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Thorny subject, some thorny implementation in a custom parser, November 22, 2021
The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo
TSWU, with a relatively simple custom parser, is an interesting effort, for all the required fiddling to get through it. I've read nightmares about homebrew parsers from earlier versions of the comp, but I haven't seen any disasters this year. It's probably a good combination of the soft rules of “have this tested,” better technology, and also better guidelines out there for testing in general. Maybe people are just better connected in order to swap testing as well. Whatever the case, TSWU clearly passes the technical threshold, though there are some shortcuts I wish it had implemented. The ABOUT text says it's based on a tutorial, from which the programmer got a lot of mileage. That a game this solid placed so lowly in IFComp suggests judging standards, and the general quality of an average IFComp game, have risen over the years.
And while the text may be a bit bland for what should be a psychological thriller, and the title seems more like an uplifting rags-to-riches lets-pull-together story than it is ("us" seems to imply there will be friendly NPCs–there aren't,) there are certainly clues as to what is going on, and how it might be disturbing. I think certainly it is best kept as a text adventure, without graphics.
You wake up seeming to have amnesia. You learn you haven't had a drink in a while, but you face something worse than alcoholism. Unsigned notes suggest to you that someone is trying to help you but has had just about enough. Enough of what? That's the story, and the handwritten notes and books left behind provide clues. I found it wasn't too bad to hack my way through to find stuff, although I required the slightly unusual commands X NORTH (or another direction) to turn up some important items.
And it's all quite serviceable. There's a trail of bread-crumb clues to follow. They make sense. There is a final confrontation where the time and health you saved matters, because you have a status meter that drops throughout the game, and it seems you'll have more than enough to win. Well, until that final fight. Also, searching around will reward you–the more food you find, the higher your health will be, though in my notes I see cases where different sorts of berries might take stamina away, and certainly when I saw mushrooms, which are on average deadlier than berries, I saved before eating. The writing also does the job. English is not the writer's main language, so I don't want to jump on them for it, because I wouldn't have the guts to write in a second language OR make my own custom parser, and besides, too much description would probably be a bad thing. Though the descriptions are a bit flat. I think the biggest offender is here:
"You see a lot of boxes and some winter clothes, a torch lays on a shelf.
an empty shelf."
I wouldn't be surprised if the technical hurdles the author had to clear meant they had less time to punch up the game text. It may also have cost them time with design choices. Inventory-fiddling was sadly enough of the game to be a legitimate distraction. You can't just READ PAPER. You have to take it, and you may need to drop something else to get it, and then you need to remember to take that something else again. I (and other viewers) had quite a struggle trying to eat some expired vitamins, but at least they regained me 3 health for my efforts. Some things are too heavy, and it's not clear why e.g. autumn jackets which might be important given the weather. The default rejects seem a bit distracting, so maybe some custom messages would help a post-release. I'd also like to use “it” for the last noun you used, but again, post-comp. And the blue text should be made light-blue so it is easier to see. I checked if other reviewers noticed this and felt it worthy to comment on, and they did.
And I think more detail or flashbacks, or less generic flashbacks, would've highlighted the moral choices more carefully. I wound up pretty much saying "okay, forest maze" and wondering just why the third piece of paper WAS located in the maze and wondering why a branch would be worth taking, since the game's good about not letting you take useless stuff.
For all that, though, there is a buildup to the final fight. Whether or not winning the final fight is the right thing to do is the moral dilemma the author hoped to push. One can't particularly blame the protagonist for going through with it, but apparently you can back out.
This is verifiable. However, the save-game feature was harsh, and that, combined with UNDO saying "you can't change the past" is also slightly annoying. The save files are presented as a list of text commands, which the parser than runs through before. That looks like a problem because some random events happen, e.g. the fight at the end or where and when the fox and dog appear. So you need the forethought to 1) be able to copy a backup save file and 2) set it to read-only to make sure you don't write it over. And this is the only serious technical pitfall of the homebrew parser. It's a tough one to tease out as a programmer or tester, but it illustrates how things can go wrong.
This is all a lot of kvetching, but I think overall the author did well to create such a relatively stable parser to write a coherent, logical game in what was not their language, especially when that executable clocks in at a mere 160KB. So as a technical project it's a success, even if some design choices seemed odd, and it doesn't hit the mark aesthetically. My guess is the author focused on the technical bit to make sure it worked, which was the right first choice, but with more months of preparation and a few more testers, they could have ironed out the other bits. So I hope my criticisms add up to "these are the technical pitfalls to know ahead of time and avoid, and once you do, I think the experience will be satisfying enough."