Amanda Reviews IFComp: New Authors

I have never done any reviews, but I like getting them and so I’m going to start reviewing and give up my entitled ways. @Norbez gently prodded me to write reviews last spring, and he’s right, so here goes. Thanks for the push, Bez.

I won’t get to every game, but I really appreciated the reviews I got as a brand-new author last year, so I’m going to go through the new authors who introduced themselves in this thread and choose games based on personal interest in the game’s blurb, most appealing first. This will tend heavily toward horror, scifi, and anything that looks well-written first. If I don’t review your game, it only means I didn’t get to it in the comp period. And if you’re an author new to the comp, it’s not too late to post in that thread so your game is on my radar.

I’ll try to keep them spoiler-free, and I’ll discuss why I picked the game, what I liked about it, and what I think could make it better.

First up: According to Cain by Jim Nelson


According to Cain by Jim Nelson– parser

I picked this game first because although this is Jim’s first game in IFComp, he does have a previous game-- Past Present– which was just lovely and which I encourage everyone to play. To boot, I’ve read several of Jim’s novels, which are excellent. So I knew this would be well-written, and I dig the cover art.

And I’m happy to report that the game is very good. It takes you-- a medieval student of alchemy-- on a trip back in time to learn what really happened in the biblical story of Cain and Abel. Your stated goal is to find the mark of Cain and report on what it looks like (For those of you who need a reminder: God put a mark on Cain after he murdered his brother, so that others would see it and know what he was, and to warn them from harming Cain so that he might live long as a cursed man.) It’s a dangerous task, as previous novitiates have been sent and have not returned.

There’s a magic mechanism at work here-- you use alchemical substances to reveal memories locked in items. The everyday things used by Adam, Eve, Abel, and Cain were witnesses to their lives and the eventual tragedy, and you can perform spells on these things to see what they witnessed. The learning curve for the alchemical spells is thankfully very gentle. The memories you unlock with the spells gradually start to give you a different picture of the brothers than the one you probably have of Cain as a jealous and violent brother, and Abel as a sweet little victim-- a different perspective on the archetypal story. Happily, the mechanism of applying alchemical compounds (of mixtures like salt, sulfur, sage, bile, etc) is player-centric; you only have to put multiple substances for a particular spell on something once before the game allows to you to simply perform the spell, Hadean Lands style. And the start of the game has lots of helpful cluing to get you on the right path to finding, learning about, and applying the correct compounds to the correct item.

The writing is spare and lonely, with the scenery of a new Earth described in vivid and concise language, and the revelations you unlock tell a story that dovetails neatly with the biblical account while fleshing it out with more nuance of of the characters’ lives, personal histories, and emotions. And it taught me a great new word: pulverulent.

I didn’t finish it in two hours (I encountered a game-breaking bug, now fixed, and had to restart), and reluctantly put it aside to follow Comp rules. I will definitely return to it.

The only thing that rubbed me wrong about AtC was that looking up topics in your helpful textbook-- the Pharmakon-- was very specific, sometimes requiring a lot of typing. For instance, the game at one point tells me, “You vaguely recall an alchemical compound that makes anew the old and worn.” I ended up having to type LOOK UP COMPOUND THAT MAKES ANEW THE OLD AND WORN after several attempts to shorten it, and that’s too dang much typing. But this is a pretty petty complaint in the grand scheme of things, in a game that generally bends over backwards to make its large amounts of alchemical information accessible.

Thanks for another great reading/playing experience, Jim!

Next up: A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood


I know there are so many other games, but I’m really curious to hear what you think once you reach the ending!

FWIW (slight spoiler for those who haven’t played yet, maybe?) LOOK UP SHARPENING worked for me.


I was really tempted to just disregard the comp rules because I was loving the game so much, but I see why the rule is a good one. I am itching to get back to it.

I think stuff like LOOK UP ETC could be facilitated by simply calling it the renewal compound, or something like that, in the prompting text. Not a big deal at all to streamline. And as I said, it was a pretty minor complaint.


