Brad's IFComp 2021 Reviews

I was going to keep my thoughts to myself, but then I started scanning reviews and it looks like the games I played haven’t seen many reviews on the forum yet. So here goes!

Games I’ve played so far

I’ve been proceeding in the random order ifcomp.org presented to me.

My Rubric
  • Interactive (up to 4 points)
    +1 Novelty within the medium
    +1 Interactions are fun and/or consonant with the theme
    +1 No distracting bugs
    +1 Polished; quality-of-life features (including hints) that enhance the experience
  • Fiction (up to 4 points)
    +1 Effective prose
    +1 Well-sketched setting
    +1 Compelling plot
    +1 Memorable character(s)
  • Bonus (up to 2 points)
    +1 I like this!
    +1 I admire this

That rubric reveals some of my biases. I haven’t reviewed IFComp games since 2010. I don’t dislike Twine, but I’m more fond of parser games and don’t have much space for graphics or sound in my rubric unless they are particularly additive to the experience. Despite this I’m not particularly good at parser games and really like more accessible work that I could easily recommend to friends. Finally, this rubric biases me towards more “well-rounded” work; a game with extremely deep worldbuilding but not much plot or character will have to make it up with some bonus points.

I’ll be leaving scores out of reviews, since I haven’t seen other folks posting scores here. Might edit them in after the comp is over.

9 Likes

The TURING Test by Justin Fanzo (Twine)

Spoilery Review

In my first few minutes with The TURING Test I found myself comparing it to Kevin Gold’s Choice of Robots, which I played and considerably enjoyed earlier this year. Both are games in which your choices define the character of the AI that takes over the world. This is a theme I like, but also an unfair comparison - Robots is a large work of commercial IF, not a two-hour comp entry. It altered my experience of TURING and I find myself wishing the one had borrowed more from the other.

The game opens with a series of multiple-choice questions about robots and ethics, and tells you up-front that you’re training the plot-important AI.

Remember that all of your answers are being recorded and fed to the TURING machine to guide its moral philosophy.

I found myself frustrated early on by these questions, because often the answer I wanted to give did not correspond to any of the presented options. For example, here’s the third question we are asked:

3.) Science fiction author Isaac Asimov proposed the Three Laws of Robotics. The second states that “A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.” Do you agree with the axiom that it is never okay for robots to harm human beings, even if such harm was required by a directive given by a human?
Yes.
No.

The yes-or-no answers here seem insufficient, given Asimov’s own work explores so many ways around these “axioms.” I really wanted to say something about the zeroth law here, but the game doesn’t afford that… which is too bad, because it should definitely come into play based on later events.

After this series of questions the game jumps to Act 2, which in my case began with a long description of how the AI kicks off a nuclear war and drives humanity back into a pre-tech era in a matter of weeks. I struggled to understand how my choices in Act 1 influenced this part of the game.

Next Dr. Ayer (who interviewed us in Act 1) shows up and recruits us to save the world. At this point I have to admit that I started nitpicking the writing and some tech things. There were enough weird inconsistencies to detract from the experience. A sampling (not exhausive):

  • Why is Ayer described as a “forward thinker” when he built the world-ending AI?
  • How did the complete copy of the AI on a hard drive survive the nuclear bombs?
  • For that matter, how did two separate ready-to-fly shuttles survive the nuclear bombs? And they’re in different states, but somehow we can reach them right away.
  • “…able to develop a virus that could be transmitted wirelessly via satellite signal” misunderstands viruses and networks.
  • The 200-foot antenna is overkill for broadcasting a virus back to earth.
  • Why is there nobody on the ISS?
  • At one point the AI is called “a sentient–not living, though, surely not!–being.” This was a really distracting phrase. Shouldn’t “sentient” be scarier than “living?”

Finally I reach the ISS and am about to upload the virus when I hit a game-ending bug; it seems to be a terminal Twine node, with no links. I backed up and tried changing a few choices, but am unable to get past this point.

I see lots of potential in this work and I really like what the author seems to be going for - this has the bones of a really rollicking pulp adaptation of an Asimov story. Besides the gamebreaking bug, the single biggest issue for me is that the game seems to promise up front that my choices are meaningful, but they never felt meaningful as I played.

The Act 1 choices are all of the “contextless moral quandary” type. This would be okay if the game called back to them somehow, either underlining how my early decisions drove the AI’s destructive behavior, or (even better) pushing me to revisit these quandaries later as concrete situations with clearer consequences, and see how that changes my response. Who knows, maybe this happens after the bug!

