The official website for this game does not work, and the author's website seems to be entirely offline. It's not playable using Wayback Machine either, as it was a PHP game relying on a server backend.
Fortunately, the author released the source code of the game. I downloaded the code and was able to run the game on my own computer, with some modifications. My repository for this game is here (the hardest part was actually finding and downloading the images). You can try it out, if you have php installed.
While writing this review I discovered that this game was not lost after all; there is a playable version online at https://aof.guzh.me/, with a Chinese translation. This link didn't work when I first discovered the game, which was why I downloaded the source code.
Now, about the game itself: this reminds me of the Choice of Games style, although with more randomness, something like an open world, a lot more opportunities to die, and a more DnD-like stat system. So not really like CoG at all. I know it's supposed to be more akin to pen-and-paper gamebooks, but I'm not familiar with gamebooks (CoG might have also been gamebook-inspired). The basic structure of the game is adventuring in various hub locations (in a city, in the wilderness, in the ocean) with randomly chosen events/storylets in each location. There is a large number of random events, with moods ranging from comedy to tragedy to horror, and I still have not nearly discovered them all (the total word count might be over 100k). Despite the variety of events, there can be a lot of repetition at the hubs; you often find yourself back at the main city after a random event in the ocean.
From the links provided in the game and the author's blog, it seems that the author has put a great deal of thought into fantasy worldbuilding. But sometimes that didn't quite come through in the game itself. I enjoyed the moment-to-moment writing and the variety of situations in the game, but the scenes felt disconnected. The game doesn't really have a through-plot, or a critical path that the player can follow to reach an ending (I did reach some endings, but that was a while ago and I don't remember them). Even so, I think the game provides an interesting world to explore and a space to play around in.
I enjoyed the artwork, which include classical public-domain paintings, modern fantasy illustrations, sketches, and some CGI.
Anya Johanna DeNiro wrote an excellent review/retrospective of the game at Sub-Q.
Update: Half of this review is now outdated because the complete version of Bee for dendry has been released. I still agree with this review, and if anything have gained a new appreciation for Bee from having taken a small part in its development. There are a lot of intricacies in how the story is told, and how it uses the medium of interactive fiction. Bee is amazing and I recommend it for anyone interested in narrative design or just a meaningful slice-of-life story.
I had the good fortune of being able to play Bee before Varytale disappeared from the internet. It was one of the first pieces of IF I played/read, and was part of what made me fall in love with interactive fiction. Unfortunately, Bee in its original form is no longer online; the Dendry version is playable only up to a point. Even so, I think it is well worth playing in its current form.
Comparing the original Varytale version to the Dendry version that is currently online, it is apparent that there is a lot missing. Dendry does not have the visible stat display or character lists, which makes the choice process almost akin to fumbling in the dark. The only indicator of time are the occasional Christmas, Easter, and Halloween events. In addition, the Dendry version does not have the ending scenes (I checked the code; the endings are not present), so instead of ending with the final spelling bee, the story just fizzles out once a certain time has been reached.
Still, I think the Dendry version should be played, if only to experience Emily Short's writing. The scenes that do exist are excellently written, and you can get up to the first spelling bee with zero issues. Also, since the code is available, it is theoretically possible to fix at least some of the problems, like adding stat displays back in...
There's already been a lot said about Bee's story in the reviews here. It really resonated with me, as someone who competed in academic competitions when I was younger. The protagonist has a sense of alienation from both her own family and from the broader American culture as a whole, and she has trouble relating to others and uses spelling as a coping mechanism. Through the player's choices, she can become rebellious, or participate in the spelling bee to the fullest, going all the way to the nationals before getting runner-up (this scene is not in the Dendry version). Even as the player subtly molds her personality, the current of alienation always remains.
The primary way the story is structured is through the progression of time. At each "turn", the player is given a choice of three randomly chosen storylets, each of which is a mini-CYOA scene. Some storylets have higher priority than others, and most are dependent on either a specific time of year or on certain stats. A lot of storylets repeat, especially the spelling practice scenes, which does get kind of tiresome after a while.
