Reviews by JJ McC

IFComp 2022

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A Walk Around the Neighborhood, by Leo Weinreb

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Donna. Hey, Donna., December 4, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Here’s something you hear every year around Oscar time: “Comedy is hard, why isn’t it respected like manipulative, obviously thirsty, overwrought sob-fests?” Well, you mostly hear it phrased like that at my house, but the sentiment is trotted out pretty consistently. This is going to be relevant in a few minutes.

Historically I like some things about parser IF better than others. Way at the bottom is the ‘search’ ‘look under’ ‘look behind’ mechanics. Its classic, I get it, but it feels so unrewarding to both look at something then look again ONLY IN A MORE SPECIFIC WAY. AWAN, you have turned me around on this. This is a one-room joint where you have to find a comedically large number of things in an exasperatingly spartan environment. And you do and its hilarious! Using all of those mechanics deliberately and precisely, this game is a perfect “I know its around here somewhere” simulator. Its the first time I’ve ever seen them used so effectively.

Here’s another thing I’ve never really liked: abrupt, non-foreshadowed instant endings that require restart or undo. AWAN fixed that too! The 3 abrupt endings I got were laugh out loud non sequitor funny and I happily Undid to see more. Usually my spoilers are kind of vague, but this is a no-fooling overt one: (Spoiler - click to show)OMG Try calling everyone on the red corded phone. DO IT!

I always appreciate a narratively integrated hint system, but AWAN upped the ante even further. You can call out to your partner to a) solve puzzles, b) get hints and c) get snarky offhand replies to dumb questions. To the point where I decided to be the Ikea guy just to see how far I could push things. (If you don’t know what I mean, google “IKEA Donna youtube puns.” Totally worth your time.) I really wanted to preface every conversation thread with “Hey Donna. Hey Donna.”

I don’t want this review to just be listing delightful things, though maybe we could use some of that these days. (Spoiler - click to show)Wait’ll you get the TV on. There are so many to find on your own. The implementation is mostly seamless, light, and amusingly frustrating but in a way we can all satisfyingly relate to. And it does it all with economy and verve. It gets in, makes its impact, and gets out while you still want more.

It also does some small things absolutely seamlessly: its choice of characters allows the player to slip cleanly into place, regardless of gender/sexual preference without fanfare or menus. In particular there is a point where you might want (Spoiler - click to show)to open a window before you’ve found your shirt. The game handles this lightly and elegantly with no false notes.

So here’s where I strike back at the Oscars. AWAN is just consistently and effortlessly its own funny thing that had me completely Engaged and often grinning in delight. Get on up here, AWAN!

We will play you off though.


Played: 11/6/22
Playtime: 45min, 4/18 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? Was thinking no, until the game told me there were 18 endings. So yeah, probably.

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


Nose Bleed, by Stanley W. Baxton
Social Anxiety, or Just Jerky Peers?, November 24, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Nose Bleed is a very short work that attempts to use interactivity to bring immediacy to a tightly focused horror story. The impulse to treat social anxiety as a horror premise is really a great idea. Popular media is overrun with social anxiety stories that mine childhood bullying for drama. Few of those are horror stories, despite having truly horrific events depicted, and much more commonly leverage the horror for the cathartic overcoming of it.

Adult social anxiety is a significantly less-trod ground, and a horror focus is even more rarified air. I seem to have slipped into a mountain climbing metaphor, not sure why. The mechanism of a nose bleed as source for that social anxiety is also kind of a genius choice - it is something we have no control of and is plausibly not serious enough to push people past irritated inconvenience to empathy. The choice of workplace was also a crucial one, as it is one of few places adults HAVE to interact with people they don’t want to. Points for really interesting and challenging thematic concept!

The chosen implementation fell a bit short is my sense. For a few reasons. The graphical presentation didn’t really serve the narrative. I couldn’t help but see missed opportunities here. That said, there were two instances, about 2/3 into the game where the graphical choices were surprising and effective. I would have liked a lot more of that throughout the playtime.

Ultimately, the graphical presentation is not a minus, maybe even a minor plus. Choices made to leverage interactivity for this story were harder to get past. Social anxiety works a little differently in 3rd person stories than first person IF. In the former, the trick is to get the reader on the protagonist’s side by making them some combination of relatable, sympathetic and/or rootable. This is commonly done via non-anxiety scenes where we can care about the protagonist to empathize with them when their social group turns on them. Here, the work is aiming to invoke anxiety in the player by having them ‘experience’ it directly. Which is an excellent use of horror IF if it works!

