Comp reviews? Comp reviews!

It’s that time of year again: the time when I try to write short reviews of all the comp games before the comp is over and inevitably fail. (Maybe this year will finally be the year I succeed??? … nah, I doubt it.)


[spoiler]I think I am exactly the wrong person to review SPY INTRIGUE, as it manages to involve not one, but two common Twine writing styles that I dislike (the vaguely Homestuck-esque tongue-in-cheek TOTALLY RADICAL type that always sounds like a guy in his late twenties who likes a lot of shitty pop culture “ironically”, and the moody, introspective, “disaffected ennui-filled young adult (usually with some kind of mental health issue)” kind). I did not like it, but for the people who like that kind of thing, it may be the kind of thing that they like?

The low-contrast text with staticky background gave me an actual headache, which may have biased me further against the game’s content, but when you make that kind of design decision, you should probably be prepared for the fact that it will put some people off.[/spoiler]


I wasn’t a big fan of Bell Park, Youth Detective–I found it snarky enough to prevent any emotional involvement, but not (unlike You Will Select A Decision) funny enough to be compelling in spite of the characters and plot being two-dimensional parody. So I went into this game, in which Bell is a major character, with some trepidation… and ended up loving it. It still has that weirdness (robotic-sounding bird aliens infiltrating the already-odd dream scenarios of a teenage girl will do that), and the secondary characters are still kind of one-note caricatures (though entertaining ones–I kind of love the teenage Tumblr fangirl, I won’t lie), but Bridget and Bell feel human, and their awkwardly budding teenage romance, which was sweet and believable, provided a solid emotional core to the weirdness of the larger plot. I also thought the mechanic of having the choices in the dreams reset Bridget’s stats at the beginning of each day was pretty neat, and it’s not something I’ve seen before. Basically, I really enjoyed this game and will probably play it again when I’m not trying to plow through several dozen games by November 15th.

The Speaker

The idea of this–a human on what seems to be an alien-colonized Earth playing amanuensis for an alien advice blogger whose advice he doesn’t agree with–was interesting, but the execution seemed somehow… too thin, or too lightweight, for what it was trying to do. Possibly it’s because each individual playthrough is so short, or possibly it’s the lack of background on the whole human-alien situation and what exactly the power dynamic is there, but I just never really felt the ethical dilemma as keenly as I think the player was meant to.

Questor’s Quest

[spoiler]I’ll admit it: intentionally old-fashioned IF is a hard sell for me. I mean, there are actual old-school games that I like, but no one ever makes throwbacks to, like, A Mind Forever Voyaging or Douglas Adams’s Bureaucracy–it’s always the same old cookie-cutter high fantasy quest stuff. And Questor’s Quest is a perfectly competent entry in that genre, it just doesn’t, as far as I can see, bring anything new to the genre or to IF generally. It’s not bad, it’s not frustrating, it’s just not interesting.

Also, the magical artifact for which Questor is questing is misspelled as a “pendent” throughout the game, and maybe that’s a petty thing to get hung up on, but I’m an editor in real life and it drove me nuts.[/spoiler]

Cat Scratch

This is basically a short chapter book for younger readers with a framing story about a girl who has a bad time at a Girl Scout meeting and a main story about the adventures of flying cats. The book is nicely put together, works smoothly and without glitches, and has lovely illustrations, but interactivity is extremely minimal–mostly limited to poking things and having them make noise. I had picture-book CD-ROMs in the '90s where you could click different places in the picture and get animations and little dialogues, and I think that’s more or less what this wanted to be, but frankly it’s not even as interactive as those CD-ROM picture books were. And while the story might have been fascinating to seven-year-old me who really loved Catwings, it doesn’t grab me now. Again, it’s lovely and it seems like the creators put quite a lot of work into it, but I’m not the target audience and it leaves me cold. And while people have different places they draw the line about what’s sufficiently interactive, I’m really not sure an interactive fiction competition was the best venue for this piece.


[spoiler]“At any time during the game (especially now) you may type:
HELP to see the standard commands used to read/play Interactive Fiction.
ABOUT to see the non-standard commands created especially for this game.
CREDITS to see the acknowledgments for this game.”

I type “about”; nothing happens. This game is not getting off to a good start.

And then four moves in I get this:

SYSTEM ERROR: Unknown attribute for literal (0).

<If you are the creator of this piece of Interactive Fiction, please help debug this Alan system
error. Collect all the sources, and, if possible, an exact transcript of the commands that let to
this error, in a zip-file and send it to Thank you!>

All right, I’m done. This thing is apparently unplayable, at least by me.[/spoiler]

Scarlet Sails

This is an entertaining little game with fun writing, very much in the usual Choice of Games vein, but little enough changes in each playthrough that it gets a bit tedious if you’re having trouble not dying in Chapter 9. Also, if you do survive (and then die of scurvy? I’m unsure whether there’s a way to not die of scurvy), you get a button that says “Coda” and that just takes you back to an earlier choice with all your current stats, and as far as I can tell, that loop just goes on forever as long as the sea serpent doesn’t eat you. I’m not sure if that’s intentional or not. It was fun at first, and I like the blurbs on historical pirates at the end, but the more I played it, the more confused and frustrated I got.

The Baker of Shireton

And speaking of things that have fun premises but get kind of tiresome in execution, we have this bread-making sim in which you’re an NPC in an MMORPG, just trying to provide delicious HP-restoring baked goods to the players. Once I figured out I could just BAKE BREAD instead of having to OPEN OVEN, PUT DOUGH IN OVEN (x however many pans of dough I had), CLOSE OVEN it went a little quicker, but you still have to MAKE DOUGH for each pan individually (and for some reason the “g” shortcut doesn’t even work for that particular command? At least, not for me), and it eventually got too annoying for me to even bother finding any of the endings that don’t involve death.

