The Spectators is a game set in 16th-century Italy, and stars a cast of characters (mostly servants) going about their duties while observing the decline of the relationship between the jealous Duke and his new naive bride the Duchess. Each characterís chapter follows roughly the same arc: they need to do a task as part of their job, but they have something else that they desperately want to do. The puzzles all revolve around trying to fit said task in without detection by other staff (and therefore avoiding the harsh punishment that would come with it). While going about these tasks, each character gets another look at the Duchessís life and the Dukeís controlling relationship with her, all the way to its inevitable end. This description falls short as it makes things sound much more repetitive than they are - the characters are rich and varied, as are the puzzles they need to solve, and I never felt bored. Even though we spent only a little time with each character I felt invested in each of them and their desires (even, in the case of one particular character, that investment is shown by disliking her intensely).
The player character writing here, I have to point out, is good but not too good. What I mean by this, of course, is that while I was fascinated with all of the PCs, none of them overshadow the story of the Duke and the Duchess. The Duchess is the center of the game and is the axis about which the plot spins around - catering to her and interacting with her shapes most of the servantsí days, and form the tasks that conflict with their own desires. While we never get to see the world through her eyes, we get an idea of the kind of woman (or girl, really) she is, and the shape of the Dukeís conflict with her. Heís not seen as much but his presence looms large over the entire castle. Whenever he makes an appearance on screen the story tension goes up a notch. The pacing of the story is superb as well, with the rising tension lasting exactly as long as it needs to before coming to a horrifying climax.
Thereís a number of other touches to this game that I loved as well, particularly the attention to detail. The author has clearly done her research about the setting, both about the poem the game is adapted from and the real history behind the poem itself. I love all the little details, especially all the ones that turn out to be true (I had no idea dial locks were invented that early!). This extra effort made the whole game a delight from start to finish.
Finally, some spoiler discussion: I was not previously aware of the poem My Last Duchess, which this game is an adaptation of. I am fascinated by the general idea of IF adaptations of works, and in particular by the way this work pulled it off. Itís almost entirely written from whole cloth, but it follows the beats of the poem faithfully and is, in my opinion, an excellent adaptation.
Through the Forest with the Beast is a fifteen minute branching Twine game by someone who, as far as I can tell, is a first-time IFComp entrant. The premise is simple - youíre a person who has been revealed as a dangerous Beast and cast out by their village, and must navigate the dangerous forest between you and a safe haven. Thereís several different paths through the game in classic CYOA style, and you have to manage various stats (health/stamina/hunger/thirst) during your journey.
What I Liked
TTFWTB immediately makes a good impression - it has a gorgeous background (possibly drawn by the author?) and ambient forest sounds that really set the mood. (Bonus points for the text being easy to read!) The choices come thick and fast and have immediate consequences - each can take you a number of surprising places, and thereís no cheap instadeaths. Where this game really shines, though, is the experience it gives you of slowly discovering the forest, its inhabitants, and the truth about what makes you a Beast. Iím a huge sucker for sci-fi/fantasy blending and this game does it well.
What I Didnít
The writing in TTFWTB could use some work. There were several grammar issues, and overall the writing felt too rushed - like it was trying to cram too much detail into too little space. There were a lot of good descriptions, but they come at you rapid-fire with no room to breathe. Some playtesting and/or editing would have been good here. On the gameplay side, stat management ended up being frustratingly out of my control. Itís hard to tell which of your choices will restore which (if any) stats, and at least once I died of dehydration due to no fault on my part.
Cannelť & Nomnom - Defective Agency is a game you can get a very accurate read on from just the title and summary. Youíre an amnesiac who has hired the worldís most dysfunctional detectives to help you regain your memory. (They hate each other and are constantly wrestling for control of their single shared brain cell.) Your task is to keep them on track long enough to work on your case, and not get themselves into too much trouble Ė a tough task, given that neither of them have any morals and the fantasy world theyíre in gives them far too many opportunities to wreak havoc.
This summary doesnít even come close to doing C&N justice. First of all, this is the most polished Twine game Iíve ever seen! I am in fact COMPLETELY BLOWN AWAY by how much effort and polish went into this. Thereís (timed!) sound effects, music, art, extremely good use of text effects, and even multiple custom minigames! (One where you connect the post-its on your evidence board with red string and one fully implemented graphical card game, so far). If the authors added more images this could be a full-blown visual novel. The writing is equally good, and the mystery is as compelling as the characters are wacky. The farcical antics of our defective detectives are balanced extremely well with the increasing hints that there is something very rotten in the state of Falaisant.