I’m sure you know, but you don’t necessarily have to stop playing at two hours, you just have to cast your vote based on the first two hours of play.

Although if you’re a busy person trying to get a lot of games played and reviewed, stopping after two hours is likely a good and necessary strategy.


I couldn’t put down either Crash , which I finished and found really good, or Arborea, which I’m still playing now.

I’m not letting Comp-completionism get in the way of good old game-enjoyment this year. Last year got me a bit overstimulated.


Thank you, Amanda, for the wonderful review!


Playing past 2 hours would color my vote for sure. I am not principled like that, which is why rules are good for me.


A Long Way to the Nearest Star , by SV Linwood-- Twine

This game is a great example of why writing a zippy blurb matters. It’s sci-fi, so it was automatically going to be of interest to me (I’m on a major sci-fi kick these days), but the blurb is great and grabbed my attention right away. The cover art was eye-catching, too. Unless you’re a person of outstanding principles who plays the Comp using the randomizer (which I am most definitely not), these things matter a lot in getting people to play your game.

According to @svlin’s introduction in the “New Authors” thread, this is their first public game, and that’s impressive, because it’s fantastic. It starts off with a well-worn trope: hardboiled intergalactic thief on the run, engine trouble, convenient nearby spaceship as a port in which to fix the problem, helpful yet screwball AI. I will play/read/watch anything in this genre, but you’d better bring some pizzazz to it to keep me happy once I’m there. And this game has pizzazz. The mysteries start to pile up in an empty spaceship, and the zany AI starts to feel more than a little off. The zingy, fluid writing immediately makes it feel fresh, and it’s got great characterization and a puzzly atmosphere that feels parser-ish (this is a compliment). The conversations with Solis, the AI that runs the ship you find, are the star of the show. Solis is part Hal, part Computerfriend, part Rosie the Jetsons’ maid, and the banter between Solis and the PC sets a funny yet informative tone that grows gradually more disturbing.

Gating a game believably is a tricky thing— too often there’s a locked door with no explanation, or a thin explanation, for why it’s locked. It just is, and you have to unlock it. ALWNS uses gating effectively, not just as a way to pace the action, but as a way to explore Solis’s personality tics: Solis is happy to tell you where to find your needed replacement part for your ship, and that you are welcome to take it, but no, it can’t open the door for you so you can go get it. Why? Because them’s the rules. And Solis and “the rules” turn out to have a complicated relationship.

I didn’t finish this one in 2 hours, either, for a couple of reasons. First, I wanted to keep talking about everything I could with Solis, because the writing there is great. So that sucked up a lot of time. Secondly, I really struggled with the interface. I am a veteran parser player who only recently started playing choice-based games, and so the format is not as intuitive to me as parser games are. So @svlin and everyone else should take the following with a grain of salt: I found the layers of clicking to reach information in my inventory/notes to be immersion-breaking and attention-scattering. If I want to review info on my datapad, I have to click Inventory, scroll to the datapad, click “read datapad”, then click an entry. I sometimes have the attention span of a gnat, and this slowed me down considerably. For me, it would have been a boon to have a sidebar with inventory available to see and click (the wonderful Bones of Rosalinda did this very well, with minimal clicking away from the main screen, if the author wants an example). Since this may be a personal foible, perhaps others who played the game could reply here and let the author know if this is in fact a reasonable criticism, or just one finicky player’s need for hand-holding. I also found a few of the puzzles a little opaque, but hard puzzle games are some people’s joy, and this one has what looks like a complete walkthrough, a convenience that many players really appreciate.

All in all, those criticisms are, again, petty ones in light of how good the game is. The trend toward choice games with a parser feel is a most welcome one, and this is a great addition to that area. I’m delighted to see such great work coming from someone new to publishing IF, and I hope to see more from this author. I will absolutely return to this game once my judging is complete.

