Reviews by autumnc

ifcomp 2020

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Fight Forever, by Pako

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Okay..., March 2, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I'm not sure if this is intentional or unintentional, but this was a darkly funny game.

So, I trained my way up to the Olympics, got a silver medal at the Olympics at age 18, became a pro in Nigeria, and on my first pro fight, died. RIP Sakura. She never had the chance to retire and breed :(

This game can be painfully slow sometimes, with a lot of timed text, and grinding by repeatedly reading generic inspirational quotes by everyone from Mahatma Gandhi to Chairman Mao (you have to wait until the stat upgrade flies in or it won't change your stats). Not getting into the disturbing implications of grinding endurance and "rockstar juice" via "booty calls" (you start at age 15), but it is a thing that happens, and it is your only interaction with other people besides combat and training for combat. Yeah. Beneath the hood, there are a lot of stats, grouped into "mind" and "body". Somehow, these stats affect your chance of victory in fights. The larger the numbers, the better, of course. Victory also probably has a random component. I've noticed that the longer the bar is, the more likely I am to win, but I don't know how the bar is determined.

The main form of entertainment in this game is to watch numbers go up. This is the heart of all management games, and with interactive fiction, you can see game mechanics distilled down to their very essence. It is almost impossible to strategize about where to click because of the opacity of the mechanics. But the more you click, the more numbers go up. The more numbers go up, the more you win. The more you win... well, I don't know what comes next because Sakura died, and I'm not going to replay this to see.

Tragic, by Jared Jackson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Deck-building combat RPG in Unity, December 31, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I played this using wine on linux. It seemed to work perfectly fine on my computer. The only issue I had was that I felt the UI and font were a bit small and hard to read. I think there were a few bugs; there was one card which was supposed to allow you to draw any card, but it only showed cards that were already in your hand.

This game felt like kind of an odd or at least atypical fit for ifcomp. It is essentially a Slay the Spire-like, a deck-building RPG. In a comic twist, the player character is a character in an RPG game-within-the-game being told by a pair of siblings, who has been brought into the "real world" which is still a part of the same RPG session. It's a pretty fun story. The gameplay itself consists of battling enemies by drawing cards which represent attacks, defenses, or abilities. Defeating enemies allows you to get new cards, and there are opportunities to gain items which give stat bonuses. Throughout the story, there are choice-based segments where you choose (mostly blindly) where to go next or which monster to fight next. This includes a maze segment.

This game may have been experimental for IFComp, but for me, it shifted in my mind from being in an IF space to more of a general videogame territory, and in that territory, it does not necessarily compare well. The deck-builder had a surprising amount of depth, and the game is pretty well constructed (save the bug mentioned earlier), but nothing on an IFComp development cycle will be able to match commercial production values (Slay the Spire had years of early access and essentially thousands of testers). However, there are advantages of IFComp stuff; it can experiment with new mechanics, tell stories without worrying about commercial appeal, and so on. Plus plain text can be a highly effective medium when used well. I enjoyed this game and the puzzle of deck-building/optimizing battle tactics, but I feel like this game didn't exactly utilize IF's advantages over more mainstream videogames. It imitates Slay the Spire too closely in my opinion, complete with text describing what the card images should look like.

I didn't manage to get to the end; I died a few times to the hydra before I stopped playing.

The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton, by Hanon Ondricek

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Well-made story, but I'm not sure how much I got, December 31, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton is an excellently crafted story. There is great art, music, complex and mostly bug-free mechanics, and fun writing (especially in the "meta" portions). There is a lot of stuff here. However, I feel like I got stuck too much, and at some point didn't really desire to continue and discover the game's secrets.

This is a parody of the MMORPG genre, which is itself implemented in a text-based simulation of an actual MMORPG, presented as a fallback version for a graphical game. There are NPCs and fake PCs. There is a support forum where players discuss the game and share mods. Beneath each scene there is a chat screen showing the players' interactions in the area.

