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.
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.