In conclusion, apparently I’m a crotchety so-and-so and I don’t like anything. Except Birdland. Birdland can stay.

Regarding Questor’s Quest: Haha, yeah, sorry about that. Spelling isn’t my strong-suit. I did my best. I’m actually way more of a Math and Science guy than a Literary Arts guy. I love how IF is a mashup of puzzly/gamer type people and expressive/evocative/author type people, me being the former. This was my first attempt at being creative using words. My more prolific mode of artistic expression is as a composer.

That’s okay–I completely understand that spelling’s not easy for everyone, it’s just that my day job requires me to be hyper-vigilant about other people’s spelling errors and I can’t really turn off that awareness, so it’s jarring to me. Maybe, if you continue to make games, you could find a beta-tester who can also keep an eye out for misspellings?

The Baker of Shireton, Redux

[spoiler]On further consideration, I didn’t think I’d given this game a fair shake, so I tried it again. On the upside, it does become less repetitive and more interesting once you manage to leave the bakery. However, I don’t feel like the method of becoming able to leave the bakery is especially well signposted; without consulting the walkthrough, I wouldn’t have known to attempt it in the first place, much less how to go about it. After that, the actions needed to progress became easier to figure out, though there’s a part where progress is dependent on waiting for NPCs to wander in and ask you the right questions, and that got a little dull. (Especially since sometimes they’ll wander in, ask their question, and immediately leave again, and you have to wait for them to come back in and try to remember what answer you were supposed to be giving them.)

I also noticed a couple of weird bugs, though these might also just be me: if you type the command “bake bread” while holding bread, you will put the already-baked bread back in the oven instead of putting the dough in; also, after defeating the raider, dough just… didn’t rise anymore, no matter how long I waited. All I could bake was biscuits. Though at that point it’s not really necessary to bake anymore–I was just doing it because I thought I might need more money, which I didn’t after that point. And also to kill time while waiting for the NPCs to do their thing, as mentioned above.

All that being said, the environment and concept of the game were sufficiently charming that I did overall enjoy it, and the final puzzle was very satisfying, in the way that it is when you encounter a situation and you know exactly what you have to do. (Though I guess it’s ironic that it’s the same thing I was complaining about not knowing I had to do to Bob earlier.) And the ending was neat–you become a mysterious baker-assassin! (That’s baker and assassin, not assassin of bakers, just so we’re clear.) So although my enjoyment of this game was definitely tempered by bouts of frustration and boredom, I did enjoy it, overall.[/spoiler]

Re: Onaar, did you use the version of Gargoyle included in the download? If not, I would expect crashing. Onaar uses a version of Alan not included in the last version of Gargoyle (Gargoyle hasn’t been updated for years) but which has been patched into the copy of Gargoyle that comes with the game.


Ah, I didn’t realize the version that came in the download was a modified version. I guess I’ll try it again later. Man, I’m 2 for 2 on blaming game programming for my own/my computer’s screw-ups this year.


I have mixed feelings about this one. I like the almost magical-realism vibe–the world it’s set in is very much like this one, but local covens of witches who can help you find your house keys are apparently an unremarkable thing–and some of the imagery is very striking. (I’d quote specific passages, but I failed to copy them as I was playing and don’t really want to go back looking for them. Whoops.) But emotionally, it never really clicked for me, and in a game like this, that’s not insignificant. Of course, that’s a highly subjective thing, but I’m really not sure why I had that reaction, beyond that the PC stayed kind of a cipher for the most part and I could neither get into their head enough to empathize with their pain nor project my own feelings and experiences onto them enough that I didn’t need to (though the latter is what I think I was supposed to do).


[spoiler]I also have mixed feelings about this one. At first I was constantly distracted by the fact that the setting of this game feels less like the real Japan and more like the concept of Japan of a Westerner whose image of it comes mostly from 1980s cyberpunk. I mean, it is not itself cyberpunk–the setting is hard to pinpoint but seems near future at most, and technology plays a very minor role–but the neo-noirish “this city is a wretched hive of scum and villainy” sensibility is there.

However, while the atmosphere it creates is not authentic, it is vivid, and as I played I found myself increasingly drawn into its melancholy world, full of people who seem isolated even as they interact with each other, their fleeting connections only serving to heighten the sense of aloneness. The conversations occasionally descend into pretentious pseudophilosophy (especially with the artist, but, well, he’s an artist), but overall the effect was oddly compelling.

… And then I hit the end of the game (having worked in the fish-packing plant, modelled for the artist, completed all deliveries, and sold everything I had–if there are any other ways of acquiring cash, I didn’t find them) and was still 20,000 yen short of the train fare. And although I could start over, I’m unsure what I could do differently beyond haggling more, and frankly the haggling gets pretty tedious. So that was really disappointing, in part because by that point I’d gotten into it enough to want to see the ending and hopefully find out a little more about what was going on with the protagonist (like, what was the deal with her father? What was she running from? And why was she running around in a yukata, anyway?). Maybe at some point I’ll give it another shot, but I’m not sure I wouldn’t just end up in the same unwinnable state again.

