Reviews by Rovarsson

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The Shadow in the Cathedral, by Ian Finley and Jon Ingold

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
St. Newton, St. Babbage, St. Breguet (hallowed be their names)., June 7, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)
Related reviews: Fantasy

Isaac Newton: Mathematical Lawmaker.
Charles Babbage: Father of the Computer.
Abraham-Louis Breguet: Master-Horologist.

These intellectual giants played front-stage roles in a cultural movement during the 17th and 18th century where natural phenomena were being pulled out of the realms of chaotic randomness or transcendental intentionality and grasped in terms of their inner mathematical and mechanical orderliness.
The passage of Time ( Abraham-Louis Breguet), the patterns of Thought ( Charles Babbage), the regularities of Motion and the intricacies of Calculation ( Isaac Newton) were captured both in logical/mathematical deductions in the mind and in mechanical contraptions of cogs and chains.

While aiding in freeing the human intellect of religious dogmatic thinking and opening up the path of naturalistic explanation and exploitation of the world, its mysteries and its resources, this mechanistical worldview carries within itself a rigidity not dissimilar to religious dogma. Once Nature is caught in Logic and Clockwork, it is unchanging and deterministic.

The world of The Shadow in the Cathedral exists as an exemplar of this rigid-mechanistic historical path. The cathedral from the title is a worshipping place for the three saints mentioned above. Worshippers make the sign of the lever when they PRAY. Priests gather around an altar and bow to the clockwork in the tower. Mechanical order replaces/equates divine order, with very similar institutions to uphold that order.

“The candles move in the space between floor and ceiling, the way the stars move between Earth and the Great Darkness of Heaven.They follow winding metal tracks that cross and recross along the length of the Great Hall, and as they move, pools of light form and then dissolve, so that some parts of the chamber are brightly lit at times whilst others are quite dark. The candles move day and night, with automatic systems to replace those that burn down to the stub.”

This paragraph might seem somewhat wordy, but it captures the atmosphere of the game-world perfectly by elaborating on something as down-to-earth as candlelight while the bigger background is never laid out this explicitly. Instead it has to be inferred from these detailed minor descriptions. To this reviewer’s preferences, a leather-bound tome on the development and history of the clock-bound civilization to LOOK UP BABBAGE would have been very welcome indeed.

Wren is a lowly clock-polishing grease monkey in the Abbey. While cleaning the Abbot’s grandfather-clock, he overhears a conspiracy between a mysterious Figure in Grey and his Abbot to mumblemumble…

When even the Archbisshop will not hear him, it is upon Wren himself to unravel the nefarious scheme.

Story takes precedence in every way in this game. The authors have gone to great lengths to eliminate annoyances for the player. When there is an important action to be taken, numerous but well-considered commands act as a trigger for that action to further the plot. There are calm exploratory and conversational parts where both Wren and the player can catch their breaths and learn more about the city. There are frantic chase sequences where it seems both Wren and the player will be out of breath a moment later but still push onward.

And of course, there are obstacles. Many, many obstacles. Not one of them breaks the flow of the story. And some of those puzzles are beautiful. Beautiful in that they combine storytelling, logic, engineering, associative reasoning and storytelling (yes, I meant to write that twice…) to engage the player and commit the Wren-and-Player team more and more to solve the mystery together.

Two puzzles are extraordinarily good. They are also great examples of the breadth of reasoning the player is asked to do . One is a completely down-to-earth physics question ((Spoiler - click to show)the door in the warehouse). The other is an excercise in associative programming ((Spoiler - click to show)the clockwork computer).

During Wren’s investigation, he will meet several people on his way, both friendly (good for Wren and the player needing clues) and malignant (great for the authors and the reader needing suspense). Although the conversations are ASK/TELL, they do not descend in awkwardness. Sometimes the characters won’t answer, but they are almost always believably occupied with other worries or tasks of their own. And even while they are otherwise engaged, their dismissive answers make sense in context. Nifty programming and great attention to both the detail of the immediate surroundings and the big picture of where Wren has gone before.

The Shadow in the Cathedral is a remarkable feat of intertwined puzzle-engineering, worldbuilding and philosophy.

Of course it is sad to have the story broken off after what should be the first chapter of a series. A word of wisdom to the prospective player: let the clock’s tick-tock take you to the bell, and let your imagination take over from there…

I loved every minute, hour and day of this game.

And a small but hopefully annoying heads-up to the authors: the chapter-titles are misaligned. for example: (Spoiler - click to show)the chapter-title says “The Rooftops of St. Philip” after the chase across the rooftops. By then Wren is already safe with Covalt. This is just an example. Every chapter’s title (except 1 & 2) comes after the story it’s supposedly about. A grating flaw in such a great piece. I would find it hard to believe that you would not return to The Shadow of the Cathedral to put the titles in order. (or is this a reflection of the rebellion against the clock?).

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Once and Future, by G. Kevin Wilson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Excalibur in Avalon, March 30, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

"She is not any common earth
Water or wood or air,
But Merlin's Isle of Gramarye
Where you and I will fare."

[T.H. White, The Once and Future King]

---------------------------------------------------------------------------
---------------------------------------------------------------------------


>\>LISTEN
You hear the hiss of the kerosene lamp and the quiet chatter of your friends.

Frank Leandro and his fellow soldiers are playing cards in their barracks, winding down from a day patrolling the Vietnam jungle.

>The pale lamp casts dark shadows across the room and onto your faces, even as this war does the same to your souls.

After saving his friends from a surprise attack in a particularly heroic (and lethal) manner, Frank is intercepted in the afterlife by King Arthur and sent to Avalon. Unimaginable dangers threaten the world, and to ward them off, a Quest on this dream-like isle must first be undertaken...

