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Between the Lines of Fire

by paravaariar profile


Web Site

(based on 5 ratings)
4 reviews

About the Story

In this story, you are Sidorof, a Russian soldier during the 19th century Eastern war. He was posthumously decorated as a hero, because no one knew his dark history. But you'll find out as you progress.

English translation support by Jeff McCoskey.

Game Details


4th Place, Classic - ParserComp 2023


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Number of Reviews: 4
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4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A dramatic adventuron game about war and obsession, July 1, 2023
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes

This is the third time I have played and reviewed this game. I first saw it in the Spanish Ectocomp, where I found it difficult as I had to learn new verbs, but I found the story intriguing and creepy.

I then experienced it as a French game in French comp, where it was fun contrasting the two versions.

Now here it is in English, my native language, and it's honestly a different experience this time.

In this game, you play a Russian soldier who is obsessed with writing the perfect letter home, specifically the letter you write to your family in the case of death. You are not confident in your own writing, so you steal the letters of others that die, whether on their own, or with help.

The game contrasts the insanity of war with your own insanity.

Experienced in my native language, the game is still good, but I notice more the abrupt changes in scene, emotion, and motivation. Sometimes others are suspicious of you, while at other times they take your word even in suspicious circumstances.

One difficult I had was technical; near the end, with the tent and the (Spoiler - click to show)explosives, I needed to find a word to (Spoiler - click to show)light the explosives. However, (Spoiler - click to show)LIGHT and BURN didn't work. I had to type (Spoiler - click to show)EXPLODE CHESTS to get it to work.

Overall, it's been fun seeing this over time. There were definitely some nuances I didn't understand until I saw it in English (especially since Adventuron doesn't let you copy and paste text into Google translate). I had fun.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Never trust a writer, September 22, 2023
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

The RNG has been getting its laughs in – after putting the two games starting with X together, it also gave me the duo of Adventuron games back to back. There the commonalities end, though; for one thing, the protagonist is a Russian soldier fighting “the 19th century Eastern war” (is this Crimea?), but more importantly, while we imagine the protagonist of The Last Mountain as an intensely moral figure, here we’re playing someone with distinctly darker ethics. The opening crawl tells us that after volunteering to fight, Sidorf’s “ideals were quickly replaced by a survival instinct… he wants to do one last thing perfectly. Whatever the cost.”

Going into the game, I had several ideas for what that one last thing might be, and what cost might have to be paid. Points to the author: all of those ideas were completely wrong. This is a story I haven’t seen before, at least in exactly these contours. But partially I think that’s because while Sidorf’s motivations present a compelling enigma, once they begin to resolve things slightly fall apart. To dig into why, I’m going to need to spoil the plot, so fair warning that you might want to finish the game before reading the rest of this review (it’s short and worth playing, in my view).

To provide some padding before getting to the spoilery bits, let’s talk briefly about the mechanics and the prose. We’ve got here a linear series of set pieces, which makes sense because Sidorf is a grunt following orders – he shouldn’t have free rein to wander. The game uses a relatively stripped-down command set, and runs into some of the syntax foibles out-of-the-box Adventuron is prey to, but because it’s quite direct about prompting you about what action you’re supposed to take next, I generally didn’t have too much trouble, with just a few notable exceptions (Spoiler - click to show)(I knew exactly what I wanted to do in the late-game sequence where you need to sneak around the back of a tent and blow up some explosives, but it definitely took some wrestling with the parser to get that across).

The prose takes a similarly blunt approach. BLF boasts a translation credit, so it was clearly written in another language first, but the English is solid enough; the game’s prone to simple, declarative sentences that are closely grounded I the first-person narration, which is an effective way of communicating Sidorf’s voice. There’s the occasional off note – him calling his fellow Russian soldiers “comrades” feels like an anachronistic Soviet-era touch – but overall it fits the game quite well, with the relatively straightforward language not getting in the way of establishing the ambiguities of the protagonist’s desires and goals.

In fact, this combination of straightforward prose and aggressive prompting of the player is doubly important because Sidorf’s motivations turn out to be quite idiosyncratic – if the player were given more freedom or a muddier picture of the situation, the game could easily have turned into a frustrating experience, since they’d almost certainly wind up chasing the wrong goals. Sidorf doesn’t dream of performing an act of heroics, or of surviving to go back home no matter what: no, he’s resigned himself to death in battle, but wants to make sure the last letter home that’s found on his body is the best-written, most compelling letter anyone has ever seen. He’s also fixated on a very specific way of accomplishing that goal: purloining bits and pieces of the letters his fellow soldiers write. Understandably, none of them are especially likely to share their missives back to their sweethearts or tearful farewells to their children with someone who, as it turns out, is quite the socially-awkward weirdo; fortunately for Sidorf if not for the others, he’s willing to go to any extreme to get them to cough up the goods.

