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About the Story
You work at a research institute that studies aquatic life. But you swear you just saw something strange in the water.
Content warning: There are scenes of violence and horror. As such this game contains material inappropriate for young children.
58th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
Number of Reviews: 6
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I knew this was going to be a horror story when I started, which isn't my thing, so I was pleasantly surprised by the first bit: you have a choice to applaud or not. The lecturer notices whether or not you do. This sort of thing invariably charms me, exposing people's passive-aggressions and leaving you helpless without melodrama, and it bought a lot of good will going forward. Because The Pool does feel a bit chaotic. Part of that is the author's intent–aquatic monsters have been created at a biological research institute, and you will want to figure out why. Oh, and survive, too. It becomes pretty clear that something has gone wrong with the experiment, but it also becomes clear that your definition of "wrong" may be others' of "right." The Pool is also a bit low on polish at the micro level, but I'm impressed with the branches where you can get yourself killed.
I managed to escape, and I felt a genuine relief beyond the trivial snark of "ha ha ha I can move on to the next entry, and that's good, because I'm behind schedule for reviewing everything in IFComp anyway." I'd reached a sort of operational base for my explorations into other branches, and I was interested in not only the ways I could get killed but what they meant. The instadeaths seemed a little less insta. So the organization is impressive. There are a lot of behind-the-scenes moving parts I didn't cop to in my first forays where I did stuff, undid, and looked around. My character felt like a bit of a cipher in the process, someone who wished they could do more, and even at the end where I eventually survived after a lot of trial and error, this didn't seem to be resolved.
This is okay if you're trying to make an AFGNCAAP, but here, you sort of wonder how someone so insignificant and malleable got a job at such a place. This is compounded slightly by going too far to the other extreme with, say, "Ask XXX who would like to attack first, but secretly hope XXX says yes." This is a bit on the nose, and it's not the only one. It does feel like a lot of dialogue could be cut down, and it would've given me endurance to look through even more branches to see the full backstory. Because I'd like to.
The Pool reminded me a lot of early Choose Your Own Adventures but was a heck of a lot darker and didn't have the totally random endings that sometimes got sprinkled in, the sort that seemed like a brilliant reversal when I was twelve but seem totally unrealistic now. There's still the sense of getting shot unexpectedly or dying other ways, and these do make sense the more you explore. So there's general creepiness and intrigue here, and it certainly reminded me of people I thought were my friends, but it turned out they weren't. (Don't worry! Nobody got killed there!)
Sometimes it feels the pace is too much, and the "help bad person X" choices are too scattershot, and it even seems a bit too bland, until you realize something genuinely disturbing is happening in the background, or you get shot, calling the integrity of another character into play. This more than saves The Pool as a solid work to me, and though I recognize it's not perfect, I legitimately enjoyed it, and if parts left me confused, there were bits I was glad to patch up and realized I'd just missed.
All it took were the words, "research institute that studies aquatic life," in the game's description for me to tell myself, "I have to play this." Plus, it sounds like an unusual setting for a horror story. I was excited. But when it came to sink or swim, the game unfortunately could not hold its own.
The Pool begins at a casual staff party at the institute (we never learn its specific name), which is an attention-grabbing way of starting the game. But tension is in the air. Casual conversation informs us that the protagonist's boss had been missing for several days. People are working overtime to compensate. As the party wraps up, chaos breaks loose. Turns out (Spoiler - click to show) former friends and coworkers are looking to turn their colleagues into fish food. Not goldfish. Something worse.
The gameplay essentially features the protagonist trying to get out of desperate situations with the threat of death lurking around every corner. It becomes a stampede for survival. You are usually presented with two choices at a time, either having to do with character dialog or a generalized decision making. Stay or leave. Help or hide. Go with Ada or go with Marcus. A downside to this game is that everything feels a bit scattered. There are large passages of text with a mix of dialog, sudden changes in scenery, swearing, sea monsters, and other developments that can be hard to follow. But if you stick it out and trudge through, you will find an interesting story.
