A Thing of Wretchedness is a horror “sandbox” parser, set in an empty farmstead in the middle of winter, away from any life, some time around the 70s(?). You play as an older woman, who having lost her husband recently(ish), deals with grief… and a wretched thing roaming the house. You want (need?) to get rid of this things, but how?
The game includes an external walkthrough with general guidelines on achieving one of the 3 endings.
The start is pretty intriguing with a more mundane take on horror, by having an indescribable thing roaming around your house, not actively hurting you, but also not letting you feel at ease either - you can’t bear to look at it. It is made pretty obvious there is some sort of relationship between you and the thing, in that it won’t hurt you and you kind of take care of it. Exploring the different rooms and its items may help get an idea (nice details there!).
For some reason, after months - or maybe years - of being tortured by its presence, you want to get rid of it now. Your first idea would be to poison it, as the introduction explains, though you are not too keen on hurting the thing either… In this regard, the games gives you multiple paths to take care of the thing, with some options more violent than others. This is the sandbox aspect of the game.
Some endings, especially the one which supposedly gives the most context, rely on timing and RNG. You set up an action that requires the thing to do something, but it may take a while or the thing may end up doing something completely useless, or hurt you. This becomes frustrating pretty quickly, as resetting the action sometimes takes so loooong.
I was also a bit disappointed with the endings too, as they don’t really answer anything at the end - the open-ended-ness leaving you with more questions than answers, especially if you don’t get the ending that provides some information. I still have no idea what was that box about…
Barcarolle in Yellow is a meta parser, working as an interactive movie script for a pulpy giallo, blurring the lines between reality and movie scenes. You play as B-list probably-washed-out actress Eva Chantry as she gets the call to star in the eponymous movie. With a twist-on-twist-on-twist, the game includes multiple endings (found A, I know of at least 6), in-game hints, and a walkthrough for one ending (A).
This game got me a bit conflicted.
The premise is enticing, the poster is so eye-catching, and the starting scene? an incredible way of hooking players. So darn unique! With the formatting the game introduction and credits, the game seem to play heavily on movie codes. With its whole fake-cult movie vibe, it reminded me a bit of the Goncharov meme. I was really intrigued with what the game had to offer, what meta commentary it might be making about the genre, or how to approach the scene/real-life aspect.
Then I started the game… and the problems followed. During the first proper playable scene, a Spaghetti Western filmed in Spain, events ended up repeating itself when I took off my costume after the shoot ended, with the director screaming CUT again, belittling Eva for screwing with filming.
The following scene is timed, with any wrong move, any missing action, leading you to your early death. I died and restarted the game so many times because of that ONE scene needed a very specific sequence of actions to ward off your stalker. The timing is so tight it barely takes into account failing or asking for hints.
The rest of the game feels pretty railroady, with us/Eva getting few opportunities to have agency. This makes sense, considering she is an actress playing the role given to her, following the directions told. You have some options of choices here and there, which influences the story, but not much more. There is only one path you can take, or you’d lose the game, essentially.
But the game is not always clear about which actions are the wanted ones. It does provide hints, which are formatted like snippets of a movie script, telling the player a general idea of what they should do next (this was so smart!). Sometimes, the necessary (and unusual) action is not included in the hint… making things complicated.
This maybe the most obvious in that first times scene. I had to look the walkthrough up to avoid (finally) dying right at the start. It really takes you out of the immersion the game so craft-fully created in the prior moments. It happens again when shooting the scene on the bridge. The undercluing really messes with playing.
After trying and failing to get through the game… I just opened the walkthrough and followed it to the letter… or tried to. Your hotel in Venice changes name with every playthrough (that was neat), but only one is included there (so I died… again and again, until I realised what was wrong). I would have been nice if the walkthrough included all possible paths instead of just that one ending…
I’m sure someone will end up publishing a comprehensive walkthrough at some point…
The writing goes all-in in the giallo genre, with the depiction of Eva as this seductress woman in her hotel room - the character being overtly sexualised, but also wink-wink hihihi - as well as being the subject of quite a large amount of violence… and not being able to do much about it on or off screen. It’s not really pleasant to go through, honestly, and I am not sure what the point of the game was concerning this.
