The Gift of What You Notice More

by Xavid profile and Zan

Surreal escape room

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
I hope I noticed everything, because I wish there was more, April 1, 2024
by Max Fog
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

A game about a break up. With interesting animals reflecting your thoughts. A beautiful piece, with nice writing. This game has brought me to the final conclusion that Twine games can also be awesome!

Song: Faust Arp. Short but beautifully written.

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The Gift review, January 9, 2024
by EJ

The Gift of What You Notice More is a puzzle game revolving around a surreal exploration of the dissolution of a couple's relationship. The PC is in the process of separating from their husband, and is going back through dreamlike versions of key moments in their relationship to figure out where it all went wrong.

You go through three rounds of this, at intervals getting items that unlock new areas within each memory (the game calls itself an escape room, but structurally it’s more of a Metroidvania—as funny as either of those descriptors sounds when applied to an introspective game about relationship failures). This is all in the service of digging progressively deeper in the hopes of unearthing the most fundamental problems with the relationship and figuring out what you need to take away from this experience. The problems are all very plausible, and the game struck a nice balance between being relatable and making the characters specific people with a specific relationship that isn’t meant to be a vague stand-in for every soured relationship ever.

I would, honestly, have loved for it to be even more specific, but in a genre/medium that tends to be as blank-slate as possible, I at least appreciated the level of detail that was there -- for example, the stuff about the PC putting their dreams on hold so that their husband could go to grad school could have gone into more detail about what those dreams were (apparently they also stopped playing the violin at that time, but it's unclear if that's related), but at least it didn't stop at the level of a generic "you've been putting your partner first and not considering your own wants and needs."

To the best of my knowledge, this is the author’s first major foray into choice-based IF after releasing a number of well-received parser games. The Gift brings a parser sensibility to Twine in a way that I thought worked very smoothly. You have an inventory of items always displayed on the right side of the screen; if you think you can use a particular item in a particular location, you click on it, and if you’re right, the relevant link appears. This provides a taste of the parser-style puzzle-solving satisfaction that you don’t get in games where the link appears automatically once you’ve got the right thing in your inventory, but only having to worry about the noun makes it feel smoother to me than the choice-based games I've seen that attempt to bring verbs in as well. (YMMV, but it's just too many clicks for me.)

But although I liked the mechanics of the puzzle-solving, the design of the puzzles themselves didn’t always work quite as well, largely owing to the dream logic that the game operates on. When the internal logic of it worked for me, it felt really rewarding! But there were puzzles where I could figure out each individual step based on the tools I had available but had no idea what my end goal was (e.g. all the elephant business—yes, I get the “elephant in the room” metaphor, but it wasn’t really clear to me what I was trying to do with the elephant), and others where I had no idea where to start (e.g. the moving van scene with the sticks). This is fairly subjective and I suspect that if you polled players you wouldn’t get very strong consensus on what clicked and what didn’t, but there must be some way to give the player a bit more of a nudge in the right direction now and then.

Another minor complaint is that each round involves coming up with three possible sources for the relationship’s issues and then picking one as the issue; this is clearly a reflective choice meant to encourage the player to engage with the story, with no gameplay implications. The thing is, the options didn’t seem mutually exclusive, and there was at least one round in which two of the options felt like facets of the same underlying problem. So it didn’t feel like there was strong in-universe motivation to be choosing just one thing to focus on, and I didn’t feel like I was guiding the character down a significantly different path into their future based on which thing I chose. It felt like the PC realizing where the problems were and what they could do differently in the future was what was really important for their growth, and picking one was a formality that ultimately fell a little flat.

But these complaints aside, I did enjoy The Gift. I like when introspective, issue-focused games have a little bit of whimsy and/or a fantastical edge to them, and this was a lovely example of that, with some smart ideas about gameplay design on top.

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Metaphor Mania, December 27, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

Part 3 of the “Twinesformers: Parsers in Disguise” review sub-series.

This is a surreal, metaphorical reflection at the end of a relationship. In packing to leave a failed marriage, the protagonist is preoccupied with discovering WHY things went wrong. They undertake a journey into surreal memory space, trying to unlock ever-deeper possible sources for the relationship rot through the medium of deeply symbolic puzzle play.

You can be forgiven fearing that is a self-serious, too-cute-by-half premise. I forgive you. I just need someone to forgive me, because that was my uncharitable thought once it dawned on me what I was in for. Roger Ebert famously said (para) “It’s not what it’s about, it’s how it’s about it.” This is the work I’m going to point to in the future to justify that quote. Well, probably not actually, as it requires that I repeat that quote to someone who is familiar with IF, and has encountered this particular work. So I guess just to you guys? I’ll have it in my head though even if I don’t say it out loud.

