IFComp 2023 reviews from Aster (spoilers)

Here’s my IFComp reviews! I’m gonna do 5 at minimum, hopefully more.

Spoilers abound!

  1. The Library of Knowledge
  2. The Whale’s Keeper
  3. Dysfluent
  4. Tricks of light in the forest
  5. Detective Osiris
  6. To Sea in a Sieve
  7. LUNIUM
  8. The Sculptor
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The Library of Knowledge

I was curious as to why this one wasn’t just a prose story, then I checked the author’s website and saw that the bulk of it already was a prose story. It seemed not-quite-interesting-enough to be a prose story by itself but much too long to be a book within a proper game…unfortunately I skimmed a lot of it wondering when choices would actually happen in the IF game, whereas if it were presented to me as a short static fiction I would’ve read more carefully and enjoyed it as it was clearly intended, i.e. a novella.

It felt like that prose story with 0 choices was The Point of the game with the other history books being backstory and the choices being somewhat window dressing to wrap up that story. Even at the end of the game when choices ostensibly come back, it’s pretty much “click to progress” which was functionally the same as the “turn page” button in the book parts. I think the crucial branching choice was basically deciding whether Anhah (or whatever the spelling was) would stay in the library or we would take her with us.

At first I was confused as to why the East was pretty 1:1 with actual Chinese history, locations, and mythology and the West was really fantastical and not really grounded in actual history (at least as far as I could tell?), but upon writing this review I realized that it’s what Europe always does to China so maybe they need a taste of their own medicine!

In short, if I wanted to read a short story I would’ve just read a short story, not tried to play an IFComp game.

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The Whale’s Keeper

This game was really charming! You find yourself waking with amnesia in the belly of a whale. I ended in half an hour with 17 sanity and 21 passages seen altogether– though since there are clearly 90 passages to be seen in total, I definitely missed a bunch.

Having gotten an extremely good ending of becoming the whale’s keeper with Jonah and getting the vague impression that several other endings were not-as-pleasant, I don’t feel a strong desire to replay (not due to it being uninteresting or unengaging, but rather because I am a weenie with horror and such).

The prose is written evocatively and I felt drawn into the depths of the mystery just like the protagonist. With that and the beautiful inked pictures in the beginning (though I think the pictures lessened over time?) I felt the majesty of the whale almost as much as the protagonist did – it almost made me wish that I could experience such a thing as a whale’s call from inside the whale! However the amnesia bit is a little overplayed in my opinion.

Jonah was a cheerful character and I couldn’t imagine hurting him when he was so kind and excitable. I felt tension with some choices in hoping I wouldn’t upset him or make a misstep since we didn’t speak the same language. Who he was, how he got there, etc were intriguing questions, but the game’s ending soothed me with the idea that it didn’t matter.

The Plotopolis system is slick, designed to be played on the Telegraph phone app but working on the web just as well. I spotted no typos or bugs whatsoever.

As someone who loves the ocean, I felt very soothed by the game. At least with my ending, it felt like a dream where you wake up feeling refreshed rather than exhausted. Good job!

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Dysfluent

Oh my god the timed text. Oh god. I’m not as big of a hater on timed text as some, having used it in many of my pieces, but this was really excruciating. I generally limit my timed text to 2 seconds at the most, with my average being half a second. Alas, that was not the case here.

I get that it’s thematic to some degree, to be forced to pause and wait while the protagonist forces their words out of their mouth, but jeez, a lot of the timed text for others speaking or for the prose itself was unnecessary and some of the pauses were extremely long for reasons I couldn’t discern, such as with the flashbacks being meted out sentence. By. Sentence.

Yes, it tried to put me in the head of someone who stutters. While I can see how annoyance at the timed text would bleed nicely into being annoyed at myself-as-protagonist (assuming the timed text was exclusive to stuttering-related sentences or effects), having the timed text everywhere all the time just led to annoyance at the game in general. I considered quitting several times, including on the first screen, during what felt like 5-6 second pauses between phrases. The jittering animations didn’t really help either—at least, though, you could turn those off for accessibility…unlike with the timed text.

I think the story was okay, though I’m biased since I’m not super big on slice of life. The attempt at a heartwarming end felt like it came out of nowhere because I don’t remember Clementine being shown as a compassionate or close friend of the protagonist’s—or, really, being shown at all— until that scene. I didn’t really feel any connection or stirring emotion there.

I feel kind of bad for talking critically about this piece when it’s depicting a real disorder in a sympathetic and realistic light. I will say that I did gain more awareness of what it’s like to have a stutter, so on that merit alone I did appreciate it.