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Thus, right after the brutal prologue of Once and Future, you are transported from the realities of the Vietnam War to an idyllic fantasy-setting. This contrast is repeated further in the game, and it's what gives it its own personal feel.
Fantasy adventures, no matter how serious the threat, always retain an escapist feeling of relief to me. The distance in time and space and plane of existence of the imaginary world lessens the urgency of the need to act. Sure, there may be an Evil Warlock threatening to lay waste to the Land, but in the meanwhile I'm strolling through the forests and mountains, gawking at the wondrous sights, secure and far away from the real world.
Once and Future shatters this escapist solace on multiple occasions. These intermezzos not only impress upon the player the immediacy of the horrors of war, they also serve to load the larger fantasy-side of the story with a more weighty significance.

Having pointed this out, I hasten to add that, in itself, the Isle of Avalon is indeed all one could wish for in a fantasy game. Forests, lakes, and mountains, with mythological references and fanciful creatures, diverse areas with their own moods, from oppressive to playful, blinding fog-filled vales to far-reaching mountaintop views.
Unfortunately though, the entire island is mapped onto a rectangular grid of NESW-connections. The artificiality of this layout, which was emphasised by drawing my map by hand, clashes painfully with the unpredictability I associate with exploring the wilderness.

The game does partly redeem itself in later stages. The Isle of Avalon is a sort of "overworld", reminiscent of the Sundial Zone in Trinity. While the objectives of the several subquests are to be found here, obtaining the information and objects to even begin contemplating their solutions requires travelling to other realms, which do have somewhat more adventurous geographies.

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>\>LOOK

---Old Woman's Laboratory

Strange brews burble and froth in cauldrons scattered around this room. Ancient alchemical devices are intermixed with more modern chemistry equipment. The shelves are stocked with bottles of all sorts and sizes. A podium fills one corner of the room. To the east is a formidable looking door.


Location descriptions are ebullient and evocative. On several occasions after reading a paragraph, I found myself closing my eyes to paint the room in my mind. Many memorable images and colourful impressions found their way to my imagination while I was going over my progress in the game during those not-quite-dreaming moments right I fell asleep.

>---Fantastic butterflies laze their wobbly paths through the air with tiny artworks on their wings. One flits past your face and you are left with a brief flash of the Mona Lisa, while another lands on a flower, giving you a clear view of Whistler's Mother

Every once in a while, a cut-scene or conversation dumps a page or two of continuous text. I found these interesting and entertaining each time, a welcome pause from my investigations and a chance to savour the writing without plans for my next commands taking up space in my head.

While these descriptions are a joy to read and visualise, that joy is layered and muddied. There is always a menacing undercurrent of dread, caused by the player's memories of the harsh and gruesome war-scenes.

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>\>
You freeze for a second, startled by a sudden noise.

I love how even an absent-minded stray press of the ENTER-button without typing a command first is incorporated into the flow of the story. As this example shows, the implementation is mostly deep and detailed. SMELL and LISTEN almost always give location-specific responses, and XYZZY is approriately dark and gloomy.
More importantly, there is an abundance of synonyms and alternate commands, and many failed attempts at a puzzle-solution do give a veiled explanation of why it didn't work, nudging the player's problem-solving faculties along.

Most puzzles and obstacles, especially those involving object-manipulation or the timely application of magic, flow naturally from the setting, their solutions intuitive from within the perspective of knightly tales and Arthurian Legend.
There are also several logic-problems, one of which became a bit of a tedious excercise because of the length of the chain even after I had deduced the basic mechanism.

The most difficult are the puzzles where assistance or information from NPCs is required. The ASK/TELL-mechanics (without TOPICS) are not up to the task of ensuring the player happens upon the correct conversation branch with the right NPC, which left me flailing in the dark quite a few times.

And while I'm on the subject of talking to NPCs, here's an excerpt of my notes scribbled furiously while in the middle of an important conversation with Merlin:

>Damned conversation bug!
Each topic triggers twice, and a dismissive response is slapped onto that for good measure. And some other stuff. Depending on the question, the character I'm asking , and the precise dismissive response, I've smacked into a list of no less than four "Dingledoofus doesn't have anything to say about that," in a single reply to ASK DINGLEDOOFUS ABOUT TINGALING.
Then I go exploring a breathtaking new part of the map, everything is interesting and moody and intruiging... I forget all about my conversational annoyances...
"Oh, here's Donglebupkis! I'll ask Donglebupkis about the Tingaling."
And then Donglebupkis does have important things to say about Tingaling, but still her response is followed by "Donglebupkis grunts dismissively."
Bang! Right back to gritting my teeth.

But as play went on, and as I grew accustomed to this idiosyncracy of the conversation system, my annoyance subsided to the point where I just skipped over the redundant final dismissive response to my questions altogether.

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From what I've read about Once and Future before I started playing, this game was made over several years, all the while debated and eagerly awaited by the community.
Although I think it largely succeeds at fulfilling its ambitious potential, here and there it feels like the author overreached a tad. Or, by the end of the development period of years, the final push was a bit too hasty, leaving some burrs and sand where it should have been smoothed out.

An engaging puzzle-heavy Arthurian story, with added gravitas through its references to the real-world Vietnam War.


Very, very good.

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Les lettres du Docteur Jeangille, by manonamora

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Epistolary Mystery, March 27, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Feeling angry, hurt, betrayed, le Docteur must leave for the countryside, banished from the educated and cultured social circles of the city. Fortunately, a sophisticated high-class Lady comes to live in the village shortly after, providing at least some measure of worldly and literary conversation.

Through a series of letters to the lover left in the city, we learn about the goings-on in the peasant town, the background of this high-class Lady, and the events leading to le Docteur's banishment.

The story plays in the past, perhaps 3 centuries ago. It’s an impressive tour de force on the part of the author to write the letters so consistently in the voice and style of a cultured person from that age, distinguished yet emotional, full of purplish expressions without dropping out of character.