The redeeming quality in this game is its use of branching gameplay. In fact, the number of paths were fairly impressive. The branching begins at the start of the game where the player chooses who to mingle with at the staff party, and that branches off as well. What I like about this is how paths each have different ways of informing the player about the nightmare that unfolds because they determine where you are in the facility and who you are with when disaster strikes. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) in one path you directly see Ada betray everyone, but in another you may only learn about it second hand. A memorable case of the former is when nearly everyone from the party is chained to a rig that Ada slowly lowers into the pool. This occurs if you choose to hang out with Ada after the party. Sounds gnarly, but it conjures memories of renting horror movies from those Redbox stations for slumber parties. It occurs early in the game, and that is only one path.
The author makes a notable effort at diversifying what you see in each playthrough. If you play the game and think that you have seen everything, then you are probably wrong. Because of this, I played the game multiple times despite its lack of organization.
If you read the previous section, you already know that there is lots of branching to play with, and how it gives you different ways of experiencing certain events. Another upside is that it provides some exposition on the overreaching story, one broader than what we usually see in each playthrough. Common knowledge is that (Spoiler - click to show) the aquatic monsters bite humans to turn them into new monsters, almost like zombies. We also know that Ada and Marcus were involved. But there is more to it. You really have to dig* to find it all, (Spoiler - click to show) but the gist is a conspiracy between the institute and another lab about developing a new form of organism capable of unheard-of morphing abilities for “research.” Dr. Chamber’s phone even mentions a vague business deal. Feel free to play the game to learn more.
*(Did (Spoiler - click to show) you know that there are TWO locked door password-puzzles in this game?)
Endings. It depends (Spoiler - click to show) on whether you include the countless ways of dying as endings or merely premature ones. I found two endings where you walk away alive, only one of which truly feels like a “win.” (Oddly enough, there are two paths that lead to this same ending). Strangely, the winning ending is the most lackluster since it features the protagonist going home and carrying on with their life without any mention of the aftermath of the whole incident. I take it that they no long work at the institute. If you feel like exploring every outcome in this game, it will keep you busy for a while.
Characters fall into familiar horror movie tropes, but that can be part of the charm. If you are looking for complex characters with multi-dimensional relationships with the protagonist, you should look elsewhere. But if you want tried and true character molds, The Pool is a decent example. You have the (Spoiler - click to show) lively acquaintance (Ada) who betrays everyone for personal gain. The spritely action-oriented character (Zara) who expertly pulls the protagonist out of danger and teams up with them. The best friend (or in this case the deceitful "best friend") Marcus. And other NPCs. But instead of chewing the fat I will just encourage you to test the game for yourself.
There is also some attempted character development about the protagonist who has always been timid about stepping outside of their comfort zone and making friends with people without worrying if they share the same interests. The gameplay often features segments where the protagonist has a chance to “break” out and become a new person. It is rather formulaic approach but fits in with the trope-ness seen throughout the game.
The game uses a basic Twine visual appearance: blue links, black screen, white text (with occasional animation). However, this is overrun by numerous spelling and punctuation errors that stick out everywhere. Instead of separating the text into paragraphs the author just crams everything together to create one big mass of unformatted text, especially for scenes with lots of dialog. Occasionally, some areas are a bit smoother. But overall, it looks unpolished and unorganized, and it is obvious.
Also, three links lead to a blank screen (frustrating since I was waiting to see what would happen next), whereas a few others lead to a screen with text but no link to move forward. A little proof-reading and testing would go a long way.
The author has a lot of promising ideas but right now it is simply not a polished piece. Not incomplete- it is playable and possible to reach endings- but more like a draft.
I would recommend The Pool to anyone interested in a creature horror story that conjures up familiar vibes of the "creature horror story" genre while adding a unique touch here and there. Plus, it is short enough for a few rounds. It is best enjoyed if you experiment with the gameplay paths. For me, each playthrough lasted about 15 minutes or less. Otherwise, this game needs some work before I would recommend it to all players.
(Oh, one more thing. I see we are getting close to Halloween. If you feel like burning through horror games while guzzling candy, The Pool has a little more appeal.)
The storyline is a familiar one, of course. The narrator remains generic throughout, without a place on the lab team, and in fact so do the other characters. The explanations for each choice gives the narration a distinctly self-conscious air.
My overall impression was that it could use more polish. The writing feels rushed in places - as if it was trying to sketch out a scene and ran out of time. There are unfinished branches, which is a shame for a competition entry.
