation. Inform has technology in place that would allow Ollie to dispense with a lot of its micromanagement. I can imagine a version of the game in which children can be told to go to rooms, or to collect a particular item and return, etc., with single commands. I'm sure this would be extremely challenging to program, but I believe it could be done, and would eliminate all of the time and hard slog currently involved in trying to execute ideas which aren't necessarily complicated, but which require tons of commands and perhaps gritted teeth to even broach. The result would be a different game – not massively different, in fact the core design would remain the same – but that game would not present the extreme optimisation problems the current one does. Atop it all, the current game admits to the player that it doesn't understand its own state.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a mysterious, strange and significantly imperfect adventure in which you play a caretaker to the residents of a suburban street. The residents all chip in to keep you housed (note that your house is not the one at the end of the street) and in return you run errands for them and deliver the newspaper each day. When I say deliver, I do mean deliver. You have to navigate right up to the door of each house, knock on the door and then GIVE NEWSPAPER TO (recipient). The game describes itself as "An exploration of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic" but I suspect many players will bail out early on the deliberately repetitious, sparse or tedious tasks the caretaker protagonist must perform, rather than continue to squint their eyes at the suburban grass in hopes of perceiving the promised strangeness. I don't think this game is optimally designed, and the distribution and delivery of some of its weirder content is quite out of balance, but I think it does eventually succeed in generating a feeling of mysterious inevitability, thanks in part to its grinding qualities.
Spoilers increasing ahead, and ultimately I talk about the end of the game.
Something I noticed immediately in Rosewood is that while there are plenty of long descriptions of houses, none of the houses' features are implemented. The game's fob-off message to anything it doesn't understand is "What would Theo think?" (Theo is a neighbour) or "What would the neighbours think?" etc. This looks ill-considered, at least if you haven't read the HELP first, which includes a polite sort of disclaimer amounting to a direction on how to play the game. In other words, it tells you that little details aren't implemented, but also that they aren't important for this story. This info is too important to be left as the optional read it is.
Your street has a pleasingly logical arrangement, meaning that once you're a little familiar with the layout, it's easy to wing your way towards a particular neighbour you need to see or to be reminded of where they live. The caretaker has at least eight newspapers to deliver each day. This means that over the week of the game, the player will have to take at least 56 strolls and knock on at least 56 doors to deliver at least 56 newspapers. That's quite a stunning amount of what most players would consider drudgery. The game obviously has a point with all this, which is to emphasise the sameness of your routine and to also make you keenly aware of any variations in it, but the author could easily have inserted many more "carrots" throughout these sequences to keep player interest up. The way it is, the neighbours say and do the same things in response to your rounds almost every day, and their requests that you run errands for them or repair their broken watches and such are relatively scarce.
Each night you retreat to your house to sleep and to dream. These dreams are relatively wack, featuring a parade of talking cats and endlessly transforming symbolic objects. They're so loaded with archetypal dream imagery and non-sequiturial dialogue that they end up conveying nothing because they could convey anything. I like the structure of having a dream each night, but I think that the prose content of the dreams is the element of this game that is most off.
A source of narrative content that you can grab onto is an ongoing story in each day's newspaper about the disappearance of one Lisa Kaiser, the governor's daughter. When I was playing the game and noticed that an Elisabeth (with an S) had materialised in a house in Rosewood Street one day, I wondered if this might be the missing Lisa. Elisabeth was dissatisfied with my repairs to her broken mirror and disappeared the next day. Alarmingly, the newspaper reported that a groundskeeper had been arrested for her murder. Was this me? I delivered the newspapers as usual that day and nobody reacted any differently. The week concluded with me dining with and then joining in bed the mysteriously charismatic stranger who moved into The House at the End of Rosewood Street at the beginning of the week, and who'd made appearances in my dreams. Since I had virtuously delivered a zillion newspapers over the previous seven days to reach this point, I was quite tense about what I might finally discover. What happened was that I woke up again, and the content of the new day's paper indicated that I was back at the start of the week, as did the now empty bin where my discarded newspapers had been piling up.
Had my life become some kind of circling mental limbo created by myself to protect me from the reality of my murderous actions, if they were mine? That's one of the better explanations I've come up with; the game is highly resistant to concrete interpretation. Its unyielding nature is strangely satisfying to me in retrospect, in the sense that I would have hated to have arrived at an extremely pat explanation for all of this weirdness. But even for the game to achieve this effect – which I can easily imagine a lot of IFComp players didn't experience due to boredom – it barely justified the huge amount of unvarying repetition involved in playing it, nor the nebulous dream content. Still, it has a conceptual weirdness that I'll remember, though I'm unlikely to want to actually play it again.