The epistolary form the author has chosen lends itself perfectly to a gradual build-up of the mystery at the heart of the story. The letters are one-sided, we only ever see the perspective of le Docteur. They start off as an account of a lover’s yearning, a lament over the circumstances of their parting. Slowly, the focus shifts to the letter-writer’s new living circumstances: the village of Meaux with its peasants and farmers, its livestock and farmlands. Throughout the most part of the narrative, le Docteur is preoccupied with securing the attention of the lover left behind, recounting amusing or strange events in the village and avowing undying love and desire.

Underneath this light and gossipy tone, the reader gleans more and more threatening fragments of an unfolding mystery, while the protagonist remains oblivious of the possibility of this looming danger. The distance of the reader to the events described in the letters leaves room to see correlations that remain invisible for the letter-writer, who is too close to see the bigger picture. Of course, from an out-of-game perspective, it’s also the case that the reader is capable of expecting a turn of circumstances that is impossible to prepare for from within the story-viewpoint.

Le Docteur's letters speak of intense emotions of love and longing towards the left-behind lover, and the reader is an engaged, empathetic witness, often even flinching at jealous words of accusation or egocentric and manipulatively twisting arguments. Until the very end, the love story remains the main focus, the mystery serving to heighten the tension without ever taking control of the narrative.

Very tense and touching. Among the best I’ve read.

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La Fabrique des Princes, by No Game Without Stakes
"Hominem unius libri timeo.", March 27, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

The product of the Prince-factory, your education is almost complete. In these final hours before being sent off to the Kingdom that awaits you, you must prepare yourself for a Joust of Rhetoric against one of your fellow/adversary Princes.

To this end, you must explore the Factory, proving your knowledge of the Book of Princes to gain coins of merit. These can be exchanged for coins of gold to buy equipment.
On the surface, this seems like basic RPG-gameplay. Level up you armour and weaponry, or rather, in the context of this setting, your luxury attire and your rhetorical techniques, until you feel strong enough to face your opponent and hopefully prevail and attain your Kingdom.

However…

The setting of La Fabrique des Princes, this vast complex of corridors and halls, where the walls have faces and voices speak enigmatic words, is too intruiging to just traverse in a simple goal-oriented fashion. A menacing feeling of deception soon grabs the player’s attention, inviting to search deeper…

Although the map is small, a mere 15 rooms, it gives the impression of a much larger edifice, isolated from normal time and space. I would have loved to search this place in parser-style, but I must admit that being denied the option of closely examining the many puzzling features of the rooms and hallways adds to the feeling of uncertainty and puzzlement.
There is a region of the map which is normally off-limits to the Princes, but is opened up for you on this special occasion. It would have added to the atmosphere of secrecy and hidden meanings if it were indeed off-limits, and some kind of subterfuge was necessary to access it, instead of just being given a key.

The use of timed text put me off a bit. I didn’t feel it added anything of worth to the piece. Fortunately the timed passages are short, so annoyance is kept to a minimum.

Discovering more of the Factory’s history and purpose, and meeting the “marginal” characters at the edge of the map was well worth the time spent pursuing “side”-quests. A story about how stopping and thinking is more valuable than blindly chasing a predetermined and ill-understood objective.

A thoughtful and thought-provoking piece.

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Excuse Me, Do You Have The Time?, by Jean Childs

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Guided tour through time, February 10, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Picture this:
You and your friends are taking a stroll through the woods when you suddenly come upon a dilapidated house with a big warning sign on it. What do you do?
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\>N
Front of House
The dilapidated building turns out to be a neglected old house. Surely
nobody lives here? To the north is a large door with a sign on it. To the
west a small path leads around the side of the house. The main path is to the
south.

\>READ SIGN
The sign says:

MAD SCIENTIST
NO TRESPASSING
GO AWAY

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Exactly! You go around to the side of the house and break into the basement. After such a monumental display of <strike>stupidity</strike>Adventure Spirit tm, everything that happens now is completely deserved.

What happens is that you are appointed guinea-pig "volunteers" for the Mad Scientist's forays into time-traveling. Travel to five places and times in history and bring back five symbolic items.

Excuse Me, Do You Have The Time? has a bit of a moodswing issue. It has difficulty deciding whether to emphasise the gameplay or the immersive experience of the surroundings, and decides to do both. The varying depth of descriptions and the care with which they were crafted are good examples of this.
-Many times an EXAMINE-command is met with a dry default "You can't see that,"-response. At least as often the game says "The pink handkerchief is not important."
-Something similar holds for directional commands. The normal default "You can't go that way,"-response is present for obviously closed directions (a room with only one doorway), but in some locations the author breaks the fourth wall and explains to the player directly why a certain direction is closed off (instead of blocking the way with an appropriate in-game command).

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>Cross-roads
You are at a road junction. Roads lead north, south, east and west. The
road to the west leads away from the village. This would have been indicated
on a signpost but all signposts have been removed for the duration of the war
as a security measure.

\>W
It's obvious that there must be a road leading out of the village but, as I
didn't want to have to include the entire north of England in this game, you
can't go that way.

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The sparse default responses and the jokingly breaking of the fourth wall create an atmosphere of puzzle-priority. You have a setting and a flimsy frame-story, now get on with the obstacles the author has put in your path.
However, this stands in strong contrast to the care that went into the historical details of the setting. Examining a rock might tell you that it's not important, or even that it's not even there, but examining a frescoe will give you a detailed description of the depiction, along with the mythological context. All while the frescoe is no more important than the rock.
While I appreciated this amount of attention to detail a lot, the contrast between the sparsely described "normal" game world and the enthusiasm in the description of these choice objects gave me the feeling I was being taken on a guided tour, where the tour-guide decides for you where to look.