Was it discussing how movies with shitty budgets have bad production periods where accidents happen but everyone have to deal with it? Is this a commentary on standards in the entertainment industry for actresses, especially in terms of being replaceable when their attractiveness fade? Or about the psychology being having no agency through the frame of an “adventure” game? Is there even a message in all this? Do you need to find all the endings to get the overall picture? (I hope not…)
This game had ticked all the checkboxes for being incredible, but its potential just fell flat with the muddled and sometimes buggy implementation. It has a good solid back bone, and some neat things (the script formatting and custom messages), but it still needs quite a bit of tweaking to make it the cult movie/game it is hoping to be.
Final note: spam Z at the end of the game for bonus features.
Have Orb, Will Travel is an old-school style parser, where you play a wizard tasked to find an elusive orb somewhere inside a quaint cottage, to gain back the Council’s trust. With its custom system and Interface reminiscing of old Minitel pages, the game is a puzzle fest. Though you will not really reach a failed state, the puzzles are fairly difficult. The game includes hints and a walkthrough, both of which I used extensively.
Old-school style parsers intrigue me, in their implementation (often confusing for new parser players), their sometimes convoluted puzzles, and the sheer amount of work needed in the back-end to make things work. They require a lot of attention, out-of-the-box thinking to solve puzzles, and knowledge of the codes in interacting with elements. Reaching the end feels like an achievement.
But I struggled with it so much. I didn’t even exited the first room before I ended up opening the hint sections… which weren’t actually helpful in my case. Turns out, keys are not the only way to open a door. Who knew? ¯_(ツ)_/¯
Still, I persevered, because I am not a quitter, and ran around the cottage, trying to interact with anything in my path. Sometimes it worked well, and I could unlock things just fine (and feel so darn smart about it), sometimes… it was a frustrating disaster (;-; mazes yall… that one broke me.).
For how interesting and new some puzzles felt (actually, the maze, as strange as it was) or how reined-in the clues were (not always helpful, but fun anyway!), there were quite a lot of friction when it came down to playing it. For examples: you’d need to type a very specific command to get things, not just take item; even if a thing is mentioned in a description (especially an item), the program might not let you examine it unless it is in your inventory, pretending even it does not exist; one of the first items available to you is a book, but you can’t read it completely unless you turn each of its pages… All of these little frictions do end up adding up, making the game maybe a bit more frustrating than it could be.
Most of the latter part of the game (which I reached only because of the walkthrough), revolves around manipulating different machineries that affects other bits of the map. So you end up going to some part of the map, interact with one thing, walk around the map to see if it affected it correctly, walk back to the machine (which is sometimes going the long way round because of one-way passageways), pressing some more buttons and doing it again… Damned if you enter the wrong combination, because the game has many rooms.
While you are supposedly a wizard, and can learn 3 spells in-game, you surprisingly use very little magic to solve puzzles - the spells being used at most 3 times in total. You spend more time walking around the cottage or manipulating buttons, dials, and handles. You do end up getting a wand at some point though…
For all the text the game has, it answers surprising little in why you need to find the orb, how it got there, what it does, or how important it is to the Council. The game is so focused on the puzzle, you mainly learn about the setting or context of the story at the start, with the quest of finding the orb handed to you. Just a little bit of nudging and framing would have helped.
I still found the game fascinating - even if it may have broken my spirit a little bit, resulting in finishing the game with the walkthrough opened next to the game instead of solving it all by myself. The interface is very playful and colourful (though the timed text gets annoying by the second use of the ring), and the use of background noise gave the game a lot of charm. The ding notification when solving something and gaining points was so darn rewarding!
