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Number of Reviews: 9
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Nice mice, January 10, 2023
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 worry that, just as with people, it can come off patronizing to call a game “adorable,” so I’ve been staring at the thesaurus for the last five minutes. Esther’s is “cute” and “appealing”, sure, but that undersells how winsome it is. Is it “precious”? Nah, that sounds too cloying. “Captivating” and “enchanting” miss how pleasantly low-key it is, and after that, let’s just say the line of proposed synonyms that start with “dreamy” and proceed from there are a bit too adult for this children’s-book-aping Twine game. Sorry, folks – I guess we’re stuck with “adorable.”

In the best picture-book tradition, the game stars two mice, Janie and Harold, and follow them on their way to their favorite brunch spot, the eponymous Esther’s. Said café is run by a little girl who’s a thoughtful host in every way save one – she doesn’t understand the mice’s squeaky language, so always serves them cheese and crackers, rather than the mimosas and avocado toast they’re craving (Janie and Harold must be millennials). Today’s the day when they decide to really make an effort and get through to Esther – and it’s up to the player to help.

This is a cute premise for sure, and it could come off twee, but I don’t think it goes too far. Partly this is due to the lovely illustrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in a real children’s book – they have a textured, watercolor quality and a neat attention to detail: look closely at the opening image, which shows Janie bringing flowers while Harold carries her library books, and you can see she’s checked out Goodnight Moon. And I won’t spoil the one where Janie tries to mime an avocado, but it got the first out-loud laugh of the Comp out of me.

The prose also hits just the right note, with simple, clear sentences but a sly turn of phrase here and there to make it fun for a grown-up to read, too:

"Janie buttered an invisible toast and pretended to nibble at it. Harold stuffed his pretend toast in his mouth. He licked his fingers with pretend satisfaction."

It’s nothing fancy, but the repeated use of “pretend” setting up “pretend satisfaction” is cleverly done.

The interactivity is also nicely gauged – you’ve got a fair number of options to choose from, and while the challenge of getting your order right isn’t a devilish puzzle or anything, the authors have done a good job of communicating just enough information about what each choice might do, while still retaining room to surprise you with how exactly each stab at communication plays out.

Esther’s is admittedly a small thing – my playthrough went quicker than it usually takes me to get through Goodnight Moon with my son, albeit he’s typically doing a lot of wriggling and pointing which pads things out. But it pulls off everything it tries to with aplomb, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time I was playing it. There’s no other word for it: from stem to stern, it’s adorable.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
"clueless human finally understands mice", December 19, 2022
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

I heard enough buzz about Esther's in-comp that I decided to slip it in in front of what looked to be slower entries. This worked. I am not ashamed. Esther's certainly does not address any big issues, but why should it have to? It left me more recharged to deal with them than, well, pretty much any other way you can stare at a computer screen. Even my old favorites which are actually still fun. If I had run into something like Esther's when I was ten or so, Esther's would be an old favorite, too. Kids these days don't know how lucky they have it. At least, kids exposed to multimedia as nice as Esther's. The pictures are charming, and the story lives up to them.

The whole scenario of talking animals whose human friends don't understand them has been done before. That's probably because it's fun and leads to imaginative miscommunications such as what's found here. (Spoiler: it's easily resolved.) Having had cats, it's kind of fun to decipher what they want, even if it's not so fun for them while I'm being clueless. I found myself wondering if they really preferred one sort of canned cat food to another and whether I should give them variety or their favorite. I'm still not sure. I figured when they wanted petting, or they wanted to go out the front door, or they needed attention. But I'd have liked to do more. About all I figured was, they liked the taste of the chunky soft food as long as I mashed it up, but they still licked the sauce first.

The main characters in this story are mice, not cats, and they dine at Esther's. Esther is a clueless, well-meaning human who, like me, has no clue that Janie and Harold, the animals she serves, would like to eat something different today. They want avocado toast. Avocado toast as a meme was hilarious for a while but then got burned out from overuse, but the thing about good memes is, it's a great feeling when they're resurrected in new and different ways. That happens here.