The challenge with metaphor is that it needs to simultaneously be evocative, precise, internally consistent and ideally surprising. In IF, it also needs to be fun. In earnest but clumsy hands it can too easily fall apart into illogic, or maybe worse, obvious on-the-nose…iness. I think my first hint that I was in capable hands was the first puzzle which required a “mug of insight.” What a terrific phrase, simultaneously ponderous and wryly self-puncturing. It didn’t back away from its import, but winked at itself playfully. That set me at ease, but it was really the series of memory vignettes that closed the deal. They are surreal distortions, diving into still photos then finding out-of-frame details straight from a subconscious dream world. The detail choices are kind of breathtaking. They obey dream logic but unroll naturally and certainly intuitively, and the symbols chosen are often surprising and precise representations of the protagonist’s internal state of mind. Against my own cynicism, I was Sparking all over the place.

Another peril the work sidesteps is overwritten prose. When aiming for High Concept Metaphor it is all to easy for the prose to try to match with overwrought poetry. TGoWYNM recognizes that symbols land more squarely when not obfuscated behind try-hard text. Its unadorned simplicity of prose really lets the intelligence of its metaphorical constructs shine. To the exact degree as that previous sentence DOES NOT.

Interspersed between metaphorical puzzle runs, there was an opportunity to choose among clues, to select threads that were most meaningful to the player. This was a neat use of interactivity to personalize the proceedings, supported by options that were qualitatively different yet mostly equal in weight. It was an excellent use of interactivity to further immerse the player/reader.

The in-the-moment gameplay was often damn close to perfect. It was very parser like - try to use inventory items in puzzly ways to advance. As a UI it was pretty good - your inventory in a side pane bracketing the main text, where links navigate you around. Selecting inventory options in specific locations ‘solves’ a puzzle. The puzzles themselves followed a symbolic logic that was usually pretty rigorous. I want to drive that point home. Despite being nuanced abstract puzzles, more often than not the connections flowed intuitively and FELT right.

It was when they didn’t quite flow that gameplay glitched. The inventory link mechanism lent itself to, hell practically DEMANDED, lawn mowering - selecting every possible inventory item in every single location. It happened infrequently, but was mimesis-shattering when it did. Until the puzzle was solved, when you had to wryly admit, yeah I guess that metaphor did work after all! During those moments of disconnect though, one thought kept echoing in my head “A Parser implementation would have resisted this better!”

As an experience it was overwhelmingly impressive - great ideas conveyed with unadorned but evocative writing. Unfortunately punctuated by brief periods of outside looking in, wanting to get back to that sweet, sweet flow. Is this a narrative failure, prose misfiring just enough to keep me from fully Engaging? Is it Notable Technical intrusiveness, a limitation of Twine that intrudes and breaks the author’s meticulous spell? I’m going to err on the latter, because I found the symbolic worlds so compelling.

There is a third possibility, almost too ludicrous to mention. That the work is fine in both dimensions but it’s ME that’s… ha ha no, you’re right it was stupid of me to even bring it up. Engaging, Notable it is.

It occurs to me that there is a metaphorical read even for the floundering. That the protagonist is so desperate for answers they wildly throw even inappropriate ideas at the wall, anything to try to get some purchase. If that thought could have been teased out in the moment by the game somehow… holy CRAP that would have wrecked me.

Played: 10/22/23
Playtime: 1.75hrs, finished
Artistic/Technical ratings: Engaging, Notable mimesis-breaking gaps
Would Play After Comp?: I might actually. I wouldn’t mind another look at that accomplished use of symbolism.

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:
Abstract angst-em-up, December 20, 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).

My first year of college, I had a roommate who was super into Dar Williams. He was so into her, in fact, that he would fall asleep every night listening to his playlist of her songs on repeat. This being 1998, though, we were well before the era of Spotify and infinite music availability; that playlist was about fifteen songs he’d managed to snag on Napster. Oh, and our room was pretty small – our beds were about four feet from each other – so when I said he would listen to that playlist every night, I meant we would listen to that playlist every night. And while when I first heard Williams’ stuff, I found her a pleasant enough singer-songwriter who’s recognizably of a piece with a bunch of similar mid-90s folks that I really enjoy, being subjected to the same hourlong loop of music, running over and over, day after day, week after week, month after month, did uh not leave that positive first impression intact, through no fault of her own. You might justifiably ask “wait, why didn’t you just ask your roommate to play something else or turn down the volume or wear headphones or something?”, but I was a 17 year old boy, dealing with another 17 year old boy – I did not have nearly the emotional intelligence needed to initiate and negotiate that dialogue, so now something I once kind of liked leaves me twitching with shellshock.