By omitting the shell of a separate protagonist though, you need to craft a narrative that the player buys into. It didn’t come together for me that way. For one, the descriptions of the injury grew increasingly horrific, in a way that made the NPCs ignoring it look decreasingly human, in turn making me less invested in their social pressure. The situation didn’t quite gel for a few other reasons. Often the choices you are given don’t fundamentally change anything except narrative texture. Adding up to a feeling of lack of agency, without clear narrative reasons for it. A lot of early game is interacting with a single other character. Social anxiety is most effective when you feel isolated from the entire community around you. When its only one person, it’s just as likely they’re just being a dick which is a whole different dynamic. Later in the game when the community expands, there isn’t a narrative reason why the PC is with them. Adults have many degrees of freedom to avoid toxic communities, like say Ubering separately to work functions. I’m not saying it's super easy to avoid toxic life scenarios. I’m saying the game didn’t do the legwork to convince me I was trapped.

Without that legwork, I was often thinking “well there are a lot of different ways that could be avoided” which had the effect of me decoupling from the protagonist that was supposed to be me. I started to think of them as willingly submitting… which again is definitely a real thing. The story just didn’t get me there. Instead it actively disconnected me from the protagonist. So that’s how I got to a Mechanical playthrough. Really only the short duration and the nifty graphic flourishes kept it from being Bouncy. I think this reaction is actually a testament to the author in one sense: they attempted a unique horrific experience and while not getting me there, clearly their themes elicited some response.


Played: 10/8/22
Playtime: Less than 20min, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/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


One Way Ticket, by Vitalii Blinov

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Straight Story? Lost Highway to Mulholland Drive, November 24, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This is a fine example of a work that embraces deeply weird, vaguely sinister and supernatural-tinged narratives. But rather than commit to the well-laid Twin Peaks tracks, instead has the nerve to be its own thing instead! I'm sorely tempted to add a special grading system for this stripe of game. I have a great hook for it too, the pseudo-Lynch scorecard!

Is there cherry pie/coffee? Kind of. There’s (Spoiler - click to show)corn liquor
Is there a Log Lady? Eeh, no but there is a (Spoiler - click to show)Contemplator
Is there a Laura Palmer? No
Evil behind a cookie cutter face? Can’t tell at the 2hr mark, no.
Imagery pulled straight from our collective unconscious? No
Lynch-ledger: 1.4/5, Between Dune and Blue Velvet.

The protagonist finds themselves on an unscheduled stop on their bid for a new life, in a tiny town, just left of normal. Must solve puzzles to resume journey! The presentation is appealing. Crude uSoft Paint geometrical pictures and jaunty music pepper the experience. There is a map to follow, with a unique NPC guardian at each location. The map amusingly changes state with the world in a nicely weird touch. The NPCs range from deadpan, to flighty to just deeply weird, all of it combining to present a deliciously off-kilter vibe. The puzzles have some flair, but don’t seem to match the environment in weirdness. They are oddly pedestrian (Spoiler - click to show)deliver envelope, find matches, buy stuff. The main mechanism is simultaneously clumsy and clever - matching narrative notes or items to characters/places. It has a little more textual flair than TELL X ABOUT Y, but it requires multiple clicks on multiple screens to effect, and can devolve to mimesis-breaking exhaustive trial and error.

There’s a lot to like here, but a lot of it is qualified. None more so than the text itself. At its best, the text disappears and just straight-forward describes the weirdness around you. All too often though, it throws in flourishes that come out of left field in a distracting way. “long and empty like my intestines” “Tall green pillars stuck out their immature cobs like rattlesnakes” “door opened the silence of the room, releasing it right in my face.” See if you can guess what this one refers to:

"However, the snake opened its mouth, and I got out of this bell, as a lost sound finally flies out of the French horn, scrolling and traveling through all its convolutions, bends and nooks."

(Spoiler - click to show)Exiting a series of alleys! I had literally just done it, and took a minute to realize that’s what it was describing. I think it's the snake that doesn’t work there, I probably could have gotten on board with just the French Horn. Between the textual excesses and the puzzles that didn’t seem on the same level as the rest of the narrative, I couldn’t breach into Engaging here, but definite Sparks of Joy. No bugs found!

