In here, I will write ~fleeting impressions~ of IFComp 2023 games

Okay, so I’ve been playing some IFComp games here and there as they strike my fancy. I’m unlikely to play them all this year, and I doubt I’ll have time to write very in-depth reviews, but I’m going to record my ~fleeting impressions~ in this thread.

I’ll probably spoil things recklessly, so I’ll hide everything. Consider this a general warning for spoilers, spoilers everywhere! Or maybe no spoilers at all, since my comments will follow no format and I’ll likely end up talking about all sorts of random stuff from each of the games. Maybe purely talking about story. Maybe purely about mechanics. Just depends on what I have the most to talk about!

Tricks of light in the forest by Pseudavid


An interesting exploration piece. More about mood than anything, I’d say. I feel like I’ve come across games in this style before, though I struggle to pinpoint the genre, if there is indeed even a solid genre to pinpoint. But maybe something like “casual bizarro” or “mundane weird” would do the trick. Initially, the setting feels very normal, the stakes low, the energy relaxed; and that’s also how it feels by the end. But somewhere in the middle, things get slightly off-kilter, just slightly, forcing you to slowly reevaluate what’s happening.

The changing background colors are a cool visual signal. The map that occasionally pops up was a cool idea, but the execution didn’t quite work for me. I always had to take a moment to pause and try to figure out where I was supposed to be on the map, and sometimes I couldn’t figure it out fast enough and just wanted to close the map and move on with the game.

Light puzzles. Easy to figure out. Just enough friction to keep it from being a full-blown walking simulator. Not that I have anything against walking simulators! They can be awesome. But this game would literally be a walk through the woods without the puzzly obstacles you sometimes encounter. I liked having the texture of the puzzles to break up the pace, add a little grit to the game. The good kind of grit.

Parser/choice hybrid interface ala Detectiveland, which is always interesting to see. In some cases, this interface streamlined the gameplay. In other cases, having all the available options always visible made it feel, hmm, how to put it, almost like a checklist? By the time I was over the halfway mark, each time I encountered a new scene and the same photograph/touch/smell/collect/etc buttons popped up, it felt like it had become a routine obligation to click them, since the sense of discovery had worn off by that point.

On the flip side, the “routine” of clicking these options over and over also became, ultimately, bizarre in its own way. Like when I found myself in an abandoned cabin in the forest, faced with a chair outfitted with leather straps, and I was given the same standard options: one of which included the option to “smell” the straps. The normalcy of this, the “it’s just what we’re doing here” attitude, the unremarked-upon nature of it, made it feel quite unusual! Is this chair a piece of torture equipment? And I’m playing a child, alone in the woods, who’s sniffing the leather straps?? Nothing comes of it. It’s just an atmospheric detail. But these odd little touches are all over the place, and they accumulate and contribute to the sense of subtle weirdness that infuses the whole game.

So this isn’t what I would call a perfectly implemented piece. It does have some rough spots and bumps. But it’s striking in unexpected ways, and in unexpected places. It’ll catch you off-guard and then… drift onward like nothing happened. Which feels 100% calculated to produce the overall mood of the story. A strange snapshot of a strange world, which might not actually be so strange, after all.

The Sculptor by Yakoub Mousli & We All Fall Together by Camron Gonzalez


These two games have nothing to do with each other, but they’re both short, both written with Texture, and I played them both back-to-back, so they have become fused within my brain!

They’re also both kind of uneven, prose-wise. Various typos and idiosyncratic formatting choices. The formatting weirdness is partially due to Texture itself: how it spawns new text mid-page as you drag and drop the buttons, and how the buttons themselves are words that you’re inserting into the preexisting sentences, building new phrases which then unfold into full paragraphs. This grammatical jankiness is the very thing that makes Texture appealing, but I’m not sure these two games really capitalized on it. I found myself asking, at multiple points, couldn’t these games just be programmed with Twine? What are the pieces gaining from the drag/drop mechanic, the word-insertion mechanic, the verb+noun layering that the buttons naturally prompt the player to consider?

Texture fascinates me as an authoring tool. I’ve played around with it and made some games myself. But it really is SO weird, and most Texture games don’t seem to exploit the inherent weirdness of the mechanics. I always want some new twist on the drag/drop feature. Some reason in the narrative to account for why we’re unfolding sentences and piling verbs onto nouns.

