Blood Island

by Billy Krolick


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Number of Ratings: 12
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A meta reality-tv/slasher movie mash up that goes too heavy on the meta, December 22, 2022
by Mike Russo (Los Angeles)
Related reviews: IF Comp 2022

(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2022's IFComp).

We are all, every one of us, unique perfect miracles, with thoughts, experiences, beliefs, feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears, (and bodies) that combine in unrepeated and unrepeatable ways to make us the individuals we are. But simultaneously, sometimes demography is destiny, and am I am betting that like 99% of the people who share my particular niche – early 40s bookishly-nerdy guy – also like House of Leaves. For those of y’all who haven’t read it, it’s an early-aughts pomo horror story that centers on a documentary made by a man whose family house is being overwritten by – or perhaps always connected to – an infinite, empty labyrinth. But the story of the documentary is surrounded by several other layers of narrative and commentary, including a film scholar who deconstructs the story as fast as the documentarian constructs it, which are set off through various cool typographical and word-art flourishes.

This is maybe an odd way to start a review of Blood Island, a choice-based reality show/slasher flick mash-up, but in some ways they’re doing a lot that’s similar. Blood Island’s engagingly-written narrative also centers on a horror movie (the slasher stuff pre-empts the reality TV, obviously enough), and also includes a bunch of media criticism intended to prod the audience the think about the tropes that it’s deploying. But unlike House of Leaves, it mashes all the different things it’s doing into a single narrative thread rather than imposing any kind of structure, and it neglects the emotional core of the characters at the heart of its story. It’s also way too excited about the media studies stuff, leaving the whole package unbalanced, as though the Camille Paglia chapter of House of Leaves took over half the book. When Blood Island is doing the thing that it’s trying to do, it works pretty well – but it spends way too much time talking about the thing rather than doing it.

So what is the thing? Well, as the genre mash-up indicates, it’s looking at the commonalities between slasher flicks and reality shows about dating – and spoiler alert, many of these are about gender. Thus the setup: you play a new contestant on a reality show where you’re isolated in a lovely beachy paradise with a bunch of other hot singles, and if you’re ever not coupled up, you’re at risk of getting sent home. But the previous season of the show was interrupted when a masked maniac stuck a cake knife into the back of one of the cast members, so as you’re gearing up to find love (or lust) you also need to worry about whether the killer’s also returned.

It’s no spoiler to confirm that yes, they have. As a result, there’s an engaging split in gameplay, because even as you’re picking which of the various bachelors and bachelorettes you want to get to know better (you can choose any gender identity and sexual orientation for your character you like; the game doesn’t care a jot, which is an enlightened attitude though does make scenes like the one where the other contestants are staring at your wet-tee-shirt-clad, heaving chest land a little a differently when you’ve decided your character is a middle-aged dude in mediocre shape) you’re also getting glimpses of the killer and deciding how to evade or confront them. It doesn’t take long for things to escalate drastically, with set-piece dates – a romantic scuba-dive! – turning into set-piece murder attempts – uh oh, there’s chum in the water!

Anyone who’s heard the phrase “Final Girl” will get why these two genres are being smashed together. The producers of these entertainments have a clear view of the mix of voyeurism and sexual moralizing that they expect their audiences to bring to the table, for one thing, and the process of winnowing a diverse cast down until there’s just an attractive white girl standing I’d assume plays out similarly in both.

Unfortunately, rather than juxtaposing these elements and creating space for the player to tease out the parallels, the game wants to like engage you in continued Socratic dialogue about this stuff to make sure you aren’t missing anything. Very frequently, the action will screech to a halt so one character or another can ask you why you think people like horror movies, of whether you think the killer is going to intentionally target people who drink and have sex, or what the formula to a successful reality TV show is. In a few places, this is OK – it makes sense for the contestants on one of these shows to reflect on how they work – but when these conversations are happening when you’re still bleeding from barely fending off an attack it feels deeply artificial. Beyond this being a suicidally bad idea from a strategic point of view, there’s no diegetic reason connecting the killer’s behavior to movies – it’s like spending your time unpacking the storytelling tropes in the Godfather trilogy when the real-life mob has put out a hit on you.