The unevenness of the depth of description and implementation, apart from causing an imbalance in the feel of the world, also has a very strong impact on the perception of puzzles and potential solutions.
The heavy descriptive emphasis on certain details focuses the player's attention on them. To remain with the frescoe-example, I tried finding deeper symbolic/metaphoric meaning in the picture, I counted recurring elements in search of a hidden code, I tried to push eyes and stars to see if there was some secret machinery hidden underneath... I must say I found it a bit disappointing when I realised that the lovingly described artwork was an elaborate bit of worldbuilding, and that a simple down-to-earth LOOK BEHIND ELEPHANT would produce more tangible results.
I wouldn't really call the decorative descriptions "red herrings", I got used to them as historical information rather than puzzle-related clues quickly. They might throw off the player's focus the first few times, but the game is consistent in its style of puzzles, it won't suddenly change tack and expect you to deduce an obscure code from a background painting.

The collection of puzzles on offer in Excuse Me, Do You Have The Time is challenging but solvable, if you meticulously search every time-zone. Objects found in one time-zone may be needed to solve a puzzle in another, so there will be some going back-and-forth between areas. Using the items in the corrects way sometimes requires clever leap of imagination, an understanding of the culture of the specific time-zone you're in.
Besides the puzzles themselves, there are stumbling blocks in the way that are more a consequence of the game structure and some design decisions.
--The distance between a puzzle and the objects needed to solve it and/or the clues needed to understand it is sometimes very large. This makes it difficult in some cases to see the connection which would be obvious if clue, item, and puzzle were in the same few locations.
For each area, a clue in form of a cryptic poem is hidden somewhere in the game. I found some of these to be helpful in understanding the bigger objective of each zone, others not so much. I think it really comes down to how your brain works if you understand which information to derive from these poems.
--There are one-way dead-ends in some of the time-zones, meaning that if you didn't find all the important objects on your exploration, you can't go back to have another look. It's a good idea to put a checkpoint-save at the start of every area (while you're still in the time-machine!)
--There's a limit on how many things you can carry with you, even with the added space in a handy rucksack, and there's no way of knowing which objects will be needed when first entering a new time-zone. Also, there are a lot of red-herring items, objects you pick up or are given in the course of the game which may give a nice impression of the time and place you're in, but which serve no practical use.
As a result, you'll be doing a fair amount of selecting items you might need from your collection, and even then you'll be doing some high-level inventory juggling.

Fortunately, you're not alone.

Aside from acting as an extension of your inventory capacity, your three loyal companions (Tom, Dick, and Harry. Really.) have other uses as well. Their remarks on your performance and banter among themselves serves as a bit of comic relief. Sadly, their pool of utterances from which the game randomly picks each turn is rather shallow. I quickly zoned out and ignored them. Your friends' help is needed to solve some of the puzzles, in situations where you yourself are found lacking. Lastly, they form a three-level hint system. I used this a lot, especially Tom's vague nudges, but they're of no great help when you're well and truly stuck. Their hints will edify you on how to tackle a problem, but they will not enlighten you on the sometimes harder task of finding the right object. You're still left to search the entire map on your own if you haven't found the item the first time through. This leaves you vulnerable to Zombification.

A lot of other NPCs inhabit the areas you visit. The majority of them don't understand a word you say. Being from a different country in the distant past will have that effect. The few that are open to some form of limited communication are there for puzzle-progress only.

Excuse Me, Do You Have The Time?'s structure of interdependent time-zones opens up many opportunities for interesting associative breakthroughs in solving its puzzles, but it's also very cruel. The anxiety of having missed something stopped me from fully enjoying the setting.

Good puzzler.

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Repeat the Ending, by Drew Cook

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Quarter-century look-back at a flawed game., February 2, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

---> Our learned co-contributor to Intfiction and writer of the comprehensive IF and Infocom-related blog Gold Machine has unearthed an interesting work from the early modern ages of Interactive Fiction in the form of one of his own old games. In a considerable labour of IF-related textual archaeology, he has published a Critical Edition of the seriously flawed 1996 Inform 5 game Repeat the Ending. It consists of an edited version of the original source text (i.e. the game itself), supplemented and supported with in-game annotations and a separate Reader's Companion (referred to together as the paratext.)

This Critical Edition collects a series of contemporary and new essays on a wide range of topics such as the genesis of the original and the edited game, exploration of the themes in the work, the (supposed) development of authorial intent, the evolution of language-use, and the shift to a more player-friendly version of the high Zarfian Cruely level of the original. The articles found in the Reader's Companion were contributed by P. Searcy, D. S. Collins, C. A. Smythe, A. H. Montague, and Drew Cook himself. Each imparts their own emphasis on topics viewed from their personal field of interest.

Along with these scholarly texts are included a number of reviews, both contemporary and of later dates. These give a nice insight not only into the reception of the game, but also into the IF-ecosystem at the time of their writing. An interview with the author is also attached, although the vagueness of the answers to pertinent questions means that it hardly contributes more than some amiable atmosphere to the discussion.

Reading the entire Reader's Companion requires a fair amount of time and focused attention. It's worth it though, since its contents give the player a life-line to guide their interpretation of the sometimes obscure storyline and design-choices in the game proper.

More easily accessible are the annotations scattered throughout the game-text. They clarify, raise questions about, or merely point out notable or confusing responses and features the player may encounter, and may then choose to delve into further in the Companion. The footnotes double as much-needed tutorial information for new and experienced IF-players alike where such guidance for tackling the game is absent from the source text.

In the combined paratext, much attention is directed toward the differences between the 1996 original work and this 2023 edition. The authors views on a number of topics seem to have, if not radivally changed, then certainly noticeably shifted in the two-and-a-half decades since first writing Repeat the Ending in 1996. Interestingly, on many occasions, both in his own words and when paraphrased by the other contributors, the author vehemently denies any such shift has indeed taken place. He claims that this new version is the one he always intended to create, putting aside any real differences as artefacts of his inadequate proficiency in Inform 5 coding at the time. This is hard to believe, to say the least. When studying the essays, and comparing the new edition's text with a transcript of the original game that was circulated in 2003, it becomes clear that the 2023 "definitive" version is close to a complete remake.

