Reviews by Wade Clarke
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Awake the Mighty Dread takes place in a fantasy dreamworld fuelled by Alice In Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and the aesthetic of steampunk. It's got orphans, air travel, capricious NPCs ranging in scale from an amphibian to a deity, and a reverence for storybooks. And all that in a smallish game. It's alluded to that its orphan protagonist slips away to the dreamworld in order to avoid abuse back in the real world, but the social system in the dreamworld turns out to be a troubled one, too. The heroine's spiky curiosity about what's going on there is well written, and provides motivational fuel for the player in a game which turns out to be not very good at signalling progress through it.
Awake is actually the IF dimension of a larger project by its author which can be found at
However, the game was basically presented as a standalone entity in the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. Exploring the rest of the project might thicken Awake's backstory, but I doubt it would actually help in the playing of Awake for reasons to be enunciated in this review.
Awake received mixed reviews when it appeared in IFComp. My own private review (for other game authors that year) began:
"Since people have been saying that they found this baffling, I secretly patted myself on the head for not being baffled."
So, I liked the overall experience more than most, but the game's delivery is clearly a failing one. In spite of the author's writerly prose and obvious knowledge of some advanced parser conceits, the game exhibits no awareness of how to steer a player through its contents via the parser. Location descriptions are aesthetically pleasing but player-insensitive, with almost none of their interesting features implemented. The features that are implemented are there to service plot points in a story that only seems threadable in retrospect. Trying to make the story happen yourself with the game's minimal direction and tech oversights is futile-leaning, and so the game's solution file is essential.
In the case of contemporary IF, I have low tolerance for being involved with walkthrough/hint systems unless they're really well considered. I also have design philosophy qualms about some games I consider to be impossible without a walkthrough. Awake bypassed my concerns in these areas because it's an interesting failure of an accessible kind. Reconsidering it five years down the track, I'd say it's definitely of more interest to people who create IF games than it is to player-players. In this capacity, it's substantial enough not to feel too small or inconsequential, but still small enough not to feel like a time burglar in spite of its black box implementation.
That black box is actually the point of interest; playing Awake feels like trying to build a Lego model without being able to see your hands. A lot of interconnecting prose seems to be absent in this game. There's a train you start out on, and which automatically travels from station to station, and there's an effect whereby you can see what station you're at out the window. But the descriptions within and without can be indistinguishable. Being on a train in a location can be the same as just being in the location – until the train moves, of course. Similarly, objects sometimes appear 'painted on' in room descriptions, and stay there even after you've taken them. NPCs speak at appropriate moments but don't show up as prose entities when they're not speaking. It's hard to tell when conversations have ended, or if the conversants are still about. Finally, the most important action you must take in the whole game is unguessable, and deliverable as a command in a form that only hardcore parser folk would be aware of. Collectively, these sophisticated-leaning bugs at the coalface of interactivity suggest the author had strong familiarity with parser games but didn't run Awake through a sufficiently typical or robust group of playtesters.
I find the story in Awake interesting, and the game succeeds in feeling like a window onto a larger fantasy world, but in the end its technical oddities render it mostly a curio for parser nerds. Its contents can't be unspooled easily the way the contents of the famous stories it most emulates can. The site of the obstacles is its interactivity.
I played this small IFComp 2011 game during IFComp 2011. I didn't get it.
The writing is good at creating the character of a muscular labourer who's a bit superstitious, and shy about using his imagination to solve problems. The game is obviously linear, and in that capacity does keep the player on track. It also demonstrates general technical polish.
However, it turned out either I was a dummy or the game was too subtle, because I didn't even notice when Something Dramatic Happened, to coin a phrase from amongst Inform's library messages while simultaneously avoiding any specific spoiling. I learned about what I'd missed by reading other reviews after I wrote mine. I was also unaware of a superstition involving cold iron, even though I used to play AD&D and so felt I should have known of it if it was a big enough thing.
Replaying the game armed with the knowledge of thing dramatis, it still seemed to me it was only mildly indicated.
