Ratings and Reviews by JJ McC

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Elvish for Goodbye, by David Gürçay-Morris

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Elves are Racist, December 20, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

In reviewing some IF works, I’ve grappled with poetic language that clashed with my own sensibilities. I seem to have a heightened sense of "ehhh that's trying too hard." Superficially, this should have tripped my hair trigger, but somehow the language here just sung for me. It was consistently evocative and surprising and carried a rhythm that was somehow both measured and propulsive. When I tried to figure out how this succeeded for me where other works did not, I think the best I came up with was EfG minimized the use of extravagant simile and metaphor, and just straight up described stuff. Elegantly, evocatively and beautifully. This offhanded passage early on was just so precise in its socio-political observation, its multi-syllable employment doesn’t end up diluting or obfuscating it. (look at me! so many multi-syllable words of my own!)

"to the glittering glitterati of the donor class, those brahmins of the City whose funding feeds the fringe-work (performance, poetry, painting–even it turns out, mythohistoric research), fattening it up until it can pass as avant garde, or perhaps–if you’re lucky–even 'cutting edge.' "

For the first chapter or so, it's all narration, and the language rolls like a manuscript from the protagonist - its half-academic half-poetic tone seems about right for the background they’ve presented to us. Quickly they meet with a poet they’ve idolized, let’s call her Didi Joanion. Just pulling syllables out of thin air here. The rest of the work is a dialogue between the two about Didi’s time among the Elves. Settle down spoiler-police, it's in the title.

Let me break for a moment to talk about the interactivity - it's kind of inessential. There are some exclusive choices early that shade how the protagonist understands the world. I was a bit put out at those, because every option I selected had text that thrilled me, and I wondered how much MORE thrilling the choices untaken might have been. I wanted to select them all! Later though, when choices stopped being exclusive and I had to select all (or just most) of them I was like “why am I even selecting here? shouldn’t these just be page breaks?” You can’t win with me game, ask around, that’s just how I am. A lot of the time, the interaction was straight-up page turning, but even when it wasn’t, it was. Every now and then there was a nice pacing effect in the interactivity, but very much the rare exception.

So back to the text. As soon as Didi started talking things jarred for me. She spoke in the same evocative, deliberate, erudite voice as our narrator. And she did it describing things from decades ago, with a precision and clarity that … eeehhhhh. Here:

“[…] hanging from every horse-drawn troika and gondola poling its langorous streams, […]”

“Poling its langorous streams”? “POLING ITS LANGOROUS STREAMS???” Does that sound like something one human would say to another human in human conversation? I want you to try something: work the phrase “poling its langorous streams” unironically into any conversation with anyone in your life, and report their reaction back here. Some homework for you.

Something about putting quotation marks around it shifts the way the words work, and it drew the wrong kind of laughter. I considered, “maybe this is the protagonist’s recasting of her words in flowery manuscript as they’re being written down” except that previously they made a point of how diligently they were capturing her exact words. Then I thought, “well, she is a renowned poet in the text of the piece, maybe this is less an authentic conversation, and more her slipping into some well-rehearsed bit.” Which the story later outright confirmed! Ok story, you got me!

It did it twice more. Once, it noted there are 20,000 elvish words but only 3 for hello. (Is that the number? It was presented as a lot more than we have, but that feels super low.) I’m like, “c’mon that doesn’t make any sense, we have more in English.” Story was like “yeah that’s weird, hold my beer, let me tell you about ‘Goodbye’.” Elsewhere they’re talking about her silk flooring in her fabric house and I’m like “fr reals story? Doesn’t it rain there?” Next scene, rain! I felt like an overconfident amateur chess player realizing the unassuming player across the table was actually a prodigy.

So yeah, the language in dialogue never really felt ‘real’ but it was cool. I mean, I really liked reading it even if it wasn’t ‘believable’. So if I’m sluicing through this joyful, vibrant literary rapids why am I not Engaged? Why? Its about Elves. (IT'S IN THE TITLE, IT'S NOT A SPOILER.) Elves are racist bastards, that’s just facts. You see how they treat Dwarves in those Rings/Hobbit movies? Screw those Elf Supremacist dickheads.

Wow. That got away from me. There’s a possibility that was not about Elves.

So this work is about a gloriously conceived fantasy city and culture whose inhabitants are not important. And it's basically a long, super-evocative and thrilling to read description that only kind of barely crests to a dramatic resolution. It’s a beautiful artifact that doesn’t do much, consistent with its unnecessary interactivity. Is there a place for beauty? Of course! I just need a little more to get Engaged. That may be on me.


