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The Paper Magician

by Soojung Choi

Speculative Fiction, Fantasy

Web Site

(based on 11 ratings)
3 reviews

About the Story

"The cat leapt for the star." Every time I conjured a cat and a star from the words I penned on paper, I found myself more and more like the cat. Longing for something bright and hopeful, but forever out of my reach.

Until one night when I dreamed for the first time... I met someone who promised to help me escape.

This is the story of a test subject, their encounter with a spirit, and their escape from a mysterious lab.

Game Details


65th Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)


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Number of Reviews: 3
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The Whisker in Darkness by HP Lovecat, December 28, 2023
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2023

Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review

"Mine eyes ope’d, my world 4 walls wide and manifest but as long as my gossamer memories, only the last few secure in my head. In my solitary madness but one path, one sequence of links in an inviolable and ever-tightening chain of fate opened to me. My will was imprisoned by uncaring destiny as surely as my body by my cold, spare cell. I was ensorcelled by a vile presence, denying even semblance of autonomy.

"When the devastating import of my impotence settled on me like a greasy fog, only then did my tormentor take form. First, a hideous mewling, followed by a rasping of pitted, dry tongue on an undulating coat of silken corruption. From the fog it slunk into view, coiling and uncoiling like some biblical judgement, here where the Bible holds no sway. Its horrid, slitted eyes regarded me from beyond reason, its motives unknown and unknowable.

"‘Meow,’ it said.

"In some perverse torment, it feigned liberate me, allowed me a semblance, a mockery of initiative. Giddy with the promise of freedom, I lurched through a maze of non-Euclidian geometries, traversing dimensional boundaries as easily as a madman cackles. Only later, during a surcease in my fever dream, did I pierce the lie, the deliberate and perverse obfuscation of cardinal directionality and a labyrinth that folded in on itself.

"My task was four gates, four slim barriers between everlasting madness and freedom. ‘But speak the Elder Words,’ purred my tormentor, ‘and thy freedom is secured.’ Mine environs were soon revealed as claustrophobic, even in their obscene intertwined passages. Echoes of the Elder Words rang hollowly through the space, slipping through my grasp the more desperately I clutched. In piercing, dissonant tones they evoked mocking images of great power within me - a cruel and despairing counterpoint to my abject inefficacy. Time and again I hammered at the portals, in my desperation forcing my tongue to ever more elaborate variations of the horrid syllables echoing from abandoned rooms. Time and again, my labors for naught.

"I was but mortal man, my desires and thoughts playthings before the awful abyss. Anguished beyond my limits, I pierced the veil and dared stare unblinking into the heart of creation’s grand design. And there, in that void of forbidden knowledge, my sanity shuddered, shriveled and died. In my feverish graspings, I had neglected to start with Capital Letters.

"‘Meow,’ it said.

"My autonomy revealed as futile delusion before an unforgiving syntax, I slumped in defeat. My vile guide entwined me once again in the cold embrace of fate, and the most wretched part of me was grateful. Grateful that but one inevitable path lay before me, my steps as Mechanical as an automaton, ever more quickly pulling me to some new abominable state. And I, limp with surrender, clicked along behind, enslaved by my Intrusive passenger. This was my fate. The Whisker in Darkness deemed it so.

"‘Meow,’ it said."

from The Lurking Feline and Other Tales

Played: 10/23/23
Playtime: 45min, finished via walkthrough
Artistic/Technical ratings: Mechanical, Intrusively Fussy Gameplay
Would Play After Comp?: No, sanity banished, I can but suffer

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:
A riddle wrapped in an enigma, December 15, 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).

I really like riddles. What’s more fun than wordplay, engaging with some cryptic poetry and turning it over and over until it lines up at precisely the right angle and you see the obvious solution that’s been staring you in the face the whole time? I’ve got good memories of a car trip I took with some friends twenty years ago where we killed four or five hours just swapping riddles – somehow I almost stumped everybody with the hoariest of old chestnuts, you know, the whole “a rich man needs it, the poor have more of it than they know what to do with” one, except after fifteen minutes one of my friends looked out the window at a storm-cloud and said “that looks like the Nothing” (you know, from Neverending Story – I told you this was a long time ago) and that shook the answer loose.

That’s the rub, though. Riddles are a good way to pass the time with friends, so you’ve got someone to bounce ideas off of and nothing better to be doing – plus it’s also no big deal if you can’t guess one right, since that just gives someone bragging rights and you can move on to the next one (assuming you’re not going to be a sore loser, skulk after them in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim their prize, then ultimately bite off the finger of their second cousin once removed). In a piece of IF, they’re a high-stakes design element because these forgiving bits of scaffolding disappear: sure, they can go gangbusters, but a distressingly large percentage of the time, if the player doesn’t immediately figure it out, they’re going to grimly stare at it, fail to get any good ideas, try a couple more options, then dispiritedly have recourse to the walkthrough and feel bad about the whole process.

So yeah, if you’re going to have your game hinge on riddles, it’s good to be mindful of the dangers. And also, for the love of God, don’t make the text entry boxes case-sensitive.

Right, now that that’s off my chest we can talk about Paper Magician. This is a short choice-based game where you play a test subject bent on escaping from the lab where they’re confined so they can finally see the things they’ve only read about in books, like the sky. It’s a premise that could be played many different ways, and the game opts for a fairy-tale take. It opens with an extended sequence where you meet a disembodied spirit in a dream who promises to help you escape if you can make them a body – for you have the power to conjure the things you draw or write about into reality. This is a neat idea, and when the writing stays grounded in the protagonist’s perspective, it can be compelling, like this bit where you fantasize about what escape could mean:

"The sensation of placing my hand against a river’s current, running across a field, petting a griffin’s fur. I’ve only truly experienced breathing, the touch of a cold wall, the brush of paper, and the thin solid form of a pencil in my hand."