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Thank you for taking the time to review Dysfluent!

I definitely struggled a lot with balancing the timed text – I’m sorry it (and other elements of the game) missed the mark for you, but I appreciate that you still gave it a chance and stuck it out to the end.

Just to give a little bit of insight into what my intention was with Clementine: she’s supposed to be a kind person who you’ve kept somewhat at arm’s length (like everyone else in your life) by assuming she would be put off by your stutter like others have been in the past.
But once that barrier is broken, you find that she (and presumably other people you care about) is actually willing to listen and accept you, allowing a deeper connection to start developing.

Your thoughts about it are really valuable feedback, since it shows that I should probably have made that aspect of the game a lot more clear in order to achieve my intended effect!

I did gain more awareness of what it’s like to have a stutter

This alone really warms my heart. If my game can accomplish just one thing, I want it to be that; it’s worth so much more than any praise or accolades. :blush:

Apologies again for any frustration that Dysfluent caused you, and thanks for trying to show it patience!


Edit: Eep! I realized too late that this isn’t the author’s forum, and that I kind of barged in on your public review thread! I apologize if I broke some rule of etiquette (I’m very new to all of this).
If my comment is intrusive or otherwise bothersome, please let me know and I can move (or remove) it!

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Thank you, Aster!

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I don’t find it bothersome and I appreciate the further insight! I don’t think it’s against any IFComp rules or guidelines to answer people’s reviews.

That said–I don’t mean this as an a chastisement, and I could be wrong about it, but I’ve gotten the impression that explaining aspects of your game to public reviewers/judges during an active competition is somewhat discouraged. For some competitions (that aren’t IFComp) I believe it’s against the rules to discuss your game publicly before the competition is over, and I think that energy has diffused into the forum community even when it’s not explicitly against the rules in this competition.

Not to say that you should necessarily delete what you wrote here, but just something to note for the future! Unless a regular tells me I’m totally off-base in which case listen to them instead.

In any case I’m glad you submitted and it’s good to have you here! I hope my review didn’t discourage you too hard!

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Tricks of light in the forest

A delightful game! After a bit of an awkward and rushed start, it really eases into itself once you enter the forest proper. Lara, the protagonist, is clearly young, and their excitement and wonder at their experiences in the forest was infectious. Even in tense, objectively scary parts like the water tower collapse and the monitor lizards, I never got a feeling of dread, rather the childlike ability to just “take it on the chin” and let extraordinary experiences wow me as much as little caterpillars in the wood did. Also, it was adorable trying to “polish” the silver ring with bleach and only end up tarnishing it further, to Lara’s confusion.

I loved being able to take pictures and samples of various objects in the forest, from fossils to food wrappers. I’m a city bean, so I never experienced these things as a child and only a bit as an adult, but with the vivid descriptions, I felt transported into the world of the game. I loved the joy of being in the brook the most, and Lara’s curiosity about all the strange bugs.

Some of my favorite descriptions:

It’s hard even to know where the sun must be, down in this dark emerald tunnel where the water sings.

I feel something like a blow to my whole body, because it’s in full sunlight and so white that its glow is like a hammer.

This is all the more impressive since English is not Pseudavid’s first language! The somewhat awkward ESL wordings at points were ignorable, and the evocative imagery captured far more of my attention. I also liked that the choices and observations that Lara made lingered past the initial passage—for example, after discovering the bullet shells, Lara will think about the hunters for several passages afterward. It made treading the same paths over and over more interesting and full of variety where in other games it could’ve gotten monotonous.

I am intrigued by the world of the game, as it indicates in some parts that it’s post-apocalyptic or something, though Lara still has a phone with signal and there’s enough technology for drones, so that can’t be 100% correct. Still, their excitement about “real plastic!” in the hut and some other references to a flood and the orange dust from the Sahara (implied to be close?) made me quirk an eyebrow in curiosity. Of course, as a child, they don’t have too many in-depth thoughts about the situation they live in. Any odd behavior of the forest was waved away by their blitheness, merely tricks of the light.

I chose not to walk further and just went home at the end after I found a route back, and got told “I have the feeling I’m missing something”, which only makes me want to play again in the future (after the competition) to see what I have yet to discover!

ETA: I almost forgot, the styling of the game was lovely! I loved the shifting gradients and illustrations a lot, and I kept turning my sound up, imagining birdsong in the air.