With The Sculptor, at least, there is a subtle sense that you’re molding the text as a sculptor might mold solid material to make a sculpture. The peculiar formatting adds to this. There’s a bit of a textual landscape, which becomes textural. Words as crags. Texture, indeed. But I’m not sure if this was intentional or inadvertent. It could’ve been pushed further for my tastes, in any case.

We All Fall Together has a slightly similar thing going on, in that the shape of the text vaguely echoes the narrative. Free-falling through an endless sky. Words scattered around on the screen. Picking up the buttons, having them float above the paragraphs before you drop them, etc. But again, not sure if it was intentional. If it was, I wish the effect had been dialed up more.

To Sea in a Sieve by J. J. Guest


I loved this game. Same general concept as To Hell in a Hamper, which I also enjoyed enormously, but the nautical theme here appeals to me more, just on a personal level because I like nautical-themed fiction, and I think the writing in Sieve is stronger than Hamper. They’re both funny, but I laughed more during Sieve, even though Hamper probably has a larger serving of absurdity in terms of puzzle design.

Alas, I did struggle with guess-the-verb issues. I figured out everything all by myself, and felt very clever, up until I had to light the fuse to explode the barrel. I KNEW this was what I had to do, but I kept trying all sorts of commands like “shine mirror through glass onto fuse” or “light fuse with mirror and glass” or yadda yadda. Tons of 'em. Before finally resorting to the walkthrough – which didn’t help! It simply confirmed that my idea was correct, but I still had to thrash around before realizing that “focus” was the actual verb I was supposed to use.

Then, onward! Everything’s going smoothly again. I’ve got the snuffbox. I know I have to fill it with pepper to disarm Captain Booby. But Booby has the pepper. Much flailing ensued as I tried to get the sack of pepper back, until finally I tried to just fill the snuffbox with pepper while Booby was still holding the sack… and it worked. Did not expect that to work. Earlier in the game, it was part of the comedy for Booby to take items, and then for me to just take them back effortlessly, since he’s powerless without his pistol. But being able to use the sack of pepper WHILE Booby is holding it WHILE he is threatening me with the cutlass, well, that just didn’t make much sense to me. But still, I figured it out.

Onward! I’ve got the sea-chest open. I want to dump the coins. How?? More flailing! At last, I turn to the walkthrough again. Second time using the walkthrough. The solution, when it’s presented to me explicitly, is narratively satisfying. We started this game by bailing water with the bucket; we end it by bailing coins. Very nice bookends, there. But I wish the game had pointed me in this direction more clearly. Maybe it already does! Maybe there are hints that I missed, which told me to use the bucket. In which case, I wish those hints had clobbered me over the head! Because it kind of sucked the tension out of the game at the very last minute, having to turn to the walkthrough during this scene.

After bailing the coins, I struggled again with the oars and barrel. Whatever the arrangement of the objects was there, I wasn’t picturing it correctly in my head, and I would’ve never thought to push a floating barrel in order to, not move the barrel, but move the boat. So I once more had to use the walkthrough, and the game ended on a bit of a whimper as a result.

Now, all I’ve been doing here is listing the spots where I struggled with the puzzles. I could talk about some implementation holes, too, such as Captain Booby’s “hair” and “eyes” which apparently don’t exist despite taking up a sizable chunk of the “X Booby” description with their “sodden tresses” and “gimlet” gaze so forth. This is why I prefaced my rambling with “I loved this game,” because THAT is the bottom line! And that’s the main message to take away. My quibbles are, indeed, quibbles, and might represent spots to improve in a post-comp release, but the overall bones the game, its spirit, my experience as I played it: these were all delightful.

I don’t intend to post my scores for most of the games I talk about, but To Sea in a Sieve will be an exception, purely to underscore the frivolity of my own criticisms. This one got a 9 from me, and I’m tempted to give it a 10, which I may very well end up doing upon further reflection. It brought real joy into my life, and that counts for a lot!