I had been surprised (excited?) to see the game print, at one point, the library message "Because something dramatic has happened, the commands available to you have been cut down." I'd previously only seen this by poking around inside Inform on my own time. I then wondered: Was the point of this event (and the accompanying screen clear) that it tested whether I had been paying attention to recent content in the game, because at this point I could no longer scroll back to review the details of the story?
But then all I could do was go back to the chapel location, with or without having noticed thing dramatis. I was disappointed, both because of the possibility for excitement I'd anticipated that had not come about, and because the ending was so low key. (Spoiler - click to show)The first character had begun to flex his imagination, but not to much avail, apparently. Any ulterior purpose of the game was too obscure for me to discern. Whether I was careless or not – it seems I probably was – I didn't believe I was the only player who would miss thing dramatis, and since I expected thing dramatis to be bound up with the purpose, I felt the game was likely to undershoot a lot of people as it undershot me.
I had a problem during the 2011 Interactive Fiction Competition. I was supposed to be getting a move on and reviewing all of the other entrants' games, but I kept procrastinating by sneaking away to play Kerkerkruip. By the time the competition was over, I had played it at least 50 times in my quest to complete the game on Normal difficulty. This is testimony to Kerkerkruip's addictiveness, which grows out of the stiff but strategically overcomeable challenge it presents and the relatively infinite pool of circumstantial variations it offers to dungeongoers. The latter quality is what makes the game really memorable and anecdote-worthy once a player has got a handle on its mechanics.
A moment's divergence for the consumer guide part of this review: Kerkerkruip is certainly not a traditional IF game or text adventure in which the player solves unchanging puzzles en route to particular goals while possibly becoming involved in a narrative the author has laid out. This is a high-stakes game of Dungeons & Dragons adventuring in randomly generated dungeons. At the same time, it is delivered by text and controlled by a parser, and uses explorative elements in some typical adventure game-like ways. In all of these capacities, it is obviously from the school of text adventures, and not completely unlike a combat MUD or a modern incarnation of Eamon, though a plotless one. Also note that it is essential to at least read the Beginner's Guide before playing (I found this three page guide to be the easiest way into the game, as opposed to traveling through multiple inline HELP menus) or Kerkerkruip will promptly kick you to the pavement.
Your goal is to find and kill the evil wizard Malygris of the dungeon Kerkerkruip. You begin armed with a rapier; more significant weaponry and equipment must be found in the dungeon. Usually there will be about five other groups of monsters lurking around, and it is only by defeating these monsters and absorbing their powers and health in a wisely chosen order (new powers only accumulate if they are weaker than powers you already possess) that you will have a hope of becoming powerful enough to defeat the wizard. The dungeon contents and layout and the roster of monsters change every time you die or restart. You can't save the game except to take a break, and there is no UNDO. These danger-increasing elements are common to another genre of game Kerkerkruip announces that it belongs to: the roguelike, named, unsurprisingly, after a particular game called Rogue.
Movement is handled with the traditional compass commands, augmented by a "go to" command and a handy "remember" command, but the combat makes use of the ATTACK system originated by the author and is divided into Action and Reaction phases. By working with just a handful of well balanced temporal elements, Kerkerkruip ensures each decision you make about what to do next in battle carries significant weight. Should you Attack now, or build up the strength of your next attack by pausing to Concentrate? You can try to build up to three levels of concentration, but if you're struck in the meantime, your concentration will be broken. On the other hand, if you never concentrate, your attacks won't grow strong enough to finish off the bad guys before they finish you.
This core system is simple enough for anyone to understand, but its application in any moment is modified by a huge number of variables, amongst them: the geography of the room you're in (e.g. it doesn't pay to Dodge while fighting on a narrow bridge over lava), the nature and habits of the enemy you're facing (e.g. animated daggers attack ceaselessly and break your concentration as often – the jumping bomb will never break your concentration, but if it gathers enough concentration itself, it will explode and kill you instantly), the Tension in the air (how long has it been since anyone last struck a blow?), your current status and arsenal of powers, and the interference of a further array of supernatural stuff like fickle dungeon gods or weird summoned entities.
