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The Fall of Asemia, by B.J. Best

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
How to feel for a country you've never known and never really will, April 9, 2022
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: Spring Thing 2022

Minimal, abstract graphemes of varied points and lines assemble lost stories from forgotten country ("the land of no signs" if I parse the name correctly, or perhaps "The land of which there is no sign," which sounds more accurate to its state). In Point and Line to Plane, Kandinsky proposes an exercise in "hearing" the geometric point, whose sound is silence. ["Today I am going to the movies. Today I am going. To the movies. Today I. Am going to the movies Today I am going to the movies

."] To my mind B.J. Best has used a style of abstract imagery similar to Kandinsky to likewise create a multimedia exercise in hearing and feeling for the dead of this imagined land, who currently speak the same language as the geometric point.

What do the pictures themselves represent? Typically triptychs, though sometimes less, we can see in their horizontal alignment how one method of reading perhaps already influences the reading of the art, further bolstered by its presentation with interstitial scenes in English that make new meanings from the player's selections. Are these arrangements written sentences in Asemian? No, they assemble into larger passages. Are these images perhaps journals, with each image representing a day? No, the text suggests they are probably less formal than this (at least one seems to be little more than a crumpled note, though to whom any of them were written seems uncertain). Unless I missed something, their relation to the textual translation that follows seems to imply that each grapheme operates as a discrete unit of meaning in some way, like the practice emoji tutorial that the game opens with, featuring no interaction between the graphemes though they do form a larger picture. That smacks of a missed opportunity to me (what might it have meant for any one triptych to only contain a single point? what if we managed to arrange points in ascending order?), although it would require exponentially more work to finish the project and as the time to complete any particular work approaches infinity the artist is certainly justified in making cuts. In this way though, although these mysterious scribbles are translated into lines (haha), they sort of remain points of relation rather than transcending to a lexical plane.

I was quite captively spellbound by the possibilities of the graphemes and studied them and their accompanying textual scenes for quite some time the first time around, as one might art on a museum wall, but the game features multiple rounds. The recycling of selectable images and their related lexia (if any new ones were introduced on subsequent rounds, I missed them) led in my case to desensitization and scanning rather than deep reading, especially by the third time around. I was more into seeing what changed if anything on the second and third pass. By the third I was more or less just clicking through and this is too bad because I really enjoyed finding what I felt was the "right" fit for all of the scribbles on my first time through. Maybe this aspect was intended as a commentary on translation. Regardless the monotony of this experience is definitely reflected and commented on by the framing of the viewpoint character (a literal translator) and a choice of dialog options responding to that character's surrounding monotony, frustrations, and the relation of inner and outer states (the need to get the "right" translation, lingering sadness and anger, and eating (Spoiler - click to show)nothing but chicken). The game's final choice (Spoiler - click to show)between some "translated" lines of text not drawn from a grapheme allows the player a say in capping off the emotional experience of the project in general.

This is all to say that I found The Fall of Asemia intriguing and exquisite without even beginning to touch on its sonic aspect. My previous tries at reviewing something like that suggest that while I can say that I thought the ambient soundscape matched or heightened the mood of the piece overall and suggested either what the language of Asemia might have sounded like or how 'twas garbled through the mists of time (? [(Spoiler - click to show)but at least not so long ago that they didn't have jazz]), someone else out there is better qualified than myself to more fully assess that part of the experience.

Ah, well, it's natural to miss something, I suppose. The translator does it, the survivors of the dead must do it, and so any one reviewer probably will too.

Full Circle, by David Whyld

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A game of frustration, revelation, and little suspense, June 9, 2013
by DB (Columbus, OH)

Unfortunately, I didn't enjoy Full Circle. Its setting is interesting enough: a dark fantasy like Doomed Xycanthus or the author's previous Shards of Memory. Its presentation is sleek. Exits are clearly displayed and there's a special touch to the inventory: it's organized, convenient, and appealing, unlike many other inventories one sees in i.f. I expect that with some revisions it may yet win my enjoyment, but those revisions may be numerous. As it is, the story is almost completely suspenseless and the conscious choice of a design aesthetic based on obscurity and frustration with the expectancy of players progressing by revelation (“the time-honoured method of slamming [one's] head into the desk until something clicks,” as Mr. Whyld himself put it) actively works against the game's favor in my opinion.

