Reviews by Wade Clarke

IFComp 2015

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1-6 of 6


Pilgrimage, by Vνctor Ojuel

1 of 1 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.


The Insect Massacre, by Tom Delanoy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Mystery on a space station that requires multiple short playthroughs., November 13, 2021
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Twine, IFComp 2015, science fiction, mystery

(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.


The War of the Willows, by Adam Bredenberg

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The world would be better off if it really was this tough to kill a tree., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Python, IFComp 2015, fantasy

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

War of the Willows is a combat game, requiring a Python interpreter to run, in which you must put down a giant, killer willow tree that's menacing your kingdom. Put it down mano a mano.

I doubt that anyone would have guessed this about the game based on its IFComp blurb –

"Did you see the clean air of the hilltops? Wind waves tumbled down through the trees, tore the drift of lavender smoke... Did you see then, in the cinder that glowed in the pewter cup, did you see how Death would wrap its roots around our throats?"

– except perhaps for the presence of that subtle pun about the roots wrapping around our throats. It's like that moment in the original Resident Evil when Chris Redfield, having polished off a building-sized carnivorous plant, says, "I think we got to the ROOT of the problem." (His emphasis, not mine.)

War of the Willows wraps a randomised combat game of obscure mechanics – one that at heart is not entirely unlike the kind of thing that appeared in David Ahl's 1978 book BASIC Computer Games – with a poetic and sometimes heavy-leaning text delivery. When a game starts by quoting a chunk of Edicts from the Bible, that's heavy. The original prose that follows flows in a similar, stansa'd vein. Poetry + combat = a novel entity, and once you get stuck in, you'll probably be hooked on trying to win at least once. But the game throws up tons of very obvious design issues. Primary amongst them: requiring the player to deal with way too much repetition of prose and key-mashing.

I believe that I am a poor reader of poetry-poetry, but I enjoyed picking my way through the figurative language of War of the Willows to learn about the woes of my kingdom and its apparent comeuppance at the hands of nature and such. At least I enjoyed doing it the first time. After I had tried to kill the tree about ten times, died as many times and mashed RETURN to make it through all of the same prose ten times, as well as answering the questions I had to answer on each playthrough to get to the battle, my right hand was ready to fall off and I was displeased at this design weakness.

Also – when you type in a god's name, you have to capitalise the first letter or it's not understood! And double also – I often experienced buggy code dumps in the middle of the prose. Maybe they're related to my version of Python. They didn't wreck anything, but seeing blocks of code from the game appear during the game was not an endearing quality.

The upshot is that when you get to the combat, you'll become interested in the combat, and all the unvarying material preceding it then just becomes a delay at getting back into the combat on replays. This applies to player death, too, which also requires a fair bit of RETURN-whacking to end proceedings.

The combat itself is significantly frustrating, but still compelling. The mechanics are hidden, but the prose does give feedback on your actions. Seeing new phrases appear suggests that your last action might have brought them about. There are logical ideas about useful ways to string together the available actions like strike / evade / advance, etc. that are likely to occur to any player, but as I say, it took me about ten plays to score a victory over the willow. It's hard to know what effect your pre-battle choices of god and desire have on the proceedings; I was having so much trouble killing the tree once, I never swerved from the walkthrough's advice (the walkthrough is purely advice) that one always choose certain combinations. I went with Vordak and Power.

I think the author has hit on a strangely original idea with this game, but it's a pretty user-unfriendly incarnation of that idea.


Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
In which you play the bad guy., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, IFComp 2015, horror

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

This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)

Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.

Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.

The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.

The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the trick to getting through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.

The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.


5 Minutes to Burn Something!, by Alex Butterfield

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Toasters are not the greatest thing since sliced bread., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2015, Inform, comedy

(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2015 IFComp.)

In 5 Minutes To Burn Something! you've got to start a fire in your apartment to cover the false alarm raised by your toaster before the firemen arrive, thus avoiding a false alarm fine. Sure, this is a damagingly uncivilised course of action, but the whole game leans obviously to the silly.

5 Minutes is an incarnation of the most staple of staples of the IF Competition: A parser game in which you have to solve an impractical physical problem in a closed environment using a disparate bunch of props before a time limit runs out. Other staple factors include the environment being the player's apartment, a wack approach to humour and the prose's fixation on the PC's crummy ex.

5 Minutes does all its basic stuff right and exhibits some touches of advanced mindfulness: Certain commands don't waste your precious turns, there's a complete and context-sensitive hint system, some text is formatted in colour, etc. It's an old school-leaning adventure in the sense that the relationships between the puzzles and the solution objects can be pretty abstruse; it certainly requires a try everything on everything mindset embracing kitchenware, bathroomware and miscellaneous apartment crap. The implementation is too fuzzy for the fiddliness of the puzzles, leading to some guess the verb problems and uneasiness about whether you've really investigated each prop thoroughly.

I did come to feel that I knew my apartment very well during play, but the PC's constant harping on her ex-boyfriend through the lens of object descriptions tired me. This was the primary means of giving the PC some character. The danger with this game's kind of wack tone is that it can easily blanket all of the content. If I found the conjured boyfriend to be a caricature of a jerk, I found the PC to be a caricature of someone who dated a jerk and then never shut up about it. So I didn't find the game to be as funny as it probably hoped it would be.



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