Drew Cook's Spring Thing 2022 Reviews

I thought it would be nice to take a break over at golmac.org to review some Spring Thing games. I will not attempt to review every entry. In fact, I only plan to highlight games that I especially enjoy or that otherwise interest me critically. If I don’t review your game, that doesn’t mean that I didn’t like it; perhaps I haven’t gotten to it yet.

I’ve got a randomized list that I will work through in order, no cheating.

Anyway, I’ll post a digest of reviews at Gold Machine on Monday(s). Not sure how long I’ll do this; two weeks, maybe? Or else I’ll stop whenever I got frozen out for replying to myself five times in a row, whichever comes first :sweat_smile:

Crow Quest by Rookerie
Art by Kate Thompson

I think that an RPG-lite game about an ambitious Birmingham (I’m hazarding a guess from all the way down in southern Louisiana) crow is a fantastic idea and wonder how we are just now getting one. It begins with the player making a few choices: name, whether to team up with another crow, and what items to bring with them on their quest. The chosen inventory items afford extra options during the randomly-selected encounters with mean schoolkids, cats, and the like.

Successfully completing each encounter adds to the crow’s “attitude” (here measured numerically). Once it has reached a specific threshhold, the crow is either “KING OF THE RUBBLE,” or else must fight their partner for the top spot. I enjoyed the humor very much: many of the encounters are funny, and the narrative voice/presentation seems well-aligned with the subject matter of Crow Quest.

I do think that the randomly-selected encounters can make for an uneven experience. The pool of options is modest, so it is possible to expend your inventory items then repeat the same encounters (many of them failed) hoping for enough consecutive dice rolls to reach the end. By the same token, the responses for the rock-paper-scissors climactic battle are funny once, but the fight usually takes several turns to complete. Crow Quest is an enjoyable concept that could be more enjoyable still if randomness and luck were more tactically employed or funneled.

I should mention the artwork by Kate Thompson, which is striking, memorable, and perfectly suited to the mood of Crow Quest.

I do hope there will be a later and possibly expanded release. I would be eager to return.

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Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi
E. Joyce and N. Cormier

Since turning physical pages in a book is, in fact, interaction, I’m not interested in articulating some bright, hard standard of interactivity that a game must meet. I’m more interested in the relationship between a work’s subject matter, format, and platform: are a work’s themes and/or story beats best suited to a printed short story? A sestina, perhaps? A Twine? A screenplay? etc. I can honestly say of each of my favorite poems: “this works because it is a poem. It could not have been anything else. It is a poem by necessity.”

Enter Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroix, a well-written story that takes full advantage of its platform to create not only a sense of player agency but investment. Its protagonists are clever and likable. The setting is positively bursting with detail, whether it’s the social realities of cross-class conversation or an obscure historical factoid, and there is no devil in these details.

The work includes a scoring system which dispels any sense that one’s clicks add up to little more than the order in which one reads things. While I suppose such additions might seem a little video-gamey, I’ve come up with an iron-clad defense:

I like video games, and this is a very good game.

The story (I will be very brief) involves the exploits of Lady Thalia, stylish thief, and her rival, a police investigator. They both agree to work together to catch the Baron d’Acanthe, a violent criminal with a scorching case of class envy.

There is a simple-yet-satisfying conversation system–all the replies are well written. Both Thalia and her rival are as charming as all get out; it is great fun to play as them. There are also the heists themselves, which are suspenseful and wholly credible.

I feel ungenerous in saying so, but I must admit to encountering an error near the end. I believe I was to be told about a mistake I had made.

Still, this is a great experience that I would recommend to anyone.

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Thanks so much! Please DM me and my coauthor @The_Xenographer and let us know where you found the error. We didn’t have time to fully playtest before submitting so I’m just glad there aren’t more of those!

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As promised: the first of [at least] two Gold Machine posts about Spring Thing experiences.

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Orbital Decay
Kayvan Sarikhani

Orbital Decay is a hard sci-fi take on the “space disaster” story: a collision or explosion in the command module of Crewed Orbital Laboratory Bowman has wiped out the entire crew, hopelessly damaged its orbital thrusters, and shut down key electrical systems.

Every crew member is dead, that is, except for you, the protagonist, who are out on a spacewalk at the time. The game’s goal is to make crucial repairs that will permit escape to a nearby, habitable planet.

While there are problems for the player to solve, they largely consist of reading the text closely before (hopefully) doing things in the correct order. Special attention has been paid to the use of airlocks, which require more care than many Hollywood films would suggest.

I like this kind of thing. My old life in IT cultivated in me an appreciation for productive wonkiness over certain technical procedures. Much of Orbital Decay feels educational–in a positive sense.

The music, composed and presumably performed by the author, is atmospheric and evocative. The writing is uneven. In its best moments, it evinces a tersely poetic specificity. At other times, a poorly timed wisecrack spoils the mood. On balance, though, I would say Sarikhani’s prose suits the piece well.

