*Reviewed so far:
Fish & Dagger
The Song of the Mockingbird
The Weight of a Soul
The Best Man
Mean Mother Trucker
Dr Horror’s House of Terror
Well I see I missed all of this year’s IFComp. Congrats to all the participants!
My backlog grows larger.
Here’s a couple of 2021 release reviews. I’ve played some of the XYZZY nominees over the past year and written down notes for some of them, and I’ll try to finish those up. I’m also playing more nominees now, and this thread will serve as good motivation. These probably aren’t going to focus as much on the recommendation side of things (what’s the game about, what’s the story, what type of players would enjoy this, etc). But I played most of these because they placed highly in various 2021 competitions, so they’re generally going to be quite good anyways.
Fish & Dagger
Well, this was an easy contender for best multimedia. Graphics, music, lots of text and font effects, all well done.
Written (mostly) in Twine. Bursting with energy, it starts off with you as a sort of secret agent, going off on a mission to infiltrate a super-villainous fortress base to rescue Mirvil, your <you choose your own backstory at the start>.
This keeps switching things up throughout, with lots of clever semi-experimental mechanics and story shifts. Really liked a flashlight implementation near the beginning, where your mouse turns into a beam of light you use to “look around” and read pieces of text scattered on the screen. I did meanwhile have a bit of trouble on my phone when I had to tap some very small links. It didn’t feel like there was any visual feedback there so I wasn’t sure if I was doing it correctly and if I really was supposed to just repeatedly have to keep on tapping the small links.
I do feel it’s a bit whiplash-y because of the frenetic pace. It feels like there are these larger more planned out game sections, but then the stuff that happens in between (like when you’re supposed to be taking down a bunch of guards) just fly by. It’s a roller coaster where I’m just enjoying the wild ride, but (do I want to keep going with the metaphor or should I abandon it now? Keeping with the spirit of this game, I’m going to keep going) a good roller coaster also has its lulls and points to breathe, and you should be able to see the loop-the-loop coming up and anticipate as you approach, right? This doesn’t settle into the secret agent setting long enough to deliver a larger impact in subverting it, and it tips its hand early on not to take anything seriously. The thing with the “twist” is, the secret agent genre is already something I feel like is more parodied and subverted than played straight already nowadays, and meta-narrative comedy stuff might be even more in vogue than secret-agent-supervillain stories. So it doesn’t end up anywhere more substantial. But hey, it’s still fun, over the top and irreverent.
What I thought at the start was some overly snarky, cliche-ridden trope writing turned out to be… snarky, cliche-ridden trope writing with a purpose. It lands some good jokes. Especially appreciate the ones that play with the choice format and some of its more game-y conceits.
The Song of the Mockingbird
Puzzly Inform game. Western. You’re a singing cowboy, your love Rosa’s been kidnapped and you’re tracking down the nefarious Black Blade and his outlaw posse to save her.
Majority of this takes place on a ranch. Three gunmen are covering the area you want to cross to reach the main house where Rosa is. So you have to figure out a way to take each of them out. This will involve ropes and pulleys, cattle and horses, branding irons and broken wagons. You lost your gun, and all you’re armed with is your trusty guitar, and (as expected for this sort of game) your wits.
The large middle part of this game (which ends up long, more than 2 hours) is almost all focused on puzzles on that ranch, but there’s a surprisingly grounded sense of history woven into the story, and a bunch of interesting end notes once you finish, detailing all the research and historical background done for this. I can’t say I necessarily cared about Rosa too much, nor much of the other characters, but I understood the story beats anyhow, and it’s a more-than-fine wrapper for all the challenging puzzles.
I think this teeters on the harder side for me. I had trouble visualizing some of the puzzles, and needed to look at hints. If you like puzzles, I mean you should go and play this, you’ll likely love it. The puzzles tend to be more on the mechanical side; figuring out how something works, and involving fairly realistic mechanical solutions to things.
This quickly put me into the un-reality of a puzzle environment. You have three gunmen that want to kill you, but they will never move from their spots or routines and they’ll wait there forever, even though you’re unarmed and alone. You, unarmed cowboy, are wandering around a fairly open ranch with those three people that want to kill you. Nothing happens until you find solutions to things. These cowboys are puzzles waiting to be solved. That’s absolutely fine; it’s just a specific mindset I’m put in. I’m not allowed to leave, and it’s an enclosed space with a bunch of mechanical puzzles all open at once. So I’m exploring, looking at everything, picking stuff up, figuring out all the potential parts of the puzzle.
Emily Short wrote about a thing she called explorability in puzzle design (Emily Short on Best Individual Puzzle | The XYZZY Awards) and playing this and trying to solve its puzzles made me recall it:
Explorability. Does the puzzle respond well to failed attempts at a solution? Is it fun to work on even before it’s solved? Is it a good toy as well as a good puzzle? If the player doesn’t immediately understand how the puzzle works, is the implementation responsive enough to help her learn what to do? Suveh Nux is a classic example of the highly explorable puzzle, offering the player lots of entertaining Easter egg rewards for playing with the mechanic while simultaneously helping her more thoroughly understand what the magic syllables do. An entertaining narrator can also improve puzzle explorability: the personality of Grunk in Lost Pig adds charm and humor to the exploration moves required in that game.
The feeling I get (and I could be wrong) is this is a game that never wants the player to get an unrecognized command response, which feels like it should generally be a good thing. But it casts really wide nets to do that. For example there’s a barn with one gunman perched in the hayloft above. There’s a detailed description of the hayloft, but trying to examine a lot of the things in the hayloft just re-routes me to the same description.
Other scattershot spoilery examples:
There’s a wire fence. I tried “cut wire” early on which didn’t work. Apparently wire gets re-routed to “fencing tool” (presumably wire was a synonym for wire cutter?) so in that command I was trying to use a tool to cut itself. Oops, my bad.
There’s a handheld casket device you get early on. I guessed what it was used for (there’s good context clues for that), but there’s a “jumble of disks” that just short-circuited my brain. I was trying to turn the disks. Briefly starting over the game to look at the desc again, the first time you examine the object you get a special one-time description which would’ve helped a lot, because I was visualizing the disks all wrong. But I guess I missed it, oops.
You can throw the rope. Throwing the rope gives you the same response as throwing anything else (I couldn’t use it like a lasso to grab far away things, and I hadn’t found that lasso yet). Few more commands and I figured it out, but I threw a lot of stuff around, and it turns out the responses I was getting was just the default and I wasn’t getting any closer to the solution.
I never really understood out how the mechanism at the windmill worked, even after solving it. I could examine more things there, but the descriptions didn’t really paint the picture for me.
Some of that’s maybe my fault (or not my fault, but not my inclination). But it did made me think back to what Emily wrote about explorability, and what I like about parser-based puzzles: looking at a complex machine, then examining parts of that machine to understand it more and pin-pointing all the important parts of the puzzle is fun! Some of the puzzles here felt more like riddles posed to me, and I couldn’t always work my way closer to the solution. It also made me think about how maybe “unrecognized” responses can be helpful in a way, because those can also help tell the player which solution tracks are worth following and which aren’t.
Yet the puzzle that eventually used that rope? I got that satisfying “aha!” moment where everything clicked into place and I figured it out. It’s a great feeling, and it’s something that no other IFComp entry I played this year gave me. The underlying puzzle logic was extremely sound.
Anyways. Polished puzzle parser game. Those are not easy to make, and this one is very good. Nice semi-historical story wrapped around it.