I was (am?) a tester and I have to say, you’re in for a treat. There’s an ungodly amount of puzzles ahead of you, and I haven’t even reached the final stretch after who-knows-how-many-dozen hours. This game totally overwhelmed me and I love it!
Hah! I started my review of Ballerina with this:
I’m looking forward to burying myself in the avalanche of skullbreakers in Prom Dress. Once in a while I’ll resurface and remember there’s a McGuffin at the end.
“Blood Island” is a ChoiceScript game written by Billy Krolick. The story is a mash-up of dating sim and B-movie slasher. Bits of it reminded me of Hanon Ondricek’s past themes, “Final Girl” and “Robotsexpartymurder”. For a while I wondered if he might be the author. However, there were enough differences from Hanon’s technical programming style that I soon convinced myself this was a different author.
I started the game by defining myself as a cis-male, Austrailian, with a generic hair cut. The opening salvo of choices serve the purpose of having the player define themselves, but may not actually affect the game state. This is an IF trick to encourage the player to affiliate with their character, without a lot of extra work on the programming side.
As the game begins, the player is the only new contestant on a reality dating show which ended last season in attempted murder. Whether the player’s intent is to find a steady virtual love interest, or pursue more polyamorous goals, one first needs to meet the other contestants and form alliances. I hooked up briefly with the bookish girl, but she lost interest in me when I stayed at the bar too long pounding back Margharitas. Real dating is awkward enough, it’s hard for me to feel connected to an AI bot whom I know is just going to abandon me when the power goes out.
Soon I’m by myself again, being chased through the woods by a killer wearing a Barbie mask. I get in some good blows, but eventually end up running into another contestant who says she didn’t see the Barbie mask killer and doesn’t seem to believe me.
I have some complaints about the ChoiceScript platform, that are not specifically about this work. Every page ends with a link to “make your own games with ChoiceScript.” It is a link that is easy to choose by accident and get redirected to the ChoiceScript website. There was a IF forum thread recently about whether it is a mistake for authors to leave the default formatting in their gaming platform. Here is a case where the default formatting is pretty clearly a distraction. I am also disappointed that there was not an obvious way to save my game state. When I closed my cell phone, then reopened it, the browser had restarted my game.
A lot of the choices throughout the game felt like that initial set of choices about my gender and racial identity. Which of the characters am I attracted to? Why am I attracted to them? What are my motivations for pursuing them? There is clearly a bit of state tracking going on in this game. At the very least, it remembers who I was wooing yesterday. But I never got the sense that any of my choices would fundamentally change the direction of events. There is some interesting discussion of feminist theory, especially as it relates to the slasher genre. But these were not enough to sustain my interest after the browser restarted.
“Esther’s, a Brunch Story” is a choice based children’s story by Brad and Alleson Buchanan. The story and supporting illustrations are sweet, suitable for all ages. A pair of mice are visiting their favorite cafe, trying to order something a little different from their usual cheese and crackers. But the server doesn’t understand their language. The mice need to get creative to assemble the meal they want. A good introduction to choice based stories for the youngest audience, and an entertaining diversion for the rest of us.
“Hours” a Twine story by Aidenvoidout. With no cover art, and one of the shortest blurbs of the competition, I might have overlooked this if it hadn’t come to the top in a random shuffle. A short game, set in a pulp fantasy feudal world of magic casting warlords. The PC is fated to die within a day, but has one last chance to seek vengence against the chief warlord, titled “Shogun”. That title suggest a fantasy Feudal Japan, maybe like “Across the Nightingale Floor”, and with the right series of choices, you can get a little more backstory. I only found this backstory on my second play through.
The game is so short, it might be worth a look if you’re into this genre of fiction. However, I also found it contained several broken links. That, together with the lack of effective marketing in the title blurb, worries me that this author published too quickly without a period of feedback and revision.
The “Tower of Plargh”, is a parser game by Caranmegil, written with Inform. The game world is small, barely implemented, and filled with spelling errors. There is no help function, no about section, and the default response to “examine me”. There are “puzzles”, sort of, solved not by logic, but randomly picking up and dropping the small number of objects which appear. I got stuck when the monkey appeared. The monkey moves from room to room, although his exit from the player’s location is not announced, which leads to puzzling parser responses when you try to interact with it. Not likely to place in the top half of the competition.