Act 2 decisions also didn’t have enough context to seem consequential; for example, I get to pick which of the two space shuttles I will take to the ISS, but there’s no apparent reason to take one over the other. As a result Act 2 feels effectively linear, and the pace drags a bit. I’m not sure how best to address this. One thought I had was to do a bit more interactive “living in the consequences” of my Act 1 choices before Ayer showed up with the world-saving plot - maybe meeting some characters I could care about to raise the stakes of what happens next.

In summary, I liked this more than the sum of its parts but it had enough issues that it’s probably in the 1-3 range for me. I’d love to play a revision of this, and look forward to the author’s future work. Thanks Justin!

4 Likes

The Dead Account by Naomi Norbez (Twine)

Spoilery Review

This work definitely captured some of the weirdness of being a social media moderator forced to comply with weird policies, and provides a voyeuristic (and explorable) view into the uncomfortable slice of life after a person’s death.

Can we call “Facebook stalking” a game genre at this point? There have been a number of games that used this sort of structure now, including the moderation conceit (Hypnospace Outlaw comes to mind). And it works! This is a compelling way to tell a slice-of-life story. I couldn’t help thinking that Dead Account would benefit from a more social-media-like interface, but that would have been a lot more work to build. As is, the game creates an effective imitation of the experience of browsing profiles without the look-and-feel of it. It’s the right kind of interactive for the story being told here.

That’s not to say this is a copy of any other game with similar mechanics. There’s a concreteness to the characters and realism in their response to the tragic death of a friend. In particular, not everyone reacts the same way. Some friends are particularly subdued; others seem to move on uncomfortably quick. This seems very much drawn from life. Their voices, as written, are appropriate for contemporary online posts; they’re not all as distinct as they could be, but this might also be in favor of realism.

I think the low point for me was the group chat session near the end. It’s timed out to be more like a realtime chat experience, and I think my frustration with this outweighed any added realism. I don’t know if this is how any social-media site is handling the accounts of deceased individuals today, but it seems so traumatic that I felt like I had to suspend disbelief more here than I did in other parts of the story (and I’ll be horrified if I find out this is also true-to-life). I also didn’t feel like I got much additional insight into the characters from this live session - they were just uncomfortable and cagey.

In the end I decided not to enforce the account deletion policy, and there wasn’t any consequence for this; I had a bit of an expectation up front that the work would be about criticizing such a policy, but the ending suggests that’s less the point and it’s more about experiencing this moment with these characters.

The author clearly took a risk sharing this personal work, and effectively conveyed a difficult experience. Thank you Bez!

3 Likes

Starbreakers by E. Joyce. Co-written by N. Cormier. (Twine)

Spoilery Review

This was much more “game-forward” that the first two I played for the comp; at first it seems like a series of puzzles with a very thin frame story; gradually we learn that we’re an AI breaking out of a lab into the internet.

One thing that really stands out about this work is that it’s presenting types of puzzles and a variety that I don’t see as often in the comp, the sort of thing you might find in a newsstand puzzle book: A crossword, a word-search, a riddle, a dialogue puzzle, a few “balance the scale” puzzles, even a maze and the Towers of Hanoi. (Kudos to the authors on using that last one as a punchline.) They are particularly impressive for their implementation and presentation in Twine. Some of these puzzles are timed.

Some of them I liked a lot more than others - I’m particularly terrible at the “balance” puzzles and wasn’t in the mood to work things out on paper. Fortunately the authors have included a discoverable and comprehensive contextual hint system, allowing me to breeze through puzzles I find particularly frustrating and see the game through to its end within the time limit. Great work on this.

The puzzles are so central and concrete that I found myself not paying much attention to the frame story; I sort of mentally dismissed it as “hand-wavy.” There’s a set of characters (other AIs) that you’re competing against and it’s clear that some effort put into giving them distinct personalities, but I didn’t end up caring about them much. On reflection, this might be because I didn’t interact with them. That is, my character interacts with them in the story, but as a player my interactions were very puzzle-centric so I didn’t think about the characters as much.

Overall this feels like a learning exercise polished up and submitted to the comp; and in fact it is - the authors admit this in their about text. But it’s a robust learning exercise, and it’s very polished, and I had some fun with it. Thanks Joyce & Cormier!