When I say it is suspenseless, I don't mean you'll know what's going on right away. What I mean is that the writing seems to want to be suspenseful, but constantly gives itself away or plays up mystery where the audience already has answers. Even in the opening text dump we're presented with our amnesiac protagonist and asked, “Have you been here before?” and so we the audience know that, yes, we have. After being mauled by the beast away from a glade (very early in the game, so it is no spoiler), we are flatly told, “Death wraps you in its icy embrace.” Upon being returned to the glade: “Did you die? Have you been reborn again? Is that how you ended up in the glade in the first place?” Again, the author tells us first (we have died), and then questions so insistently that mystery is dispelled. This is not suspense. For an example of a very good ontological mystery IF with player-character persistence after multiple deaths, see Shrapnel.

Many interactions in the game are badly designed and become unfair Guess the Verb puzzles. On seeing a man hanging from a rope, for example, >GET ROPE flatly refuses because “the rope is of no use.” For the unclued command >UNTIE, >UNTIE ROPE gives “I don't understand what you want me to do with the ropes.” One must specifically (Spoiler - click to show)“untie corpse.” “Body” or “man” do work as synonyms for “corpse.”

On top of being very puzzle-heavy, the relation of player/protagonist knowledge is not always clear. We can see a statue in the first room, but must examine its several parts more closely before coming to what should have been an easy or more general observation about it available from first-level description-- where its arm points. Close by this, we are offered a >DIG verb from the help menu, which is never used by the player, but automatically done by the protagonist. In fact, the game's major unique verb is not listed in the help menu-- all the more pernicious because it is possible to explore the gameworld without any knowledge of it and become irreversibly stuck.

Verbs offered in the help menu also don't accurately reflect their usage in the game. For one, the player must use (Spoiler - click to show)>BURY instead of the already given >DIG, for no reason with no indication. Toward the end of the game, the author changes the rules of conversation unexpectedly, without warning and without indication of the newly expected syntax.

Even beyond the obscurity of many solutions, many of the game's descriptions are often misleading. For example, the game describes the use of a branch as a possible weapon, but it never seems to be used in this way. Instead, you're supposed to (Spoiler - click to show)make it into a torch using a verb that you might never be able unlock if you go east of the quicksand without learning the spell from the cave. For another, upon examining oneself, the game says, “You are... you... You seem to be in reasonable health, aside from your memory problems.” However, this is patently false, as your character has a “mark” on him that not only appears as a large bruise (so you're not healthy), but (Spoiler - click to show)is the key to learning how to cast magic without which it is impossible to progress. This sort of writing is not helpful; it is badly designed.

Though I did finish the game, I think my last shred of hope it would be any good basically went away on reading the ship's log. Many of the previous GTV troubles, cruel design, and misleading descriptions could have been accidental, just a forgivable hazard of solo development and lack of outside beta-testing. Reading the ship's log, however, shows 1 of 10 pages completely at random. There is no diagetic reason that the protagonist should have to read pages at random, nor a reason offered why he would, rather than reading chronological order from the beginning to the end like people do. This use of randomness and frustration over order and flow was an intentional design decision that was completely needless in its frustration, and may best sum up why I did not enjoy this game. The log also makes it clear that (Spoiler - click to show)basically all of the exciting stuff happened on the ship; as in a game of Clue, we find ourselves engaging the world of this game only after all the action is over. This might also serve to explain the lack of suspense in the story.

If you have a very high frustration threshold, an unabidingly old school love of unraveling mysteries in high fantasy worlds, and ADRIFT 4, then version 1 of Full Circle might just be what you're looking for.

The Evil Chicken of Doom, by Mel S

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Birth of a 'DRIFTer's legacy, September 14, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: ADRIFT, comedy, Speed-IF

ADRIFT author Mel S. is probably best known for zany horror-comedy hijinks (light on the horror), but he didn't always write in this style. Prior to this game, it seems most of his work was of the Deadline murder mystery type. In Mystery's ADRIFT-O-Rama, Mel's course is themed around the murder mystery rather than comedy. It seems that the inception of Speed-IF compilations in the ADRIFT community (and for the purists, this one is a true, one-hour-only Speed-IF) fundamentally changed the major output of this author with their constraints. The author has recently stated that these are his favorite sort of games to write. In fact, it seems that every game he has written since this one has been written as Speed-IF with his now trademark wacky tone.

So how does this one hold up? If off-the-wall, amped-up freak outs over the impossible and the absurd make you laugh, this one definitely will. It merrily defenestrates mimesis. It even shows good characterization for its scope. Unfortunately, probably as a side-effect of being made in an hour, it does suffer from Guess the Verb (one annoying instance, for example, where “take” is accepted, but not “get”) and Guess the Syntax problems, but if they really stymie you, there's no shame in turning to a walkthrough. These problems, however, are few. Little replay value except in booting this crazy, li'l thing back up to show your friends, but hey.

