Reviews by Wade Clarke
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(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 ΰ 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.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 5th of 26 games I reviewed.)
One of the fun things about IFComp is how the games come from all over the place. From people you know, people you know hiding behind silly names, people you don't know, tall people, short people, etc. Valkyrie is a team effort fantasy CYOA game from three students enrolled in a Game-based Learning Developmental English course this Fall semester at Pikes Peak Community College in Colorado Springs in the USA. As one of my heroes, Shaun Micallef, once said in a skit about a folk CD being sold to raise money for charity, "That makes it virtually impossible to criticise." But so long as their teacher didn't actually browbeat them into entering IFComp and maybe even if she did I feel like congratulating them for entering before I get to the reviewing.
The first screen of Valkyrie is weird. Several funerals are described in the third person present style of a film script. Then you're asked to choose what you have trained in: Mistress Thief, Wizardess or Swordswoman. I picked Wizardess on my first play and found myself waking to that role in a fantasy world. The PC is aware that they are dreaming, or might be dreaming, and exhibits anxiousness about finding opportunities to return to the real world, but also about doing a decent job as a Wizardess in the new world. This new world features gods from Norse mythology fighting over a magic necklace.
It turns out that each profession is its own game, presumably with each author contributing one profession. This gives three different styles and three different sets of concerns, but there's a common mythology involving the Asgard stuff, the necklace and the ongoing mini drama of whether the PC will keep helping the Asgardians or try to return home. With each game being about the same heroine, it's interesting to see what each author's version of her is like. The Wizardess is thoughtful and well mannered, though her story doesn't have paragraph breaks. The thief moves directly towards her goal in a short stealth and action tale featuring some instant deaths. The swordswoman's story is ambitious in trying to add detail to the world, with a passage about getting used to her Valkyrie wings and going on a mission (and there seem to be some Harry Potter nods about the place, too) but unfortunately it forgets to keep letting you make decisions, ending with a huge text dump.
The three games reminded me of the original Choose Your Own Adventure books in particular, which frequently started out in everyday life and transported the reader into a fantasy situation. Also like the books, the three games in Valkyrie offer a good number of large-scale choices to the player, choices which result in non-overlapping things happening in the story. This is the key to a lot of the more fun CYOA books, and I enjoyed this same quality in Valkyrie.
Perhaps this game was more interesting to think about afterwards than while playing. Its unadorned and expositional language can be wearing, but with three stories, a good number of choices for the player to make and three different versions of a common heroine trying herself out in a patchwork fantasy world, it has some kind of charm. I don't think the opening was intended to be as strange as it might seem, but that strangeness made it kind of cool, too.
(I originally published this review on 4 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 4th of 26 games I reviewed.)
You can't fob off the postmodern today, not even if you jab violently at the area directly in front of you with a pointed stick. Last Minute is a hyperlink CYOA about cobbling together a last minute entry for IFComp, and presented with its first screen, I didn't like the look of it. The protagonist thinks in exclamation marks and is equally and constantly excited by every turn of his thoughts as they alight upon different objects in his bedroom. In the long run, I believe that people should be skeptical in general of responses to creative challenges which consist of saying, "Well, I was having trouble thinking of something, so I made my piece about the trouble I was having thinking of something." Which wouldn't be to say that this game is definitely a response of that kind itself except that the author revealed during the competition that it is. In the end, each object must still rise or fall by its own qualities. The primary quality of Last Minute is silliness, and even if you don't like it, it's over pretty fast.
The game has two halves. The first half is a the part where you scan your room with your eyes looking for inspiration for your IFComp entry. Choices include your games, your DVDs or what's on your desk... The combination of a "my apartment" game with the protagonist's hyper manner began to make my eyes water. But I persisted and reached the second half of the game, where my earlier choices were strung together into a gamey fiction. This section is extraordinarily silly and hyperbolic (EG a blistered blob forces everyone in the world to cannibalism by only letting them eat beetroot otherwise, and you have to stop him) but it's got more messy wit, writing cutesiness and variation than the first half, and might start to bring the sniggers if your defences are sufficiently weakened by now. I played this section a few times and found some different stories, and if you want that explosion of sloppy zaniness that you can usually expect from something in the competition, this could be one of the games to deliver that fix.
(I originally published this review on 5 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 7th of 26 games I reviewed.)
Transit is a solidly blah hyperlink CYOA in which you try to find your lost friend while in a foreign airport. It's also buggy in spite of its smallness.
The writing of Transit is completely unadorned. The addition of any kind of specific information about anything in the game (what airport? who am I? who's my friend? where am I going or where have I been?) would improve things, but each element is presented in its most elemental non-descript form, preventing any kind of interest from being generated. For instance, the only way to derive play interest from visits to generic airport outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds would be to allow anything at all to happen at them beyond the eating of their generic food, but that eating is all that Transit offers before telling you it's time to resume the search for your missing friend.
The three features of the game which slightly redeem it are:
1. The way you can die by binge drinking some dispensed canned drink whose title and contents you can't read.
2. The fact that the winning path involves trying anti-intuituve actions, which will probably cause you to poke around looking for it.
3. The little icons which appear each turn depicting your current situation in the universal language of public signage. A neat idea not well served by the material.
