Reviews by Wade Clarke

ifcomp 2020

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1-4 of 4

SOUND, by CynthiaP
A very short Twine two-hander about communication problems, August 10, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Twine, ifcomp 2020

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

SOUND is sufficiently small (for me, a few minutes per play) that my whole review amounts to a spoiler:

In the text-on-black Twine SOUND a woman known as Orange seeks treatment for her stutter and communication problems from one Doctor Thee. The doctor is a sailing champion and island dweller. An island is the venue for the therapy. The prose follows a conversation between Orange and the doctor in which neither is necessarily the point-of-view character. I was interested to note I identified, functionally, with the doctor, just because the doctor was the interrogator, but technically the links that change the progression through the conversation can fall to either character.

There is something a bit cute about the dialogue and the situation. Orange's anecdotes of work difficulties are realistic but the actual prose isn't quite. It reminded me of serious-leaning dialogue delivered by videogame or Manga characters. They say 'Haha,' and someone winked at some point.

Orange posits a theory of sound (that may validate her stuttering) that the doctor appreciates as new. It also seems to be bound up with semiotics. While she doesn't just go and say "semiotics", she does talk about the disconnection between sign and signifier in the supermarket aisles, even though she doesn't use the words "sign" or "signifier", either. It's unfortunate that in this precision-requiring moment, the prose is just a bit off. I'm not sure if it's the proofreading, or English is the author's second language or something else.

Fortunately, the outcome is unaffected, and it's the most interesting part of SOUND. It seems that Orange's theory transforms reality (if only all theories were this easily actualised!) and the IF's words rearrange and repeat on the screen to create the effect. The links wander, as well, but this is no "find the correct link to click" moment this is indeed, the end of SOUND. And for me, it falls in the right spot that is specific enough to the story, and also abstract and poetic enough to be satisfying without over or under-doing anything. It did prompt me to think on it in a manner outsized to the conversation's face content, and the coda text suggests a beginning for the new communication ("You embark to find that voice") and, cleverly/eerily, is exactly what the game's blurb promised, because that is SOUND's blurb.

This IF is so short I replayed a couple of times to see the other elements and to experiment with the end screen. The repeat plays also improved my overall understanding of the conversation. It's not like it's complicated, but in general I find it hard to keep track of who's speaking during long direct speech outings. SOUND is brief and the payoff is good. A multiplication of effect at the end of something (and definitely not its opposite) is always a fine way to go out.

The Place, by Ima

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Too small and non-specific existential piece with closed exercise element, August 10, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Twine, ifcomp 2020

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

Due to this Twine's size, my whole review below must be considered a spoiler.

"Carla thinks about all the things she loved, Brutalising the Dead by Sadistik Execution, not being on fire, Paris, and herself healing in the future."

The above line was produced by The Place at one point to describe the actions of its heroine, whom I'd named Carla. The parts in bold were typed in by me earlier in answer to questions posed by the game (e.g. What is your favourite song at the moment?) This output, the joint result of all our creativity, made me laugh a lot. Since the game's (weird!) blurb had endorsed meaninglessness, I then thought, "Oh do cheer up, nihilist, you have helped to make me laugh." Place is another case of a Twine IFComp blurb being way off course and in danger of swamping the content of the small IF itself.

The story is about a young woman (whom you name) who's bored, depressed and troubled due to her home life. She's struggling to find meaning, not finding it in places like Paris (or whatever city you typed in) and ultimately having a look inside herself, plus perhaps in some other location you typed in. It's an optimistic ending.

The small scale of the whole makes it difficult for this piece to succeed. The Place describes an arc of troubledness most people would recognise, and the story struggles to rise above common experience by adding some specificity it obtains from the player by asking them for input. As I've demonstrated, the input scheme can backfire. But even if I'd typed more harmonious things, that wouldn't have changed the feeling for me. The prose is more fuzzy than precise and the story is well-worn and too general, though by asking me the questions, it did at least add an extra frisson of the commonality across human passions. One thing I couldn't work out was why the game kept asking me about some lottery draw order. It was the one question I didn't understand, and I was asked it at least three times. Perhaps some language/culture misunderstanding?

I think there's something to the overall idea of using input this way in a short story of this kind, but it would take more careful thought and application to craft the effect.

The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee, by Daniel Gao
A game of teen secrets with a sci-fi wraparound and some narrative trickery, August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: science fiction, ifcomp 2020, inform

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

I like to kick off my IFComp experience of a year with the playing of a parser-based horror game that I expect will tickle my fancies. In 2020's entries list, I could not go past the title The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee (hereafter referred to as BM). It's not actually a horror game, and I should point out that it correctly bills itself as a mystery. Its blurb also indicates that sci-fi (time travel) is involved. It doesn't dwell on its adult elements, so references to sex and violence are at the level of any restrained modern whodunnit.

BM took me about an hour to complete, and I was impressed by its interwoven layers of mystery, reality and narratorship, even as the gameplay remained straightforward look, read'n'search throughout. The issues of the PC/narrator split and narrator reliability get a triple workout here. The player initially doesn't know who they are, or why they're investigating Jenny's murder back in 2003. A bold-text-voiced narrator issues instructions that initially seem to intrude on the prose in real time, indicating that the player is under surveillance. Yet that narrator also alludes to having their own problems with another entity. I see BM's sci-fi factor landing individually with different players, but I think the whole is grounded by the specificity of Jenny's world. She was a 17-year-old Chinese immigrant to Canada, was academically pressured by her mum, and lived her teen life in rounds of the band room, the library, and the ACE Tutoring Agency. In the best narrative tradition of the murdered, she also kept secrets.