Without being emotionally invested in the narrator as a person, I felt no need to ensure their survival - instead finding all the branches felt like a story mapping exercise. There is definitely potential in the storyline to populate it with perhaps fewer but more realised characters to give the choices some emotional weight.
This is a short, basic Twine game about an aquarium where weird monsters are in a pool and you have to run away.
The game does give you some options; there are several situations where you have to search for items by clicking on a variety of links. There are also some big branches in the story, especially at the end. At least one final choice just lead to a blank page.
The formatting doesn't put blank lines between paragraphs, which I found pretty difficult to read. There are many typos such as no spaces after periods, it's vs its and capitalization. The dialog felt a bit unnatural, but I don't know why.
I found the overall story to be descriptive, but otherwise I think this story needed a bit more work. I think the author is capable of pretty fun stories given more time and more feedback prior to releasing.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Another default(?) themed Twine entry, this one set on a research vessel out at sea with a crew of young oceanographers. The black/white/blue color scheme serves this game a little better than others given its horror theme, but barely so. During I think the 5th play through I did stumble on a nifty use of dynamic font, would have loved to see more of that but as far as I can tell that was a one-off.
The tone on this one was noteworthy. The protagonist is not dynamic, they either perfunctorily or begrudgingly follow the choices you make. They got some stuff they’re dealing with, and not particularly effectively. It’s an unusual choice which at first puts the protagonist at a remove from the player. This is reinforced if you try to goad them into action – things don’t really working out if you do. Heroic-feeling choices either outright fail or come with significant unforeseen drawbacks. Driving this PC is kind of like pushing jello - you can’t always get them to go the direction you want, and even when you can its never very responsive and requires more work. Fortunately, they are surrounded by much more dynamic NPCs which definitely give some welcome propulsion to the action. First play through I never did synch with the protagonist (and kind of admired the NPCs) and was left at a remove.
Construction-wise there are long linear sections of action, punctuated with choices you have no real way of assessing, meaning things can feel arbitrary. Some of them do allow you to build the character, or maybe shade them at least. Normally, this design choice frustrates me if there isn’t a thematic reason behind it. There’s two reasons why here, this actually kinda works? The first is that when the action gets furious in the third act (really there’s only two acts, so second act), making choices in a spur-of-the-moment panic probably isn’t going to result in deliberate, fully-informed decisions. This tracks. The second reason it works, and why the character choices can work, is only really revealed on subsequent playthroughs.
There seems to be a lot of plot divergence available here. Early choices take you down very different plot paths. It is a short game, but nevertheless it feels very broad. This is not a ‘plot will always reconverge, it's the friends you make on the way that change’ design. The protagonist/player alignment benefits from these multiple playthroughs. It’s not a long game, and it's a race to see if you will come around on the protagonist before the end. First play through I did not, not even close. But on subsequent playthroughs, because the plot varied SO much, you weren’t revisiting the past, it was like you got more time with them. I wouldn’t say you ever really like them, but you at least get past “would you just step up??” to some early stage of sympathy.
But the real secret that multiple playthroughs reveal is how deeply cynical and hopeless the whole thing is. First play through you might assume “well I made some bad choices, sorry dead characters.” (Spoiler - click to show)I played to 6 endings and they’re ALL bad! The ‘best’ was physical survival but very depressing and it went down from there! That’s not necessarily pleasant or enjoyable, but it is… bold. Pet Cemetery is one of my favorite Stephen King stories because it is so unremittingly tragic. There is no ‘magic book/shaman that saves the day at the climax.’ Uh, spoiler. It is a no-compromise approach to horror that dares you to appreciate it. Which I kinda do? (Someday I’ll figure out why it works for King, and fails so spectacularly in Halloween Kills. Probably because it's King, right?) I did not try to determine if there were NO (Spoiler - click to show)optimistic endings, but I do kind of hope there aren’t.
So where does that leave me? Play through wise, between the difficult protagonist, limited and arbitrary choices, mostly vanilla presentation it was Mechanical and Seamless. (Spoiler - click to show)But it gets a bonus point for committing to its bleakness across multiple endings.
Playtime: 30min, 6 endings.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Mechanical/Seamless
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