Played: 11/5/22
Playtime: 30min, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


January, by litrouke

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Ack! I am Betrayed!, December 13, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This is definitely an interactive novel, not a game. It is structured as a series of irregular calendar day snapshots of life after a zombie apocalypse. Really the only choice on offer is what day (as denoted by circles on a calendar) you want to see. At first I just went monotonically forward in time, until still in the first cycle I periodically decided to “skip ahead” and fill in gaps after. (Spoiler - click to show)Really just to see if the cat lived. As you work your way to December, you sometimes revisit days you’ve already seen where the narrative expands or changes but you do arrive. Then the entire year opens up AGAIN. This time, I went backward just to see how it played.

The narrative itself pushed hard on me at first. A few early examples of text trying way too hard and totally not landing for me: “The train unfurled from the tunnel like a tongue.” “Now the swollen joint rolled in his boot like a marble.” “Thirst serrated him.” These are super representative of persistently showy prose that pulls you away from the apocalypse you are nominally watching in a very distracting way. There are plot choices that are as equally confounding/challenging. The protagonist seems simultaneously very clever about apocalyptic survival (I particularly liked the hinting that he was salvaging kibble because it was overlooked by other survivors), and just not smart. He is a wanderer, yet winters in snow and ice?

But but I gotta say the pace of this thing, so slow and deliberate, couples with the language to kind of weave a mesmerizing, melancholy spell. This is not a survival tale of high stakes action setpieces and heightened relationship melodrama. It’s a taciturn dude and his cat figuring it out as they go. At the half way mark, it had eroded away all my complaints with its slow, steady rhythms. The language didn’t get less florid, not at all, but its omnipresence kind of became… atmospheric. I didn’t live in a real, or even realistic world anymore. I was here instead. It was kind of… comforting? It was weird to realize I had been so effectively seduced by the offputting language of this thing. And I was cool with it!

The presentation is consistently inventive and interesting. The days you click on play tricks with layout and text, almost always in unexpected ways. It crucially adds illustrations, very much of the vibe of ‘amateur drawing in his diary’ which is just perfect for the presentation, and crucially signposts when you subsequently revisit certain days. The presentation reinforces and becomes of a piece with the language to really draw you in over time.

Again, but but but. At the halfway point you get a 4th wall break that is so jarringly inconsistent with everything that has come before it's like a slap to the face. I’d been mesmerized by sirens leading me, willingly!, to my doom only to break the spell at a crucial moment. Story, you pushed your excesses in my face up front, then in a cocksure demonstration of your power confidently and slowly won me over anyway. Why would you push me away again? This proved to be hubris it couldn’t recover from. In fact, my choice to do reverse order on the back half was kind of a passive-aggressive dare. “Ok story, you wanna slap me? Let’s see how you fare backwards.”

Now, that choice to Will Smith the reader is clearly deliberate. From post-play discussions, one of the work's themes was (Spoiler - click to show)constructed, edited memories, and the slap arguably provided a dose of cold water showcasing exactly that. The problem is, the florid language ALREADY lent it an air of (Spoiler - click to show)interpreted, artificial construct. I didn't need the metaphorical violence to get that. Maybe if I got the sense that there were dramatic beats of self-deception now stripped from the protagonist this would have stuck better for me, but that's not what I got. What I got was (Spoiler - click to show)one big omission, that was pretty understandable, all things considered and a series of what seemed to amount to minor detail changes. For me, there was no big payoff to this sudden sea change, just a lot of minor nuances.

With the spell broken, the work kind of boxed itself in. In revisiting the past, all the textual excesses were exposed a second time and the additional shading insufficient to dilute them. The graphic inventiveness continued, the drama ramped ever so slightly, but I was lost, and it's really that stunningly jarring 4th wall choice that did it. It doesn’t help that the story doesn’t build to a dramatic or thematic resolution either. I’m not sure how it could, since it ceded control to me (mostly). You get more information, more backstory, but none of it comes together thematically to any kind of crescendo. I actually wonder, had not that one scene freed me, what would have happened to me at the end? If I’d remained under its spell as it wound down like a music box to no finale? Would my wife have found me the next morning, blankly staring at the screen, a shell of my former self?

I kind of have to honor the spell it was able to weave as Sparks of Appreciation. Seamless, technically. Bonus point for inventive presentation, penalty point for that violent mid-story slap and lack of closure.