What I Liked
I already spent a while gushing about this game but this is my review thread, so I can gush more if I want! I already vaguely mentioned that this is set in a fantasy-ish universe, so I want to throw a spotlight on the worldbuilding. The game takes a little time to explain how magic works at the beginning, but from then on does an extremely good job showing and not telling. I never felt confused, but I also enjoyed the bits and glimpses of what Falaisant is like and never felt like I was being beaten over the head with lore.
Also, for anyone who watched Pokemon just for Jessie and Jamesís antics Ė youíre going to like this game. Cannele and Nomnom are basically those two with the player character having to act as their Meowth.
What I Didnít
The writing is fantastic but could have used one last editing pass by a native English speaker (I assume, given the large amounts of French, that the authors donít speak it as a first language. My apologies if thatís incorrect). Thereís a few spelling issues and weird turns of phrase that could have stood to be ironed out. Also, The Contre Morte section was a lot of fun to play, but the delay in seeing the options pop up made it frustrating to go through multiple times (which I had to because Iím dumb). Still, these are minor things that in my opinion donít distract from a very well-done game.
God is in the Radio is a short visual novel made in ReníPy, and with its heavy emphasis on the visual side stands out from the crowd. (This is no mean feat given the number of high-quality games in this yearís Ectocomp!) The story focuses on an unnamed cult centered around the Major Arcana of the Tarot, who have just been told by their High Priestess that they can hear a message from God of they complete a ritual involving a radio. The plot is mostly on rails, with the protagonist Death being given a few choices to decide how they feel or react to the whole ritual situation - these wonít change things immediately, but will affect what ending you get.
Despite the relative lack of interactivity, I had no trouble staying engaged with the plot. Part of this is because the story is well-written and well-paced, with tension slowly rising at every step. The other part is due to some kind of writing wizardry, because there are 22(!!!) characters including the protagonist - one for every Major Arcana in the Tarot. They all have unique portraits and uniquely defined characterization, and somehow despite being a short game with this many characters it doesnít feel overstuffed. Mostly I think this is because the full cast only participates in the ritual, with a more limited number being part of the rising tension beforehand. Even with that it would be easy for the ritual portion to outstay its welcome so I am deeply impressed.
My only gripe with this game is how the endings are managed - the three choices are spread out throughout the game, and as far as I can tell different choices wonít change anything until you get a different ending. Because of this I wasnít motivated to play through again in the hope of seeing the other endings (I got ending 2), but I donít think this is necessarily a flaw in the game, per se. Most VNs Iíve played are like this (i.e. with long sections of non-interactive text between choices) but most of them make up for it by allowing you to skip text youíve already seen, effectively fast-forwarding you to important choices and/or new content. God is in the Radio was written in four and a half hours and is a phenomenal game given that restriction, but I think it could be elevated further if the author implemented a similar feature.
This is a quick but surprisingly deep (heh) Twine game about trying to survive a hurricane in your attic. Thereís only one puzzle (concerning what to do when the waters rise too far), but thereís plenty to see. While Iíve luckily never had any similar personal experiences, I didnít mind too much because it makes sense. How many puzzles can you solve trapped in an attic? Instead, most of the game focuses on passing the time while you wait out the storm. Incidentally (and appropriately for Ectocomp) there is a whole lot of supernatural freaky stuff happening, but also a decent amount of regular weird stuff that comes along with your town flooding to the rafters. The regular-weird and supernatural-weird blend together nicely against the surreal natural disaster backdrop, helped out by the protagonistís commentary.
This is an excellent little game full of mood and vibes, and it kept me playing until I ran out of endings. Great job!
I love weird concept games! And this one is pretty darned weird, being inspired by a dream the author had. Props to them for rolling with it, I am so here for Antarctic plant horror. The writing backs it up too, descriptive and suspenseful. Most of the game is spent introducing the player to the central concept (military fungal killing machines that require a human handler to prevent them from eating each other) and then slowly building up to the PC actually meeting one of these monsters in the flesh(?).
The game also features a lot of Bengali phrases as the PC primarily speaks the language, with the option to look at a translation and get a pronunciation guide. I thought this was pretty neat, and I think some of the vocabulary is going to stick with me. (Not much, unfortunately, but thatís a me problem again. I am not good with languages.)
Thereís a lot of potential here, but unfortunately itís not all realized. After the intro, the gameplay consists of a handful of tasks that you can choose to do or not do in order to affect how your meeting with your assigned Hyphaen goes, which then determines which of three endings you get. I got two (including the good end), but thereís quite a lot of text to get through before you get back to any choices so I didnít go in for a third round. Iíd really love to see a more expanded version of this game, since it currently just feels like the introduction to something really cool.