And Harold and Janie not only get their avocado toast, but there's a lot of connection as Esther understands what they are asking, and why. Harold and Janie waste nothing. Esther is confused why they put some bits aside, but they eat it later. So a good day is had by all, including the reader. There aren't very many choices here beyond what sort of dessert you prefer, but I don't think there need to be. And really, would you want to be the sort of person who brings what seems to be a regular tea party tradition crashing down? I think and hope not.

Esther's reminded me of Susie and Mr. Bun in Calvin and Hobbes, and how Hobbes was real and Mr. Bun wasn't, and the shock Calvin had when he lost Hobbes, who wound up at Susie's tea party. But of course Esther's is its own story. There are so many creative variations on "talking animal/toy, confused owner/human friend" that make us happy, even if they are not very good. But Esther's is well-done, even without the wonderful artwork, and so I'm glad it was part of IFComp. The judges thought so as well, and unless you are very, very cynical, I think you will be, too.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Inner Child is not MPD, December 4, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

Hey, there are IF works for new readers! This was an absolutely delightful interactive rendition of a children’s book. When first few clicks showed no choices, I grew uneasy. The illustrations were note perfect for the milieu, but my family situation is quite removed from kid-lit. Turning virtual pages was not significantly different than leafing through a kids book which I never do. (I mean, Seuss excepted, what am I a monster?)

That ungenerous thought couldn’t even gel before the choices started. At that point the illustrations, text and choices played off each other wonderfully. Even then, I wasn’t won over immediately because I am damaged. For whatever reason after a few choices I spontaneously conjured an imaginary child next to me… what? you don’t know my life! Reading this work, imagining a small child sounding through, making choices, then experiencing the results of that choice — that’s when it clicked into place for me. The playful problem solving, character frustration, trial and error, evocative illustrations and unexpected outcomes would play like gang busters to a new reader, and through that imaginary child’s eyes I could experience their delight.

Older IF fans take as writ that interactivity is the differentiator in this medium. The (however illusory) perception of choice, narrative influence and immediacy provides a whole new dimension of immersion to the reading experience. Esther’s uses its new reader format to remind me that even the most tired, hoary cliche’ is going to be someone’s first time and that initial exposure can be deeply revelatory. That came out wrong, I’m not suggesting Ester’s is cliche’d, just using that as a poorly chosen metaphor for IF in general. What I’m driving at is that its deliberate invocation of children’s lit tone, illustration style and whimsical content re-presents the form in a first timer perspective. How magical is that? At least that’s what I got from my imaginary co-pilot.

Scoring this feels like a no win situation. I mean would I criticize the narrative voice in “Hop on Pop?” The graphic compositions in “Hungry Caterpillar?” Like this work, they meld text and illustration into a product aimed at delighting children. That’s really the only metric worth discussing I think. Esther’s stands shoulder to shoulder with its paper inspirations, even before it ups the ante by integrating interactivity. While I wouldn’t say I found it engaging, I did get Sparks of Joy watching my imaginary companion’s delighted introduction to IF.

This review was brought to you by the word ‘delight.’

Played: 10/6/22
Playtime: 10min, finished.
Artistic/Technical rankings: Sparks of Joy/Seamless
Would Play Again? Maybe to share with grandkids WAAAAAAAY down the road

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

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Mice are nice, November 12, 2022

At Esther's cafe your adorable host / Served cheese to the mice when they wanted toast! / That won't bother Harold's robust appetite, / But Janie insists that the order's not right. Sounds like something out of a children’s book!

Esther's is not a rhyming game, but as you can see, its description caught my eye. Janie and Harold are mice who like to visit their favorite joint for brunch every week. The café is run by a young girl named Esther. Unfortunately, there is a bit of a linguistic barrier. Esther does not understand the mice and ends up serving them cheese instead of their intended order.

There is no singular PC. The game's tone is in third person and the choices you make bounce between Janie and Harold. Gameplay is super easy and versatile for all ages partly because you will not get stuck, and partly because it gives the player space to experiment with choices. You figure out how to get Esther to serve you the right food through pointing or hand gestures. No matter what approach you take the game will guide you to the correct direction at the end.