Played: 11/4/22
Playtime: 1.75hr, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Let Them Eat Cake, by Alicia Morote

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Bend and Snap Bakery, December 12, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Students of comedy and interested rubber-neckers like me are aware of a joke comedians tell each other called “the Aristocrats.” If you’ve never heard of it, do yourself a favor and watch the documentary about it (on AMZ Prime if that’s your garbage billionaire of choice). Ancillary to my reason for bringing it up, there was so much to Bob Saget most of us didn’t get to see. To the point here though, the joke hinges on the insanely wild disconnect between setup and punchline. Not just conceptually but narratively as well. However long and meandering the setup goes, the punchline is a whipcrack of two words. Thanks to Legally Blonde we can now call this the “Bend and Snap” effect. (I am loathe to dive deeper into “the Aristocrats” than that for those that haven’t seen the doc.)

There is another comedic tool, one we’re all familiar with: repetition. This has a lot of forms - escalation, recontextualization, deadpan emphasis, and its most overworked form, the callback. You’ll see all these variations a lot in televised comedy once you are sensitive to their use. It is tried and true. The callback in particular is the wobbly prop on which improv is built. I’m no statistician but 86.224% of improv skits end with a callback. SNL skits may be higher.

Since I’ve taken the time to steer the conversation this way, you may now be asking, “Reviewer, what if an IF work were to somehow put the two of those comedic devices together?” To which I would coyly touch the corner of my mouth with my pinkie and reply “Perhaps bake them together… IN A CAKE?” And now it is clear to you why I explain comedy instead of DO comedy.

LTEC presents as a vaguely-medieval or renaissance small village bakery setting. Your task is to assemble ingredients in a cake, with the gentlest of “and don’t be too nosy” as a caution. The author knows full well neither the protagonist nor player gives that advice a moment’s consideration. So off you trot, probably whistling, I’m pretty sure whistling, to the miller, farmer, neighbor and church. The presentation, in screen layout, in use of font and illustrations is I’m going with pastoral. It is nicely evocative of the Canterbury Tales of it all. The language is slightly formal but light and breezy, also of a piece.

Until you let curiosity get the better of you and SNAP (Spoiler - click to show)you are treated to an over-the-top horrific excess completely divorced from the pastoral amble you started with. Kind of like a David Lynch movie, if those didn’t start by telegraphing the utter creepiness of their seeming banality. And also played for laughs. So, nothing like a David Lynch movie. (Spoiler - click to show)And you probably die horrifically too. It’s fine, you can restart.

Then the piece builds on itself, echoing, recontextualizing and escalating, so that somehow it gets funnier each time as you try to anticipate where your why-can’t-I-just-resist curiosity pokes free. That’s the game: go fetch the flour! Bend… and Snap. Now the eggs! Bend… and Snap. Now the milk, sugar! Bendbend… and Snapsnap! Fine! you say. I’ll put my blinders on and just make the damn cake! At which point, the finale finally breaks down and invokes a callback that ALSO rockets into a whole new level of narrative leap. BEND AND SNAP M-FER!!! Repetition!

I really liked my playthrough, I thought it built on itself marvelously, and had me trying things I DEFINITELY didn’t want the protagonist to do just to see what would happen. (Spoiler - click to show)I died a lot, learning stuff as I went. Comedy is super-precise though. I couldn’t help but wonder if the building effect that was bouying me along so actively was really just a happy accident of my choices. If I’d made different choices would the repetition not have felt like escalation at all, but deflation? Is every judge getting the same potent dose of comedy? Seems like they wouldn’t have to?

It’s not seamless. There are some screen layout issues where the illustrations (just lovely - also pastoral with an unsettling edge to them) corrupt the choice prompts and make them hard to click. There are narrative paths that reconverge and reuse text in a frictiony way. (Spoiler - click to show)And the restart after dying mechanism. After you’ve experienced the worst of a particular sub-quest, had a good laugh at it, then just want to get your ingredients - it was a fairly clicky prospect that no longer had any surprises for you. And God forbid you (Spoiler - click to show)die after having collected 2 or 3 ingredients. You have to do it all over again! A much better design decision would be to introduce a “Just collect X option” after you’ve managed it one time. It really introduced a drag into the experience.

Lastly a note about Engagement. From an IF perspective, the Achilles’ Heel of these two comedy tropes is that they are appreciated at a Meta, not Immersive level. This is not gentle character-based comedy or acerbic personality driven comedy. These are metajokes which work best when NOT engaged. So Sparks for me!

Quick shout out to that cover picture, btw. Chef’s kiss.


