2014 IFcomp Reviews, by Katherine Morayati

Hello everyone! I’ll be reviewing the comp games in this thread, more or less as I play them.

A note: Some reviews will be cross-posted to my blog once I finish reviews; almost exclusively, these will be the pieces I recommend. (In my other life I’m a music writer, and my blog is mostly read by music-writer-adjacent types. Happily, after years of enthusing half to myself, a lot of them seem to be interested in IF! Which is why I’d rather not inundate them with a lot of cruft.) Otherwise, all my reviews will be accessible in one place here.

Another note: As I mentioned, in my other life I’m a writer and editor. I probably value writing more than most people – yes, yes, in which sense of the word – and IF has far more of it than comparable mediums. If the writing is good, I’m exponentially more likely to forgive a game’s design quirks (to be charitable), kludges (to be less charitable), or brokenness (to be truthful and/or rude.) Similarly, if the writing is bad, there’s going to be a score ceiling that even the best-designed games won’t break.

A final note: I’m going to be editing these as the comp goes on – not to change the score (barring truly drastic realizations later on), but to get the writing out of first-forum-post draft state. Perfectionism is a horrible affliction. So is Muphry’s Law.

Caroline, by Kristian Kronstrand

[spoiler]The plot: You’re having dinner with this girl Caroline, and despite a few hiccups – awkward flirting, bad poetry, evasiveness, possible religiosity – you score a second date! And then she takes you to a creepy park church, tells you you’re gonna be a father – tomorrow! – to the next Messiah. Then you have really weird sex and I guess maybe die? Bitches, man.

The format: A quasi-choice structure; at each juncture you’re presented with two or three choices (or just one), but you type your choice into a parser. This is, I feel, an attempt to sidestep the parser/choice debate by having it both ways: the streamlined, accessible structure (and lower writing/design burden) of choice games, plus the jolt of player agency when you actually have to type out ACCEPT BLESSING, with that thought good and processed, rather than clicking a link you might not have fully read. This turns out to be both a boon and detriment.

The review:

Name a story “Caroline,” and you’re promising that the titular character will be important, or at least compelling. So who is Caroline? She is an assistant editor in publishing, yet she somehow has a studio apartment in midtown, with “huge windows.” (Maybe this is my unsuccessfully-tamped-down New York-centricism speaking, but given the job I assume she’s in an anonymized version of Manhattan, and fuck no an assistant editor wouldn’t be able to afford a nice studio in midtown Manhattan. She’d be lucky to afford a crappy studio in Inwood.) She has lots of books, as assistant editors generally do, but the only one that gets mentioned is the Bible; a writer could pull this off by imagining the PC’s unfamiliar with anything else, but this never happens. She puts on Dark Side of the Moon on a first date, as young women generally don’t, unless maybe it’s the kind of first date that’s “hey, let’s smoke a bowl and watch the Wizard of Oz ironically… at my place,” not the kind that’s “let’s make a classy dinner together… at my place.” Oh, and she is willing to invite a near-stranger to her place after a platonic, couple-y first date.

In short, Caroline does not seem like a real person who exists in the real world, which made it somewhat hard to believe anything about her story. There’s no “there” there. As it turns out, this is a real trait of people who recruit for cults – pleasant agreeability, concealing hollowness – which might lend Caroline a bit of accidental plausibility, but that requires substantial benefit of the doubt that the prose does not inspire. In particular, very little of the narration indicates that the PC is attracted at all to Caroline, certainly not enough to join her creepy Jesus cult on date two. You can flirt or be flirted with, or not, and the expected physical reactions will ensue; you can kiss her or not, listen to her poetry or not, but you’ll never know from reading why this particular woman provokes such a sudden and rash attraction. (You barely even know what she looks like! Some games are heavy on the male gaze – more on this in a forthcoming review – but if anything Caroline was too light.) It’s almost – to be uncharitable – as if the writer assumed that any old young woman in publishing on a date with the player would be an attractive proposition by default, and let the entire premise of the game hinge on the unstated assumption.