FTR, the Lynch Ledger scoring system:
0 - The Straight Story
1 - Dune
2 - Blue Velvet
3 - Twin Peaks original series and movie
4 - Lost Highway
5 - Eraserhead



Played: 11/11/22
Playtime: 2hr, Day3 (incomplete)
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? No, my sweet spot is Blue Velvet+

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


Lucid, by Caliban's Revenge

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Simile Spiral, November 24, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This one feels like an IF poem more than anything else. Mechanically, it is mostly an exploration through a dream/nightmare slice of a world with dream logic attached. The language is doing most of the lifting here in setting this tone. And boy do you get a lot of it.

As a narrative it is, I think the word I want is 'emphatically', overwritten. Metaphors and similes fly fast and furious on nearly every page of text. More often than not, word choice is doing way more than it should, in an intrusive way. For example: “your mouth is eating your heartbeat.” There is a dollop of poetry here, that puts the heartbeat squarely in the throat, and has the protagonist gnawing at their own fear. But that additional active nuance does not play in a resonant way, it jars. I don’t want to just list text here, but this excessive use of doing-too-much descriptions both adds to the dreamlike quality of the place and as quickly pushes the reader away with ‘wait, is that the right word here?’ I cannot overemphasize how pervasive and consistent this use of language is, it is the defining characteristic of this work.

There are bright spots of language in here. Among the bright spots, I really enjoyed the phrase “Maybe every other sunrise was dumb luck” and especially “Sommeliers are liars. Fight me.” The latter was a delightfully unexpected infusion of humor in an otherwise moody game. In other places, there were wild swings in the same sentence. Where my response was “no I don’t think… oh but yeah that works.” What I’m saying is your response to this game will have everything to do with your response to its language rhythm.

There is an underlying reality to the narrative, I think, however deeply buried under language. (Spoiler - click to show)There is a vague sense that this is all going on in the protagonist's mind as they suffer some unnamed physical debilitation in the ‘real world.’ It is only ever a hint, which is fine, but at least my playthrough never developed into anything thematically or narratively resonant. Primarily, this was due to a maddening gameplay choice. There are multiple ways to end the scenario, some blindingly, arbitrarily abrupt and fast, others after lengthy exploration. The end of which auto-restarts at the same entry point. I subsequently learned this was a ‘cycle until you find a different ending’ thing, but at the time I found nothing in the text to hint that this was possible. Instead, the vibe was very much, ‘you are infinitely trapped here.’ Which, if there were thematic resonances could have worked just fine. Instead it just felt like I was trapped in a sea of simile to no clear end, where my only escape was to stop playing.

Scoring wise, I’m in a bit of a conundrum. The overall surreal tone was effective, and there were blocks of text I really dug. There were a lot more that pushed me away, and the looping ending really bounced me out. So I end up averaging Bouncy and Sparks of Joy.


Played: 10/17/22
Playtime: 30min, 1 or 5 playthroughs depending on how you count
Artistic/Technical rankings: Both Bouncy and Sparks of Joy/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? No, think I’m topped off with the experience

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


You Feel Like You've Read this in a Book, by Austin Lim
Hey, That Is a Thing I Recognise, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

You’re all familiar with Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill’s League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, yes? Twenty+ years old now, the first comics mini-series assembled a collection of Victorian adventure literature characters into a super-team of sorts, fighting Victorian villains. They were all public domain characters like Allan Quatermain, Captain Nemo, Dr Jeckyll, etc. Mssrs Moore and O’Neill then proceeded to jam the limited series with a confounding amount of well-known and obscure story references, directly, indirectly, and in the background of the main plot. I mean JAMMED the frickin thing. There are page by page annotations (Extraordinary Gentlemen+ Annotations). It was considered a critical and sales success (spawned a less-said-the-better movie), and 3 years later we got Volume II. The two were qualitatively completely different works.

Vol I was first and foremost a ripping pulp yarn, as I believe it was called back then. It pitted a team of mismatched anti-heroes against Fu Manchu and Professor Moriarty, with a plot that used these pre-existing texts for settings, MacGuffins and motivations. It had surprisingly dark edges but fundamentally was a love letter to adventure tales, taken from mismatched parts of other stories and somehow put into a shining clockwork of its own.