Ultimately: like drinking absinthe and novocaine from a little shot glass with a big, dangerously pointy chip in the glass, it is perhaps best done fast and with a little guidance, but if it's your thing-- oh, you will laugh.

ADRIFT-O-Rama, by Dana Crane

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mock mini-golf-- emphasis on the mock., September 12, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: interactive creative non-fiction, ADRIFT

ADRIFT-O-Rama is a special type of game, a sort of community in-joke featuring members of the ADRIFT Forum. It's less an interactive fiction and more an interactive creative non-fiction (even if ICNF is a clunky acronym that sounds too much like “I sniff.”), so that's how I'm judging it. As far as I can tell, the first of this type of community-based creative non-fic in the modern IF Community is Adam Biltcliffe's Are You a Chef? (2000). ADRIFT-O-Rama is not the first of its type in ADRIFT, either, being preceded a couple months by Woodfish's Forum (a comment in ADRIFT-O-Rama seems to suggest that Woodfish might have gotten the idea from Mystery). But where Forum is ultimately a work of fiction that just name-drops a few 'DRIFTers and ties its adventure together with a couple community in-jokes, ADRIFT-O-Rama goes the whole nine yards as creative non-fic, presenting its author's personal view of her contemporaries through the lens of a mock game of miniature golf.

I think the great thing about these sort of time capsule games like ADRIFT-O-Rama is that, as historical documents, they arguably become more valuable with age. It is especially gratifying not just to see ADRIFT authors represented (it's an 18 hole course, 17 for authors and 1 for Guess the Verb), not just to show how their works are perceived (each hole is modeled after a single author's forum persona or oeuvre, with no shortage of commentary), but to have them situated in the specific context of another 'DRIFTer's viewpoint (i.e., Mystery's). It's a really neat glance back into the community and into what being a member of it and author with it is (or was) like, especially from a member of one of the oldest cohorts of 'DRIFTers.

Particular actions in ADRIFT-O-Rama are very juicy: hitting different objects with the club, hitting them with your hands (while holding nothing-- yields different responses than clubbing), hitting the ball, and throwing the ball can produce several different, amusing responses in each room of the game. These actions all have variable responses controlled by randomized numerical values and ADRIFT 4's text replacement system, ALR (Alternate Language Resource). According to the ALR, most of these actions throughout the game can yield anywhere from 5-15 or so possible responses. Consider that that's stretched over 18 holes (19 rooms, counting the ball room), with several implemented scenery objects to act upon in each, and you'll understand what makes this game so deceptively deep. What Noah Wardrip-Fruin calls the Tale-Spin Effect (describing “works that fail to represent their internal system richness on their surfaces”) is at work here, hampering the full experience of this piece while the parser mediates that experience.

On a typical playthrough, one might experience the game as something like a quick short story. It's possible to just go through, hitting the ball in every hole and scoring a hole in one every time, so that one might see none of the >hit %object% responses, none of the throwing responses, and only one response for sinking the ball per course. One trouble with the game is that because the responses are randomized, it's impossible to figure out how many responses one should expect for a given action without looking at the game's code.

On an attempt at a deeper play, however, the amount of effort and soul that went into this game is plainly evident. The replacement text from the ALR file alone is over 17,000 words long; after adding room and object descriptions, the game approaches novel length. It's a shame the process for uncovering these scriptons in the game is randomized, but the game's amusing writing does reward persistence. Perhaps a better strategy for reading ADRIFT-O-Rama is to play through the game once and then read the ALR file itself to catch everything you missed.

The tone of the game is generally zany and a jokingly abusive of the player. The text is very self-aware, and shows an erudition with not only the ADRIFT community, but also the platform itself. For example, the game often spoofs the ADRIFT 4 parser's standard responses(Spoiler - click to show)(“You hit, but nothing happens. Heh- thought you wouldn't get that response, did you?”). In one section (after trying to (Spoiler - click to show)hit things in the Ball Room), the author makes one of many write-in appearances. In this one, she threatens to lecture the player on the importance of beta-testing. Upon continued abuse, she makes good on that promise-- only with a spelling error early on in the response that I can't help but think has to have been typed in with a wink.

Mystery trades in insult humor for much of the game, writing in her own satirical visions of other ADRIFT authors and community members, many of whom are gone now. It's safe to say that these authors were also intended to be her audience at the time, thus much of the abuse taken by the player character can also be construed a sort of imaginary, playful abuse to fellow 'DRIFTers. Especially in the early '00s, this sort of abuse was commonplace on the ADRIFT Forum-- consider the importance of the Forum's most active and longest running thread (2 Aug 2002 - 28 May 2006), the Smacking Thread. Mystery appears in-game to smack the player character around quite often, which I believe other 'DRIFTers would've recognized as a sort of good-natured and wacky playfulness (in fact, smacking was also a primary verb for the player in Forum).

