(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2021.)
AardVarK Versus the Hype (AVH) is an extremely funny parser adventure about a bunch of teens whose rock band, AardVarK, suddenly becomes very important for the project of life's continuance when a corporate/alien entity known as Hype starts flogging its soft drinks ("sodas" for the handful of Americans out there) to innocent high-schoolers. The brew's side-effects include mindless shillism and bleeding from the orifices.
The game is set in 1997, a time when popular culture was still dominated by the recent explosion of alternative music into it but before the internet had made any excursion onto the same turf; the game is blissfully free of the internet. If I was going to hazard a cultural thought of the kind I don't know that Truthcraze would approve of in the case of AVH, I'd suggest the simplicity of The Kids versus The Hype conflict is already a bit nostalgic for the eighties, a time when individuals-sticking-it-to-commercial-behemoths plots were easier to articulate. The film Reality Bites (1994) captured the zeitgeist of young Americans of the 1990s trying to retain their cred in a culture that was beginning to facilitate the commodification of everything.
Such drama is not what AVH is about. It's about the eternal comedic struggles of being a teenager (well, eternal since the 1940s or so, so not very eternal at all, actually) and about the nineties version of them in particular. The player gets to control all four members of the band AardVarK at different times with a SWITCH TO (PERSON) command. The switching isn't bound up with complex puzzles. It's essentially for narrative purposes. These teens are boys and girls, punks, goths, would-be frontpeople, singers and guitarists. The nineties wack is clearest in their dialogue stylings. There is a ton of multi-option dialogue in AVH wracked with a mixture of self-consciousness and excitement as the teens try to blurt out their explanations of weird shenanigans and corporate shills.
It's not so much what the characters want to say to each other that changes across options, only how they're going to say it. Bravado, hostility, coolness, honest dorkiness and cluelessness are some of the modes the player can choose amongst. Just reading all the different options, including the 75% not chosen, makes for a good chunk of the comedy. There's rarely any revisiting of unpicked dialogue paths because the story and conversations are too busy screaming forward for that.
The seat of the game is a wonderful repeating set piece joke involving the Gas'n'Stop convenience store, a location that has been thoroughly plundered and destroyed by the time all the main PCs have abused it. There are also jock-guarded parties, night-time trees to be climbed, cars that are rocking, and condom-purchasing jokes executed in good taste. Furthermore, AVH has some cool tricks of delivery up its sleeve. One is the way it will suddenly override the player's typed commands with replacement evil ones if the current PC gets possessed by The Hype. Another occurs in a situation where the PC's car turns over, at which point some of the printed text does the same thing. I don't remember seeing that joke in a parser game before.
AVH is a game that wants to help you finish it. It has graded HINTs you can ask for, but it's constantly prompting for free anyway in an amusingly harried voice. I think part of this stems from the fact that it's trying (successfully) to create a sense of lively action, and having players stand around examining everything is anti-action. The game would rather remind you of the next thing you're meant to be doing than let you gawp. There's also a decent amount of fourth-wall-breaking, and its version of the parser voice versus character voice dance is a cute one. I hit some bugginess across the game (remember paragraph one: I am now hitting myself with a stick) but the only thing that actually tripped me up was a guess-the-verb moment which was cleared up by the HINTs.
I admit I'd have liked some more reinforcement of differentiation amongst the teens identities across the game, what with all the SWITCHing amongst them that goes on, but this isn't a major complaint for a story this funny and engaging. The victory scene, which felt felt rushed in the original IFComp version of the game, has also been updated to make it much more satisfying. While playing AVH, I laughed aloud a lot, admired the many forms of comedy wielded by the writing and loved the Gas'n'Stop situation.
(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during Spring Thing 2022.)
