(This is an edited version of a review I originally published in my blog during IFComp 2023)
I usually start any IFComp by playing a horror game that speaks to me. In 2023, the game that was plainly shouting at me was Barcarolle in Yellow by Victor Ojuel.
This parser adventure is an IF take on the cinematic subgenre known as giallo, in which I have some expertise. So even if this turns out to be my only IFComp 2023 review (spoiler alert - it did) I hope it's one that can help other players appreciate the qualities of this game in the context of its source material. I'm sure Barcarolle will entertain anyone who enjoys a hectic, lurid murder-mystery thriller with violence and some sex/nudity, for that's what it is, but I can still imagine a lot of "What was that about?" questions regarding some of its content in the minds of players who've never encountered a giallo or giallo-like before.
About giallo in general
Giallo is Italian for yellow. In Italian publishing, there's a history of classic mystery novels being released in cheap editions with distinctive yellow covers and sensational cover art. Their success led to newer pulp mysteries being published in the same style. When these stories began to take cinematic form, directors quickly turned to producing original murder-mysteries inspired by them, but with a modern outlook. These films were more psychologically-focused, erotic and horrific than the books that originally inspired them (though sometimes not more so than the covers that inspired them) and often featured innovative audiovisual styling, gore, nudity, and a high body count. This kind of film became known as the giallo and was at its international peak of popularity in the 1970s.
The majority of giallo came from Italy, followed by Spain. Some were coproductions that shared Italian and Spanish actors and production crew. The film's casts were often studded with internationals. In Barcarolle in Yellow the heroine PC, Eva Chantry, is English (according to her passport) and is off to shoot a giallo in Venice when the game begins.
The name and cover art for Ojuel's game are on the mark in their pastiche quality. Compare Barcarolles cover art to the real poster for The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) (link to the poster from the film's wikipedia page.
The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) poster
The international success of one particular giallo, Dario Argento's The Bird With The Crystal Plumage (1970) set off a copycat trend in the naming of these films. Numbers, animals and colours featured heavily. As did salaciousness. Consider these titles:
Lizard in a Woman's Skin (1971)
Cat'O'Nine Tails (1971)
The Red Queen Kills Seven Times (1972)
Strip Nude for your Killer (1975)
Watch Me When I Kill (1977)
Five Dolls for an August Moon (1970)
The Bloodstained Butterfly (1971)
It turns out that a barcarolle is a kind of Venetian gondolier's song. And for a giallo IF initially presenting to a giallo-unfamiliar audience, the colour yellow is an obvious choice.
Giallo, as they were unto themselves in the 1970s, aren't really made any more. Some thrillers have giallo-like elements, but never enough to fully qualify them or give them the giallo feel. What we do see produced today is the occasional hyper-loyal giallo pastiche, like the 1970s-set Abrakadabra or 1980s-set Crystal Eyes. Abrakadabra and its trailer are so amazingly accurate, I genuinely thought the film was a giallo from the 1970s when I first saw the trailer; the film was released in 2018.
Finally, one of the giallo masters from the day, Dario Argento, is still alive, and brought out a brand new giallo in 2022, Dark Glasses. For all its flaws, I still think it's his best film for a long time.
Spoiler-free play advice
The game uses few verbs, and mercifully, all talking is achieved just with a TALK (PERSON) command. All commands needed to play are listed in the HELP. The key advice I can give is to WAIT whenever in doubt, as many scenes progress on their own, TALK TO (PERSON) whenever still in doubt, save frequently (though UNDO is also your friend) and finally, pay attention to your wardrobe. It's both fun in an IF sense to change your clothes, but it also turns out to be policed in a practical sense by this game. Wear whatever your commonsense tells you is appropriate for whatever task you're about to undertake.
About Barcarolle in Yellow
In this giallo adventure set in 1975, the player takes the role of Eva Chandry, an actor whom the credits describe as starring "as herself". The credits are interwoven with the game's opening turns set in a police station, where an interview with Eva is beginning. Eva often finds that life is like a performance, or that life reminds her of her art more often than the other way around. Thus the game is presented to the player within the frame of it being a film, and is also about a film actor appearing in a giallo film to be shot in Venice.
