Doug Egan comp 2020 reviews

Anywhere I can get hints on “Cursed Pickle of Shireton”? Already well past the two hour point. in the asyllum. Describing my location in more detail in the spoilers cloud:

I am in the assylum, in the secure ward. I have a pill bottle. I got a hint about Gordion knots from a mathemetician. There seem to be other things in the secure ward that could access fourth dimension. But I can’t even get across the pit of spider yet without dying.

Are you friends with spiders?

Thanks. That was all the hint I needed. I’m back in the village now.


“Cursed Pickle of Shireton” by Hannon Ondricek. I finished this epic RPG last night, after about six hours of play over four days. That isn’t as long as I spent on “Baldur’s Gate” or even “Ultima IV” (with their correspondingly longer disc drive delays) but I finished the game with a similar feeling; an emotional exhaustion and thrill of completion coupled with a light melancholy that it was all over. I had defeated the greatest evil in the universe, a pickle. “The Pickle” is a briny, sentient, all powerful pickle in a jar which has been written with such curmudgeonly humor that I actually felt an emotional attachment to it before kicking it off into the void. But how much sillier is that than the “Slayer” in Baldur’s Gate II, the PC’s superpowerful (but evil) alter ego which causes one to lose the game if you transform too often. Or even the cursed Ring in Tolkein’s series, which Frodo can’t get rid of in the end without help from an unlikely ally. Evil is in all of us, superglued to our hand (metaphorically speaking).

There are several layers to this game. At the base layer is the parody of a mid 90s online RPG, brazenly awful with its pixelated graphics, simulated bugs and system incompatibilities. Did I mention it was the simulation of an early beta version? At a layer above that it is an actual working RPG which you can play as such, grinding and leveling up, presumably for as long as you want to keep playing. The combat system is fun, and there are lots of progressively challenging areas to farm for experience. Lively music adds to the experience, varying in tempo and key to match the mood of each scene.

But a layer above that, “Pickle” is actually a brilliantly designed work of interactive fiction, the sort that in spite of its gonzo comic tone, manages to achieve some level of connection to the NPCs and the ultimate quest. The problem with many traditional RPGs (even the commercially popular ones) was that they required a certain amount of grind; attacking the same monsters over and over again to farm for experience and treasure. There doesn’t seem to be a requirement for that in “Pickle”. I was able to level up as fast as I needed to by following the main storyline and never felt forced to do any repetitive side work I didn’t want.

Hanon Ondriciek has been a remarkably prolific author. There are elements of his previous games to be seen in this work. The simulated BBS game of the original “Baker of Shireton”. The complex multifaceted interface of “Robot party murders”. I got much farther in “Pickle” than I did in “Robot” (I finished it, I think, at least until the Pickle returns in 500 years). The fantasy landscape was more in my comfort zone than the cyberpunk environment in Robot (I can’t even bring myself to type the full title). I played Pickle as “Mighty Abdul” a wizard, which was the name of my first D&D character, when I was eleven. The original Mighty Abdul was a fighter.


The pickle reminded me of the One Ring in The Lord of the Rings, too - not just Evil Embodied in a Portable Object but also little details like it (as you say) being superglued to your hand and even the way you finally dispatch the pickle while hanging over a precipice reached by first navigating scorching hot terrain with little water. A well-done parody!


It hit me today that Cursèd Pickle’s parody of LOTR goes even deeper. For instance:

  • At the end you’re basically playing Sam, carrying the baker (Frodo) to destroy the Pickle (Ring) because the baker’s dead (Frodo’s too exhausted) to do it himself.
  • The baker (again, Frodo) is from Shireton.
  • You have to overcome your fear of spiders (Shelob) just before setting out on the final stage of your journey to destroy the Pickle.

Just how deep does this pickled parody go? :wink:


“A Rope of Chalk” by Ryan Veeder.


Earlier in the competition season I reviewed a game “The Wayward Story” where I noted similarities to Adam Cadre’s classic “Photopia”. There are elements in “A Rope of Chalk” which descend from that school of IF theory as well, but less overtly. The story is told from multiple perspectives and a shifting time scape, with only the lightest puzzles. This also made me think of “Blue Chairs” by Chris Klimas, winner of the 2004 “Ms Congeniality" award. I won’t explain the similarities to that one. Play both. You’ll see.