It does not yet feel finished. there was at lest one thing that felt incompletely implemented: you can retrieve a download of the station’s scientific data, but the game does not mention this in the ending. The photos are mostly public domain images from NASA, and they do have that look to them.

I recommend Orbital Decay. The author is already planning to replace the images, record “better” audio (but I like the audio!), and expand the story, which I look forward to experiencing for myself.

There are also a few references to old Sierra p&c games, which old players like me may well appreciate.

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Thanks very much for taking the time to play, as well as for the critique! It’s true - there are several areas that need work.

I really wanted to make the writing more interesting and evocative of what it might feel like to personally be in that situation, but I think the actual “story” suffered for several reasons. The overall writing would be paramount for improvement. Thanks for the kind words on the audio - I like the overall feel, but it would have been fun to add more tracks, mix/master professionally, and release as a small soundtrack. Add original artwork for sure. I felt like I was chasing certain themes at times, so it’d be nice to make it less derivative. Add interactivity with the computer, some dialogue maybe, give the chance to fix the thrusters. It all felt too “on rails,” as it is. So many details and directions!

Essentially, I consider this entry kind of like a “snapshot” of where I was at this time. I think I’m headed in the right direction, but not quite on the right path yet. I think your assessment of feeling unfinished is on point!

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I look forward to the next release!

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George and the Dragon
Pete Chown

I like visual novels, even if I haven’t played too many. I’ve read some big name titles (Stein’s Gate, The House in Fata Morgana, Danganronpa), as well as the post-VN Doki Doki Literature Club. I suppose a common critique of the genre is that they aren’t sufficiently interactive, but they do often have more and more disparate endings than a lot of games. Perhaps it is fair to say that while they offer the players few agentic moments, those decision points are, pound for pound, more impactful than the choices in many other games.

I was happy, then, to encounter George and the Dragon, which was immediately recognizable as a visual novel. The majority of the screen is, as expected, dedicated to imagery. A small slice of screen at the bottom contains the text of the game, fed in bite-sized chunks that require many clicks to proceed. There is music.

The story is typical fantasy fare–I enjoy that sort of thing, too. Every year a medieval-esque town must sacrifice a “maiden” to a dragon that will otherwise destroy the village. The protagonist, a blacksmith’s son, may or may not have an important role to play in this year’s sacrifice. His friend, the princess, has won/lost a lottery that selects the unfortunate maiden.

What visual novels lack in interactivity is typically compensated for with strong artwork and music. George and the Dragon does not deliver on this front. The artwork may or may not be built from public domain models and templates, but in any case it does not pair harmoniously with the text. The royal family, for instance seem under- (and anachronistically) dressed.

The music can feel out of place, too.

I played through it three times, and got three different endings. I couldn’t figure out how to keep the princess from being injured, but otherwise reached a “happily ever after” conclusion.

Would I recommend George and the Dragon? I’m not sure! I think its presentation needs a bit of shoring up, and the outcomes of specific choices are not always clear. I do want to celebrate its presence here, though, and hope Pete Chown will revise it further.

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This looks like DAZ3D, and while there are free default options, more complicated styling and clothing options are not free and can get very expensive. I abandoned an idea for a VN using DAZ once I realized what type of resources I would be required to purchase.

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It seems so! Especially if the author has to double down for interactive licenses. Thanks for the name, lots of public 3d images have a similar feel; I wondered where they came from.

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A feeling of player agency is an elusive thing. It is hard, if not impossible, to quantify. I suppose the reason that agentic reading as an experience is so slippery is that the subjective impression of agency is not necessarily the same as the coded-in presence of agency. If I, as a player, feel that I am making important choices in a game, then it really doesn’t matter whether those choices are impactful–in terms of outcomes–or not. Games are experiences, not differently filled beakers on a chemist’s counter.

I have not been reviewing games in which I do not experience a feeling of agency. This is not because such works have no artistic merit, but because as a critic I am interested in agentic reading. I also have a massive backlog of traditional fiction–I will not get through it in my lifetime–that makes incessant demands on my time for less agentic experiences. This is to say nothing of all the poetry out there! It’s got nothing to do with quality, but my dance card is completely and hopelessly full already.

New Year’s Eve, 2019
Autumn Chen

When the protagonist, a few clicks into New Year’s Eve, 2019, is offered the following choice:

and, having selected “optimization problem,” receives the following feedback:

I had a feeling that it might be a kind of choice-based Suspended with constraints dictated by social rather than epistemological forces. The prospect of simulation is underscored by a “Status” screen that indicates not only physical status but relationship statuses (ranked quantitatively on a scale from 0-5). I loved the meta effects of the Status screen. Whatever the realities might be, they strongly reinforced the idea of a problem that one might be able to solve.

This “puzzle,” as it is presented, is navigating the difficult waters of family, culture, friendships, and romantic (im)possibilities at a New Year’s party as Qiuyi Zhao (“Karen Zhao” in English), a college senior home for the Christmas holiday.

