EJ's 2023 IFComp Reviews

After not doing review threads for the last couple of years, I’m attempting to get back on the horse! I am, simultaneously, working on a Grand Guignol game for Ectocomp, so I don’t know how many IFComp games I’m going to have time to play. There are also some games that seem like they won’t play nicely with my photosensitivity and/or eyestrain issues that I’ll be skipping, so this won’t be comprehensive in any case. But I’ll do as much as I can!




The concept of Assembly is immensely fun: you roam an Ikea trying to stop some cultists from summoning the elder gods using sigils made of flat-pack furniture. The writing swings back and forth between heightened fantasy narration and mundane descriptions of furniture assembly with panache, and the blue-and-yellow color scheme with its clean, friendly sans-serif font helps sell the Ikea atmosphere. The implementation is very smooth.

Despite the many excellent qualities it has going for it, though, the game also has a major flaw: it’s not particularly well signposted, and I often wasn’t sure what I was trying to accomplish or in which order I should be trying to solve the puzzles. The in-game hints weren’t always as helpful as I would have liked, and in a couple places I had to turn to the walkthrough.

Part of the fault was mine, I admit, for not getting to grips with the game’s internal logic; my tendency in an adventure game if I run across a locked door or cabinet is to assume that there’s a key somewhere, for example, but Assembly is looking for more creative solutions. I do think that if the game had been a little longer, I would have been able to settle into this groove and do better problem-solving on my own, so I wish there had been a little more meat to it. (Despite the hour and a half play time estimate, my playthrough was forty-five minutes with a fair amount of going in circles included.)

All in all, though, I enjoyed what the game was doing and would love to see more from this author.

Edit (10/8/23)

Through some conversation with the author, I’ve learned that the hints that I needed actually were/should have been in the game, I just wasn’t seeing them for some reason, so it seems to have been a technical issue rather than an issue with the hint writing per se.


The Paper Magician

The Paper Magician features a PC with the ability to manifest anything they write on paper into reality. This could have been an interesting gameplay conceit, but ultimately it only features in non-interactive scenes; the gameplay consists of exploring the facility in which the PC is held in order to find the passwords for the exit doors.

This is neatly integrated with the plot; each of the four passwords is the answer to a question about the PC’s true nature and how they came to be here, so progress comes from exploration of the world and backstory, which both introduce some intriguing concepts that I would be interested to see expanded on further. But it’s a little prosaic compared to the kind of interactions the PC’s powers could theoretically enable, so I was a bit let down. The choice to end with an opportunity for the PC to name themself, though, felt fitting and satisfying. And I am admittedly a sucker for a feline companion.

A couple minor frustrations:

I had some trouble understanding the layout of the facility; this was probably because of my poor ability to visualize, but it was a little unintuitive to me that the door marked “NW” wasn’t “the northwestern door”, but “the door to the room in the northwestern quadrant, whatever direction that is relative to where you are right now.” But people who aren’t used to relying on the cardinal directions of exits in IF to substitute for the ability to make a mental map of how rooms are connected may be less thrown by this.

I was also thrown by the fact that the passwords were case-sensitive - I suppose, since you are typing them into a computer in-universe, this makes sense, but the question-and-answer format somehow led me to expect they wouldn’t be, and it took me a while to understand why my answers kept being rejected as incorrect.


Ohhhh. I totally missed that connection. I spent 20 minutes making three progressively neater drawings of the map with connections curving around between them… :+1:

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Yeah, I was doing the same at first—it took a while for things to click for me. I feel like I would have been less confused if the rooms had been numbered or named or something, although I don’t know what you’d do with the hallways in that case.

There was a reference in one document to “the Northwest Office” and the “Southeast area” or something like that, but it didn’t click for me. I feel like North Hall could work for that too. But it’s a very different way of looking at things. Fascinating.

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Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses!

Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses! is a cute, very short game in which the teen protagonist attempts to discover which of the other three members of their school’s Literature Club stole their glasses. I was intrigued by Jaime, the golden child with a secret wild side, and enjoyed their potentially-flirty interactions with the PC, but the other two suspects felt a bit thin by comparison.

I suspected after talking to the club president that no one had stolen my glasses, they had just been knocked somewhere weird when the other club members were horsing around and were probably still in the classroom. By the end of my first playthrough (which took about five minutes) I was certain this was the case, but how to get the PC to figure that out was a different question, and one whose answer was not obvious to me.