Into The Lion’s Mouth by Metalflower


Is this game broken? I think it must be broken. I got stuck in a loop. Sometimes games trap you in loops for thematic reasons, but this didn’t feel thematic. I ended up replaying the “raise a cub” simulator three times, just lawnmowering every option to try to find my way out of the maze, if there even was a maze, before throwing in the towel.

So I don’t feel like I’m equipped to judge this one properly, since I never reached anything close to an ending, or even a middle? I was just permanently stranded at my jeep, the game funneled me through some non-sequiturs, then it’s back to the jeep. Repeat. Repeat.

I will say, however, that I thought some of the hyperlink effects were neat. Particularly the way the game used cycling links. These are a staple of Twine games, where you might, for example, have something like a character with green/blue/yellow/red/black/purple eyes, where the eye-color is the hyperlink and, when you click the hyperlink, the hyperlink itself changes and cycles through the list: green, blue, yellow, etc. Once you find an eye-color you like, then you stop clicking and the game “selects” the last thing displayed in the cycle. Bam. That’s now your character’s eye color.

Did that make sense? Talk about a clunky explanation! Anyway, this game does that, but it has whole conversations with itself as the hyperlink cycles. You’re not meant to stop clicking and “pick” anything in the cycle. Instead, you just click, click, click through the looping text, and it’s like the author is talking to you. Pretty compelling, I must say, especially when paired with the breezy, casual prose style. If this technique were deepened and/or expanded, I now realize that you could hypothetically pack a LOT of text into a single hyperlink, and it would still be interesting to just keep clicking the same button.

Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates by Victor Gijsbers


Hoo boy. This is a hard one to tackle. In some respects, I feel less equipped to discuss it than Into the Lion’s Mouth, even though I DID at least finish this game. But I have only a pop-culture level of knowledge about Socrates, and I never even heard the name Xanthippe before. Yet these are real people. Were real people. They’re decidedly dead, and the death of Socrates was not pleasant, and this game is ABOUT his death.

Is it a reverent or irreverent game? Respectful or disrespectful? Should it be either? Neither? I don’t know, because I don’t know enough about Socrates. So instantly I’m on unstable ground.

All historical fiction runs up against these… I don’t want to call them problems, but challenges. Fiction is easy. It doesn’t pretend to be true, which allows it to express itself more honestly at the outset. Nonfiction, however, pretends. Every word that’s supposedly true is actually a lie, never quite matching reality, always slightly (or massively) distorted, filtered through imperfect language, through the author’s mind, through the reader’s interpretation. In the end, nonfiction is fiction too. But it wears the mask of truth, and the question is how well that mask is made – and also why it was made.

Not that this game presents itself as an accurate historical account. It’s a bawdy sex comedy written with contemporary language, in English. But it IS about real people, and the scenario of the game is dramatically and emotionally fraught: the last meeting between a husband and wife before the husband has been sentenced by the state to commit suicide.

I suppose that, when enough time passes, even real people cease to be real (whatever “real” even means). Tragedies might still be tragedies, but the span of centuries twists them, dulls them. Socrates was a real man, but now he’s also a cartoon. An archetypal philosopher. Someone you can pick up and play with like a toy.

His wife? Feels less like a toy to me, purely because I never heard of her before. She doesn’t have the same pop-culture weight. Which this game is directly addressing. Salvaging her from the gutters of history, where she has apparently been cast aside after being labeled a shrew, with few other traits surviving to distinguish her personality. Apparently, I say again, because I know nothing about the woman! Was she a shrew? Well, let’s say she was, for argument’s sake. Even if that’s the case, one measly label like “shrew” can hardly encapsulate a person’s entire self; she obviously had more depth, just by virtue of being a human. So this game sets about to explore her unexplored depth.

You’re tasked with roleplaying as Xanthippe. Your choices shape her personality in the game. At the very beginning, there was an extended sequence (in my playthrough, at least) where she obstinately dug in her heels after Socrates insulted her, waiting until Socrates apologized. This went on, and on, and on. I as the player decided to let her dig those heels in. It was very effective at shaping my perception of her character, and set the stage for how I would roleplay through the rest of the story. It also instantly created a certain tension by making me acutely aware of the fact that I was molding this woman’s character despite knowing zilch about her. Was she, indeed, gaining more recognition here, after being neglected by history? Or was she being buried even deeper, hidden beneath my undoubtedly warped roleplaying decisions? Probably the latter.