(Okay, now I am going to ramble about something largely inconsequential that bothered me: Japan in this game is far more multicultural/multiethnic/diverse than the real Japan is. I mean, I think the only proper NPCs who are foreign are Russian and Chinese, which is quite plausible for a large Japanese city, but the flavor text for passers-by indicated a wider range of ethnicities, and a higher concentration of people of those ethnicities, than is really realistic. Japan is something like 90% ethnic Japanese, and even Tokyo is hardly New York. But what really threw me out of the game every time was that one of the common descriptors for passers-by was “latino”, and not only are people from Latin America, aside from Brazil, not a significant minority in Japan, but the average Japanese person wouldn’t recognize a latin@ person as such if they saw one. Granted, this bothers me pretty much only because while living in Japan, I was good friends with a Latina woman from New Mexico who was also there teaching English and I got to hear all her stories of people going “??? Southeast Asian??? Part-Asian, part-white??? What are you???” I don’t think it’s common knowledge and I don’t really fault the author for not knowing it. But because of my related personal experience, it was incredibly distracting. And meanwhile, some of Japan’s actual relatively-large minority groups, such as Filipino and Korean people, are totally absent.)[/spoiler]

Thank you for the review. I just updated with (I hope) a clearer signpost of how NOT to die of scurvy, and I hope I’ve finally fixed the playloop (that wasn’t meant to happen). I’ll go double-check the walkthrough now.

Thanks! I look forward to not dying of scurvy.

To Burn in Memory

[spoiler]This game is lovely, visually, and its aesthetic goes a long way to establish the sort of desolate atmosphere of this abandoned, war-torn European city and the contemplative tone of the piece. Unfortunately, this atmosphere is hampered by the fact that the game is frequently overwritten. Don’t get me wrong; I’m a word nerd, and I’m not one to insist that you shouldn’t play with language or use big words. But where this piece’s heightened language seemed to be aiming for grand and weighty, I felt it more often ended up with clunky and stilted. For example, “The Provost held his own in that loft palace of his, and we developed a begrudging respect for his adamance–maybe this immutability held deference to some grain of truth in that ideology of theirs.” “Held deference” is a bit of an odd-sounding expression to start with, but if this is saying, as I think it is, “maybe his stubbornness in holding to his ideology meant that there was a grain of truth in it after all,” then “deference” seems, at best, like the second cousin of the word that’s wanted. Or there’s “A masterpiece of the profane, constructed to play a sequence of symbol and aesthetic in the minds of the viewer as to urge absolute dissent”–leaving aside its slightly questionable grammar, as a description of an object’s appearance, what does this even mean? Is the “absolute dissent” supposed to be, as context might suggest, a description of the disgust or revulsion one might feel at seeing a “masterpiece of the profane” that’s apparently an unholy marriage of clockwork and a human skull (in which case, again, “dissent” isn’t exactly the right word), or does the object actually have some sort of power to urge viewers to dissent from… something? Though in fairness, it might be the latter–I never quite got what was going on with the game’s clockpunk aspect, or what the significance or function of the clockwork devices was.

The game ran smoothly with no bugs that I noticed, and the puzzles (mostly of the “find the key to unlock this door, behind which you will find another key for that other door you couldn’t go in earlier” variety) weren’t too taxing. And I really liked the little graphical inventory on the right side of the screen. Overall I did enjoy playing it, but the awkward sentences kept bringing me up short.[/spoiler]

Arcane Intern (Unpaid)

I’m a sucker for the kind of humor that comes from the juxtaposition of the fantastic with the mundane, which is basically this game’s whole schtick. As an intern, you must pick up coffee for the company… from a coffee shop run by a dragon in an alternate dimension! And make photocopies… of sigils that might cause vines to grow over the copier–which of course causes a paper jam, darn it. You get the idea. In addition, I’m always really excited to see fiction set in and around publishing companies (there’s a lot of fiction about writers, but apart from maybe a nagging editor who’s always hounding them about deadlines, they never seem to be connected to the larger publishing world at all). I strongly suspect that the writer has a frustrating publishing internship or two in her past, but if not, good job on the authenticity (god, how I don’t miss spending all day making photocopies of backlist titles). So it’s pretty much as if this game was designed to appeal to me personally, and I can’t complain. It’s pretty brief and not, perhaps, a groundbreaking masterpiece, but it was very entertaining.

Thanks for the review, glad you enjoyed it! I totally understand how people can find the writing taxing at times, and it requires a lot of time on my part to make this particular style work. I think it’s telling that the two sentences you picked were written on literally the last day before the deadline, as usually everything goes through a number of rewrites – or at the very least is heavily scrutinized on a regular basis – and awkward word choices are patched up then. I’m relieved you found the puzzles easy, having released a few more traditional games before, I know I’ve always had a problem with puzzles being far more difficult than I intended!

Makes sense–running up against deadlines will do that, especially if you’re attempting something that ambitious.

As for the puzzles, I’m not familiar with your past work, but if by “more traditional” you mean “parser-based,” I really think the hypertext format helps a lot with keeping puzzles straightforward by making it clear which objects you can interact with and limiting the ways in which you can interact with them. But yeah, I never really got stuck, which I appreciated since it didn’t seem like the puzzles were supposed to be the main focus.

(On an unrelated note, I meant to but forgot to mention in my original review that the atmosphere of the game kept reminding me of The Three Golden Keys by Peter Sis. They’re not that similar, ultimately, but something about wandering around a deserted European city looking for keys called it to mind.)

Thanks for the review!! I’m glad you enjoyed it! [emote]:D[/emote]

You’re not wrong about the publishing internship part, though they were much much better than the one in the game.

No problem!

Mine weren’t that bad either, photocopying aside–but on the other hand, I didn’t get cool magical powers out of them, which is too bad.