I don’t know if Ryan has played either of those long ago games, so perhaps better to compare to the author’s own works. “Rope of Chalk” offers the reader a casual stroll through “real places and real events” much as “Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing”. One suspects (one knows) that both of these stories are works of fiction, but a fiction told so convincingly that one can believe they are real. “Rope of Chalk” does contain a number of fantastical elements, but told as the hazy recollections of someone who was under the influence at the time, further blurring the divide between fiction and reality.

“Rope of Chalk” is the retelling of a “real” incident that happened almost nine years ago.The game was a little slow to start. In act I, the player has limited agency, even to engage effectively in conversation with others. There are many other characters and I had trouble keeping straight their names. But I stuck with it, and by the third act I was fully engaged with the story. I was amused that the political slogan (in one of the chalk drawings) is not revealed until the fourth act. The fourth act was the most satisfying overall, as the nature of “the incident” slowly reveals itself as something far more serious than was implied in the first act. The pacing was just right in this last act. It provided the one opportunity to stay with an individual character long enough to feel some emotional connection to her. You realize the character’s primary weakness is her need for control, and how difficult it is for her to “ask for help” in the end.

There is an interesting epilogue to the game, which is even more like “Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing” in the way it encourages the player to meander about and explore a “real place”, as long as they like, without any ostensible goals. It felt like one of those movies (Ferris Bueller, and others) where you stick around until the end of the credits, before the actors come out and deliver one final joke, reminding you “the movie is over, you can leave the theatre now”


“Tavern Crawler” by Josh Labelle.


When I was a youth, I once played a “choose your own adventure” style dungeon crawl game I found in an issue of “Dragon” role playing magazine. Unlike the “Choose your own adventure” book series, this version required the reader to keep track of their stats (hit points and such). To say I “played” it is an understatement. I read it again and again, until I had all the choice options memorized. I read it aloud to my sister and my parents (who were at a disadvantage, not knowing the difference between a troll and a gelatinous ooze). I read it aloud to my middle school friends, many of whom were also D and D players. I have since learned that this mode of interactive fiction is called an “adventure gamebook”, and due to the extensive stats monitoring required, is greatly facilitated by play on a computer. It is surprising, then, that we haven’t seen more of these games in the IF comp. Writers who choose Twine often do so because they don’t want to do extensive state tracking. Writers who choose parser systems are typically aiming for a less book-like experience.

“Tavern Crawler” is an adventure gamebook at its best, keeping track of stats, and making sure that those stats are meaningful to later decision trees. There are three different “attributes” that can be increased during the game: Tank (for fighters), Mage (for magic users) and Rogue (for thieves). There are also two companions, whose relationship to you can vary up or down for additional choice options in the late game.

In my first play through I was raised as a thief, but ended up earning most of my points in “mage” and took advantage of a high score in that attribute during the end game. In my second play through I was raised as a fighter and played as a fighter, but not quite as successfully (one of my companions died, the other abandoned me, and I ended up spilling my windfall treasure in the streets). This ability to use skill points to solve problems even if you haven’t declared the “right class” is a more realistic model of life’s choices than the “class system” of traditional RPGs. You become who you are through an accretion choices, not who you declared yourself to be prior to a full understanding of what that declaration meant.

I have never much liked “romance” options in RPGs. It’s like a creepy dating sim for lonely people who still live in their parent’s basements. That said, in this game the romance “scores” do seem to open up later game options. I presume that Aurora never figured out I was using her to level up my mage points and gain valuable advice. Of course she didn’t figure it out. She is a computer generated automaton.

There was one save slot in this game. I wish there had been more. The save worked well enough, although in one instance I seemed to lose an opportunity to get mage training from Aurora after restoring a saved game. Maybe she really was on to me as a duplicitous suitor?

There is one main story line (outlined with too much detail in the blurb) but many ways to resolve challenges along the way, and a variety of endgame outcomes. The game is well written and well coded. I had not played this author’s games in the past, but it did not surprise me to learn he has past experience as a game developer. Definitely worth playing.


Vain Empires (Thomas Mack and Xavid) is a unique and amazing parser puzzle game. Playing the role of a demon, there isn’t much you can manipulate or interact with in terms of objects (and the game discourages you from trying) but you can plant “intents” and “manners” into the hearts of the dozens of characters that populate this luxury conference center. There is a nicely implemented in game map to help you get around.