Is that a bad thing? A good thing? I don’t know! Did she actually discuss the allegory of the cave with Socrates at any point in their marriage? Or was the game just using this dramatic situation, the eve of the death of Socrates, to inject a little philosophy lesson for the player’s edification? Is it appropriate to use a situation like this, with suicide on the horizon, to inject this philosophy lesson? Is it true to the spirit of the scene? WOULD Socrates have discussed this right before his death? Maybe he actually did! Or does that not even matter, because Socrates is a cartoon character?

Perhaps more pressingly, did Xanthippe ever betray Socrates by having an affair with Plato? In my playthrough, she did! I picked the options to blatantly confirm the affair. Because this game is a bawdy sex comedy, and the affair seemed like a juicier option. But I have no idea if this is accurate, or if it’s an insult to her memory! Maybe it doesn’t matter, because she is a cartoon character in this game, as well, to a certain extent.

It’s all very messy, and it gives me a lot to think about.

Prose-wise, it’s excellent. The fine-grained interaction is very well done, so that you always have some little nugget of dialogue to influence, whether each nugget has great repercussions on the story or zero repercussions. Some early choices come back into play later, with the game essentially going: “Yes, you picked this. I remember. See? Here it is again.” Effective! As you’d expect from a Victor Gijsbers game. Turandot had a lot of really great “false choices” like this too.

But the historical angle! Goodness, I don’t know where to land. Sometimes the game gives you dialogue options about how your name will be remembered, what the future holds, etc, and I couldn’t help thinking that, despite the poignancy of these options, the game itself put the words into the characters’ mouths to make them poignant, so that the game could then reflect upon itself and its own treatment of the characters. Socrates and Xanthippe never had this conversation! It’s two cartoon characters talking to each other about how they’ll be remembered within the very game that has determined to remember them this way! What does that mean in a meta-fictional sense? My head spins.

I guess it’s the cave allegory all over again. This game is another shadow. In order to see what’s real, I’d have to turn around and look somewhere that I’ll never be able to see.


Thanks for the review! To add to your confused state of mind, I’d like to quote (from memory) Peter Adamson’s History of Philosophy without any Gaps podcast, in which he tells us that:

But according to Plato Socrates did indeed discuss philosophy until right before his death, even though it was not the Allegory of the Cave. (It did involve the idea of the Forms, and was focussed especially on the question of immortality.)

It’s fairly unlikely that Xanthippe had an affair with Plato, although it amused me no end to have that be the reason that Plato wasn’t present at Socrates’s death bed (something that Plato himself has some of his other characters tell us about and attribute to illness in the dialogue Phaedo) as well as to connect it up with the very name Plato, perhaps a wrestler’s nickname, itself. But that’s the kind of stuff that is more enjoyable if you already have a bit more background. I hope that background isn’t necessary to wrestle with and enjoy the themes of the piece.

Edited to add: Come to think of it, given your review, it might be nice to say a little more about the Phaedo, which is the dialogue in which he presents the last hours of Socrates. Unusually for Plato, the dialogue is presented as a dialogue within a dialogue: it’s actually some guy who was present at the death scene retelling the events to a friend in another city. And he starts the retelling by listing who was and who wasn’t present, remarking that Plato wasn’t around (because he was ill). So Plato himself is giving us the death of Socrates as recounted later by someone who was there as written down by someone who wasn’t there. Those questions about history and fiction, let’s just say that Plato was already asking them.


Hi @CMG, thank you so much for the review! I’m glad you enjoyed playing despite the rough edges.

Spoilers ahead:

To Sea in a Sieve has definitely suffered for my determination to release it in time for the twentieth anniversary of To Hell in a Hamper. I would have liked to have given it few more months of testing. Some puzzles do need to be better clued.

The correct syntax for burning the fuse is “LIGHT / BURN FUSE WITH GLASS”, meaning the quizzing-glass. You can also, as you discovered, “FOCUS SUN ON FUSE”. The mirror isn’t involved at all, but I’ll make sure that in the post-comp release attempts to use the mirror are given a more helpful response. I deliberately didn’t make “looking glass” a synonym for “mirror” to avoid disambiguation issues with the quizzing-glass.

