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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Sucker Punch Simulator, December 28, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

This IF work juggles a few dimensions at once. A unique user interface. Narrative elements meant to be appreciated as a reader, perhaps informing but disconnected from the rest of the game. Mechanical puzzles where the protagonist manipulates environmental items to achieve goals set by the game.

Some games manage these facets by integrating them tightly together, making for a seamless, holistic experience. For great swaths of IF, they can be judged on how effectively these (and perhaps other) elements meld to achieve something greater than the sum of their parts.

Kaboom seemed unconcerned with any of that. It presented a spare problem of two finicky mechanical puzzles. It utilized a choice-select UI that echoed parser-like mechanics, earning a spot in the review sub-series "Twinesformers: Parsers in Disguise." Kaboom's implementation has an inconsistent and befuddling paradigm. It included a disconnected-from-rest-of-game, tantalizing maybe-metaphorical dream sequence of intriguing pith. Its premise could easily have been cloying but was SO unsentimental and spare that it wrapped around to sweet again. And it nodded to an understated interpretation that played off that cold sweetness to offer real poignancy.

Say I gave you four fabric dyes: red, blue, green and yellow. You could carefully measure each color to be blended into a specific shade of subtle beauty. That’s one way to go. Slap it on a T-shirt and soak up the "I’ve never seen that on fleek shade before, girrrrl!"s Yeah, I don’t know why you are sharing it on TikTok either. The other way to go would be to tie dye - create a wild swirling pattern where the colors swirl around each other in a nearly fractal pattern that never actually blends them together. The sum is actually the pattern of distinct, contrasting, undiluted shades.

My assertion is that Kaboom is a tie dyed IF that creates its own vibe without ever attempting to blend its disparate elements, and is singular because of it. Let me pull at the individual components.

UI - this is belligerent and confusing. There is main text, the page-specific selection links and an “Inventory.” Which is a weird thing to call it as you are a stuffed rabbit with no pockets and the strength of cotton. Your Inventory are your legs. Just legs. Sometimes there are illustrations - really evocative illustrations - whose impact is minimized by the page layout that strands them in swaths of black and disrupts the text. And that also just kind of stop appearing half way through? I for sure missed them when they were gone. A horizontal multi-pane construct could have mitigated most of the layout issues at least.

That’s how it presents to you. Now let’s talk about the command selection paradigm. It is clunky and clumsy. You must LOOK AT ROOM; LOOK AT OBJECT; SELECT ONE THING TO DO WITH IT. Then start again at the top, cycling round and round to manipulate items. Except sometimes, options show up in your hidden Leg inventory. Since you are nominally doing everything with your legs I never figured out why sometimes things showed up in main text and other times as inventory options (which again, hidden unless you explicitly look). Can’t solve without them though!

That made manipulation puzzle solving difficult, drudgy and punishing. It was further compounded by having at least two silently unwinnable states that required restart.

The narrative was mostly unadorned, unsentimental prose. The first puzzle is (Spoiler - click to show)using a child’s blood as lubricant! I promise it is nowhere near as dire as that sounds, but opposite of cloying, no? Underpinning the cold proceedings is an assumed, understated bond between the protagonist and the mistress. The spare descriptions allow this feeling to establish itself without fanfare, and gradually fill the space with something approaching real depth.

The exception to this default prose mode is a meaty dream sequence filled with surreal, psychedelic abstractions. What a weird, cool choice!

So here’s the thing about tie dye: my wife hates it. (Probably influenced by cultural baggage inherited from her Baby Boomer Dad tbh which maybe breaks my metaphor a bit, so let me recast it as ‘esthetic objections’ without challenge.) The pattern is either going to speak to you, or you’re going to focus on “Geez I really hate that Green and it’s way too prominent.” The UI was super intrusive to me, it quickly pushed me into Mechanical, Super Intrusive gameplay (particularly when I got an unwinnable state).

That’s what I felt for 99.5% of its runtime.

Final twist. There is a dedication in the credits that sang off the setup in such a specific way, it hammered my heart. It is never explicitly stated, but the work supports an interpretation that the bunny and her mistress are (Spoiler - click to show)Ukrainian civilians suffering a missile attack. That gut punch of a thought shook me into reconsidering. I had undervalued the absurdist flourishes of the dream sequence and the understated emotional vibe that set me up for that final poignant punch. This was not Mechanical at all, it was Sparky but took a shock for me to see it. It gets a further bonus point for so effectively wolloping me with that final gut punch.

Played: 10/14/23
Playtime: 1.5hrs, finished after a few restarts
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Appreciation, Technically Intrusive, bonus point for unsentimental poignancy
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete. Also, my heart is fragile.

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

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cuddly and dark., December 19, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Snuggling under the covers together. An unsettling dream. Waking up to a changed room. She’s bleeding! You have to save her.

