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(based on 15 ratings)
About the Story
The sun is filtering hazily through a partly-cloudy sky on this gorgeous Sunday afternoon. You're feeling lazy and a bit glued to the couch, but your partner insists on you getting some exercise. And although you complain, you have to admit – it looks to be the perfect day for a walk.
Okay Sam, time to go through the usual checklist: Clothes? Phone? Keys? Wallet? Mask? Now where could you have left those...
Explore 20 different endings in this poignant and humorous adventure through the mundane!
14th Place - 28th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2022)
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).
A Walk Around the Neighborhood has a somewhat deceptive title. Like, close your eyes, picture what you do in the game based just on those five words and knowing it’s a parser game: I mean it’s right there, isn’t it? You take a stroll around some streets, maybe meet some neighbors who have some small problems, carry out some light fetch-questing to the corner shop; possibly there’s a park or bit of woods you can poke your head into, and there’s a little maze or something. But no, there’s a bait-and-switch – instead, what we’ve got here is a one-room puzzler, because while you’d like to go for the eponymous walk with your partner Alex, first you need to find your wallet, and charge your cell phone, and get your keys, and put on a mask… and since you’re working off a days-long hangover, none of this is as easy as you’d think.
There’s another layer of deceptiveness, though, because again, close your eyes and picture what the game is like based on that description: it’s a tough-as-nails pixelbitchfest, with tons of scenery (a few pieces of which will turn out to be important) and implausible puzzles that take what should be a grounded premise and make it absurd. However – twist upon twist! – A Walk Around the Neighborhood also manages to escape this escape-the-room stereotype. It’s a charming, laid-back game that’s smartly designed so that you can tackle its reasonable challenges in a bunch of different ways, and reach a satisfying, plausible ending even if you don’t feel like following the scavenger hunt to its bitter end.
It takes a little while to realize this, admittedly; I let out a groan when the intro stopped and I realized how long the list of stuff I’d need to collect was, and how concomitantly long the list of living-room furniture to poke at was, too. But that list of objects is pretty much it – there aren’t like sub-items and sub-parts fractally expanding the game space to ludicrous levels. And while many one-room games are dense but “steep”, with a host of puzzles that all depend on each other in a mostly linear sequence, this one is quite flat; there are one or two that need to be solved in order, but for the most part, there’s nothing that’s useless or out of bounds from the off, and wherever you start your efforts, you’re likely to make some satisfying progress.
The individual puzzles are well-designed, too. There are no secret messages or color-coded signals or anything like that, just a jumble of missing keys that have largely wound up where you would expect, and a couple of logical object-interaction puzzles. Sure, you’ll need to LOOK BEHIND and LOOK UNDER stuff, but that’s de rigueur for a game like this, and it specifically prompts you with those verbs so I think it plays fair on that score. A few are a bit more creative, including some that require watching TV for inspiration, but even these are quite grounded, helping maintain the integrity of the pleasant, low-key premise. And if you run into trouble, you can always check in with your partner, who can give you some light, in-world hints while proving a pleasant look what the relationship is like (there are regular hints, plus a walkthrough too).
Despite the simple building-blocks and the relatively short running time – I got one of the two “complete” endings in about 45 minutes – it’s surprisingly deep, too. You see, you’re not stuck on this train until you’ve managed to retrieve all your possessions – there are over a dozen additional off-ramps, where you get sucked into some other activity instead of going on that much-delayed walk. These are all easy enough to back out of with an UNDO, and crucially, they’re not treated as bad ends – sure, your partner might lightly chide you for not getting some exercise, but typically they involve doing something else that’s fun or useful, so it’s enjoyable to try stuff that’s not on the scavenger-hunt list to see if you can discover one of these premature endings.
Tying everything together, the tone is light without getting silly. As the presence of a mask on the list indicates, the game’s set during COVID times, but not in an intrusive or depressing way. And the protagonist has an affable voice that made me want to help them out – as befits the rest of the game, they’re not like aggressively characterized and the prose is by no means show-offy, but it’s technically quite clean and does a good job efficiently putting a little bit of personality into the straightforward descriptions of quotidian things:
The key ring currently holds a backdoor key, although it usually also holds a car key, a house key, a work key and a bike key.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. Your key ring doesn’t quite make a full loop, so if you’re not careful with them (as happens from time to time, especially when you’re drinking or out with friends), they fall off without you realizing it.
