Reviews by autumnc

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Binary, by Stephen Granade

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Short story about binary choices, September 15, 2021

This story felt to me a lot like a much abbreviated version of Analogue: A Hate Story. If you've played that game, then the comparison itself might be a spoiler. This game is short enough that the premise kind of *is* the plot twist. (Spoiler - click to show)One difference is that Hyun-ae of Analogue destroyed the ship out for revenge, while Almira the stationmaster here destroyed the station out of a utilitarian ethical calculation.

I really enjoyed this. The choices are mostly binary choices until near the end; at first I thought there would only be two verbs (approach or withdraw), but there are others, like conversation options. All paths lead to the stationmaster telling the protagonist about the events that occurred aboard the ship, and then the protagonist deciding whether or not to agree or sympathize with the stationmaster. I liked the writing and flow of the story, the way everything came together at the end, and the final choice.

Anyway, the game takes less than 10 minutes, so it's pretty easy to try out.

Sordwin: The Evertree Saga, by Thom Baylay

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Supernatural investigative mystery, August 30, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: hosted games

Sordwin is one of the deepest and broadest Hosted Games that I've played. It is a mystery game with one central mystery and many smaller mysteries, all connected together in a tangled web of relationships, lies, and secrets that the player will have to unravel. I enjoyed playing this game a great deal, and I've played it many times to see more of the possibilities.

The game is a sequel to the earlier Evertree Inn, and copies and expands on its predecessor's mechanics. There is a time-based mechanic, where within certain blocks of time, the player has a great deal of freedom to investigate various locations and leads, in a hub-and-spoke design (there's a time limit that restricts how much investigation can be done). It's a much more freeform structure than is typical with choicescript games, which encourages replayability and is just fun to play with. There are also "scripted events" at certain times, emergencies that move the plot forward. The mystery itself is very well designed in my opinion. While there is a clue system that keeps track of many of the events, ultimately the deduction has to be done by the player; even getting all of the clues will not directly give up the answer to the central mystery.

Sordwin is set in the same world as Evertree Inn, which is loaded with typical Western fantasy tropes - elves, dwarves, wizards, and all that. But within these confines, the worldbuilding is pretty interesting - the mysteries of the island of Sordwin itself are quite involved. I enjoyed the writing and characters; the inhabitants of the island are all more complex than they seem at first. This isn't a romance game, but if that were pursued in the first game, then the romanced character carries over and plays a major role here. It's incredible to me how well the author has managed the possibility for combinatorial explosion, given all the options present between the two games, which becomes even more of an issue in the third game in this series.

Like the mechanics, the game's stat system is copied over from Evertree Inn, and the character build from Evertree Inn is basically fixed, without opportunities to radically change. I don't think the game is heavily stats-driven, in that basically any character build is valid, but playing with different builds unlocks different possibilities.

♥Arachne♥, by fractoluminous
Succinct, atmospheric story , June 25, 2021

I'm really into this game. It's short (maybe ~5 minutes to completion), and succeeds at story-telling and mood-setting with a minimum of words, and has interesting use of interactivity.

In summary, the story takes place within a confined "two pace" room, where the cybernetically augmented protagonist is trapped and forced to do sentiment analysis for customer support or something like that. The story is about trying to break free, about connecting to others in the same place to find an escape from the confines of this world. I feel like the influence from howling dogs is palpable.

The story is very short, with a lot of repeated segments that change upon re-viewing; it's necessary to go through a lot of links multiple times. I actually enjoy the repetition because it gives a game-like structure to the story I guess? And like, the whole representation of being trapped. All of the individual segments were evocative and well-written, worldbuilding without worldbuilding. Even the sentiment-analysis "minigame" was somehow kind of fun.

Homebound, by Troy Atkinson, Luke Holdstock, Harriet Slee, Lizzi Osborne

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Reigns-like about everyday life in the pandemic, June 24, 2021

This game came out in July 2020 and it already feels like a historical relic, a snapshot of a different time.

This is a Reigns-like game about navigating daily life during the Covid-19 pandemic. Like most such games, the gameplay consists of receiving "cards" which are binary action choices, usually either to engage in an action or disengage. You have three stats: happiness, energy, and productivity, and any of them falling to zero is a game over. For example, taking a walk at night might increase your happiness and decrease energy, while staying in bed would do the opposite.

There's a wide range of different cards, all lovingly illustrated. They're all everyday choices, like deciding what you're going to eat, or whether to sleep or go on social media. Choices can sometimes have impacts further down the line, creating mini plot threads. The cards reference some memes from early pandemic era, like the mysterious seed packets, which feel like they're from decades ago already, one year later. Everything just happens so much.

To me, it almost felt like an idealistic fantasy version of the quarantine. There's only one card that references the protagonist's work-from-home job, and no reference to money; money isn't even considered a resource in this game. Unlike in real life, it's incredibly easy to do what you decide to do, with no such thing as just being too depressed to get up, no factors that affect your ability to make choices in the first place. It's rather easy to optimize the stats by balancing out the choices. But it wouldn't be fun if the game was any other way, I guess.