Bigfoot Bluff is a busy parser adventure game of bizarre comedy. You play a paparazzi Bigfoot trying to snap a picture of your dad, also a Bigfoot, in a national park he controls. You're doing this for reasons that are hard to understand at first and hard to articulate later. Plus the park has other cryptids in it and you're photographing them. Why to both? Well, it works out eventually, but this doesn't feel like the kind of game in which one should be fumbling for understanding as often as one is.
BB taps the vein of fun eight-bit adventures with its tons of amusing objects to collect, little puzzles all over the place and a sarcastic parser voice. It's quite compulsively enjoyable already, but simultaneously frustrating to play. Part of the trouble is in the realm of combinatorial explosion. With so many crazy objects in the game (you can sling a goat over your shoulder, dig chocolate out of a pie, wear a falconry glove, take photographs of things, build disguises out of bits of park detritus, etc.) interactions amongst them are underimplemented. This much stuff calls for that much more development work. Many great ideas I typed in received default rejection messages, making my perception of puzzle difficulty go up. There are also minor bugs and almost no synonyms, which leads to time spent retyping and rephrasing good commands.
And, for a good while, I genuinely thought the game was trolling me. Part of the HELP says:
"... Try to do various things that will help you stay hidden in the park. As you do, your score will increase and you will be able to track down Bigfoot Senior and catch him on camera...
Bigfoot Bluff is a forgiving game even though undoing is disabled. If you lose points, don't worry! Just keep playing and you will more than make up for the lost points."
So the score is related to stealthiness. If you act stealthily or increase stealth, your score goes up. But if you bumblingly draw attention to yourself, you lose points. I grew to find the numerous ways you can lose points increasingly hilarious, and suspected that the game's help message about its forgiving nature might be part of the joke.
Here are examples.
What if I...
– Put on some aviator glasses I found on a crash dummy in a downed plane?
The glare from the reflective coating gives your position away
Score minus two
– Examine the drone I saw hovering near the plane?
The drone focuses its lens and you hear a click as it photographs you.
Score minus one
– Try setting a weather-altering machine to SNOW in hopes of making me harder to see?
>set weather to snow
You set the weather machine to snow.
It begins snowing. Your tracks will only make you easier to follow.
Score minus one
Try setting the same machine to WINDY instead?
>set weather to windy
You set the weather machine to wind.
The wind picks up; this will only blow your scent around.
Score minus one
After twelve score-altering events had occurred in the game, I had made a net gain of only three points.
It took me a long time to get on the wavelength of BB. To really understand the premise, and what I was trying to do, and why, and how I should be going about it. I think part of this may be that the intro is too sparse. The premise is deliberately silly, but it's also sophisticated. The opening line is:
"Ten years ago you renounced Bigfootdom to become a paparazzi. Now it is your job to do an exposé on your reclusive sasquatch father. Welcome to... Bigfoot Bluff."
This bit of prose requires unpacking and raises a lot of questions. But the game just starts with you standing in a Parking Lot of short description. Probably the HELP text would be better placed as part of the introduction, and it could all stand to be more focused. I don't think having to make sense of everything slowly by playing the game is the best fit for BB.
The game builds up an effective aesthetic that is simultaneously funny and a little menacing. The emphasis on surveillance inevitably makes you feel like you're being watched. The descriptions of the park don't need to be extensive to create a strong sense of place, a naturally beautiful wilderness with your father's menacing cabin sitting in the middle of it, and the PDF map helps, too. There are wacky cryptids about the place, such as the Garbogriff, for you to photograph, and the taunting announcements / nature talks your father is strangely obliged to give by loudspeaker at such times are amusing as well as truly weird. His later revelations are even weirder and wilder.
BB describes itself as a sandbox game. I don't think I've ever really understood the term, but here it seems to refer to both the nature of the map, and perhaps the mechanic whereby there are many puzzles to be solved, but that you don't have to solve them all. I found this to be a relief because I had a good amount of unused stuff left in my inventory at game's end. And that end is quite spectacular.
