After-Words

by fireisnormal

2021

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Two-word tomfoolery, December 1, 2021
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2021

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review posted to the IntFict forums during the 2021 IFComp. My son Henry was born right before the Comp, meaning I was fairly sleep-deprived and loopy while I played and reviewed many of the games, so in addition to a highlight and lowlight, the review includes an explanation of how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece)

There’s lots of high-concept IF, but those concepts usually focus on a specific gameplay gimmick or unique setting – After-Words takes the road less traveled by adopting a constraint on the writing. Every sentence, description, and response in the game is at most two words long. There are two different ways you could go with this: one would be to keep things as stripped-down and literal as possible, to make sure the player always understands exactly what’s going on despite the limited number of words available to communicate, while the other would be to use evocative language, neologisms, and metaphor to paint a picture and engage the emotions even at the risk of leaving the player a bit at sea. After-Words opts for the latter approach, which makes for a more fun game overall though I did spend some time floundering.

The game elements are pretty unique, too. After-Words uses a custom web-based interface that’s narrowly-tailored to what it does. The main screen shows an icon-based grid map that you can directly navigate with arrows, gives you an interface element to toggle between your two available actions (looking and interacting), and features a small window for the text describing what you see in each location. You’re exploring a surreal city, most of which is initially gated off – unlocking the various barriers so you can open up the full grid takes up most of the game’s running time, and this is largely done via a series of simple item-based interactions. Sometimes this is as simple as using a coin to pay a bridge’s toll, but usually there’s some leap of logic required, based on interpreting the fantastical world sketched out by the game’s dreamlike language: figuring out how to repair the city’s screaming gunflowers, or how to impress the backflipping flickerking.

There’s only a minimal amount of story or context here – you’re solving puzzles because you’re a player and supposed to solve puzzles – but the writing does a good job of presenting a consistent world, and key themes do emerge: there’s a strong elemental vibe to the different districts of the city, religious practice seems to be a central concern of its residents, and what technology exists is bespoke and near-organic.

Getting to see new parts of the map, then, also means learning more about this strange, intriguing place, and solving the puzzles similarly provides a sense of the rules that govern it. I found this gameplay loop effective for about the first two-thirds of the half-hour running time. In the last ten minutes or so, the large number of open locations and slightly bigger inventory (previously there’d only been one or two items carried at a time) made it harder to intuit what steps would lead to progress, and reduced me to lawnmowering my way through the map. But overall I’d judge After-Words an experiment that succeeds – though I wouldn’t be shy about using the built-in hints to prevent it from wearing thin in the late-game.

Highlight: One location, described as the city’s “stochastic court”, just intrigued me no measure, and I spent a few minutes spinning out possible interpretations for what the legal system here could look like.

Lowlight: There’s one interaction – receiving a benediction from “in-sects” who inhabit the city’s “seahives” – that seems to break the two-word-sentence rule: ”our – buzz – blessing – buzz” only skates by on a technicality.

How I failed the author : As with many of the choice-based games, I played After-Words on my phone in between taking care of the baby, which wasn’t the best way to experience the game – using Safari to play it online, the top-of-window options (including save and load functionality, as well as hints and a walkthrough) weren’t visible, and using inventory items required a lot of awkward scrolling up and down. Dipping back in on my desktop makes the game a much smoother experience.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Brevity: Wit-soul. Layout: inventive. Experience: absorbing., November 30, 2021
by Andrew Schultz (Chicago)
Related reviews: IFComp 2021

After-Words is the sort of sharply designed and presented game that takes a while to get used to. It's almost too slick to adjust to at once. I was clueless how to do that first thing, but then, everything clicked. There's a tidy map with lock icons by passages you need to open. There are two buttons on the main page: look and interact. You build an inventory and use it on people or items you find--dry goods stuff, perhaps, but not dry writing. And the writing is largely in two-word phrases. And it all works.