The characters are endearing, especially the mice. Originally, I was picturing a fantasy world where animals hustle and bustle like humans to cafés and other establishments, but the game opts for a more basic approach. Esther’s café turns out to simply be a little girl indulging some mice in playing a variation of a tea party. Or maybe it is the mice indulging the girl? Either way, this is a sweet premise that the game pulls off. It mixes relatability with imagination. My favorite line is, “Tapioca. I like that word! Tappy-OH-kuh…”

Visually, the game reminds me of a picture book. The text area is a white square set against a purple screen. The letters are black with colour coded text for character names. Avocado icons decorate the player’s list of choices. I also really love how the authors included (Spoiler - click to show) a behind-the-scenes section at the end that shows drafts for the art as well as a node map for the Twine game.

Esther’s is a sweet Twine story that only takes about five minutes to play. While aimed at younger audiences, and I do recommend it for younger audiences, players can still appreciate the thoughtfulness put into the game’s creation.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A charming story about mice with a few small puzzles, October 28, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: less than 15 minutes

This game is small and designed for children. It has some lovingly made illustrations of little mice and the girl who runs a cafe.

Story-wise, it's about two mice who want to get special food at the cafe but can't communicate. Mechanics-wise, it's almost like a language puzzle, and had surprising depth for such a small game (like the depth of a medium-sized game).

The writing is generally pleasant; it had some, but I wanted more, humorous incongruities of the type common in good kid's stories (may favorite was the (Spoiler - click to show)fall of the pudding at the end and everyone's reactions. The whole thing feels like it was designed with prudence and restraint, maintaining a small size and scope and polishing itself in that sphere.

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Toast!, October 12, 2022
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

What can I say? I was grinning ear to ear the whole time.

I went through a goal-oriented first playthrough, making choices that I felt confident would bring me closer to the mice’s objective. Meanwhile I marveled at the pretty pictures and the smooth writing. (Writing in little-children-sentences is not an easy feat.)

Then I doubled the fun. I began behaving like a tricksy recalcitrant toddler, purposely choosing to stuff everything in my mouth instead of moving toward the goal. And I laughed…

Heartwarming and funny.

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A story about two mice trying to communicate with a girl that kids might love, October 11, 2022
by RadioactiveCrow (Irving, TX)
Related reviews: About 15 minutes, IF Comp 2022

This is a very short game featuring two mice trying to order brunch at their favorite restaurant, run by a human girl that doesn't speak squeak.

What can I say about this for the adult audience? Not much. It is a cute story, the epitome of a children's book in IF form, but doesn't offer much for adults. If you have a precocious child they might be up for this story, but I feel like my 7- and 9-year-old (albeit a special needs child) would either struggle to keep up with the story or be bored by it.

All that said it is a sweet story in the classic children's storybook mold. I do want to see more IF for children, even as I am working to create stories to help my autistic child learn in Twine or Ink, but I find it hard to judge this type of work in the IF Comp. Perhaps we need an IF Comp exclusively for children's stories. Something to ponder.

Bravo, Buchanans! I hope you create more childrens' IF.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Get the Kids into Interactive Fiction Early, October 8, 2022

Esther's is a very short game, about 5 minutes of read/play time, and that is a perfect length for a game that models itself after a picture book. Everything from the font choices and colors, to the undeniably charming illustrations work together to this end. The humor is clever, gentle, and exactly the kind of thing to delight a young child like the titular Esther.

This is a game to be read along with the kids in your life. To the authors, thank you for making this game, and for demonstrating that this art form truly can be for all ages.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A cute interactive storybook, October 1, 2022
by Rachel Helps (Utah)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

In this short game, you play as a mouse, with another mouse friend, who tries to communicate their brunch order to a human. There are a few minor choices that make a difference to the narrative, but eventually they all end in a similar way. I didn't rate the game because I think that I am not the intended audience. I liked the quality of the images, and that they conveyed information that was helpful to understanding the narrative. I didn't like that my choices didn't matter that much. However, I can imagine my daughter really enjoying this game.

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