I like that it’s unclear whether griffins are real in this world, or if, since you only know about what you’ve read in your few books, you just don’t know that they’re mythological. On the other hand, the prose can also feel muddled and vague. Like, it took me a longer time to come to grips with the actually-fairly-simple map of the compound because of stuff like this:

"I see two doors, each one on opposite walls, marked West and South."

Wait, west and south are opposite?

This became a bigger issue as I started to dig into the meat of the game, which involves investigating a few rooms in the lab for clues about the experiments being conducted on you. Like, I’m pretty familiar with video game tropes, but I struggled to make sense of stuff like this:

"As the source of all magic in this world, the Dragon of Origins is omnipresent in different forms. However, it has a core form, within the depths of this world. If we can draw out the core and then implant it into Subject 0013, then it can become our personal reserve of magic."

If it was just a matter of digging into optional ~lore~, I’d have shrugged and moved on, but actually the player needs to understand this stuff to reach the endgame. The final area of the lab is sealed with four locks, each of which poses a particular question about what the scientists are up to and requires an answer to be typed into the waiting text box. So yeah, they’re riddles. While two of the questions were straightforward to figure out, the other two felt substantially more open-ended, and susceptible to several different legitimate answers. For example, one asks what the subject is going to become, which seems to refer to this extract from one of the documents I found (spoiler-blocked since this reveals one of the twists):

(Spoiler - click to show)"Raise and control the subject as our new god. Harness its power as it becomes our own new reserve of magic. A living reservoir."

Another document also uses the phrase (Spoiler - click to show)"figurehead god” to refer to this idea. So I tried that, as well as (Spoiler - click to show)”new god”, “living reservoir”, “reserve of magic” and permutations of all of these. Turns out the answer was just (Spoiler - click to show)"god", but either the hint needed to be much clearer, or alternate solutions should have been accepted. And here’s where the case-sensitivity comes in, because actually that doesn’t work either; it needs to be capitalized. This is the point where I went scurrying for the walkthrough with a frown on my face. It didn’t need to be this way – I’d actually gotten all of the riddles mostly right – but this overly-strict design turned what could have been an engaging, albeit diegetically unjustified, opportunity for the player to demonstrate their understanding of the backstory before entering the endgame into a frustrating exercise in reading the author’s mind.

Said endgame does pick up a bit; the scenario as a whole is fairly underdeveloped (I would have liked to see more uses for the protagonist’s cool magic abilities, and better integration of the backstory elements into the narrative once they figure out what’s going on), and the story just goes exactly where you think it’s going to go given the setup, but it still finishes on a nice note of catharsis. Still, my opinion on riddles remains unchanged: a lovely game to play among friends, but outside of that, they’re a dangerous business.

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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Riddle me... some exact answers, December 12, 2023
by manonamora
Related reviews: ifcomp

The Paper Magician is an interactive game centred around a singular puzzle. In it, you play an unnamed PC, a test subject, whose knowledge goes little further than the four grey walls around them and the books provided by the other scientists. That is until you meet a magical cat who helps you escape.

I’m a sucker for speculative fiction, especially when it has some fantastical elements attached to it! And boy, did this game scratched that itch!

I’m a sucker for speculative fiction, especially when it has some fantastical elements attached to it! And boy, did this game scratched that itch!

Told from the POV of the PC, the game starts with a fairly lengthy introduction, going through the thoughts and experiences of the PC stuck in the test room since they woke up. With no memories prior to their awakening (suspicious!), the PC describes their life in that room, what is around them, what they do, what they feel, what they hope…
It takes a while - until the introduction of the cat - for the story to move on, allowing both the PC and the player more agency and to tackle the main obstacle (escape!). Until then, the story is pretty linear, almost kinetic, with the few and far between choices adding little variation to the screen.

In the second beat, you are able to roam around the 8 available testing rooms, go through documents left behind, and attempt to enter codes to unlock a door and escape. Fail to enter the correct code, and the scientists are averted of your little escapade outside of your room, grabbing you and sending your right back in there.

In and of itself, the puzzle (entering the correct codes) is fairly straight forward. Each password is accompanied with a question related to a bit of information found in the documents. The downside of those textboxes is that they don’t just require the correct string of word(s), it also needs to be formatted the correct way (capitalised). While the first is slightly annoying, as the phrasing of the documents gives some questions a bunch of options for answers, the latter is pretty frustrating - not all words are capitalised…
This adds A Lot of friction to the game, since getting the answer wrong sends you back to your cell.

Another bit that made it more difficult than it should was navigating the little complex. Even with only 8 rooms, the way their locations were defined was a bit confusing - especially when the description mentions opposite walls, but the directions are next to each other ( East - South). Drawing a map will help, especially to remember where each code need to be inserted (in case you fail).

Finally, if you manage to enter the correct codes in the correct places, you will trigger the final third of the game: your escape.
The ending sequence is a bit bittersweet, returning to the more kinetic approach, similar to the introductory part. The events are played out before your eyes, without much interaction required from the player, de-escalating greatly the tension built during the puzzle. But it is also very lovely, and sweet, giving a proper send-off to the story with its resolution.

And yet, I did leave the game wishing for a bit more. Maybe more interactivity in the first part, or another puzzle or two trying to escape the compound (maybe it’s much larger than those 8 rooms), or have more agency in the final confrontation with the scientist (maybe giving them their just desserts.

Still, it was a neat little game. I enjoyed the premise of it quite a bit.

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