Because the wordlessness is part of the quest: you, the Resolver, need to bring words back to Skycity, where there's plenty of activity but little spoken. What words there are create a vivid world. There are all sorts of flies, as well as other surreal things like gunflowers (they are rusty and need oil to defend the city properly, and once they do, security stops blocking you from going elsewhere) or robogulls or hammerspiders, or glowdoves who give you eggs you need to hatch. This all sounds like it could be a mess I had to use a bit of trial and error, but the cool thing was: there weren't a ton of errors to make! And After-Words tersely lets you know when you can't use something. "USE ELSEWHERE." Though some items, like a hammer, give amusing variants (VIOLENCE UNNECESSARY) or location-based text (I was almost sad to give the prismheart up!)

The map itself is nifty, with arrows protruding from your current location. You can click on them to get around or hover over a location to see its name, though most of the time, the location's icon should remind you what it is. This is a big help once you've explored the whole city and have a lot to remember, and all the locks that indicate a temporarily blocked passage have fallen away. Since there is some fetching to do, I was mildly disappointed I couldn't click on the location and move there, or maybe use arrows to get around and L/I for LOOK and INTERACT, because there were so many other conveniences. But it was pretty slick, all told. And I appreciated the "hint" command at the top that told you where to go next. I used it a few times the first time through, but revisiting it for this review, I remembered bits and pieces of the logic and was able to piece things together. My main problem was forgetting to INTERACT fully after solving a quest or helping someone. They'd often offer you an item, but it wouldn't go right in your inventory.

You don't need many words to figure what to do in the big picture. There are three gates near corners of the city that need Big Items (Moon, Blood and Summer,) and they're in the corner, behind a few locked doors, of course.

The only problem I had was that once After-Words got clicking, it was pretty much over. I was almost sad to see my exploits had cost the city its brief charm! But maybe there'll be a sequel. I think I really appreciated the lack of forced logic or received wisdom in the puzzles, though, because on my second play-through, I only had a vague idea of what was where. This felt about right. I enjoyed winning a trophy at the football stadium, counting fractalseeds to acquire another prize, recharging a judge with the right battery, and helping dancers down from being too happy (the relaxed discoball on doing so made me laugh, too.) It's a good-enough sized game at six-by-six, but not so much that too many possible alternative uses for an item pop up and frustrate you.

An aside about myself: the 2015 game The Problems Compound suffered, according to one tester, from AGI-itis, where you "just take one item and use it on someone else, and so forth." While I'm proud of what I wrote, I was glad to see a different strain of AGI-ish game pop up and be done so effectively. It sort of justifies my decisions to make such a "USE X ON Y" game. But I see the clear and obvious appeal of a game like After-Words. It was the sort of thing I was aiming for, and if you aren't doing anything tricky with the parser, I think it works better in a graphical interface than a textual one.


4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A minimalist map exploration and fetch quest game, October 24, 2021
by MathBrush
Related reviews: 15-30 minutes

This game is a six-by-six grid of locations, each described in two words or less. Each location has something that needs resolving: a missing item, or a problem in a different square. You are the resolver, who will resolve the problems (including the word limit).

It's choice-based, but with mild quadratic complexity. You can choose between LOOKing and INTERACTing with each object in a room, and you gather an inventory of items.

I loved this game, with the only drawback for me being the 'lawnmowering' that felt natural for the mid-game, trying out different items in different rooms. This problem is both alleviated and exacerbated by the helpful text which tells you if you're in the right room. It makes lawnmowering both faster (less painful) but also more appealing.

Overall, I find this a very successful puzzle piece. It reminds me of Weird City Interloper, a bit.

I can also highly recommend Domestic Elementalism, another game by this author from the 2017 IFComp.


2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Lots of inventory puzzles, October 12, 2021

This is the kind of game where there are just a zillion inventory puzzles, so many that the primary puzzle of the game is just remembering which puzzles you've already seen. ("Didn't somebody need an object like that? Where was it??")

None of the puzzles are particularly surprising, and the very sparse writing doesn't really help establish a sense of place, IMO. (This seems like a poetic place, rather than a place that makes any internal sense.)

You can play the game on autopilot if you click the hint button too much; try to keep notes, instead.



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