BB is a detailed and very funny game, but its implementation isn't a match for its content, and I believe it's unnecessarily hard to get into. I'd like to see these issues addressed in a future update.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my blog during Spring Thing 2016.)
The Xylophoniad is a joking, mashup take on numerous characters and situations from Greek mythology. It is powered by Versificator, the author's own parser engine. You play the part of veteran adventuress Xylophone, assigned by a bored king to knock over a few light tasks like ending the Trojan War, rescuing prisoners from Hades and killing the Bicyclops. I imagined the Bicyclops was going to turn out to have two eyes side-by-side, which would have had the effect of making it look like anyone else, which would in turn have resulted in comedic, illogical screaming from onlookers along the lines of: 'Argh! Two eyes! It's hideous!' But it turns out that the second eye of a Bicyclops is above the first one. And that is pretty gross.
The Xylophoniad (or THE X as I will now refer to it) reminds of the classic Scott Adams games in some of its nature and puzzles, though rarely in restrained degree. The aesthetic of those 16 kilobyte games was determined by the hard technical limit of the 16 kilobytes. There are no real limits for The X. There are design choices, and any mimicry of older games is carried out to an irreverent extent rather than a slavish one. The game delivers its humour in some particularly goofy and cartoon-like ways, elicits jokes from cute and simple NPCs who appear as caricatures of their legendary selves, or 'non-canonical versions' as the game likes to say, and keeps the player busy with a large ancient world split into separate regions. The region separation feels like both a staple of gaming in general (like levels, a way to divide up content and aesthetics) and a way to make THE X feel more manageable. Because no matter how cute the game may appear to be at the outset, when a king tells you to perform three impossible-sounding tasks before breakfast (it was the 'end the Trojan war' one that especially raised my anxiety levels) you're likely to feel at least a tad flustered about the day ahead.
Fortunately, and as I should probably have anticipated, the explicit solutions to the major challenges are pretty wack. Don't dwell on how to end the Trojan War all by yourself (... ARGH!!!). Just get out there and be the best traditionally klepto adventuress you can be, exploring, finding ways to pass recalcitrant portals, solving puzzles that crop up using a mixture of logic and illogic, and helping NPCs with their usually not-too-obscure problems. Achilles is histrionic, the medusa is apologetic, Daedalus is MacGyver and Helen of Troy emits unusual noises.
I don't think much knowledge of Greek mythology is required to deal with THE X's puzzles. In cases where a particular piece of knowledge might help with a particular puzzle, the game either tells you about it explicitly or collapses it into a joke that has the side-effect of indicating how the situation would have been in a canonical version of the story. I found myself at an impasse a few times and got past each one using the graduated hint system that comes with the game. If I'd had more time to play, I probably would have continued to experiment with the gameworld and overcome one or two of the impasses on my own.
(I originally published this review on 21 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 23rd of 26 games I reviewed.)
I don't claim to have played many wordplay focused IF games before, but I loved this one. In a Manor of Speaking is an adventure beyond the Bermuda Triangle through a world ruled by puns. Lord Dashney is the evil figurehead who needs to be overthrown and you are the person who needs to do it, using only colloquial expressions and a bit of lateral thinking as your weapons.
The game's implementation in Release 3, the one I played, is very strong. Its puzzles are numerous, amusing and served by an excellent contextual hints system. The game's humourous tone and aesthetic are entirely coherent and the prose is hiccup free. In short, this level of quality is what I ideally want from every adventure in the comp. The immersion which results when every part of a game is working smoothly and the flow of words and actions is unbroken is hard to beat, and with only a few games left for me to review now, I can say that In a Manor of Speaking is the only game to have achieved such frictionless immersion for me in this competition. Therefore unless you hate wordplay (and this is a pretty user friendly version of it) I advise you, and all and sundry, to try In a Manor of Speaking.