Admittedly, there are a few items that have a default “you see nothing special about the XX” description, which really shouldn’t be the case in a small albeit jam-packed game like this, but at least it’s for stuff like AA batteries, where the lack of description isn’t holding the player back any. Other than that, I didn’t run into any bugs or implementation oversights. Really, this is a smooth, low-friction game; it’s cheerful and pleasant and rewarding to play. It’s not an angsty, story-heavy game that’s going to tax your brain and challenge your ability to put together a complex narrative, sure, so I suppose you could level the criticism that in some respects it’s a bit lightweight. But with a title like A Walk Around the Neighborhood, is that really what you’d be expecting? No, it does what it sets out to do, and very satisfyingly at that; it’s a quiet but clear highlight of the Comp.
I'm not really a fan of mythology, but the author's entry from IFComp 2021, Hercules, was a sympathetic look at a kid who was smart but not very strong, and I'd hoped to see more from them. Hercules, replete with lack of muscle and an asthma inhaler, could've gone off the rails with a "hahaha dorks suck but dorks rule" view, but it never got close. With my limited knowledge of mythology it was still pretty clear what to do without making the puzzles too obvious. I had a lot of good genuine laughs. And AWAtN, while modern and much more slice-of-life, gives them. Your grand objective is to leave your house during COVID quarantine. Your partner who may slightly be getting on your nerves, and you may be getting on theirs. It's all pretty direct without being heavy or cruel or overdoing the "gosh it's boring in here" angle, and it hit a lot of notes for me. The scenery is pretty clearly less sweeping than ancient Greece, but the result is tidier and a lot of fun, an ambitious escape-the-room game.
What really makes AWAtN work for me is the hint system. It's in-game--your exhausted partner, Alex, reminds you where you might've left your mask or cell phone or, because your battery is drained, your charger. There's that weariness that can too easily be forced, but here it wasn't. Yes, your partner gets a bit bored if you ask for a lot of things. It becomes fun to, because you learn a bit about your and Alex's history, and Alex can't know where you put stuff but sure has a lot of good questions. I remember long before COVID, I would lose something, and my parents would always ask "where did you leave it last?" which annoyed me. I figured why, now--Alex says "You know, you've left X around Y before." The "oh I'm not sure" dialogue feels so plausible and avoids spoiling things. You will get the hint, especially since your character often has stuff to say back.
"My messy apartment" or "I'm such a loner" games can often think they're quite self-aware by broadcasting their lack of effort, but Walk is much cleverer than that. It hits at some parser tropes like "LOOK BEHIND X" or "LOOK UNDER X" which are usually the bane of parsers. It just doesn't force the player to look every which way, but you remember something falling behind a sofa, or whatever. The implication is that you were a slob before COVID and worse after, without totally roasting you. Again sort of like Hercules, who is neurotic and physically weak, but the jokes aren't cutting.
You, Sam, have stuff to do before you go out. Dress up in sweatshirt and sweatpants instead of your pajamas. Look all over for stuff misplaced. And, well, the puzzles amused me, and I'm glad they seemed to amuse the judges, too. It's simple stuff like turning the TV on and opening a window, and you have a bunch of keys to track down, because of course you do. Turning on the TV gives vital information, and while this mechanic's done before, and the author is having a great big laugh, you get to have one, too. Certainly during COVID I flipped through YouTube channels for all sorts of odd information I wasn't really interested in, hoping something that useful came up. The conversation when you open the window (yes, this is also a nontrivial event) reminds me of how restrictive things are/were/need to be with COVID, back when we weren't sure if we should.
AWAtN also commits what is, on the surface, a cardinal sin: a convention among parser games is that LOOK UNDER and SEARCH and LOOK BEHIND are bad ideas. With AWAtN, they aren't quite the same thing. But they shouldn't be, here, and it's fun to have that extra guesswork which makes trying to find things just the right amount of frustrating so you don't give up, but you "get" Sam and Alex.