But there are some more brutal portrayals in the game, as well, where Mystery makes no mystery of her opinion on some authors. If Don Rickles had written an ADRIFT game, it would look like ADRIFT-O-Rama. One hole on the course is dedicated to the takedown of David Whyld, comic roast-style(Spoiler - click to show) (“Did I mention he despises Mystery too?” the game informs us). In another instance, DuoDave (i.e., David Good) appears(Spoiler - click to show) to call Mystery an “anal control freak” and scoff at her beta-testing suggestions. Another Forum member is shown as a feckless pothead in a cloud of smoke, while yet another has a course adorned with “Shit-on-a-Stick™.” There's a current of brazen honesty, bitterness, and a disillusionment with elements of the community that runs throughout the game, which seems somewhat common in even current members of ADRIFT's sometimes claustrophobic-seeming community. Had this been made a few years later, I think it's likely it would have included the 'DRIFTing community's most feared and hated phrase, “ADRIFT is dead.”

Of course, Mystery doesn't exclude herself from her own roasting. She has a hole on the course, too, whose primary feature is a maze (referencing her game ADRIFT Maze). Upon trying to hit the ball, Mystery might make another author insert appearance to tell the player, for example, that (Spoiler - click to show)"Selma's Will was a fluke." I say “might” again because of the randomized nature of the game's responses. Read the ALR-- it's in there.

At times-- and perhaps including the previous comment-- the text waxes confessional. Especially at Mystery's hole, the writing of some segments either directly addresses the author's grievances (Spoiler - click to show)("If you'd behave yourself you wouldn't need a [forum] moderator. I wasn't sure if moderating was something I wanted to do. People expect you not to have opinions when you are a moderator...I guess it isn't really funny, just sad." She lowers her head and returns to the darkness whispering, "I was a Drifter first.") or through more generalized expressions that exemplify her frustration, which I won't include here because I can't just spoiler tag everything (Spoiler - click to show)(Yes I can) and you should read this thing for yourself.

This is a game that offers an incredible insider's view of ADRIFT to the rest of the IF Community, and it is one that certainly no 'DRIFTer should go without playing. This is the heyday of ADRIFT 4 with all its personalities caught in Mystery-tinted amber, a bold, inventive piece of writing that will make you laugh, scorn, think, and putt.

Highly recommended.

Unraveling God, by Todd Watson

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
ADRIFT's Photopia, September 10, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)

Unraveling God is linear, but non-chronological, puzzleless, story-centric IF (some have questioned whether or not it is truly IF, though I would vote 'yes'). It shares a lot in this way with Photopia. In fact, its opening uses a single, thematic word (optionally in color), almost exactly like Photopia. I think the game is different enough, though, that we can see this as an homage, a clear acknowledgment of Unraveling God's predecessor rather than merely a copy. Generally anything other than Photopia is going to fall short of Photopia, and I'd like to try to look at this game on its own merits, but the comparisons are inevitable.

That being said, I admit that Unraveling God's religious themes initially made me (an atheist) hesitant to give it a play. I expected it to be preachy and poorly-written, with foregone conclusions, as in some other religious IF I have attempted to tackle. That is not to say that religious IF can't be done right, but I hadn't seen one in the ADRIFT community capable of grabbing my interest. Still, Unraveling God has a high star rating, it placed well in 2002's IFComp, and it's been on several lists of recommended ADRIFT games... so I had to be wrong, right? Well... mostly, yes.

The specificity in setting pulled me in, especially being at a university. The writing is well done, and I finished the game with a feeling like, “Hm. Yeah. That was good.” In particular its protagonist, Gabriel Markson, a distinct character voice and style. This especially comes through even early on, after reading a fluff piece he's written about his experiments (in which he necessarily sounds upbeat), followed immediately by intensely cynical-- even sinister-- internal dialog. From the first few interactions I saw him in, I already got the sense that the protagonist was a ruthless cynic and a power-hungry jerk-- Varicella with less flair and more tenure. Especially in an ADRIFT game, a character of this style-- and this strongly written-- is a rarity. I had to play on.