Dendry itself has probably become my favorite HTML interactive fiction framework, and my recent game, which was kind of/very inspired by Bee, happens to use Dendry.
RIP Varytale :(
This is a very long and ambitious Choicescript game, in fact one of the longest ever at 1.2 million words, and it's still only the first part of what promises to be at least a three-part saga. It takes place in an alternate-history version of medieval Iberia, where the Church has outlawed Latin (to the point where most of the characters have Germanic rather than Romance name forms) and the study of the Roman Empire. The protagonist is part of a company of mercenaries who seek to recover lost artifacts, which brings them into conflict with the Church and various other authorities.
The setting is probably my favorite part of the game. It is set in the city of Tarragona (in present-day Spain), and the medieval city comes alive in the very descriptive writing. There is a relatively free-form portion in the middle of the game where the player can visit different parts of the city; I love this kind of panoramic view of different social groups and people, who are all lovingly and distinctively portrayed. The alternate-history worldbuilding feels utterly believable, with details like names coming into play in fascinating ways.
On the other hand, the detail-oriented nature of the game can throw the pacing off. There is a constant sequence of tiny actions imbued with almost supernatural significance. Do you tilt your chin, touch your nose, or stoically gaze forward? Well, no matter what you do, there is going to be at least a paragraph of over-the-top description of your action and what it means for your personality, and it might not be what you expect. As someone who cannot read the author's mind (and is not the most socially aware IRL), the emotional salience of the various gestures was often lost on me (although I did learn the patterns). There's just so many of these tiny big choices, all throughout the story, and I got a bit tired of them. Also, the mass of details can unbalance the story; these tiny gestures are given more weight in the narrative than some of the moments where people actually die (it's funny how our mercenary can be adept at killing people while having anxiety attacks when someone looks at them a certain way).
The characters are a mixed bag. Some of them feel like dating sim archetypes (the nice boy, the bad boy, the defrosting ice queen), but they're written with a lot of detail and nuance. I like the ambiguity in a lot of the characters' motivations and even their feelings about the protagonist. The relationship descriptions in the stats page are all textual with no stat bars; even though there are multiple stat bars underneath the hood, it still felt more immersive to me.
Overall, I really enjoyed this game, but I wish I could like it more. I'm giving it 5 stars mostly because of its high ambitions and the huge amount of work that was put into the game, and I'm certainly looking forward to the next book.
The TURING Test is a game with some interesting ideas, but I thought the implementation left some room for improvement.
The game starts in a very classic sci-fi mode, with direct references to Asimovís Robot series. The first act consists of an ethical questionnaire, asking the player what you feel about various ethical questions relating to robots, the three laws, the meaning of life, etc.
The next act is an exposition about the robot apocalypse that occurs as a result of your answers to the questionnaire. (Spoiler - click to show)Turns out, the AI interpreted your ethics extremely literally in a way that caused it to want to kill all humans. It was interesting to read how exactly the AI would go about its plans. However, I didnít think the robot rebellion story was plausible: (long spoilery section) (Spoiler - click to show)Based on my choices in the beginning, the AIís directive was to preserve all life on earth, but it found that humanity did more harm than good, so it must destroy humanity to stop global warming. But launching every nuclear weapon on earth would cause way more damage to life on earth and its ecosystems than most plausible scenarios of global warming, via the nuclear winter and radiation and so on. I guess since I didnít pick nuclear war as the greatest threat, the AI considered global warming to be a greater threat than nuclear war, but the reason I didnít pick nuclear war as the greatest threat is that the likelihood of global nuclear war is less than the likelihood of catastrophic global warming. Not just the absolute value of harm but the likelihood of harm. So... I don't know. This is kind of pedantic and wouldíve been avoided if the AI were able to kill humans without nukes.
Maybe the AI weighs the well being of cockroaches above every other life form. Which could make sense in certain branches of utilitarianism and could have been interesting to explore. Maybe it valued bacterial life the most because there was so much of it and thus decided to kill humans because they made antibiotics but then decides to avoid killing humans because they provide excellent hosts for bacteria but then decides to kill humans anyway because I donít know.