Vol 2 was a slog. It was like the takeaway was “People really love these references! Maybe if we phone in the plot and characters we have room to jam in EVEN MORE!” (It was also a good deal meaner, but I think consensus is this had more to do with Mssr Moore’s contemporary professional dissatisfactions.) It was not a clockwork, it was a jumble and characters and plotlines that contorted more and more wildly to accommodate just one more reference. The linking story was unpleasant and unsatisfying to read, so at its best it was an illustrated trivia contest.

The message here is references in narrative are a dangerous will-o-the-wisp. You can totally lose your way pursuing them and whatever promise you think is in those dancing lightballs is insubstantial. You will need to provide the substance yourself, in the form of how you use those references. LoEGv1 did exactly this. YFLYRTiaB showed us what that could look like too. In the single best moment of the game, the amnesiac protagonist figures out his identity and they’re… warning, this is the biggest spoiler in this game do yourself a favor and assume my point is valid, don’t look until you’ve played it (Spoiler - click to show)The amnesiac protagonist is the Man in the Yellow Hat! Yah, the one with the busy-body monkey!! I laughed out loud at the audacity of that, it was a terrific recontextualization of that particular reference in a surprising and creative way. As far as I can tell, that was the ONLY reference that was recontextualized.

As far as gameplay goes, it is really limited exploration from one referential map location to the next, shuttling minimal objects to unlock other locations then finish. Call it what it was, it was an excuse to usher you across the chain of references. I’d say I picked out maybe half of them? Above I sneeringly called LoEGv2 a ‘trivia contest.’ I’ll take the sneer off that. Trivia contests are fun! If I think of this as an IF implementation of a trivia contest, that’s probably how it best succeeds (complete with ‘answer key’ if you want to grade yourself!). No one says puzzles have to be complicated logic or wordplay. Trivial Pursuit is an all-time best seller boardgame for a reason. Certainly IFLYRTiaB drew from an admirable breadth of high and low literature. But for me? I’m not much of a trivia guy. That one twist was the only time it felt alive to me. It was predominantly Mechanical.


Played: 11/7/22
Playtime: 10min, survived
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/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


Graveyard Strolls, by Adina Brodkin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Haunted by Font-changes, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This one feels like an anthology of sorts. The protagonist is walking through a graveyard, interacting with unconnected stories of spectral apparitions. Initially, I didn’t approach it that way, but ultimately, that’s where I landed.

The presentation suffers some issues, one much bigger than the others. A smaller one is palette choice. The opening screen spends some time talking about the greyness of the location (incidentally in a way that could definitely use some better word choices). But the game is presented in tans and browns! That is a real missed opportunity to use the presentation to reinforce the mood of the piece. It does integrate a single picture in one thread, but because it is the only picture ever used it kind of jars. Even graphically, its blue clashes with the tan in a way that gives the page a slapdash look.

The biggest presentation issue by far however was font sizing, an apparent artifact of the Texture engine. As you make selections throughout the game, text gets added to the screen. Distressingly often, the entire screen font size shrinks, often more than one size, to accommodate the additional words. I cannot overstate how intrusive this was to the experience. At first it wasn’t clear that you weren’t seeing an entirely new screen. Then you had to parse an entirely unfamiliar block of text to find the new stuff (which was not always at the end). Then next choice, BAM, new screen of much larger font. It was distracting and off putting all at once. I’m calling this Intrusive. Though not a bug per se, it had the effect of one.

Gameplay was also uneven. I got two end screens in maybe three clicks by choosing not-obviously-wrong paths. This is a personal points-off for me - if I can ‘die’ due to not-obvious choices within two minutes (and there doesn’t seem to be an artistic reason why), I’m already not on the game’s side. It's punishing me for something I have no way of knowing is ‘bad.’ I did dive in again, and trained to go a different way, I did. That’s where the anthology approach opened up for me, which does kind of partially mitigate the quick-death thing. There isn’t really a through line to worry about.

The engagements were uneven. Some felt arbitrary, some pulled with unearned emotion, one dark and personal. All of them peppered with the font sizing issues. But one was notable - an encounter with a spectre who had… niche beliefs… in prior life. The decisions for this encounter seemed varied and impactful, and the decision path I took through was surprisingly nuanced, generous and touching. Definitely more nuanced than the other encounters. If that font hadn’t kept jumping in my face, this could have been a Spark of Joy.