The sack of pepper - this was an error on my part. In the post-comp release Booby doesn’t pick up the sack of pepper. (Why would he? It makes him sneeze!) I didn’t catch this situation because it didn’t happen to any of my testers. The perils of including randomised events in games!


You know, now that you spell it out, it’s obvious that the mirror had no part to play. Why would it? You can obviously focus the sun with a magnifying-glass in real life without any further equipment involved! But my little parser-player brain got locked into thinking the mirror was relevant, because I discovered that I could direct sunlight with the mirror before I did anything with the quizzing-glass. So then I kept thinking I needed to position the glass near the fuse, and then angle the mirror to hit the glass. Once a pattern like that has been established in a player’s brain, it can be hard to break. Or it can be hard to break in my brain, in any case!


Depending on how you’re thinking about it, I’d say that some background might indeed be necessary to wrestle with this game! I can’t, for example, weigh in on whether “amusement” justifies attributing marital infidelity to Xanthippe in the very same game that’s meant to somewhat honor her. Socrates is famous enough that I have the sense you could call him an adulterous clown, or worse (as this game does), and it would roll right off, because these “charges” would only stick, if they stick at all, to the pop-culture cartoon version of the man. Everyone knows there’s another human behind the cartoon, and that the reality must have been complicated. But at least for me, this game created my impression of Xanthippe. If I do further research, I’ll have to work against the grain established by the game. Other people, however, might take the game at face-value, which is the risk of all historical fiction, but especially historical fiction like this, which is explicitly aiming to delve into unexplored territory, and leaves the player with the assumption that the author has researched the material well enough to represent it accurately.

This is all, in some sense, academic. The game has such a comedic tone that I doubt anyone would really come away thinking they’ve learned who the “real” Xanthippe is. And the game is also about this very point! Otherwise I wouldn’t bother droning on about it. Like I said, it’s messy, but it gives me a lot to chew on.

1 Like

I see you your point! But let me add that this is how Xanthippe has usually been depicted in the tradition, so working against that background, it’s hard to not improve her legacy. (In the second picture, she is emptying a chamber pot on Socrates’ head.)

And it’s all the fault of Xenophon, who has like one throw-away line about her being a nag.


Hey, if he’s been fooling around with all those flautists, maybe he deserves the chamberpot! Especially if she’s been an upstanding and faithful partner. Of course, if she’s fooling around as well, then the shenanigans with the chamberpot might make her look like not only a shrew but also a hypocrite…

I didn’t know about the chamberpot anecdote before playing the game, but I did learn about it afterward by doing some very cursory Googling, which is partially what informed my original comments. But yeah, still not enough research to feel competent to deeply assess the text. I’m not sure I’ll ever be competent enough, since these areas of history and philosophy are very far from my expertise! But who knows? This game has made me think about the subject more than I ever did before, so I might continue to dig.

1 Like

Between this and the whole slave-society apologism thing (sure, slavery was rife in the ancient world, but the Spartans were astonishingly worse than their contemporaries), I sadly have to say my views on Xenophon have come quite far down from the days when I just knew him as the guy from the Anabasis.

…I’m very interested in the broader topic of Xanthippe’s portrayal in the game and how the (potential?) affair with Plato impacts that, but I just played the beta so I want to hold off on comment until I play the final version – shouldn’t be too long now, hopefully!


Citizen Makane by The Reverend


Well, anything I say about this game will be horribly biased! I wrote a Stiffy Makane game myself for Ludum Dare a few years ago, and Citizen Makane mentions me by name in the credits as one of the torch-bearers for this little IF tradition. This is the first time, I think, that it really hit me: Stiffy Makane actually is a tradition. The “Makane brand” has grown larger than any single author. It has survived, now, for decades! And it will probably survive for decades more. With this type of evergreen presence, it might even be one of THE defining elements of IF as a whole, in a historical sense, which is frankly surreal.