The puzzles are challenging (more challenging than most modern parser games) but completely fair, and well clued as you move closer or farther from the correct solution. I am proud to say that I did not use the hints at all in the first three sections of the hotel. It was only in the end-game that I started using hints, and at that point I became dependent on them. In contrast with the rest of the game, the end-game is pretty linear (thus you can’t see the next puzzle until you’ve solved the last one) and you’ve collected such a huge number of intents and manners through the course of the game that the final puzzles become exponentially more difficult.

But up to that point I had a blast, chipping away at the various puzzles, collecting the MacGuffins, laughing and the cold-war parody, and wondering how big this game really was. About ten hours big by my count.


I have to say that’s quite a feat. I’m impressed!


Under the category, Is there more to this that I missed?

“Amazing Quest” by Nick Montfort. Random text, a (y/n) choice system, played on a Commodore 64 emulator. I wrote better games for the Commodore 64 when I was fifteen, and I never became an MIT digital media professor. Suspecting that this is either A) a troll by one of Montfort’s students. B) a statement by the actual Nick Montfort about the absence of deliberate troll games in the competition for several years now. C) one of Montfort’s students is testing a research hypothesis related to game design and score distribution.

“Fight Forever” by Pako. This was one of the first games I played this competition season, but never bothered to write a review. An endless series of boxing matches played by a choice menu system. It only caught my attention because I had just recently watched “Million Dollar Baby” on the TV. I played for several years (of fictional game time. It only seemed like several years in real time. Probably about fifteen minutes). I reached the age of twenty one without ever winning a single fight, although I’ve read in other reviews that the fights are winnable. I was amused that the player’s age is reported in unrounded digits; about fifteen digits of significant figures. As someone who teaches beginning science students to round their values appropriately, this struck me as funny.

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“Eleusinian Miseries” by Mike Russo is a comic puzzler written in Inform. The story involves an initiation ceremony for some kind of Greek fraternal order. Ancient Greek, that is, but from the characterizations this could just as easily be Animal House. The game plays out in a series of scenes, each taking place a little later in the night of the initiation. The world modeling isn’t very deep, but deep enough to support this light story, and the parser works well. The game has been well tested.

The opening scene begins a simple treasure hunt for some ceremonial items lost in the bowels of the temple cellar, a standard trope for parser games. But this wraps up quickly, introducing a new series of puzzles above ground, then three more increasingly madcap scenes after that. Some of the puzzles are quite original (finding the correctly nasal pronounciation of “Potnia”) others less so (finding an unmentioned exit), but the succession of scenes without any clear expectation of the ultimate goals lead me to a sense that the game had several false endings.

I’m glad I stuck with it. The final puzzle was one of my favorites and I expect this game could finish in the top twenty percent (from over a hundred entries).

Regarding the final scene


(trying to hide fragments of vandalized sacred statues around the PC’s apartment) I was able to reach the “bad” ending pretty quickly. After a period of trial of error I reached the intermediate ending. I was not successful reaching the “good” ending even with the hints. The game reported that no statues pieces were found in my apartment, yet on the last screen it said there had been some fragments found in my possession. So I must have missed something unclued.


Thanks so much for the review and for sticking with the game! I realized after I’d mostly finished that I’d basically made a shaggy dog story, which I know are objectively terrible though I’m very fond of them.

On your spoiler-y notes on the final puzzle: I think I found your transcript if you played online, and looks what might have happened is that you didn’t notice that you took back the unmentionable from Alky when you typed TAKE UNMENTIONABLES? I think you might still have had that one on you when the magistrate’s men patted you down. Anyway I think the way the online play works is that it picks back up right where you left things, so if you want to see the “best” ending you should be able to just open it again, then undo and give the last one to Alky. Though I will say I think the “bad” ending is actually the best one!

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Today, reviewing two games that came up on the randomized list.

“Equal-librium” by Ima. A short (15 min) Twine story with some interesting text effects.


I appreciate the use of text medium to explore questions of values and moral choices. This game weighs personal enrichment against concern for the environment, but is really too short to do it deeply. Another reviewer used the term “morality simulator” to describe this, but I don’t even think it’s quite that, because you have to play through at least once before you understand your character, a corporate tycoon whose board of directors cares more about the environment than you do (at least in one of the three endings). I played through multiple times and identified only two major branch points. One of the branches (which seemed like it could be the most interesting “losing” state) resulted in an HTML error which prevented me from reaching the denouement.