Played: 11/6/22
Playtime: 20min, 1/8 endings; 3/? bonus endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy, Notable
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Wait, What Is "The Magic Flute" About?, December 10, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

I’ve always had a soft spot for opera, but it's always been very tightly bounded spot. The music is just really vital - soaring and complex and dynamic. But man GOING to the opera is a LOT. There are minimalist productions to be sure but straight-up classical opera? Costumes and set design are hat on hat on hat on hat - pageantry for its own sake. The audience too, maybe the last place in the world you can see capes worn unironically. Maybe it is ur-cosplay? And then there’s been one or two productions that have decided either to sing in English or provide electronic scrolling subtitles. Hoo boy does that take the shine off in a hurry. When you don’t understand the words, the vocals are a featured instrument, weaving into and above the orchestra and engaging directly with what makes us human. When you understand it though? Swelling, compelling music in service of “What does the gypsy boy want? The gypsy girl the gypsy girl the gypsy gi…iiirl.” For cryin’ out loud opera, you were better when I didn’t know.

Obviously I mention this because Prism evoked imperfectly analogous feelings. The most prominent feature of this work is its language. Like opera it can be by turns deeply satisfying or so over the top as to be kitsch. I grabbed a bunch of quotes, examples of both, on my playthrough, too many to incorporate here. Let’s use an early one [annotated]:

"The thought strikes you in perfect time with the dry-storm lightning above. [I mean, no, that didn’t happen. Perfect time? Statistically, what are the odds?] It works into your chest like truth [ooh, that’s a nice phrase] as electricity strikes from rotating hexagonal clouds above into the humming cylindrical basin at your back [wait, what are you describing here? I understand those shapes but not in that context]. "

The overriding atmosphere here is poetically over-written, except when the poetry resonates just perfectly. The problem is, when it is perfect, it kind of draws attention to itself. When it’s not it ALSO draws attention to itself, and also the fact that it’s not perfect.

Now all this poetry is pressed into service, not by philosophers or y’know poets, but by hard-scrabble street dwellers. This is not a fatal choice, but certainly a challenging one. It clashes with the stark practicality of their day to day struggle in a way that is never truly resolved. You could forgive the poetic narration matching the protagonists’ voice, if you assume their inner voice is also the narrator. But everyone in the world talks like that, except the beings that talk MORE that way. There are beings whose alienness is conveyed in a very specific, kind of cool but nearly impenetrable patois. It is alternately admirable and confounding. And unfortunately showy, as the protagonist by turns seems to converse just fine (like dialogue with adults from Peanuts), then call them out as POEM TALKERS. Mr. Kettle, maybe don’t throw that particular stink at Mr. Pot.

There is some impressive world building in the first half of the game. I want to say in spite of itself, but really no, the over-descriptive poetry is every bit a core element of the city as the neighborhoods, buildings and infrastructure that are lovingly described throughout. As a setting it is nicely conceived: physically specific but also impressionistically singular through the language used to describe it. Like Scorcese’s New York but fantasy, if that doesn’t feel like too much of an overreach. Looking back, this is the most prominent achievement of the game, and its biggest Spark.

I have just described the first half of the narrative I experienced, which comprised more than 3/4 of the playtime. At the turn - probably not coincidentally when I chose to leave the city - suddenly what had been an almost meditative, expansive, exploratory, quasi-open-world experience contracted to a limited-choice rushed plot on rails and almost no setting. The pace and interactivity shifted gears with an audible thunk. Ok, that’s crazy, clearly I didn’t hear anything. I think the style is leaching into me. If the language made it a struggle to Engage the work in the first half, this shift really made it a lost cause. And yet, the story still found a last sentence that was so nicely resonant I couldn’t just dismiss it either.

It appears, based on the options I didn’t take, to have many narrative paths to explore. That’s always nice in IF. Not sure whether I’ll explore more later, or just let that final sentence ring.


Played: 11/4/22
Playtime: 1hr, 1 ending
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Notable
Would Play Again? Not ruling it out, with the right mood

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


The Thirty Nine Steps, by Graham Walmsley

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Alfred Hitchcock (Does Not) Presents, December 10, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Goot eev’ning. Before I was a horror movie nerd, I was a Hitchcock nerd. I do appreciate that the game very quickly squashed any expectations on that front (39 Steps was an early Hitch film, based on the same source material). Sometimes it’s best to just pull the bandage off.

The presentation was spare, but attractive and efficient. The black/white/green palette was functional and compatible with the on-the-run thriller story. The music was really top notch. The author apparently composed it himself, and it could easily have fit in the background of any of Hitch’s black and white works. I know the disclaimer explicitly said ‘not inspired by film’ but take the win, game! Just about perfect for the story. I was vaguely disappointed it only presented during chapter breaks. A much lower volume background could have worked in a few set piece spots.