An important caveat, and an in my view critical flaw of this Critical Edition is that the original source material, i.e. the 1996 version is not included in the package, neither as playable game, nor as source-code. All comparisons between the original and the new versions therefore rely on second-hand references, the word of the author, and the text of the 2003 transcript. The veracity of this last bit of data is problematic to say the least, as all acounts regarding it characterise it as implausible, misleadingly edited at the very least, perhaps even dishonestly doctored in full. The results, statements, and deductions found in the so-called "Critical" Edition's essays are all built on loose sand because of this omission of the original source text.
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--->Apart from analysis and clarification, the paratext serves an important, if secondary, role when viewing the work as a whole, i.e. the totality of game, essays and footnotes. Careful, measured perusal of the analytical asides while playing leads to greater involvement and deeper engagement with the game as the player is experiencing it. The paratext delivers a conceptual framework for attempting to understand the game's meaning, it opens an intellectual pathway to the strong emotional impact of the game's story.

Conversely, and at the same time, the scholarly approach provides protective distance from the distressing themes and actions. This certainly applies to the player who can withdraw into a more reflective state of participation when direct experience becomes overwhelming. It is hard not to speculate if the author chose this scholarly approach for the same reason, not to be confronted too directly with the hard themes of the game, but to have a roundabout way of writing about them when immediate handling of them became too painful...

When the paratext messages are disabled in the final chapter of the game, this protective effect becomes very clear. Here, the player has no choice but to experience the unfolding of the story directly, without the option of circumventing, avoiding, or delaying the emotional intensity of the story.
---------------------------------------------------------------------------

--->And here, now, dear patient reader, I must abandon all pretense of engaging in distanced scholarly debate. For I have to speak of the source itself, the heart of the work, the game Repeat the Ending.

I am dead serious about the defensive qualities of the scholarly diversions in the paratext. This game hits hard, and is brutally vulnerable at the same time. The protection offered by the distanced paratext seems to work in the other direction too. An intellectual wall shields the sensitive heart of the work. It's cradled in an analytical nest to keep whatever harm at bay.

The elaborate room descriptions in Repeat the Ending are interspersed with personal comments from the point of view of the protagonist. Interacting with the contents of the locations through the habitual IF-commands quickly runs into a frustrating wall.
Unproductive, unimportant, unsuccessful commands (of which there are many!) are met with plaintive, self-pitying, or even hostile responses.

The author subverts the traditional expectations of who the parser/narrator is speaking to or about, and uses them to blur the lines between the player and the protagonist on different perceived levels of reality.

The dramatic, mentally unstable state of mind of the main character, his lack of control over his life-direction is directed outward, ascribed to unrelenting external forces such as abuse in his childhood or poverty in his current situation. Or it is attributed to uncontrollable internal influences, the driving urges and voices in his mind. The latter is very effectively conveyed through the dissociation in the mental monologue of the character between the narrator and the actor. The ambiguous use of pronouns (we, I, you) points to the in-game confusion and powerless state of the protagonist. However, once the player realises she is controlling the character's actions through her input of commands, this ambiguousness extends outward to encompass the player at the keyboard. It pulls her into a complicit, even guilty role since she is the one responsible for the protagonist's decisions.

Throughout the game, there are two seemingly straightforward objectives. The main character must pick up his medications from the pharmacy, and visit his mother in the hospital. However, it soon becomes clear that none of the successful steps in the direction of these objectives raises the player's score. Indeed, it is only when the method of increasing the score becomes apparent that the true underlying goal of this piece reveals itself. While there is a straight pathway through the story that succeeds in both superficial objectives, real "progress" depends on rebelling against the railroad. Taking actions that go against the narrow definition of success, that take the protagonist outside of his automatic routine often lead to failure and death. However, these actions do signify desperate attempts of the main character to fight back, to regain some measure of control, some small grasp on life.

A telling insight into the dismal state of mind of the protagonist is offered by the confusing, disjointed images. They seem to come straight from a dream or some other, more terrifying subconscious process. Despite their surreal quality, the rough-scribbled outlines, splashes of colour, skewed perspective, and, most touchingly, their choice of details depicted lend an impact surpassing that of any realistic depiction of the scenes.

Repeat the Ending features an innovative magic system that exemplifies some deeper point of the game. Instead of the usual fixation on object-manipulation, this game is about recognising processes, changing states of the surrounding world (and of the mind). The deeper meaning of the work is reflected in this focus of the magic system: pushing against and redirecting the laws of reality to change the circumstances. Finding a way over or through the predetermination of the protagonist's life.

The multiple endings that can be reached are in line with both the struggle to break free of the railroad, and the depressed and dissociative mental state of the main character. They are a measure not of success, but of steadfastly reaching outside the limits of perceived set-in-stone possibilities while failing.
No matter which way the heartbreaking final scene plays out, the story will end on at best a bittersweet note. The best both player and protagonist can (and should!) hope for is a small sense of regained control, of personal responsability, of self-knowledge.

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Jinxter, by Georgina Sinclair, Michael Bywater

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Lucky Charm, January 31, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

If you play this game without slavishly following the walkthrough to the smallest detail, you will ragequit when the endgame throws you out right before the final 6 or 7 moves.

I did.

Many puzzles in Jinxter have a straightforward adventure-game solution. This solution has potentially life-threatening side-effects. You don't actually die though, but it takes a little bit off your luck-stat. Which you need. Which I didn't know. Which I only found out when I was thrown out of the endgame because I was low on Luck.

Restoring won't help this late in the game, the only way to experience the endgame and the good conclusion of the story is restarting and finding out the intermediate steps of caution in every solution.

>"Somehow, you don't feel quite as lucky as you did."

If you read the above line, it's time to restore and tackle that last puzzle again. Carefully...

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

Now, do play Jinxter! It's fun!

No, really, it is.