In fact, Caroline is light on almost everything. There’s not much story – first comes second date, first comes marriage – and thus not much material to become invested in. The narration is similarly minimal – beginning in medias res mid-date, proceeding unceremoniously through nooky and ceremonies and nookier nooky – and the prose withers under such a spotlight. Airplane-food jokes about a woman ordering everything on the menu and a series of pseudo-philosophical questions like “Would you rather kill or be killed?” (that, as far as I can tell, affect nothing in the narrative and come too early in the story to really work as reflective choice) do not cut it. At one point you can tell off the cult by loudly proclaiming from their pulpit God doesn’t exist; with no prior indication that the PC was an atheist, or creeped out by the mess beyond “wow, this sure is early to spring the robes and shit,” it comes off as an authorial soapbox and does not cut it. A general lack of copy editing throughout does not cut it. The climax of the story being beige-prose erotica about Caroline’s conception frenzy (which, if you take a certain path, becomes outright rape) definitely does not cut it, being a little too reminiscent of the proverbial medieval cautionary tale of women and their infinite lustful snares once you fit the story pieces together. Bleh.

It’s not that this story can’t work. There are basically three ways you can do this; possibly a combination is best:

  • Write more. What seems implausible and sudden on a second date would seem a lot more plausible after a month, or a year, or a marriage. The time frame isn’t the issue so much as the quantity of narration; the more you spend with someone, the more you might warm to them, which applies to people as much as players. It’d also make the linear narrative seem natural, like fate or coercion or what the PC would want, rather than a contrived But Thou Must railroading device.

  • Characterize Caroline more. Your first time bringing on the Book of Revelation better be with someone special. More to the point, if your main character is supposedly attractive and/or compelling enough to dive headlong into the occult for, she better be compelling; as it stands, she isn’t even compelling enough for a second date.

  • Characterize the protagonist; specifically, as the kind of man who would blindly follow a young woman he knows basically nothing about into cult oblivion. (This is, in fact, the exact type that real-life cults prey on.) Perhaps he’s lonely. Perhaps he’s grieving. Perhaps it’s been a while. Perhaps he’s given to sudden projecting crushes at first sight. Perhaps he’s just horny and a bit of a cad and Jesusfucking is still, after all, fucking. As it stands, I pretty much filled in those details mentally, as it was the only way the plot made sense. This strikes me as less than ideal.

SCORE: 2[/spoiler]

AlethiCorp, by Simon Christiansen

[spoiler]The plot: Work for AlethiCorp! Become a cog in a machine made of Dilbert and 1984-esque parts! Spy on people! Ignore informants! Ruin lives! Get promoted, or get surveillance-shitcanned!

The format: A standalone website. You “register,” then interact with the site’s intranet to play the game. It’s not a completely new mechanic – imagine a futuristic version of Digital: A Love Story – but it’s new for comp purposes. Some people have complained about the offsite play, mostly for reasons of “I don’t trust this why do I have to register where is my data and password going whyyyyy,” but I didn’t mind. It’s the most innovative presentation method I’ve encountered so far, it makes sense as a mechanic (if you’ve never worked anywhere that conducts business solely via intranet… you’re lucky), and it’d adapt very well to polish and possibly even commercial presentation should the author want to go that route. Actually, I kind of hope the data IS being mined – both because it would dovetail nicely with the themes I’ll discuss below, and because I want someone to see my stupid answers.

I do, however, have two quibbles. The first is the web design. I have more than a little sympathy for web design being tough – where once I was merely adequate, time and rustiness have made me deeply, deeply suck at CSS (this is one of the reasons I don’t currently write in Twine). But the Wordpress Twenty-Twelve-iness of the navigation bar threw me; it just didn’t seem like the sort of thing a megacorporation would use. The second is more of a sustainability thing – there’s a “restart game” option, but it’s sort of hard to find, buried at the bottom of a plaintext page. But this is a quibble even by quibble standards.