As it was, I found this entry mostly Mechanical and unpleasantly Technically Intrusive.


Played: 10/21/22
Playtime: 30min, 4 different endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Intrusive
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


Inside, by Ira Vlasenko

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Sorcerous Psychotherapy, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

As an IF setting, "mind palaces" and dreams carry a lot of the same advantages: ability to lean into IF limitations as features, ability to ignore real-world logic, full-on integration of symbology and metaphor. In a way they're kind of the same thing. I mean its not like dreams occur somewhere else.

I liked the central conceit of this one: two (Spoiler - click to show)(or is it one??) witches trapped in one of their mind palaces due to some kind of unnamed real world threat and needing to escape by passing through replayed key events of the host’s life. Escape by solving puzzles! Sure, I’m in.

In practice, I had unanswered questions about the implementation. For example, it seems like the host is at most a middle-aged adult, yet there was an encounter from old age they hadn’t lived yet. There was an encounter as a baby which doesn’t seem like it could be remembered. And in one encounter, it seemed you could effect the past in the ‘real world.’ It is possible, I suppose, that the mind palace incorporated time portals and those were not memories but ‘real.’ There was nothing in the text to imply this, and the unreal nature of the puzzle solving ((Spoiler - click to show)at one point a tiny hand reaches out of a cat’s ear) suggest otherwise. This game doesn’t owe me anything, it has every right to be what it is without my permission. But I felt those choices traded away some of the power of the setting without getting enough in return, dramatically speaking.

Gameplay is mostly puzzle solving, the exploring aspect is pretty limited, maybe 8 rooms. I liked that there were often multiple ways to solve puzzles, that tracked to whether you wanted to be ‘good’ or ‘evil’. The puzzles themselves were a mixed bag. Generally, the text didn’t provide a lot of nudging or feedback on your choices, so solving felt a bit arbitrary. The solutions did not come with that ‘oh, that’s why that worked!’ feeling. I got the sense that either I got lucky a lot, or the puzzles had multiple solutions. Even that is not terrible if the solutions had some kind of thematic through line to draw them together. I did not detect such.

I did like what the final escape implied about the physical fate of the witches, and really liked how understated it was. There was some nice ambiguity about the true nature of the dual protagonists, but the finale only hinted at resolving it which was maybe TOO understated. All in all I think the setting is a strong foundation that would support much tighter thematic construction and payoff. If I awarded points for ‘potential Sparks of Joy’ this would deserve it. Unfortunately, I typically do not.


Played: 10/27/22
Playtime: 30min, finished
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


Campus Invaders, by Marco Vallarino

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Gaming for Grades, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Now that it’s been pointed out to me that a few works here are the product of short-burn IF workshops, the thought rises unbidden when engaging some of these pieces. It feels super patrician to assume this background for any given game and I am actively resisting it. In my defense though, CI is set AT A SCHOOL WITH AN IF WORKSHOP. C’mon, how much do you expect of me? It even implements the IF teacher as a character! IF this was a workshop product and IF there were grades involved, I hope the author’s naked flattery got them an A. There is something bold and admirable to pandering this overt.

As a game it was small, less than two dozen locations and filled with relatively simple puzzles, many of them signposted baldly. “X tells you to give Y to Z” Give. “Z tells you to get Q” Get. There was one puzzle with no signposting, whose solution felt pretty arbitrary, but given the relative shortness of the work was well within bounds of trial and error. There were a few paths that led nowhere. There was a mix of feature implementations which felt as much coding exercise as puzzle, but at least implemented with flair. There was a smattering of missing descriptions, and one puzzle where the game blocked you because you were missing information, but didn’t provide a narrative reason for the block. Frankly, these were the exceptions though. It was a fairly Mechanical experience, but very competently done.

And here is the part where I make an ungenerous observation that makes you think less of me. Not so fast reader! Fortunately for me, Zeno’s Dichotomy paradox famously noted that to get to a destination you must first travel halfway there. Then halfway of that smaller remaining distance. Then halfway again and again, infinitely bisecting smaller distances so you can never actually arrive at zero. The lesser known corollary to this is that to start that journey you must travel halfway. But to get halfway, you must first travel a quarter of the way, after traveling an eighth. Because this distance can also be infinitely subdivided you can’t even START your downward journey of contempt for me! I AM IMMUNE TO CRITICISM AND ACCOUNTABILITY!!!