The game thus has a regular rhythm to its half-hour runtime: meet a new soldier or soldiers, then follow order for a while until you have a chance to kill them and take their stuff, until you have all the raw material you need to write your masterpiece, bringing the game to a close with a brief narration of Sidorf’s inevitable death. In its favor, this resolution is compellingly demented; against this, though, I simultaneously found it both annoyingly obscure and a little too pat.

On the obscure side of things, besides that one sentence in the intro talking about the death of Sidorf’s ideals and the triumph of the survival instinct, we don’t get any sense of how Sidorf hit on his ideas – they’re just taken as givens (and, one feels obliged to point out, they don’t seem to have anything much to do with survival). Beyond his monomaniacal acquisitive zeal, Sidorf doesn’t have much characterization, and indeed, the climax feels frustratingly anticlimactic. The contents of the final letter are never so much as hinted at, nor do we get any clue about who Sidorf’s family are, what they might think of what he’s going to tell them, or why he’s so concerned with making such an impression on them (and again, we don’t even know what war this is!).

Sure, to a certain extent this is beside the point; psychologizing a character who’s clearly meant to be an allegorical figure risks crushing an intellectual argument with banality (the game would hardly be more compelling if we found out, say, that Sidorf is desperate to impress a father who used to beat him). And there’s no indication that there’s something about the contingent facts around this particular historical conflict that brought on his mania. But to my mind fiction works best when it manages to ground its ideas in personality; to stick with the game’s milieu, Tolstory is surely working with abstractions in War and Peace, but the novel has survived because Pierre, Natasha, and the others feel like specific, idiosyncratic characters with depths that go beyond their mere function as elements in an argument about history. We don’t get anything like that here, and so Sidorf dies as he lives: a cipher.

As for the other way of looking at the game’s themes: I mean, writers are vampires, film at 11. To its credit, BLF stages this idea in a novel way, but as far as I was able to engage with the game, the novelty felt only skin-deep, and actually winds up undercutting the effectiveness of the argument. Like, even if we consider the intensely negative case of an amoral author who takes the stories or emotional trauma of their loved ones and turns them into a crass commercial product, we’d still say “compared to Sidorf, this isn’t so bad!” The things authors do to get ideas or inspiration from others don’t look very much like the stuff Sidorf does so he can steal letters from the corpses of his friends, so while the parallels may work intellectually, they feel schematic rather than visceral.

I always like to see parser games that are going for a literary effect, and BLF certainly looks good on that score; the plot, characters, writing, puzzles, and gameplay are very clearly arranged to advance a very specific set of themes. But for all the grubbiness of Sidorf’s experience, I found the perspective offered wound up being too high-level; there’s not enough blood in the veins to make the various dilemmas and atrocities here truly sing.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
ParserComp 2023: Between the lines of fire, August 6, 2023
by kaemi
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

The concept, a soldier reading as many of his comrades’ letters home as possible in order to perfect the style of his own aestheticized letter, is extraordinarily literarily generative, a perfect seed for a psychological novella in the Russian tradition, somewhere between Gogol and Platonov. You could go cosmological, a dizzying sense of unimportance in the face of the mass replication of one’s predicament in the unfathomable scale of slaughter of war; you could go postmodern, with a selfconscious reflexivity on the text only as a set of tropes which generate the letter in reverse, with the soldier trying to get the battle to compose the conditions for his letter’s authentic sentimentality; you could go Borges mystical, posing the idea of the perfected soldier’s letter as a literary koan; you could go Celine sardonic, a brittle lambast of the way war reveals us wretched; sadly, it seems, Between the lines of fire elects no path, perfunctorily printing the sequencing.

The game being simplistic in its execution, with telegraphed sequences of go north or talk to x and y, troubled only at the end by a single puzzle, isn’t what I mean by perfunctory. The prose’s limited valences are only partially what I mean by perfunctory, forgiving as I am always of a language barrier. Rather, the perfunctory smothering of the work occurs in its most critical scenes, when, pressed to the psychological richness of its conceit, it elides it entirely abashed, ushering the action offstage like a Greek: “I wake up just before dawn. I get up and I can’t believe my eyes. Pavel and Nikolai are on the ground in pools of blood. The bayonet next to me, soaked in red. It was me who did this. / The pen is in my hand and there are sheets everywhere, crumpled or torn by anger. I realize that in my delirium I had tried to write my letter with the letters I had already, plus those of Pavel and Nikolai. / A leaf next to me is the only one left intact. I take it carefully and begin to read. The letter is beautiful! The alchemy of all these sensitivities had taken place. I am in tears, but at the same time I understand that the letter is not perfect. Something is missing that I cannot identify.” What’s the point in writing the setup and denouement of a story but leaving its heart hollow? The soldier’s desperation for the letters, the way it obsesses him into delirium, seems interesting, certainly, but we only hear about it secondhand, quelling the I interiority that sieves colors through the predicament.

