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About the Story
Sure, I know Quidditch: expensive and impossibly complex game played by fictional wizards at an imaginary boarding academy. The guys in my house (frat house, that is) came from marginal high schools where we were afraid to identify as wizards to our non-magical classmates. Here in college we've formed our brotherhood. The sport we pursue on Saturdays away from campus is mystic paintball.
Learn spells, hang with the brothers, compete for the title of Paintball Wizard.
Content warning: The brothers help one another through episodic memories of childhood trauma.
13th Place - 29th Annual Interactive Fiction Competition (2023)
Number of Reviews: 3
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(This is a lightly-edited version of a review I posted to the IntFiction forums during 2023's IFComp).
So this game leaves me in something of a quandary (and I don’t just mean that I tried and failed to do this as a theme review rewriting the Who’s Pinball Wizard): I have long been of the opinion that IF can, and should, take on politically and personally important themes, and I also really enjoy comedy puzzlefests too. You could say that’s inconsistent, and sure, I maybe lean a little more on the games with Something To Say when constructing my list of all-time favorite pieces of IF, but the variation between these kinds of ways a text game can be is actually one of the things I love about the scene: in this very Comp, I played To Sea in a Sieve back to back with Gestures Towards Divinity, which ironically was a perfect pairing.
Usually these contrasts are a matter of different games taking dramatically different approaches, though. Thus the flummoxing: Paintball Wizard is a parserlike choice-based puzzle game where your frat-bro protagonist uses a robust magic system to win the eponymous faux-battle. It’s also a narrative intensely focused on the experience of marginalization and abuse, steering into bleak real-world events so directly that they barely count as allegories. It’s a bold mélange whose audacity I admire, but while there are very strong elements in each of the game’s two halves, for me at least I felt too much whiplash to ever get past the incongruity and feel like the game worked as a unified whole.
I guess I’ll start with the nuts and bolts of the system that supports the paintball game. This is a parser-like choice game with metroidvania elements; you navigate around the outdoor arena searching out your opponents in order to zap them into submission, via an interface that allows you to move around, examine particular objects, take a context-specific action, talk to any NPCs present, access your inventory (though this is typically for informational purposes only, there aren’t any USE X ON Y puzzles), or cast a spell. The magic system is syllable-based; working out exactly how it behaves is a fun meta-puzzle that you can start to solve before you’re “meant” to, which is a nice touch, so I won’t spoil it except to say that it reminded me of one of my favorite tabletop RPG systems (for the curious: (Spoiler - click to show)Ars Magica). It’s quite complex – and there are some puzzles that I thought were slightly underclued or wonkily implemented, like the paella-pan necromancy or outdrawing your pledge-master, but you’re eased into things because you start out knowing only one spell, and unlock more as you go.
Thus, while the name led me to expect that the gameplay might be open and dynamic, in actuality it’s fairly linear; the other players don’t move around, just staying in their respective hideout areas waiting for you to get the tools you need to find them and zap them. Those other players – your frat brothers – are also the way that you gain access to new magic, because after you beat them, you can enter their minds to get a flashback that reveals some backstory while teaching you a new spell or two.
This is what brings us to the other side of the equation: in this world, wizards are known to the world at large but are subject to widespread bullying, hatred, and distrust. As a result, these flashbacks are uniformly bleak, sometimes operatically so:
"St Mungo’s is a detention center reserved for children who cannot be adopted, who cannot be fostered, and who will not be accepted at the work farms for normal children. The mission of this grim institution is to hunt down and reform unwanted children who are known or suspected wizards. The other orphans have left for the day, most of them leased laborers at a local glue factory or working in even more horrible places. Some of them actually like the glue factory because they glean extra calories licking spilled horse gelatin off the floor."
You read that and think, “OK, couldn’t get any grimmer”, but turns out the orphanage was an old radium watch-dial factory, and they haven’t bothered to clean up the residue. Other vignettes deal with the immigration system separating children from their parents, redlining and ghetto-formation, and even a lynching. Gameplay-wise, these sequences all use a restricted set of the same mechanics that animate the paintball bits, but instead of creeping around in dark alleys trying to get the drop on your buddy, you’re trying to escape extrajudicial detention or recover a beloved pet before your home is seized. They work well enough on their own terms, with some unique gameplay twists that are actually more interesting than the paintball game. And there’s a narrative link to the frame story, as learning more about his brothers makes the protagonist reciprocate by opening up to them about his own history of trauma, helping reinforce the game’s overall theme of found family.
It all makes sense in the abstract, and I can see the coherent vision that the author is going for. Still, making all these different emotional registers work, and invoking these very real horrors without trivializing them, is a tall order, and I’m not sure the writing is always up to the challenge. There are some odd details or minor errors throughout; nothing too major, but enough to elicit a “huh?”, like the note that you might know more about ants if you’d taken an introduction to ornithology class (should that have been entomology?), or a character bringing their younger sibling into the room for their high-stakes college interview. The game’s focus on bringing dignity to subaltern characters also stands in tension with some mildly culturally-insensitive banter the wizards engage in when they go out for dim sum – so much for solidarity!