4 Likes

Walking Into It by Andrew Schultz

Spoilery Review

This is satisfying in its complete exploration of the ways to lose at tic-tac-toe. It also does a good job of revealing this goal naturally as you explore the space, through the reactions of the surrounding kids and some nudges about what you haven’t found yet. In particular, forcing you to go first once you’ve found all the go-second “solutions” is a great hint.

That said, it’s fairly slight. I also didn’t feel like the “teaching moment” came through as strong as I might have hoped; I didn’t feel like my opponent was gradually understanding the game better.

Overall an interesting tiny experience. Thanks Andrew!

3 Likes

4x4 Archipelago by Agnieszka Trzaska (Twine)

Spoilery Review

Awesome! Has kind of a classic gamebook feel to it. This started slow for me; at first I was dredging through options trying to find my way into the resource economy so I could do some adventuring. But this is really polished and fun, and I wanted to play beyond two hours - it had very much picked up momentum by then.

Combat is complex enough to be fun, but there are also noncombat adventures and I felt rewarded for dredging local taverns for info and making connections myself. You’re given a goal at the start of your adventure - a bit world-threat to address - but the game doesn’t feel particularly narrative-heavy, nor does it need to be. The story is more in the worldbuilding, which leans on fantasy tropes but hides many smaller stories and incidental characters. I’m especially impressed by the economy of the prose here - everything is tight and clear, conveying distinct personalities of the different islands without getting in the way of dashing around and managing inventory. There’s also a strong sense that there are any number of secrets hidden away - so far the only unique item I’ve found is a poisoned stiletto, but it was a game-changer and there’s clearly space for other rewards.

Overall as a game this really shines - polished, playable, and fun. The “fiction” is also good, if not quite as amazing. I’ll be spending more time with this after the comp. Thanks Agnieszka!

5 Likes

I Contain Multitudes by Wonaglot (Parser)

Spoilery Review

Multitudes starts as a murder mystery and gradually turns into more of a ghost story. There’s a great idea at the heart (sorry) of this story, a horrorpunk twist that is my favorite bit of worldbuilding in the game, and might be right at home in Fallen London.

Unfortunately I didn’t find the trip to that twist very engaging. To be honest, I’m a little puzzled by this. On its surface Multitudes has things I want from a parser game: A good-sized map over a coherent setting; several distinctive characters that move around as the story progresses, even a game-specific verb (the masks) that’s used throughout. There’s even a nice automap to help with navigation. So why did I bounce off of this?

For one thing, I found it a bit overwhelming. Is this an unfair complaint? Lots of classic games are overwhelming, and to some degree this is probably the author’s intent. You are set loose with access to most of the map from the start, with a directive to find other passengers, and I love the freedom. But for some reason I found the world difficult to digest as a player. For example, a room description from early in the game:

You are in Mid Deck.
You can see Charlotte Wistemmen.
You can go down, up, south, southwest, west, east or southeast.

The mid deck is swathed in the most opulent materials, as many of the illustrious passengers spend their recreational time here. The walls are covered in gilded boiserie and thick crimson carpet cushions the linoleum hallways. Windows covered by velvet curtains look out onto the sea, and above the staircase leading to the upper decks hangs a grand portrait of the Prizessin Anna Alexia herself, the girl after whom the ship is named.

Going up or down will lead to the upper and lower decks, respectively. To the west is the Library, while the Dark Room for guests to develop photographs sits in the south west. To the east is gymnasium, and the game parlor occupies a room off the south east corridor. Finally, the rooms of the ship’s staff such as the maids, the chefs, and so on, is located to the south.

This could be the third room you see. There are a lot of exits, and this isn’t unusual; the rooms above and below this one also have exits in many directions. You’ll be moving through these spaces a lot, and getting your bearings is a demanding challenge; I found myself repeatedly walking into the wrong room and back out to the atria, and subsequently wishing for a “go to” verb. There’s also a density of information on our first visit. The ship being named after Anna is important; so is the dark room. Not so much the carpet or curtains, or even the sea. In retrospect, I’d have liked it if the game hid some of these details from the room description until I explored them myself: Charlotte’s name, the subject of the portrait, perhaps where some of the exits lead. It’s in-fiction that my character knows these things, but as a player it might have helped me keep track of what I still need to explore.

Later I found myself confused about what order I had to talk to the characters in, having a hard time finding key items because I didn’t “look under” things, and I seemed to lock myself into a “bad” ending without realizing it. Maybe I missed something really important? Looking at the walkthrough later I don’t recall anything in the game that would have hinted at cutting out the tongue’s corpse; what would I use it for? The masks didn’t seem to have as much influence on characters as I expected, either.