Next up: Graveyard Strolls, by Adina Brodkin


Yeah…that’s the easy way to do it with Twine: there are probably templates out there somewhere for an inventory sidebar if you know where to dig for them, but creating one yourself from scratch requires a significant amount of figuring-out-web-coding-stuff, unfortunately.


Thank you for the lovely review! I’m glad you enjoyed the game despite the issues with the interface, (which, yeah, I admit can be a little unwieldy). I hope you enjoy the ending when you get to it!


Graveyard Stroll by Adina Brodkin- Texture

Sometimes content warnings also act as advertisements. So it was with Graveyard Stroll, which told me to expect death, murder, blood, supernatural freaky occurrences, light body horror, mentions of abuse and child abuse. Right on! As someone who wrote a whole game about the murder of an abused child, this game is clearly for me. The cover art is nicely spooky, and the promise of becoming a “ghost therapist” was fun.

There’s some great stuff in this game: good imagery and characterization of the ghosts—exactly the kinds of people that might hang around with unresolved issues from their lives. It takes a strange turn toward the end toward the personal, but not the predictable denouement I had expected. I found the transition to the end jarring—it definitely could have taken a little more time to build toward the reveal. But that reveal is heartbreaking and terrifying indeed, and worth sticking around for. All good supernatural horror stories mirror real fears, and this one certainly does: the fear of forgetting who you are, where you came from, who you loved, what is true. And fear that the traumas of the past live on.

I played through this in under half an hour, so it’s a bite-sized game with a lot going on in it. I think it could have benefitted from more: more buildup, more exploration of the themes, more work on transition, more frame for the story. Particularly, I’d like more beginning—the one-sentence story about a Youtuber wasn’t enough to justify this adventure. And maybe something about the PC: are they interested in therapy? Helping others? I do wish this had been explored in more depth. The author should be encouraged by my wishing for more—I often wish I’d had less of a game.

I was unfamiliar with the mode of gameplay: dragging text boxes to highlighted words in the text, and because I am an old fart, I hated it at first. But I came around to it after a time, seeing it as more deliberately active than simply clicking a text box. It seemed to give more weight to any choices I made, and now I’m curious to play other games using this engine (Texture? Is that new? Or have I just missed recent games using it?).

I did struggle a little with some of the screens—if you don’t notice every highlighted word (and you have to drag your box around to see what’s highlighted), you can get stuck picking obviously bad actions, which at least led me to experience several richly deserved deaths due to being a jerk to the dead. Happily, the game doesn’t make you replay from the beginning (I never do that, even if I like the game), but takes you back to the critical choice. I think my biggest disappointment was that the “good” and “bad” choices were so obvious. Helping emotionally traumatized ghosts seems a field rife with the possibility of accidentally saying the wrong thing, and often the choices were just glaringly polar—“Make fun of” a ghost versus “Help him.”. I’d rather see more depth, more exploring viable possibilities to help someone.

According to their introduction in the “New Authors” thread, this is the author’s first time participating in a Comp, and it’s a really successful outing. Overall I greatly enjoyed my time with this game, and I hope @abrodkin brings us many more.

Next up: The Thirty Nine Steps by Graham Walmsley


Thanks so much Amanda! I’m glad you enjoyed it! All of the authors who used Texture in this comp were working on a four week time limit due to a workshop we all took part in - which is why it was a bit shorter (and that seems to be the common critique for Graveyard Strolls). My plan is to make this into a full-length game where you can talk to 20+ ghosts, with more nuance to the choices like you mentioned and better explanations.

Texture isn’t a new engine but it was new to me and the workshop we took part in was teaching us how to use it. All of these things are really helpful and useful to keep in mind for future usage of the engine.


I think there was a flush of games using Texture after it first came out in 2016, but it never got really popular and has kind of languished since then? It’s a neat little tool, though. Here’s Jim Munro’s blog post about the release.