The sum effect of the play amongst all these interrelated elements is that Kerkerkruip is capable of generating the exciting sense that with almost every move you make, the whole game is at stake. The circumstances of danger can rearrange themselves into so many different patterns that a lot of your battles will strike you as uniquely memorable, even when you're dealing with the same small roster of monsters over and over again. You can marvel at a seemingly (or actually) brilliant series of moves you make that succeed in resuscitating your prospects when you're down to 1 hp. Similarly you can laugh at the results of a particularly bold, stupid or unlucky move that backfires spectacularly, or at some confluence of events so extraordinary that you'll feel like telling someone else about it. You will certainly die far more often than you will win, but this is a game where experience, exploration and repeat plays really pay off, and the strategic element is always vivid, the prospect of victory always tantalising.
Ultimately, Kerkerkruip is an essential and massively replayable game for dungeon and combat fans, and also demonstrates the kind of novelty and elegant design that is inspiring in general.
Humourous sci-fi adventure Death of Schlig copped a lot of negative reviews during IFComp 2011. "It's crammed full of extra line breaks!" was the commonest refrain, but there were heaps of other problems that just made for staggery play and fought the game's attempts to get a flow of humour and action on. This was the first IFComp in which entrants were given the opportunity to update their game during the comp period and author Peter Timony availed himself of it. The late-in-the-competition version of the game I tried was in significantly better shape than the one everyone had been yelling at, but frustratingly (in retrospect) it still didn't address all of the non-aesthetic tech problems. This leaves us with a game whose bursts of silly comic book fun keep being stymied by mundane annoyances with its parser and other stuff – door keys which are bad at sorting themselves out, an inventory limit which adds only hassle, proofreading and pagination troubles, no synonyms at all, etc.
If you regard the cute cover image for Death of Schlig (drawn by the author's brother) you'll have a good idea of what's ahead – telescopic eyeballs and green aliens. The latter give you the former in an experiment gone wrong after kidnapping you from your day job at the deli counter, though your real job is Great Private Detective. Your super eyeball powers allow you to EXTEND and RETRACT your eyes, to send them around corners to spot alien guards and even to occasionally use them to wield objects.
The tone of the writing is consistently zany, with lots of non-sequiturs, little pieces of misdirection and exaggeratedly amusing characters. It has the appropriate spirit and personality for the subject matter, and while its uneveness is increased by the game's incomplete proofreading (and the fact that Zaniness is an area subject to even more subjective individual response than its parent category Humour) there are a lot of parts in Schlig which made me laugh, and which I was able to remember almost verbatim even a year after first playing the game. My favourite, still: "You attempt to slice the world's thinnest slice of ham. With atom-splitting precision, you gently push the ham towards the spinning blades."
Unfortunately the timing of a lot of the jokes is thrown off by surrounding bits of writing which remain too sloppy, or by the unpolished gameplay itself. The extend-an-eyeball gimmick should be uniformly cool but proves extremely fiddly to deal with, and is underpowered as a tool to help you outmanoeuvre your enemies in this game. The patrolling guards only seem to move at the moment Schlig or Schlig's eyeball enters their presence. I have tried following them around with Schlig's telescopic eyes, trying to zap them, but they always remain one move out of reach and will ultimately complete a circuit and step into the original room containing Schlig. This "good guy's eyeball chasing the bad guy chasing the good guy" image is an appropriately cartoonish one in this cartoonish game, but the programming of this mechanic wasn't sufficiently massaged by the author.
Death of Schlig's prose has a consistent aesthetic which suits it, and it's one of those adventures that makes me really want to like it. But it's still a game that needs more work in the programming and in the writing to pull it out of that territory where it is often work-work to express or achieve what you want to do in it, and unfortunately it is unlikely to get that work.
The original IFComp 2011 incarnation of the ambitious sci-fi adventure Andromeda Awakening attracted a lot of what felt like controversy at the time. It was self-proclaimedly verbose, probably too big for the competition context, definitely not accessible enough in general, too difficult due to that inaccessibility and thus polarising overall. These difficulties were distracting spikes on the outer surface of a game with an extremely developed and immersive mythology, a weird and novel atmosphere to match and a powerful ultimate effect. Andromeda's remarkable qualities didn't go unnoticed, but having to handle a valuable thing is still offputting if that thing is spiky, and a lot of players were put off.