The game presents you/the protagonist with three general approaches to decision-making: Open (ie truthful), Sneaky and Bold. Characters and scenes seem to be informed by which of those you lean on in given circumstances. I like the mechanism overall. It allowed you to define the protagonist as whatever mix of the three you-the-player wanted to work with. I vibed with the concept of that approach and about half the time it seemed to work pretty seamlessly. The other half kind of pushed me away from Engagement, unfortunately. Some of the options seemed MUCH more appropriate to some decision points than others, watering down the open-endedness.

Not all decision points were structured around the three OPEN/SNEAKY/BOLD choices, some had more or less unaligned alternatives. Those were also hit or miss. I can remember seeing a few options laid out and thinking ‘why would that be an option?’ Eventually I tested it out by selecting what seemed an obviously bad choice, and yup, it sure was.

Another design decision that was smart for gameplay but pushed against my Engagement was the option to replay each chapter before moving on to the next. This worked in conjunction with italicized text that acted as a hint system of what should be accomplished in a given chapter. Because it's a thriller, it is definitely dependent on cause and effect so I understand the impulse. I also appreciated that it wasn’t a full game reset. But I would hope that kind of thing could be implemented more organically in the text. Until the final chapter, it was a take-the-bad-with-the-good thing. The balance definitely tilted when the hint up front set expectation that you’ll need to replay the final chapter multiple times to be ‘successful.’ This sapped all the immediacy out of what thrillers famously deliver.

Narratively, it was also a little uneven for me. On the one hand, the protagonist went from ‘hey a dead body’ to ‘omg I’m surrounded by enemies’ blindingly fast, in a way that didn’t ring true to me. It could be that the sequence of decisions I made didn’t quite cohere the way the author intended, but I passed through a phase where I thought he was a raving paranoid. Uh, the protagonist, not the author. There were actions taken (Spoiler - click to show)hiding the MacGuffin from the bad guys that seemed to have obvious impact on the finale, yet went unremarked upon. On the other hand, there was real tension in some of the chase set pieces. The overall language of the piece was delightfully evocative of early Hitchcock thrillers, in that earnest and slightly stagey way. The author really nailed the black-and-white film language and tone, just nailed it. I know what you said Game Disclaimer, you’re not the boss of me.

So many Sparks of Joy here in the setting, the language, the music(!), the decision framework. Just enough clanky narrative and gameplay choices to keep me from truly engaging. I did smile a LOT while playing.


Played: 10/21/22
Playtime: 30 min, replayed final chapter multiple times for 4 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? I could see revisiting it after a Hitchcock marathon. Not the boss of me, game!

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee's, by Geoffrey Golden

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Psychic's Work is Never Done, December 10, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

You’re selling beer WITH YOUR MIND. As one does. You can probably guess where.





I’ve stared at those 3 sentences for a while now, trying to decide on the best path forward, and I’m kind of concluding it will take me longer to type, and take you longer to read, than to go ahead and play the thing. So just hit me with your questions.

Was it parser based? No, option-selection.
Was it a game? Barely but yeah, you have sales goals to meet and powers to employ.
Were there puzzles? Only loosely.
Was it Interactive? About the same as any option-selection game.
Was it Fiction? You’re kind of phoning these questions in aren’t you? Well, psychic powers are fake, so yes its fiction. There’s a plot and a twist too I guess. It counts.
Were there NPCs? Yeah a few of them, and their inner monologues are pretty funny.
Can you lose? I mean yeah, but how much can you really lose in 5-10 minutes of IF? Assuming you’re not driving.
Were there bugs? No. Not enough moving parts to draw them.
Was it Mechanical? No, too funny for that.
Was it Engaging? No, too slight for that.
So it was Sparks of Joy? You’re catching on to how this works.

What was your favorite part? Honestly? “Adventure Snack turns your inbox into an adventure with new interactive email games twice a month. Subscribe at AdventureSnack.com.” This thing was an ADVENTURE SNACK! That is just the most perfect description possible and so succinctly captured my exact feelings about this thing that every word of this review that isn’t ‘Adventure’ or ‘Snack’ is just self-indulgent bullsh*t. You guys, a thing called Adventure Snack exists!



Are you just a paid shill for Big Adventure Snack? I am. WITH MY MIND.


Played: 10/25/22
Playtime: 10min, two runthroughs.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? No, experience feels complete. I might could go for a snack later though…

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


The Alchemist, by Jim MacBrayne (as Older Timer)

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
New QBasic Parser? Hold my Beer., December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Alchemist is a homebrew parser game, with a retro font and block-graphics sensibility. Retro puzzle-heavy gameplay too, as you are experiment-sitting for an eccentric alchemist, wandering around his mansion using magic and unlocking rooms!

