Hipolito's Hot Takes on IFComp 2020

Here are my reviews. I played my Personal Shuffle until the last week of judging, at which point I played games based on the recommendations of folks in this forum.

If a game isn’t listed here, I either didn’t get around to it or didn’t play it enough to form an opinion.

Games I Liked!

Alone: a survival story that begins when your car runs out of gas on a lonesome road. I liked how the game doesn’t outright tell you what’s going on; you find out soon enough on your own. Good puzzles, though it’s possible to get stuck and I definitely needed the walkthrough. But I’m proud that I was able to solve the last sequence of puzzles without help, and left the game feeling satisfied. Great xyzzy response, too. 7

Ascension of Limbs: you take over a decrepit antique store and try to make it useful in this business simulation with occult touches. You can even name your store; I named mine “One Man’s Junk.” I like how the game always shows you the available verbs and nouns, making more available over time. I got Ending C (Clarity). 7

Babyface: a unique Southern Gothic horror story with effective visual and sound effects. 7

Congee: a young woman in UK craves congee, a comfort food from her childhood in Hong Kong. A short, linear, but nice little story about nostalgia and homesickness, with good art and music. 7

Doppeljobs: in this funny urban fantasy, you’re a doppelganger that people hire to impersonate them in situations they don’t want to experience. With its vivid personalities and setting, this could be the basis of a novel. I played three times but only saw two of the four endings. 7

Happyland: inspired by Deadline, a cold and logical thriller that’s one of my favorite Infocom games. As a detective, you have to investigate a crime scene, interview people, gather evidence, and eventually make an arrest. As with Deadline, there is a time limit and schedule of events, and you kind of have to play the game twice to gather the important clues and not waste time elsewhere. In my 2-hour playthrough, I found some answers but not all. 7

High Jinnks: A buddy comedy featuring a cursed jinni and a young man whose lives intertwine. Lots of good writing, though the snarky banter is a bit excessive, getting in the way of plot development. 7

Limerick Quest: The sequel to last year’s Limerick Heist. While not quite as funny and madcap, it is still refreshing and clever. The word puzzles are great, though I think the catapult one was too picky. 7

The Magpie Takes the Train: I literally squeed when I saw this was a sequel to 2018’s winner, Alias “the Magpie.” This is on a much smaller scale, but is still a fun puzzle and amusing heist game. 7

Mother Tongue: in a texting conversation, your Filipina mom teaches you a little Tagalog. Engaging, funny, and touching. I felt so good after playing this. Thanks, nanay! 8

Tavern Crawler: go on a quest, then try to figure out which tavern you were supposed to collect your quest reward at. This choice-based RPG is rich in quests, stat-based dialogue options, humor, companion relationships, and moral dilemmas. 7

Vampire Ltd: Jealous of a rival vampire, you try to destroy his business. But, because you’re a vampire, you have to be invited in first. An easy game with some big laughs and a great first-person voice for the protagonist, who is a bit of an idiot. 7

Games that Didn’t Quite Work for Me?

Amazing Quest: with its dramatic documentation but dumbly simplistic gameplay, this seems like a troll entry. Or maybe it contains hidden secrets! 3

At Night: horror game with fighting. I didn’t like the writing or looping sound effects. 2

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park: buggy spoof of Jurassic park. Dinosaurs don’t excite me. 2

Captain Greybeard’s Plunder: a vanquished pirate captain gets “revenge” by reimagining his last raid as if it happened with the ship and crew of classic nautical novels. A fine idea, but the various serif fonts from the different novels were annoying, the novel excerpts were too long, and it doesn’t make sense to me how the captain is free to read books in his private library after being captured. 5

The Copyright of Silence: you are trying to simulate 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence with the composer John Cage so that you can later sue him for copyright infringement. Quite a concept for a game, and it’s nicely laid out as a board game. But it seems too difficult, even with a hint guide, to figure out. 6

Deus Ex Ceviche: it seems that every year, I call one of the IFComp entries “one of the strangest IFComp entries in recent memory.” This is the game that gets that description this year. A resource-management game in which you use various “dogmatic disks” and one of your two clergy to gather resources and eventually help your cybernetic fish society perform three rituals to win the game. I did win but found the whole experience unfathomable. I think the game would have been better and more provocative had it based on actual church history. And the resource crunch can be tedious. Rating: 6

Dr. Ego and the Egg of Man-Toomba: an Indiana Jones-like game that didn’t excite me. Then again, Indiana Jones doesn’t excite me, either. 4

The Eleusinian Miseries: you’re a young bloke in Ancient Greece who has to do various errands and rituals to get initiated. Told with lots of verbose British humor and slang. I laughed at one of the puzzles, but at the two-hour mark, things got too complex and I just couldn’t bear it any more. 5

Ferryman’s Gate: decent mansion-based puzzler and an honestly good way to learn the rules of comma grammar (seriously). But the walkthrough didn’t give hints explicit enough to help me find the plate I needed, and I was too frustrated to wander all around in search of it. 6

The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle: it’s refreshing to have a teen sex dramedy, and the writing is pretty good. But it has a lot of problems as a game. Parser issues, unclear navigation, noun confusion. And a bug early in the game prevented me from entering my own house. 4

The Knot: it’s a recently established tradition in the competition for several games to participate in a meta-joke, and this is the most elaborate one yet. I didn’t realize what was going on until I read other people’s reviews, but afterward I had fun piecing things together and taking in the nutty and obscure lore about aliens and occultism. I’m still baffled by the overall story. I’m rating the associated games a 6.

