With no memory of who you are or what you are doing there, you have found yourself in a bleak stone chamber with only one exit. Clambering out and up a staircase, the breath catches in your throat as you realize where you are - a dreamhold, the private home and study of an immortal wizard. Your only goal would appear to be escape - but why are you drawn to collecting strange masks? Either way, you must explore this place, and all of the magical mystery within.
The Dreamhold was designed as an introductory story to parser IF, and as a result you are guided by the Voice, who uses italicized brackets to give advice, hints, and occasionally self-deprecating commentary:
[Amnesia. Yes, it's a cliché, but it'll do for a tutorial.]
There is an expert mode for those readers that enjoy fiendish puzzles (I'm not quite prepared for that yet!), and I like the idea that once-IF newbies, after playing through it the first time and then many other IF games, tackling that challenge as a final exam of sorts. I did enjoy solving the mystery on normal, and the dreamhold was brilliantly designed and well-crafted.
However, the reason why I've not given it a full score is that I did not quite understand the story or the couple of endings that I managed to find, and perhaps there could have been a clearer backstory or some sort of helpful coda or explainer at the end. Perhaps I was just being particularly obtuse, and perhaps one day I'll amend it if I do complete expert mode and that illuminates things.
Nonetheless this game does exactly what it sets out to do, which is provide a great introduction to parsers. Four multicoloured masks - in any order, I'm not picky (unlike some!).
A man has been murdered, and Sherlock Holmes is on the case. The police have been summoned, the suspects have been assembled, and Watson is taking notes. All that's left is for the dog to bark at the culprit. Wait, what?
As a die-hard Sherlock Holmes fan, I was immediately drawn to the premise, and once I got my hands on it I was not disappointed. Toby's Nose is an absolutely gorgeous game, and the writing is as authentic and enthralling as possible.
You are Toby, the dog with the famous nose, and it's your job to smell out the killer - there's a treat in it for you. Indeed, that's quite literally how you do it - but as a dog, your sense of smell transcends time and space, one smell opening up avenues and possibilities and other smells. The descriptions are marvelously deep and often entertaining - I was blown away by how immersive it all was, and how the breadcrumbs were laid to draw you into a final conclusion about what happened.
I read Toby's Nose directly after Lime Ergot, and as the author mentions in his note, the non-traditional method of exploration and the concept of layered descriptions is very similar, but cleverly implemented and explained so as to be unique enough. I love the concept of a dog's smelling ability - or maybe just Toby's - being so acute that it can detect smells within smells and therefore describe times and places and events without having to actually go there.
Toby's Nose is a true gem, and as a fan of Holmes and murder mysteries it really impressed me. Five cheese crumpets.
The colony is in ruins, the fleet is gone, and only you and your general are left. She wants a cocktail, and it's up to you to find the ingredients to make it. The problem is, you can't actually move. Or can you?
Lime Ergot has a fascinating approach to the idea of movement in parser fiction, in that you don't move at all but rather look, and look deeper, and look deeper still. Descriptions are layered on top of one another, drawing you ever forward into the bizarre and decaying world that you are trapped in.
Even though this is a fairly short game, the world-building and atmosphere within is extraordinary, and reminded me a little of the New Weird authors like China Miéville or Jeff VanderMeer. I have managed to find only two endings, and I do hope there are more - though try as I might I have been unable to confirm that. Perhaps there's another layer deeper still that I have been unable to get to, which just shows how complex it is.
Overall I enjoyed Lime Ergot, and it inspired me to check out other games that have similar non-traditional methods of exploration. Four St. Stellio limes.
You're a theatrical director at the end of his rope who just has to get through one more dress rehearsal, but there are a few problems: the leading lady has been struck down by an allergy to face paint; her replacement is a local actress who has her own ideas about the quality of the play's writing; the leading man is an accident-prone stand-up comedian; and the veteran actor who plays the antagonist is a melodramatic, misogynistic brute. What could possibly go wrong?
The Play is a fantastic choose-your-own-adventure comprised mainly of just one scene, and is therefore not that long, but you'll be drawn back to try different outcomes again and again and there is a lot of variety there. My first playthrough consisted of going with my gut instinct, and I think that's the best way to approach things in the beginning. Like the actors in the play that he directs, Ainsley M. Warrington follows the spirit rather than the letter of the player's instructions to him, and as a result the outcomes can be a little different to what you would expect. This just adds to the fun and the variety, and is certainly what drove me to try everything.
The issues that it deals with are certainly serious ones, and sometimes the contrast between that and the humorous pratfalls, slapstick and witty repartee can be a little jarring, but I think that makes it all the more effective. Five wobbly couches.
Cape is a story about the making of a superhero, rising from petty crime to be the scourge of a corrupt city. A thief down on his luck finds power from an unexpected source and becomes a vigilante. A familiar tale, but slickly executed and told. The quality of writing is obvious, and you get drawn in by the details pretty quickly, until the story itself draws to an all-too-soon conclusion that leaves you wanting more.