So maybe this comes down to taste, but I wanted the game to more actively nudge me towards the best bits. That indirect-control part of game design is often invisible when it’s done well, but when it’s missing the player starts bumping into the “flat” parts of the scenery.

As a parting note, I loved performing the duet - that was my favorite scene, even though I didn’t read the libretto ahead of time. It was a memorable moment and a really strong narrative beat. Also I want to know more about this world of ships powered by stolen hearts. Thanks Wongalot!

3 Likes

The Waiting Room by Billy Krolick (Twine)

Spoilery Review

A ghost story about a nursing home. This is effective horror, mixing the supernatural with the all-too-plausible horrors of the elder care industry. I’m not personally a fan of horror games; even so, I found this compelling and affecting.

One thing that worked especially well for me was structuring Shady Oaks as one long hallway with rooms off the sides and the ominous abandoned back-half of the building.

You leave the room and look to the end of the hall, where double glass doors seal your wing off from the other half of the building. Behind the doors, you see nothing but darkness. The other wing seems to be abandoned. And without power.

Alright, all you have to do is walk to the end of the hall, right up to those doors, and find this closet. Easy…

The game is strongly guided from one beat to the next and never asks the player to navigate, but the clear layout made the space easy to visualize and helped the creeping dread land. My mind’s eye inserted a trombone shot every time we looked back at the end of the hall.

The pacing is good too. Each screen of text is compact and expresses one moment, idea, or thought. There are rarely more than 100 words on the screen at a time, and the length varies according to what’s going on moment-to-moment. The game gets very terse in a tense moment, the absence of information emulating the laser-focus of a scary situation.

The characters are distinctive and memorable, especially the residents of Shady Oaks which is appropriate with the theme. And there are choices with consequences! A life-or-death decision pays off at the end of the first act, setting stakes for the rest of the story and foreshadowing the horrific reveal at the end.

The whole thing feels very polished. There are some text effects to sell particular sensory touchstones (flickering lights, a hacking cough) that I don’t usually appreciate, but here they are subtle enough to be additive.

Overall I’m very glad I ran across this. I admire the execution, and could see myself recommending it to a friend (depending on taste). Thanks Billy!

This text will be hidden

(Just learned that my ability to edit the top-level post expires, so I’m no longer adding links to specific reviews. Sorry about that!)

1 Like

Universal Hologram by Kit Riemer (Twine)

Spoilery Review

There’s an amalgam of neat ideas in Universal Hologram. Astral projection is real, and it’s enabled by a technological breakthrough. There seems to be a weird relationship between dreaming and projecting. There’s a bleak science-fictiony world with its own history; consciousness uploading; a simulated world, then many nested simulated worlds. Illustrations that look ML-generated. And maybe a heist?

The game is structured with a set plot you’ll be carried through, with several subsections giving the reader some control of exploration. It definitely has momentum and escalating stakes. Some of the ideas above are introduced by twists in the larger plot, giving a sense of jumping between themes or even genres as the story proceeds. I found it a little disorienting. This might be exactly what the author intended! But it brought to mind Schell’s lens of the Weirdest Thing and I wonder if some of these ideas could be explored further if others were cut.

The writing seems intentionally harsh and juvenile, both the narrator’s voice and the PC and NPCs. Here’s an early possible dead-end:

You have gone too far. A negative energy being points at you and speaks the language of the stars.

You shit yourself IRL and your brain explodes.

YOU HAVE DIED. Thanks for playing!

And here’s a nearby alternative with dialogue:

When you return to the class, your instructor’s astral body is vibrating with anger.

“You’ve really pissed me off, you dumb asshole!” they say. “You’re lucky I’m nice, or I would send negative energy entities to fuck you up. You moron. You fucking idiot.”

Sorry. Thanks for not sending negative energy entities to kill or traumatize me or whatever.
I am back from the stars, and what I have seen will amaze you.

I’m not sure what the author is trying to achieve with this tone. It could be a nod to the later revelation that we’re living in a simulation in the “this is what everyone is like on the Internet” sense; that’s a depressing implication that the game doesn’t really explore. Or maybe it’s setting up a motivation for the protagonist to agree to weird science experiments - life is kind of terrible, why not agree to any chance of escape? Or maybe it’s supposed to be funny? That didn’t land for me, as the setting and stakes seem like they’d call for a little more gravitas. On the other hand, I could see this playing as a Simon-Pegg-esqe comedy, with the bizarre twists and turns and the characters’ intense reactions to them played for laughs. I think to make that work, more contrast between the character voices would help; the over-the-top narrator needs a timid sidekick in the player, or vice-versa.