Grimm’s Godfather

This seems to be the writer’s first game, and a lot of work clearly went into it, so I’m reluctant to criticize it too harshly–and really, it’s a pretty solid first effort. The premise is creative and unusual (I’d never even heard of that fairytale before), and the length of the game and the fact that nearly all choices are meaningful and not fake ensures that getting all the endings (and there are quite a few of them) isn’t much of a chore. The moral dilemmas didn’t feel too weighty (partly, I think, because the game is so short and partly because its classic fairytale style keeps the player at a certain distance), but I was interested enough in learning what the outcomes of different choices would be to keep playing with the game until I’d found, I think, all the variations. The main issue is that the writer’s grasp of English grammar is quite shaky–I’ll let a few awkward constructions from a non-native speaker pass without comment, but this was constant dropped articles and mis-conjugated verbs, which was a bit distracting. I’d be interested to see what the writer could do with some help from a volunteer editor/grammar-oriented beta tester.


This one’s also a first game, as far as I can tell, and as first parser games go it was pretty good on the technical front–I, at least, didn’t run into any awkward errors with implementation or synonyms or anything. I think having a relatively small map and few interactable objects probably did a lot to keep it manageable in that regard. Unfortunately, the premise (you wake up in a strange otherworldly location with amnesia!) has been done to death in IF and it’s hard to work up much enthusiasm for it at this point. Also, the ending didn’t explain much of anything, which is hard to pull off in a satisfying manner when you’ve got a work of fiction that trades on being mysterious.

Final Exam

This game did a great job of suggesting an interesting world–I really enjoyed the beginning bit, where the PC is just wandering through the empty building and soaking up the dystopian-authoritarian atmosphere, and then when the PC entered the real(?) world I was intrigued by the contrast between the grandeur of the simulation and the sort of run-down seedy nature of the reality. But at that point it got puzzlefest-y and never really dug into the setting and what was going on with the Administrators the way I had been expecting it to. And then at the end you find out that an attempted coup has been going on offscreen all this time, but that’s about all you find out about it, and I just found it kind of frustrating to have these tantalizing hints that Interesting Political Things are going on somewhere but never to really scratch the surface of that. I am, however, aware that this is not really the game’s problem so much as it is me expecting/wanting it to be a different game than it was. I thought the difficulty level of the puzzles (or puzzle, really) was good (though I’m not terribly good at puzzles, so take that as you will) and the game was overall well written and well constructed, it just ended up having less of a story than I thought at first that it would.

Emily Is Away

[spoiler]This game does a spectacular job of recreating the early-2000s internet experience, which effectively pushed my nostalgia buttons since I was a teenager back then. But since it does trade heavily on nostalgia for its emotional effect, I have to wonder whether it would leave significantly older people (or significantly younger people, but I’m not sure there are many of those hanging around IFComp) rather cold. That’s not to say there’s nothing else going on with it, though; what I took away from it was mostly a bittersweet reflection on those high school friendships that you think will last forever, because you just can’t imagine not having this person in your life, but that nonetheless fade away as you grow up and go in different directions. I think it’s telling that there’s no way (as far as I found) to preserve your friendship with Emily; no matter what choices you make, it still ends up with the two of you unable to communicate on any but the most superficial level.

There’s also the romantic aspect, of course, but that read to me a little more like the very, very common “shy guy who could never bring himself to make a move laments the girl who got away (and is now dating a TOTAL JERK even though he, the shy guy, has been right here the whole time and would never treat her like that!!)” narrative, which is not a thing I find very interesting anymore. (I know the PC’s gender is unspecified, but they read implicitly male to me, though I’m not sure I can put my finger on why. It’s not the attraction to women, though the way that attraction is taken for granted and not commented on may be part of it.) So even though the romantic aspect of the PC and Emily’s relationship is very important to the story and a major catalyst for their drifting apart, I would almost have been happier without it. Then again, that would be a significantly different story, and I think Emily Is Away is a fairly well-executed version of the story that it wanted to be, so I can’t really fault it for not being the story I would rather have read. And now this is turning into my review for Final Exam all over again, funnily enough.[/spoiler]

5 Minutes to Burn Something!

[spoiler]This is a pretty textbook puzzly My Crappy Apartment game. The concept’s not a bad one–the over-the-top nature of the situation keeps it from feeling too self-pitying, and while the PC is maybe not especially sympathetic, it’s silly enough (and short enough) that that wasn’t off-putting to me. And hey, as a former Girl Scout, I do love a good fire. (Girl Scouts: turning small children into pyromaniacs for over 100 years. On a side note, I found it sort of interesting that some of the spellings and word choices suggested that the writer was from somewhere Commonwealth-y and not the US, but the game refers to Scouts, not Guides… Ah well, that’s not especially relevant.) … Anyway! I definitely think there are the bones of an entertaining game here. Unfortunately, this is marred by guess-the-verb and general implementation problems, which are frustrating in any case but especially so in a puzzle-heavy game. In addition to the “I know what to do, I just don’t know what you want me to type in order to do it” issue, there’s the possibility of thinking the solution you’ve got isn’t the right one just because you worded it slightly wrongly and going haring off to find a different solution when there isn’t one, and also the problem that legitimately wrong solutions don’t give you useful error messages. For example, I spent a long time trying to light the fire with the cigarette lighter, which seemed, you know, logical, and I just got a whole lot of “I don’t understand you,” which didn’t definitively convey to me that the lighter was not useful and I should try something else. The hints eventually told me that anything with Ash’s name on it wouldn’t help, but I’m not sure I would’ve gotten that from the game proper. (Incidentally, the hint system is very well done.)