(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.
A moderately protracted Twine joke about rolling a six-sided die, or not. It's only protracted in the sense that it takes takes slightly longer to play than rolling a six-sided die, which is still to say not very long at all. It may also be intended as a joke about the nature of some Twine games, but it's not focused enough on anything for this to be clear. A more aspirational joke about deterministic forces in the universe is written without care. As is the case with most hastily assembled IF jokes, low care / thought levels have had a thinning effect on the humour.
(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.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Vulse is a hypertext. I would say what I think it is about but I don't know what it's about. I wasn't sufficiently engaged by it to play through it more than once, and that first play eventually began to feel like a chore. The protagonist sloughs about in an apartment with a collection of abstract and angry thoughts and perceptions. These are rendered with deliberately crafted language, a sort of free verse stream of consciousness. The prose wore on me over time, not inherently, but because it didn't seem to take me anywhere. There was little sign of the literal stuff mentioned in the game's blurb, of the Twin Peaksy corpse which floats into the town. Perhaps it was down other paths.
My primary beef with Vulse is that I could find no point of interest that would stimulate me to engage with its prose. There was no sense of a character, or inner or outer reality, or of a plot or story or mystery or something else to compel. This left just a series of links leading to different strands of language. Ability with the language needs to be in service of something, but I'm afraid I couldn't find Vulse's something.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)
Blood on the Heather (BOTH) is a wack-seeking CYOA adventure about three young Americans who take a vacation in Scotland and get mixed up with petulant feuding vampires and their scenery-destroying vampiric offspring. The author says it was inspired by the vampire B-movies of their youth. For me, this raised disturbing questions about how old the author might be Twelve?! Facetiousness aside, the game's combination of bloodsuckers who act like the rabid zombies of the cinema of the 2000s, Underworldish vampire clans and a splat of Twilighty romanticism pointed to pretty recent stuff. And after I'd done all that thought, someone who watched the TV show Buffy the Vampier Slayer told me with great confidence that that was probably the primary influence.
BOTH gives off a strongly goofy vibe through its predilection for one-liner gags and funny/cool character behaviour, but it's also a work of quite driven prose. It was probably the biggest CYOA game I'd ever played when I first encountered it, and also the one with the longest passages between each moment of player choice. I was curious about what a text game which was confident enough to use this much unbroken prose would be like. As I'd expected and hoped, it was able to build up a lot of momentum. I also felt that it was capable of instilling each choice with more context, potentially making the whole thing more character-centric.
While I'm grateful to BOTH for demonstrating all of this to me in a big, real world case, I did find it an effort to get through a lot of it because I just wasn't interested in the petulant vampires or their moderately complicated mythology. In this respect, the game definitely reminds me of my experience with most of Hollywood's recent films about supernatural clans.
If the writing and characterisation of BOTH were both excellent, that would obviously do a lot for player interest. The trouble with the former is that it's erratic. I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief. Some pages are in great shape while others are rife with typos and mistakes of tense. The characters tend to make the same kind of opportunistic jokes as each other, spreading a fuzzy zaniness across the game at the cost of character individuality. And I found the feuding vampire characters really annoying. They have a kind of Flash Gordon / Prince Barin rivalry going on, except that both of them are Prince Barin. The heroine (us), who unfortunately spends nearly all her time as an unwilling sidekick to one of the vampires, does develop over the game, mustering a tenacity which is underestimated by all the baddies. Her emerging resolve was a source of humour and tension which sucked me back into the second half of the game, but in the main I found too much of BOTH tiring or insufficiently involving. It would take more preparatory work than was done here, or more idiosyncratic characters, to get me interested in all these feuding vampires and the spectacle of their rampage.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
Sigmund's Quest is the visually colourful point-and-click introduction to an incomplete CYOA style adventure based on a tale from Norse mythology. It runs in a web browser, and its deliberately magnified, pixelated colour graphics fill the screen. Unfortunately this is way too short (I reached the end in about five minutes) to sell or indicate much about the game-to-be except that it will have some charming graphics.
The blurb mentions werewolves and incest; none of either were in evidence in my playthrough. The tip of the story didn't hook me, as the content demonstrated up until the endpoint was too generic a tale of medieval royalty. The prose is simple and a bit workmanlike, with an earnestness which does little to riff off the playfulness that the graphics suggest as an aesthetic possibility.
The author cites the inspiration of King's Quest. This is writ large in the visuals, but the aggressive attitude of the King's Quest games (which I really, really don't miss - both the games and the attitude) is not. Yet I feel there needs to be some kind of attitude here to something. That's what's missing.
Sigmund's Quest competed in IFComp 2014. There was no rule against entering incomplete works, but historically they've faired poorly. The context is 99% of the reason why. If I'm given scores of games to play, why would I want to play one which isn't finished? Or in this case, barely begun? In IFComp, receptivity to a demo can plummet at the moment the player realises it's a demo.
To put an Introcomp spin on what I experienced of Sigmund's Quest, I wouldn't be interested in playing the rest of it if it were to continue in the fashion already demonstrated, and thats primarily because I'm not trusting the prose or writing to become interesting if they continue in the fashion already demonstrated. Such a perception all comes down to the smallness of the sample space presented by this intro, one way or another.
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