Then there's a long, essentially linear segment detailing your plan for taking down the AI that you helped create, involving uploading a virus. There are some choices mostly for aesthetic. And then you are sent to the International Space Station, and that was where I encountered my first bug.
The bug: I go to the Kibo lab on the ISS and see ďItís timeĒ, and then the game hangs. It just freezes. I think this was a problem with firefox, because multiple twine/harlowe games with timed text have had this problem. Chromium did not have this issue, I think, although looking at some of the other reviews, it has occurred in Chrome for some people.
Now we get to the actual Turing Test portion, where we have to distinguish between two entities to see which is the real human. You only get to ask each of them three questions, which seems like a remarkably short Turing test. Both the questions and answers feel kind of vague to me. I ended up guessing correctly, but I couldn't say why. (Spoiler - click to show)I think that the AI's answers are supposed to be based on the player's answers to the philosophical survey at the beginning of the game.
I had the same freezing error after the Turing test, when I had to decide which was the human and which was the AI. Picking one of the answers (the correct answer) led to the timed text never showing up. Again, I think this is an issue in the way firefox interacts with harlowe. Interestingly, the bug did not happen when I picked the wrong answer, and I might have actually preferred the "bad" ending.
I played through both endings, and while I thought the concept and writing were good, something about it just didnít click for me. The central plot device didnít really make sense, and the interactivity was less than the premise promised. I guess my feelings were soured by the technical issues I encountered, which weren't really the game's fault. Maybe without the bugs, I would have enjoyed it more.
This game is incredible. It almost invokes the same kind of energy that playing SPY INTRIGUE for the first time did. It doesnít quite reach those heights for me, but itís still an amazing experience. Itís also a more straightforward, less player-hostile experience.
The author is the creator of the Harlowe format for Twine, and this game makes very good use of twine as a medium. It uses various styles and visual effects extensively, and overall the interface looks beautiful. There are lots of click to advance segments, but that was okay; the story was well written and I enjoyed it. I played it on mobile and was engrossed for all two hours of playtime.
The premise is a little reminiscent of (Spoiler - click to show)Starbreakers from this comp which might be a spoiler for both games. The use of philosophy in this game reminded me of Universal Hologram (not necessarily any specific bits of worldbuilding, just the way philosophical concepts are deployed).
The plot and writing are great. I love how the world is gradually built up and characters and concepts are introduced. The emails are excellent as a vehicle for characterization; I just like epistolary stories I guess. The spam emails are funny and better written than they have any right to be, and I like the little details and nods to real internet culture (that REPLY ALL thread. people clicking on links that are obviously viruses. spoofing sender fields in emails). The game mechanic of zap or approve is nice; I like returning to the mundane after the deep philosophical segments about the nature of consciousness.
If I have any complaint, itís that parts of it stretched on for too long. There were just so many words, and the midgame (after Laurieís problem has been revealed) had too much drudgery. I enjoyed discovering new concepts more than I did trying to recall some piece of spam I read an hour ago. After some time, I didnít find the long conversations between the programs very interesting, so I clicked quickly and skimmed through. Some of their quirks started to grate on me after hours of playing.
But Iím just looking for things to criticize at this point. This game is one of my favorites of IFComp 2021.
There are quite a number of games in IFComp 2021 that have stories within stories and broadly deal with online ďfandomĒ topics: SpamZapper, A Paradox Between Worlds (my own game), extraordinary_fandoms.exe, The Dead Account, maybe even And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One. 2021 is truly the year of the Online in IFComp.
First of all, I love the art and the animated gifs. This game probably has the best art of all the games I've seen at the comp.
This is a workplace drama about an innovative biotech company with a poor safety record. Spoilers for midgame: (Spoiler - click to show)thereís a deadly explosion at the company due to the safety issues, and you decide how to respond: do you stay at the company or quit? It feels rather topical, and comments on the movement towards unionization in high-tech industries.
