(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2016.)
Superhero Stress is a light, traditional CYOA of mutually exclusive options that are dramatic, like (paraphrasing): "Will you save person A at the possible expense of person B, or person B at the possible expense of person A?" You can play through most of its situations in about five minutes. It's got goofy, typo-y writing and the traditional sexism of old comic books: Ladies are for rescuing, or for picking up while you're rescuing 'em. It's also got a touch of offhand gore that I found very mildly disturbing amidst the silliness, but only very mildly.
Superhero Stress does have a message that it delivers a few times; that a superhero can't be everywhere at once. The film Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice, had roughly the same thing to say about the Man of Steel, but Batman V Superman: Dawn of Justice took more than 150 painful minutes to say it, whereas Superhero Stress did it in about five minutes.
(This review originally appeared as a blog post of mine during IFComp 2016.)
Short, existential Twine game in which you specify the manners in which you will veg out in the house during your girlfriend's next night shift at the pickle factory. This is an experience hailing from the drab end of the slice of life cake. You can think about the bedclothes, fiddle a bit with the bedclothes, clean objects in several boring stages. Your character is clearly depressed, as the prose is insistent about the pointlessness of any activity. A few prose studs of specificity about the characters' shared life don't make up for the more macroscopic lack of specificity that prevents any insight into their plight over the short duration.
Perhaps this is the Twine equivalent of the parser world's 'My Crappy Apartment Game'. The apartment is still there, but the focus shifts to the immediate crappy existential rather than the immediate crappy physical. 'All I Do's...' observations of fiddly-stuck depression make for better writing than that of most My Crappy Apartment games, but its small catalogue of anxious domestic activity didn't interest me because I knew almost nothing about the characters, before or after.
(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.
(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.
(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.
(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 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 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.
(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.
(I originally published this review on 1 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 1st of 26 games I reviewed.)
I thought that kicking off my IFComp 2012 quest with a hyperlink powered game à la howling dogs might somehow ease my brain into the gear required for the more typically strenuous parser fare to come. I was wrong; howling dogs brought the strenuous straight away. This piece is an ominous and often perplexing journey through poetic language, virtual reality-ish dreaming and shifting female roles. Beyond its subject matter, it also forced me to immediately confront a bunch of issues concerning different kinds of interactivity in text games I'd rather have put off until later. howling dogs is dynamically beautiful and writerly, but I would point out now for consumers that it is essentially not a game-state game. It's a text with many digressions and some strong aesthetic tricks. It's also pretty weird. To learn more, you may read beyond this paragraph into my more content (but not puzzle) spoiling territory.
The player's initial situation is sparse and sparsely depicted. You're trapped in some kind of quarters with a shower, food, a room whose nature screen keeps you sane, and the 'activity' room where you can go to have virtual reality experiences that aren't of your choice. By the bed is a photo of a woman you once knew. Ultimately the only thing you can do to escape each day's monotony is plug yourself into the activity room. In each of the ensuing virtual realities you seem to be a different person in a different situation, and at the conclusion of each dream you wake up back in your quarters.
The scope of the dreams (and I use the term loosely – there's no certainty that they are dreams) is wide ranging, to say the least. There's a gory phantasmagorical war produced by some entity which bends slightly to your resistance – or lack thereof – to its choice of material. There's a Zen experience involving describing a garden viewed through a paper slot. The ultimate, lavish scenario follows the growth of a prophesied empress with a bone foot.
The series of shorter dreams which come first and flit about in subject matter seem pretty resistant to interpretation on a first play, but the later and longer scenarios start to draw out a theme of the persistent and constricting roles for women which have been laid down over the ages. In one story you're Joan of Arc waiting to be burned. By the game's end you're an empress, arguably powerful but still bound to various aesthetic and behavioural expectations, deciding which masks to wear and which of various predetermined actions to take. The empress story reminded me of some of Tanith Lee's books; Vivia (about an impotent vampire princess) and Law of the Wolf Tower (the adventures of a harried quasi-princess teen). The game's final quote from John Wesley about the indefatigable evil of angels also reminded me of Lars Von Trier's film Antichrist and its concerns with myths of the perpetual evil of women.
These are my ideas and not stone, for this is plainly a game open to wide interpretation. I describe it as dynamically beautiful as it demonstrates a perfect sense of timing and flow in its aesthetics. Not just in the language but in the visual delivery of the game; the pace at which the text appears, the moments the game chooses to repeat things. Some tricks it has which are minimally visceral, like lines which fade or flicker like a broken light, weird links hidden in punctuation, deliberately blurred text. This is some of the most interesting use of this hyperlink format I've seen to date. However, I rarely found much use for the 'Rewind' link, having much more luck with my browser's 'Back' button, and occasionally the need to drag the mouse back and forth over links became laborious – particularly on one rather amazing screen which apparently leads to an alternate ending. I was unable to find that ending, but the need to repeatedly move between links in the text and the 'Back' link which kept reappearing in the corner was more than my RSI could stand.
howling dogs was a very interesting and promising introduction to this year's competition for me, and also demonstrates further innovation in the area of hyperlink pieces. The writing is fine, the dynamics excellent, the imagery clear and strange.