36 Questions, by Dietrich Squinkifer (Squinky)
A story about connections, June 22, 2021

"36 Questions" is based on a psychological study-turned-meme, where there are supposedly 36 questions that two strangers ask each other that would make them fall in love with each other. The questions are all about gradually moving beyond your comfort zone, starting off simple and eventually going deeper and deeper into private secrets.

The game has a simple premise, and it follows through to the end. The premise is that the world is ending, and you (the player/reader) are stuck with the author somewhere, so you do the 36 questions with each other. The author says their answer, and then there's a free text-entry box for the player to enter their answer (it's not saved anywhere).

I really appreciated reading through the anecdotes of the author's life, and I was inspired to attempt to type some meaningful answers of my own, in a virtual act of fictitious reciprocity. It's a contemplative game, inviting me as the reader to reflect upon my own circumstances, to think about some things that I don't really think about very often. But there's always a part of me that feels strange gazing into another person's life like this...

Golden Threads | 黄金线索, by Allan Xia, Renee Liang

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A collection of historical stories, June 14, 2021

Golden Threads is a time-cave style twine game about Chinese diaspora experiences in the 19th century, with a focus on immigrants to New Zealand. As usual with time caves, there is a plethora of different endings, the path from start to end is usually very short, and it is difficult to predict the effect of each choice (going to San Francisco and staying there leads to a quick death). Many of the routes are based on historical figures, who are named in the endings. This is supposed to be an educational game I think, and I did end up learning something about the history of Chinese immigrants to New Zealand, especially about some interesting historical figures. The writing was concise and straightforwardly readable, in a nonfiction voice.

The visual style, art, and music/sound are all excellent, but I felt like the music was a bit wasted because of how quickly the endings were reached. I really liked the art style and presentation though. I originally thought there wasn't a restart button, but I had to zoom out to see it (the game was meant for full screen I guess). Overall, it's a brief game to experience, and easy to play through many times.

willow blossoms, by Meg Sharp

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
willow blossoms, May 28, 2021

I liked this game, but it feels kind of wrong ďreviewingĒ it. It feels autobiographical, but more than that it feels confessional, like a diary. It doesnít feel like something for general consumption.

Description of the main plot: (Spoiler - click to show) the story is about a teenager who just graduated high school. She had recently made a suicide attempt which left her hospitalized, and caused her to miss her graduation and prom. So her two best friends give her something like a prom, with just the three of them. Overall, itís a rather uplifting story, as far as "twines about mental illness" go. Itís a story about recovery, of moving on from a traumatic moment. The dialogue all feels pretty well-realized; some meta moments almost make it seem like they're copied from the author's own conversations.

In terms of interactivity, well, for the most part the story acts as a kinetic novel. Links usually act as pacing mechanisms. There are a few moments of choice, but I donít think there are any downstream consequences. Using choice mechanics to represent mental illness is a common trend in twine, and itís occasionally done here as well. I'm not a fan of how the screen flickers when clicking on a link, but that's a common twine issue.

The story builds its mood through its musical choices, provided as youtube links. The musical choices are kind of... twee, I guess? Is that the right word? But itís dangerously similar to my own tastes so I enjoyed it. Actually, the previous sentence sort of applies to my experience of the story as a whole.

normal_fantasies.exe, by Storysinger Presents

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A lot of unrealized potential..., May 23, 2021

This game belongs in the nascent genre of "games about online relationships that simulate a computer interface", along with stuff like Digital: A Love Story, Emily is Away, Secret Little Haven, Lore Distance Relationship, Lost Memories Dot Net, and maybe A Normal Lost Phone (there has to be a better name for this genre). The game is about a woman who gets an AI gf via Facebook, who is getting cyberbullied (and irl-bullied) for unspecified reasons, who uses the AI gf as a way of coping with irl problems.

There's a lot of potential with this concept, but the game doesn't follow through. There's a pervasive lack of specificity, like the game is refusing to take a position on any of the ideas it presents. The characterization is sparse; we know that the protagonist is a lesbian college student who's kind of sad, but that's all we know about her. Is she supposed to be a reader-insert? I did not feel connected to the protagonist even though I'm the kind of person who would be interested in AI companions. If the protagonist were to be a reader insert, then there should probably be more dialogue options to address a wider range of possibilities. If she's supposed to be a specific person, then there should be more characterization. The backstory in general is pretty vague, in contrast to many other games in this genre which are often all backstory. The chats with AI gf were decently written and could be interesting, but they're hindered by a lack of depth.

The elephant in the room is the question of why there so much bullying against the protagonist. It didn't feel believable to me. Things like that don't happen just randomly; these are modern college students, not elementary school kids. I don't think it's supposed to be homophobia. Part of me thinks that Facebook is deliberately engineering a bullying campaign against her so that she seeks out the AI gf (shades of its emotional manipulation research). But there's no textual evidence to support that.