However: having gotten both possible endings, there is a bleak irony to the promise of the Status screen. The reality is that the protagonist is catastrophically limited by symptoms of mental illness (is it untreated? I missed the answer if there is one) exacerbated by feelings of isolation and otherness within the social structure of family and past relations. I think people with a history of anxiety or social discomfort will identify–perhaps to a painful extent–with Karen.

The gameplay loop is simple: engage with people (or don’t) at the party, endure the stress-inducing dinner, and wind up in one of two states.

I won’t say more about the plot. I will say that New Year’s Eve, 2019 is a game in which the experience of agency is crucial to the experience of the story. It is one thing to watch someone fail again and again, and it is another thing to feel responsible their failures. I thought: “if this is an optimization problem, perhaps I should have talked to someone else. Perhaps I should have remained silent. Perhaps…”

The game makes good use of its interactive structure: I felt, simultaneously, that my choices did and didn’t matter. I wanted to do something nice for this character, but I didn’t know what to do.

A Paradox Between Worlds did something interesting with choice, too–nearly all decisions were like/reply/reblog decisions in a Tumblr-like platform. I think judicious use of systems and choice is just something the author does well.

I do recommend this game, though people currently struggling with mental health issues might find that it cuts a bit too close. Having reached a comfortable distance between my present and past challenges, I found it identifiable in a way that I liked.

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Computerfriend
Kit Reimer

I don’t want to say too much about Computerfriend, for fear that I might spoil the sheer WTF-ery of it.

The protagonist is either mentally ill or reasonably troubled over the miserable state of the earth in the wake of man-made, ecological disasters. They receive therapy in a number of modalities from a new AI technology known as a “computerfriend.”

The writing is at turns funny, frightening, or hallucinatory, and the author makes good use of the platform with text effects and simulated online activities.

I think it is brilliant–a sort of Eliza from hell if Eliza actually went someplace.

Computerfriend promises six endings. I got two, and will go back for more.

Recommended, if a close (and darkly parodic) look at mental illness and its treatment isn’t too hard to stomach.

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I agree. I played it yesterday and it’s still rattling around in my brain. I am torn between wanting another ending and fearing that I will have to eat more slimeworms if I play through again. I know that wanting another ending will win, though.

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In each of the two endings I got, the details about the game world were pretty different, so you may not have to!

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Thank you so much for your kind review! :slight_smile:

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You know, slimeworms are highly nutritious and appealingly flavored. We mustn’t let the objectionable name and texture prevent us from utilizing such an efficient food source.

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Thank you for the amazing review! This was exactly what I was trying to achieve with the interplay between the game’s mechanics and narrative or something like that; the restriction of agency was a big part of it. I’ve never played Suspended before (or most infocom games unfortunately), but it looks like something I’d be terrible at! Maybe I should still try it, though. I think there was one point where Karen said that she never saw a therapist because she had too much anxiety, buried in one of the more obscure routes.

Also, agreed about Computerfriend. It’s one of my favorites.

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Reading about it is probably better. Suspended is mechanically arcane and what I see in it (depersonalization at the hands of an authoritarian state) is just wonky, video-gamey simulation to a lot of people.

I’ll have to go check out Pageant when this Spring Thing business is over.

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My weekly Spring Thing post is up:

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The Bones of Rosalinda
Agnieszka Trzaska

Now comes a dramatic shift from my recent favorites. While Computerfriend and New Year’s Eve, 2019 strike me as critical–or at least suspicious–of what I must imprecisely call gamification or the reduction of human experience to computerized amusements. The Bones of Rosalinda is unambiguously videogamey in the best possible way. It has an engaging and fun hook–the protagonist is a skeleton who solves problems by detaching its arms and skull to solve problems.

It takes place in a necromancer’s layer and features problems that one might expect. There is an ogress, a demon, and a malevolent power. All must be won over or defeated. Rosalinda–the skeleton–additionally has a mouse that can be controlled to solve puzzles or aid in exploration. There is a lot of–forgive my informal characterization–cool stuff for the player to do and see, and for the most part the puzzles lead to brief, satisfying outcomes that require thought without bogging down the pace.

Structurally, Bones participates in a long tradition of narrow-wide-narrow design dating back to classic parser games of the 80s. The player cannot leave the first room without first understanding its unique systems (use of Rosalinda’s body parts).

The prose is charming and lightly humorous, and the use of 3rd person narration helps foster a sort of fairytale ambiance. Despite all of the dead bodies, this is not a violent game, and I think children might enjoy playing it with a helpful adult.

The penultimate puzzle (destroying the mirror) was the only flat moment for me. From a puzzle design perspective, I liked what was happening, but I wasn’t clicking on things in the right order. Alternately, I knew what I needed to do, but I didn’t know how to do it within the interface.

Still, The Bones of Rosalinda (IFDB page) is a lot of fun with a clever central mechanic. It has a winning sense of humor, and a (mostly) likable cast. Recommended.

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