Stiffy Makane is everything that’s wrong with IF. And perhaps, inverted, also everything that’s right? The bottom of the barrel has already been scraped with the Makane character. Stick him into any horrible situation, and he’ll be right at home in the filth. Which is why absolutely any author can come along, grab Makane, and do whatever they damn well please without “ruining” his reputation. In fact, if someone decided to write a truly monstrous game with Makane, featuring irredeemable cruelty, then the OTHER GAMES in the Makane “franchise” would already preemptively criticize this hypothetical game, essentially de-fanging the cruelty. Makane is now permanently meta. None of the Makane games can exist independently. They’re all linked together, human-centipede-style, whether they want to be linked or not.

Citizen Makane wants to be linked, though. It depends on the linkage to even function. From the outset, it’s a direct commentary on the original game. The original game has been copied and inserted into this game, and indeed the entire premise of Citizen Makane drags the Makane character back to his roots. After Mentula Macanus, the doors of human sexuality were blown wide open. Citizen Makane slams them closed again. This version of Stiffy is not a pansexual explorer of all the wonders and horrors of the wildest sexual frontiers, but has instead regressed to the limited sphere of a strictly heterosexual, and sexist, power fantasy. The sex is mechanical – literally! You have sex by playing cards, which have stats, learning to manipulate a few basic variables until the process becomes monotonous and rote, which happens quickly. Most of your partners are interchangeable randomly-generated NPCs. The descriptions are over-the-top and comedic. This is clearly a parody. But even the comedy wears thin and loses its bite, and I ended up skimming a majority of the text because it’s so samey. In other words, this game doesn’t even function as pornography. The sex is too tedious to be erotic. But that’s not a flaw.

As a traditional parser game, it’s well designed. Everything works smoothly. It’s easy to play. I don’t think I encountered a single bug, or even a single typo? Really, impeccable craftsmanship.

And even though I said the sex was samey, and the text got so monotonous that I started to skim, the author CAN write compelling prose. Some of the sentences sparkle. Rather, when the text is less-than-inspired, this also feels calculated. A lot of the areas have bare-bones descriptions. The town is totally generic. But it’s all so polished! It really does feel, in some respects, as if this is the Rolls-Royce version of the original Stiffy Makane game; as if those old sensibilities have been reanimated, expanded, and permitted to blossom into a fully-formed text adventure with well-oiled puzzles.

Of course, Mentula Macanus already DID allow Stiffy to blossom, but it broke out of the box in the process. Citizen Makane refuses to leave the box. It smothers itself, so that, to strain this blossoming plant metaphor, all the branches and tendrils end up bending back on themselves, twisting into a sort of grotesquely heteronormative pretzel, with old-fashioned ideas about gender and sexuality heightened until you’ve got a literal War between Men and Women. SO MUCH of the story in this game is just backwards. Socially backwards. Historically backwards. Scientifically backwards! And also backwards in the sense that we’re right back at Pamela’s house, where all this Stiffy Makane nonsense started, trapped in a loop. We might think we’re advancing, but then bam! Back to square one.

I find the entire thing fascinating, personally. This might be the first “real” Stiffy Makane game that has ever been written, and as you’d expect, it’s hollow in the middle. Soulless. Up to a point! Because that hollow soullessness was also calculated, and Citizen Makane itself consciously examines all the stuff I’ve been talking about, finally ripping the mask away near the end and explicitly proclaiming that, yes, this is rather a janky and horrible way to view sex, isn’t it? Let’s put the sex aside. Maybe just have a normal date? Just for a start? And see what happens after that?

So maybe it’s not actually the first “real” Stiffy Makane game. It’s too self-aware, whereas a “real” Stiffy Makane game, in the sense I’m talking about, would lack this game’s insight and just present the generic problematic sex without the critique. But I suppose that such a game will never be made, since the Makane mythos is so bizarre at this point that any author who touches the character will almost 100% have some subversive intent. And that’s probably a good thing. We already have enough soulless pornography in the world. It’s nice to think that even the worst Stiffy Makane game will be guaranteed to have built-in, dare I say it, empathy?

Not that this is the worst Stiffy Makane game by any margin. It’s probably one of the better ones. Nor is our protagonist really Stiffy Makane, as it turns out, which is fitting, considering the game’s own layered identity.


I love that this is true even while this is the only Stiffy Makane game in which Stiffy Makane does not appear.