…for once, I am starting a review off with a rambling, overly-specific personal anecdote, and it is precisely on point. The Gift of What You Notice More takes its title from a Dar Williams song, and takes as its subject a failed relationship whose fractures stem in large part from its protagonist’s reluctance to speak up and have direct conversations about their needs and feelings. Rather than an interactive drama, though, this parser-like Twine game explores its emotional terrain through allegory and flashback. After an opening that sees the protagonist ready to leave their apartment, and husband, for good, you visit a strange café where you encounter a trio of poets and an ambiguous angel who arm you with the tools you need to delve into your memories, which you do by entering three photos of pivotal moments in your conjugal lives: the night when your husband proposed, the day you moved away from your hometown to support his career, and your last birthday, when the façade of happiness you showed to him and your friends became too much to bear. By solving inventory-based puzzles in each vignette, you achieve some tentative revelation about one of three key questions that are gnawing at you (where did it all start to go wrong, what do I really need, etc.), and then you can choose which one is most compelling to you when you revisit the poets and unlock the next phase of the game.

I actually really like this structure; it combines things that parser-like IF is really good at (environmental storytelling, light puzzle-solving) with a strong thematic framework that links the gameplay to the overall narrative, while giving the player space to provide specific input about how they’re interpreting the story as they uncover it. And divorce has supported a million novels and movies, hard to go wrong there. The puzzles are solid too, all quite intuitive so they never slow you down, with an inventory system providing the tiniest bit of friction so lawnmowering isn’t that appealing.

And yet, as if it were a Dar Williams song, I found I didn’t quite get on with the game (I repeat, my current antipathy for her music is entirely irrational and undeserved!), I think for two primary reasons. The first is that the allegory is often way too literal for my tastes. This is maybe a Scylla and Charybdis thing, since I also tend to dislike games where the allegory gets too personal and abstruse to be resonant to anyone else, but I still think there’s a generous margin between that sort of thing and the puzzles we get here, where you need to confront the elephant in the room and recover what’s been swept under the rug. As one-off groaners these’d be bad enough, but they’re often the prompts for multi-step puzzles that make you really dwell on how clangingly obvious the imagery is, like the bit where you see that you’re wearing armor in the birthday-party scene, but when you try to take the armor off so you can be vulnerable, a jester comes jumping out from behind the couch to replace your protection. I admit, I’m not sure I can immediately come up with an instantly-readable metaphor for using humor as a defense mechanism that’s any less ridiculous, but perhaps that’s an indication that this whole approach is flawed.

I think I get why the allegory is as on-the-nose as it is, though, which goes to the other reason I didn’t click with the game. There’s very little here that says anything specific about the relationship, or about the character of the husband, or for that matter about the character of the protagonist. We get a very few hints – there’s a short text-message exchange where your husband’s trying to cheer you up ahead of the birthday party, and we see he’s fond of emojis – but when you go to the flashbacks, everything is static; all the characters, your past self included, are frozen, and you can’t engage or interact with any of them. While there would have been ways to keep this element of the design while still getting more concrete details into the picture – the narration could have incorporated more specific bits of dialogue, for example, or spent more time reflecting on what drew the narrator to her husband in the first place – for the most part the authors seemed content to leave both characters largely as ciphers.

As a result, picking apart the reasons why the relationship failed felt too abstract to truly land for me. Like, many of the potential problems listed – saying yes to a commitment when you weren’t 100% sure, moving someplace far away from your home for a partner’s career opportunity – could either be deal-breakers or complete non-issues depending on the specific people and specific circumstances involved. And the others are largely just truisms – yes, addressing challenges as they come up rather than burying them and building up resentment is important! – that, shorn of any particulars, lack the heft to elicit more than a shrug.

The frustrating thing is, in the ending sequence the game is more concrete and specific, and it’s by far the most affecting part of the piece. Calling a friend to come pick you up, washing the dishes one last time before you leave the apartment forever, deciding what to pack in the one suitcase you’re taking with you: the writing here conveys real emotion, and I think would resonate with anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation. After all, as great songwriters know, all the platitudes about love and overwrought metaphors in the world can’t stand up to a single well-chosen detail (again, Dar Williams could certainly be counted among these great songwriters for all I know!)

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Where did it all start?, December 17, 2023
by Rovarsson (Belgium)

Your empty suitcase on the bed. Time to pack up and leave. Leave this house, leave this “us”. But you can’t figure out what to pack and what to leave. Loose ends and grating questions stand in the way of going away.