I stumbled on the answer by accident after a couple more playthroughs, when I realized that the characters are always in the same locations and I could just go straight there. The in-universe logical connection between PC action and consequence seems a little weak here, though, since it’s actually another character’s actions that lead to the retrieval of the glasses in the end. Apparently if you don’t happen to walk in on the club president just after he finds them, he walks off with them without any effort to tell you he has them, which seems like odd behavior for a friend, especially since the game has established that all these kids have phones.

Nevertheless, the game has charm, and I would give an expanded version a shot if one is in the works. (I’m not sure whether this is meant as a sort of proof-of-concept or whether it’s meant to be complete as-is; the glasses incident seems very self-contained, but then there are all the questions it raises and doesn’t answer about Jaime, or the fact that the intro implies that Minh is a possible love interest but the game doesn’t actually seem to offer any flirty dialogue options with them.)


The Sculptor

This game follows a sculptor in his eighties who has toiled away for years to get the money to afford a block of marble to create his final masterpiece. Then he is confronted with forgotten medical debt that forces him to decide whether to sell the sculpture, or refuse to sully his art with crass commercialism and instead lose everything he owns.

I feel that if you are going to make your game revolve around a single moral dilemma, you ideally want to make each choice a complicated one that leaves the player with mixed feelings, rather than making it black and white as The Sculptor does. Selling the sculpture is the morally bad choice that you will feel horrible about and regret forever, even if it does let you pay your medical bills; refusing to sell it and destroying it so they can’t just repo it anyway is the good choice, the only way to preserve your all-important artistic integrity and thus the only right thing to do.

Maybe it’s not meant to be a dilemma; maybe it’s just meant to surprise the player that the PC is miserable about the option your average person might think was “good” and happy about the option they’d think was “bad”. I can see how that might be eye-opening to someone who has never really given much thought to the way art and money interact before. But like a lot of people here, I’ve grappled with this at some length, so to me all the game does is present a character with an unusual-but-not-unheard-of hardline take on this thorny matter.


Hi! Thanks for the review! :revolving_hearts: The current game is basically the skeleton of the final version. When I finish it, it’s going to have more scenes with the suspects, a bit more locations, and an epilogue that reflects mc’s action during the game. I actually want to emphasize on mc’s adventure during school rather than the mystery itself (which is why I tag slice of life instead of mystery :joy:). But I had to submit the game early due to the deadline :sweat_smile:


That makes sense! I think finding the glasses felt important to me because there’s not much else to the game right now, but I could definitely imagine that if the PC’s school adventures were more fleshed out, it might feel less like a failure to go home without them. I look forward to seeing the full version!


Death on the Stormrider

There is always a tension in mystery fiction between the genre as puzzle box and the genre as exploration of human psychology and relationships. (This is a bit of an oversimplification—there are other elements to the genre—but for the purposes of this review, it’s good enough.) Some authors are primarily interested in why the crime occurred (i.e., what combination of personality and circumstance would lead to this?) and in what impact it has on the people who are affected by it; others are primarily interested in how the crime was committed, how it was concealed, and how the detective will find out the truth. Either can be narratively interesting, but I feel that the best mystery narratives manage to incorporate both to a significant degree, even if one is clearly more prominent.

Death on the Stormrider features a PC investigating a murder among a ship’s crew that speaks a language that the PC does not speak. It’s a choice that in some ways plays to the strengths of the medium—conversation can be done well in parser games, but it’s hard to pull off, and I think games where it’s a major aspect of the gameplay but not the main focus of the game are perhaps the hardest. Stormrider chooses not to wrestle with that, leaving the player to focus on skulking around unseen amid NPCs who patrol (mostly) fixed routes, getting into places they aren’t supposed to go, and manipulating a variety of tools and devices.

All of this works pretty smoothly (minus a couple of minor quibbles I’ll mention at the end). Once you get a sense of how Stormrider operates and what it generally expects you to do, the logic of most puzzles makes sense, and the a-ha moments are plentiful and satisfying. The automatically-updating list of tasks and clues was a great help in keeping track of everything. By and large, I enjoyed the process of playing the game.

But Stormrider is pretty much all puzzle box and no psychology, and that left me feeling a bit unsatisfied by it as a story. Some of this is down to the language barrier, which leaves the crew members functioning in the game more as automata than as characters. Their thoughts and feelings are inaccessible to the player, and we never learn much about how they relate to each other; this is a deliberate choice to increase the PC’s sense of alienation, but it does mean that there’s not much emotional weight to figuring out who the murderer is, and the “why” is something the player can only guess at. A bit more characterization for the PC and their brother could have balanced this out a bit without the need for any changes to the language-barrier conceit, but I didn’t get a strong sense of who they were either.