Author Marco Innocenti absorbed the considerable volume of feedback the game generated, generated feedback on the feedback in his expansive way, then revised Andromeda and released the new incarnation as Andromeda Awakening - The Final Cut, neatly using movie director parlance to emphasise the degree of change between the versions of the game most people played during IFComp and this new one.
Your role in the adventure is that of a scientist who has put together a doom-predicting report on the state of the planet Monarch. As you rush by train to deliver it to folks who might be able to do something about the impending disaster, the disaster strikes, leaving you in a crumbling underground of magma and strange technology. Mysteries and revelations lie ahead. The imagery and construction of the underground world is fascinating, and feels very real. Many objects and entities you encounter can be researched on your E-Pad, Andromeda's answer to the Hitchhiker's Guide, and this mechanism allows the game to significantly increase the amount of information it delivers while remaining interactive and also motivating you to investigate that information. The overall atmosphere and behaviour of Andromeda is not unlike some of the explorative stretches in the first-person incarnations of the Metroid games, all cavernous areas, natural features and unexplained alien technology.
As a fan of the original Andromeda Awakening I can say that The Final Cut makes good on its promise to fundamentally smooth out the experience. The original was studded with moments where it was broadly clear what needed to be done but difficult to do it. Tricky implementation, casually mentioned but crucial props and unnecessarily fiddly interactions kept tripping up a great story. In almost every case, these problem props have now been fixed up or clued with infinitely more grace, or just made automatic and removed altogether.
Other improvements include the addition of a quality help menu and a 'go to' command for immediately returning to previously visited locations. Some of the prose's weirder expressions have been excised, though I was glad to find that the 'cyanotic lights' were still present.
There are also a couple of significant structural changes/additions made in the Final Cut. A sequence near the end allows for some new third person perspectives on the game's backstory, and the basic 'leave your house to go on your mission' intro has been replaced with something more dramatic.
Even as a returning player, I still found it difficult to work out what to do with a lot of the alien machinery down in the underground, but at least those puzzles are now challenging for valid reasons, and not attended by the general querulousness that hovered over the original game. Andromeda's effect is not spoiled by heading to the walkthrough now and then; its outcomes feel too big for that. If the game's high quality was originally obscured, The Final Cut makes it much more apparent.
The Hours has an intriguing opening which leads into an exciting and consistently unpredictable sci-fi adventure. You don't initially know what/where/why you are, only that you and your frantic NPC friend are being pursued by something. As soon as you think you've got a handle on this state of affairs, the state of affairs changes. And as soon as you think you've got a handle on the next state of affairs, that state of affairs changes as well. Though the game may be more linear than some players would like, it is great at pulling the rug out from under you time and time again, while also building up a complex set of rules about the time-travelling shenanigans that are going on.
This mythology is fascinating but complex, necessitating a lot of exposition; a Philip K Dick kind of premise with some of the black humour of Total Recall. The Hours moves quickly through many different moods, successfully conveying the disorientation of the Hours agents as they step in and out of their time-gating pools of water. The twitchy tonal changes between suspense, danger, mystery and paranoia kept me interested and on my toes through the whole game. The Russian doll-like development of the story's varying realities and the characters' clones is excellent, given the swiftness and smallish size of the adventure.
While the pacing and delivery of the writing is pretty good, the tone of the player's conversational choices sometimes proves elusive. I don't recommend choosing any of the "none of the above" conversation tree options because they can cause your protagonist to behave unpredictably, and The Hours is a game which subtly pays attention to how you treat the other characters.
I only became stuck twice, and in both cases, one use of the "help" command immediately got me unstuck. Both cases occurred during the game's introductory sequence (one involved an exit appearing that I didn't notice - there can be downsides to keyword based movement schemes) so the rest of the game flowed forward very well. Some obvious commands and synonyms don't work, or lead to (harmful to the suspension of disbelief) default-ish responses, but this is no big deal for someone's first Interactive Fiction game.