I hit an early block with the parser dialect, where container/surface contents were listed, then made out of scope to subsequent commands without first removing them. Once I dialed into the command structure, I adjusted easily enough. It periodically re-intruded. You can jump ACROSS but not OVER things (or maybe the other way?) but I came away more impressed than not with the implementation. Given the daunting prospect of fifty years of parser technology to learn from this was the most complete effort I have yet seen. The QBasic implementation also was lightning fast, the command-results loop positively popped with energy. Between that, the ability to chain commands(!), and the insanely generous amounts of shortcut keys (including definable ones) the whole thing practically burst with propulsive momentum. I think I may be burying the lead here. A FULLY FEATURED HOME BREW PARSER THAT FLIES!

The puzzles themselves were zippy too - they were mostly pretty well signposted and clued as you went along, including an enigmatic but solveable clue book and robust hint system, which I really only needed for occasional dialect corrections. There are one or two spots of alternate solutions disappointingly ignored, but no real bouts of spinning on what to do next. One might be underwhelmed that the puzzles were fairly straightforward, but the choice pays off as the thing really moves!

Writing is solid, descriptive as it needs to be (though some unimportant rooms suffer lack of definition. There is a cupboard with no shelves or contents?). Sometimes you don’t get room exits, most times you do, but it's always just an X away in any case. There is light wit, particularly with the naming of the active machines and magic items, but its not really a chuckle-fest. All in all, the writing is completely transparent, rarely elevating but never distracting, which is kind of the Hippocratic Oath of Writers: First, Do No Ornamentation. Maybe heavier on the “repetitive recharge of expendables” sequences than I prefer, but more than compensated by multiple use puzzle elements.

Between the solid if straightforward puzzle design and lively, peppy pace it was seamlessly Engaging. Calling it Notably intrusive in parser dialect gaps, but easily enough accommodated and bypassed. All in all a great wrap for IFCOMP22, closing out on a high note.


Played: 11/13/22
Playtime: 2.5hrs, score 300/300, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Notable
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Crash, by Phil Riley

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
I Am Not on this Game's Level, December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

I am bad at puzzle IF, this is what I have learned. I got stuck in a 5 room spaceship for almost two hours. Yes, 5. Captain’s door (a likely 6th room) never yielded to me for the dumbest of reasons. But let’s flash to the beginning before we expose my shortcomings to the world.

You are a spaceship repairman, just punchin’ the clock when disaster strikes and now you are adrift on a small spacecraft trying to repair your way home. Sounds simple right? You’d think. It is a classic parser format, decently written with clear, unadorned declarative statements. Not a lot of flair, but not needed by the setting, and kind of nicely underscored the workaday view of our technician protagonist. I don’t know why this one ended up so opaque to me. In classic parser style, you go everywhere, open-examine-and-take everything you can, then try to figure out how to use them. There’s even a hint system! To no avail.

Here’s a puzzle I did solve, and why it felt like more work than it needed to be: (Spoiler - click to show)To fix the airlock door, you needed to find, then cannibalize a toy bear for parts. This was all as involved but solvable as you might imagine, no qualms here. Then it came time to replace the part, but first you needed to stand on something to reach it. Here are the ways that don’t work: you can’t stand on your toolbox; you can’t fill a cardboard box with MREs to make it sturdy enough to stand on, you can’t push either a large cabinet or a large piece of equipment closer, you can’t use your magnetic boots to climb the walls, you can’t stick the part on a knife with bubblegum to reach it into place. You CAN get the game-approved trunk to stand on then go. Now it is clearly unfair to ask an author to anticipate every crazy thing a player is going to try and have a reasonable reason why it doesn’t work. But some of them, maybe? Or even have alternate solutions available? Lots of others probably tried the right thing first time and never had cause to pepper the air with profanity like I did. It just felt like I was spending disproportionate energy on the least interesting part of the puzzle. This will be a throughline.

The ‘puzzle’ that blocked me the longest, probably 45 minutes or more, was (Spoiler - click to show)FINDING A FLIPPING SPARE FUSE. Just finding it. Nevermind the rest of the puzzle, just finding that one thing. IN 5 RELATIVELY SPARTAN ROOMS. And again, though I found many items or locations that plausibly could have what I needed, none of them yielded. Not the (Spoiler - click to show)bear (he’s got electronics, right?), the handheld videogame, the other panels in other rooms, the microwave, the big engine in the basement, the fuses in the panel that controlled other things, the electronic locks, none of them. This doesn’t even account for the energy I spent (Spoiler - click to show)trying to find or make a small wire to act as a bypass. When I first posted this review for IFCOMP, I knew what would happen. I saw the future as clearly as a carnival psychic - some kind soul would reply to the review letting me know the insanely obvious location I somehow missed and I WAS GOING TO JUST TOTALLY LOSE MY SH*T BECAUSE I BANGED MY HEAD ON SPACESHIP BULKHEADS FOR ALMOST AN HOUR!! Here was the HINT text provided for this particular thing:

3/7: (Spoiler - click to show)Looks like we need a new fuse. Have you found one?
4/7: Okay great, you found (Spoiler - click to show)a fuse and replaced the old one. Now close the panel.