It was a solidly constructed puzzle box, in the end, but I wanted a bit more emotional investment.

(The minor quibbles:

  1. When a large setpiece can be moved by the PC, I would like a little more indication of it. Maybe it’s me, but I tend not to try to pick up or move large objects unless the game gives me a fairly overt nudge in that direction.

  2. I’m sure it was mentioned somewhere that there are exposed pipes in every room, but I played in a few shorter sessions, and by the time I actually needed to interact with the pipes I had forgotten that they were there. Fortunately the invisiclues got me unstuck, but I would love for this to be more explicitly mentioned in room descriptions.)


Thank you very much for the review! In retrospect, I do agree that characterizing Kiang and Zagin more would be a way to make it feel a bit more human without undercutting the alienation. (And I should definitely look into better cluing for those mechanics; you’re not the only one to run into issues there.)


Interestingly, I felt 100% the other way about this! Who gives a $%@# about the kind of ‘purity’ that thinks it’s better to destroy a magnificent work of art rather than send it out into the world? (It would have been something else if selling the work had also meant changing and debasing it, but that wasn’t going on at all.)


Yeah, that was my feeling as well! To me the most troubling thing about the impact of money on art is the way it leads to the artist having to compromise on making what they want to make, whether for broad marketability or because it’s what their specific patron wants. Having someone walk up to you and offer to hand you a large amount of money for a piece you already made exactly the way you wanted to is pretty much the best-case scenario, and I’d take that deal now, never mind the period of my life when I was poor and had medical debt. I don’t really feel like money taints art when applied after the fact, as it were.

Which is why I wonder if the game is mainly intended to kind of shock the player/provoke a “wow, some people don’t want to be paid for their art??” response. There are so many plausible, realistic ways it could have been made a better dilemma, most obviously that the potential buyer could have demanded changes or asked the sculptor to use his block of marble to make a different sculpture entirely, but instead we get this improbably good scenario that the character still feels is morally unacceptable.


Who Iced Mayor McFreeze?

I wasn’t the biggest fan of Bubble Gumshoe’s first outing, Who Killed Gum E. Bear; it hinges entirely on noticing a single aspect of the central gag and most of the investigating you do is utterly pointless. It’s an approach to detective IF that’s bound to be hit or miss, and for me it was a miss, even if the candy-coated noir setting was delightful. So I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from Who Iced Mayor McFreeze. I didn’t doubt that it would be funny, but would it be enjoyable as a game?

Fortunately, the answer was yes. Rather than having you guess the identity of the culprit like its predecessor, Mayor McFreeze traps Bubble Gumshoe in an abandoned factory that is also a crime scene. She must both search for clues and find a way out, giving the player quite a bit more to sink their teeth into than Gum E. Bear provided.

The puzzle design worked well and made clever use of a smallish inventory of objects. The implementation was a little rough, though, and after figuring out what I needed to do I occasionally experienced some friction trying to communicate that to the game. (You’ve heard of “guess the verb,” now get ready for “guess the preposition”!) But I was having a good time in general, so I didn’t mind too much.

All of the clues are technically missable—that is, you can escape the factory without finding any of them—but most of them are wildly unlikely to be missed by a player with enough adventure game experience to instinctively poke into every nook and cranny. The clue that incontrovertibly proves the killer’s identity may elude some players, though; it relies on a mechanic that I remember being emphasized in the previous game, but that isn’t highlighted here. It is covered in the handy list of verbs the game provides, though, so those who didn’t play Gum E. Bear should still be able to figure it out; it just requires a little extra thought/insight compared to the other clues.

The summation at the end is handled by Bubble Gumshoe without input from the player, but varies depending on how many of the clues were found, which I thought worked well. Some players might prefer to have a quiz here, but to me it felt like the real challenge was in solving the puzzles, and once the clues were in hand, interpreting them was fairly straightforward, so I didn’t mind letting the PC do it for me.


Dr. Ludwig and the Devil

This game follows Dr. Ludwig, a Dr. Faust/Victor Frankenstein mashup, as he tries to make a deal with the Devil for godlike powers of creation without actually giving up his soul. Meanwhile, there’s an angry mob at his doorstep—though its leader is quite handsome….