Point is, I’d love to see a post-comp release of this that’s been run through another round of beta-testing. I mean, I, too, released a first game that had been beta-tested by a single person who was a friend of mine and not terribly up on the workings of IF games, which is what happens when you’re new to the community and don’t really know anybody, but now that the game has gotten Comp exposure, I’m sure there’d be no shortage of people willing to help out.[/spoiler]

I Think the Waves Are Watching Me

[spoiler]Okay, I guess there are some retro games that aren’t Generic Fantasy Quest after all–though this is mostly retro in terms of interface, while in terms of gameplay it seems fairly unusual for any era. It’s a weird, surreal little game in which the PC solves the riddles of a talking rabbit to track down a killer whose murder weapon is some sort of red lightning, and somehow this doesn’t come off nearly as ridiculous as it sounds when I say it here. The randomly-generated nature of the characters (who seem to have four traits each, three of which are physical) does remove the psychological aspect that I tend to look for in mysteries, especially the “we’re trapped in an enclosed space being picked off one by one” type, but I found it engrossing nonetheless–though I never actually managed to correctly guess the killer. I’ll probably spend some more time with this one after the comp; I have the feeling that there’s a lot that I have yet to see. I’ve barely scratched the surface of the various achievements.

I do kind of wish there were a walkthrough for how to get the achievements, though. I’ve been down to the jetty with at least five McGuffins on multiple occasions, and I still can’t figure out how to get off the island that way.[/spoiler]

Life on Mars?

[spoiler]This is a well-written, short, and effective piece of space horror, with great atmosphere and a good instinct for how much to show or tell and how much to leave to the imagination. I also found it a more relatable portrayal of a person suffering from depression than a lot of games that are About Depression–okay, maybe that’s not fair of me to say, because I generally tend to be more interested in any subject when it’s dealt with IN SPACE, but there was a strong sense of psychological realism, to the extent that I had to take breaks when playing it because it was starting to mess with my mental state.

What it isn’t, though, is especially interactive, and I’m waffling on whether it’s a story that could only have been told in this medium or if it could just as well have been static fiction. I don’t think interactive fiction necessarily needs to either have puzzles or meaningful, story-affecting choices in order to merit the label (Exhibition is my go-to example of a piece of IF that has neither but that, in my opinion, absolutely wouldn’t work in any other medium), I’m just not sure how much the nominal interactivity contributes here. Control gets taken away from the player entirely on several occasions, including in the climactic scene (and from there to the end of the game), and even aside from that, a lot of the game content is reading emails and reading the PC’s commentary on the emails. Though I don’t know for certain if this is the case, I can definitely see the minimal interactivity being a deliberate choice meant to create a sense of helplessness and futility and a feeling that the PC isn’t really in control of her own actions, I’m just… not sure how well I think this works? But for all that, I did find Life on Mars? striking, even haunting, and I expect it will stay with me for a while.

(… Much like the David Bowie earworm I get every time I see the title, in fact. So thanks for that.)[/spoiler]

Nowhere Near Single

[spoiler]Nowhere Near Single has a premise that could easily read like wish fulfillment–down-on-her-luck young singer gets catapulted into pop stardom and gets not one, but three lovely girlfriends! But the personalities of all three main characters are well-developed enough and the PC’s struggles given enough attention and realism that it feels grounded and emotionally involving. The writing is generally good–nothing fancy, but believable as the inner monologue of a twenty-year-old and it doesn’t get in its own way–and while the video game references may come off as cheesy to some, as a longtime fan of bad Resident Evil dialogue, I, for one, appreciated the Jill sandwiches. And I was stupidly excited to see a shout-out to Ever17, because damn, that’s obscure. Overall, I enjoyed playing it, and I appreciated that although the PC goes through some rough patches, it’s possible to work things out and have a reasonably happy ending, instead of just being a slow-motion relationship trainwreck the way it was looking like it might be for a while there (not that there’s anything wrong with fiction about slow-motion relationship trainwrecks, it’s just not my thing).

There is, however, a certain roughness to the writing–typos, for one thing, but also bits of dialogue that read like the writer forgot or changed their mind about wording partway (I didn’t save any examples, but to make one up to illustrate, it’s things like “Does it really matter that much to you?” [line of descriptive text/actions] “No, I don’t”–you can see where it comes from, can tell that it’s probably an accidental mashup of “Do you care that much about it?/No, I don’t” and “Does it matter that much to you?/No, it doesn’t,” but it’s still a bit jarring). There was also at least one place where it seemed like optional/variable text based on a previous choice was meshing very badly with the static text surrounding it. So those things were a bit distracting, but that’s a relatively small issue that wouldn’t, I think, be too hard to fix.

(I will say, though, that I found it a bit odd both that Sarai insisted that all her partners had to be romantically/sexually involved with each other–or at least that she sprung that on someone she was already dating rather than being up-front about it from the start–and that the game seemed to back that up by not even addressing the possibility that the PC might not be attracted to one or both of Sarai’s other girlfriends, but I could go on for at least another paragraph about that and it would give an overly negative tenor to a review of a game I mostly enjoyed, so I won’t get into it any further.)[/spoiler]


[spoiler]What’s not to like about a game in which you play a flying cephalopod? … Well, I, for one, was charmed. The three-dimensional environment was well rendered and sharply described, and the mechanic of acquiring powerups to be used in later puzzles was fun, even though I didn’t end up using half of them. I did get stuck at one point (I was trying to break the flask, which I think??? you can’t do before you get the Crush powerup, or at least I couldn’t figure out how) and I sort of wished there had been more modular hints and not just a walkthrough, but that’s a minor quibble; I had fun with it overall.