Aha! How cool. I’m looking forward to playing the others, and I certainly enjoyed yours-- the workshop seems to have been worth your time. I’ll be eager to see where you take this in a longer game. Congrats for getting such such good work into the comp!


The Thirty-Nine Steps by Graham Walmsley- Twine

I love a thriller, and this game bills itself as one. It also says it’s an adaptation of a John Buchan novel by the same name. I haven’t read the book (or any of Buchan’s books), but I’m interested in games adapting literature. I adapted a whole bunch of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, and I’m adapting something else for my Ectocomp game. So I like to see how other authors go about this. And this, it turns out, is more of a choose-your-own-adventure interactive novel than a game.

The game has little backstory for the PC (I learned one thing about my work background halfway through), which is a narrative decision I feel torn about. On one hand, this better allows the player to be the PC, since there isn’t any characterization in the way of seeing yourself in those shoes. On the other hand, it’s a little jarring to step into a thriller with no idea of who you are and what your capabilities are. I myself have gone in both directions, with strongly realized PCs and a PC you know nothing about, and I still feel some ambivalence about my own choices.

The story is fast-paced, tense, and preposterous (which is not necessarily a bad thing—nothing is more preposterous than James Bond stories), with some solid writing. I can’t know what’s taken directly from the book, and what is the author’s invention, but I’m curious how much of it is directly from the original story. It’s a tricky thing to adapt text very faithfully, as it often doesn’t work as well in adaptation, I’ve found. Graham, if you read this, could you comment on your process with that a little in a reply? In any case, the narrative is frenetic, with many of the choices you make being final. If you choose one thing over another, you may never get a chance to do the other thing (which might be critical to understanding the plotline) again. This is a sensible design decision from the perspective of an on-the-run thriller-- after all, you just don’t have time to do very much when everybody’s out to get you. But it also forces another narrative decision: making the player replay in order to see what they missed, a fairly standard CYOA design choice, except that in this case, the missed opportunity might be pivotal. So this game apparently is made to be played more than once if you want to grok the whole story. I confess, this is not my thing. I have never replayed a game to see more of it, and I likely never will. I don’t know how standard an attitude this is among players, but especially in a Comp where there’s a buffet of new games singing their siren songs to me, I’m ready to move on once I’ve played through something once. Your mileage will definitely vary here based on how likely you are to replay. It’s certain that an impressive amount of work went into the branching choices here, so I definitely missed a great deal in my one play through.

If you don’t choose certain options (like solving a coded message) right away, the game moves you forward anyway, seemingly as if you had solved them, giving you choices that seem to come out of the blue (how did I know which house to go to in the end?). So quite a few of the pieces of the narrative seemed unconnected. I wonder if this was intentional, with the author hoping that I‘d replay to fill in the gaps? By the end I was hopelessly lost, with no idea of who the bad guys were, why they’d done what they’d done, or how any of the pieces linked to each other. Each piece (espionage, murder, code-breaking, a cool hidden mechanism, etc) was interesting, but without connection between them, it didn’t feel like a cohesive story.

Ultimately, although there were some great things here, it didn’t pull together for me, and that may simply be because I was the wrong player for this type of game. Since so much of a game’s experience is dependent on the personality quirks of the player, I encourage others to play it and form their own impressions.

Next up: Arborea by Richard Develyn


Hi Amanda! Thanks for this.

To answer your question: I didn’t take any of the text from the book, but I tried to closely follow the way the text was written. When I was writing, I would read sections of the original book, then try to write the game using the same voice.

I borrowed lots of episodes from the book, but I’ve expanded them a lot and added different choices. So, for example, there’s a monoplane in the book, but I’ve made it into a much more dangerous episode, with lots of different choices.

I think your comparison with James Bond is a good one! To be honest, when I read the book, I also had no idea who the bad guys were or how any of the pieces linked to each other. There’s an episodic, disconnected feel to the book: at one point, you end up addressing a political meeting (I left that episode out!). I tried to choose the more exciting episodes, plus the beautiful moments in the Scottish highlands.