Giallo films often blur the lines between reality, dreams, imagination, and false memories of the seen and heard, but they rarely enter the postmodern. Barcarolle in Yellow throws in a foregrounded fourth wall element that adds to the pleasurably discomforting pressure the game is always applying through its prose. Is the game reality the true reality? Or does that lie in some layer above or below what Eva experiences? What she does experience is all the mayhem of filmmaking, typically chaotic giallo plotting, and being the target of a mask-wearing killler in Venice, the same way her character is stalked in the script.
Killers in giallo films are often motivated by Freudian traumas from their past. As often, the traumas are revealed to the audience in piecemeal flashbacks cued by the developing investigations of the murders. While I'm used to giallos going back, I laughed when Barcarelle went way back (to 1862) and to another country (USA) in what appeared to be its first flashback. In its typical rug-pulling style, this was revealed to be a scene from a Western Eva was acting in.
Overall, Barcarolle in Yellow turns out to be a dangerous and tricky game, with frequent physical threats to the PC, death on the cards and numerous abrupt changes of place and reality. However, it also has a strong, often linear trajectory that keeps it from being too hard. I found most difficulty stemmed from under-implementation. It doesn't cater to enough synonyms and possibilities for the amount of prose there is. This combined with a few timing-critical scenes makes for some frustrating passages. On the plus side, the THINK command will almost always point the player in exactly the direction they need to go. I didn't use THINK on my first playthrough, but used it a lot on the second to shore up identify-the-noun moments that had repeatedly held me up.
As the attractive Eva, the player must get around an excitingly compressed version of Venice, occasionally act in the film she's in (by following its script!) investigate the stalker who appears in both Eva's life and the film, and manually handle her wardrobe. Cue giallo-typical nudity, both appropriate (having a shower) and justifiable but glamourised (being nude in a prolonged dream, except for a mask). This being a giallo, the game comments, via Eva's thoughts, on the way the camera observes the female body through an exploitation film lense.
There are a lot of entertaining scenes and tricks that toy with agency as an IF player, as a woman PC and as an actor in a film. The world of the game is as aggressively sexist and sexual as many giallo films were, and those films already experimented a lot with people's roles. The agreed-upon prototype giallo is Mario Bava's The Girl Who Knew Too Much (1963) which foregrounded, in one stream of the genre, a kind of outsider female experience. The American heroine in that film takes a holiday in Rome, witnesses a murder there and eventually solves it. Eva is Barcarolle's outsider protagonist. She visits a city in another country to shoot a film and also has to play a tourist in that film. The player even has to shoot photographs during Eva's acting scenes.
Some giallo could be very gory, with particularly outré deaths that are now regarded as proto-splatter-film. Barcarolle hits these genre notes, too. It features a knife murder committed through the eye, a speedboat attack and a hanging by designer scarf. The fresh and well-informed performance of so many giallo notes in the game is impressive.
Giallo films were ultimately open to exploiting any dimension of cinema sensation they could in their commitment to producing involving, shocking, thrilling and twisty murder-mysteries. Bigger twists and shocks were better, even if they didn't make a lot of sense. Some giallo were tightly plotted, others lurching shock machines, but most had their eye on overall audience satisfaction. This hectic quality can be perceived in Barcarolle in Yellow, too. Some of the game's shocks involve unexpectedly sudden endings or upendings, or the placement of moments of fourth wall breakage. There are in fact multiple endings to the game that riff on the bizarre nature of solutions to giallo murder mysteries; I found four endings so far and can tell there's at least one more.
I've played a couple of Victor Ojuel's other games over the years. They both featured vivid or innovatively-realised geography, and that's true again of Barcarolle's handy version of Venice. The games also needed more implementation work to my eyes, and that's also true of Barcarolle. Because I like this game very much, I would also like to see a solider version of it, without all the excess line breaks, with the typos cleaned up and all those synonyms added and programming beefed up to remove the bumping-against-the-walls moments. However, with its strong hint system, Barcarolle won't leave a player stranded if they do hit the walls, and that's more important for today and for players' IFComp experience with the game. I also appreciate what programming an IF game as event-driven as this one is like.
In conclusion, I highly recommend Barcarolle in Yellow. It shows great and affectionate knowledge of the films and related cultural milieu that inspired it.