The review:

AlethiCorp, as is pretty clear from start, is about surveillance, specifically by shadowy NSA/corporate/Lawful Evil types. It’s an easy theme for a game in the 2010s, and it’s a well-trod genre both in indie games and text-based games, specifically – off the top: Papers, Please, Blackbar, The Republia Times. Your mileage will vary on this one. Personally, I don’t understand why all games aren’t about this in 2014, so I have significant benefit of the doubt to spend.

There are two main components to AlethiCorp. The first is navigating the intranet, which is an easy thing to satire but nevertheless satired well – particular note should go to the University page, a behemoth of bland uselessness where it doesn’t, as far as I can tell, matter how well you do: your score is random. Others work via autocorrects, everything from “suggested items to bring to this potluck” to “suggested number of civilian casualties it’s acceptable to accumulate in war” – and these are a rich trove of easter eggs (the former: “barley. just barley,” “edible gold leaf,” and “Don’t you realize these people are evil? Don’t feed the evil! - Alpha”) As far as I can tell, not much of this has any effect on the game – which it couldn’t, really, unless you want to code yourself into your own grave – but it does produce a coercion mechanic I’ve seldom seen before, and which works rather nicely.

The next, and the bulk, is reviewing surveillance reports: highly narrativized, sanitized (no sexts) simulations of the emails, calls and day-to-day activities of the people you’re spying on. It’s an old trick – the player becomes complicit in horrifying violations of privacy because there’s text and progress there and anyone would want to see that – but it’s an effective trick, which is why most games of this nature rely on it. The writing of these, as always, is the key, and it’s a blend of programming in-jokes (martini, shaken XOR stirred), IF in-jokes (the car is not, in fact, called the Nissan Versu), and just plain jokes: an sellout in-house critic named Andrea Schueler with an Emma Goldman obsession and a tendency toward irritability; a series of increasingly incompetent surveillance agents.

Problem is, the thing about a broad tone is it tends to result in a broad spectrum of, well, quality. Some of the overwhelming reliance on buzzwords like “synergy,” were run into the ground around, well, Dilbert. Others are what I’d loosely classify as introductory psych and/or pop-culture gags: Weird Al songs, dilemmas straight out of game-theory surveys, I don’t like gags. 2014 is enough of a dystopian info-mining farce on its own that gags aren’t necessary. I keep a Notepad file on my computer – have for about three years – of just this. Here are some entries, which are all real:

Can you see how, compared to what’s real life nowadays, stale “synergy” jokes just don’t cut it? (This actually cuts a bit close to home in me – I was rushing to finish a piece, and tossing in detritus like old posts from Passive Aggressive Notes, and around then was when I knew I’d gone off the rails.)

Moreover, if the reader is clued into the source the gag she’s instantly clown-catapulted out of the narrative. It’s like that point in The Dark Knight – spoilers for that – where the Joker sets up a Prisoner’s Dilemma situation with hostages on two boats, and instead of “what a terrifying, suspenseful conundrum!” all I thought was “the Prisoner’s Dilemma, really?”

(That said, I did grin like a toddler at the “What’s your favorite date?” gag, so I am possibly a massive hypocrite – but only because it reminded me of this. Someone is clearly gunning for the Miss Congeniality award.)

I reached a couple endings: the one where you “win” and a couple where you lose and get fired; I can assume there is another sort of ending, one where you’re successfully subversive, and I’d like to imagine there’s a fourth sort, one where you make false accusations (dragging a journalist into the fray, for instance) and ruin an innocent’s life. They were all moderately satisfying, and while they don’t quite stand up to playthroughs – after five or so times through it becomes apparent that this is a little railroaded behind the scenes, and that to a point it doesn’t matter how “well you do” – they had sufficient narrative oomph. But the fact that I can rattle these missing endings sort of speaks to the tropiness of all this; the minute Omega showed up I almost groaned, because of course he did; he always does, in these stories, in this exact way.