I have a few niggling critiques: the map popped up on top of the illustrations sometimes, a variable was still called through_the_forest at one point, and navigating the inventory was rather awkward, especially when trying to use an object. I was confused by both the red rock location and the fork past the red rock being described as the furthest Lara has ever gone on their own, and didn’t quite understand how to read the map—a “You are Here” marker would’ve helped immensely! And I do wish the ending was a little more satisfying of a wrap-up– However, these are all relatively minor.

Really great game, I recommend you give it a shot!

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Detective Osiris

Hmm…as someone who wrote er own game about someone solving their own murder, I wanted to like this game more than I did. It was a surprisingly melancholy and somber one, for being named “Detective Osiris” and its blurb including many exclamation points.

To start more positively: I enjoyed the beautiful depiction of Egyptian gods, so rarely shown in comparison to the glut of Greek myth takes and European folklore out there (no shade on them, it’s just nice to have variety!). It was cool to see the takes on the Egyptian pantheon and their cosmology, such as the dome of the sky producing this lovely image:

the baked glass mezzanine sky smells like hot stone roads cooling in the night air.

In fact, the writing really shined the most when it was focusing on that sort of mythic imagery and making it more grounded and vivid. I also liked the endless ladder between the sky and earth, and the notes on Osiris’ exhaustion on account of his travel between the two realms (and also his being dead).

The portraits were well-drawn and I was eager to meet gods and see the illustrators’ take on them (though Khonsu’s portrait didn’t load!). Some of the gods’ voices were pretty distinctive, most notably Geb as a weed-smoking “content consumer” of humans’ little lives as if they were shows on TV. The music was very nice too.

On the critique side: This wasn’t much of a mystery, was it? Anyone who knows the real life myth of Osiris is probably going to accuse Set (as I did)—and even if they don’t, all noticeable signs point to him. The game really doesn’t foreshadow or indicate who the real killer was at all before its big reveal, aside from maybe the metagaming tactic of “surely they won’t just make the mystery’s answer the killer in the actual thousands-year-old myth, right?”

Also there were…two? Riddle-puzzles that I could actually identify: the Sphinx riddle and the pyramid riddle, and both allowed you to just trial and error them—I got the pyramid riddle wrong, being absolute garbage at math, but it hardly mattered because I was allowed to guess again. Granted the game does bill itself as only having “light puzzles” but I didn’t expect there to be that few…there might have been a third one I forgot about?

It was a pleasant enough experience and very beautiful visually, but to me as a mystery game and riddle designer, it failed to live up to its promise, and I felt all the more disappointed for that.

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Thank you for taking the time to write a review. I’m really sorry that the Khonsu image didn’t load for you - it’s one of my favourites in the game, so I’m gutted that it ended up being the broken one for your playthrough! I’ve uploaded a new version which fixes the image reference to him, so he should now be visible.

I appreciate the rest of your feedback too.

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I just speed-played through again to that point, just so I could see him! Looks gorgeous!

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To Sea in a Sieve

A fun sea adventure indeed, even for a landlubber like me! Very good title too. I love a solid puzzler, and this one had me feeling very clever, only needing hints at the very end. I was very relieved that only Captain Booby (I snickered at this a few times) spoke in piratey pidgin, because if the entire narration was written i’ th’ way tha’ pirates be speakin’, I’d get very irritated. Luckily the author must have foreseen this potential problem so made Peter and the prose itself sound relatively normal.

The prose itself was fine in the same way that puzzle parsers often are—descriptive enough that you know what’s happening enough to solve the puzzle. The characterization and implementation of Booby was strong (although the emphasis on his foppish idiocy made me slightly uncomfortable as a queer person…), enough so that I could predict his reactions in an appropriately puzzley way. Even though I desperately wanted to throw him overboard and solve that weight problem handily! I empathized with Peter’s plight of trying to navigate around Booby’s…boobery while also finding it entertaining to work around.

This is a very kind puzzler on the scale of Zarfian cruelty, having multiple different failsafes and accessibility features: an octopus will return items you still need if you mistakenly threw them overboard, and > hint about [item] will let you know if an item has exhausted its use in the puzzles so you don’t have to hold onto it (a feature I also had in Erstwhile, though not as nicely implemented). I kept hoarding all the items (even the obviously useless ones) until I realized this, but that’s on me!

I did encounter a bug with the sack of cayenne where I used it for its intended purpose (making the Captain sneeze) and the octopus kept giving it back to me, with the hints not seeming to realize that I’d solved it either.

I had a great time and recommend this game, especially if you’re wary of parsers this IFComp. This one will help you get your sea-legs!

(BTW, I don’t know the policy for sending transcripts here, but I have one!)