The problem is that the gameplay wasn't really fun for me. I get that it's *supposed* to be unfun, a simulation of a genre that I never really enjoyed, but plenty of genre parodies manage to make the gameplay decent in of itself (or, in IF, limit the mechanical aspects and focus on the story). I did a ton of delivery quests, sending mail from one part of Sameytown to another. The combat was particularly annoying to me. It was tedious to have to click the words in order, and I didn't like that the turns were on a timer (I discovered the slow time mod thanks to the forum thread). I actually felt like I enjoyed the combat in A Final Grind more than this. And there was the haunted house where everything permanently lowered your level??? I stopped playing in the town after crossing the desert because I couldn't get a sense of how to advance. I did enjoy the Crossing the Desert puzzle, though.

Reading some of the other reviews and discussions, I got a better sense of what this game contained, and how much I missed. I never played The Baker of Shireton by the same author, which apparently has a lot of shared content with this story. I think the key is to not approach this as a typical RPG, and just go hog wild.

"Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!" by Tarquin Segundo, by Richard Goodness writing as The Water Supply writing as Tarquin Segundo

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A story in three parts, December 21, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

This will be about the entire "The Knot" series, as this game contains its conclusion. Overall, I think the games are rather interesting both as a vaguely meta-fictional exercise and as stories in of themselves, and worth playing. It might be best to play them by opening all three games in the browser simultaneously. In general, the presentation is nice, but I am extremely not a fan of the slow auto-advancing text, which is the entirety of the ending sequence.

Spoilers for the ending and for the story overall: (Spoiler - click to show)"The Knot" is a tale about power, storytelling, and alternate worlds. Each story within The Knot contains the same character names and elements in different contexts. They are all about conflicts between two central figures: Chirlu and Ilfane, who are entangled with an artifact called the Knot, supposedly a source of ultimate power. Sometimes Chirlu is presented as a "good" character, other times as an antagonist. In "Terror" he is an evil sorcerer, in "Adventures" he is a Nazi archaeologist, and in "Incident" he is a benevolent scientist. Ilfane is more of a mystical concept than a character; it is a location in "Terror", an ancient autarch in "Adventures", and an evil alien race in "Incident".

(warning: extremely basic and naive analysis ahead - this is like, my opinion only)

Overall, Chirlu and Ilfane represent the conflicting natures of rationality and mysticality/tradition. Neither are totally "good" or "evil; rationality can be put in service of evil as easily as it can be in service of good. However, both figures always seek out the Knot, which is supposed to be the source of their ability to do the ultimate good for the galaxy, or to give themselves ultimate power. Chirlu especially always seeks out the Knot to achieve their ends, conditioned by the societal conditions in which they are raised.

The Knot itself is treated as a representation of power in some way. But the conclusion of the story shows that the Knot does not even exist; it is totally incapable of the feats ascribed to it throughout the course of the stories. This can be interpreted in multiple ways. The Knot is a video game, and the solution to a simple video game puzzle will not give one the power to change the world or to fight Nazis. Similarly, it could be a commentary on the impotence of media in general to bring change. Or on a simplistic, one-off solution to achieve societal goals, sought by progressive revolutionaries and fascists alike. They enter the halls of power, only to find the halls empty.

As a game, the Knot is not particularly challenging: the solutions are given explicitly, and labeled as such. Finding The Knot is not a challenge. But the Knot is ultimately hollow. It is certainly not the ultimate source of power. It might not even exist.

A Catalan Summer, by Neibucrion

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A low-key drama about obligations and secret desires, December 13, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

A Catalan Summer is a family drama about forbidden love and politics, taking place in a Catalonia household in the 1920s. It is told from the perspectives of four members of the bourgeois Vidal family: Josep the patriarch who secretly loves men, Maria the wife who wants a relationship Josep can't give, Clara the too-romantic and imaginative daughter, and Jordi the rebellious son with left-wing political inclinations. There are lots of perspective switches that show all sides of the story. Overall, I liked the game a lot. It's a rather rare theme for ifcomp, and the narrative is suitably dramatic and complex while not overstaying its welcome.