That said, by far this is one of the best entries I’ve played; it’s also the one I’m most anticipating a potential post-comp revision for.

Score: 6.5 (for comp-voting purposes, rounded up to 7)[/spoiler]

hhh.exe, by Robot Parking

[spoiler]I don’t normally do this, but my running first impressions:

katherine says, “is this literally just hugo’s house of horrors”
katherine says, “correction: is this literally just hugo’s house of horrors plus handholding and thus minus horror”
katherine says, “correction: is this literally just hugo’s house of horrors plus handholding, minus horror and plus swearing and bad jokes”
katherine says, “ok, now it glitched out into nethack with some dude who really needs to run a protection racket”
katherine says, “and a doom maze”
katherine says, “#rememberthe90s
katherine says, “mazes: they’re still not fun in twine”
katherine says, “that was a thing”

Look, so. I played the original Hugo’s House of Horrors. I was a kid, and it was on an old floppy with Keen 4 that was probably my dad’s. I remembered feeling really proud of my kidself when I figured out to smash the pumpkin, and I remember going into kidterror when the guy at the table asked me for a chop (because I thought it was some one-liner before severing my head, a chop and a Hertz Donut). Evidently I don’t remember it well enough to recognize the filename as the filename and not a reference to Hubert H. Humphrey, although that’s probably because I’ve played way too much Campaign Trail. I also have a nonzero amount of nostalgia for adventures in general, Doom textures, and, uh, Nethack. I am, if not quite the target audience, close enough to score you some points in darts. (Don’t throw darts at me.)

Still doesn’t elevate this past standard-issue freeware game glitchfuckery, plus what I guess are Twine in-jokes. I’d list the places where I’ve seen this before, but they are legion, often on Newgrounds, often containing recreations of Mario 1 (a minor point in this game’s favor, I guess), and all categorizable as “mildly amusing Internet detritus,” which is a stock I think is pretty much full. And mazes are still not fun in Twine.

Score: 3[/spoiler]

Thanks for playing! [emote]:)[/emote]

One-Night Stand, by Giannis G. Georgiou

[spoiler]The first impression:

Three things:

  • The game is called “One-Night Stand” and the author’s initials are GGG. I am going to assume this is on purpose, even though it’s not, mostly because:
  • The blurb advises that the game would be “mostly appreciated by persons who have had sex at least twice in their life.” Instantly, I am put off, not by the sex but the fact that it suggests any criticism may be dismissed as the words of a frustrated virgin and/or frigid prude.
  • I promise I will give out high scores at some point (a 9 and an 8 are already queued), but this doesn’t look like it’s gonna be it.

The story: You wake up in some guy’s dorm room. Instead of showering, grabbing your shit and getting a bagel, like normal people would do, you hyperventilate about how much of a fallen woman you are, decide you cannot leave this guy’s dorm room until you learn his name, and do so by solving My Apartment puzzles.

The review:

Remember how I said while reviewing Caroline that you can take the male gaze too far? This is too far:

Needless to say, no woman outside of a porno has ever thought this. The only place this narration could work is camp, something like I-0 maybe or the two or three sex farces that used to populate every comp year, where it’s established that the tone is porn comedy and self-aware; but perish the porn that suddenly interrupts its fun for this downer:

So there are a number of things going on here:

  1. what the fuck; 2) I truly doubt this woman’s been to an orgy, because the attendees of real-life orgies are generally pretty OK with the amount of sex they’re having; 3) you’re writing a sex comedy and can’t spell “cock”? 4) even if we accept that this woman’s experiencing a bit of self-loathing or maybe a hangover (emotionally or otherwise), her internal monologue would not sound like this, and 5) she still wouldn’t get turned on by her own creamy skin.

