(I wrote the original version of this review in my blog upon this game's initial 2013 IFComp release.)
Mark Marino's entry into IFComp 2012, the one preceding the one in which he entered Mrs Wobbles, was The Living Will, a curious Undum game which I didn't really get. Mrs Wobbles is a far more vivid and transparent affair, a pro-reading, episodic and illustrated adventure tale aimed at younger readers (7-11 it says) and again delivered with Undum. While there is a fair bit to read here, it turns out that this game is also an introductory one, with more episodes potentially to come in future. Folks have entered introductions into IFComp before, and while I don't think there's any rule against doing so (and Wobbles is voluble, not a tiny tease) it's just in its nature that the Wobbles we're being presented with in IFComp has some of the density of a novel without the payoffs of a novel. I also find it hard to gauge how hooky it might be for those future episodes, but I'm not the core audience. Mrs Wobbles feels to me like the opening of an attractive e-novel for tablets. Interactivity is mostly at the level of deciding in which order to read things, and while this area isn't of much personal interest to me, when I consider the overall quality level of the project I think most players will find something to like here. Some may find a lot.
I think the "A Series of Unfortunate Events" books by Lemony Snicket were probably a big influence on the tone of Wobble's prose, and probably more than an influence on its specific content. The protagonists are fostered siblings, their parents died in a mysterious fire and when the game begins, they're going to live in a weird house with a strange adult. The narrator is a magical talking book which can insert whimsical asides into the prose of a kind we'd be hard pressed to get from child protagonists. Production values are consistently high. The game includes some superb woodcut / etching / lithograph style illustrations. The prose is pretty good at any point and you can have it read out to you from author-made recordings. This also means that the speech feature is platform and software independent, and kid-friendly.
What I'm unsure about is how satisfying the scope of this introduction is. It's an introduction for the characters and the setting of the house, but there's no real story vector in place for either of these elements yet, as good as they are. The brother protagonists have a cute rapport, and the fussy girl they meet later, Mildred, is a good foil for them. The house is full of magical rooms and fantastic machinery which may be of use in the future. I suppose the experience of Wobbles is like being introduced to Hogwarts via an explicit tour but then having the book end suddenly. It may be safer to make a self-contained and expositional starting adventure, but it's probably less interesting than throwing players/readers into a story which sets up some plot hooks and mysteries. In the end, my to-ing and fro-ing about Wobbles comes down to the fact that this is an introduction competing in a venue not particularly suited to introductions.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
The lyrically titled Autumn's Daughter is an Undum hyperlink story taking the form of a series of social encounters in the life of a young Pakistani woman named Areesha, played by yourself. Though you apparently hail from an okay-to-do family, various threats to your future independence and happiness are looming quickly, and their sources are not always obvious.
This game seeks to educate about the difficulties faced by women in Pakistan by engaging the player in a story with outward touches of romance and intrigue. This is a good strategy, given that some of the obvious alternative ones – like involving the player in a story which is grim and didactic – might just turn players off or bore them. Thus Autumn's opening scene seeks to get folks onboard immediately and build up the heroine's happiness. When you greet your visiting friend Samina, the tone heads towards conspicuously exuberant soap opera with lots of squeals and exclamation marks. The writing is broad in its exposition and a bit ripe, but the situation is inviting. The challenge for the game, then, is to be able to convincingly take the drama to the bleaker places it wants to go in a short span of time, and I don't think the challenge is fully met.
The overall design of mostly binary choices, all tied to single pieces of dialogue or action, is pretty good, especially in retrospect; the dynamic between that first happy scene and any of the endings tends to be a smooth but swift slope. But I think the game as a whole is lacking the kind of subtlety which could better convey its message. The characters have the specificity of types (earnest heroine, complicit girlfriend, potential shining knight boyfriend) but don't have the specificity which would illuminate them as individuals. And specificity is really needed to imbue obvious binary choice pairs, like whether to gush at the handsome lad or forget how to speak in his presence, with much meaning. This becomes a bigger problem in the sticky ends of the game when some extreme choices are presented. So while I don't doubt that most of the situations here can and have happened to people, I found the portrayal of them too broad to feel them deeply.
Autumn's Daughter exhibits some good design for its aims over its relatively short playtime, but it is shooting for a lot and would have benefited from stronger characterisation, from which would grow some less generic feeling choices, or at least less generic iterations of them.
I had a peek at the original parser-with-keywords version of Starborn when it was released, but I did not complete it – which was a bit silly of me, given the very small size of the game.
Starborn now returns in a high budget Undum+Vorple form that fills your web browser screen with an atmospheric and clickable map graphic and your ears with a couple of spacey pieces of ambient electronic music. The keywords of the original version have become clickable hyperlinks.
The game content remains unaltered, and is a brief evocation of the life of a human born in space in the future who is contemplating what it might be like to return to the old homeworld, gravity and air and all. The writing does a good job of placing you "outside of the Earth" in a short space of time, but short is the defining word for the experience. There's just not that much to do or see or read, and it's all over in a few minutes, making it a tiny mood piece.
Having played both versions of the game, and at the risk of stating the obvious, I found that the new one certainly demonstrates that graphics change the effect of a piece, and so does sound. The aesthetic of the screen colours and sounds was actually quite unlike whatever I had made up in my head the first time I played the game, which was mildly jarring. The more high-tech delivery generated a sense of what might be described as high production values, which the simple text only original did not connote at all. By the same token, the game hasn't gotten any bigger, so the relatively lavish new delivery feels a bit overkilly after the fact.
However, that the game might come across a little weirdly to a person who played the old version first is not really the point. This new version is more effective to me as a demonstration of how a game like Starborn can be implemented by Undum & Vorple, and also shows that this implementation is very appropriate. Given that the game is mostly a CYOA, was originally driven by keywords, has movement around a map and also low interactivity (one gettable item) I found I did prefer playing it in its new format than the old. When the parser is unnecessary and you can click keywords rather than type them, why not do so? I found this design and the attractiveness of the interface appealing, though there was one thing I missed: the ability to undo. Not because of any difficulty in the gameplay, but because more than once I found myself interested in wanting to isolate what performing certain actions would do to different parts of the interface, and there was no way to undo then redo to test such actions.
I think Starborn itself is a little small for the new format, but its basic nature is well suited to the format, and playing it this way got me thinking about the possibilities.