Dr. Ludwig (the game) is entirely narrated in the Mad Scientist Classic™ voice of Dr. Ludwig (the character). Whenever you take an item, for example, the response is “The [noun] was mine! All mine!” You can practically hear the evil laughter that must surely follow. The tone this sets is a large part of the game’s charm. It may be a little too much for some—Ludwig is a rather excitable fellow with a great love for exclamation points—but I enjoyed it.

The game delights in its cheesy genre tropes, and in juxtaposing them with the boring minutiae of real life. The torch-and-pitchfork mob just wants Ludwig to sign a neighborhood charter to agree to avoid experimentation on weekends and holidays (“with the exception of Hallowe’en for historical reasons”) and stop making loud noises after 8 PM. The woman who works at the mysteriously appearing and disappearing magic shop is thinking of forming a union because she doesn’t get enough vacation days. There’s a Terry Pratchett-esque sensibility to it, also evidenced in its approach to deities—the magic shopkeeper, for example, knows that God and the Devil exist, but she doesn’t believe in them, because “there’s really no reason to go about encouraging them, is there?"

The puzzles are well done, but mostly pretty typical medium-dry-goods fare (though the ones that incorporate ordering the Devil to do your bidding have some unique flair). Where the game really shines is in the character interactions—with the shopkeeper, with the Devil, and with the aforementioned handsome pitchfork-waver Hans. These interactions take place via an ask/tell conversation system with topic listing, which is my favorite kind of ask/tell conversation system. (Although it might have been nice to have some indication, in the list, of whether I’d asked about the topic yet or not—I did, at least once, miss out on asking about something puzzle-critical because I lost track.)

It’s easy, in comedy, to make characters that are one-note, or who behave in whatever way they need to in order to serve the joke of the moment. Here, the characters are humorous, but the humor is grounded in characterization that is consistent and recognizably human (if somewhat heightened), which also drives how each character interacts with the puzzles and the plot. (For example, Hans’s mention that he doesn’t really mind if you dig up the remains of his ancestors—they’re dead, what do they care?—presages his admission that he doesn’t believe in God, both of which are key bits of information needed to solve puzzles. And the former, at least, is also pretty funny.) Ultimately, I found them all quite endearing (and was pleased that Ludwig had the opportunity to ask Hans out on a date).

Dr. Ludwig has humor, heart, and a high level of polish, and I had a great time playing it. I would happily follow the good(?) doctor’s further adventures if that was something the author was interested in pursuing.


FWIW this exact thing tripped me up for a while too. Wanted to note it cause this detail didn’t survive my review’s editing pass. I went back and forth how I felt about it, and kind of landed on ‘a periodic reminder would have gone a long way.’


Beat Witch

Beat Witch is a parser game that takes place in a world where some girls, at puberty, suddenly turn into Beat Witches, a sort of energy vampire for whom music takes the place of garlic or holy water. The PC is one of these witches—the well-meaning “reluctant monster” type, who tries not to kill when she feeds—and her goal in the game is to take down another witch, one who has no such compunctions.

The game is fairly linear, not just in the sense that it lacks plot branching, but in the sense that it doesn’t often let you wander and poke around. There’s generally one specific command the game wants you to type at any given time and it won’t recognize much else, other than examining things. And examining things can be risky; sometimes if you don’t do the thing the game wants you to do immediately, you die.

When you type the right thing, the next bit of the story will be delivered to you in a large multi-paragraph chunk of text. Even on my gaming laptop, which has a large screen by laptop standards, this was almost always more than one screen’s worth of text, and sometimes more than two screens, so I was constantly scrolling back, trying to find where the new text started. This was a bit of a hassle, and to be honest, if I’d been playing on a smaller screen I don’t know if I would have had the patience to make it to the end.

I have to admit that as the game went on, I wondered more and more why the author had chosen to make it a parser game. It isn’t really taking advantage of the strengths of the medium (the sense of space, the object manipulation) or doing anything that hypertext couldn’t do, and I think I would have had a much smoother reading experience had it been a choice-based/hypertext game. The constant back-scrolling was frustrating and undermined the sense of propulsive forward motion that Beat Witch seems to be going for. Besides, if I’m going to be discouraged from interacting with the environment, I’d prefer to just get rid of the illusion that I can do so. It’s distracting to be constantly wondering if maybe this time there might be something interesting off the beaten path. I’d rather be put on some visible rails and know for a fact I can’t deviate from them. (Plus, the game’s recurring problems with unlisted exits couldn’t have existed in a choice-based game, but that at least is relatively easily fixed.)