The situation is so nonsensical as to be ludicrous – getting your dress out from beneath your date’s lumpen body is apparently beyond the pale, but spraying Windex on someone else’s old bra is A-OK. Dude’s got a drawer full of other people’s panties, a vibrator (which raises a whole other set of questions) and used condoms(!) that you can riffle through longer than you’d want to, but going through his phone or wallet or paperwork is apparently not an option, despite being a more expedient way of finding out his name than spying on the neighbors. The implementation is patchy and untested – it’s a barely gussied up My Dorm Room game, after all. There is a cat you can pick up but not pet (if I took points off automatically, it’d be for that) The walkthrough relies on several event flags that don’t fire until you perform a series of unintuitive actions that’ve already seemingly proven fruitless.

I guess the cover art’s professionally done?

Score: 1[/spoiler]

Origins, by Vincent Zeng and Chris Martens

[spoiler]First impression: (upon reading blurb) Cool! Experiments! (upon reading screen one) They’re both gonna die, right?

The story: A package gets delivered, or not. It’s also raining. And nobody dies.

The review:

From start, Origins promises innovation:

I like innovation. I particularly like innovation put to storytelling and/or characterization use. In fact – and I realize how much of a no-fun theory wonk this makes me sound like – a blurb that promises innovation is going to do a lot more for me than a blurb about the story itself. And in this regard, Origins delivers; the format works almost exactly as promised. Though the presentation could use some polish (insert apologetic aside, again, about how I suck at CSS and totally understand this being a stumbling block) and though I’d make a few tweaks to the mechanics – I’m not sure two-choice CYOA is the best use of this format, as the promised “omnisicence” boils down to being able to see the other guy’s choices – the structure is pretty solid.

Why Origins actually uses such a blurb, sadly, is because there’s not much else to recommend. There’s a courier, who’s
supposed to deliver an important package (we know it’s important because the exposition tells us so). There’s a runner, who’s supposed to pick up said package. It’s raining. Various mundane traffic incidents may or may not occur. What happened before, or what happens next, isn’t so much left for the reader as just never broached at all. It all comes off as a long interstitial section of a perhaps-interesting story; in other media it’s the part that’d get montaged out, or heightened by a soundtrack or slo-mo, or just cut entirely. Particularly frustrating is that Origins comes to a close juuuust as it appears things might become dramatic. There’s something to be said for restraint, for presenting a mundane situation then letting the cracks show, but aside from an opener about “the rainy season” (which, unless Pittsburgh is significantly different than I think it is, hints at some alternate reality), there’s not enough atmosphere here for even this to work.

It’s frustrating; I can think of thousands of more intriguing stories for the format than this. Several of them are even in this comp. (Would Caroline, for instance, be improved if you could switch panels and see Caroline’s narration, likely heavy on the "poor sap"s and the "lost soul"s? What would Creatures Such As We – which is already excellent – be like if we could pop into the other character’s minds? I’m singling out the romance-themed games, I notice, and not by accident; love is hard, and myopia/omnisicence is why.) As it stands, Origins is an impressive proof of concept, but not much more.

Score: 5[/spoiler]

For what it’s worth, I live in Pittsburgh and know the authors, and I read the “rainy season” as a bit of a joke. It’s always the rainy season here.

Huh. I was hoping for some sort of alternate-reality scenario. Ah well.

The Entropy Cage, by Stormrose

[spoiler]The summary: You are a disgraced AI psychiatrist whose boss drags you out of suspension in the middle of the night for one last job. Subsentient AIs, who control traffic signals and elevator controls and various other things you don’t want going haywire, are going haywire en masse. The reason turns out to be a coming war. It probably doesn’t go well for society.

The Let’s Just Get It Out Of The Way Now: This is a game about subsentient AIs. They are called “subs.” At least at first, this is how those subs malfunction: “Hello. I have been bad. Punish me.” Things have connotations, and these things have a very specific set – one that’s never alluded to again. It’s not that I’m a prude, it’s just that there’s no possible scenario where this enhances the game. If these themes are a draw for the player (I’m being purposefully euphemistic; huh, maybe I am a prude), the player’s probably going to want to skip to somewhere else in the story, perhaps to the part where you’re the cyber-psychiatrist playing eroticized, maybe-inappropriate power games with an AI. If it puts a player off, they’re going to be put off firmly and immediately, before they get into the game and before the part when it all goes away. If the player doesn’t have strong feelings either way, they’re going to wonder what the hell these overtones are doing there.