“Savor” by Ed Nobody. A web based game using an engine I don’t recognize, but not Twine.


I have mixed feelings about this. On the one hand, the story is compelling; a friendship between two people (I imagined them both as men) who both suffer from debilitating chronic pain affliction. The telling strikes me as science fiction realism. I like the graphics, but many of the sound effects have a generic stock sound file quality which doesn’t consistently support the mood of the story. The “game like” elements appealed to me (in-game collectables and achievements, which appear to be a default feature of this IF platform). I even laughed at the cheeky end-game message “Make better choices next time.” However, these gaming aspects are at odds with any more serious interpretation of the story, especially the theme of suicide.

The real weakness with Savor are the text output and interface. The time-delayed text is a distraction in every single scene. There are commands which can only be accessed from the keyboard. And frankly, the use of those key board commands aren’t well explained in the instructions. I earned a couple of “rewind” icons, but never figured out how to invoke them. The clumsiness of the interface and output significantly interfered with my enjoyment of the story.

A couple more games from the randomizer

“Desolation” by Earth Traveller. This game is oddly reminiscent of “Shade” by Andrew Plotkin, just not as well implemented.


A canteen that is not openable, a radio that is not switchable, a PC who is as “good looking as ever”. There is a help menu implemented, which is a nice feature. Actually there is a bit more than that. Judging from the “hints menu” several more chapters. After the homage to “Shade” ends, the player has an opportunity to find a maze of twisty passages, all alike. I died in the maze and decided not to restart.

“Tombs and Mummies” by Matthew Warner. A “Quest” game. I like Quest, but the online interface is pretty bad.


I stumble around in the tomb for a bit. There are quite a few rooms to explore, and puzzles galore. Some nice graphics of Egyptian artifacts, but the text is kind of generic. I managed to learn a couple of spells, and had some ideas about how I might escape the tomb, before the browser interface crashed on me. Not a fault of the author.


“Where the wind once blew free” by No Sell Out Productions. For a game of this length and polish, I’m surprised it has not received more public reviews. Supertitled “Animalia: Book One”, but unrelated to a 2018 game of the same title. This “Animalia” (2020) is a gritty contemporary Western set in an alternate reality where people have the characteristics of animals. Much of the action is set on the grounds of a ranch and slaughterhouse, owned by Gila Lizard “Pink Belly” and aided by likable farmhands “Diamondback” and “Little Sidewinder”. The tension ramps up quickly when the ranch is visited by “Bobcat” and his villainous gang, violent enforcers for a criminal drug lord who owns the nearby town.

A lot of skill went into making this. Every aspect approaches a commercial level of production: the story-telling, audio, graphics (sometimes animated), and overall mechanics. The designers took some risks by including timed text and timed choice options at key moments, but used these features appropriately to enhance the drama rather than slowing it down. The only issue I had with the interface was a broken slider bar on the left panel. This may have been a browser dependent bug (I played in Chrome). To compensate, I had to frequently rescale my entire screen when output extended below the panel’s bottom.

The game is written with Twine, but includes so much additional CSS code and scripting that I presumed it was another engine designed specifically for gamebook type applications. It has that look and feel, the text panels presented in a form that looks like playing cards, and lots of overt stats-monitoring. The entire right panel updates with information about which stat you need to succeed at an action then offers cryptic hints about how to boost those stats. There haven’t been a lot of IF comp games designed this way. It’s a unique experience which straddles between offering tangible rewards for continued play and breaking immersion in the story itself.

On my first play I created my own character, assigning a limited number of stats points to various attributes, as I would for any role playing game. Not knowing which attributes would be valuable, I reached a disappointingly early end state. The second time through I played in “God Mode”, starting with high scores in every attribute. Yet even in this mode, the game is long and challenging. Saves are only possible at the end of each chapter, and there were often times I struggled to decide whether to move on from the current chapter, or go back and replay a choice I had made while the outcome of that choice was still not yet certain. This speaks to the quality of writing, that the player feels so invested in their choices.

The best ending I reached after several hours of play was to save exactly one of the good guys. The tension of the story is so palpable that I felt relieved just to have achieved that much. I imagine there are better endings available and I encourage others to play.