KABOOM is about some very heavy subject matter. It’s filtered through the viewpoint of a girl’s cuddle toy, a stuffed hare. This means that the PC is innocent and clueless about the circumstances happening around it, and it produced some fuzzy cuteness feelings in me (“Aw! I like games with stuffed animal protagonists. Is this going to be like A Bear’s Night Out?”).

Soon however, reality pierces the cuddly feelings. Wriggling free from under the girl’s arm requires some determined action, a grim image immediately underlining the desperate urgency of the situation.

Considered this way, the cuddly stuffed hare protagonist has opposite effects. Its cluelessness about what’s happening initially dampens the impact of the horrible events, but the player’s realisation of the true nature of the game’s subject hits harder because of it.

Saving your girl requires some quite standard object manipulation. In both puzzles (after getting out of the girl’s embrace), there was a single step I overlooked at first which made them a tad more challenging.

The entire game (puzzle solving, narrative tempo, player engagement, clarity of the surroundings) suffers from poor design. The interface forces the player to do a confusing amount of clicking to get her bearings and to manipulate the intended object. Imagine having a parser without an implied LOOK when entering a room, for example. Sometimes the player has to explicitly (and for no discernable reason) refer to the PCs limbs, which are separately implemented under an “Inventory”-link. This necessitates spreading your awareness over more buttons than is needed. It frustrated me when I thought my intended action was not in the list of choices, and then found out that it was several more clicks away, buried in this “Inventory”.

Taking my distance from the technical issues and letting the story come to the forefront, I must say I’m very moved by this piece. The helplessness of the little girl in her collapsed room, the powerlessness of the hare to rescue her by itself… (This is captured in a touching image when the hare looks at the ruined house and concludes a scary giant must have caused this.)

Technically lacking, emotionally moving.

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Moving tale of current events that might have been better as a parser piece, December 17, 2023
by Vivienne Dunstan (Dundee, Scotland)

This is a Twine piece, where you play a teddy bear I think (EDIT: correction, no, it’s a toy hare), and have to save your person from a very dangerous situation. It is translated from Russian.

The storytelling is imaginative and apocalyptic, and inspired by the current war. Kudos to the author for the end of game comment on that.

However as a game with locations and objects and puzzles, I couldn’t help feeling that it might have worked better as a parser game e.g. in Inform or TADS or something. Or that the choice interface could have been streamlined to be more user friendly.

The problem with the interface is that the ways in which you can interact with objects require a lot of digging down through the choices. Typically in a location, even one you’ve visited before, you will have to “look around” to find the objects you can interact with. Or you need to choose something from the “inventory” section, which lets you operate your front and hind paws, and offers different choices within it over time.

This all meant that I felt I was having to dig down through the user interface hierarchy far more frequently than I wanted to. And it also rather concealed the options available.

However as a game with light puzzles - and forgiving to the player - I liked the storytelling. As the stuffed toy you explore an increasingly scary world, and I genuinely felt the scares.

The translation from Russian is a little rough in places, and could have benefited from more read throughs from native English speakers. But the writing is charming, and the characterisation of the player character and how they feel about their person is moving. The artwork is also very atmospheric.

I’d like to see more from the anonymous author, but maybe rework the interface a bit so there’s less repeated digging down needed by the player?

And thanks again for that powerful end comment. The game itself is a powerful reflection on current events. Thank you. The feelings this raised will stick with me for a long time after.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A haunting non-allegory, December 8, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).

While I’ve generally read far fewer books by non-Anglophone writers than I would like, to the extent that there’s an exception it’s Russian novelists: while I don’t speak the language and I’ve thus relied on translations, I’ve made my way through a pretty high percentage of the 19th-Century canon as well as a smattering of more recent authors. Probably this is partially down to subject matter: I like political and philosophical novels, so given the preoccupations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, et. al. this is a rewarding furrow to plow. But more than that, even in translation there’s something about the quality of the language that’s unique and engaging to me, some blunt poetry and non-Western meter to the writing that forms something of a common thread even for authors with very different styles.

I got something of the same vibe from Kaboom, which is similarly translated from Russian, and which has a premise that’s seemingly as off-kilter as its prose: in this parser-like Twine game, you play a stuffed hare who has to try to help its person (a five-year-old girl) after a bad dream that seems to turn the whole world topsy-turvy. Like, here’s the description of the anthropomorphized sun that floats above the strange dreamscape that opens the game:

The sun gazes directly at you, jokingly wagging his scalding rays. He has a clean-shaven, balding elderly face with somewhat lumpy cheeks and small eyes slightly turned towards the nasal bridge. In spite of his countenance being noble and a little weary, it also gives away an immense inner tension - looks like it takes him quite an effort not to blow up altogether, taking this whole world into oblivion with him.