(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.
The House at the End of Rosewood Street is a mysterious, strange and significantly imperfect adventure in which you play a caretaker to the residents of a suburban street. The residents all chip in to keep you housed (note that your house is not the one at the end of the street) and in return you run errands for them and deliver the newspaper each day. When I say deliver, I do mean deliver. You have to navigate right up to the door of each house, knock on the door and then GIVE NEWSPAPER TO (recipient). The game describes itself as "An exploration of the uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic" but I suspect many players will bail out early on the deliberately repetitious, sparse or tedious tasks the caretaker protagonist must perform, rather than continue to squint their eyes at the suburban grass in hopes of perceiving the promised strangeness. I don't think this game is optimally designed, and the distribution and delivery of some of its weirder content is quite out of balance, but I think it does eventually succeed in generating a feeling of mysterious inevitability, thanks in part to its grinding qualities.
Spoilers increasing ahead, and ultimately I talk about the end of the game.
Something I noticed immediately in Rosewood is that while there are plenty of long descriptions of houses, none of the houses' features are implemented. The game's fob-off message to anything it doesn't understand is "What would Theo think?" (Theo is a neighbour) or "What would the neighbours think?" etc. This looks ill-considered, at least if you haven't read the HELP first, which includes a polite sort of disclaimer amounting to a direction on how to play the game. In other words, it tells you that little details aren't implemented, but also that they aren't important for this story. This info is too important to be left as the optional read it is.
Your street has a pleasingly logical arrangement, meaning that once you're a little familiar with the layout, it's easy to wing your way towards a particular neighbour you need to see or to be reminded of where they live. The caretaker has at least eight newspapers to deliver each day. This means that over the week of the game, the player will have to take at least 56 strolls and knock on at least 56 doors to deliver at least 56 newspapers. That's quite a stunning amount of what most players would consider drudgery. The game obviously has a point with all this, which is to emphasise the sameness of your routine and to also make you keenly aware of any variations in it, but the author could easily have inserted many more "carrots" throughout these sequences to keep player interest up. The way it is, the neighbours say and do the same things in response to your rounds almost every day, and their requests that you run errands for them or repair their broken watches and such are relatively scarce.
Each night you retreat to your house to sleep and to dream. These dreams are relatively wack, featuring a parade of talking cats and endlessly transforming symbolic objects. They're so loaded with archetypal dream imagery and non-sequiturial dialogue that they end up conveying nothing because they could convey anything. I like the structure of having a dream each night, but I think that the prose content of the dreams is the element of this game that is most off.
A source of narrative content that you can grab onto is an ongoing story in each day's newspaper about the disappearance of one Lisa Kaiser, the governor's daughter. When I was playing the game and noticed that an Elisabeth (with an S) had materialised in a house in Rosewood Street one day, I wondered if this might be the missing Lisa. Elisabeth was dissatisfied with my repairs to her broken mirror and disappeared the next day. Alarmingly, the newspaper reported that a groundskeeper had been arrested for her murder. Was this me? I delivered the newspapers as usual that day and nobody reacted any differently. The week concluded with me dining with and then joining in bed the mysteriously charismatic stranger who moved into The House at the End of Rosewood Street at the beginning of the week, and who'd made appearances in my dreams. Since I had virtuously delivered a zillion newspapers over the previous seven days to reach this point, I was quite tense about what I might finally discover. What happened was that I woke up again, and the content of the new day's paper indicated that I was back at the start of the week, as did the now empty bin where my discarded newspapers had been piling up.
Had my life become some kind of circling mental limbo created by myself to protect me from the reality of my murderous actions, if they were mine? That's one of the better explanations I've come up with; the game is highly resistant to concrete interpretation. Its unyielding nature is strangely satisfying to me in retrospect, in the sense that I would have hated to have arrived at an extremely pat explanation for all of this weirdness. But even for the game to achieve this effect – which I can easily imagine a lot of IFComp players didn't experience due to boredom – it barely justified the huge amount of unvarying repetition involved in playing it, nor the nebulous dream content. Still, it has a conceptual weirdness that I'll remember, though I'm unlikely to want to actually play it again.