Yet even at this level of the photograph rather than the painting, there could still be a certain verve to the performance, a playful stitching together of the letters’ tropes as personified in the soldiers whose letters we steal. From one soldier the melancholy reflection on having marched hundreds of miles from home to die, when his forefathers all had the luxury of a single cemetery; from another soldier the romanticist yearning to see his beloved one last time before the end; yet another recalls their childhood, realizes now the true pleasures of innocence; you could go collecting reflections on death to inflect your death. Alas, even this is stolen from us, with the various letters receiving at most indifferent descriptions, and our final synthesis being handwaved away: “This is the end of Sidorof’s story. He joined another nearby battalion and a few days later was killed in action. His family received the most exciting and moving letter ever written from the front lines.” Your sigh echoes in the hollowness.

Between the lines of fire is a sketched outline of a captivating story. One hopes the writer one day writes it.

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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Petty thievery, or is it?, July 24, 2023
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: ParserComp 2023

I wanted to try to avoid reviewing ParserComp games during the judging period, but I wanted to make exceptions for works people might miss out on and be sorry they did, due to the subject matter or an unfamiliar author.

In BtLoF's case, we have both, although I should note the author has written in non-English works that seem to have been well-received. (I onl researched this after playing through.) Nevertheless, I was sort of dreading looking into it, because it was about war, and I worried it might drag on, to show war drags on, and it might have more description than I wanted.

Well, I was totally wrong on both counts. It's a relatively short affair, and there are a lot of ways to get killed, and perhaps it would be better that way if you did. There certainly is something awful at the center of it. In the introduction, you know you're going to die. You're not sure how. BtLoF lets you know your protagonist's death is not very noble, and they're cowardly, too. He tries to get the bare minimum of bravery so he won't be found out. All this is done without pointing the finger.

Here's where things are tough for me as a reviewer. I don't want to spoil to much, but you steal something very particular, and it seems both very valuable and not valuable at all. It relates to some things I've seen. But it recalled upsetting moments for me, where I thought "Oh, I have no right to be THAT mad." But I did, because even if nobody stole my soul or wound up leaving me to die, they crossed some boundaries, under pretenses that Things Were Tough and There are Worse People Out There, You Know.

The final chapter is a fitting climax, as perhaps the narrator overestimates how much his fellow soldiers understand what he is trying to do, and it makes for a Tell-Tale Heart kind of moment.

I'll put why I found BtLoF powerful in a spoiler, and it's an oblique spoiler, too, just so if you read it, BtLoF should still have impact. It's not very long. You shouldn't have much problem with the four or five commands needed to pass each chapter. The story drew me in, allowing my character survival, wondering if he wasn't that bad, then slowly realizing that, yes, he was pretty bad indeed, or worse.

(Spoiler - click to show)it reminded me of people who told my story as if it was their own, maybe even interrupting mine to say "See? I told you so! That's what I've been talking about!" (Whom and what they told so is unclear.) Perhaps they even ascribe motives to me, or to antagonists or friends in my story, that weren't there, or deliberately emphasizing points I didn't care about. Perhaps those motives were flattering, or not. But it was my story, and someone corrupted it, by overplaying and underplaying certain aspects, and perhaps it was one I wasn't even ready to tell at all. It reminded me of people who told George Carlin jokes without noting, hey, this was by George Carlin, and they seemed much smarter than they were. There's a sort of spiritual robbery here, though in BtLoF, there's a bit of "what's the matter? They're dead anyway!" And I found myself trying to protest that and failing early on and even remembering when I'd warped others' stories, aloud or in my own mind.

BtLoF could have been done with a supernatural background, or as a slice-of-life game. Other works have done this, and successfully, in both long and short form. But it's a war story I hadn't read before, and I don't think that speaks to my blind spots. There are plenty of stories of ghosts on the battlefield, or of innocent people killed, in war. This is different. It was surprisingly personal to me without, well, being as invasive as the main character.

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This is version 3 of this page, edited by paravaariar on 5 August 2023 at 2:49pm. - View Update History - Edit This Page - Add a News Item - Delete This Page