Anyway, this example with the instructor was particularly jarring. Even in a comedy, I’d expect someone that viciously mean to be a plot-important character, but the instructor is sort of incidental.

I really like the idea of the nested simulated worlds at worse and worse resolutions. That idea by itself could carry an interesting story. An Inception or Divine Comedy journey through the layers of this simulated hell would provide a neat outer structure to fill in lots of cool worldbuilding details. As is, we sort of jump from layer 9 to layer 0 in a few paragraphs so we can collide with the even cooler idea that our matroyshka of simulations is just one of hundreds of stacks running in a sort of server farm.

Overall though, my experience of Universal Hologram was just… fine. Perhaps less than the sum of its parts, several neat bits that didn’t quite cohere into a great experience, but those bits were themselves memorable. Thanks Kit!

1 Like

Thank you for your review (and for taking the time to play)! The humor definitely didn’t land for a lot of reviewers, which is something I’ll work on in future games.

One of my friends pointed out the same thing about the instructor being inconsequential and insisted I include a battle with him. It’s kind of hidden, you have to agree to go to U1 immediately after being asked and without being hexed. If you end up playing through again, you may get some closure that way :slight_smile:

3 Likes

Thanks for the tip, I’ll give it a shot! There are definitely branches I missed (in most of the games) and it’s neat to find out you already accounted for my reaction to the instructor in one of them. :+1:

1 Like

Feel free to skip it if you want, it’s very inessential. Just wanted to mention it!

The House on Highfield Lane by Andy Joel

Spoilery Review

“Horror… without the horror” worked for me. Trapped in a weird house with a mysterious figure you can never quite get a good look at could be super scary, but this is just odd and a little unsettling in a good way. The wonderland logic of the space feels very adventure-gamey and I enjoyed wandering and discovering its surprises.

That said, I didn’t make much progress in the allotted two hours. I found the wire and tied it to the weathervane, and found the boot, and that’s about it - I bounced off most of the puzzles and didn’t really get a foothold on anything. Glancing at the walkthrough I missed a ton of stuff. I’m not sure what to recommend though - I think I might have hit this in the wrong mindset and need to take another run at it sometime.

It did feel like something I’d like to make. Thanks Andy!

2 Likes

The Last Night of Alexisgrad by Milo van Mesdag

Spoilery Review

I’ve never heard of a two player Twine game before! I set up a voice chat with a buddy from school and we had a good time with this. It helped that the instructions were simple: Same number of clicks per player, share codes when you get them.

The first thing that surprised me about Alexisgrad was how long the passages are. It made more sense one we realized it was designed with exactly one lockstep choice per page. In real-time this meant a bit of silent reading time on the phone between interactions, which was a tiny bit awkward but we were game for it.

Near the beginning it doesn’t seem like your choices are affecting the other player much. In the middle there’s a choice of setting for the third act, and the game ends with a confrontation between the players, which in our experiences could take the forms of a negotiation or an execution. The pace picks up for this third act, and we found the code-exchange system surprisingly fluid.

The game takes place in a fictional country with its own politics, culture and history, and the player characters are distinctive while leaving room for roleplay. World building is meted out over the arc of the story and across different possible branches too - I was surprised at the new things we learned about the setting on our second go. It also revealed some clever railroading - the first act seems to always bottleneck into the same scenes, and I suspect much of the third act is the same regardless of setting but the setting-specific flavor text is nicely woven in so it doesn’t feel generic.

The prose is heavy with description, and a few phrases were laugh out loud clunky, but it serves the game well enough. There are some uninformed choices: For example, the Dictator’s choice of a hiding place, and the General’s choice of “who to send in” are both consequential, but the player doesn’t have enough information to differentiate the options. It would be nice to have a hint about why the PC might pick each option. Finally, I think this is too grim for some tastes. I saw the content warning, but the suicide in the first scene and the particularly cold murder of one player by the other on some paths were borderline for me.

This was definitely fun with the right player 2 (although I’ll admit making fun of it together was part of the fun) and it left me feeling inspired to try something similar. What a cool idea. Thanks Milo!

2 Likes

Thank you for the review! A lot of clue were hidden behind asking NPCs about certain nouns. Honestly from what I hear it’s impressive to get to any ending at all! Well done!