by Alex Harby profile


Web Site

Go to the game's main page

Member Reviews

Number of Reviews: 7
Write a review

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Heartfelt clowning, January 4, 2024
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 alpha tested this game).

One of the things I worry about, as a critic, is turning into one of those people who says everything under the sun is a liminal space. It’s a cool-sounding phrase, sure, but it’s one of those concepts that can easily become a crutch, allowing one to say something that seems impressive but doesn’t communicate much beyond “this is a place that’s between other places”, which for sufficiently loose values of “place”, “between”, and “other” can be made to fit whatever you like.

Having written the above paragraph I am now seized with concern that actually I’m already one of those people and just haven’t noticed. …but OK, I just searched my IFDB-posted reviews and only 3 out of 387 use the phrase, referring to trains, bus stops, and public transit, which seems fairly restrained. So I think that means I can burn some of that banked capital and say you know, when you think about it, traveling circuses sure are liminal spaces. At a basic level, they move from place to place, but there’s also a temporal component, because when they’re pitched up somewhere and you visit, you’re sandwiched between its past nonexistence before they came into town and its future nonexistence once they leave. It’s unsurprising, then, that the circus is often positioned as a site of transformation: shuffling through my mental inventory of circus stories at random, you’ve got Big, where Tom Hanks literally enters one a boy and leaves a man; sticking to IF, Ballyhoo sees the player character lunge at the chance to stop being an anonymous punter and take on a new life of adventure.

For the people who work at a circus, though, it certainly can’t function as a one-off engine for change. In reality I’m sure for many it’s just a job like any other, but from a literary point of view, the approach taken by Honk! seems exactly right: the winning cast of this top-notch comedy puzzler are predominantly queer in one way or other, but comfortably so, at peace with an existence that the narrow might say is perennially in-between more conventional alternatives. The main character, a clown named Lola, takes hormone pills; her lover Freda is the circus strongwoman, gigantic and mighty and tender. The magician Adagio changes gender as part of her act, and the goose-trainer, Ken Lawn, clocks as neurodivergent (beyond his questionable decision to spend lots of time with an animal as ill-tempered as a goose as part of his profession, I mean). Against this, the Ringmaster seems a plain-vanilla kind of guy, but hey, he’s nice so we can let him skate by.

Actually pretty much everybody is nice, even initially-prickly Ken – except for the Phantom who’s haunting the circus and sabotaging everyone’s acts. The main business of the game involves assisting the three other main characters in their performances, seeing how the Phantom tries to wreck them, and foiling his plans to keep the shows moving (they’re endlessly repeatable until you succeed, this being a merciful game). This is a lovely structure, since it gives you multiple avenues to work on at once without any interdependences, so if you’re momentarily stymied you’ve almost always got another avenue to switch to. It also makes the player feel more proactive than in many parser games, since in practice you wind up scoping out the carnival grounds, then trying the acts to see what the Phantom’s going to do, then going back to the free-roaming section to hatch your plan and prepare.

Honk! is also among the funniest games in the Comp. The author’s a dab hand with farce – pretty much every scene involving the assholish goose left me giggling, for example:

“Completely asleep!” marvels Lawn. “I don’t believe it! How did yaargh fnaaargh,” he continues as the goose wakes up and bites his nose.

But there are also really good laconic, tossed-off jokes:

“It was your day off, you got back late, maybe you didn’t hear from anyone yet,” says the Ringmaster. “The circus is haunted now."

And the best gags to my mind are the ones that play their hand slow, telegraphing the punch line to the player and then drawing out the windup longer and longer and longer until an initially-good joke becomes sublime; it’s an impressive bit of comedic legerdemain that’s totally appropriate to the setting.

The puzzles themselves are a strong bunch, too. Most aren’t too hard, requiring just enough forethought to feel clever; there’s maybe one puzzle that’s a little too hard because it tips into overly-cartoonish territory (Spoiler - click to show)(the bit where a helium balloon makes the rabbit float upwards) but even that is mostly delightful and funny. In fact for all that it’s all mostly standard medium-dry-goods manipulation, the puzzles have a very strong thematic focus – the tools of your trade involve pie-throwing, making balloon animals, and playing around with magic tricks – that make Honk! truly feel like a circus game, not just a game taking place at a circus.

That strong theme comes into play in the ending, too; after a deliriously-escalating climactic sequence, the game’s final text ties a surprisingly-affecting bow around everything the game’s played with – queerness, found family, laughter, killjoys using the law to stop people doing stuff they don’t like. While it never lets its message get in the way of the fun, Honk! is the rare silly parser puzzler that actually has something to say, positing that people who live in liminal spaces deserve a place to call home, too.

Was this review helpful to you?   Yes   No   Remove vote  
More Options

 | Add a comment