I imagine some of the import of The Hours's expositional dialogue could be moved into imagery or action, but I'm fine with the game the way it is. The number of complexities that open up as the mythology is described creates a kind of pleasurable tension (can I follow this? what will happen next?) which is then relieved by parcels of explanation. Some of the explanations are lengthy, but I can imagine this game being pretty hard to follow if it became too cryptic. It could in fact become an entirely different kind of game, a far more abstract one where you're left to ponder what the hell just happened. The game that is balances forward movement, action, doses of mystery and doses of explanation. And I think action can be hard to drive without motive. I always had a clear sense of what I was doing in each scene in The Hours, based on my understanding of my particular situation in that particular moment - which was often apt to change during the next moment. These are the surprises of The Hours.
When I came to play this game, I thought, "I see political trouble ahead for Blind from reviewers, based on the title and tagline…" that tagline being: "Who says blindness is a handicap?" As it turns out, Blind isn't about overcoming blindness through medical advancement or political agitation. It is about overcoming blindness by having you play a young blind woman who must escape from the house of a cannibalistic serial killer.
Blind women in peril (or women whose eyeballs are demonically possessed - that one doesn't apply to this game) have a rich history in thriller and horror films. Audrey Hepburn played one in Wait Until Dark (1967), foiling a drug-dealing criminal in her own unlit apartment. In that film it was all about the drugs. In many later blind-woman-in-peril films, and in Blind, the criminal's goal is the blind woman herself, his motives sexual and sadistic. This takes the game into creepy and harrowing terrain, and puts the player in a desperate survival situation.
In technical terms, Blind's sensory schtick is less than perfect. As you cannot see, you are given other verbs to discover information about your environment, such as 'feel' and 'smell'. 'Look' remains implemented, giving general feedback from your other senses on your present location. Being able to use several senses multiplies the amount of feedback you can get from each object in the game, but sometimes it can feel like a simple obligation to have to 'examine' each item in three or more different ways, and more objects could use more describing. Nevertheless, the overall effect works in that you do progress through the game by applying sometimes unexpected senses to the obstacles you encounter in a way that a sighted person wouldn't.
I was surprised to learn that the author is not particularly a fan of the horror genre, as he demonstrates a pretty good understanding of it in Blind. Some of the heroine's realisations about her plight (and the plight of those who went before her) as she stumbles about the killer's house are written with great psychological and physiological realism. Unfortunately, the game is also capable of undercutting such moments with the odd joke at the expense of the fourth wall, or occasionally managing to frame the heroine in a pervy way, even though it's her POV. These weak spots do not detract from the game's overall sincerity of effect, nor from what turns out to be a very elegant and detailed game design.
While Blind's early scenes distressed the adventure gamer in me by presenting me with a huge number of implemented household items which I could pick up (I was having visions of having to construct some incredible escape device from my packrattings, and I feel I am only being kind to future players in saying -- that is not what you have to do… (Spoiler - click to show)At least upstairs. When you get downstairs, some assembly may be required.) Blind demonstrates a lot of interactive possibilities and outcomes in its second act down in the basement. Violence has been used against you; how much and what kind of violence are you prepared to resort to in order to escape? Some possibilities seem to be a stretch when derived from the context sensitive hint system, but other clever and resourceful actions for the heroine to take are well implemented. You might have to face your captor more than once, and the game becomes particularly dangerous and exciting as it approaches its climax.
I also like that when you first complete Blind it presents you with a list of achievement-like extras you might want to try to avail yourself of in a subsequent game. Some of the proffered feats are easy to pull off, others quite difficult. In any case, I found this to be a more strongly motivational approach to inviting replays than those typical 'amusing' lists, which I've never really liked. And the second act gamespace is both small and detailed enough that I think most players who enjoyed the game are likely to be interested in going for the extras.
Version 1.6 of Blind (the final IFComp 2011 version) could use more polish in proofreading and implementation, but its core design is good enough that some roughness is unlikely to be bothersome for any player who is interested in its subject matter. It certainly doesn't betray any sign of its having had no testers beyond the author; I find it to be as least as well implemented as many games which placed above it. Blind is an imperfect but strong horror-thriller puzzle game, with moments of authentic creepiness and gruesomeness.
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