With that armor in place, I can safely note that this appears to be the work of a non-native speaker. The setting and much of the text hint at a joyfully casual, light and snarky tone. But it rarely lands because of awkward phrasing. Early on, even descriptions took effort to parse, though I think I got synched reasonably quickly. I’m not a monster, I’m not going to penalize the work for this, but it also was just intrusive enough that it defused potential Sparks of Joy before they could land. I guess I am a monster. Fortunately, still armored! Look, if I tried to write these reviews in say Spanish, it would be hot garbage word salad. Ensalada de palabras basura caliente. More so, I mean. But I can really only report on the experience I was having, right?

This was a small, good quality exercise, not particularly complicated, with hints of Joy that couldn’t quite land. Wait. Does Zeno mean I can only give 1’s and 5’s as scores?


Played: 10/30/22
Playtime: 20min, finished.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/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


INK, by Sangita V Nuli

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Grief #^$!s with All of Us, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

This is actually the third full review I’ve written of this work. It is my habit to let a review mature for a few days before publication. The reason I do this is to make sure my thoughts are captured to my satisfaction, and to try and scrub obvious grammar and spelling mistakes. The latter only imperfectly. In Ink’s case, for reasons I’ll cover, the settling process was tough on me.

This one is quite poetic in its narrative, and it deals with the protagonist’s grief. With one exception, I’m not having a great run with poetic verse in IF Comp22. More often than not I end up feeling like the text is trying too hard in what it wants to accomplish and calls attention to itself. I get some of that same vibe here. Like similar works, there are enough ‘hits’ in the verbiage to keep me going, but not enough to pull me into its orbit. Additionally though, the poetry here inserted itself between me and the central metaphor in a way that challenged me.

The setup is this: (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist has lost their partner, and its every bit as devastating as that can be. While trying to grapple with their grief, they get a mysterious letter, perhaps from their partner before or after death. In fact though, it is an I’m going to say “grief-demon” exploiting their tragedy. So far so good, nothing wrong with any of that. But the choices the game gives you, and how those present are pretty bleak. There are times when you seem to have the choice to (Spoiler - click to show)push past grief, to reject wallowing in it. Selecting those, inevitably brings you back to the same state. (Spoiler - click to show)You can try to reject the letter as unhelpful, or try to embrace it as a loving goodbye, but none of those choices actually play that way - the protagonist inevitably remains in their paralyzing grief. Then the grief-demon starts intruding.

My initial read, and it was strong, was that the game seemed to be showing that there was no escape from grief, and even wanting to push past it was wrong and needed to be punished. Boy did that NOT appeal to me. In a rubbery, conservation of energy kind of way. I found supporting evidence in the narrative where every single attempt the player can make to (Spoiler - click to show)deal in a healthy way is ineffective. Then, given no other alternative, when the player goes down the only road left, the text is unforgiving.
(Spoiler - click to show)
"Something reassuring but altogether cold
Telling you to give in, give up
Unmake your pain in exchange for something that feels like a remedy
Maybe not her but something in between
You know you shouldn’t
But something like
selfishness (Spoiler - click to show)takes root in your body
You can’t help but drown willingly"


You see? Trying to find a way out of grief is something you should resist! That can’t be the message of the piece, can it?? Sure, in context this is a (Spoiler - click to show)demon’s seduction but that’s the metaphor! For what, healing from grief? Nooo, surely not. Let’s take a hard look at the word ‘selfishness’ above. The protagonist is clearly suffering here, and has tried multiple times, unsuccessfully, to get out of the spiral. This is selfishness? No, this is hopelessness. That single bit of poetic license muddies the metaphor so much with its Puritanical judgement that I spun for days. One word!! (Well, in combination with the narrative choices.) Is it selfish to want relief from grief? Is endless self-flagellation the only honorable response to tragedy?

So if not grief itself what even is the (Spoiler - click to show)grief-demon then? I mean there are definitely unhealthy ways to handle grief: alcoholism, drug abuse, suicidal ideation. Maybe those are the metaphor? Ok, but then what is the story saying? (Spoiler - click to show)That no matter what the protagonist tries, its gonna end there? Is that better or worse? If this is a cautionary tale, what is the untaken option that the player tragically rejected?