I had to look at the walkthrough for the final key to put on the ring. I thought I'd done something I hadn't. The other endings--well, I got the one where you get lazy and do a crossword--this sort of thing often kept me in before COVID, where instead of exploring something new, I'd go with something I knew how to do, but it felt different, because it was a randomized game. The walkthrough listed them, and some are obscure, but they should be. Some things in the game indicated "this gives a bad end," and I felt kind of dumb I overlooked them. Some seemed quite absurd indeed, where you have to be a bit too clever or dumb, but that seems like part of the fun--it's the sort of thing you think of when cooped in your house. I laughed just reading the commands to get the endings. But, funny thing: on replay, I picked off a few bad endings, but I wanted to just get through to the main ending to go out. I suddenly felt up to it. Most games generally try to trap you into playing them more, or they leave you fleeing. AWAtN hitting that third way is a welcome rare thing.
AWAtN also reminded me of This Won't Make You Laugh from IFComp 2021, which had its moments and (spoiler) mentioned a lot of frustration with COVID and was direct in its own way, in particular when the narrator broke the fourth wall, but the humor feels more consistent and less forced here. Alex was, on reflection, a more effective character than I thought. There's some suggestion Sam, the main character, and Alex are getting a bit sick of each other, and they need time apart whenever possible and know this, but they still care. This isn't nuance you should have to strain for, but then you shouldn't have to, to keep relationships going, and AWAtN doesn't claim to blow you away with it. The androgynous names for Sam and Alex are a nice touch, too--it's not the first time I've seen this, but games that include this generally work well.
I deliberately played AWAtN as a boost to start IFComp 2022 reviewing in the authors' forum, and I was right. It's got a bit of slapstick, but not too much, and it certainly got me started happily. I'm glad people can self-classify their entries so we can attack what we want first, as I seem to need the shorter ones to start, and this fit in place nicely. It's hard to imagine a "my messy apartment" entry doing better than AWAtN. It seems to have that right balance of cluelessness and self-awareness. But I'd be happy with something half as nice.
Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review
Here’s something you hear every year around Oscar time: “Comedy is hard, why isn’t it respected like manipulative, obviously thirsty, overwrought sob-fests?” Well, you mostly hear it phrased like that at my house, but the sentiment is trotted out pretty consistently. This is going to be relevant in a few minutes.
Historically I like some things about parser IF better than others. Way at the bottom is the ‘search’ ‘look under’ ‘look behind’ mechanics. Its classic, I get it, but it feels so unrewarding to both look at something then look again ONLY IN A MORE SPECIFIC WAY. AWAN, you have turned me around on this. This is a one-room joint where you have to find a comedically large number of things in an exasperatingly spartan environment. And you do and its hilarious! Using all of those mechanics deliberately and precisely, this game is a perfect “I know its around here somewhere” simulator. Its the first time I’ve ever seen them used so effectively.
Here’s another thing I’ve never really liked: abrupt, non-foreshadowed instant endings that require restart or undo. AWAN fixed that too! The 3 abrupt endings I got were laugh out loud non sequitor funny and I happily Undid to see more. Usually my spoilers are kind of vague, but this is a no-fooling overt one: (Spoiler - click to show)OMG Try calling everyone on the red corded phone. DO IT!
I always appreciate a narratively integrated hint system, but AWAN upped the ante even further. You can call out to your partner to a) solve puzzles, b) get hints and c) get snarky offhand replies to dumb questions. To the point where I decided to be the Ikea guy just to see how far I could push things. (If you don’t know what I mean, google “IKEA Donna youtube puns.” Totally worth your time.) I really wanted to preface every conversation thread with “Hey Donna. Hey Donna.”
I don’t want this review to just be listing delightful things, though maybe we could use some of that these days. (Spoiler - click to show)Wait’ll you get the TV on. There are so many to find on your own. The implementation is mostly seamless, light, and amusingly frustrating but in a way we can all satisfyingly relate to. And it does it all with economy and verve. It gets in, makes its impact, and gets out while you still want more.
It also does some small things absolutely seamlessly: its choice of characters allows the player to slip cleanly into place, regardless of gender/sexual preference without fanfare or menus. In particular there is a point where you might want (Spoiler - click to show)to open a window before you’ve found your shirt. The game handles this lightly and elegantly with no false notes.
So here’s where I strike back at the Oscars. AWAN is just consistently and effortlessly its own funny thing that had me completely Engaged and often grinning in delight. Get on up here, AWAN!
We will play you off though.
Playtime: 45min, 4/18 endings
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? Was thinking no, until the game told me there were 18 endings. So yeah, probably.
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
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