Hey game? I didn’t. I didn’t find it AT ALL.

Puzzles are satisfying because we humans love to feel smart by solving things. It confirms that the world is conquerable by only the power of our human brains. Suck it rest of animal kingdom! The harder the puzzle, the smarter we feel, the higher the endorphin rush. Sooner or later though we get to puzzles we can’t solve. There is still joy to be had in those, even the mooniest of moon logic puzzles, because the solution once revealed in all its baroque, intricate glory can still delight as an intellectual construct. “OMG I’d’a never put that together, but man those parts just click right into place don’t they?” But within the parameters of the puzzle, if 5 solutions are plausible, but only 1 is ‘right’ it is our nature to ask “Why? The other 4 obeyed the rules too, why are they wrong?”

The answer of course is that IF authors are at the end of the day people with their own problem solving habits and viewpoints and are no more omniscient than the rest of us. Sorry you had to hear it from me! For whatever chain of chemical events that led to my brain and this author’s brain being so divergent, all I can say is viva le difference?

As a reviewer is it fair to penalize this work because I am a moron? Games that more successfully accommodate my… limitations… do a better job nudging in the text, or being explicit in hints, or not leaving reasonable but invalid solutions all over the place. But do puzzle games owe me that? No, solving the puzzles is the whole point. Given the sparse narrative it was always going to be the quality of the puzzles that brought the Sparks or Engagement. Fiction is a dialogue between the author and the reader. Puzzles are a challenge set by the creator to the solver. In both cases, there are authorial choices that can push the audience away or make the work unsuccessful. But what happens when the creator is operating in good faith, with seeming competence in their craft, and through no fault of theirs some portion of the audience just can’t engage? What on earth can a reviewer say about that that is of general interest?

All I can say is that for me, this was so, so much unrewarded trial and error. Mechanical and mostly seamless implementation. (There did seem to be one bug - if you re-examine the airlock panel you fixed, y’know (Spoiler - click to show)LOOKING FOR A FUSE, the text seems to indicate it is not fixed, and still needs to be. Thankfully, the to-do list is still correct. That was a bad moment for me.)

Twist ending: my prescient prediction was only half true. While some kind soul did flirt with my total mental collapse by providing a hint, turns out it was because of a completely wrong assumption I had made. I'm not sure why that's better, but it was.

Also, I understand that the HINT system has been subsequently updated. I can't say for sure it was my total freakout that drove that, but I can't say NOT either. Because this review was for a previous version of the game, am omitting rating from the total.


Played: 11/4/22
Playtime: 1.75hr, score 1/10, another 15 min was not going to get me anywhere
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? Likely, newer version. Why do I do this to myself??

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Into The Sun, by Dark Star

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Looting the Nostromo, December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

You’re a space scavenger, see? And it’s slim pickins, behind Mercury. Lucky day! A hulk ambles by, and you have salvage rights! What about your life, that parked you apparently alone, behind the most inhospitable planet in the solar system, with maaaybe enough fuel not to plunge into the fiery core of the sun but maybe not… what about that life suggests ‘good’ and ‘luck’ belong anywhere near each other for you?

It’s a parser game. Not really puzzles or narrative, more like collect as many objects as you can until your nerve breaks and you run back to your ship. (Spoiler - click to show)Cause the salvage hulk is overrun by Aliens. Yup. THOSE Aliens. There’s some writing concerns early on: you encounter a person split in half, guts everywhere, that is also described as a skeleton. A skeleton with guts? Elsewhere an observation window is ‘scared’ when it was probably actually ‘scarred’ but these lapses are infrequent. In general, the descriptive text isn’t trying much, and so succeeds at its relatively low bar. I chafed a little at the endless description of smoke and orange light. Maybe there was a subtle hint in that? It didn’t vary enough to be interesting, nor did its density or brightness seem to affect gameplay in any way, and typically had more words describing it than the rest of the room and its contents. Which are pretty spartan affairs. There’s not a lot to poke into or rummage, mostly there either is or isn’t a salvage item, move to next room. I thought there might be a ‘fall into the sun’ timer at play early on, but that never really materialized.