Oh man, this game got me right in the heart.
The Good Ghost has a simple presence - youíre a ghost bound to the house where you used to live, doing good deeds for your former family and trying to remember who you were. Simple is good here, because it allows the authors to really flesh (sorry) out the setting and the situation. While this game is choice-based, it has a very parser-like sensibility, with all interaction done via clicking on highlighted interactable objects or locations. (I liked this quite a lot, since it meant I wasnít hung up on any guess-the-verb stuff and could just let myself melt into the game. I also suspect the walking-through-walls gimmick might have been difficult in Inform, but donít quote me on that.) Meanwhile, the writing lightly but masterfully fleshes out the the cast of characters. Despite only getting snapshots, I really felt a strong connection to the mom, the boy, and even the cat! The story is handled with a similar light but deft touch, and Iím going to remember that ending for a long time.
Iím coming off a less-good-than-average week in my personal life, and playing this game felt like drinking a cup of warm chicken soup on a cold day. Thank you so much for this experience.
In Under the Bridge youíre a (small) eldritch abomination, one of the last of your kind, and youíve taken shelter under a bridge in a forest. But bridges bring humans, and if sufficiently frightened humans will bring other humans with swords. (Humans are also delicious. Choices, choices.)
What I Liked
This is a very stylish Twine game! I normally get cranky about white-on-black color schemes (itís not my fault it gives me eye strain!) but in this case it feels like a deliberate design choice instead of an author forgetting to change the default Sugarcube settings. This is backed up by a number of white-on-black illustrations of our monster and the situations it winds up in, which are simultaneously very creepy and absolutely adorable. The background sounds are also 1) togglable and 2) change per node depending on the mood the author wants to set, which is fantastic. Text colors and effects are also used well.
The writing is also a delight here Ė the plot is fairly thin (as expected for a game of this length) so it focuses more on showing events from our monsterís point of view. Writing inhuman protagonists that feel properly inhuman is always a challenge, and I think itís done well here.
What I Didnít
Replayability is hampered by the fact that the early game doesnít change much regardless of your choices. You play through a series of events and your only choices are how to react. The first two events happen roughly the same way each playthrough and significant branching only happens after youíve completed them, which starts to drag after going through the game 2-3 times. Having the undo button present helps, but I would have liked to see more cosmetic variation in the second event or at least a way to skip the intro on subsequent playthroughs.
Lost at the Market is the first game Iíve ever played in GrueScript, and from the authorís notes I think itís the first one theyíve written in the language as well. Unfortunately, I spent most of my experience with it fairly confused Ė youíre playing through some kind of dream, but what the dream is actually about isnít clear. (You also donít appear to be lost in any kind of market, dream or otherwise). The game does a good job at making you feel as if youíre in a dream, but the dream-logic on display is frustrating and makes it hard to decipher what youíre supposed to do. This isnít helped by the writing, which has an unfortunate number of spelling, grammar, and punctuation mistakes.
The authorís notes imply a more polished version with added multimedia is in the works, which Iíd be interested to play. But for now, this game seems unfinished.
Witchfinders is a short twine game that is, as you may have guessed, about people who find witches. The twist is, youíre not a witchfinder Ė youíre a witch, and the absolute last thing you want to do is get caught. The game focuses on one day in your life, where you try to use your supernatural powers for good while avoiding the watchful eye of the Inquisition.
What I Liked
First of all, this game has great cover art (which is why Iím playing it so early)! The author is also credited with drawing the cover, so hats off to them for that Ė theyíre clearly very talented in multiple areas.
Moving on to the game, I was impressed at the amount of puzzles and pizazz Witchfinders packs into its short runtime. The puzzles are all of the get-x-ingredient-to-solve-y-problem variety, but they each have a unique and engaging framework around them that keeps them fresh. Thereís even a few tasks you can do seemingly just for the hell of it (why yes, I do like raspberry tea!) I felt the world of Witchfinders was well fleshed out, and nicely balanced hope and kindness against the inherent darkness of the premise.
What I Didnít
Balancing difficulty in social puzzles is a tricky thing, and unfortunately the puzzles in this game fall on the side of ďtoo easyĒ. In each case thereís obviously-right and obviously-wrong ways to tackle each problem, so you have to go out of your way to be obvious if you want to lose. I would have liked to see some more shades of grey in the puzzle design, with third options that would attract attention at the cost of doing good.
The game uses random descriptions well to keep things fresh. I liked checking the poster and reading the spellbook each run-through to see what ridiculousness would show up next.