(I’m sorry this review is so short compared to some of the others I’ve written, but it’s such a compact little game, I can’t think what else to say. Also, I had no serious problems with it, and sadly I’m the sort of person who can spill a lot more ink dissecting what doesn’t work for me than praising what does. It makes me feel like a Negative Nancy, but there comes a point at which all I can really think of to do is wave my hands around vaguely and say “I liked it! It was good!”)[/spoiler]



Go to the densest part of the map and the atmosphere will crush the flask. Either that, or go to the least dense part of the map and the flask will fly open. Or maybe do one of those things and you’ll be able to open/crush the flask yourself, with the help of the atmosphere. Anyway, you can use the atmosphere to help you.[/spoiler]

Wow, this is a terrible hint I just gave. It somehow totally spoils the puzzle without giving you the solution.

I might have meant the kettle? Either way, one of them I remember taking all the way south and getting the message that it was about to explode but needed something more, and I think I then tried going east and then going down with no effect, but I just played that far in the game again and didn’t get that message when going south with either the kettle or the flask, so now I have no idea what I was doing the first time.

A Figure Met in a Shaded Wood

I find myself in the awkward position of being unable to properly review this game because I never really figured out whether it had multiple endings or whether it was just jerking me around, and a game that takes a puzzle-y approach to CYOA with only one specific set of choices leading to a “good ending” and a game that’s an exercise in futility meant to mess with a player’s expectation that they can have an effect on the outcome by making different choices are very different things. And I can’t evaluate how well it accomplished what it set out to do without knowing what that is. Though if it’s the former, it’s frustratingly difficult; I tried to figure out what choices to make differently by looking at the figure’s “Did you think things would be different if…?” comments at the end, and got to the point where the figure was only commenting on one set of options, but no matter which choice I made at that point, it was still apparently the wrong one. And as for the latter, I’m not… really a fan of games that want to wag a finger at me for expecting to be able to make meaningful choices in a video game that promises choices and/or to be able to accomplish the game’s explicit or implicit goal, so if that’s what’s going on here, it’s not my jam.

Darkiss Chapter 1: The Awakening

I confess to not having very high expectations of this game, largely because “Darkiss” sounds so teenage-goth, but as it turns out, if this game is cheesy, it’s in a Hammer Horror way and not a Hot Topic way, and we don’t get quite enough of the former these days, I feel. I found the game an entertaining and well-constructed puzzle game, and it manages to have a protagonist who’s an unrepentantly terrible person without it being totally off-putting–maybe because he’s terrible in an over-the-top vampire way and not really a realistic way, maybe because the vampire hunters he wants revenge on don’t come off smelling of roses either. All in all, a good time.

The War of the Willows

I’m always intrigued by attempts at interactive poetry, and I really liked how it was done at the start, but when the game gets into repetitive combat that gives you the same small number of messages over and over, I think the mood it was building falls apart a bit. It’s a very ambitious game, but I don’t think the two things it’s trying to do mesh very well. Also, despite following the advice in the help file, I remain unable to actually defeat the tree, so that was frustrating.


[spoiler]I feel like I’m a bit at a disadvantage judging games for kids–not only am I not the target audience, but I don’t have kids or spend much time around kids, so I can’t even go by the metric of “would I give this to my child/sibling/nibling/students/babysitting charge and do I think they’d enjoy it.” The best I can do is ask “would I have liked this when I was a child,” and in some cases, like this one, I’m really not sure. It’s well-done technically and visually, but the writing comes off a bit twee and almost patronizing to my grown-up self. And I’m not really sure what it was trying to say about gender–I mean, basically the message seemed to be “interests/traits aren’t determined by whether you’re a boy or a girl and the opposite gender isn’t a weird alien species,” which is good, but at the same time there seemed to be moments when Derik’s tastes or perspectives legitimately seemed to have changed (becoming less interested in ninja dinosaurs and more interested in dolls, for example) just because of having woken up in a female-assigned body, which seems to contradict that. I mean, it seemed like the game was trying to play it off as “well now that he’s not a boy he is free from the social conditioning of boy-ness and can see clearly that this movie is just a toy commercial and that dolls are not inherently embarrassing,” but that’s just not very convincing when he’s been living as a girl for maybe a few hours at most. Also, I feel less qualified to comment on the disability angle, but I feel like trying to handle both sets of identity issues meant that neither one was given quite enough attention or time, especially given that (this chapter of?) the game is pretty short, and the whole central dilemma got kind of muddied by trying to do two things at once. It seemed well-intentioned on both counts, I just didn’t quite feel like it worked.

Honestly, though, I can tell that in many ways this is a well-done game and I’m sure there will be people who enjoyed it far more than I did. It’s just not for me, in part because I’m too old and too out of touch with children and in part because I’m extremely touchy about any implication that interests/hobbies/tastes/etc. can be innately Boy Things or Girl Things because of some kind of biological basis (I guess the ninja dinosaur-liking gene is carried on the Y-chromosome?) rather than societal influences.[/spoiler]

The Problems Compound

I feel like for the most part, Andrew Schultz has a thing that he does and he does it very reliably and if you’ve played one of his games you probably know whether or not you’re going to like the others. I’ve enjoyed his previous games and I enjoyed this one, although I will say that while previous games had wordplay as a mechanic, this one has more typical puzzles with the wordplay as basically flavor, which I found a tiny bit disappointing. Still, though, I had fun playing it.


I’m sorry, this is one of the ones that I am sure is a very good game if you like the kind of thing that it’s doing, but it’s just so, so far away from what I enjoy or am interested in that I can’t fairly review it. I’m way too squeamish for the “surreal worldbuilding that’s also really disgusting and shocking and uncomfortable” class of Twine game.