Basically, the major choices at every step can be boiled down to, do you seek out what you secretly desire which might lead to your downfall, or do you stay in your assigned role for the good of the family and stability? Each character has their own temptations. Josep is tempted by Charles's flirtations. Maria is tempted by Toni, the son of the gardener. Clara is tempted by a ghost (which is like, an actual ghost?). Jordi is tempted by leftist political movements and Montse, a working-class young woman. Each of them secretly seeks out the source of their temptation while also resisting it for the sake of keeping up appearances, for getting along and not rocking the boat. There are multiple endings depending on one's choices as each of the four characters. There are also some side plots involving Catalan independence politics and labor issues, which I don't think factors into the ending. In my playthrough I stuck to the more safe path for all the characters, so I might have missed some content.

The writing is mostly kind of understated, with rather sparse descriptions and just a hint of the characters' inner states. We only get a little bit of how they feel about abandoning their potential lovers. So the reader is left to infer or imagine what the characters are really feeling.

In terms of structure, the story is less interactive than it seems at first. You can explore the house with "go up"-style choices, but everything pushes you towards the direction of plot advancement. The final party scene is a bit more free, where you can take control of any of the family members and play their parts in the story. Unfortunately, the room descriptions don’t really change with perspective shifts. It would have been interesting to see what the different family members thought of their spaces (would Jordi see the alienated labor present in everything? would Josep be possessive? how would Clara see things differently from Maria?)

The game appears to run on a custom-designed html/js system. For the most part it works pretty well. However, I was not a fan of the bright red background color. I had to change it to black to not burn into my eyes. Also I wish there was more of an indication of when the perspective was changing. There is a name showing the current perspective character, but no other indication.

A Murder in Fairyland, by Abigail Corfman

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Is it actually possible to get the correct murderer?, November 29, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I've played and enjoyed the author's previous games, so I was really looking forward to this one. "A Murder in Fairyland" shares their quality writing and design, but it doesn't feel like a complete experience.

Compared to 16 Ways and Open Sorcery, the world of this game feels much more surreal and less grounded. While it takes place in the same broader universe as Open Sorcery, there's very little in this game connecting it to our reality, unlike with Open Sorcery's characters. It takes place in a world with fairies and other magical creatures, with bizarre and inhuman rules and behaviors.

The one "human" aspect of the game is the main character's disability. It took me far too long to realize that they were using a wheelchair (I didn't recognize what "Roll North" was supposed to refer to). The protagonist is not able to climb stairs or open some doors without waiting for help, and there are some references to the fairy-world equivalent of the ADA (also called the ADA), and a subplot involves going through a mind-boggling bureaucratic process to file an ADA complaint.

This is a heavily puzzle-oriented game. The puzzles range from word finds to riddles to filling out forms correctly, to more broad interaction and item finding. I loved the form-finding and filling puzzles, even if they weren't technically necessary to finishing the game. Finding forms involves figuring out a code based on a convoluted but ultimately logical set of rules. Filling out the forms required gathering more information from different areas, and was a good way of characterizing the world. The magic was also interesting, but did not have much use when it came to the actual murder mystery.

There is also a minigame, very vaguely like poker but with the cards being tarot major arcana, where the rules are unknown. It was interesting to try to figure it out. Although maybe the game is something that already exists.

The resolution of the murder mystery was rather frustrating: (Spoiler - click to show)I was a bit frustrated because I thought I knew who the murderer was, but they were not an available option, even after seemingly exhausting all possibilities throughout the game world. Thus, I started looking through the code. It appears that there is a lot of content that is written but might not be accessible, including several characters and a way to reveal the true murderer. I'm not very familiar with twine code so I might be wrong? Maybe I just didn't explore thoroughly enough?