Minor Arcana: you are a sentient deck of tarot cards. By making choices about your design and the fortunes you show, you seek to have control over your own destiny. Interesting but obscure. Even after 4 plays, I wasn’t able to get what felt like a satisfying ending. 5

The Moon Wed Saturn: short romance story between lesbians, one a construction site security guard and the other a would-be vandal. It strives to have a striking prose style, but it didn’t click with me. And I didn’t like that the choices made little difference in how things played out. 2

Move On: an under-15 minute action thriller that initially seems to offer no player agency. There’s just one button to push. After dying a bunch of times, I learned from another review what I was supposed to do. Pretty neat concept, still just an OK story. 5

The Pinecone: brief, bizarre story about a kid waiting for his school bus, a pinecone, and goats. 5

Popstar Idol Survival Game: fifteen minutes into this 1.5-hour game, I ran into dead-end bugs. 1

A Rope of Chalk: The author, Ryan Veeder, won the competition in 2011 with Taco Fiction, a game I still remember fondly. But this story about college students who have to judge a sidewalk chart art competition … is weird. I’m glad the game ultimately explains what’s going on, though it ends too abruptly. I unfortunately had technical issues playing the game in browser (it got stuck during cutscenes), so I had to download an interpreter and start all over. But some good points:

  • Fun xyzzy response.
  • The poignant description of a knight and maiden grieving in a field of melting flowers.
  • I laughed when I learned what the logo was.
  • I liked the line “You can never really know what’s going on with another person. You only have access to whatever they present to you. You can’t even really know yourself, because you’re only able to observe yourself using yourself.” 6

Sage Sanctum Scramble: Solve a series of word puzzles, from the easy to no-way-I’d-get-it-in-a-lifetime. Colorful finale in which you use all the keywords you guessed to confront a threat. 6

Saint Simon’s Saw: this is basically a tarot reading game. It doesn’t seem to be a good fit for the competition, though I assume the card art and text are original. And it got me thinking that tarot readings, though based on superstition, could actually do people good by getting them to focus on certain aspects of life and solutions to their problems. 2

Sense of Harmony: this game pits you as a cybernetically enhanced erotic masseuse. Effective use of stylish hypertext to gain the additional sensory and memory information afforded by your cybernetics. (I kind of wish there was an audio component to the hypertext readouts, too.) It’s interesting how the story uses your cybernetics as both a secret superpower and a vulnerability. Unfortunately, the game is just the first chapter, not a complete story. While it was interesting, it didn’t leave me breathless to know what happens next. 5

Shadow Operative: cyberpunk story with handy, attractive cyberpunk interface and appropriate soundtrack. You’re a freelance hacker who explores both the city and virtual worlds to get jobs done. Feels more young-adult and less dystopian than the usual cyberpunk story. The plot isn’t deep but I liked learning what happened to various characters in the ending. 6

Sound: I guess this is about a therapist trying to help someone who has speech impediments, but the therapist has problems, too. This hypertext game eventually explodes with repeated instances of the sentence “You embark to find your voice,” which makes my browser crash, so I don’t know whether there’s an actual end to this game. 3

Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: short, simple game in which you’re Isaac Newton, time-traveling to the future to solve a worldwide crisis (not rona). 4

Stoned Ape Hypothesis: a caveman explores, learns to make tools, plays tic-tac-toe and mancala, fights a beast, and eats a few mushrooms. Cute enough, but getting high seems to be incidental to the story. 6

Stuff of Legend: a village idiot is fired from that job and seeks to become a knight. A cute and funny story, but the puzzling requires too many detailed steps that one would not normally think of. I also disliked navigating through the setting and having to use a command to get a list of the exits each time. 5

Turbo Chest Hair Massacre: a quest to hunt for a shaving razor in your apartment quickly turns into something hecka weird and unique. Not bad, but not personally engaging, either. It was a bit tiring to try one solution after another and have them fail. I used a walkthrough, though the game is not that difficult. 6

The Turnip: another short, weird story by the author of The Pinecone, this one about a man, a dog, and a mysterious turnip. Completely linear, completely whatever. 3

Ulterior Spirits: a choice-based game with high production values, about an admiral on a space station who receives disturbing messages that seem to come from a violent past. The story is a decent one if you make certain choices. If you make the “wrong” choices, your experience will be largely bureaucratic and meaningless. 5

You Couldn’t Have Done That: a brief story about a teenager on her first day at work at the mall, and her challenges with autism. An enlightening look at her inner struggle, with nice background music. 5