I did appreciate the maps. The layout wasn’t complicated really, but having the maps definitely kept things clearly oriented. You are periodically (Spoiler - click to show)attacked by an Alien. At least for me, I was never really without something to (Spoiler - click to show)fend it off. It wasn’t completely clear if the events were narratively driven based on what I had collected, on rails where I could conceivably figure out a pattern, or random. This would be an important gameplay consideration, as your (Spoiler - click to show)weapons had the unfortunate habit of being limited-use. I suppose an attentive player could try to figure that out.

The game makes a deliberate choice not to share its stakes with you: there is some importance put on finding ENOUGH salvagables to keep flying, but there is no feedback as you are collecting to know how close/far you are from that goal. So you are (Spoiler - click to show)being hunted in a hostile craft with no clear idea where events will happen, and whether you have the wherewithall to deal with it; collecting items you have no idea either their value or when you have exhausted the supply. It’s really a big game of ‘press your luck’ without knowing either how lucky you might be, or when you can stop. Certainly over multiple games you could probably suss that out, but neither the gameplay nor narrative seemed compelling enough to warrant that. I got out with some pocket money, and importantly, was neither shredded to pieces, nor had space worms impregnate me. I took the win!


Played: 11/5/22
Playtime: 30min, $adj855
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


Lost at the market, by Nynym

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Can a UI Hate You?, December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Dreams are certainly useful settings in IF. When used effectively, they can explain and justify any of the inherent limitations of the medium or even lean into the limitations as features. The role dreams play in human experience also immediately gives entree to a deluge of symbology, psychology, metaphor and abstraction.

LatM starts in a dream, invoking the other kind of dream, y’know aspiration. It also highlights to you the double entendre' of Market - to promote and a target customer base. It notably does NOT mention ‘place to buy stuff’ which is the easiest of the three to get lost at. So much wordplay in so little time! It won me over instantly.

And then I crashed into the user interface. Now, first impressions are not awful, its an uncommon but pleasant color palette. Any hopes of the palette being part of the story quickly vanished and that’s fine. It briefly got me hoping for more, but whatever. But not ‘whatever.’ The interface refused to be dismissed and instead stepped to me like I had insulted its mother. It was a 4-bar implementation which I’ll call ‘current command’ ‘inventory’ ‘game control’ and ‘log.’ My biggest gripe was that the log and current command bars frequently repeated the same text. Adjacently on different color backgrounds. This is where the color palette first became a problem.

The inventory bar was also problematic, in that it took a lot of real estate between item lists and interaction options, and ended up crowding the display. I think there’s an esthetic reason inventory is classically a command and not just a list printed on the screen after every turn. A quick fix here would have been a standard dropdown - let the player engage the list when they want, not have it thrust on them. Same for game controls which similarly never left your peripheral vision.

The command bar had another issue in what it offered as a next action. Too many times once you look at an object, the command bar gives you no option NOT to interact with it. This was frustrating early when the only way to make progress was a mindless act of destruction I was disinclined but forced to do. It was really bad when I encountered an object that felt game endy, but I had no option but to manipulate it once clicked on. I could (and did) use UNDO, but that is a big hammer. There is a significant narrative difference between “you drop the X and continue on your way” and “REWIND REALITY.”

“Well reviewer, you’ve certainly bellyached about this UI long enough. You can’t possibly have more to say about it,” you might reasonably say right now. I would have to condescendingly shake my head and reply “Oh no, dear reader, no no no.” Most distractingly, the colored bars constantly resize themselves based on input, output and new options. So not only are the bars distinctively and contrastingly colored. Not only is significant real estate taken by infrequently needed information. Not only is text distractingly repeated and options limited. The bars themselves jump around like hyperactive frogs with every click of the mouse. This constant motion demands you unceasingly monitor the entire cockpit. This was so distracting I can’t even, and I never got over it the entire game. I am a shallow, petty person and I don’t love myself right now, but you see what its done to me??? I can’t be free even after four paragraphs!

You might have detected, this user interface ultimately prevented me engaging the story in any meaningful way. For its part, the story is a relatively sparse journey (perhaps a dream?) with a few object-fetch puzzles, capped off with a story-ending choice. I took three paths to two endings and none of it allowed me to shake off the user interface. The theme of musician struggling with the collision between reality and aspirations is one I could engage. The wordplay on display out of the gate was fun. To my shame if it was present elsewhere in gameplay I was too distracted to appreciate it. In the end Technical Intrusiveness of the UI is what dominated my experience.

I do want to know more about Betty the Drummer though.


Played: 10/17/22
Playtime: 20min, 2 different endings, another duplicate ending
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Intrusive UI
Would Play Again? I can’t do that to myself

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless


I referenced this game in a review of Lost Coastlines. Crosslink!



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