“The Lottery Ticket” is a web based game Dorian Passer and Anton Chekhov. What kind of web based game, you ask? The blurb tries to explain that in terms which are so heavy with the jargon of IF theory that I figured this game would either be amazing, or truly awful. The listed beta testers have serious chops, so I hoped for the best. But there isn’t actually any interactivity. I found all of four places in the short story that I could type in a random word. The choice of word doesn’t matter (it doesn’t even have to be a real word) the narrative is purely linear. And because it has been translated from another language, I found it hard to follow. The best thing I can mention about this entry is the creative use of fonts and formatting.
“You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book” is a Twine game by Austin Lim. This game is worth the half hour it takes to play. It is one of those rare Twine games that demonstrates the platform’s capacity for state tracking and world modelling. This game models connections between places, the player’s state of health, acquired memories, and personal inventory. Most significantly, this game models the passage of time, which is a critically limited resource in this thriller. The PC has been poisoned with a neurotoxin and has a limited amount of time to cure themselves by one means or another.
Throughout the story the reader is told “This location reminds you of a book.” The first play through I took this simply as an indication of the player’s state of mind: amnesiac and floating through a landscape of gauzy illusion. But at the end (the first time I died) I realized that the scenes are a patchwork of literary references from actual books, many of them popular works from the Western cannon. This adds a second layer of puzzle to the game, trying to match each location to its literary inspiration.
I played through about six times, discovering all four of the major endings, and matching about a third of the literary references. The writing is good, even if some of it is derivative of other works. But I’ll be honest, by the time I was trying to reach the fourth possible ending, I was scrolling through so fast that appreciating the literary influences was no longer my prime goal.
“The Grown-Up Detective Agency” is a choice based game by Brendan Patrick Hennessy. The protagonist “Bell Park” appeared in one of Brendan’s earlier stories, where she was a twelve year-old youth detective. Now she has travelled nine years through time to team up with her grown-up self.
I am mostly unfamiliar with Hennessy’s earlier games. I haven’t played “Youth Detective”, and I scrolled through “Birdland” so quickly that I did not experience an appreciation for it which matched the respect it received from other quarters. But going in, I am also biased toward this newer Bell Park story in a couple of ways. I have a great affinity for the setting, Canada. I last visited Toronto in 2012, so I am familiar with the city known to the younger Bell. And I LOVE time-travel yarns. So let’s jump in.
The opening scene pulled me in. The graphic design is professional quality. The writing is crisp dialogue. Adult Bell is meeting a client. There are a series of loud “bangs” from adult Bell’s office locker, a sound which horrifies her client but which Bell pretends to ignore. The client is Cassidy, who was younger Bell’s “best friend”, but from whom adult Bell is now estranged. Cassidy’s fiancé has gone missing. Bell is asked to find him.
In scene two, there is an amusing exchange between adult Bell and her younger self (now released from the locker)` in which adult Bell must prove that she really is the same person as her younger self.
There is a lot to like about this detective mystery. It’s witty and has important things to say about the relationship between Bell’s past and future self. The frequent choice menus drive reader engagement and have meaningful impact on the immediate dialogue. There is also a Toronto map of plot important locations, which one might visit in any order. Yet over the longer course, there is fundamentally only one way this story can end.
A romantic side plot begins to open between Adult Bell and one of her female contemporaries. I was a little wary about the queer-themed romance, a trope which has become as much of a cliché for contemporary IF as dungeon crawls were twenty-five years ago. But this romance was written in a way that did not feel cliché, and served the narrative purpose of developing the story’s more important relationship between Bell Park and herself.
There were passages from this game that were either so funny, or so poignant, that I made note of them as I was reading through.
“KID BELL:Can we go to a frozen yogurt place while we’re in the Annex?
ADULT BELL:They’re all gone.
KID BELL:What, all of them?! There were like six around here!
ADULT BELL:I don’t know what to tell you. Trends come and go.
KID BELL:So what’s new trend?
ADULT BELL:Weed shops.
