Reviews by autumnc

ifcomp 2021

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1-8 of 8

The TURING Test, by Justin Fanzo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Philosophical Dilemmas, November 25, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

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You are SpamZapper 3.1, by Leon Arnott

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Life on the internet, November 24, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

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Goat Game, by Kathryn Li

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A workplace drama with many endings, November 24, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

First choice:

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)

Second choice:

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

Third choice:

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.

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BLK MTN, by Laura Paul

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Dark Americana road trip story, November 24, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

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4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A wonder of twine and procedural generation, November 22, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

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Universal Hologram, by Kit Riemer

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A game about being extremely online, November 22, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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.

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The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
It still works in single-player, November 22, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

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?

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Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Act 1 of a puzzly horror game, November 22, 2021
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2021

First impression: The PCís name is Jennifer Hedgerow and sheís a botany student. Wow. This is a comedy right? *Checks blurb* oh.

Jennifer Hedgerow doesn't feel like a horror name, or a Lovecraftian name. There is music here, which feels unobtrusive; I don't think much is lost by playing it without music. I like the interface, especially the pop-up asides. Sense of Harmony from 2020 used that to great effect. Actually, this game reminds me of Sense of Harmony for a number of reasons.

Beneath Fenwick is one of several games in IFComp 2021 to use a parser-like mechanic in twine, with locations, inventory, puzzles, and so on. Of those games, I think this is the one that goes furthest; it feels more parser-like than any of the other twine games with similar ideas. And it works! It works quite well! The systems are implemented in a nice, bug-free way. Overall, the game is constructed very well, with a great UI, good writing, and an interesting setting and plot. I was always interested in what the game would throw at me next!

Navigation and travel can be kind of tedious. At several points I was wandering through the whole town trying to find the necessary thing to progress the story. It felt like lawnmower-ing, and it threw the pacing off a bit.

None of the characters act like human beings. Of course, being townspeople in a Lovecraftian story, they might not actually be human beings. But even the outsider protagonists act in strange ways. The first puzzle was kind of ridiculously contrived. The (Spoiler - click to show)escaping-the-rabid-dog-by-going-to-an-abandoned-mill puzzle was just weird and felt a little out of place. Is there no animal control in this area? Or even villagers with weapons or traps or any sense of self-preservation whatsoever? Itís weird that barely escaping from the dog with your life canít be discussed with anyone (maybe it was discussed, but I forgot). But maybe this is all for the sake of Lovecraft-ness and thatís the point.

The game just... stops. There really isnít an ending. It feels like an Act 1. In 2020, Sense of Harmony was another game to do this. I think I preferred Sense of Harmony because of the characters and plot.

I hope this doesnít sound overly nitpicky; I really enjoyed Beneath Fenwick and Iím really looking forward to the next chapter, if/when it comes!

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