Edit: Here is a brief guide to getting the correct ending, after reaching the mystery: (Spoiler - click to show)I needed to get form 536W for the weather report to get snowflakes diagrams, and give it to Lirana, so she's distracted and then I can take the autocsi scroll. Then I gathered the poison sample and did autocsi on the corpse, and then used form 533P to get the poison analysis (this required getting the moon phase with form 104M; I guessed the ley lines but there's probably a form for that). To rule out Rinecoat, I talked to him, examined the weapons, and got dust from Veinseeker. To rule out Lirana, I got the neutrality contract by filling out form 227H and talking to the crystal ball in the library. To rule out Nyx, I used the Flier: Noon-Sun Ceremony (was this the random conversation hint?). To confirm that it is Xylia, I looked at the corpse after using autocsi, and took the thread.

Lore Distance Relationship, by Naomi "Bez" Norbez

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Made me nostalgic for experiences I never had, October 28, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

Immediately after starting the game, I was reminded of Secret Little Haven, another game about internet-mediated relationships, self-discovery, and fandom. I was a little disappointed that this game did not have the richly implemented fake internet GUI. Lore Distance Relationships is more of a visual novel, with interactivity only when selecting dialogue options in chat scenes, and only screenshots of the Ruffians website. Nevertheless, the game's story carried it through. It was consistently engaging, and I came to care for the characters. I really appreciated the uplifting ending.

The story follows the protagonist’s life, from age 8, in 2001, to age 17, in 2010, with each year being a new chapter. It takes place mostly as text conversations on Ruffians, a neopets-like website, between the protagonist StaircaseHaven14, and BusyAsABee, another user. They start out by roleplaying as their Ruffians, and eventually develop a deep friendship and might even fall in love as they grow up. The conversations felt authentic to me for the most part; maybe some of the early chats were too precocious for 9 or 10-year-olds, but overall it felt right. They felt like real people and real friends. The role-play segments were great. I liked that both characters had their typing quirks; Bee typed using all lower-case with messy punctuation and emojis, while Stair used mostly correct capitalization and punctuation and generally only used emoji in response to Bee.

In terms of structure, it seems mostly linear, but there are a lot of choices where you can choose for Stair to avoid or ignore Bee. I don’t know if these choices end up affecting the outcome, or if there are “bad ends” where Stair and Bee never get together. There are also some timed pauses, which I usually find annoying, but here, I feel like they worked in conveying the uncertainty and nervousness experienced by the characters. There is sound and music; the sound consists mostly of keyboard and mouse sounds, while music plays during the roleplay segments. The sound effects and some of the graphics changed as technology advanced from 2001 to 2010. This was a cool effect but I got a burst of anxiety when I heard the skype sound.

Not necessarily a major spoiler, but: (Spoiler - click to show)Another big similarity with Secret Little Haven is that the protagonist is a trans girl, with an abusive parent, who gradually discovers her identity over the course of the story. It was fairly obvious from the start that the plot was going in this direction, but I still enjoyed the buildup. We don’t see as much of the protagonist’s life and background in this game, but there’s a lot we can infer from her conversations. By contrast, we don't know as much about Bee. She just seems so incredibly nice with an incredibly loving and nice father; it almost seems unreal when contrasted with Stair.

Anyway, I really enjoyed the story. I was on Neopets during the game's timeline but never got into the community. Now I wish I had...

Trusting My Mortal Enemy?! What a Disaster!, by Storysinger Presents

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Enemies-to-best-friends?, October 24, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

The premise of "enemies-to-lovers" is a common one in fanfiction, and that's what this story reminded me of. Except the main characters here don't explicitly become lovers, but rather best friends, or something like that.

TMMEWaD is the story of a superhero, Lightbringer, and a supervillain, Promethium, who have been long-time enemies in a city. But then... Lightbringer invites Promethium to a coffee shop to plan out their future battles. The latter accepts, wanting to escape jail and a likely death sentence.