KID BELL:Can we–
There in one passage is the homage to urban Toronto, the poignant commentary on how quickly cities change, and the comedy of older Bell trying to protect her younger self from making bad choices. Hennessey and his team of illustrators and developers managed to provide this level of entertainment for nearly two hours of play, which should place this game easily in the top five of the competition.
This is Texture by Juhana Leinonen and Jim Munroe.
Yes, thank you. I remember Jim Monroe from a couple of games he produced and a short film “Ghosts with Shit Jobs”.Very talented individual.
“Campus Invaders” is a z-code parser game by Italian author Marco Vallarino. Back in 2016 I remember saving the Vigamus Academy from Zombies. I learned that the Vigamus Academy is a real university, located in Rome, which specializes in video game design. The Zombies, however, were a fiction created by the same author who now brings us this sequel.
Vigamus is under attack again, this time by space aliens. The game is fun and well tested, but doesn’t aim to be anything more than it is. The puzzles are simple, a series of lock and key problems, which I think is an appropriate design for a modern audience of parser fiction novices. Often the game even prevents a player from solving puzzles out of sequence by alerting you that “you have nothing to say to this character, right now.” I finished in 398 turns on my first play through, and 85 turns on my second.
The author has a sense of wit and whimsy, which comes through even in the English translation of this game.
Val Kelmer observes the pass and listens to the story of your meetings with the head of the game design course and the president of the Vigamus Academy. Convinced that you are on your way to saving the Vigamus Academy from aliens agree to reveal the password of the computer of the development laboratory: XzD #G$36yTs0S[! Az.
Suddenly you realize that if you can remember this password by heart, you can do anything in life.
I only wish the game had given us a little more. Location and object descriptions are terse. The game could be revised, providing additional background detail to the locations, or adding in more witty asides (like the password example above). These changes would provide greater depth to the experience, without making it exponentially more difficult to implement or solve. That said, in a competition year which features only twenty-one parser games, this one made me smile.
“The Absence of Miriam Lane” is a Twine game by Abigail Corfman. First the non-spoilery bit. I picked this as the first game on the randomizer. I probably would not have chosen it otherwise. This speaks to the value of the randomizer. It introduces players to amazing games they might not otherwise pick on their own.
Now for mild spoilers. The game begins as a missing person’s case shrouded in supernatural mystery. The player is an investigator hired by Anthony Lane. Lane is missing his wife, but can’t even remember her name. At first I thought this would be a story about Anthony; perhaps he has Alzheimer’s. But a brief search of the house begins to turn up clues that his missing wife is really the more important character in this story. Even if nobody can remember her.
It took me a few minutes to figure out the game mechanic, which involves applying ideas from one set of menu options onto objects and locations currently active in the main menu. With that cryptic description I’ve given, it will take you more than a minute to figure out the mechanic, so I haven’t really given anything away. Once I became comfortable with the game mechanic,the story started moving much more quickly.
The missing person is in one of the rooms of the house, only a spectre at first. Then through a more thorough search of the house, and discussions with Mr Lane, it becomes apparent that this is actually a story about a woman who has given so much of herself to others, that she has forgotten how to take care of herself. And since everyone else treated her like a doormat, she just disappeared.
The end game, which I found to be the most difficult puzzle to solve, has the investigator retelling the woman’s story to revive her. Except that I had paid so little attention that I floundered in the retelling myself. I was no better than the woman’s inattentive husband. Fortunately I had a wealth of saved positions to which I could return, and tried again multiple times until I got it mostly right.
I respected this game, the story, the graphic design, nearly everything about the experience. But I can’t say I fully enjoyed it. The story is dark, and gets darker the further you investigate. I would hope that there is a redemptive scene at the end. But as I said, I only reached the second best ending (eventually). This was probably the best I can do without a complete walk-through.
I found out only after I began writing this review that Abigail Corfman was also the author of “16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds.” That game was terrific also, but written in a completely different style. It is cool to see this talented author reach in such different directions with their art.
I started browsing the competition list this morning with two conflicting goals. I wanted to play all the Texture games, because it caught my interest when I played “Nosebleed” and I was curious about the platform. I also wanted to play comedies. But it turns out that all of the tagged Texture games are co-branded as “Horror”. So this is what I’ll play.