Paradoxically, I find that this game's accessible comedy style makes it hard to discuss at length. Its meanings are consistently transparent, whether they are silly sight gags (metalheads whose heads are made out of metal), riffs on timeworn sayings (Spoiler - click to show)(the pudding which contains the proof) or misdirections (the game is full of bars, but only the first one is a metal rod). To write about the game's jokes like this makes them sound only groany, but puns are fascinating because while they do often prompt groaning or cries of "I hate puns," almost nobody genuinely hates a pun, except for people whose souls are broken and ugly as pitch. You know, people who are to be pitied. In fact most people enjoy being the opportunistic revealers of puns in conversation once in awhile. In a Manor of Speaking takes you into a world and mode of writing where the puns are so numerous that they are the source of all the meaning. This pushes them beyond the context of goofy pleasure and shame which often accompanies isolated real-life punning into a place where anyone is likely to enjoy them more freely.
I only encountered a couple of tiny bugs in the game and both were related to the object "a piece of your mind" and the kangarude. The solidity of implementation also extends to the majority of the parser's blocking messages, with idiosyncratic jokes on hand for most kinds of command rejection. The numerous instant deaths (which you can instantly back out of, as well) become something that you can easily anticipate, as a good number are attached to invitingly stupid actions, but you're likely to find that you still enjoy trying each one.
In a Manor of Speaking is a funny and engaging adventure with a lot of personality and a near seamless delivery. That last point is a clincher for me, whether a game is light, profound, transparent or opaque.
(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.
Intending to test a new IF interpreter, I downloaded a random, small game from my wishlist: The Kazooist. Then I discovered that the interpreter I'd planned to test doesn't actually run Z-Code games. Not being a total churl, I played the game anyway.
The Kazooist is a tiny and deliberately silly (goofy, unfocused, poorly spelled) game that's barely a step beyond a 'learning to program in Inform 7' exercise. I suppose I got off-side with it immediately because its first room contained only a Pretty Cake that had no description. Eating the cake takes you to a dreamworld where you'll theoretically learn to play the kazoo, or just play the kazoo, but in reality you won't do either of these things. There are a few props, also without descriptions, and some locked doors. I had the solution to what I think was the last puzzle but couldn't find the phrase that would execute it, though I tried about twenty possibilities. There was a strong vibe that the game would have ended had I solved that puzzle. The truth is that I don't really know if it would have.
I cannot recommend this game for playing, though good on the author for already having updated The Kazooist during its lifetime.
PS - It turns out that where I gave up wasn't the end. Read the comments for the input of others.
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)
Milk Party Palace is a brief CYOA comedy in which you play a slack hotel employee who needs to round up six gallons of milk to appease visiting celebrity Alec Baldwin. Your eye is also on the twin goals of attending Baldwin’s "Milk Party" and finding out what a milk party even is. With the tone of the game being a bit juvo-Hollywood-teen-comedy wack, I wondered if a milk party might turn out to be a celebration vaguely along the lines of a lemon party, but I will not spoil such a revelation in this review.
Milk Party was made in Unity, a rarity for a text game, and demonstrates a clean and efficient link’n’click style. Once I'd reached one of its three advertised endings, I decided I'd had enough. Obtaining the gallons of milk involves cajoling or harassing various hotel guests by negotiating some absurd scenarios in their respective rooms. This absurd comedy seems to be Milk Party’s main purpose, but I quickly fell offside with the game, which caused me to click away impatiently at each encounter in an effort to hurry through it. I felt critical of my unreceptive state afterwards and tried to work out what I hadn’t liked.
It could be as simple a factor as that it all started off with the anticipation of a very short game involving a celebrity, a description which made me interest-weary. Then came the business of chasing up the milk itself, which was almost hard slog. The guests are understandably wary of your bugging each of them for milk, and the encounters are structured around the pains of you trying to extricate the needed gallons in the face of ridiculous verbal and physical hurdles. These hurdles somehow reminded me in nature of the kind of conversations I’d expect to have to suffer in hell, were I to end up there, albeit shorter in length. It's testament to some kind of effectiveness of what the game is doing along these lines that I did feel aggravated by the hurdles, even though they are less "real" than they might be in a parser-based game, where you could become physically or literally stuck against a puzzle. That can't happen to you in Milk Party, but I was still a bit teeth-gnashy throughout the experiences described in the prose.
