The Matter of the Great Red Dragon presents itself as a very conventional fantasy story – There is a dragon to slay and you must prepare. It turns into something significantly weirder, and so gradually that I didn't really pay attention until very late in the story.
The game is spent not so much slaying the titular dragon but rather engaging in the protagonist's quest to become a hero, so that they can then go on to slay the dragon. This takes place in a series of largely disconnected, surreal vignettes; most of the interaction is by exploring those landscapes and making choices which influence what kind of hero the protagonist becomes; true to RPG tropes, you are allowed to choose between ‘classes’ and so on.
There are a lot of significant caveats about this piece, and in particular, it's hard to discuss this without entering into spoiler territory. The long and short of it is that I recommend this piece for people who are interested in the medium itself and want to see new things, and I don't recommend it for people looking for an enjoyable or interesting story that they can get invested in.
I should note that those are impressions from a single playthrough, and it may be that there are different paths or endings which may have resulted in a different impression. The author's afterword asks the reader to experience the game without lawnmowering, however; that's fair enough, and I've respected that wish.
First, the narrative structure is mostly made out of unconnected vignettes that get increasingly surreal as the game goes on; the overall impression is that of a hallucinatory vision quest. Said vignettes, however, lack any connecting emotional or plot through-line. It is, essentially, wading through a stream of weirdness to get to the end. Better-written dream and hallucination sequences, in interactive fiction and elsewhere, have generally involved recurring elements, thematic resonance to the story at hand, and a fine understanding of dream logic. If this was present here, I wasn't on the right wavelength to perceive it. The overall effect, at the end, is jumbled rather than memorable.
The second problem with this structure is that, as the passages in the game get weirder, they also get more opaque. The relationship between the choices you make in the narrative and how they impact the player character become more obtuse until they finally appear essentially unknowable in one of the final sequences.
Ending spoilers: (Spoiler - click to show)In the end, it turns out that those choices don't really seem to matter; all throughout the game, you're led to believe that you're preparing for a climactic battle with the dragon – the interface itself suggests this, helpfully listing your powers and traits in the left hand menu as you acquire them, including blank spaces for ones you haven't gotten to yet. As it turns out, all your fellow heroes have quit heroism to become waiters, consultants or hedge-fund managers; evil has become totally banal, and the dragon, as well as heroes like yourself, is just a relic of a more innocent time. The story ends in total anticlimax, turning the heroic-fantasy conceit on its head for a cheap polemic about subjectivity and postmodernity. More troubling is the fact that this ending seems to imply, in rough terms, that fairytale black-and-white morality is what stands between us and fascism. I can't say I appreciated the disregard for reader expectations in order to make a tired point; in many ways I felt like the experience of 90% of the story had been devalued by throwing its mechanisms and tropes away just before the ending.
Overall: I can't recommend this without reservations. It's an interesting piece, but of the sort that perhaps deserves to be dissected more than enjoyed. It does interesting things with form, at times, and the premise of it is wonderful, if only it wasn't so thoroughly wasted on the ending.
IF with NPC sidekicks that obey the player's every command often risk appearing redundant, with a second pair of hands that have no plot function. Ollie Ollie Oxen Free introduces six additional pairs of hands for the player to control, and uses them to tightly integrate the gameplay, plot, and emotional arcs of the story.
To keep you relying on the game's cast of non-player characters, Ollie presents a PC who is momentarily incapacitated, unable to cope with even the simplest physical tasks. This set-up would be interesting just in gameplay terms, but Ollie adds to it the strong emotional hook of putting you in the position of an elementary school teacher who has to depend on his students to get everyone out safely after a bombing. The story never stops reminding you that the NPCs you are relying on to be your hands, eyes, and ears in the game world are still children. I'm not a parent or a teacher, or a particularly sensitive person even when it comes to depictions of children in dangerous situations, but Ollie Ollie Oxen Free still had me completely floored with the strength of its emotional arc; it's really damnably effective at times.
Structurally, the game could be called a light puzzlefest. Most of the game is spent rescuing the various students from their respective predicaments, often allowing you to drop one puzzle to go deal with another and come back later, which is always appreciated. The implementation is very thoughtful – the game provides prompts to suggest any unique or uncommon verbs to you, there's a responsive hint system along with explicit walkthrough instructions, and the puzzles are generally well thought-out, thematically interesting, and sensible.
However, still on implementation, it lacks polish. There aren't that many implemented responses to actions that don't advance the puzzles; in one case, an alternate solution I thought was fairly obvious is blocked with what appears to be a generic message. The game includes a THINK ABOUT verb to recall memories about people and objects, but a lot of the backstory mentions people and things that you can't think about. There's some lacking synonyms – STUDENT, STAND ON COUNTER doesn't work, but STUDENT, GET ON THE COUNTER does, for example
Overall, a very strong piece, and hopefully it'll be updated to improve its implementation; there's a very thoughtful design, great characters, and strong prose in place here, but it could have benefited from more playtesting.