Lots and lots of little things kept chipping away at my will to see the game through, I admit. A couple spelling or grammatical slip-ups I was willing to abide, but mostly I don't think the game's design has aged well. In particular, the granularity of the actions the game is willing to accept is super annoying. One must stand from a chair before looking at a bookshelf, you have to explicitly open doors before going through them, have to open a folder before reading an article, have to be holding the folder to open it, have to look at the desk to see the folder so you can pick it up first... these things really grated on me more than I suspect they might have a decade ago. At the very least, though, this character still intrigued me enough that I wanted to see his story to its end, so I persevered.

Then we hit the game's dialog. Again, these sections are all linear-- you can express Prof. Markson however you like, but you'll get the same outcomes anyway. The writing is believable to an extent. The supporting character, Claudia, is a stock religious alarmist character, questioning whether or not the advances of the professor's experiments should move forward. But she's also supposedly a science grad student, so I don't buy her dialog when, for example, she calls Galileo's notions “obscene.” (Really? So she believes in a geocentric universe?)

Admittedly, Mr. Watson likely had some difficulty putting himself into the shoes of a Christian believer in writing this dialog (he mentions his own leanings in an afterword), but it doesn't come out sounding incredibly natural. The dialog choices for Markson do feel more natural, especially given his character, but that feeling is damaged a bit by the fatalistically linear structure of the game.

Unlike Photopia, the writing lacks the subtlety and sympathy necessary to make me want to explore my expression of this character. I might have felt it mattered a little more had I interacted with Markson as another character, the way players jump between characters in Photopia, but this never happens. While the flexibility of the dialog does make me (as the player) feel the author has considered his audience rather than just feeding them all of the plot while they're tied to a chair, as a player I felt more concerned with just seeing what Professor Markson would do and what would happen to him.

Although Unraveling God is structured in such a way that it offers players an either/or moral choice at the end, the value of these choices is so clearly telegraphed-- and the quality of those endings varies so drastically-- that it can't really be imagined as a choice. The game's events, its cosmology, everything points at one answer and says, “Choose this because it's right.”

By contrast, (I guess this is a spoiler unless you've already played Photopia and have an idea what's coming) (Spoiler - click to show)Markson makes a drastic moral choice on his own in the climax of the story which the player is powerless to stop. Instead, it's more like we're an absent conscience watching, but unable to inform. In terms of affect, this moral decision by the player character is the more powerful than the one taken by the player in the ending.

On the whole, I think this might have been a 4 star game back in 2002-- even a 5 star game amongst the ADRIFT community-- but I'm just not sure it holds up as well today. It's still definitely worth a look, especially for those who like strongly characterized player characters, but do I judge it according to its importance and uniqueness from 2002 or against the relative quality of just other ADRIFT games or do I judge it on how it stands amidst a wider, evolving field of IF today? This seems more like a choice with no clearly right answer to me. I think the answer for me is to fall back on my own personal IFDB rating system: 3 stars-- I enjoyed it, but your mileage may vary.

The Woods Are Dark, by Laurence Moore

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Disappointing., September 4, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)

It's obvious the author put a lot of effort into making this game. The intro especially showcases a strong regional flavor with its use of dialect that bought a lot of initial faith in the story from me and kept me hoping it'd get better. Unfortunately, I have more complaints than anything else about this one.

For starters, the title suggests you'd be spending your time in the woods when you really spend your time investigating a haunted house. The title is true in this case-- you are surrounded by woods and they are dark-- but it just doesn't seem like it's the best thematic fit for this game. But maybe that's a minor complaint.

Room names are coded into the descriptions, so they double-up when the Runner is set to display room names, which is annoying. Luckily this can be turned off. On top of this, early room descriptions are large text dumps, generally overwritten, whereas later rooms run out of steam and are more spartan. It's an awkward distribution. Also, if a player starts without the introduction, the wrong initial room description displays. </end room complaints>

There's a mystery to solve and the way you've got to go about it is by wandering around this haunted house searching and collecting items. While this is pretty traditional for an adventure setup, having to wander in an undirected way slowly dissolves the tension from the setting. The scavenger hunt focus along with the variety of objects that the protagonist deems fit to pack rat work against the horror atmosphere (what would you do with a half-eaten chicken burger, a brush, a holy cross, and a strip of duct tape?).

There is one nice bit of item-craft in the game, though, where you put some items together to make a new one. It's well-hinted and clever, so credit where it's due. It's kind of a shame you only end up using it once, though.