Pit of the Condemned

[spoiler]I like the concept of this–a game centered around being chased by something that you have to set traps for is, while maybe not totally unique, not a thing you see every day in IF–but the execution was a little rougher. A lot of that is just beginner issues that are easily remedied, mostly a lot of “You see nothing special about the ____” and some implementation weirdness (for example, I found the game didn’t recognize references to the “officer’s key” and in order to use it I had to drop every other key I was carrying so that I could refer to it just as “key”). However, on a larger scale, my problem was mostly that it didn’t feel very satisfying. After all that business with the officer’s key above, I finally got the door open to find a totally empty room, with nothing interesting or useful in it. So why bother having the locked door and making the player find a key? And then for the game’s main puzzle, to kill the beast you only need to make one trap, and to make a trap it seems like you generally only need to get one item and “use ___ on ___” in one particular place, so it’s not challenging enough for a sense of innate satisfaction in having solved the puzzle, and the ending is kind of an abrupt “congrats, you killed the beast, the end,” so there’s no sense of accomplishment to be had from a narrative standpoint either.

I did like the setting of the crumbling abandoned city, though, and found the descriptions spare but evocative. And I think it’s pretty neat that the game has an exploration mode where you can just wander through the city and see the sights without a beast coming after you. That’s a pretty creative idea and one that plays to the game’s strengths.[/spoiler]

Second Story

This one also felt like a first attempt at parser IF, and, in addition to some objects about which there was nothing special, had a bit of a problem with forgetting to list exits, but other than that, it was pretty well put together; it moved along at a good clip and I never really got stuck. And while it’s not exactly a character study, I really liked Jane–I generally have a fondness for (a) people who are trying to protect their siblings and (b) protagonists whose attitudes can be roughly summed up as “now I gotta deal with this shit?”–and thought the writing gave a good sense of her voice.

Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

A literal puzzle box stripped down to the absolute necessities–one room, two commands, no real attempt at a plot or characters–Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box knows what it wants to do and it does it in a smooth and well-oiled fashion. Personally I like a bit more plot with my puzzles, so I found it diverting but not hugely exciting, but it’s a well-made game.

Capsule II - The 11th Sandman

I like a good Things Go Wrong In Space narrative as much as the next SF/horror fan, but this one didn’t really stick the landing for me. I’m fairly sure the flippant, jokey tone of the narrative is meant to be unsettling and contribute to the dark atmosphere (which seems to want to be taken seriously overall despite the sillier moments), but it had the opposite effect on me. The choice to render the protagonist’s “crazy” thoughts with poor spelling and punctuation, while again a decision I can understand, also had the unfortunate effect of making them come off like the comments of a teenage boy on the internet who’s trying really hard to be edgy. From a visual and technical standpoint it was well done, although I was sometimes frustrated by how long it took the text to show up, and I’m sure the writing will be to some people’s tastes, but for me it fell into an awkward space between dark humor and horror and didn’t quite end up as an effective example of either one.


This is basically a toy where you combine things to make other things, which can be a fun game concept, but in this case I found it a little too random to be rewarding. A lot (a lot) of element combinations in the two-way mode aren’t viable, at least when you’re on the mode with more than four starting elements, and while there’s some rhyme and reason to it there’s also a whole lot of fairly dull trial and error. And when doing the three-way combinations to actually make things, the elements are all so abstract that it’s impossible to predict what you’ll actually get, whether it will be a physical object or some kind of concept, and sometimes even after you make the thing it’s sort of unclear what it is.

In the Friend Zone

[spoiler]I’m not going to say the world doesn’t need more satires of the concept of the friend zone, because I’m sure that somewhere there’s an angle that could be taken on it that hasn’t been yet, but it’s a topic that’s been pretty thoroughly covered, and underneath all the over-the-top weirdness, I really didn’t feel like this had much new to say. I mean, I’m biased. I had my fifteen minutes of internet fame for a (non-interactive) satire of the concept of the friend zone, which I subsequently grew thoroughly sick of, so maybe that’s why I feel like the subject has been done to death. Maybe people who, in general, spend less time discussing feminism on the internet will find it more thought-provoking. But I wasn’t impressed.

I also felt like the decision to make the object-of-affections and the friend-zoned people gender-neutral was an odd one. Yes, Nice Girls exist and are pretty awful, but there’s a reason why Nice Guys are the standard, and that’s that society encourages men to feel they are entitled to the woman of their choice, and not so much vice versa. For me, any attempt to poke fun at or poke holes in the concept of the friend zone that tries to leave gender completely out of it is going to miss the mark. (Which I feel like the game on some level knows, and does operate on the assumption that the object-of-affections is female and the friend-zoned male–I mean, come on, the latter group worships Priapus. But then it tries to pretend that that’s not the case.)

And this is a lot about the gender politics and very little about the game, which was well-done technically and I actually rather liked the mechanic of collecting questions and then choosing when to ask them, but when the point of the game (it’s in the title!) is the friend-zone stuff and the friend-zone stuff doesn’t work for me, that kind of outweighs everything else.[/spoiler]

The Sueño

I feel about this game almost the exact same way that I felt about Jesse Stavro’s Doorway last year–great cover art, intriguing premise, pretty good setup marred by various technical and implementation issues (despite, in this case, a long list of beta testers, which surprised me somewhat), weirdly rushed conclusion. In fairness, this doesn’t have the same sense that the story has ended just when it was really starting to take off–there’s a complete narrative arc, it just feels sort of unbalanced between the setup and the actual plot, with the former taking up a big chunk of play time and the latter seeming sort of crammed into too little space. With a plot like this one, I would have liked more of a slow-building sense of wrongness. (I think it doesn’t help that you see the wanted poster revealing the doctor’s true identity in one of the first locations in the dream-town that you can even visit–yes, I assumed at the time that it was weird dream stuff and not true, but you get more confirmation quickly enough that the whole thing feels anticlimactic; it’s neither a shocking twist nor a confirmation of your growing dark suspicions, it’s just like “Oh, huh, I guess that was a thing after all. Okay.”) I did really like the beginning of the game, just wandering around checking out the weird dream world, and I thought the lucid dreaming mechanic was super neat, if underused (or I just didn’t manage to find all the opportunities to use it?). But the story didn’t quite come off right for me.