Thank you for your review (and torch-bearing)! That was a joy to read.


We can only hope that others too will pick up the slightly sticky torch of high art!


Yes. I’d say that, at least in the most superficial sense, this is my least strange game. There’s no weirdness for the sake of weirdness: everything is explainable, although only rarely the text does explain anything.

In particular, smelling the leather straps strikes me as a natural thing to do for the character, specially given the things she says about them. Which are an atmospheric detail but make sense in the situation the game hints at, though they are probably the hardest to make sense of.

I perfectly understand your problem with the list of actions. As I responded to Andrew Schultz in the author’s forum, I feel this game would work better as actual parser. Both the walking simulator and the puzzles.

I’m very happy that you found the puzzles “the good kind of grit”. They were the part of the game I felt the worst doubts about.

1 Like

Trail Stash by Andrew Schultz


It’s a little weird, but Andrew Schultz games have almost become a type of comfort food for me in the IF world. I feel like I generally know what I’m getting into: puzzles that revolve around wordplay, often with a thin plot that’s mainly there to serve as a framework for the puzzles. Not thin in a bad way. It’s more like, the stage has been set, and everything else is cleared away to give the wordplay the spotlight. So you can sit back and just tinker around without a lot of pressure.

Sometimes the wordplay works for me. Sometimes it doesn’t. I’m talking about in the comedy department, and also in the “logic of the puzzles” department. The wordplay can get VERY twisty. So twisty that the conventional meaning that people attribute to language can flake away. Even though the words might represent concrete things, the gameplay experience can become totally abstract, and my brain doesn’t always follow.

But! And here’s the “comfort food” element: these games take care of the player unlike almost any other IF that I know about. The hints, the tutorial elements, all the mechanical facets of the user experience, they’re so dependably polished that I’m often left, honestly, a little flabbergasted. The amount of effort it must take! The attention to detail. It feels like these games account for all levels of a player’s potential skill, allowing you to adjust the challenge in fine-grained ways.

For example, in this game, once you solve an area’s puzzle, the game automatically locks the area so that you don’t waste time by going back and wondering if there’s something you might have missed. Now that, all by itself, is just considerate design. Lots of games wouldn’t bother doing that. But this game takes it a step further and allows you to toggle the locking mechanism! You can turn it off, and keep the areas unlocked if you want to revisit them for whatever reason. It’s just a small thing. Trivial, really. But these types of “help systems” and lucid gameplay instructions are everywhere. Sometimes they’re incorporated conversationally into the main text. Telling you where to click. How to navigate. What percentage of the map you’ve completed. On and on! Every little corner has been considered. For a bigger game, all these tutorial elements might be necessary to get a handle on a more complex system of mechanics, but for a game this short? They almost feel lavish!

Now maybe it seems silly that I’d spend so much time talking about the accessibility mechanics, but it’s a point that is CONSTANTLY on my own mind: how to smoothly direct a player through a game. And with a game like Trail Stash in particular, the wordplay gets SO abstract at some points that I essentially lost my frame of reference, thinking: Where am I? What am I doing? In another author’s hands, this could’ve spelled doom. I might’ve given up on the game. But here, no matter how abstract things got, the game was still crystal-clear about how to keep playing.

If it were possible to wave a magic wand across all the text games that exist, and bestow them with the sorts of help systems that are standard practice in Andrew Schultz games, I honestly think it would open the medium to many more new players.


The Vambrace of Destiny by Arthur DiBianca


Okay, so the “you only need to hit one button” mechanic in this game is pretty cool. Takes the limited parser concept and pushes it to an even more extreme limit! I’d say that, on the whole, it worked for me. Both in terms of puzzle design, and in terms of “it didn’t break while I was playing.”

Once I realized how things were working, though, I must admit that I felt a bit of panic when I got to the second level of the map. It occurred to me, at that moment, that the map could just continue to get bigger and bigger, without any limit, whereas I initially thought that the size of the screen for the first level of the map was the limit. This smaller map felt “comfortable” to me. Then, when it opened up, I realized the potential space I might have to navigate, and how puzzles might be dispersed across that space, with the puzzles being “forced” to expand due to the limitations of the one-keystroke mechanic. It could’ve become unwieldy to navigate, and to hold all the rooms in my head. It ultimately was NOT unwieldy, because Arthur DiBianca is a very capable game designer, but I wonder if Vambrance of Destiny might’ve already pushed this concept as far as it can go. Maybe not? But maybe so.