“Graveyard Strolls” by Adina Brodkin.
“You dream of Mother. She beckons to you like a ballerina, her fingers reaching out to you to stroke your cheek, drawing a faint line of blood in the trail of her sharply pointed talons.”
That passage appeared at the premature end of my first play. “Premature” because my first experience didn’t last but a minute. I think I read five screens. The writing in this passage is evocative. I imagine a ballerina, on one toe, leaning forward, beckoning me with her finger. Adding in “sharply pointed talons” renders it a mixed metaphor, but I can live with that. I’ll play again.
The second time through I had a similar experience, playing a little further, but this time met with an invitation to “restart from the beginning” or “restart from the graveyard scene” This is beginning to feel like a experience with one narrow gauntlet of a story and many branching endpoints, which unfortunately is a design that tends to discourage continued play. But I restart from the graveyard.
My reasons for visiting the graveyard were a little vague in the beginning (a youtuber told me it was haunted) but once I’m here, I begin developing a talent for counseling the dead and bringing closure to their lives. Much like Bruce Willis’s character in “The sixth sense.” It wasn’t hard to run the gauntlet and avoid the premature endings once I figured that out. I was there to help the ghosts.
Spoiler about the end sequence. This must have been influenced by “The sixth sense”. The end sequence alludes to Munchausen by Proxy, a mental illness and form of child abuse that was a major plot point in that film. At the end, once all the ghosts have been helped, the narrator is able to put to rest their own ghosts.
Continuing my goal to play all the Texture games. Interestingly, “Nosebleed” (the game which inspired this goal) is not tagged as a “Texture” game. If there are others in the competition list that are also not tagged as “Texture” please let me know.
“Chase the Sun” By Frankie Kavakich
I’ll start by commending the cover art with this. The image and font are both attractive, evoking a sense that this story takes place several days into a road trip, and that perhaps it’s time to pull off the road into some old abandoned Rocky Mountain miner’s camp to take a break from driving.
Then I play. Ok, so I was half right. This is set in Pennsylvania between Lancaster and Pittsburg. I know that highway. The mountains there are much lower and flatter than the Western high mountains in the cover art. The narrator is several days into a long road trip and needs a rest, but not at a miner’s camp. Instead, an old Quaker farm populated by lots of other visitors awaiting (celebrating even) the end of the world.
I liked the writing in this. The description of the Quaker house is rich with details of a time and place outside the real world of 2022. The colors and style of the house make it sound more like the 50’s or 60’s. The mention of “Quakers” might also elicit thoughts of the “old-fasioned” in some readers, though from my personal experience living in this part of the country, I can assert that the Society of Friends (formal name for the Quakers) is still a vibrant movement.
I did not experience this as a “horror story” so much as a melancholy and nostalgic study of human relationships. In the passages I read, I was never quite certain what was causing the end of the world, but doesn’t really matter. The piece is all about creating a surrealistic place and mood. It does that effectively.
Continuing my review of Texture games, I’ll also use this opportunity to journal my observations of the platform itself. I like the mechanics of bringing words up into the passage. It feels more natural, more like parser based interactive fiction, than selecting from a multi-choice menu. Multi-choice menus draw too much attention to all the things you don’t want to do. In a well-designed Texture, you may not even notice that you had choices you didn’t want to make.
“Ink” by Sangita V Nuli is an interactive poetry. This is a story about the traumatic loss of a loved one, told in free verse. I’ve read a lot of High school literary magazines, and I hope I won’t offend the author to say that this felt like the stuff of those journals. Competently written verse, overloaded with emotion. Fun to read one line at a time because of the pleasing meter of SAT prep word choices, but written in a style where the individual lines don’t necessarily add up to a coherent whole.
The choice to “live” reoccurs frequently, something I remembered from another interactive fiction (or is this just deja vu). Often “live” is provided as the only available choice to continue the game, perhaps implying some deeper philosophical message, but eventually feeling like a “return key”. In other cases, the player has a choice to either “accept” the loss, or to express anger and denial, which are authentic choices after a loss.