For ages, Aquitania has been under the protection of an enchanted bracelet which grants above-average luck to its inhabitants. Recently, the power of the bracelet has diminished by the theft of several of its dangly charms. An opportunity for the Head Green Witch Jannedor to enlarge her influence on the land of Aquitania.
Your quest is clear. You must find the missing charms, restore the bracelet's enchantment, confront Jannedor!

Wait... Who is this "You"?
It appears that our savior of the land is actually a random hapless passer-by, designated by Fate (and a rather befuddled Guardian) to take on this land-savioring task.
Perhaps Magnetic Scrolls earlier works provide a clue to who You is...
-There's no mention of gills and fins, so it's not the dimension-portal jumping goldfish-detective from Fish.
-No exceptional catburglary skills, probably not the thief from Guild of Thieves either.
Nope. Seems like You is just an ordinary adventure person without any distinguishing traits.

The world that unfolds for You to explore is large and varied. It all starts out in the mundane comfy familiarity of You's own home, and it goes progressively more into fairy-talish territory with each new area.
(Ahem... When I said mundane, I should point out that's a rather relative term. The street in right out the front door is a literal Neverending Lane, and your furniture becomes, well, animated from time to time, presumably caused by the uncontrolled leakage of Luck.)
When I glance at my pen-and-paper map, the general shape is a narrow connecting line with bulges that represent multi-location puzzle areas. Four large areas are connected by some sort of vehicle ride (with attached puzzle). Apart from the connection between areas 1 and 2, these are one-way only. I love vehicular travel in adventures. It draws open the map and gives an impression of real long travel, as opposed to traversing unrealistically long distances on foot.
At least one sneakily hidden passage requires some weakly clued detection work, but the area it leads to is more than worth it.

Jaunty and exuberant writing pulls You into the cheerful atmosphere of the game-world; vibrant location descriptions are supported by beautiful pictures that are helpful in constructing a clear mental image of You's surroundings.

>Spring

>This cool spring, surrounded on all sides but the west by steep banks, bubbles up from underground. It looks entirely artless and natural, belying the fact that Xam's crazed gardener constructed it by means of an intricate system of dams and hydraulics, initially flooding half the neighbourhood and leading to a series of acrimonious lawsuits lasting several years.

At other times, it's more restrained, slipping in a drily humorous response to an EXAMINE-command.

>The telephone is a telephone, just like a red one, except it is green.

Speaking of the EXAMINE-command... There is none. Everything is done with LOOK (fortunately its abbreviation L is accepted). It took some conscious effort to redirect my fingers' deeply engrained automation from X [object] to L [object], but the adjustment wasn't too big.
On the whole, the parser is perfectly adequate. It recognises complex commands (DROP ALL EXCEPT) and multiple-action commands (SMELL DEAD FLY THEN LICK IT). It is however somewhat too fine-grained, making the PC feel like a toddler who has to be pointed to all the discrete components of a seemingly simple action. Until you get used to holding the PC's hand, this leads to a lot of "With what?" and "To whom" responses where a modern parser would deduce these things without problem.
---->Short aside as to why I'm mentioning this: Jinxter was published in 1987, when these finer points of parsing were not by any means to be taken for granted (still aren't, actually, when you look beyond the strongest of modern parsers). Boasting about parser-strength was a real promotional tool, and players then would not have found these "shortcomings" to be disruptive.

To be sure, I never encountered an instance where parser inadequacy hindered the solving of a puzzle. The puzzles were more than enough of a challenge all by themselves.
The first area is gentle enough, the puzzles are easily recognisable and the limited amount of items in You's inventory makes it rather straightforward to come up with the correct solution. (Look out for that additional Luck-complication though!)
The later areas, however, are much harder, especially the midgame. A bunch of interdependent locations necessitate running from one part of the area to the other to find the right item to use on a distant puzzle, there's an unknown order to the obstacles that needs to be figured out in order to make real progress, and the puzzles are just harder.
Add to this a further complication: the "carry-all" You picked up early in the game turns out not to be a carry-all at all. It's handy to keep all You's stuff together, but each item still fills up your inventory, whether it's inside the container or not. The inventory-limit is generous, but in a game like this it's hard to predict if you're going to need those nailclippers a second time or not. It never certain when it's safe to discard an object, so You ends up carrying every carryable article around. This becomes a problem when one of the one-way passages prohibits the transporting of the carry-much and forces You to choose which items to bring.
The majority of puzzles are clever and fun to hypothesise about. Some are very elegant and surprising, with a solution so simple that it's not obvious at all. Others are obscure, underclued to the point of unfairness, requiring many attempts and possibly a few RESTOREs.
---->Be sure to put a checkpoint-save at the beginning of each new area. Allthough it's impossible to die in Jinxter, it's exceedingly easy to wind up Zombified. I also encountered a bug that would have made the game unwinnable had I not been able to restore to my checkpoint. ((Spoiler - click to show)The Bartender gets fussy when you give him the wrong coin. He gives you a glass of beer that you cannot interact with.)

There are many NPCs to interact with. They're of the thick cardboard type, but the cardboard is painted in bright colours and cartoonish features. They're fun to mess with a bit, amusing caricatures, but don't expect any depth of conversation. Their main purpose is to serve as obstacles, to be fooled, distracted, mislead in the search for the missing charms.
There's also a weird Guardian (the one who appointed You as the right person to undertake this quest in the first place) soaring around who will regularly appear out of nowhere. It's worth asking him about the problem at hand, but don't count on a helpful answer. He might point You in the right direction, but it's just as possible he'll be too confused to help in any way, or too busy with finding the nearest whatever-it-is that he's after this time. In short, you shouldn't rely on the Guardian as an in-game hint system to help you find the charms.

Collecting the charms grants access to the magic powers they possess. Each charm encapsulates a single spell. These work as simple and straightforward manipulations of the surroundings, nothing too complicated, but a nice extra toolbox to consider when pondering a puzzle. And of course they're a lot of fun when thrown around randomly at innocent, unsuspecting things or people in your immediate vicinity...