Overall itís a pretty low-key game. The stakes are high, as shown in the endings, but high in an ordinary, everyday way. Iíve never personally been in a situation like this, but it seems like a realistic exploration of the various tradeoffs in dealing with a difficult workplace - do you try to organize, quit, or just ignore the bad things?
The game itself is much shorter than the labeled 2 hours, taking only about 15 minutes per playthrough. However, there are 15 endings, which are based on a combination of the final choice (leave or stay), along with the stats of work, social, and opportunity. I got all of them; I got kind of obsessed with finding all the endings, and I figured it out I think. Without looking at the source!
Spoilers for the endings:
(Spoiler - click to show)
There are only three choices that affect the ending: the first one deciding whether you like the work, what to do about the underground secrets, and the answer you give to the interviewer. The stats can be low, med, or high.
I like working here: +work (work is med)
I like living here: +social (social is med)
I donít like working here: +opportunity (opportunity is med)
Donít find the secret: +work only if work is low
Sign the petition: +social only if social is low
Donít sign the petition: +opportunity only if opportunity is low
Defend your work: +work if there is only one med or work is low
Criticize your work: +social if there is only one med or social is low
No comment: +opportunity if there is only one med or opportunity is low
So this leaves seven configurations (there are multiple choice combinations for some of these configurations):
++Work (like working here, don't find the secret, defend your work)
++Social (like living here, sign the petition, criticize)
++Opportunity (don't like working here, don't sign the petition, no comment)
+Work, +social (like working here, sign the petition, defend or criticize)
+work, +opportunity (like working here, don't sign the petition, no comment or defend)
+social, +opportunity (like living here, don't sign the petition, no comment or criticize)
+work, +social, +opportunity (like working here, sign the petition, no comment)
For each of these combinations, you can either stay or quit. However, this only gives us 14 endings. The last ending requires having all 14 of the previous endings, and will automatically unlock. ItísÖ kind of supernatural/dream-like? It suggests a way out of this mess, in solidarity, but doesnít make a firm commitment.
Honestly, I was a little disappointed at the final ending; I thought there would be a more definite conclusion that justified the time I invested, but it wasnít really there. It was even more ambiguous than the other endings.
But maybe thatís the point. Maybe the point is, all the effort we put into systems that donít care about us is futile. Maybe I really should be spending time with my friends instead of figuring out how to get the 15th ending in an interactive fiction game about goats.
This belongs to a certain genre of twines: literary-inclined, mostly linear twine game that uses text and choice aesthetically? This is a genre, right?
This game makes use of a dark Americana/Southern Gothic aesthetic with a road trip narrative, somewhat resembling Kentucky Route Zero or Where the Water Tastes Like Wine. It's a pessimistic game about traveling through modern/historical America, in a world that's familiar yet frightening, hostile and hospitable in equal measures.
This story is surreal, unstuck in time. I thought it was close to the modern day until I saw the literal (Spoiler - click to show)Timothy McVeigh (I could brush off the Civil War battlefield as a hallucination). Then I wondered what year this was. There were references to segregation. Then I saw the hotel wifi. And then I got to the titular Black Mountain College and meet people who fled from Nazi Germany who have Wikipedia page links. It doesnít really have a defined time or place (kind of like KR0).
BLK MTN has two phases: one during a road trip in Texas and the southern US, the other at Black Mountain College in North Carolina. I enjoyed the first part more, and in fact I thought the whole story was going to be the road trip. I loved Ashleigh as a character and I wanted to see more of her. The story slowed down after arriving at the college, I feel like. It fell into what seemed to me like a didactic mode, trying to teach us about these people and this forgotten slice of history, dropping Wikipedia links for all the mentioned historical figures. The ending of the story feels a little unearned. (Spoiler - click to show)Itís supposed to be about Jackson finding a community and belonging, but that didnít feel right?
There was one sex scene which was very uncomfortable, which I guess is the point. Actually it wasnít a sex scene, just a... physical intimacy scene? It was very well written.
I usually prefer a more terse, less ornate style of writing, with less text in each passage/segment, which is not at all this game's style. But I thought that this game was very well written. It can be very verbose, but it's also one of the few IFComp games that I replayed, because there are a lot of interesting pieces to it. Personally, I think it's one of the more underrated games in IFComp 2021.