Honestly, my guess is that the author wrote this part early and forgot about it. (It wouldn’t be the only instance; more on that later.) It probably needs to be reworked.

Now The Actual Review:

There’s a saying in theater – perhaps it’s not actually a theater saying so much as a saying a theater teacher of mine once had, but I find it useful – that it’s “better to be loud and wrong than quiet and right.” The Entropy Cage is loud and wrong.

Wait, that probably makes it sound like I didn’t like it. I did. Let me explain.

One of my biggest disappointments with the Comp in the past few years is the proliferation of small games. There’s no way to complain about it without coming off as an asshole (griping that people aren’t putting in harder free work is generally an asshole thing to say, and you don’t see me being the change I wish to see in the world), but, well, there it is. Sometimes these games are literally small, taking only a fraction of the comp’s two-hour time limit. Other times there’s enough content. Other times, they’re small in scope. They set small numbers of small goals and accomplish them all flawlessly. Some are exercises more than games, demonstrating some technical or craft point with the minimum possible story and stakes. Others are just tossed off for the hell of it. They are competent and dutiful and never, ever excite me, even when I admire them for being good. Some of them are in the canon. More of them are forgotten, because they’re forgettable. Even if I wanted to stir shit and give examples, I wouldn’t be able to; that’s how infrequently I think about them.

In some senses The Entropy Cage is a small game. An average playthrough doesn’t take very long. The timespan is short, the characters sketches. There’s replayability, but only if you’re the sort of player who has to see every ending and is willing to min-max paths to get them. But the themes are big (as they usually are when the death of society creeps in.) The story avoids most of the obvious cliches – there’s a point where you think this is going to be yet another sci-fi work about AIs gaining sentience, which turns out not to be the case (or if it is the case, it’s more complicated than that and seems to be thought through.) Multiple endings and backstory alone aren’t sufficient to lend a game substance, but they certainly don’t hurt, and The Entropy Cage is flush with both. And the game itself is polished; the lonely-terminal aesthetic isn’t exactly hard to get right, in imagination or in CSS, but it is usually evocative once you do.

This extends to the gameplay as well; the best Twine pieces accomplish of the trick of evoking a huge, thoroughly thought-through world without the huge programming burden it’d require in other systems, and The Entropy Cage hits this for me as well. A good portion of the mechanics are opaque – the choices you make in the beginning affect the PC’s personality, though you’d probably never notice – or random, as in the bulk of the midgame. Some reviewers took issue with this, but I didn’t mind. The randomness suits the premise – there’s even backstory for it, as one group of AIs seeks out a godlike analogue called the “True Random” – and the opaqueness perhaps more so. After all, you as the PC really have no idea what you’re doing – it’s implied you were fired for incompetence – and are adrift in unexplored choppy waters. As for the characterization, well, we usually don’t get the chance or aren’t self-aware enough to understand how our own choices, in real life, shape our personality. And any stat-tracking of personality – variables for work ethic, maybe, or alertness – tends to come off as unnatural or fall apart once they’re supposed to represent real life. (This is why most games that track character stats choose to conceal them.) The writing could perhaps illuminate more of what’s going on – many choices come off essentially the same, at least at first – but otherwise, this part is fine.