I started this review with a warning about the unfairness of the endgame, or, more precisely, about the necessity to do everything just right during the entire game to even be admitted to the endgame. And I did not restart and replay to enter the final few commands that separated me from the conclusion of the story. Nevertheless, I found Jinxter to be an engaging and entertaining exerience. Just watch your step and leave your temper at the entrance.

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Varicella, by Adam Cadre

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Il Reggente., January 24, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

How Unseemly!
-------------

The King is dead! All hail the Ki... well, seeing that Prince Charles is a five-year-old nasty specimen of royalty who has barely outgrown his toddler nappies, that should be "All hail Primo Varicella, Regent of Piedmont!"
Once you've managed to outmaneuver your rivals to the Regency in the maze of backstabbery and treasonous wit that lies before you at this time, that is...

Several times during my earliest forays into Interactive Fiction, 20-odd years ago, I started playing Adam Cadre's Varicella and quickly bounced off it. My expectations then were firmly geared towards long linear quest-adventures, and this game's time-limit and simultaneous sub-puzzles stumped me. I never got much further than trying to kick one of the guards in the nads when he wouldn't stand aside. (A swift death was my reward.)
In the past years, I have played and enjoyed a bunch of optimisation games, and delving into the historic vaults of IF had exposed me to many Cruel games with numerous try-die-repeat puzzles. With the added wisdom and experience so accumulated, I felt ready to once again tackle this highly acclaimed Classic of the Renaissance with an openness of mind and the patience to appreciate it on its own terms.

>"Photopia has made more of a mark, I suppose, but Photopia is a short story; Varicella is a world. There are so many things to see and do…"
--Adam Cadre on Varicella--

A very true assessment. What the author doesn't mention is that no single playthrough will ever contain even half the content this game has to offer. Merely to gather the absolute minimum of information necessary to solve the game requires multiple focused playthroughs. Finding out about the other conversation topics, item descriptions, hidden nooks kept me happily engaged for a good while after I had solved the central puzzle.

Varicella is amazing.


----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

----Rise Of Primo Varicella; A Truthful Account Of Our Behind-the-Scenes Assistance To One Palace Minister In His Ruthless Ascent to Power----
----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

--> I. In which We Acquaint Ourselves With The Pallazo del Piemonte:

As a first move, we slide our pocket pocket watch into our breastpocket, we won't be needing it anytime soon. Let death come as it wills. (In other words, do not pay notice to the advancing clock in the status bar.) In these first few visits to the Palace, our primary focus shall be on the basics of this imaginary world: the Map! Exits and entrances, locked doors and other puzzles, the locations of items to pick up and NPCs to chat up.
The Palace on each level is built according to an almost completely symmetrical floor plan. This arrangement will be most convenient later on, when time is of the essence. For now, we might as well draw our map and note and label the offices of our rivals for future reference.
Pairing the practical to the pleasant, our tour allows us to take in the halls, rooms, and corridors of the Palace, all described from Primo's point of view.

>\>LOOK

Your Quarters

You may have been relegated to the top of this tower, but that hasn't impeded you from imbuing your quarters with an excellence that not even a team of interior decorators flown in from Kyoto could achieve. Only someone with your finely-honed sensibilities could have taken this amount of space and kept it from seeming appallingly cramped. Though the panoramic windows to the north and west do their part in opening up the room, you still have to give most of the credit to yourself.

His attention to the smallest details of ornamentation reveals an inordinate fondness for luxury and style, this seeming to be his greatest priority in life, apart from his unquenchable thirst for power.

--> II. In Which The Gap Between Primo Varicella's Knowledge And Our Own Is Bridged, And Our Shared Understanding Is Broadened:

Having lived here for years, Primo has been involved in the palatial scheming and plotting for a long time before we made our entrance. It's essential for the player's understanding of what's going on to absorb all the information at hand to catch up with him.
Both the explicit asides in and the implicit hints at palatial power-dynamics between the lines of the room descriptions have already given us a view of the treacherous web of ambitons we'll need to navigate. A good way to get more insight is Primo's own record of his rivals and potential allies. (He has a nifty gizmo...)

This leads us straight to the next step: seeking out the other palace residents. Each and every one of them has their own flavour of wretchedness. Be it raw lust for power coupled with the guileful cunning needed to reach and hold a position in the Palace, the powerless misery of being a mere plaything in the machinations of the Court, or the distanced watchfulness of one awaiting the developments before choosing sides, all the players on this stage are deeply disturbing.
For at least one of them, the ordeals that life amidst these scheming villains have pushed her firmly beyond the reach of reason:

>\>ASK CHARLOTTE ABOUT ME
"i see a little varicella of a man," Princess Charlotte replies. "scaramouche! scaramouche! will you do the grim fandango? i think you will!"


Primo, with all his cynical scheming, is not by far the worst of the lot.

Gaining access to the personal quarters of the other palace inhabitants confronts us with the first few obstacles. Easy and straightforward as they may be, they provide the necessary first steps toward the cogs and wheels we'll need to set in motion. Careful navigation of the conversations and attentive investigation of their rooms will reveal secrets and weaknesses to be exploited later on. The items available in the private rooms point us toward potential ways to eliminate our rivals.

--> III. In Which Fragments of the Scheme are Discovered and Executed:

The accessible rooms and halls of the Palazzo di Piemonte fully investigated, the other denizens interrogated in as far as they would let us, important-seeming items in our inventory, the mind reeling with possible scenarios... It's time to finally act upon the hunches and what-ifs that were triggered by our exploration.

Each of Primo's rivals has their own puzzle-chain, their own sequence of steps toward their elimination. Because life in the Palace moves along at its own pace, and our adversaries are busily deploying their own sets of perfidious tactics, many of our actions are time-dependent.
A number of obstacles require intimate knowledge about the other residents gained in previous conversations to goad them in our desired direction. Other hurdles are of a more physical or technical nature, where we manipulate nature instead of people.
The main objective here is to find the way to take out each of Primo's rivals separately, without worrying yet about the others during one particular tour.