“The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle”(subtitled “An Adolescent Reminiscence”) a parser fiction by B F Lindsay. I started playing Lindsay’s game “Frenemies” last year but never really understood it (perhaps because it was a tribute to an author I had never played). “Tom Trundle”, on the other hand, is a game that grabbed me immediately and held on. Characterization of the PC is strong. The PC is a teenage slacker boy with an unshakable loyalty to his friends. That’s a role I can get into. So I turned up “Wheatus” on Pandora and settled in. My self-chosen soundtrack started with “I’m just a Teenage Dirtbag”.

Mild Spoilers

I played to a hundred and thirty five points before composing this reflection. This is only a third of the way through the game, but took me about four hours to get that far, which is an impressive scale for a competition game. By two hours (the limit for competition judging) I was completely endeared by the PC. I’d gotten to know him, the older woman he sleeps with, and several of his school age friends. This is not a game where you’ll be encouraged to play a role the author has not already designed for you. Yet I never felt steamrolled into my choices. The illusion of wide open choices is well maintained even during chapters which turn out to have been mostly linear.

Just after two hours, the game takes a turn for the weird. The PC’s older “girlfriend” calls him to break off their relationship and tell him she’s moving to California. Early the next morning (while it’s still dark out) he sneaks over to her house, hoping for a last good bye. But when he arrives there, it appears she’s been abducted. He will presumably spend the rest of the game trying to save her. Or has he fallen asleep and this is all just a dream? That’s where I see this going. The game is at its best up to two hours. After that, the parser becomes a little more finicky and the puzzles a little more contrived. Yet I still hope I can finish it.


thanks for taking the time to play and review my game “quintessence.” i’ll take “more concept art than game or story” as a win! : ) thank you for your other reviews, too. they are a great resource as i play through the games this year! - andrea

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Happy US Thanksgiving to all who celebrate it, and belated happy Thanksgiving to my Canadian friends.

Finished “Vampire LTD” by Alex Harby and “Ferryman’s Gate” by Daniel Maycock. Both are competently programmed parser games. Both last about an hour. If I had not played Ferryman’s gate, I would not have punctuated this sentence correctly. Dang, now I’m going to have punctuate the rest of this reflection correctly or risk disappointing the author.

“Ferryman’s Gate” has clearly been influenced by old-school parser games, remembered for their sprawling asymmetrical maps, delicious treasure hunts, and hidden underground caves. Maycock doesn’t touch on the contentious topic of the Oxford comma, so I’m not sure how he would have wanted me to punctuate the previous sentence. For those who have not played the game (and feel puzzled by my obsessive discourse about commas) “Ferryman’s Gate” also positions itself a light educational app, providing in game resources to learn about the proper use of commas, and a series of lock and key puzzles that require correct application of comma rules. I am well aware that I make many comma mistakes in my own writing, and I believe I learned something from this game. Whether or not those skills stick with me, who knows. The “educational” puzzles are well integrated into the story. The quizlets don’t feel interrupting or arbitrary (contrast against #VanLife). I was particularly satisfied with the puzzle in the Enchantment room, near the end of the game. The puzzles and treasure hunt are what drive this game. An area for improvement would be more descriptive writing and deeper world modeling. Uncle’s house has three bathrooms and a half a dozen bedrooms, all barely distinguishable from one another.

After finishing, I began reflecting on “what makes something an educational game”? I’ve argued with my eleven year old daughter about whether the games at ABCya are educational or not (don’t make any assumptions about which of us thinks they aren’t). I tend to think that all text games have an educational potential, whether they are explicitly labeled “educational”. Interactive text encourages reflective reading. The content isn’t always appropriate for all age levels, but most of it is accessible to a middle grades or high school reader.

“Vampire LTD” would be terrific for that age reader (notice that segue). Vampire LTD is the comic story of feuding vampires in a modern corporate world. The game isn’t very large. It has about ten locations and took me about an hour to complete. But there are some really funny bits, especially in the dialogue trees during the job interview. The final battle was exciting and proved a clever endgame puzzle.


You may already be aware of this, but Brendan Desilets (@desilets) has been using IF to teach reading and thinking at the middle school level (and high school and college levels, too) for many years. His website is worth a look.

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