The mechanic of tagging and pulling objects into different rooms is where things started to strain for me. It was easy enough to zip around the map via the central teleportation chambers on each floor, but constantly running back and forth eventually began to warp my perception of the environment. Movement became VERY mechanical by the end, to the point where it didn’t feel like I was “exploring a place” anymore, but rather manipulating variables in a program. The fiction kind of got stripped away.

Which isn’t necessarily a problem for a game like this. The emphasis is very much on the puzzles, NOT on the plot, which is really just a thin framework to hold the puzzles together. And the puzzles are fun!

But! But. Yes, there is a “but,” and I acknowledge it may be a misplaced “but.” But I find myself, nowadays, craving an Arthur DiBianca that DOES have a stronger plot!

I feel like that’s the next limit to push these games toward. The writing in DiBianca’s games is never really the centerpiece, but it’s still always highly polished, with an eye for detail that can be surprisingly evocative. Sharp little scenes. Crisp bright images. And there’s this elegant sense for the texture and ambiance of the different locations. Plus the gentle humor, like “Destiny” being someone’s name, which isn’t belabored. Basically, I feel like DiBianca DOES have the skill, right at his fingertips, to juice up the narrative dimensions of his games – if he wants to. But I’m not sure he really wants to.

This game, though, felt like it was on the cusp! The final showdown with the wizard was very satisfying. It reminded me of the final showdown in The Wizard Sniffer, which was NOT as satisfying, and which I still remember since I wanted more from it. All those potions and spells in Wizard Sniffer, but they barely do anything! Whereas here, in Vambrance of Destiny, all the spells you’ve been learning get to shine in the finale.

So Vambrance has a bare-bones narrative arc, but even with the skeletal plot, it still delivers the right beats at the right points.

Honestly, typing this all out, I think the reason I’m “craving more narrative” after this game is because it already HAS more than other games like The Wand. The Wand is 100% about getting lost in the puzzles, and finding all these hidden depths. With the one-keystroke mechanic of Vambrance putting a bit more of a straitjacket on the puzzles here, though, and ALSO with the game’s overall trajectory having a satisfying arc to it, I think I could feel the tension between “story” and “no story” more than I’ve felt it in DiBianca’s other games.

Anyway, this all might be pointless to talk about, since I’m potentially rambling about a facet of DiBianca’s games that doesn’t even need to be emphasized. Vambrance was already a very fun game! Maybe adding “more story” would just get in the way of the puzzles, and add a cloudy dimension to something that’s currently crystal-clear.

The Little Match Girl 4 by Ryan Veeder


I haven’t played the previous Little Match Girl games. A grave error, evidently, which I must remedy.

I did feel like I was missing out on something, despite this game’s episodic nature, by not having played the others. Like there was some emotional resonance I could sense but couldn’t appreciate.

Of course, maybe I WASN’T missing out. But I wouldn’t know! Not right now. Maybe not ever? Since I would have to travel back into the past and play the others before playing this one to truly see how it would change my reaction to this one.

My favorite part was probably the Austrian Alps. Not the vampires, although they were cool, but the snowy environment. Climbing the mountain from the chapel. Something about that segment just felt very evocative. I could picture it nicely.

It was also fun getting signatures for the goldfish. It was less fun to discover that those signatures didn’t matter, when I thought I was working on a big puzzle that would reward me with a pearl or something. Kinda anticlimactic at the end, there.

The whole Metroidvania element worked well. Getting a tool from one area and coming back to clear another.

This game is basically just solid and well-designed all around. I have more to say about it, but I’m getting a headache right now. I would wait to post this ~fleeting impression~ until it was more substantial, but I’m keenly aware that IFComp will end soon, so I wanted to try to say SOMETHING in case I don’t get the chance to write anything else before the competition closes. Plus it’s a ~fleeting impression~ and not a proper review. It can be spotty and it can trail off…