It could be the case that this is intentional, that the author is trying to undermine the emotional engagement of the various scenarios the game creates. Some late-game plot elements maybe reinforce this idea: (Spoiler - click to show)so first, the character you’ve spent the most time with gets brutally murdered ¾ of the way through the game, which tanked my emotional engagement because I didn’t care about any of the rest of them, and knew that I’d survive to the end. And second, if most people in my specific demographic know House of Leaves, just about everybody in my age group knows Scream, and are probably going to think about it when an early sequence involves identifying the “rules” of horror movies – so having the twist here be exactly the same as the twist in Scream seems like a really questionable choice if you wanted to maintain tension. But I don’t understand why that would be the case! Indeed, when the Postmodern Studies 101 stuff recedes, some of the dating pieces can be cutely fun, and the killer’s various stratagems for getting at you often exhibit the mix of viciousness and humor you see in good slasher movies (or so I’ve heard; I’ve actually seen very few, I must confess). As a result, I can’t help wondering what a version of this story where the media crit stuff was separated out would look like – dare I say that the “Stateful Narration” approach Dorian Passer has taken in his recent games might be an interesting fit? – not only would that make the narrative aspects more compelling, I suspect they’d also prompt the player to engage more with the bigger questions the author is trying to frame, since they’d no longer be at war with the story.

Before closing, I have one more critique of one detail of Blood Island’s implementation, but it risks ruining the game – I wish I didn’t know it – so I’m going to spoiler-block it. Read at your peril.

(Spoiler - click to show)So in my playthrough, I chose to romance/make friends with Mona, who’s described as a jaded cynic – I am not a reality TV person so focusing on someone who was also not in the tank for this stuff seemed appealing, plus she’s Middle Eastern like my wife is, I dunno maybe I have a type. Anyway! I was surprised to find that despite her initially-crusty demeanor, she very quickly seemed to click with me and starting talking about e.g. how romantic the starlit night. On a hunch, I tried starting over and dragging the bookish, 20-something ingenue on dates, and sure enough, but for a very, very few bits of introductory writing, everything down to the specific dialogue appears to be the same regardless of who you pick. This even extends to changing the identity of the killer, so that the story plays out in exactly the same way, with almost exactly the same way, each time. I’m not one to harp on authors for not spending time writing a bunch of words no-one will ever see – I loved the completely-linear January, for example – but if the game is asking the player to engage with its characters and framing the choice of which one to build a relationship with as significant, having their personalities be completely interchangeable feels like a dirty trick indeed, a betrayal of players who approach the premise sincerely.

- E.K., December 7, 2022

- Cerfeuil, November 30, 2022

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Monster Mash-up, November 26, 2022
by JJ McC
Related reviews: IFComp 2022

Adapted from an IFCOMP22 Review

I am a big horror movie nerd, and marrying deep genre love to a reality show setting? We’re firmly in catnip territory here.

Billy’s informal writing voice perfectly capitalized on my goodwill. They adopted a confident, playful and straightforward tone that quickly sucked me into this goofy world with a time-honored genre trope, deftly executed. Throughout the game there are just enough winks to keep the wry feel, but not so dense that they erode the narrative tension. It was a nice and consistent tone achievement. I also admired that a broad range of human gender and sexuality seemed to be accommodated in NPC casting and player choices, and done so organically and naturally. (At least for the choices I made)

The playful voice is most evident when engaging the NPC contestants. They are a varying mix of familiar archetypes and archetype subversions. I think this is a crucial choice actually, as the cast is somewhat large and all introduced at once. Without an initial archetype hook it would be impossible to keep them all in your head. I wouldn’t say any of them are truly 3- dimensional but the story doesn’t need them to be. Really the story only needs 1 dimension and still delivers between 1 1/2 to 2 1/2 depending on character.

Billy’s menu-based interactions were also well done. Which is good, as it is the driving mechanism of the game. When I encounter this system in video games it is rare that I don’t chafe under the constraints of responses and reactions I want to give, but the author has failed to accommodate. Or worse, cues that suggest a response I want to make but instead deliver something I NEVER intended when clicked. Blood Island menu cues are refreshingly concise and clear, and at least for me, never betrayed expectations. It feels ungenerous (in a way Blood Island never is) to quibble that missing responses did crop up. I mean it as a compliment when I say this was infrequent enough that it felt jarring when it happened, as my expectations had been consistently raised and met. It was those relatively few times that caused me to “Mostly Seamless” it. Too, the game’s responses to player choices were smoothly integrated into text blocks, both in format and voice, with none of the jarring “<<CHAR_NAME>> heard your answer and is <<CHAR_EMOTION>> at you.”

I won’t talk about the plot, obvi, except to say that it embraces deconstructionist horror ala Scream/Leslie Vernon/Final Girls (the movie) and integrates Final Girl (the trope) critical commentary in an engaging if not completely organic way. At least for me. This is totally my jam. I could see where someone less taken with the source inspiration might find the commentary clunkily intrusive. Let them write their own review, I dug it!

It was also noteworthy that the setpieces had propulsive urgency, twists and shocks and strong feeling of stakes in them, as the best of its inspirations do. Is there an M Night Shyamalan “oh snap no way!” moment? No. But there are heaping helpings of “yeah you did!” smiles and fist pumps. It is an old saw that horror/comedies only elevate when they succeed equally in both. If I assume that would also apply to reality/meta commentaries, Billy is tackling all FOUR of those. They succeed with a thoroughly winning light, wry and generous touch.