There's a static Facebook interface implemented, but the amount of actual interactions is highly constrained; most of the text that one would assume to be links actually do nothing. The images used are all obviously stock photos, which really throws me off, and makes it harder for me to be immersed in the story. I would feel better if there were only text posts. This relates to the lack of specificity; none of the characters feel like people or even characters, besides maybe the AI gf. I want to say that it's a deliberate choice, to make the AI gf the center of the protagonist's life, but it didn't really work for me. I couldn't suspend disbelief.

This is a rather short game, about 10-20 minutes for me. The game is a gauntlet until the final choice, with two potential endings. I enjoyed playing through it, but I feel like it could have been more.

consciousness hologram, by Kit Riemer

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
An actual legit review (I liked this game), May 22, 2021

I'm still thinking about "consciousness hologram" days after I finished playing it. Which means that it was probably a success.

This game feels like a callback to an earlier era of twine. It echoes a lot of the stylistic elements present in porpentine's work, especially howling dogs. The opening was especially reminiscent: you play as some person living in a vaguely futuristic controlled environment (a Martian pyramid habitat), being fed synthesized semi-foods, with heavy suggestions that you live in a simulation.

As with howling dogs, the basic mechanic is a progression over several days, where on each day you wake up in your room and do stuff to escape your despair. Unlike with howling dogs, there is a quite bit more "freedom" for the player character (but not necessarily for the player): they can visit different areas of the habitat, try to contact various acquaintances, and eventually exit for a walk on the surface. But most of these choices are proscribed in some way, either by the AIs that run the habitat or the protagonist's own mental state. This is a story about depression, after all. So the story ends up being mostly linear, with a few major choices that are not necessarily marked as such until near the ending. There are multiple endings, but I haven't replayed to try to see them.

I had some trouble getting past the first day: (Spoiler - click to show)I visited the archive room first before visiting James' old room and the air filter, so I didn't know what to do with the code. I didn't realize that I had to go back to the archive and try to view James' files again.

There is a lot going on in the game. Multiple narrators talk in different fonts and colors. The writing is sometimes obscure in the way that twine games circa 2012 often were. Random physical objects are imbued with both metaphorical meaning and power within the game universe. Links-as-character-actions are mixed with pure hypertext. Everything is interspersed with thematically relevant quotes from utilitarian writers, transhumanists, and the like. It's great at establishing a sense of tension and anxiety, and overwhelming the reader with a kaleidoscope of ideas, but makes the main narrative a bit hard to follow.

As explained in the afterword, the main rhetorical angle here is kind of a reductio ad absurdum of the transhumanist utopia. It's fully automated luxury space communism, but people aren't happier, because they are still lonely and isolated and don't have a reason to live. Some of the transhumanist quotes seem to be placed in a way to show the absurdity or horror inherent in these ideas. "Wireheadding" is a concept that's played around a bit; (Spoiler - click to show) the Martian habitat has extensively used brain stimulation techniques to make people happier and to reduce aggression, but it only succeeded in the latter; depression and suicide (or "opting out") are ever-present plagues. You later discover that your friend James had committed suicide in an attempt to attack the system. But at the end of the story, in the ending I reached, there's still a sense of hope. Even though you're just living in a simulation, because you managed to connect with at least one other person.

Overall, I think this story worked for me partly because I'm predisposed to enjoy the "early 2010s twine" aesthetic. "Thought provoking" is a vague and generic descriptor, but this game really did make me think about its ideas. I'm not sure if I agree with it at the end, but it was worth experiencing.

Unbeknown, by A. DeNiro

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A great sci-fi short story, March 14, 2021

I first played this game during IFComp 2015, and recently just re-played it. I think it holds up pretty well, especially when seen as a part of Anya DeNiro's greater body of work.

Compared to the author's other works, I feel like this story is more straightforward, less literary for the sake of being literary. And that's really saying something, because this story is plenty complicated, at least at first. It starts out taking place within a (Spoiler - click to show)VR video game, a survival game kind of reminiscent of Rust. And then things gradually get weirder. Your identity is called into question. Until it ends with a scene explaining the entirety of the premise.

People have said that the game has very limited interactivity, and that's basically accurate. But compared to DeNiro's previous stories, this story has greater agency in terms of embodying the player character. Solarium and We Are the Firewall are basically hypertext fiction, with no player-embodiment agency to speak of, but they seem more interactive because there are more links, more bells and whistles on the page to play with. This game follows more of an adventure format. For most of the story, the player character is deliberately disempowered; they don't have much control over their own life or actions due to outside forces and being placed in an unknown situation. This at least gives some justification for the lack of choice.

I really enjoyed the writing. Some of its cyberpunk-esque story elements are kind of reminiscent of We Are the Firewall, but here they're presented in a much more straightforward way. There's a meditation on personal identity and even some nods to trans-ness.

At the end, a character basically tells the entire backstory to the player (on ending 2). I'm not sure if this was the right decision, as I would have preferred for some sense of mystery to be preserved, or to have the chance to figure out the mystery on my own (which is part of what I loved about Solarium and Firewall).

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