The whodunnit element presents a decent catalogue of speculative possibilities for the game's size. It's fuelled by the details of Jenny's life, one that evokes some typical migrant experiences but also has enough texture to give Jenny individuality. The way the player experiences her world is as retrospective "recordings" of her most-frequented locations, devoid of people but rife with intimate notes, diaries, library cards, signs and messages on computer screens. The rooms are full of stuff, so much so that even when a lot of objects are implemented, players are still likely to bounce off the ones that aren't. Weird implementation or under-implementation, and almost no synonym support, are typical shortcomings of the old Quest engine, and they're present here. Ninety-five percent of the time, you don't need to guess verbs in Quest games, but when you do, you're in trouble; the walkthrough got me through two such bits in BM. Nevertheless, compelling forward progress and little mysteries come thick and fast.

I was also struck by a lot of the physical environmental details in this game. The letters cut out from cardboard spelling "Asian American Heritage Month" in the library, for instance, or the markered masking tape instrument labels in the band room. The accumulation of these sorts of observations conjured the atmospheres of schools and libraries of my past.

In retrospect, BM seems to mix some unusual elements, but then again I've got a feeling this kind of thing is more common than I think. (For instance, in the Young Adult genre. I just had a flash of the novel Slide by Jill Hathaway.) Ultimately, I liked the Jenny's World elements best, and I see how the sci-fi elements facilitate the exploration of her world in a prying, adventure-gamey way that would otherwise be realistically impossible. In fact, it occurs to me I used almost the same mechanism for exploring a character's past in my contribution to the game Cragne Manor. Rough edges and implementation troubles aside, BM is novel and ambitious, often well-observed and delivers an involving story with elements of cultural specificity.

The author's note recommends playing BM offline by downloading the PC-only Quest app. This is how I played, and based on my personal and anecdotal experiences of both the Quest system and website, I'd say: if you can play offline, don't muck around. Play offline.

Click below to read my spoilering thoughts on the game's ending.

I'm not sure either of BM's endings are great. The most positive spin I can come up with on the solid/regular ending is the idea that the future people's faintly interested reaction to the detective machine (the one that you "were", or inhabited to solve the crime) and the most famous case it solved, is a sad-leaning reminder that we can easily forget about the realities of those who preceded us, and maybe now and then we should take some time to remember them... I hope this isn't too off course, because I lost this piece of the transcript when I tried the other ending.

The other ending is far-fetched in the sense that I think it's almost contrived beyond intentional logic (go west ten times in limbo?!) but it could be hit by accident. And with the walkthrough handy, I think players will probably try it anyway. While it's novel, it's totally removed from the bulk of the game. It reads as: 'Forget about Jenny Lee! I'm now a self-actualised AI out in the world!' Which is almost a different game altogether. I suppose it's cute as a novelty ending, and there have been a lot of bonus endings of this type in Playstation console games. Unfortunately this one wastes BM's remaining locked cabinet passcode puzzle in the process.

Alone, by Paul Michael Winters

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A zombies and survival game that's quiet., August 6, 2022
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform, ifcomp 2020

(A version of this review first appeared in my blog during IFComp 2020.)

Alone is an adventure of survival set in a sparsely populated post-apocalyptic world. The initial situation of having your car break down out on the road leads gradually (but not too gradually) into a series of dense and satisfyingly overlapping puzzles, especially of the mechanical variety. With its keys, locks, recalcitrant security doors, fuseboxes, circuits and deserted environments, Alone's puzzlebox reminded me most of the Resident Evil games. Alone also steps into the equivalent IF tradition of the Resident-Evil-type game, though pointedly without gunplay, shooting or much violence at all. I'm now finding it harder to think of other similar parser IF games than I expected; there's Divis Mortis, and, with a supernatural spin added, One Eye Open. Calm has deliberately very fiddly mechanics in a post-apocalyptic world, but not any bogeymen if I recall correctly. Alone has The Infected. Zombies if you prefer.

Alone's puzzles are broadly familiar in the adventure game aesthetic, but that doesn't matter when their execution and interweaving are as solidly performed as they are here. The game isn't perfect; a couple of the most difficult actions only accept one very specific phrasing, and I had to use the walkthrough to get through those parts. But otherwise, there's consistent logic to all the mechanics. Alternate solutions to problems are considered by the game and well-excused. Nearly successful attempts on puzzles give feedback to point the player in the right direction. Irrelevant objects fob the player off to avoid time-wasting. These standards are maintained for the game's duration and that is very good work.

A few spoilers if you read on:

Alone has an interesting quality that was apparent to me only after completing it. I noticed all the things that hadn't happened in it. I mean things that I might have expected from a game like this if it had not veered from the centre of this genre's road. The threat of infection is always present and its zombifying consequences are apparent (the one time I did turn into a zombie, I found the description pretty creepy) but there is ultimately only one active zombie encountered in the game. The PC isn't disrespectful of the dead and the player doesn't have to fight or kill to survive. There's almost no violence. And though there are a few endings, the game's ABOUT encourages the player to get the most obviously good one, which it turns out is tied to the most moral and hopeful outcome in the game. So Alone reminded me what my expectations for this genre are, and was uncharacteristically optimistic or entropy-averse in relation to them. In this way it stands out from what you might call the current glut of material in this genre in other media. Though as I say, I think the genre is not as strongly represented in IF as I thought it might be.

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