Despite your most meticulous searching, the majority of relevant information collected about the mysterious disappearances you're investigating comes in the form of unreliable hallucinatory sequences of one sort or another rather than material evidence of any kind. Adventure logic-wise, their occurrence makes sense, but diagetically they feel like they happen when the PC is doing the most random things that don't seem to be furthering the cause of finding his lost friends. These include (and-- spoilers-- I'm gonna go ahead and list them all so you can see what I'm talking about) (Spoiler - click to show)arranging dolls in a doll house, building a fire and then sitting in a rocking chair, playing with a rubber ball, looking in a tub (but only after playing with the rubber ball-- there's no real rhyme or reason to this one, it just happens), hanging up a picture, singing, or painting a frickin' pram. Sigh. At any rate, this method of revealing all of the plot-important information through hallucinatory revelations (essentially disconnected plot dumps) rather than evidence is neither satisfying nor convincing. Maybe it could've been more effective if the PC were some sort of paranormal investigator?

The descriptions of most objects found after these violent hallucinations seem especially contradictory, too. (Spoiler - click to show)For example, after seeing the bloodied ghost of a friend drop this ball which was clearly not present before, the description reads, “It was just an ordinary ball found in very ordinary circumstances.” or later after finding this thing belonging to a ghost near a bathtub that moments ago poured blood: “You see nothing special about the model pram.” After some time, the necessary actions for plot advancement stop being well-cued and the world model seems to make less and less sense, with objects spontaneously generating where there had previously been nothing.

The basic flow of wandering, collecting things, fiddling around until you do something right, having a terrible hallucination come along, and then questioning your sanity as the world returns to a state of utter normality (rinse, lather, repeat) becomes a tiresome pattern pretty quickly. Wandering aimlessly after one such scene, I finally turned to the walkthrough and found that I'd been facing a genuine “read the author's mind” puzzle. Then another.

As a small note-- I don't think this is a spoiler-- “looking glass” is a vague name for an item and a bit misleading. To me it suggests a spyglass when what was meant here was a magnifying glass. Perhaps this is a regional difference, though, and I should let it slide even if it's frustrating.

On the other hand... (Spoiler - click to show)
“... it was only then I noticed something on the floor. It was a small model pram...
>paint pram
I shook my head because this wasn't going to work. I had about enough paint to cover a cigarette box let alone a whole pram.
>get pram
I take the model pram.
>paint pram
I made the best I could of it. I lightly covered the model pram with a thin coat of pink paint...”

See the misleading part there?

At least I seemed to pick up on the allusion (I assume this was intended, but at this point I've lost enough faith in the author's design that I can't be sure) and took the hint to examine the *yellow* walls. Charlotte Perkins Gilman, anyone? Unfortunately, that action just led to another hallucination. This one, though, was the Final Reveal From Out of Left Field leading to the climax... the opening move of which is apparently done for me in a longish, over-the-top, and seemingly out-of-character bit no matter what I type. When I finally get to confront the bad guy, a default ADRIFT response amusingly tells me: “Now that isn't very nice.”

The ending sequence definitely needed better beta-testing.(Spoiler - click to show)
>get gun
I couldn't see that anywhere around!
>get shotgun
I take the loaded shotgun.
>shoot tanner
Now that isn't very nice.
>shoot michael
Now that isn't very nice.
>shoot michael tanner with the shotgun
The sweat ran down my face. I couldn't make it to the shotgun – he'd nail me before I got to it.
I had with me a window key, a half burnt diary, a cheap looking glass, a holy cross, a handle, and a loaded shotgun.

Overall, I just wasn't buying it. More vigorous testing would've helped, but only so much. I really wanted to like this game and kept waiting for it to do something clever and win me back somehow, but that never happened. The double whammy twist ending double didn't do it for me, either.


Marika the Offering, by revgiblet

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Cleverly designed, well worth playing., September 4, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: ADRIFT

After mazes, the next tropes in interactive fiction to wear themselves out entirely were probably the “Escape the Room” [ETR] format and death. Seeing yet another ETR game is enough to make a seasoned IF player roll their eyes. These tend to be basically plotless, decontextualized setups for a puzzle rather than a good story. If you have to stuff something under a door to catch a key, it's probably enough to make a player quit. We've seen that game with that puzzle so many times and in so many incarnations that it was now beneath our notice, like spam. And the last thing we want to do is to die over and have to restart our attempts every time, especially on something so limited.

But Marika the Offering offers a fully contextualized, narratively complete game with an interesting story and a structure that subverts our basic aversion to death by turning the ETR format on its head. No longer is your goal to escape from a locked room. Your goal is to lock the room and keep a vampire from coming in.

Obvious means of entry and ways to bar them start the player out proactively, which is good because they're about to lose. When the player feels they have finally blocked off all they can they go to sleep (or else they'll run out of turns and fall asleep anyway). The player then get to watch how the villain enters the room to kill our heroine. In this way, each death is a clue in solving the overall puzzle of the game. Rather than an annoyance, the author has made death into a service to the player. Aside from presenting a challenge, the continued inventiveness of the (rather traditional) shapeshifting vampire at gaining entry into the tower room becomes a running gag that's amusing to read. Especially if you're a completionist, the flow of the game becomes more about blocking one entrance at a time and then dying, then blocking the next, rinse lather, repeat.