This sort of gets at my main gripe with The Entropy Cage – it needed an editor. I’m not just talking about proofreading for typos (though there are enough of those that one pass by a proofreader would accomplish a lot). I’m thinking more of a continuity editor. With as many Grand Themes and plot threads as The Entropy Cage has, it’s inevitable that some will be forgotten; the problem is, here there are too many forgotten. Some plot threads involve characters – the PC apparently did something really wrong or incompetent to get suspended, but at least in the paths I found, it’s never want; likewise, Jake “isn’t one for drama,” but he sure comes off dramatic throughout the game, even for a crisis. Otherwise it’s more general ;t here’s an extensive backstory dump in the About section, with plenty of fascinating ideas to a player to chew on – if they only encountered more than a fraction of it in the game proper. The ones that are encountered, tend to be encountered with blinking lights. Given how random the gameplay is, I don’t remember where this was or how to get there, but at one point you and Jake are debating whether to give subsentient AIs control over their own resources, and one of you says, “It’s sort of like whether people [or “women,” I forgot how specific it got] should have control of their own bodies, right?” Most readers paying the slightest amount of attention could have gotten there on their own. Spelling out the subtext almost always comes off hackneyed, even condescending.

An editor would also do a lot of tightening. Take the first sentence:

“The clock dutifully reports that it’s 2:05AM.” 5/7 of that sentence is filler; the clock is just background machinery, doing what it non-notably does. (I suppose you might argue that in this universe clocks are controlled by subsentient AIs, and that might be kind of cool if not the most original idea, but I don’t recall it being mentioned.) You get the same effect without it: “It’s 2:05AM.” Depending on how you feel about terseness or fragments, you could probably even get away with just “2:05AM.”

I singled this out as, well, it’s the first sentence and thus the hook; but the problem persists throughout the early game then suddenly disappears once The Entropy Cage becomes mostly code: functions, IRC logs, error message. This seems illustrative; The Entropy Cage’s narration works best when it’s panic o’clock in the morning, when you’re staring at a flat screen glow and code that’s impersonal and sparse yet wrong, when your mental state is flow and adrenaline and split-second choices and very few words. Again, not a difficult or a unique aesthetic, but one that’s compelling when it’s there. I wish there were more of it.

Score: 6.5 (rounded up to 7 because, again, big and wrong, and I think this is at least as well-executed as AlethiCorp)[/spoiler]

Excelsior, by Arthur DiBianca

[spoiler]The summary: Solve puzzles in a tower. Solve more puzzles in a functionally identical section of tower. Give up on solving puzzles and just USE everything in sight, and often not in sight. Oh, and you’re YAAFGNCAAP.

The review: I had a big long review written up, then the forum ate it, which is probably for the best as the review was both unnecessarily mean and probably more words than are contained in the entirety of Excelsior. So, summary version:

  • There’s a lot of nostalgia for parser IF – some essentially #rememberthe90s irony (think Strong Bad), some reactionary (don’t think it, you don’t want to), some genuine (think this! please!), most a mixture of both; the problem with this is that it’s now so thick that every parser-IF entry is inevitably going to be viewed through this lens, which does not flatter. The thing about classics like Jigsaw, So Far, Sherbet, whatever, is that they’ve got sweeping stories to go with their puzzlefests, and it’s the former that make them seem so big. To paraphrase Nelson’s canard: Excelsior isn’t a narrative at war with a crossword, it’s no narrative, at no war with a word search.

  • Excelsior, more spartan than spartan, makes Scott Adams’ games seem like purple Lovecraftian epics with full natural-language parsers. The only useful verb is, well, >USE – but there’s a reason most designers warn against implementing USE. It’s death for immersion, reducing every action in existence to the press of a button, and evoking nothing but pressing a button. Most players end up just pressing the button mindlessly on everything (akin to “lawnmowering” conversation menus), and it’s possible to “solve” the puzzles here by just using USE on every object.

  • …or it would be possible, if half of the puzzles weren’t undescribed. Doorways you can interact with some places but not others, objects that travel via magical reverse dumbwaiters to be used in future puzzles, a solid wall that magically becomes un-solid with sparse cluing from sparse text. This isn’t difficulty by design; it’s fake difficulty. And without writing, there’s no reason to give the writer the benefit of the doubt.

Score: 2[/spoiler]