Played: 10/4/22
Playtime: 1.5hrs, finished
Artistic/Technical rankings: Engaging/Mostly Seamless
Would Play Again? Definitely! So much comfort food.

Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless

- Jens Leugengroot (Germany), November 22, 2022

- Mr. Patient (Saint Paul, Minn.), November 20, 2022

- OverThinking, November 16, 2022

- Karl Ove Hufthammer (Bergen, Norway), November 15, 2022

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
What could possibly go wrong?, November 14, 2022

In a nutshell: Slasher horror + Reality TV + Dating sim = Blood Island

This is the only ChoiceScript game in the 2022 IFComp. Blood Island begins with a great start. You are watching a video of a contestant from the previous season of a reality TV show being stabbed by someone wearing a Barbie mask. The video ends and Chloe, a manager, enters the room. That’s because you are a contestant for the upcoming season of Passion in Paradise!

Blood Island cleverly replicates the qualities we recognize in romance-oriented reality TV shows but adds a unique and gruesome twist while maintaining an underlying light-heartedness. Even if you do not typically like horror or romance, Blood Island may surprise you.

Scenes usually focus on character interaction. A chunk of gameplay choices is reserved for discussing the nature of horror and reality TV with the other characters. While I would have liked to have a few more action-oriented choices about doing instead of talking (both are valuable), I like how the gameplay introduces the player to key ideas about popular culture and then pitches the concept of a Final Girl as part of the discussion.

We learn that a Final Girl (or Final Guy/equivalent) is more than just someone who is the sole person standing when the smoke clears. It is also a series of designated characteristics packaged by social expectations, often with gender norms. The traditional idea of a Final Girl has qualities ranging from drinking habits (or lack of), expectations about purity, graciousness, beauty, all the way to having the right name. Interestingly enough, the player can pursue an inverted version of a Final Girl to challenge the tried-and-true mold.

There are stats although they are only shown at the end of the game which I usually do not see in ChoiceScript games. I guess the point to use it in a more reflective manner since (Spoiler - click to show) the game wraps up with the player being interviewed about their whole experience.

Some encounters have a measure for endurance. If a player has a high enough stat more choices are available. If it is lower, some of the choices will be greyed out and unavailable. For example, (Spoiler - click to show) when the player is swimming from the shark as fast as they can, their choices are about having enough endurance to out swim the shark. These choices look like:

Keep swimming.

Keep swimming!

Swim harder!

Swim like hell!

Swim, damn it!

Don't. Stop. Swimming!!!

If you are in good shape, most of these options will be available. Otherwise, the faster options are greyed out. The game seemed to take your previous gameplay choices into consideration. If you partake in less healthy habits the game will say, “You're not exactly out of shape, but you also haven't been making the healthiest choices since you joined the show,” whereas healthy choices result in, “You take care of yourself, and it's paying off.” I thought that if I played my cards right and increased my performance, I could out swim the shark. But no matter what I did the last choice of, “Don’t. Stop. Swimming!!!” would always be greyed out.
The outcome of the scene remained the same.

If there is any underlying content, I am more than ready to go digging for it, but so far, the game sticks to the same course no matter what I do.

I was hoping that the game would indulge the reality TV show premise for a little longer because it is not often that I see this envisioned in interactive fiction. Passion in Paradise tasks contestants to entering a relationship by the end of each week to avoid from being disqualified. Now that I think of it, if this were a real TV show it would probably have more than eight contestants total, but this size works perfectly for this game. Contestants also receive date cards that details a fun excursion they can go on with another contestant. The gameplay never goes past round 1, nor does it reach the point where a contestant is eliminated- (Spoiler - click to show) that is, eliminated according to the show’s rules. By other means? Watch out. The stranger with the Barbie mask makes several appearances in this game.

Spoilers! (Spoiler - click to show) I thought it was sad at how the person you choose for the one and only date on the show dies but if you think about it most of the contestants (and even some non-contestants) get slaughtered in the last scene as well. Takes the idea of Final Girl literally. After all, this is a moment for slasher horror. In the epilogue the player receives a phone call about returning to Passion in Paradise. Considering how many contestants died, I am surprised that the show still manages to continue for another season.

There are seven romanceable contestants, and their introduction to the show is spot-on in creating a reality TV opening montage effect. What frustrated me about these intriguing contestants was how interchangeable the dialog and character interactions were after the opening chapters. They respond the exact same way for everything without any consideration of their unique characteristics that are portrayed when they are introduced at the start of the game reality TV-style. There are certain situations where I figured that Nick would have a different response than, let’s say, Mona, but the writing is almost always the same aside from their names. I am being a bit unreasonable since it is a lot of work to write content for seven separate contestants but please understand that the writing is well done, and it will take time before you exhaust the content.