The worldbuilding is a little strange too, especially the repeated reference to terms like quidditch or Muggles; it wasn’t clear to me whether this was the result of the wizard community ironically reappropriating these words, or if the setting is supposed to be a more literal alternate take on Harry Potter. And sometimes the needs of gameplay seemed to trump narrative logic, as in the flashback sequence where the mother of one of your frat brothers starts trying to teach him magic in the middle of a crowded immigrant processing center, while trying to pretend they’re not wizards. Paintball Wizard is only rarely clumsy, but I never found it showed the deftness of touch you’d probably need in a game where one minute you’re contemplating the fact that wizards with cancer are denied life-saving medical care because of their identities, and the next you’re trying to figure out what the XYZZY spell does.
So the game’s high-wire act was wobbly throughout, but the moment where I feel like it definitively stopped being able to keep its components from flying apart came close to the end – it’s a sufficiently big twist that it’s worth spoiler-blurring:
(Spoiler - click to show)Turns out the protagonist has a deep dark secret he’s keeping from his brothers, which is that he’s not really a wizard; he manages it all with stage magic and sleight of hand. This is nonsensical on its face – for example, one of the things that led to him being on the outs with his family was a vanishing trick he pulled in the middle of his sister’s interview with a Princeton admissions officer. He says this was “accomplished with a half silvered mirror and a trap door in the floor behind the admin officer’s desk”, but what, he snuck into the office to saw out the trap door the night before the interview? And of course he spends the whole game actually doing magic; the game tries to get around this by having the protagonist protest that “I’ve stolen all my real spell casting knowledge from inside your minds using SPLACK. I’m still a fraud.” But SPLACK is a spell! More tellingly, this makes a mess of the game’s themes; while the wizard community mostly seems to operate as a racial metaphor, it could have also worked if wizarding were a behavior, making it more of a queer metaphor. But saying that you can opt into being a wizard, but doing so is a shameful thing you keep secret means that the protagonist is basically positioned as Rachel Dolezal. And again, the player has to think this stuff through while trying to out-paintball your bros and complete various side-tasks like learning the chapter pledge song and trying to work an off-brand TARDIS.
If Paintball Wizard doesn’t work in its current form, though, it still deserves flowers for making the attempt. It’s cleanly programmed, and has strong puzzle design and a myriad of engaging gameplay systems; it’s also unafraid to take on some really important issues and boasts moments of appealing humanism and openness. Sure, in retrospect it’s got an ill-conceived premise that probably would never have fully worked regardless of whether the specific complaints I levy above had been addressed, but it’s a memorable fiasco that’s a standout game in the Comp, which as far as I’m concerned is its own kind of success.
I like this game, one that I tested it. Even though it’s longer, I replayed the whole thing before this review, and one of the hardest puzzles in my current WIP was influenced by a puzzle in this game that I really liked.
It’s a Twine game with a parser influence. Like Scott Adams style games, the screen is split into an upper and lower part, but unlike them, the bottom remains mostly static while the top changes. The game has quadratic complexity, as you choose an action and then choose a noun to apply it to, which can be an object in -game or yourself on the sidebar.
Gameplay revolves around discovering and using new spells, which are in a two-syllable format. Over time, the spell system develops some complexity and richness.
Story-wise, you are an initiate in a fraternity of wizards, completing your final initiation: a magical paintball tournament. You have to defeat your brothers while also coming to know them.
I’ve seen some concerns in other reviews about the way you get to know them: by casting a spell that lets you live out other people’s memories, generally their most traumatic. The original version of the game did not include explicit consent for that action, while the most recent does.
From my point of view (which is subjective), this game is clearly fantasy. Not just wizards and spells fantasy (though it has that), but also a fantasy of friendship and understanding. The dream of having a circle of friends so close that you can share anything between you. In fact, there are a lot of clues in the paintball game itself that the whole thing is kind of a setup, a way for people to get to know you; it’s really quite possible that this mind sharing was intended.
Except…parts of the game indicate that the mind spell is newly rediscovered and exciting.
But that’s one aspect of the game I only really noticed now as a player. It’s really trying hard to tell three different stories at once:
1-A goofy game of paintball between fraternity friends with whacky spells and silly pledge rules
2-A dark and serious exploration of humanity’s injustice to those who are different from them
3-A heartwarming tale of acceptance and overcoming insecurity.
So I think part of the problem other reviewers identified isn’t so much that the idea of furrowing through someone’s mind is inherently bad for a story, but that the significance of events and characters takes on really different shades of meaning depending on which part of the story they’re in. Riptide, the frat brother in a treehouse, is a comic individual; Riptide, the oppressed child who essentially experienced torture, is not (I think that was the right character, but I’m not sure).
Overall, though, I enjoyed each subplot separately and found them worthwhile, but I’m not sure they coalesce into a greater whole (something I’ve been concerned about with my own game, which has a similar mix of the flippant and the dark).