There are a couple of tricky commands to execute in this game where players might run into Guess the Verb troubles. It's also worth noting that the game is inventoryless, preferring to let players use things from where they lie rather than making them pick all of them up explicitly. This lets players focus on examining their surroundings and blocking exits rather than acquiring objects.

Overall, this is a rewarding, not overlong game with difficulty neatly balanced on a knife point, worthy of as many plays through as it has deaths. Highly recommended.

The Forest House, by Seciden Mencarde

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Fun-sized, restrained, atmospheric, September 4, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)
Related reviews: ADRIFT, horror, Speed-IF

This is the first of what would become a series of Speed-IF horror from Seciden Mencarde, and it is the only one which ever received a revision. It is also, in my opinion, the best of the series, not just the best because of its revision, but because of the author's restraint and management of atmosphere lacking in further episodes.

The Forest House doesn't drop the reader right into horror-atmosphere-tryout land knee-deep in gloom and corpses. It's more about restraining the player from getting what they want right away-- you want to go west? Well, the door is closed. Okay, open it, now go west. It is as though the parser is a big brother warning the player, “Are you sure? I don't think you're gonna like it...” but the obvious action is right there, and everything is so close, so the player keeps going until they finally arrive on the scene of the horror.

More than just holding the player back, The Forest House beckons them in with a sense of childish wonder, hinting at dread. True, some of the writing is a little stiff (“A basic four-legged table with a chair. The only thing that makes it a desk is your use of it in that manner.”), but this is generally a result of implementing scenery the author seemed to think negligible to the overall tale. In that moment and elsewhere, some of the game's (un)implementation choices are questionable-- likely a result of the original Speed-IF constraint, it would've been nice to see them fixed in the revision, as well.

The more important elements of the game's writing, however, tap into a dark pool through the lens of what could be a child's heroic imaginings and trepidation. The house only you can see, that can only be seen at night. There might be monsters in the closet. Little touches like these reinforce the horror while luring the player through a scene of stealthy preparation with adventurous expectancy rather than slapping them in the face with horror tropes and abject darkness right away. This allows for a more subversive, but still gradual-feeling switch from a world of the expected and the rational (even including mundane flashlight battery replacement) into the unexpected and the irrational.

The sort of setup this game presents is Doing It Right. In The Art of Fiction, John Gardner describes how authors draw a reader into the “fictional dream” of a work using sensory clues and elements of from life to make the reader feel the story is real, or at least plausible. This is part of buying our suspension of disbelief and, to some extent, our investment in the actors and events of a tale. In this way, the aforementioned battery replacement-- a speed bump on our way to adventure and the unknown-- exemplifies the game's use the parser, restraint, and granularity of action to mirror the reality of a child sneaking out at night. It's an effective build-up and, because of touches like this, we can see how The Forest House operates more effectively as an IF than it might as static fiction.

Once one enters the titular forest house, the imagery changes to decay-- but even with a little bit of humor mixed in as the player character copes in the face of the grotesque and the unreal. This sort of horror, built on suspense and atmosphere, takes hold better than gore, gross-outs, or threats of physical violence alone might, especially when setup correctly. I admit after several playthroughs, I still haven't been able to get the last lousy point of the game, but I'm beginning to wonder if the inability to do so-- offering us a vain and frustrating search in its place should we try-- might not be part of the game's message. As we can never fully reach back into the wondrous, nightmarish expectancies of childhood except vicariously or in senility, as those imaginings may never reach their threatened realization, so, too, might The Forest House deny us these things and be all the more creepy for it.

(Though, seriously, if you have spoilers for the last lousy point, please comment below.)

baby tree, by Lester Galin

2 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
brave new author's minimalist horror nightmare, June 28, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)

Warning: spoilers, because this game is so short. But a lot of blathering to go on.

(Spoiler - click to show)I must admit I have to feel a bit of a soft spot for a game which accepts as its first moves >GET KNIFE, >KILL ME... and then continues. In that beginning, the whole world is winnowed down to one room with a nothing outside and four things: a bed, me, a knife, a throat. And one must do something... or else one could wander the world forever finding only a nothing “Outside” and rooms with beds, knives, and your throat.