--> IV. In Which I Piece together Primo's Plan:

Alas! I failed at this final task. I had figured out the movements and weaknesses of Primo's rivals, and for each of them I found a way to exploit this knowledge against them. The distinct sequences for eliminating each of the other power-hungry wolves were clear to me, without even once peeking behind the curtains.

++++
Speaking of peeking behind curtains, we're treated to a nice reference to the Bard if we do precisely that:

>LOOK BEHIND TAPESTRY
The tapestry is flush against the wall, with nothing behind it but cool marble. You were expecting Polonius?
---Adam Cadre, Varicella---
--------------------------------------------------/
QUEEN
"What wilt thou do? Thou wilt not murder me?
Help, ho!"
POLONIUS (behind the arras)
"What ho! Help!"
HAMLET
"How now, a rat? Dead for a ducat, dead."
----He kills Polonius by thrusting a rapier
through the arras.----
---William Shakespeare, Hamlet---
--------------------------------------------------/
++++

Despite repeated attempts, I never succeeded at ordering the moves in these discrete seqences into an effective interlocking whole. After getting rid of the majority of opponents, there always remained at least one foe that I had not dealt with soon enough.
It's not enough to execute the separate sub-schemes one after the other, no matter in which order. Primo needs to think many moves ahead and slide the distinct plans together to have a chance of defeating the large-scale puzzle. Acquiring items and solving preparatory puzzles for a later adversary must be taken care of while still dealing with the present opponent, so that the whole of the masterplan is as time-efficient as possible.
When I felt utterly defeated and finally looked at a step-by-step walkthrough, the ultimate all-encompassing sequence of moves presented itself as a magnificent complex web, dealing with every circumstance and threat in an interwoven simultaneous master scheme.

Following the walkthrough and seeing events unroll showed me a vision of an inescapable, interlocking, overarching solution which has an almost mathematical beauty.

--> V. In Which Primo Varicella Prevails:

At the end of this horrible tale, Primo stand atop a heap of corpses, rewarded with the Regence of Piedmont. With the child Prince Charles under his protection and authority, his dream of power is fulfilled.

>"Yet it cannot be called talent to slay fellow-citizens, to deceive friends,
to be without faith, without mercy, without religion; such methods may
gain empire, but not glory. Still, if the courage of Primo Varicella in
entering into and extricating himself from dangers be considered,
together with his greatness of mind in enduring and overcoming
hardships, it cannot be seen why he should be esteemed less than the
most notable captain.

--Nicoló Macchiavelli, Il Principe; Chapter VIII: Of Those Who By Their Crimes Come To Be Princes.-- ("Agathocles" changed to "Primo Varicella)

The short epilogue concludes the story of Regent Primo Varicella in a fitting manner. It left me staring unseeing into the distance, pondering the fate of my luxury-loving, power-lusting companion whom I, contrary to my wishes, had grown somewhat fond of.


Varicella is among the very best IF has to offer. Magnificent.

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A Beauty Cold and Austere, by Mike Spivey

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Non Cogito ergo Non Sum?, January 19, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

First of all: A Beauty Cold and Austere is extremely well coded and implemented. Every action I tried that had even the slightest relevance to the problem at hand was understood. The parser understands tons of synonyms and guesses accurately what you want to do from differently formulated commands. This is a joy in every adventure, but it is doubly so in a game like this. There is a lot of precise fiddling of switches and turning of dials here, and any less near-perfect implementation would have made this a hell of frustration.

The puzzles here are logic and fair (duh). The author has put in a lot of effort to guide the player to understanding why the solutions work. I daresay that I have learned a (vague) thing or two about calculus.

The game truly shines in its visualization of abstract mathematical concepts and problems. An algebra problem made concrete with balancing scales is something one could find in an oldschool text adventure. Making an infinite converging series tangible or visible is harder. And programming, nay, creating a working machine in the game that lets you manipulate such series at will is just a heavenly present to any IF-tinkerer.

The writing is very good. Well-described locations, the occasional joke (well, a bit more than occasional, but it stays within bounds...), good NPCs. On the larger scale, it's harder to say:

Like The Chinese Room, a game that explores some basic concepts of philosophy, A Beauty Cold and Austere explores many mathematical concepts. And, like The Chinese Room, A Beauty Cold and Austere does not have much of a story beyond that.

It makes up for this though. Instead of a story-structure, we get an ever-widening understanding of mathematical concepts and how they are linked to eachother. And this widening understanding is beautifully reflected in the way the gamespace evolves. The map itself expands and deepens with your mathematical discoveries (or inventions, depending on your philosophical standpoint). You also have the backbone of math's history and many of the great minds in it to give the game a recognizable structure.

I like this game a lot.

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Scavenger, by Quintin Stone

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
At first, I didn't even know why I bought this Geiger counter..., January 18, 2024
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

...but then it clicked.

Scavenger is what it says on the tin. The tin is corroded and highly volatile. It might be radio-active. It's located in some raider base you just happened to find the coördinates to. Whatever it is, find the tin.

Sounds straightforward enough, doesn't it? Well, it mostly is. Until you start to collect pieces of evidence of what exactly happened before this existence as a scavenger on a blasted Earth. Until you meet a little girl who managed to survive in a ruined bunker... Until you get to the bottom floor of the base.

Scavenger plays as the epitome of old school scavenger hunts, and in doing so far surpasses most of them. Verbose, evocative descriptions, a sympathetic-but-not-quite protagonist, a backstory savoured in bits and pieces...

The thieving-adventurer brought to his knees, stripped of his kleptomania, given purpose and sent out into the world again. A barren ruined world. This time taking whatever is there for bare survival.

Must play.

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