Replaying, I found that itís very easy to skip Ashleighís path entirely, to never even meet her and arrive at Black Mountain College almost immediately after the opening scene. I feel like that skips out on the most interesting part of the story. And that brings up a broader point: in a lot of twines that try to add in choice into what was conceptualized as a single narrative, Iíve found that often the choices are essentially, do you want to see this cool and interesting content or do you want to be boring and skip it. Do you pick the cool choice or the boring choice. I do this in my games too. I feel like there should be a term for this pattern. Itís hard to avoid! A few games are really good at constantly laying a path forward, like Birdland, or a lot of the Choice of Games. But plenty of otherwise excellent pieces of IF donít do this well; they donít provide a strong vocabulary of choice. I donít know how to do this consistently either. At least, maybe we should signpost somehow that a choice will skip half the story.
Going back to the game, on the path where I skipped the road trip there are still references to Ash even though Iíve never met her. And I think that Marisol recognized Jackson even though they hadnít met in that playthrough. I think this is a continuity error? Or maybe it doesnít even matter given the hallucinatory nature of everything that happens.
This game was really addicting. I didnít expect to finish it in one sitting (nor should I have, given the hour), but I did so anyway. What can I say, I like watching numbers go up.
This is a huge game with a ton of content, and based on other reviews and comments, I donít think Iíve explored nearly all of it. It is a wonder not just of procedural generation, but also of twine in general. It is a full-blown RPG, with a central quest, sidequests, character progression, a combat system, and an economy. The initial character and quest are randomly generated, as is the titular 4x4 archipelago, where all islands have a geography, dungeons, sidequests, and random events. Some character builds are easier than others; combat is obligatory so characters with combat or magic as a skill will have an advantage. The ďgathering storiesĒ subplot is very good for starting out and is only available to players with charisma. I do wish the trading and economic aspects got some more love; itís very easy to totally exhaust all trading opportunities.
There was an article by Emily Short about ďprocedural oatmealĒ (riffing off an idea from Kate Compton), which was the idea that procedurally generated content is often just plain boring. Itís like pouring bowls of oatmeal with the same flavors, but just with the oats shifted in position. Basically, a lot of times procedurally generated content doesnít matter; itís just there for show, to pump out content, and all of the content feels the same.
4x4 Archipelago is, for the most part, not ďprocedural oatmealĒ. Even ignoring the procgen aspect, it still works as a story and a game; the game systems are very good, and the writing is also quite good, and also the scope is limited so repetition is harder to see. Itís hard to even tell that the game was procgen, which I suppose is a compliment? The only part of the game that seemed ďoatmeal-likeĒ for me were the island stories collected as part of the charisma sidequest (they were just background decoration, it felt like). Some of the island descriptions also kind of blended together for me.
Overall, the game reminded me of Voyageur in how the story and mechanical pieces fit together with procgen content (Voyageur also has a ďcollecting stories from different places and selling them at the universityĒ mechanic; I wouldnít be surprised if the author had played Voyageur). Unlike Voyageur, 4x4A is limited in its geographical scope. A single game is confined to 16 locations; itís not potentially infinite. This is for the better imo, as it avoids the feeling of repetition and oatmeal-ness that crept into Voyageur towards the end.
I was a little confused by the fact that all travel takes the exact same time across the archipelago (my instinct was to visit the closest islands first). But I understand why this makes sense for gameplay and implementation reasons.
At some point, the game started to feel like grinding. I kept playing because I wanted to finish, but it started to feel like busy work instead of fun. The combat system is a little tedious, and I was annoyed that I was missing most of my attacks. This is not really the fault of this game in particular, as pretty much all RPGs and ďopen worldĒ games have this problem, but part of why Iím into interactive fiction is to get away from that, to experience more compact, self-contained stories.
Universal Hologram is a game about becoming unmoored from reality, about how living your entire life on the internet turns you into a shell of a person (a situation that none of us relates to, I'm sure). It is also about astral projection and the simulation hypothesis. It is also a critique of utilitarianism. It's about a lot of things, and it's really good.