Edit: Transcript attached :blush:
ifcomp 2023 to sea in a sieve.txt (163.3 KB)

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There’s no hard and fast policy, but I know Mike Russo attaches transcripts to the review, which is a big help to see where we went wrong! Still different reviewers have different levels of comfort with that.

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LUNIUM

This one had all my favorite things—a murder mystery, an “escape room” vibe like the author’s previous game (The Kuolema), fun foreshadowing and symbolism, and an ending that thrilled me! The vibes were suitably spooky without being horrifying to my weenie self, and I loved the art and aesthetic of the game.

Paranoid as I am about AI art these days (not a fan, personally), I started with scouring the initial pictures for telltale signs of it (especially considering the Kuolema did make use of AI art) but I couldn’t find any, so I am willing to hope that all these beautiful assets for the game were custom handmade and photoshopped like god intended. Either that or AI art has jumped in quality and undetectability and I will be a little more afraid of our overlords in the future.

The prose worked for the spooky Victorian-y aesthetic, though no phrases specifically stuck out to me as especially lyrical. The puzzles were difficult enough that they made me feel smart to solve, and I only used a hint twice–-if I’d have glanced over my objects a little further then I would have solved the game without any at all!

I’ll spoiler my discussion of the ending this time since it is a mystery after all:

I adored all the symbolism that the protagonist is a werewolf. When I picked up on the very odd detail of why the protagonist would be locked up with their own notes and cipher locks, I was able to guess that they were actually the murderer…how cliché, I thought initially! However, it was only after viewing the Lunar Almanac that things started to fully slot into place in my mind and the cliché turned exciting, as I realized just how damn much foreshadowing there was from the very beginning. From the title screen, even! I admit I have a serious soft spot for werewolves, and this game fondly reminded me of my favorite series of the flash games of yesteryear: Don't Escape, which at least has a werewolf who knows it. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to accuse the right person (me) at the end, but I was able to after all!

A really fun game. I’m still riding that high of solving it!

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Somewhere (I forget where now, in the game itself or outside—I tested this game so it was a bit ago that I played) the author says there was no AI art this time!

I also thought the ending was really great. :smile:

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Oh wonderful! That pleases me greatly.

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Yep, to my understanding (it’s one that I tested) the author did all the art personally. It’s a really impressive amount (and quality) for an IF piece!

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Hey, thanks for that fantastic review - am so glad you enjoyed it!

Yes, all images used in this game are good 'ol fashioned Photoshop creations (dear lord, when did Photoshop become old-fashioned?). While I didn’t try to go to town on any over-lyrical descriptions, the visuals do that for me - or at least, that’s the plan anyway!

Authors note: for anyone thinking about playing LUNIUM - please don’t click the spoiler text in the review till you’ve finished it, as the ‘whodunnit’ aspect is sort of the whole point of the game. Thanks!

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Hi Aster, thank you for the lovely review! I’m really glad you enjoyed the game!

This really concerns me, and I would like to rectify the problem. I suspect it’s that one line in the introduction you’re referring to, which is easily excised. I’m somewhat queer myself, but I was going for something “of the period” with that line; it’s not referenced much in the rest of the game. I’d be grateful if you could PM me with more details about what made you uncomfortable!

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The Sculptor

A linear game until the very end choice, about a pitiable old sculptor trying to create his last masterpiece, essentially before he dies. There’s a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it suicidal ideation implication.

I was a little thrown off by the sculptor’s prose making it seem like he was in the Renaissance era and then having Ricky walk in to reveal it was clearly the modern era, but my guess is it was an intentional dissonance, so I kinda liked the artistic decision there.

I did encounter some bugs and several typos, like the Texture words that I dragged being exceedingly tiny for some reason and one of the choices saying sand still. My biggest issue was the prose was very clunky and often ungrammatical or switching tense. Some parts approached empty-sounding purple prose and other parts were brief, perfunctory half sentences. Like, the opening lines of the game are:

Numb. Unsure if it is joy that overtakes you or fear. It may be both, it may be neither.

When you complete the sculpture you get the empty-sounding phrase (along with others):

Its radiance cures the blind.

No one’s personality feels more than sketched out, including the protagonist. I did feel bad for him, at least, considering his situation of being an aging fine artist in the 21st century. I also think it is a strong character choice to have the option to utterly destroy the sculpture (completing the masterpiece doesn’t mean keeping the masterpiece, after all!), but I wish it didn’t appear at the last possible moment. I also wish it was flagged more clearly what exactly I was doing with such a momentous choice before I couldn’t back out.

I don’t know if I have much to say about this one, being as it was so short. It didn’t leave that much of an impression on me…

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