Kane County

I’ve always enjoyed a good wilderness-survival story–though this is pretty far towards the “game” end of the game vs. story spectrum. The writing was no-frills and serviceable; the technical aspects of the game all worked as intended. I feel like I would have to play through a couple more times to really get a feel for the difficulty level, but while I succeeded on my first try, there were some pretty touch-and-go moments, so the victory, when it came, felt earned. It felt challenging without being frustrating, basically. Overall, a thoroughly enjoyable game.


This is another game with a great concept and shaky execution. I love the grand scale of it, both in time and distance, and I found the writing evocative. It was a bit buggy, though; at one point I had to restart the game because I hadn’t done things in quite the order the game expected me to and therefore the action I was trying to take was returning no response whatsoever. (It would have been okay if my doing things out of the expected order had rendered the game unwinnable, since that was warned for at the outset, but I want it to tell me that instead of just… not doing anything.) I also felt, maybe as a result of the scale, that I never quite got a handle on who the PC was, and there was always a sort of emotional distance between me and the game, but that might be intentional. And the ending was a little weird for my tastes, but that’s personal preference. Overall, I enjoyed it and found it unusual and memorable, and I’d love a post-comp release with the technical stuff cleaned up a bit.

Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory

I’m not sure what to say about this piece. I enjoyed it, but I’m not sure whether I really understood it or whether I explored it enough to do it justice. I did like the way it used language, and I thought it was a neat touch that wearing the SynPiece literally changes your perspective–from second-person to first. I’d like to come back to it when not under time constraints and play with it some more.

The Insect Massacre

[spoiler]I was really intrigued to discover that the player character in this game was a spaceship AI–I always find it interesting to see what people do with nonhuman points of view. And while “the narrator was the killer all along!” is a plot twist I usually hate, because it usually requires said narrator to be lying, or at least omitting information, in their own thoughts when they have no reason to and thus feels sort of cheap, here I think it works. We’re not really in the computer’s head; we’re seeing through her eyes (or cameras), but the only clue we have as to her thought processes are the options for actions, so the dawning horror as those actions become more sinister worked for me. And there is foreshadowing in the other characters’ conversations (speaking of which, doing a game that’s basically entirely dialogue is pretty ambitious, but worked out pretty well, I thought).

That being said… okay, I feel like I’m complaining about this sort of thing a lot and I don’t want to sound like a broken record, but I found this game pretty sexist. There are a bunch of major female characters who are sheriffs and doctors and computer geniuses, but they’re largely shallow, petty, catty, and looks-obsessed, despite mostly being adult professionals investigating a murder mystery who should probably not be taking the time to contemplate whether the victim was hotter than them. I’m not going to say no women are ever like that, but when all the women in the game have these tendencies to varying degrees, it gives me pause. There’s also a creepy fixation on how attractive the dead girl was (and how beautiful her corpse is, even) and a rather unfortunate suggestion by her roommate that if only a man had “laid claim to her” she might not have ended up dead. I was, as I’ve said, interested in a lot of what this game was doing and felt like a lot of it was done well, but the uncomfortable overtones to the game’s treatment of women were really off-putting to me.

This is one of the reasons I didn’t play the game through more than twice, and I’m not sure if I’ve gotten the full story of the murder and the computer’s motivations (I’ve seen the hologram in the greenhouse, but it sort of feels like something’s still missing?). The other (and more prosaic) reason is that, as with Capsule II, the rate at which the text appeared felt excruciatingly slow after the first time through, and I didn’t have the patience for that, at least not for a game that I was only semi-enjoying.[/spoiler]


[spoiler]I don’t want to ding this game just for being unpleasant and upsetting, but the thing is that it seems to be unpleasant and upsetting to no real end, like it’s largely going for shock value. It could be a game about the drastic ends to which desperation will drive people, and the beginning of it has a grim last-resort sort of air, but unless I missed something, the game never really gives a sense of why the characters are doing this, not even a very general one. And if you choose to interrupt the ritual, the PC’s cousin is ridiculously blase about it–he’s gone to all this trouble and tortured all these cats only to have it all turn out to be for nothing, and then he’s like “oh well, probably for the best, why were we even doing that anyway?” I wanted, I guess, to feel a little more urgency or desperation–even if you have no qualms about slowly roasting an animal alive, it seems like so much effort is required that no one would be doing it just for kicks. So I’m just… not sure what the point of the exercise was, overall.

The bulk of the game is also very repetitive, which I think was for effect, and I guess with the game’s current setup, the repetitiveness of the middle section is necessary, but I always find it more annoying than anything else to perform the same actions over and over to get (minor variations on) the same text, and annoyance is almost never what the writer is going for.[/spoiler]

The Man Who Killed Time

There’s some interesting worldbuilding here, and a bit of a fresh take on the down-on-his-luck PI, but I feel like it really just wanted to be a static short story. There are two choices in the story, one of which is “do you want to continue the story y/n” and the other of which changes a couple of sentences immediately afterwards and, as far as I can tell, nothing else. It’s not just the quantity of the choices at issue–I think you could have IF with only two decision points that still felt like it needed to be IF, but this doesn’t. The interactivity feels tacked-on, not like an intrinsic part of the story it’s trying to tell. So if it had been presented to me as a regular, non-interactive short story, I might have enjoyed it quite a lot, but presented as IF I found it frustrating.