First of all, I love the pictures. Thereís something about the AI-generated art style thatís just perfect for this story, and the specific images that are chosen always fits perfectly for the given scene. The soundtrack is nice and provides a good, unobtrusive ambience for reading, until it becomes terrifying in the appropriate scenes.
The writing alternates between a surreal and introspective style (mostly in the narration), and a hyper-self-aware, detached, irony-poisoned style (mostly in the dialogue). Overall I would like to describe the writing as ďextremely onlineĒ; it reads like "weird twitter", basically. And I found the writing really funny! The juxtaposition of the philosophical and ironic styles makes me want to laugh. I know some other reviewers criticized the style as being hostile, but it worked for me, maybe because I'm used that kind of dialogue. Sometimes the story comes close to dropping the veil of irony and radiates some sincere and even painful emotions. Those parts hit awfully close to home, especially that scene with Dion.
Much of the game is linear, with click-to-advance inline links, with very short passages. I liked that style. There are occasional moments of nonlinearity, like choosing which pyramid to visit, but the game always guides the player towards advancing the main plot. However, there are significant branch points, including choosing whether or not to pursue the main plot at all. I haven't explored the paths that seem to go off-course.
I thought this would be like consciousness hologram , but it is not like Consciousness Hologram. Whereas CH was depressed and melancholic, UH has this wild exuberance about it. Actually both games are comprised of the same emotional palettes but in different quantities; CH on the darker side and UH on the lighter side.
I think one reason I might have appreciated UH more than some of the other reviewers is that Iíve played CH before. CH is a much more expansive game, with more ďgame-likeĒ segments of exploration, heavy worldbuilding, and a deep philosophical exploration of utilitarianism. The details of the world are harder to come by in UH, requiring some link deep-diving, so some people might be confused by whatís going on. And itís a really interesting world with complex philosophical underpinnings, so Iíd recommend that you play Consciousness Hologram.
I didn't play this game correctly. I played this as a single-player game, playing both sides of the story. Maybe much of the experience would be very different if I had played it correctly.
The setting is really good, and the backstory feels like the real story here. Alexisgrad is a republican city-state bordering a larger Kingdom, which has been through a recent (attempted) revolution that devolved into civil war and was ended by a compromise with the old government, but not before everything has broken down. Seizing this opportunity, the Kingdom decides to invade and conquer the city in its moment of weakness. It all feels incredibly bleak, and incredibly real, which is a credit to the excellent writing as well as the amount of thought put into the worldbuilding.
I thought that the Generalís side was not as interesting as the Dictatorís side. The choices for the General in the first half of the game feel like really nitty-gritty tactical decisions: do you lead the attack yourself or send a subordinate to do it, do you use infantry or cavalry, stuff like that. I donít know if those choices really matter, if they have some obscured or delayed hidden effects. On the other hand, the choices for the Dictator feel a bit more weighty throughout. The personal stakes for the General are much lower; itís never his life thatís on the line. Personally, I would feel more interested if the Generalís decisions were more strategic or morally involved or expressive in some other way.
In my playthrough I picked all the ďniceĒ options when they were available, and ended with the (Spoiler - click to show)Dictator being able to escape with her life (there are many endings, which I haven't tried to explore). Which was in accordance with how I usually play RPGs. I have no idea how the experience would have changed if I was playing with someone else. I can imagine it being an awkward experience if the players have different goals or levels of investment. I feel like thereís something missing with the player-player interactions. The method of interaction feels like silently passing notes, but the notes can only contain a single word. It doesn't feel... kinetic? Dynamic? The communication method feels like it's at a remove from the story, when the story itself is often about communication in a very direct way, in the negotiations between the two main characters. Then again, I didn't play it with another person, so maybe your experience is entirely different and I'm totally off-base here. Maybe the players are supposed to interact out of the game?
Anyway, this was quite interesting to read/play through, even playing as one person. I enjoyed the experience, and I really appreciate that the game is trying something new, something that maybe hasn't been seen in IFComp before?