Puzzle-wise, it’s outstanding, but also very difficult. I’d likely chalk up the low number of reviews to the puzzles, which are among the most difficult I’ve seen for choice based games of this size, requiring several leaps of intuition and a lot of experimentation. I had to get help several times on my first playthrough, but none this time around.
Overall, I found this satisfying.
Adapted from an IFCOMP23 Review
Part five of the review sub-series “Twinesformers: Parsers in disguise.” The latest reviewed work to derive gameplay from parser traditions, but bend Twine to the task. In gameplay, I found this to be on the rough side of the spectrum. There is a main story pane, which has links to interesting objects inside location descriptions, and a side pane which contains command buttons (Explore, Go, Action, Talk, Cast). You bounce back and forth between location pane and command pane, often needing two or three clicks to get anything done. In my head, this seemed like an interesting paradigm to maybe apply to Texture, building on what All Hands showed us was possible. Here, not only was it clumsy, it was also… visually unappealing? New links could spring in above the text in a disruptive and laundry-listy way.
The spell system has a nice idea behind it, but similarly suffers inelegant UI. You learn spells throughout the game, eventually discovering (Spoiler - click to show)prefix/suffix combos can be recombined to do new things! That is a really cool mechanism, narratively well timed! It is undermined a bit by text choice. You get SO many of them, it is almost impossible to keep them all in your head, so casting becomes a (Spoiler - click to show)lawnmower of combining sub-words until you get the effect you want. The prefixes at least have some kind of mnemonic juice to them, the suffixes felt totally, unintuitively random. The puzzles are mostly straightforward, more pushing at the interface model than brain burning, but there is a nifty time loop one.
In isolation, these gameplay challenges kind of straddle the Notable/Intrusive boundary. Against a bland narrative they would be the dominant takeaway and tip Intrusive. Boy oh boy is this narrative not bland!
It throws a lot of things against the wall, without having any idea how to unify them. The main narrative tone is light bro-comedy, a fraternity of wizards literally called BRO engaged in a low stakes paintball game. It is twisting Potter lore for comedy, but also background, and can’t decide which it wants more. Sometimes Potter lore is fictional, sometimes real depending on the needs of the scene. It is also an allegory for persecution and prejudice, diving into dissonantly serious flashbacks of disturbing magic-user abuse by not-even-thinly-misnamed Muggles. It kind of inverts the whole Potter engagement with these topics without a lot of thought or control or comment on the inspiration’s takes. It also feels a bit off. The wizards in question are uniformly white dudes. Casting them as an oppressed minority has kind of a squicky, coopted ‘no, I’m the victim here’ vibe that doesn’t sit right. Or it wouldn’t EXCEPT…
It is ALSO, and this is my favorite, weirdly homo-erotic! There are almost no females in the game, barring one whom the protagonist showed complete ambivalence toward in the face of her clear romantic interest. The frat bros are super emotionally supportive of each other, a tack not typically associated with sexist Animal House vintage comedies. And OH those wand descriptions. Yeah, wands. Y’know sometimes wands are just cigars. Deeehfinitely not here though. Paintball attacks are openly, gleefully ejaculatory. The spell to paint an opponent is SPLORT. One character’s wand is, and I’m spoilering this not because it’s not great, but because you’ll laugh more if you find it while playing, (Spoiler - click to show)TURGID. It is sold I think by the completely deadpan delivery. It’s not QUITE clear the narrative knows what it’s doing here, even though it definitely does. This playful comedy subtext lends deniability to the ‘poor, persecuted white dudes’ angle. Not a lot, but maybe just enough.
So I guess it’s a gay Potter prejudice-trauma bro-comedy? Well now that I see it written out, there’s almost certainly slashfic of this out there. Despite its loose stitching and contradictions, I kinda love it for that? I think the tone saves it - even its most dire parts focus on the puzzle in play, backgrounding the worst excesses in shadow. Kind of. Usually. Also, isolating the harder themes to flashback provides a narrative break from the lighter, subtext-oblivious paintball sections. You can see I’m bending over backwards to try to justify this strange, strange melange. I’ll tell you one thing, with all this going on, for sure the UI paradigm was NOT my main focus as I was playing!
Just too internally dissonant for Engaging, but raging, bouncing Sparks of Joy showering the place, just splattering all over a Notably intrusive UI.
I am so, so sorry for that. I am an adolescent.
Playtime: 2hr, not finished, 4/5 foes, 4 medallions
Artistic/Technical ratings: Sparks of Joy, Notable kludgy interface, bonus point for unhinged narrative stew
Would Play After Comp?: Yeah, I kinda think I have to… (oh no, I just, I have no excuse…) …finish.
Artistic scale: Bouncy, Mechanical, Sparks of Joy, Engaging, Transcendent
Technical scale: Unplayable, Intrusive, Notable (Bugginess), Mostly Seamless, Seamless
Outstanding Twine Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2023 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the best Twine game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members. Eligible games...
Outstanding Underappreciated Game of 2023 by MathBrush
This poll is part of the 2022 IFDB Awards. The rules for the competition can be found here, and a list of all categories can be found here. This award is for the most underappreciated game of 2023. Voting is open to all IFDB members....