The Gift of What You Notice More offers a symbolic representation of self-analysis. Digging through past experiences and feelings to unravel the doubts that lie beneath. Photographs serve as portals to enter and interact with particularly meaningful points in your now-over relationship.

The game has the protagonist explore the world in the photographs. Dreamlike subconscious additions to the reality of the photos offer opportunities to better understand yourself at the time.

Deep and hard questions about relationships arise throughout the work. I think that the form clashed with the content in this respect. Three self-contained puzzle areas have to be solved and revisited, three chains of rather traditional adventure puzzles. I found that I lost sight of the deeper symbolism as I was merrily exploring the areas and solving a stack of puzzles which involved, among other things, (Spoiler - click to show)a mouse and some cheese, or a counterweighted heap of sandbags. My thoughts were more centered on mechanics or mammal dietary particularities than on the protagonist’s emotions.
Presenting the puzzles in a choice interface which facilitates the lawnmower approach further diminished my engagement with the intended meaning of the piece.

I also felt that The Gift of What You Notice More grasped at simplistic answers to the questions it asks. It partly lost my goodwill when it wanted me to pinpoint “Where did it all start going wrong?” by choosing one of three distinct moments. I can’t read other people’s minds or hearts, it may be different for them, but my emotional history doesn’t work this way.
It is however a common coping mechanism to point at one event or moment as the cause or the origin of problems. It gives a sense of control and clarity. Viewed like this, the game approaches some ways people deal with emotional hurt very closely. (Misguided ways, I think, but I can’t read hearts or minds.)

I encountered a few gripping images during my playthrough: (Spoiler - click to show)a theatre where the birthday party is the play, (Spoiler - click to show)an Angel under a lantern in motionless rain, (Spoiler - click to show)tangled vines instead of hugging arms. Very strong symbolic emotional impact there.

At the end, stronger because of your newly found understanding and balance, you are free to pack your suitcase and leave.
I would have loved an epilogue that incorporates the items you chose to take with you, to elaborate how these items fit in with your new resolve to live your life.

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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A psychological exploration game, based on song by Dar Williams, November 22, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

I’ve liked Xavid’s parser games before, so this twine game looked interesting.

It reminded me of an extended version of Astrid Dalmady’s game You Are at a Crossroads, which is the first Twine game I really liked and the game that got me into choice-based games originally. Both of these games involving ritualistic revisiting of locations, unlocking more content by having net items in an inventory.

I like Astrid Dalmady’s game, but it’s pretty small. So this game is nice way to get that same kind of feel, although this game has quite a bit of its own structure and story that is unique to it.

You are packing up, ready to move out of a home, but every in your house are pictures of a man who is someone close to you, a boyfriend or spouse or lover. You have worries and fears and concerns, and you begin to explore those in a symbolic way.

Several helpful people guide you as you go along, exploring memories of the past in a symbolic format. At first there is much you can’t do, which can get frustrating, but eventually your new capabilities give you more strengths.

The feel is almost a parser/choice hybrid, with its extensive set of locations and inventory items. But it manages to tread the thin line between too many options and too few; I occasionally found myself trying to lawnmower all options, but in each case I realized that it would be easier to just step back and think.

So overall, a strong game. The psychology of it isn’t unusually insightful, but the symbolism employed was enjoyable and interesting to me and the descriptions were evocative.

This game was loosely based on 'The Blessings' by Dar Williams.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Song -> game, November 17, 2023

I didn’t realize to what extent this game was based on the song mentioned as inspiration (“The Blessings” by Dar Williams) until I looked up the lyrics:

And the blessings were like poets that we never find time to know,
But when time stopped I found the place where the poets go.
And they said, "Here have some coffee, it’s straight, black and very old, "
And they gave me sticks and rocks and stars and all that I could hold…

Honestly, I’m super impressed at the way the authors ran with these lines, implementing them very literally into this surreal game about a PC processing the end of a relationship (and now I know the answer to my questions “Why sticks? Why rocks?”).

I love character/emotion/relationship-focused games, so I liked the premise of this one and enjoyed playing out the layers of the PC’s self-reflection and increasing insights. I think the game would have resonated more with me emotionally, though, if both the PC and their ex were more developed as characters; as-is, neither is named and both are characterized fairly vaguely, with some glimpses of their personalities and the tenor of their relationship, but not enough for my taste.

The puzzles and the surreal environments were fun, and I enjoyed the kind-of twist that not all puzzles in each location were fully solvable at first. Because of the unintuitive nature of some puzzles, though, I definitely resorted to lawnmowering several times (and I ran into one minor puzzle-related bug).