Thanks again.


Arborea by Richard Develyn– parser

I picked this game largely for the gorgeous cover art and the promised ecological theme. Sometimes, folks, a really good piece of art can sway people to your game.

You’re in a simulation of a forest. You’re carrying a gourd. I didn’t find the first puzzle (getting out of the forest) taxing, and oh joy, there were now many areas to wander around in. Each direction takes you to a different place—and perhaps a different time— all based on the type of tree that might be found there. Some of those locations do have heavy ecological themes which can be very horrifying indeed. Others don’t seem to have any ecological themes at all, instead focussing on Buddhism, or on a particularly nasty time in American history, or simply a fun historical era. The writing is very good, immediately setting your mood for each area: horror, mystery, humor, religious experience. This is where Arborea really shines—wandering around the locations and experiencing these mood swings is really quite jarring and effective.

I didn’t finish this in 2 hours, though I probably will go back to it. I say probably because I had some trouble figuring out what there was to do. There are a few signposted puzzles, but not many, and I found myself at the walkthrough pretty quick, just for an idea of what I should be focussing on in all that territory. I ran into trouble with the commands once (I’ll blur this spoiler): I had used the command “up” in the first location, and that worked great to climb a tree. In the other locations, “up” didn’t work for any of the trees, and almost all of the trees could not be climbed, either— in fact CLIMB MANGROVE gives you a reply about the hut. So by the time I got to a very important tree, I had fizzled on trying to climb trees in the locations. I did try UP at the fig tree, too, but there’s another location up from there. So I never would have climbed the fig tree without the walkthrough.

In fact, I used the walkthrough a great deal for the rest of my time with Arborea, because it often wasn’t at all clear who to give things to, or which area to go to use an item-- it felt a bit read-the-author’s-mind-ish. The disjointed feel of the map in this game is both its great strength and its weakness, and I wish my sense of purpose had been clearer. I don’t know if ecological messages would have eventually occurred in every area, but I did find it odd that some locations were so effectively used for a message, while others seemed to have no message at all.

I also may have run into a bug (or maybe I am just really not getting this puzzle): in the realm above the fig tree, dividing the whispered number by a door number works until it doesn’t. I worked on it for quite a while, but kept finding myself with a very low number in an area where there was no exit with a number that could be divided into the whispered number, and I’d have to start over. So either I should have tried way more variations (I did fool with this for quite some time, though) or this is a bug.

So all in all I found Arborea to be a really mixed bag: a big, terrific map; and good writing evoking real sense of place in many different times and places. But when I can’t figure out what to do with all that, I start to lose interest. Possibly the game could benefit from some gating so there’s less space to roam while you figure out what to do, but that would hurt its central asset, which is the thrill of going to all these vastly different places from one hub. I think perhaps a subtle in-game hint system would probably help enormously—perhaps the gourd could somehow be a hint system (it kinda sorta already does that a bit)? If you love hard parser puzzlers, this is the game for you. And it’s definitely worth wandering around in for the writing, even if you do need to keep the walkthrough handy.

Next up: INK by Sangita V Nuli

** Edit: I just had a glass of wine, so I’ll share this with you: if I ever were to write a romance novel, the hero would be named Richard Develyn, or d’Evelyn. I mean, what a cool name. Some of us have names that bring to mind things like: Amanda Walker, county clerk in a mustard-stained uniform. Others get to go through life with names that conjure up different images, like: Richard Develyn, swashbuckling rake in tight pants and a poet’s shirt.
Life is not fair.


Or “Jim Nelson,” which is a good name to use when you’re passing bad checks around town.


Nah, that’s an odd one, I figured it out by mistake: if you look again you’ll get a different set of exits. So just repeat until you get the number you’re looking for.

Edit: now that’s interesting, because for me it’s always conjured an image more like an older Judi Dench character. Elegant, maybe a little severe, brooks no nonsense.