The story alternates between the perspectives of Lightbringer and Promethium, and gives the player choices for both characters. All of the meaningful choices are presented as trust exercises: does the hero trust the villain, and vice versa? Picking trusting choices gets the “good” ending, while picking distrustful choices gets the “bad” ending (I only got the good ending and haven’t seen the bad ending). Sometimes there are other choices, but I think those are mostly cosmetic choices.

Overall, I thought the writing was good, especially the ways the characters would interact, but I would have liked a bit more characterization. It was not really clear to me why Promethium was a villain, except some vague description of fighting against the injustices of the world (which injustices? why would she care? how did she come to see the world like that?). Or why Lightbringer became a hero. But maybe none of that really matters? Also the story felt a bit slow to me at times.

Sometimes, the text was rather difficult to read because the background color and text color were too similar. There was one typo at the very end I think, where Lightbringer introduces Promethium to her daughter as Diana.

(Interestingly this one of at least two stories in this ifcomp with a female enemies-to-lovers storyline; the other is about a vampire).

You Couldn't Have Done That, by Ann Hugo

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
You couldn't have done that, October 15, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

This game affected me rather deeply. It’s a mostly linear twine story about an autistic, gender nonconforming teen who gets a job at a clothing store in a mall. She has to deal with her anxiety around people, and her tendency to go nonverbal when confronted with certain social situations, and the negative reactions of others to said tendencies. This culminates in a moment of abuse from one of her coworkers.

It felt realistic to me, as someone who sometimes acts in ways similar to the protagonist. Her mental patterns felt familiar; the constant overthinking of every social interaction, the loss of rational capacity when stressed, the feeling of suddenly wanting to cry. The writing was simple but effective, fleshing out the characters and situations in a few brief sentences. After many choices, there is the message “You couldn’t have done that” at the top, and instead of doing whatever the choice described, the protagonist just freezes up, unable to speak or move away or do anything else. It was an effective narrative mechanism, in my opinion.

Anyway, I felt that this game was very effective at what it was trying to portray. The only potential problem I had was that it was too brief, but the story didn't really need to be any longer.

INFINITUBE, by Tom Charles Bair III

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A potentially great story, held back by the game design, October 14, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

This is sort of a difficult game to describe and review. It was a university MFA project, so it has clear literary aspirations and fancy writing. But those aspirations seemed to clash against the actual game design.

From a UI standpoint, this is as default twine as it gets. I’ve been spoiled in this comp for interesting CYOA visual designs, so it was a little disappointing, but no big deal. There is heavy use of time-delayed text, which was annoying. I sometimes tabbed out when that happened. Maybe for a reader who is in the correct mindset, it is okay to have time-delayed text, but it didn't work for me.

On one level, this is a story about a virtual reality world, the INFINITUBE, where “you can be anything”. It’s supposed to be an infinite world driven by the imagination, but instead it’s a gamified and monetized tech product like anything else out of the startup world. Your experience in the world is presented as a series of lightly interactive vignettes, which seem to be slice-of-life experiences for vaguely middle-class white Americans (the "WHITE" part is emphasized for some reason).

The main “mechanical” aspect of the game is going through the vignettes and trying to gather enough attributes so that you can sell them for tokens, and use these tokens to renew your subscription to INFINITUBE. You gain attributes by taking various actions. This could have been a cool mechanic, but it’s not entirely clear what actions will gain attributes (is it actions that are "successful" on some level?), or how much those attributes will be worth. Which is troublesome as gaining attributes is necessary to progress the game.

The problem is that if you don’t have enough tokens to renew, the game completely resets, apparently back to the beginning. This is made more difficult by the fact that costs for renewal escalate each session. There are also bugs where selling attributes don’t net the value that is shown. And if the game resets, you have to play from the beginning all over again. With all the time-delayed text, tons of clicking to reveal every sentence, and so on. It became tiresome enough that I just stopped playing. It feels as if the game doesn’t want the player to actually experience the whole thing.