Highlight: Mouse friend!
Lowlight: After all the other animal-based puzzles required helping/being kind to them, I was disappointed to have to throw a rock at a bat.

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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
IFComp 2023: The Gift of What You Notice More, October 9, 2023
by Kastel
Related reviews: ifcomp2023

I'm always fascinated by puzzle Twine games with inventories because there's the obvious question, "Why not parser?", that lingers in the background. Many answer that question differently -- and with this game, there's several reasons but one particular reason stands out the most: it evokes transient, elliptical connections that remind the player is never fully in control, which is perfect for a story like this.

Your player character is packing up things in the middle of the night. Scattered around the apartment are photos of the past, of what felt like better days now long gone. But as the player mindlessly clicks hyperlinks to figure out where to go next, they'll (Spoiler - click to show)stumble upon three poets in a cafe who cryptically ask them to consider (and interact with) some old history between the player character and someone whose name is obscured. There, the game finally opens up and reveals its true self, a meditative journey on the meaning of memories and what to do with them in the face of necessary change.

As I played through the game, I'm reminded of Amanda Walker's After the Accident and especially Steve Evans's Photograph: A Portrait of Reflection as both games explore flashbacks as interactive spaces and are relatively puzzleless. However, The Gift of What You Notice More takes a more dream-like puzzle game approach: it has light adventure game puzzles that border on the surreal. These memories are to be puzzled out, grasped, shaken to their fuller meaning by the player character. They are, in other words, allegories that only make sense to this character.

I think this is the main reason why this game has to be hypertext. In parser games, you have a direct connection to the player character because you're typing their actions. Clicking on links feels more detached. The player character in Twine games always feels more autonomous than their parser counterparts. Some decisions we as players make in the game feel life-changing, but we won't see their results. Their consequences are secrets only known to the player character.

As a result, the title was more of a spiritual journey for the player character than the player, despite it being written in second-person. It feels like I've just played through someone's dream-diary except it's lightly dressed up as an adventure game. This is likely why I couldn't connect with the player character, but at the same time, it felt good to help them achieve their goals. The game itself is therapeutic for the character and their resolution to change things resonates with me.

That said, I don't think the puzzle design is perfect. My issues boil down to two things:

(Spoiler - click to show)1) You have to keep going back and forth between the poets and the photos in order to advance the game state, which can be quite cumbersome.

2) I came into the game assuming all the puzzles in each memory are internally solvable, but some puzzles require items that are only acquirable in a future game state. It's frustrating to advance a puzzle so far only to be confused why I haven't found the next step. In the end, I ended up following the walkthrough, which is a shame because I was enjoying the strange puzzles.

But overall, I like The Gift of What You Notice More because it's simply an uplifting game that inspires and soothes. While I've seen the subject matter played out before in different contexts, its use of hyperlinks and allegorical constructions of memory evokes the relatable tensions of uncertainty, powerlessness, and the necessity to change. I came out of the game feeling like I had just helped someone untangle their feelings, and that's not an experience I get to have in games every day.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
An adventure game with open-ended insights, October 8, 2023
by Bell Cyborg (Canada)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2023

While leaving your house in the aftermath of a breakup, you literally get lost reminiscing on old photos of you and your partner, and have to travel through each picture to diagnose the issues that led to your separation. As I progressed through the photo spaces, I found myself uncovering "insights" that apparently solved the dilemma in the photo, but something wasn't quite right--I felt frustrated by cut-off routes, loose ends, and inventory items I couldn't do anything with. But then I was sent back through the same rooms again, looking at them from a different angle and burrowing deeper into each puzzle room, and I realized this was intentional. It evoked the feeling of unpacking old issues with a friend or in therapy, having to cycle through the same ideas again as you gain further insight into your own character. The structure was a very interesting way of reflecting themes in gameplay, and the ultimate conclusion is somewhat defined by the player.

This felt like an exploratory parser game (my first pull was Photopia) but implemented in Twine, and I quite enjoyed it. I was thankful for the link + inventory format, due to the lateral nature of many of the puzzles (lots of testing inventory items against everything). (Spoiler - click to show)"Cut the wrapping paper to make a smiling mask" and (Spoiler - click to show)"dip a rock in garlic spread" were some of the more out-there examples that I only found through trial-and-error.

+: Interesting surreal puzzles that reflect themes, open-ended conclusions, robust puzzle areas with generally clear clues.
-: Unclear direction at the beginning/some trial-and-error, repetitive structure with returning to the poets.

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