Lake Starlight is an incomplete young-adult fantasy game, where you play as a teenage girl on the day of her “coming-of-age” celebration, during which she will be given the choice to go to a Magical Summer Camp™ to harness her powers or * shrug *. Themes of sisterhood, environmental justice and anti-corporation are prevalent throughout the story. The current version includes two endings: a “sad” one, and the end of Book 1 (which ends abruptly).
I didn’t particularly enjoy this game, honestly. It wasn’t much of the typical YA setting where the Earth is on fire, society is really bad, but you (yes you! a teenager) can change the course of humanity and solve all its problem (with magic!) - those can be pretty fun! But the execution didn’t quite click with me.
I think part of my issue with it was both in how lengthy the passages where, giving the player little to do but try to digest the over-exposition of concepts or other characters. I’d often go dozens of passages before I could do something… if the game wouldn’t pull the rug from under me and end up choosing for myself instead. I wondered what the point of it all was…
Even if the game goes all-in with the exposition, and in a pretty cliché way (a very-YA style), it often does very little with the concepts introduced. The world is pretty bad all around, but who cares, here’s your ticket to essentially Heaven on Earth for the summer. Meet a bunch of girls with tragic or at least interesting backstories, but you don’t get much to do with them or engage with those background either. The reason for it being the story being incomplete. One would hope this would end up being more fleshed out when/if the game updates.
I played this game twice, finding the bad ending first… and I think I liked that ending better. It at least gave closure. The “good” path of Book 1 ends too abruptly…
Last Vestige is a fairly short parser, built as a mix of an escape room and mystery solving. You play some sort of detective, called up on a case, to find the hows and the whys of a strange death. The game includes hints in-game and an external walkthrough.
I played the post-comp version, which had fixed some stuff.
Called up on a Sunday to check out a crime scene, you end up in a single room with a handful of furniture pieces and clearly no sign of entry or struggle... or body for that matter (taken away by the police already). You can roam around the room, snoop and interact with the stuff, or ask questions to Inspector Knapp and the landlord - though they may not be as helpful as you may want. Who doesn't love a good ol' mystery on their day off?
The game calls itself part escape room, part detective mystery. I thought the 'escape room' part was on point, the solving the mystery part less so...
As soon as you arrive on the scene, you are "stuck" inside those walls, with Inspector Knapp calling you back inside every time you try to leave (that was funny). To "escape" it, you need to find the item the police has yet to discover: a hidden item, locked behind a multitude of keys and passwords.
Like you'd expect from an escape room, you need to interact with object to find information or and element that will help you interact with another object, which in turn... repeat until you uncovered everything. I struggled with the piano puzzle (had to look that one up because I only know the Do-Ré-Mi...), but I thought the nonogram was a neat one! I did try to "solve" that one on the wall instead of the correct device however...
Through snooping around the room, you may be able to link things together and solve the overall mystery (what truly happened in the room). Better remember to write things down, because you will complete the game with a test!
I honestly failed pretty hard, especially the 'how'. I picked the completely wrong option, because of that one little detail I hadn't uncovered when probing the NPCs on the victim's condition. I didn't make the link between the victim's health and their demise. There were even options on that final test I was surprised by, since they didn't come up during my playthrough...
Some mystery will require some prior knowledge on a subject to solve it, this one is medical conditions. While there are hints in the game, I think there should maybe have been a few more items to bring the player to the right path (like a piece of clothing for the victim's condition or notes of a doctor...).
As the final note of the game indicate, this game was create for educational purposes. I think this was telling on how the game was formatted, both in terms of what is available to interact, the hints and information provided by the NPC/action responses, and the test at the end. If I were a student in this class, I'd probably have quite a bit of fun figuring out the whole thing (and maybe not struggle as much as I did at the end...).
Overall, it was enjoyable. I'd try another mystery/escape room from this author.