Constrained implementation makes the suicidal restlessness of the PC signify strongly, controlling and consuming the viewpoint protagonist's entire umwelt to represent its intention. In this way, the text of “baby tree” is not sparse, but dense. This is not the faux minimalism of NoM3rcy, but a crafted and toned torture machine shrunk to miniature scale. Minimalist perspective sharply delineates, but actively obfuscates existences in a world of nightmare.

The space of the game is odd, but odd in a way that tells us about the world inhabited by its characters. When moving, rooms simply cycle from “Room” to “Outside.” One can move in any cardinal direction from “Room,” and up or down and in, but not out-- to “Outside.” It makes normal sense to not be able to move out from Outside, but to go from Room to Outside by going in instead of out does not make sense in world of normal physical laws. That retreating inward can bring one to an outside space suggests not only a retreat from a world of logical forces, but that entropy in the inward retreat is constant and irreversible to the protagonist, who cannot return from her inner state. In this way, the world of “baby tree” is a reflection of the incoherent non-logic of nightmare.

Even this initial room might not be the protagonist's own. The geography of “baby tree” exceeds the bounds of a personalized domestic territory-- for how have we returned to the same “Room” by continuing in a direction away from it? Geographical connections in this world must be senseless, as we can move at half-cardinal directions like northeast or southwest and end up “Outside” in a spot that once was a “Room.” It is because of these diagonals that-- rather than a constrained, simple world of two rooms or an infinite, static checkerboard of rooms and outsides-- the layout of “baby tree” suggests madness, a conspiracy of death stretching across an endlessly networked map, a tainted carrier of disease killing dogs and babies whose wanderings haunt the uninhabited rooms of a nightmare nowhere, affecting only each other with no ecology beyond ghost children, unpeopled rooms of beds and knives, dogs for dying, a sickness inside to be cut out, the cries of the baby tree, an inescapable trap of infinite death and guilt with an unreachable history.

I can think of one way in which this nightmare could maintain diagonals and sense, but I do not want to consider for the moment the implications of “baby tree” spanning a scale of eternities in which civilizations rise and fall, their outsides becoming rooms, their rooms becoming outsides. Although the game has no explicit relation to time, to me the measure of 1 turn per command (the game's only relation to time) seems to indicate a more local scale: one second, maybe, or one minute, not one millenium.

This horror is not without controversy. The identification of the protagonist as female in the ending has led some to interpret this story as punishment for the evils of abortion, an interpretation the author has said was not intentional. It also means that the player's description and second-person narration are misleading to a male audience in a way that-- violated so abruptly at the end-- breaks suspension of disbelief. Clearly the second-person has been dealt with wrongly in this IF; if the protagonist is to be distinctly gendered it should be made clear the identity of “you” is separate from the player. Instead, the author used the most basic one-word AFGNCAAP description: explicitly “you.” This invites the reader to imagine themselves. If the author had not intended gender association between male players and the PC, he should not have invited it with second person. On the other hand, Mr. Galin might just as easily change one word at the end of the game to more fully embrace his use of the second person perspective, perhaps changing it to “person” or “human.” This would also preserve controversy, if the author finds that a valuable element of his storyworld.

For what it's worth, I did not interpret the story as being about abortion-- partially because I didn't interpret the second-person PC as a female until the very end. The baby tree initially suggested to me the guilt of a person (perhaps a doctor) who wants to save everyone, but can't. In my first reading of it, these were the faces of all of “all the babies you killed” through inaction or inability, of babies dying across the country or in other parts of the world, the nightmare guilt of which traps the PC in this inescapable nightmare. As a self-proclaimed experiment in madness, I think this space for personal interpretation works in its favor.

Even in the minimal presentation, there are some misfires in implementation.

(Spoiler - click to show)>LIE ON BED

This isn't entirely without precedent in an experimental work. There are shades of Rybread's Symetry here... darker, better-formed shades that thankfully don't abuse another author's work as a crutch.

In the end, although I found it horrific, I do have to wonder how the story would be different had the author used ghost puppies or kittens or even just plain ol' corpses instead of babies. Would a “corpse tree” with the screams of adult ghosts be as effective?

What The Murderer Had Left, by Bahri Gordebak

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Watch and wonder, January 19, 2012
by DB (Columbus, OH)

Gordebak has potential as a writer, but (as, I assume, a newcomer to interactive fiction) seems unfamiliar with I.F. conventions which might benefit his work. "What the Murderer Had Left" is a good example: in an interesting story about examining people and the exceptional qualities they may willingly or unwillingly express versus those they might hide, the PC has only a default description. Experienced players are likely to notice this, as X ME is one of the first things a lot of them might type.

Still, I think this is definitely worth the minute of your time it'll take to read through.

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