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by Robert Goodwin profile


Web Site

(based on 13 ratings)
6 reviews

About the Story

A session with Madeline.

Probe into the psyche of a frightened young woman in an experimental psychological horror game built around conversation. (not scary)

Content warning: Inappropriate for young kids.

Game Details


39th Place - tie - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)


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Number of Reviews: 6
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Most Helpful Member Reviews

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
A chatbot mystery, November 28, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp. I also beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)

There are various origin points for what we’ve come to call IF – Adventure, most obviously, but you can also trace choice-based games back to the print Choose Your Own Adventure series and its own early-20th-Century antecedents, and Aaron Reed defensibly started his 50 Years of Text Games series with the initial, purely-text versions of Oregon Trail. There is an eccentric uncle in the attic nobody really likes to talk about, though – or rather, aunt, since I’m speaking of the chatbot ELIZA. Viewed now as little more than a parlor trick – though how could it have been anything else, given the hardware constraints at its 1960s inception? – AI tech is finally catching up to the possibility of having a computer that can engage in a dialogue with you, even if the Turing Test is in no danger of falling anytime soon. So it makes sense that authors are now attempting to re-cross the streams and make a chatbot into a game, rather than something for pre-teen boys to feed dirty jokes into.

Of the runs at this idea that I’ve seen, Thanatophobia seems the strongest. I’m not equipped to evaluate the back-end of what makes it feel reasonably responsive, but there are some design parameters that are cannily set up to paper over the inevitable infelicities that will come up when trying to speak English to a robot. For one thing, the interlocuter character is set up as someone disoriented and not in their right mind, so the occasional odd interjection doesn’t seem too mimesis breaking. For another, the game’s built around a mystery with several pieces, so it’s less likely the player will spend so much time on one topic or area that they start trying increasingly-odd questions or statements. The author’s also done a good job of fleshing out various non-essential bits of backstory so that there’s room for the player to explore without quickly seeing the difference between the hand-tuned, critical path content and generic chatbot oatmeal.

The story being told here isn’t especially novel – there’s a little bit of a twist, but plumbing an allegory to discover someone’s hidden trauma is well-trod territory in IF by this point, albeit it does act as a clever homage to the psychoanalyst-aping roots of the chatbot conceit. And the characters inhabit well-worn archetypes without doing much to distinguish themselves. But for a formal experiment, keeping the narrative tame is probably the right call. Similarly, while the expected chatbot-friction is reduced, it’s definitely still there – but I do wonder how much of that would be smoothed if there were more uniform player expectations about how to interact with such things, much as there are by now for traditional parser games.

All told I found Thanataphobia a success, perhaps more intriguing for the directions it points to than for what it accomplishes in itself, but an entertaining way to spend an hour nonetheless.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Chatbots: Innovative Same-iness, December 9, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Because of specific compatibility needs, this game made me install Opera. Better be worth it! It’s fine actually, the linux build was seamless enough.

I think this is my first interaction with a Chatbot since I tripped over ELIZA (already deeply out of date) on the early internet. “Pshh, c’mon reviewer, Siri and Alexa are everywhere…” NO. NO NO NO. Spybot Siri and Agent Alexa are not welcome in my life! “Dad, they only listen when you talk to them…” said my adorably naive daughter. It took a way too long silent stare to get her to tumble onto how they know you are addressing them… Does this make me sound like the Unibomber? To repurpose a Chris Rock OJ Simpson joke, “I’m not saying he shoulda done it. I’m saying I understand.” Hm, not sure that was as funny as I wanted it to be. Not sure the original joke was either. Oh God, I’M WEARING A HOODIE RIGHT NOW!!! Maybe its best if you politely let me cut away to…

Thanatophobia! A chatbot that is totally not spying on me! Well, the server is logging my every input… I’m backing away from the brink. I promise.

My first impression was both how much and how little progress has been made since ELIZA. As I recall, Eliza’s ‘trick’ was to keep asking questions using text you had just typed to give the illusion of talking. Was that Eliza? I think so. Or maybe I’m confusing 'her' with a psychoanalysis bot. I’m just gonna go with Dr. Eliza for the rest of this. Thanatophobia kind of reversed the equation. It was at its most convincing when I asked questions and it answered. It had a convincing array of answers ready for me too! About family, friends, jobs, relationships. There were great stretches of reasonable dialogue, though inevitably most of them terminated into “don’t wanna” before I was done. The "don’t wanna"s were pretty ok, felt natural as much as unnatural which is a step above most IF. The illusion was enough that I slipped into Engagement pretty quickly.

It was a weird experience though. I would go through stretches of hyper-effective conversation to hit stretches of close-but-not-quite. The uncanny valley of dialogue. The overall effect was Engaging, but with intellectual reserve. It did give me a moment of amusement, albeit perhaps at the game’s expense, when I had cause to say “I got that” after a particularly egregious bout of repetition.

The uncanny valley was most pronounced when what felt like a pretty natural, meandering conversation suddenly took on NPC-driven endgame urgency of “who is it? who is it, huh? tell me, who is it?” I fought this for two reasons. On the one hand, in my role as therapist, I didn’t feel like we were ready for specificity. On the other, there were some questions I still wanted answers to that seemed as or more important than the mysterious identity. Eventually, I was bullied to spamming candidates until there was an answer they liked, and only as a declarative, not a suggestion to digest together. It seems like there is a narrative fix for this, if I can be forgiven the presumption. (Spoiler - click to show)If the threatening figure, so far aloof, had advanced on the NPC in a perceived threatening way that would have given some rationale to the sudden urgency of the question, and gotten me on board with providing an immediate answer.

The rushed ending, and in particular my spamming response to it, nevertheless credited me with a “win.” It made me wonder if there was a “loss” scenario. That’s fine, sometimes IF is really only about the story. Here though, a key part of the Engagement was the illusion that I could help, and driven by the prospect that I MIGHT NOT. A bit of edge is taken off when it feels like (warranted or not) maybe failing was never a possibility. Or maybe, that impression was just an artifact of Chatbot limitations, I can’t tell. Let’s credit it to that, and club it with the uncanny valley to call it Notable. I do really like how different this was than most IF I've played this year.

Anyway, I’ve got Opera now. But who am I kidding. I use Firefox/DuckDuckGo with a massive superstructure of privacy plugins. That’s not gonna change.

Played: 11/2/22
Playtime: 30min, success
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Notable chatbot limitations
Would Play Again? No, experience seems complete

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Please help her, October 9, 2022

I enjoyed this one a lot. It was atmospheric and slightly creepy. The gameplay centers around your character asking questions to a girl who is begging for help. You have to guess the right things to ask, and the NPC responds. The author has developed an impressive system in which a lot of what I tried got fairly relevant responses. I was genuinely motivated to figure out how to help the girl. There are no content warnings, as that would spoil important details, but be aware you may read descriptions or see images that could disturb some players. I was able to finish fairly quickly, but I am interested to see what other responses are available, so I would replay Thanatophobia again.

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Thanatophobia on IFDB


The following polls include votes for Thanatophobia:

Outstanding Game of the Year 2022 - Player's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best overall game of 2022. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible...

Trailblazer Award of 2022 - Player's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for a game of 2022 that you saw as a trailblazer. Voting is open to all IFDB...

Outstanding Use of Interactivity in 2022 - Player's Choice by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the an outstanding game of 2022 that felt truly interactive. Voting is open to...

See all polls with votes for this game

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