The Tin Mug is a fairly short choice-game where you play as a tin mug, on its birthday. It is a fairly linear story, with the binary choices leading to the same ending. The game is maybe more meant for children, but it's enjoyable nonetheless.
Though it is your birthday - as a tin mug - you are faced with many challenges: fancier china and crockery looking down on you for being so cheep, rowdy children not caring much for things, and well... the lack of birthday wishes. Through trials and tribulations, things take a charming turn, leading to a well deserved send-off. It is simple but hits the mark. Good deeds always pay off.
And had cute illustrations to accompany the text!
While it was very cute, I struggled most with the program used for this game. Strand is a parser-choice hybrid format (though it uses only the choice mechanic here), where the formatting of the text leave to be desired.
- For longer passages, the program would force you to scroll back to the top of the added text to pick the story up from your last choice. This was particularly egregious when illustrations were added through the new bits of text.
- As for the illustrations, their scaling didn't quite work, covering often too much of the page, forcing you to zoom out to get it in full.
- Often, the dialogue would be formatted in ways that made it difficult to distinguish who was speaking when, as the speaker would change multiple times within one line/paragraph.
It is an entry with lots of heart, but needs a little tweaking still.
Shanidar, Safe Return is an interactive fiction piece where you follow a group of Neanderthal/Cro-Magnons first fleeing for safety, than travelling to the distant land of Shanidar. The story is set from the start, though your reading will depend on which link you click.
This was quite the peculiar entry. Not just because of its subject - while there are many IF games going back in history, very few end up that far - but the way the story is told. It flips between different POV or groups of characters depending on the link clicked, sometimes even going back and forth between present and (close) past. The passages, sippets of side-stories connected through the overarching story, tells the escape of Haizea and her group, their temporary settlement in the Bear Cave, and their travel towards the promised land.
The story follows a staggering 19 characters, including you (23 if you count the mentioned NPCs), which can be quite confusing. Even with the list of characters opened on another screen, the going back and forth was sometimes quite a bit, especially when the game is not quite consistent with the naming of the characters, and because it introduced characters almost constantly. Though, I appreciated the fact the game allows you to start the act over to connect more dots, and maybe even find new snippets.
With those snippets and the fairly concise prose, the piece reminded me of those documentaries trying to “reconstruct” how humans lived back then. Unlike those representations, Shanidar does a lovely job at humanising both spieces, through the descriptions of customs and relations between the characters.
This was pretty different, and I’m not sure I managed to connect with it as much as I would have with a more traditional way of storytelling. The lack of actual meaningful choice (opportunities to have some are plenty here) relegates the player more as a reader-first than an active participant.
Magor Investigates… is a relatively short linear parser, where you play Magor, the court’s sorcerer. Though the game is part of a series and a larger universe, it is not required to have played other instalments to complete this game (relevant information is provided in-game). In this entry, you are tasked by the king to work some genealogy magic and find whether the monarch has some relations to another crowned head. While there is no walkthrough, a comprehensive hint system is implemented.
This was a quaint and low-stake little game. With the return of the King after a difficult quest, you are given the simple (though maybe tedious task) to trace back your monarch’s lineage and hopefully find a connection to another royal family. But oh, no! the Archivist is down with a bad stomach ache and can’t let you browse to your heart’s content. Good news! Being a sorcerer, you have an extensive library, which includes a tome on remedies. Fix up the concoction, nurse the archivist, go back to your main task, and report back to the King. End Credits!
From the premise, and the length advertised on the IFComp website at an hour and a half, I… expected more. Even though I loved the cozy and low stake vibes of the game (with a non-existent difficulty, and super well hinted actions), I was done within a third of the expected time, having completed the 9 out of 10 tasks.
The discussions with other NPC are triggered after an action, which you (the player) do not control/cannot change (you can’t ask people questions). This is a bit of a shame, because those discussions are at times lengthy (had to scroll back up at multiple occasions), and could have been broken into multiple actions.