The only thing dragging it down, in my opinion, is a lack of actual choice and interactivity - the only things essentially up to you are your powers and your cruelty, which in most circumstances would suffice, but I think perhaps it should have been expanded on further. I did explore all possible choices, and while there are slight variations there's not much other than flavour. It's up to you whether you go back for further readthroughs, though I do think it is worth it.
Nonetheless, it was a great read from beginning to end, and I only wish there was more of it. Four balaclavas.
Described as a 'limited parser game', Inside the Facility gives you just six possible actions - NORTH, SOUTH, EAST, WEST, LOOK, and Z (WAIT). My first impression on hearing this was, "So the whole game is just wandering around? That's pretty shallow and restricted gameplay, right?" Wrong. Very wrong.
I spent the next two or so hours enjoying myself so much that all of my initial skepticism was replaced by respect and quite a good deal of affection. I was in my own little world, writing down room names and sketching out travel routes, making notes about keycard colors and puzzle solutions, all the while trying to figure out how to explore deeper and further into the place.
The setting is simple enough - a huge facility full of quirky rooms in which they do SCIENCE! - but there's a lot of character and depth there: the handyman who is too distracted by you to do his job; the hapless security recruits and their exasperated sergeant; a gardener who has mastered the art of strategic avoidance... yes, it's all 'wandering about' but what a wander it is. Clever puzzles and even cleverer humour make all the difference.
You're even explicitly advised to make a map and there's a handy print-out for you to use and everything - and believe me when I tell you that you should definitely do that, else some of the puzzles will be a bit of a nightmare.
Inside the Facility proves that you don't need too much complexity in terms of commands to have satisfying puzzles and a deep interactive experience. Five flasks of hypercalderic Borsch fluid.
New as I am to interactive fiction, I had not heard of this game until recently, nor had I heard of the concept of its genre - you have only one turn in which to input a command, after which the story resets and you can start over, ad infinitum.
Aisle, which is as of this review a 20 year-old game, is an extraordinary piece of writing, and I can see why it has a special place in the hearts of so many. Although the concept is simple, it is executed so brilliantly and with such depth that each repeated turn reveals another layer, and another, until you have not just one story but many in parallel.
There are breadcrumbs placed throughout leading you to more ideas of what to do next, so it's not really a case of just throwing in random verbs to see what sticks - though you can do that if you want, and I think it'd be just as rewarding. There's also a list of commands available out there for the completionists who want all 183 possible outcomes. The true genius, however, lies in how all of those outcomes are woven together - or not together, as the case may be - and the depth of feeling created from every piece as well as the whole.
After playing this game I am curious to try others like it, but I think I will always remember Aisle, decades late to the party as I was. Five packets of Gnocchi.
Harmonia's beautiful presentation and fascinating premise is what drew me in and kept me reading, and the experience as a whole was a good one. 19th Century Utopian literature and the movements that grew out of it are an interesting subject, particularly due to the social commentary that we can draw out of it in hindsight. Harmonia reads and feels like a true academic's journal with its footnotes, asides and even comments on comments, each part and story beat quite literally unfolding one after another.
However, it must be said that despite being a work of interactive fiction it is a thoroughly on-rails experience, with only one significant choice: the ending. Don't get me wrong, I was interested in the story and its characters, and even though a couple of reveals were a little predictable, I felt that it made narrative sense and was overall an enjoyable read.
All in all, Harmonia has a lot going for it and I recommend you give it a try. If you're anything like me, by the time you're done you will have picked up not only a respect for the design and the writing but a healthy interest in the history of Utopian communes as well. Four astroliths.
I'll make a confession straight away - I'm not a big fan of fiction about teenagers, and I'm even less of a fan of summer camps. If you are like me, don't worry - despite being about teenagers and set in a summer camp, Birdland is an incredible piece of interactive fiction that is enthralling from beginning to end.
It's a story of emotions and having (or not having) the freedom to express them; a story of youthful attraction, of coming to terms with one's inner nature; and it's a story of strange dreams and even stranger things within them.
The mechanic of determining what mood you are in - and therefore determining what choices are available to you at various points - may seem a little arbitrary at first, but there is a method to that madness, and it helps that the mechanic itself is hilarious.
All in all, a fantastic and well-crafted experience. Five plasma spheres.
You Will Select a Decision is an extremely well-written piece that uses Soviet-era tropes and language quirks to full effect, creating a world that draws the reader in with atmosphere, charm, and stellar humour. It's a pity there are still only two adventures within, since the titles of the others teased in the beginning seemed ripe for potential. Nevertheless, I highly recommend these stories, and if you're a big fan of word play, choose-your-own-adventure books, or whimsical Soviet references (or better yet, all three), you're sure to get a big kick out of it. Five Orders of Lenin.