Would you believe I’ve actually never seen The Sixth Sense? Literally all I know from the movie is “I see dead people”, that’s it - the thing I associate Haley Joel Osment with the most is Kingdom Hearts . It’s interesting that you mention that as an influence - it might not seem like it because of what I wrote, but I’m actually not the biggest fan of horror in real life. You’re the first reviewer I’ve seen who mentions the film in relation to Graveyard Strolls and since it’s October I’m going to have to check it out now!
Finished up the last two Texture games, and also listened to the podcast for “Nosebleed” on “The Short Game” podcast. Following are my last two reviews for these games.
“To Persist/Exist/Endure, press 1” by Anthony O. This game appears, at first inspection, to be a robo-dial phone menu simulator. After further inspection, that really is what it is. There were some funny bits which included the name of the company, the Polish translator, and the names of the various departments. I think if the author had aimed for pure comedy, this would have been a really spectacular concept for a short game. But the author also wants to say something about anxiety, anger management and ennui. These are themes I experience in my life, but don’t enjoy reading about without a much more structured story arc.
“The Staycation”, by Maggie H is a story about a person (presumably a young person, and I imagined female) left alone in her New York City apartment while her two friends vacation together in Florida. At first she expects this to be a relaxing time by herself, but quickly she is overtaken by a sense of lonliness and a need to confront her inner demons.
“Staycation” is the first Texture I’ve seen that uses graphic icons instead of words to drive the choice options. I don’t use emoticons much in my own writing so it took me some trial and error to figure out what they meant.
My first playthrough ended awake in the middle of the night feeling depressed. My second playthrough ended at roughly the same point in gamespace, but locked on a screen without any options for restarting or moving the story forward. My feeling was the game needed to be a little longer in order to provide a complete transition of emotion from .
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper?” by Nadine Rodriguez also appears to be a Texture game.
“Am I My Brother’s Keeper” by Nadine Rodriguez is yet another Texture game entered in this year’s competition, but not tagged as “Texture” in the competition search engine. Thanks to Steve Evans for pointing this out.
“Am I my Brother’s Keeper” took me about half an hour to play. It is well written, and provides a more fully developed story arc than some of the other games I’ve played recently. The PC is searching for her lost sister, someone who has disappeared several times before. This time, though, her disappearance is not a mere alcoholic bender, but an abduction by supernatural monsters from the dream world.
There is some limited police involvement in the search, and I thought it strained credulity when the chief investigator invited our PC to go into the crime scene alone (an abandoned warehouse by the docks) to “just search around” while the cop waits outside. But it does move the story forward. Inside the warehouse, the protagonist discovers a clue to search another location, and then eventually join her sister in the monstrous dream world.
I’ve seen this trope before, characters entering a dream state to battle some monster within. So common, in fact, that I saw it just last week in a rerun of “South Park” titled “Insheeption” in which Mr Mackey (along with a dozen other denizens of South Park) travel into his dream to do battle against Woodsy Owl, who molested him as a child. “Am I my Brother’s Keeper” puts a new spin on this trope, when the PC realizes that her sister doesn’t actually want her help// a parallel to the problem which families of alcoholics and drug abusers often face when trying to help their loved ones.
As I said, the writing and story design are strong. This would make an awesome screenplay. But as an interactive fiction, the player should have choices. The story itself is entirely linear, and most of the pages have only a single option to move it forward. There is one scene in particular which I thought was a missed opportunity to add choices. The player realizes they can take something with them into the dream world, so they buy a gun. How much more interesting it would have been, as a player, to get to choose what to bring with me into the dream world?
“Glimmer” is a Twine game by Katie Benson. The story is about one person’s gradual decline into emotional depression and isolation, followed by the fortuitous arrival of a friend and the glimmer of hope for recovery. The writing is competent, but there are no branch points, and hardly any interactivity. Reflecting on this philosophically, I suppose that is the nature of depression. One doesn’t feel they have any agency while they sink into depression. And the arrival of a friend to help one recover from depression isn’t perceived as a choice either, so much as a blessing or an act of God, or whatever you want to call it. Philosophy aside, though, I’d prefer a game design that gave me choices.