As for the investigation, only one action is require before the task is complete. And even if the game includes many room, the engine does not let you explore much of it, as it tries to railroad you into one specific path.
Another gripe I had with this game was the visual aspect. I am all for funky and bright interfaces, but the use of this particular palette with the Comic Sans font was quite painful to the eye. And when you have long block of texts on the screen, it is not really comfortable to read. For this aspect, I was kinda glad the game was fairly short.
It was a cute short game, otherwise.
~~ Updated Review from the 2022 IFComp bc I replayed it recently ~~
Am I My Brother's Keeper? is a short mystery Texture game focusing on the themes of grief and loss. You play as Sara, whose sister Sofìa has disappeared without a word. That is until your phone rings once more. The game has two endings.
Though short and fairly linear, this was still an interesting game, where the story pulls you in from the first page. There is a mystery afoot, but you are powerless in how to solve it. The desperation of the PC wanting to find her sister is gripping, but the most disheartening thing is her realisation about her relationship with her sister, and her struggles of having been enough for her, of having reciprocated enough. The mystery is even enhanced with all the questions left unanswered (what truly happened to the sister? who is this mysterious figure?) In this game, the writing shines the most.
When I first played it, it had taken me a while to understand the meaning of the title, since there are no brothers ever mentioned in the game. It only made sense when choosing to avoid answering the fated call. The whole Abel and Cain reference makes total sense after playing that route.
Though there are interactive elements on the screen*, there is only one branching block in the game - the phone call - which sets the tone for the rest of the story. After that point, which happens pretty early on, it may feel more like the game is pulling you towards the end rather than you having agency through these paths.
*options of which I wished it would disappear after use rather than stay on the screen.
~~ Updated Review from the 2022 IFComp bc I replayed it recently ~~
Thanatophobia is a relatively short horror chat-like parser in which you play a therapist trying to uncover what is scaring Madeline, your patient. There are two elements to uncover, before you can make progress and reach the end.
I remember enjoying this game quite a bit when I first played this game, mainly because this is a parser where you could type complete nonsense and still get a coherent response out of the chatbot. Even if there are hints on the page, to guide your psychological session, their vagueness didn't make you feel cheated for solving the puzzle. My stance on the game has somewhat evolved since.
As with my first playthrough the game, I enjoyed the psychological horror aspect of the story. From the start, there is something quite wrong with the person answering your questions - questions often left somewhat unanswered. Madeline only reveals the truth when your force it out of her, probing her mind until she gives in - which at times requires quite a bit of walking around the bush, as she is not the most forthcoming person, deflecting any element that is a bit too hard to deal with.
Replaying it so long after, I had honestly forgotten about the twist that came with the final beat of the game. Until the absolute last moment, I even was doubting who the strange figure was truly (something I had caught early on the first time around). Still, that moment brings everything into context, showing how much Madeline struggles with her issues and how it affected her. It is incredibly sad, yet ends on a hopeful note.
The horror aspect of this game doesn't just stem from the setting itself, and the story as a whole, but the gameplay as well. Unlike the majority of parsers, this one is not bound by rigid commands to advance the plot. Instead, the system will still respond to the most strange commands given (even complete and utter nonsense). It is incredibly eerie how the "AI" answer your questions, even striking back in frustration when you are not making any substantial progress with the session.
But this system is not without friction. As it is a chat-experience, Madeline does not say more than a few sentences at a time, forcing you to time a command during monologues - which at times broke if the command resembled a bit too much one for another bit of the story. I think I would have rather gotten a larger block of text, or multiple messages in a row.
In the same vein, getting information out of Madeline is sometimes pretty frustrating, even if you can mark it out as 'the patient being a bit difficult in sessions because it is a heavy topic'.
Overall, this was an interesting game. One I do not wish to revisit any time soon.
Turns out, I have thanatophobia too :/