Now, I played through a few times. There is one path where you can enlist a therapist for aid. It is very possible this path could answer everything I grappled with above. Unfortunately, that path seemed to have a bug, where I got stuck on a screen and could not progress. So all I’m left with is a work that consistently rejects or refutes player attempts to deal with grief, and metaphorically casts the effort of trying as (Spoiler - click to show)inevitably (and cravenly) submitting to a demon! If the therapist was the ‘good path’, that was a supremely unfortunate and impactful bug.

There is another alternative. Rather than as a Metaphor for Grieving, this could be read as a simple, tragic character study/horror tale, where (Spoiler - click to show)a damaged protagonist, unable to let go of grief is doomed by that. If so, the poetry and interactivity of the work is fighting against the narrative. Poetic prose with its pithy clauses, unnatural rhythms and imagery is biased to the abstract, actively encouraging a metaphorical read. Character studies live and die by their details, by their lived-in specificity. A tragic character study would have been much better served by spare, concisely-observed natural language, most especially because you need to sell the player on why their choices aren’t working.

I held it up as many ways as I could think of, and none of them worked for me. I welcome reads that show me where I got it wrong. Was it Bouncy? Oh my yes, for several days. Was it Engaging? I mean, technically yes, I couldn’t stop coming back to it, long after I’d played and written reviews of other works. Was it Engaging in the sense I meant when I set that criteria? Not really, no. It wasn’t pulling me into the author’s creation, embracing and delighting in the author’s vision. Is my delight the most important thing though? Where is the place for Challenging? Is a Challenging work without a coherent challenge anything other than hollow provocation? I think I’m left where I started: Bouncy and Intrusively Buggy (both the stuck path, and Texture's in-your-face font resize problem). I’m so sorry work, I tried, I really tried.


Played: 11/4/22
Playtime: 20min, 2.5 endings.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Bouncy/Intrusive
Would Play Again? How masochistic do you think I am???

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


The Tin Mug, by Alice E. Wells, Sia See and Jkj Yuio

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Murder in Teapot Town, November 23, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Tin Mug presents as a children's book IF, though less like a picture book and more like say Winnie the Pooh. There is some disconnect between the subject matter, text, and presentation that made it hard to conjure a consistent imaginary child-co-pilot. Which is the perfectly normal and understandable thing I do when presented with kid lit. Winnie the Pooh, for all its young child appeal, notably invests in its characters, and is as much character as plot driven, maybe more so. The characters are all quite distinct and relatable to all ages. There are a few very distinct characters in Tin Mug to be sure, but there are as many kind of interchangeable ones. This choice feels younger than the piece’s presentation.

Too, there are narrative choices that skew older. In a world of sentient dishware, the story opens with what feels like a casual murder. (Spoiler - click to show)It is undone at the end, but since it was left to ride the entire time, it can only partially undo the lasting impression. Also the mechanism of its undoing was way younger than a lot of the narrative. I’m not here to poke at ‘plot holes’ in a child-targeted work, that’s a dick move. But I am highlighting that these presentation and plot and character choices feel like they target slightly different maturity levels in a way that keeps the work from coalescing.

Even gameplay has inconsistent notes. There are many points of exclusive choices in the game - A OR B. Choices that determine a course of action or character reaction seem perfectly fair. Choices that force you to choose to only interact with one of two characters, without narrative justification for the exclusion, that feels like it doesn’t reward a child’s natural curiosity. Even though I couldn’t get my child co-pilot to materialize into a specific age, nevertheless I clearly heard a whine in my head “why CAN’T I go talk to the bread basket now? I’m done with the… [other one that I can’t remember right now.]”

I can’t stress enough that these are not ‘broken’ story choices in any way. They just seem less crisply focused.

There are technical issues too, the most notable of which is screen management. Very often, a choice will produce a large block of text or oversized illustration that pushes huge chunks of text outside the window. You need to actively scroll upwards to read the text you missed. In many cases the illustration is too large to be seen in the window, and you end up panning across its height. This intrudes further into the experience in a way that would try a child’s patience, I think. It did mine.

Without a (virtual) child co-pilot, and because I am dead inside, I couldn’t wring Sparks out of this, though I could theorize multiple children could get different Sparks at different times. For this curmudgeon it was Mechanical.


Played: 10/27/22
Playtime: 10min, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Intrusive
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



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