Now, I know the game is playing around with stereotypical concepts, particularly with the trope of an ideal character that the audience adores, but it also seems like all the NPCs are equally enamored by the player, which feels flimsy. The relationship between a Final Girl/Guy PC and NPCs almost skims the Mary Sue trope which is partly the point in Blood Island. Afterall, you are the package deal. I feel that just because a contestant wins the hearts and minds of viewers does not mean their fellow contestants automatically feel the same way. The NPCs are also competitive contestants who, unlike a TV audience, directly interact with the protagonist and have a chance to form a deeper opinion of them.

Final Girl or not, even if you try stir up drama, and there are opportunities to do so, they forget about it a scene later. It makes me wonder, (Spoiler - click to show) is it even possible to get them to reject me when I choose them for the date card activity?

Also, just for the heck of it, I decided to try an alternate path. The game almost hints at a (Spoiler - click to show) possible Chloe, although I cannot say that I like her character, route. Is it possible to go through with it?

Final (get it? Fine.) thoughts
I have played two of the author's games and I noticed a skill for taking a potentially seedy premises and making it work. Horror game in a retirement home? Slasher horror on a reality TV show? The author pulls it off. (By the way, consider playing The Waiting Room from last year’s competition. Horror with a human touch.)

I was similarly impressed with Blood Island. This game offers a wild time. Your first playthrough is exhilarating and will likely leave you reaching for seconds. After some experimentation the allure fades, but there is enough content to sustain the player for a while. Its discussion of the Final Girl concept is especially memorable.

Question: If someone (Spoiler - click to show) stabs you with a cake knife in your stomach all the way to the hilt, would you survive that? It is surprising at how the human body can withstand major injuries but that sounds like it would test the limits. Then again, perfect for a slasher story.

- Sobol (Russia), November 4, 2022

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Choicescript version of a dating show/slasher flick, October 22, 2022
by MathBrush
Related reviews: about 1 hour

This is, I believe, an adaptation of an award-winning screenplay by the author, and I think it shows in the quality of the writing.

In this game, you are invited to a reality show the season after someone got stabbed by a Barbie-masked attempted murderer. This season, everyone is back, so the would-be killer is among your group.

Gameplay is split between some classic-style romance gameplay (who do you talk with? who do you ask on a date? etc.) and running from or fighting with the killer.

The tone isn't always realistic, but it feels like a stylistic choice, making it more like a slasher flick. People get injuries that would be deadly in real life but continue to run or talk for a long time after; tv producers seem not worried about liability, etc. It makes for a slightly surreal game that puts you at a level removed from the experience, better able to contemplate bigger questions like gender roles in film and why audiences like terrible things.

Overall, I felt like the writing and agency worked well. I played a ton of Choicescript games last year and I would say this one is above-average in its use of the system.

This is a more mature game, with some profanity, a large amount of violence/blood and some mild/network-friendly sexuality.

While each individual part of this game is excellent, it didn't completely gel for me; a part of that was that I chose to be a cis het male and the game seemed to anticipate I'd be a woman, including people staring at my heaving chest and so on. That's probably intentional, given that the game is questioning these very assumptions, but making intelligent and thoughtful statements doesn't always translate to compelling gameplay. By and large though this is an excellent effort and one I believe most people would enjoy if they are not turned off by slasher flicks.

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Will you become...A Final Girl???, October 12, 2022
by Tito Valenz
Related reviews: IF COMP -- 2022

Blood Island by Billy Krolick

I think this might have been the most entertaining entry from the 2022 comp I’ve played up to this point. The premise is pure Tito Valenz catnip: you play as an entrant on a reality dating show–set on an island, yabish–with a selection of hot singles being stalked by a killer with a cake knife (not a spoiler–the cake knife appears very, very early). The scenes flowed into each other effortlessly with no wasted moments. I was completely engaged, start to finish. When I was done, I immediately played through two more times to look for different results. I do wish there was more variety as far as what you can make happen–especially since there is HEAVY emphasis that EVERY choice matters (not all do). This is also another choice-based story, and you know how I much I enjoy that convenience. It’s a longer game, but the mechanics help it breeze right along. I also appreciated that the author is clearly a student of the producer manipulation these shows are known for: when you take another character on a date, there is a seafood lunch set out, but of course, the couple is NEVER allowed to actually eat the food. That’s for display only! So I will be rating this one highly and I give it my recommendation. Unless you don’t care for dating sims. Or horror trope deconstruction. Or slasher films. Or really, just talking about horror movies in general.

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