There is a deeper layer to the story here: (Spoiler - click to show)Family drama. The creator of the INFINITUBE was apparently a boy named Charlie, who lived with his mother, Linda (?) (who was divorced acrimoniously from his father, who was probably abusive). Their lives are shown as vignettes in the INFINITUBE virtual reality segments. Somewhere else in the virtual world, Linda’s avatar is Minerva, and Charlie’s avatar is Boniface, but at the same time Charlie still exists in the game world as himself, and is trying to escape? Is the player also trapped in the virtual world? The story is interesting, and I would have liked to read more of it, but it seemed like I was always unable to progress due to a lack of tokens.

Edit: the INFINITUBE vignettes seem to be randomized. I got a vignette about a Hollywood actress dealing with an abusive work environment, and one about the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle (I liked that vignette; it's interesting to see how much things haven't changed).

Ulterior Spirits, by E.J. Holcomb

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Great art and visual design, but it was difficult to get into the story, October 12, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I wanted to like this game more than I did. It was clear that much effort went into building the custom UI, worldbuilding, and so on, but I feel like the story didn't quite live up to what I expected based on the blurb.

The blurb describes it as Mass Effect meets A Christmas Carol, and in broad strokes, it's kind of accurate. The protagonist is an admiral for the Coalition who fought in a war against an alien race, and now the Coalition is sanctioning the aliens. The admiral is pushing for harder sanctions. Then an infiltrator hacks her computer and showing her images of the past, present, and future, possibly in an attempt to convince her to vote against sanctions.

As usual in stories with tons of Worldbuilding, the sci-fi jargon and alien species got kind of overwhelming, and even with the pop-up hints (which were a great effect), it was difficult to keep up. It was difficult to get invested in the story; Mass Effect gave us dozens of hours to establish the world and why we should care about these people/aliens, while this is a one-hour game. At the end I didn't know what to think about the aliens or whether sanctions were good or bad (and the player doesn't explicitly make that choice anyway).

I liked that the protagonist was an older woman and a mother. These traits are still uncommon for video games protagonists. And I liked her relationship with her son.

In the end, the visions were all for nothing; the admiral voted for harder sanctions. Maybe there are routes that are different?

The game was created in Unity, and the art and interface are superb. I didn't like the slowness of clicking through; there was too much friction with the animations and having to click to advance every block of text. It discourages me from playing a second time, which I now really want to do to see if there are different possible outcomes, and to see if understanding the world makes the story easier to follow.

Sense of Harmony, by Scenario World

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A humane cyberpunk-esque story, October 11, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2020

I am a big fan of cyberpunk, and I feel like "Sense of Harmony" is an excellent example of the genre (or is it post-cyberpunk? I don't know). The writing was great, especially the characterization, and the choice structure serves the story well.

In terms of structure, this is a twine story with two types of links: "digression" and "advancement". Each in-text "digression" link is an invocation of the protagonist's cybernetic abilities: hyper-senses, memory lookup, and so on. These links are color-coded by ability. Sometimes these links will reveal new "advancement" links at the bottom of the page, as if the protagonist is changing her actions based on new information. I felt like this was a really cool mechanic; it's a way of showing how the protagonist's enhanced mind works. The interface was also visually really attractive, with nice icons and layouts.

One of my favorite things about the story is how down-to-earth and humane it is. It never sensationalizes sex work or cybernetic enhancements. Insofar that the cybernetic enhancements are bad, they are bad for the same reasons that cell phones are bad (fortunately there's no suggestion that implants are dehumanizing or anything like that, unlike so many other cyberpunk products). Similarly, sex work is treated here like any other job; the protagonist's main problem with it is that she can get emotionally attached to the clients (who are mostly ordinary people with ordinary problems). The protagonist is just someone who's trying to get by; there's not much about her that is actually "punk".

The only reason I'm taking a star off is because the story is unfinished. It stops at what seems like the Act 1 climax. The protagonist makes some potentially major choices in the story, but the consequences are never shown. Nevertheless, "Sense of Harmony" is very worth reading.

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