So even though Milk Party is not all that long, it feels strenuous. Its brand of absurd thwarting is legitimate comedy fodder – and I found some of it funny – but that wasn't enough to drive me to want to engage with its stuff. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I did not feel motivated to care about getting milk for Alec Baldwin, as fine an actor as he is, and thus I did not get into the shenanigans involved in doing so.
(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.
A quick CYOA in which - in game parlance - you die and must restart after every second move because whatever you decide to wear and wherever you choose to go (two choices) you are sexually harassed by a man or men.
The mixture of cuteness and smartarsery in the writing, in combination with the girly pink colour scheme, is broadly funny. This tone extends into the dialogue and content of the harassments. That they are so frequent and display such a variety of dialogue and invention that they acquire an overkill quality in this context which is inevitably funny and exasperating, and makes them palatable in spite of their volume. And the game is in tune with player exasperation. It starts to offer an 'I give up' option at about the right time.
The punchline when you do so is: 'BLAM! Welcome to life as a woman.'
(OK, I admit I added the 'BLAM!')
So this very small game is well structured for its idea. This leaves us with the idea and the question of who it's for. I'm already aware of the specific point that a woman might be sexually harassed whether she is wearing a low cut item or a tracksuit, and this is the game's main point. So telegraphing that at length and then saying 'BLAM!' was not revelatory for me personally, but that doesn't mean it might not be revelatory for someone else. The practicality of the point makes it a good one for people who might not have thought about such things much, or at all.
Based on what's (figuratively) written on the box, a woman need not play Female Experience Simulator. After all, she doesn't need to simulate the experience of being a woman; she's experiencing it. Nevertheless, were she to play it, my punt on what her experience might be like - informed by my experience of playing Female Experience Simulator - is that the game would be likely to hit the recognition spot with a leavening of humour, but obviously without any revelations.
If the game actually advocated hopelessness or hopeless behaviour (eg 'You MUST run home to cry whenever you are sexually harrassed!') I would have flushed it down the toilet to join other self-deludedly defeatist crap like the works of Samuel Beckett. However I think it's obvious that this game is not making a point beyond: A woman can experience sexual harrassment in spite of how she dresses or presents herself. Which is important if not known. A man may learn this by playing. A woman already knows it. The game manages to do this with some humour, and it's pretty light, so it's a stretch to read much further into it.
This review is already in severe danger of brandishing more content than the game itself, so it's time to stop.
Based on the title of this game and its synopsis, I was expecting to play a badass jungle cat in an adventure of comedic nature. It turns out that the PC is actually a rap music braggart named Tiger. This was disappointing, at least in light of my expectations, and I don't think they were insane expectations because it feels kind of clumsy to both suggest that a character called Tiger is also a 'tiger' (metaphorically speaking) and then to dwell on this point in the title of the game.
Anyway, having shifted my existential gearstick from 'great cat' to 'rapper', I got a smile or two out of this game which sees you rising as Tiger after a night of rap star partying. Tiger is a dim, spoiled fool with a Titanic sized ego, and the game was clearly going to be at his expense. I say 'going to be' because it turns out that this is just a one room demo, but it must be said that it definitely feels like the start of an actual game rather than just a mechanical test. Various story points are set up, like the fact that you have a piece of music overdue for delivery and that various family members and girlfriends are angry with you. There are a bunch of stats ready to go, too, like 'Booze Level' and 'Oontz Completion'. But the first room is already underimplemented and there is no second room or continuation. So probably the only reason to try this is if you suspect that you might like the material enough to go and browbeat the author into expanding it. I wasn't as motivated as that.