That’s not a paragraph most native speakers of English would write, I don’t think – that use of “altogether” is a little archaic, the image of wagging rays of sunlight probably wouldn’t occur to me but might make more sense in the original Russian, and the repetition of “somewhat” and “slightly” and “a little” I think reflects diminutives that English lacks. But for all that the writing is grammatically correct, and I found this an arresting image, rendered in a distinctive, engaging way.

I definitely experienced some disorientation from a combination of the odd premise and the unintuitive prose, though. This sometimes made solving the game’s puzzles more challenging: I often had a hard time visualizing the space I was moving through, and while there are usually good hints or cues pushing the player towards what they should be doing, I was often unclear on what broader goal I was serving by pushing a pillow around or getting glue on my paws, even though I could tell that the game wanted me to do these things.

The interface also could be cleaner: there’s an inventory menu in the upper right corner that is mostly limited to your cute little hare-y arms and jumpy hare-y legs, with options for grabbing or kicking showing up when you click to open the menu. But most of the time the choices presented in the main window include things like pushing or picking up objects, so the logic of when and why I’d need to go to the inventory remained opaque throughout my playthrough. There’s also some unneeded friction that comes of the game’s decision to return back to a location’s top menu after you take most actions. There were sequences that require multiple connected steps, like pushing a toy crane truck, turning its crank, connecting its hook to something, then turning the crank again to lift the object into the air, and it was a little annoying to have to manually click “look around” then on the crane truck each time I wanted to perform the next step; the annoyance was increased by the realization that the game appears to have a time limit, though I got to the end before time ran out.

The consequence of all this, though, is that it took me way longer than it should to figure out what Kaboom is actually doing. Full spoilers after one last evocative but confusingly vague passage:

"Full of thoughts, you slowly turn towards the house and suddenly hold still, thunderstruck: only a small part of the wall at the corner you came from is visible, the rest of the building is covered by a huge messy heap of unidentifiable something! What’s happening? What crazy giant gambolled here? And how can you, an ordinary toy hare, withstand this giant?"

(Spoiler - click to show)So yeah, what’s going on is that you’re in Ukraine, and your house has just been hit by a bomb; it’s pretty clearly implied that your owner’s parents were both killed, and you have to draw attention to her predicament so that she can be rescued before she bleeds to death. It’s possible to fail at this task, though mercifully the game doesn’t go into details, but even success comes at a cost: your poor hare winds up doused in ash, covered in glue, and finally half burned away by the end of the game, and since your owner is unconscious when she’s pulled from the ruin of your house, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to be abandoned and lost forever.

This twist hit me like a ton of bricks. Some of that is of course just seeing the horrors I’ve been reading about in the newspapers for a year and a half unexpectedly brought home; some of that is the sentimental fact that I tuck my two-year-old son into bed every night with his favorite toy cat beside him; and some it’s the simple and heartfelt closing message from the game’s anonymous Russian author. This is a game with some infelicities, as I pointed out above, but it got more of an emotional response from me than anything else in the Comp so far, and I think partially it’s those very points of friction that make it so effective. I wish to God we didn’t need to have games like this – much less that there’d be another recently-ignited conflict to which Kaboom could equally apply – but I found this game a very effective use of interactive fiction to create some much-needed empathy and connection; it’s trite to say that art is what will eventually end war, but however small it is, in my heart of heart I believe games like Kaboom are making some difference.

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- Egas, December 2, 2023

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Puzzly choice-based game about being someone weak helping those you love, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This is a game translated from Russian that has quite a bit of twists and turns in it. Most are discovered early on.

I’ll say that a game with a sleeping woman and ‘16+’ and referring to ‘your mistress’ turned out to be something very different than I was expecting. It turns out to be a grim tale about the effects of war but with a sweet perspective.

More on the setting:
(Spoiler - click to show)The gameplay style is Twine with inventory management and location state tracking. So you can move objects from room to room, and your constant inventory of things like hands and feet change in their function over time.

The puzzles are fairly tricky but logical. One thing I might have appreciated was automatically ‘looking’ after travelling to each new location, since what’s in each location often changes due to your actions. I also had a bit of trouble some times mentally picturing how all the different locations related to each other.

I think this is around a 1-2 hour game, although I used the walkthrough for part of it. I like the concept, and appreciated the dedication at the end. I think there are a lot of strong story elements here and puzzles. There are also some neat images, although playing online on the ifcomp website I didn’t see some of the images, and they were broken. You can still click on them to advance though.

Part of the game is designed to show the horrors of war and for me it was very effective, the way the protagonist just didn’t understand really helped drive home for me how scary it must all be.

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- Tabitha / alyshkalia, November 16, 2023

- Edo, November 6, 2023

- jaclynhyde, October 15, 2023

- Zape, October 14, 2023

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