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High school angst and (oops) a corporate-induced zombie apocalypse, December 11, 2021
(Disclaimer: I tested AvtH prior to IFComp 2021.)
So I was wrong about AvtH in two ways. First, I assumed it would place much higher than it did. Second, I assumed the author's adolescence was much more "I hate high school" than it was. AvtH grabbed my attention with what I thought was an easy target, and then it proceeded to hit others and provide some good laughs along the way. It's supposed to be more than a bit silly, but it has enough of the wisdom of looking back mixed in, so the silliness is not just for its own sake. It's sympathetic to its own characters without getting overwrought, and perhaps people didn't notice all the wisdom, since it was very gentle. Well, for a zombie apocalypse.
You play AvtH in different perspectives, as members of a high school band. Not the one with fuzzy busbies and uniforms–oh no. Much less conformist than that. You have no school spirit, remember! You play four different members of a very loud and earnest grunge band as you go through a story of oppression from the popular kids and corporate types trying to appeal to you. Many dramatic incidents center around a Gas'N'Stuff, which is a great name whether an actual Gas'N'Stuff franchise exists or not. (It does, indeed, seem to. But not where I lived. I suppose it has that mystery about it, like the Circle K in Bill and Ted or Ralph's in The Big Lebowski. I figured both couldn't possibly exist.) One winds up feeling quite sorry for the poor chap behind the counter after all this. Dealing with the band members is not so bad, but, well ... if he's the owner, I hope he had insurance. If he's not, poor guy having to explain all this to the owner.
AvtH is presented as a series of flashbacks from when the first band member, Jenny, stumbles to the garage where you all practice, up to the present time. Something weird has happened to you, and you know something weirder will happen shortly! Your bandmates, well, they need to verify your story, as you're incapacitated. They find one small clue as to how to reverse the damage, which provides a running gag, too.
Once Jenny is subdued, there's a flashback to earlier in the day: a school assembly where a company was promoting the new soft drink, Hype! Now I remember as a kid Jolt! cola came out, but ... it was marketed a bit differently. The pandering was there, but it was less tone-deaf. Also, maybe I wasn't old enough to be cynical yet. As Jenny, you go through the humiliating actions of screaming loudest for free (and ugly) clothing (there's a point to WEARING it) and make the mistake of drinking Hype! She doesn't drink much, so it takes time to turn her into a zombie. But it still happens.
Armed with what they know, your friends start following leads. Amanda goes to the Gas'N'Stuff to buy stuff. What stuff? Um, stuff you could get for free in college. You need condoms, because the zombies have latex allergies, and balloons aren't available. The illicitness behind stealing them for Completely Different Reasons works for me. Sneaking out of the gas station with them may be slightly amoral, but it contains good stock jokes about the sort of yucky things you buy at convenience stores when you're desperate. Stuff you swear you'd never buy, especially at THAT price.
Another, Lewis, needs a tape of your greatest hits. There's no time for a performance, so he remembers one he gave to a girl he liked. He's not getting in the front door (the jock guarding it is well described) so he has to sneak in through a window, which would be creepy under normal circumstances, but when everyone's a zombie, it's not so bad. The party is, well, unusual. Lewis has a few revelations about how she's ignored him, but there are some bright spots. Maybe. More importantly, he gets the tape. With another involuntary assist of sorts again from the Gas'N'Stuff. Lewis's distraction is also bad for upkeep, but hey, the fate of the world could be at stake.
Finally, Paul needs a plot to get his brother's car. This involves a rather mean tip to the police, but one suspects Paul's brother sort of deserves it. Here I got sidetracked by the three food wrappers you have when the scene starts as a way to distract the hungry squirrel, and I should have figured where to get a quarter for a pay phone, but I should have realized what a focal point the Gas'N'Stuff was and gone that direction.
I believe I played this the same way through both when testing and seeing the comp version, so I didn't see anything different. I'd like to go back and switch the order, since the game lets you–it seems either one puzzle clues others, or you'll need an alternate solution. And the final scene ties it all together–your music will help free people's minds! The balloons will help keep you safe! The walkthrough has a neat misdirection here. It lists a hard way, but the easy way is more intellectually rewarding and in tune with the game's general humor.
There are a lot of good lines if you examine people and such, too, so again, if you just go through with the walkthrough (which has its own fourth-wall jokes) you'll miss out on a bit. Any one joke feels like it could've been dashed off and you could laugh and move on and say "oh, I was crazy when I was a teen," but they fit together well. The author mentioned he may've sat on the game for too long, but on the other hand, the jokes feel well-organized, and their sum is more than the parts. It was worth the wait. A lot of times I said, oh, that's maybe where the author got this joke, or this observation, and I'd seen it before. But the thing was, AVtH never relied too much on one canonical late 80s/90s reference, and it wasn't the WHOLE joke. I realized afterwards I'd missed a lot of references, and that seems like a good batting average: some of them, the reader will pick up on, but others will be from stuff they hadn't seen or had even forgotten and meant to watch again. Indeed, in the credits, the author mentions the state the game was in before testing, but I also think they deserve credit for building together a story that would've fallen apart with less thought. It's not a simple one.
AvtH is a very ambitious game despite its silly high-school-angst feel, and while the author uses some modules very well (especially the dialogue module) for pacing and for keeping things relatively simple for the player, there's some parser-fighting involved with its more advanced features. I felt bad maybe explaining to the author "Yeah, I bet you'll fix those nuisances, but a few more will pop up, because parser games gonna parser, and don't worry." That's the risk of ambition. Things won't be perfect. But AvtH covers bases more than well enough, with a hint system that picked things up nicely when I was floundering. It's a bit snarky, which may not work for some, but AvtH won't be their thing anyway. I chose to disassemble the blorb afterwards just to pick off the hints, because that sort of thing is too hard to track in-game, and I was rewarded.
The author also mentioned an ingenious shortcut in the forum that skips one of the areas. It's not obvious, but once he explained it, several people said "oh, of course." There's a lot of that in AvtH, which feels simplistic in some places, or we've heard this joke ... but AvtH does it better, and consistently, and you realize you're not hearing the stock jokes that get laughs in average sitcoms. I hope it's not insulting to say AvtH's like the best of Cheech and Chong. It doesn't seem super-clever because it doesn't try to be cleverer than you or shove its newness in your face, but all the same, there's nothing stale.
Oh. There's also an epilogue. It felt well-timed, like the credits at the end of a half-hour sitcom, when one last loose end is tied up, and the laugh track plays one final time. And yes, it works! I've seen other epilogues, but never one this short. More games should do this -- I really like having this sort of denouement.