In a work without much gameplay, the writing then has to do most of the work; Beat Witch has mixed success on this front. It has an atmospheric depiction of a mostly-abandoned city and some effectively gross horror imagery, and the loosely-sketched worldbuilding was intriguing. The emotional beats, however, didn’t quite land for me; you get too much of the PC’s backstory and motivation in a single infodump, and it feels a little inorganic. I would have loved to get that information parceled out over the first half of the game via the PC’s own memory so that her brother’s recording didn’t have to cover so much ground. I also feel it would have worked better for me if I had actually seen some of her idyllic childhood before everything went wrong. I think that would have made finding out what happened to her more immediately, viscerally painful, which then would have made the ending more satisfying.

There’s some interesting stuff in Beat Witch, but in the end it felt to me like a story that was constantly fighting against its format, and between that and the uneven handling of the main emotional arc, I was never as fully immersed as I wanted to be.


I was just this moment heading over to write a review of Beat Witch… on many points I came away with the same impressions.


Every year at the beginning of the Comp I’m like “I’m going to keep the reviews short!” and then every year my word count climbs steadily upwards as I go and at some point totally gets away from me, but I feel like it happened really fast this year. Oops.


The Whisperers

The central conceit of The Whisperers is that the player is an audience member watching a play in Stalin’s USSR. At various points in the show, the audience gets to vote on what the characters should do; the idea is that this is a teaching tool, meant to show, essentially, what happens to people who cross the Party.

The story revolves primarily around the doomed romance of two Trotskyist would-be revolutionaries, Nikolai and Agnessa. Agnessa’s brother Sergei is an NKVD officer, and their neighbors, the older couple Georgy and Dariya, show up occasionally to chat and offer advice. All five characters have things to hide from one another; this is presumably the reason for the game’s other conceit, the idea that the actors are whispering at all times unless otherwise noted. This is an arty touch that sits oddly with the play’s in-universe status as a piece of Soviet agitprop, a genre not really known for metaphor or anything that would open the intended meaning up to interpretation. (Though it may be that while The Whisperers the game intends the whispering to be symbolic, The Whisperers the play intends this entirely literally and the agitprop writer just thought that that was a normal thing for people in an apartment building with thin walls to do?)

Of course, no matter what choices you make, Agnessa and Nikolai’s fates are sealed from the outset. The only question is how much collateral damage will be incurred—making the characters do things the Party wouldn’t approve of naturally leads to worse outcomes for Sergei, Georgy, and Dariya.

The game is well-written in many respects. The setting is clearly well-researched, and the necessary information is communicated deftly to the player without any awkward “as you know” info-dumps (though there is a glossary to help anyone who’s lost). The characters also feel very real; Agnessa’s mindset of being unable to relax or do anything fun because the world is in a horrible state and she could be doing something about it, particularly, struck a chord. If you move in leftist circles at all you probably know a few Agnessas (although perhaps none who are quite so desperate as to take the measures she does). And while some of the choices don’t mean much, at their best they provide a window into the struggles of flawed people trying to live under intolerable circumstances and striving, however vainly, to keep their loved ones safe.

But I’m not sure how to feel about the theatrical framing. It has a distancing effect, especially given that you’re playing as either a faceless audience member or the collective will of the audience. You’re not inhabiting a particular character who can experience any consequences for the choices the player makes, and you’re constantly reminded that the characters who are experiencing consequences are fictional. This encourages the player to hold the whole thing at arm’s length, and I can’t quite figure out what it’s meant to add in return, or, alternatively, why it’s to this story’s advantage to be viewed at a few layers of remove.

(The secret ending in which the audience rebels and demands a happier ending for Agnessa and Nikolai does have interesting thematic implications—the audience as proletariat, perhaps?—so maybe the whole framing is just to build up to that point, but I don’t know if that’s enough payoff, especially as it’s missable.)

The author also provides a link to the script and encourages people to actually perform the show, and as an actor, I couldn’t resist taking a look with performability in mind. The first two-thirds or so seem quite doable, but toward the end, the combinations of variables to be taken into account become complicated and the text diverges quite significantly, going from changes to a few lines to, in some cases, entirely different scenes. I’ve seen a few pieces of somewhat-interactive theater in my time; usually there’s only a single point of divergence and it comes fairly late in the show, so that the actors don’t have to keep track of so many things and memorize so many different versions of their scenes. This is considerably more ambitious than anything I’ve seen performed. I’m not going to say it’s impossible, but certainly I think you’d need a cast of highly skilled professionals to pull it off. I would be interested to see it done, though!