Jaemi’s Jumble of Jams Jamboree 2023

So many jams, competitions, and festivals are flooding in, but I’ll try my best to keep pace in this review thread! I’m hoping to review four games from PunyJam, four games from SeedComp, seven games from Spring Thing, and five games from ParserComp, for a nice even 20 reviews. I might be a little slow and not line up neatly with the deadlines, but hopefully I can hit the quota and provide some interesting coverage.

All reviews will contain spoilers. I would like to thank everyone for these opportunities to experience your creativities, and I wish everyone a very festive Puny Parser Seed Spring!

PunyJam Review #1: Sea Coral by Jeff Greer

Florida’s coral reefs are threatened by environmental terrorism, and it’s time for two grizzled Navy SEALs on detachment to the US Coast Guard to stop these pirates! Okay, wow, that was a lot. That sounded scary! Pirates? SEALs? Terrorism? Grizzled??? Gee willikers, this is the Florida Keys, we’re here to relax. How about some delicious key lime pie? Maybe a little mai tai? There we go, now we’re sufficiently chilled out to approach Sea Coral on its own terms.

This laidback investigation adventure isn’t out to get anyone’s pulses racing. Although the prose is quite clipped, it is driven by a genial interest that cheerfully prints out facts, which can sometimes result in a series of tangential hardcuts that depressurize focus: “The Deep Sea Submersible Vehicle (DSRV) supports two researchers. It’s maximum depth capability is well below the tolerance of the divers. The divers depth tolerance can be increased by use of mixed gasses. The exterior is equipped with 360 degree thrusters, full lighting, hand like grasping claws and specimen holding bays. The DSRV can operate at full capacity for more than five hours on a full charge.” What makes this fuzzy factspew enjoyable is that the gameplay is so lowstakes and telegraphed that you don’t need to sift through the spray for any one detail. You simply relax as the game completes its own missions with only light interaction. For your inspection of the damage to the coral reef, you merely board the DRSV, go southwest, and voila, mission complete, time to reboard the DRSV and go northeast, taking only a brief moment to appreciate the natural beauty: “There is an amazing array of sea coral and marine life. / After seeing some strange damage to the environment, you have collected samples of coral, water and sand from the area that looks disturbed. / You can board the DSRV to return to the Pollux.”

Although slightly offkilter, this brisk enthusiasm proves charming, giving the narration the tone of a friendly guide who really hopes you have a nice time, it is so lovely around here: “The lab is meticulously organized. Sandy is an excellent lab tech. You can see the lab station and some specimens that seem to have been analyzed already. Labs are interesting places. You are free to examine [X] everything. But do not touch! It would break the chain of custody rules. / It would be wise to discuss the lab results with the lab tech: [Talk to] Sandy.” The little satisfied sigh of “Labs are interesting places” interrupts the description without adding anything, and yet it feels like such a simple, genuine flush of enthusiasm that you can’t help but nod and agree. Before the train of thought gets lost, however, the game’s immediately back to business, providing helpful tips to glide you through the next scene. This exuberant simplicity sparkles the game with excitement while keeping the player tightly choreographed: “An amazing array of sea coral and marine life. The water is so clear, you can see it from the surface. Just some fins, snorkel and a mask would provide a great experience! By the way, you need to check on that kayaker just to the east.” Wow, corals are so awesome! Oh and by the way, just as an aside, the game needs you to go east.

Your investigation mostly consists of you trawling around the map, talking to every ship or diver you encounter. These dialogues keep up the same rigid amicability: “Hank: Hi captain, I’m Hank. What brings the Coast Guard out this way? / You: We checked your records. You run a clean operation. / Hank: I used to be in corporate relations. It was quite a grind. I spent my life savings buying this boat. We run a tight operation and do everything we can to give our customers a good time, but safety and protecting the environment here are important to us.” This conversation is so stilted that the resulting humor brims it with character, which is pretty par for the course with these matter of fact dialogues, all of which are brief exchanges that repeatedly offer up the same one clue about a renegade tramp steamer in various degrees of detail, although the game does once giddy up a joke to liven the proceeds: “You: I’m here from the government and I’m here to help you. :wink: / Joe: Don’t make me laugh…” That sudden emoji is so iconic of the rest of the game that I’m convinced that it is the cherry on top. (NOTE: In the game, the emoji is just the text version, but the forum turns it into an actual emoji. I don’t know how to fix that, which is unfortunate, because it objectively ruins the quote a little.)

Anodyne pleasantries abounding, it’s no surprise the game’s little bubbles of excitement don’t quite gush up into any explosive thriller breathlessness, even though it does gesture at the danger of the high seas: “> x flag: The divers down flag signifies that there is actually divers in the water and nearby vessels should stay clear. It is usually on a float but can also be a pennant or flag on the dive boat. / > take flag: Taken. / > mwahaha: That is not a verb I recognize.” Oh whoops, sorry, wrong quote. I meant these villains: “The pirate has an aggressive posture. / … / It looks like a pirate vessel. You notice a lot of unsecured items in disarray all over the deck.” Our climactic encounter with the dastardly pirates starts off with a crisp admonishment that they haven’t properly secured the equipment on deck. Didn’t they read the manual? And how dare they with this “aggressive posture”? Pirates indeed! Time for the US Coast Guard to put a stop to their environmental terrorism through a dramatic confrontation: “You: Tell me about the unsecured items on your deck. / The pirate: I will do no such thing. You have no authority on my ship. Now leave before there is trouble. / You: Very well. This is not the time, but it is the place. Good day to you. For now… / The pirate: Harr! / With that, you politely end the conversation.” Oh, uh… are we sure this isn’t the Canadian Coast Guard?

Of course, it’s for the best that such a chipper little exercise is content to cruise along in good spirits, even if the subject matter it touches on like environmental pollution or piracy hint at dark clouds on the horizon. Our final confrontation proves as frictionless as the rest of the experience, sustaining the breezy lighthearted atmosphere to the endscreen, leaving you with a smile and a sense of warmth, if not much else. Still, the game is so straightforwardly content, why shouldn’t we just share the vibes and soak up the Florida sunshine?


Love it!

I’ll be reading your thread and trying to engage in this broad FestiJam season too.

----runs off to play A1RLOCK now----

PunyJam Review #2: Lucid Night by Dee Cooke

Dreams are an activity undertaken when exhaustion overcomes your consciousness, so why shouldn’t we begrudge dreams, forced weary on a warped road of fuzzy touchless wonder? This ceaseless antagonist, stealing from us blessed benevolent oblivion, harrying our retreat from sensory deluge with its tapering ghosts! “As you cautiously look around, your clearest and most pressing sense is that you feel out of breath and exhilarated - and you’re not supposed to feel like that, you’re supposed to be resting, you promised you’d rest - but here you are anyway.” What’s the point of sleep, if it’s so exhausting?

Lucid Night drags us sleep deprived from vaguery to vaguery, wracked upon the loop as “The fog lifts from your mind and you look around the room with new clarity, seeing that the smooth white surfaces are simply… incomplete. You are dreaming: in your lucid world once again. / This isn’t as much of a joyful realisation as it once was. In recent times, you haven’t been able to control the world here like you once did; in many ways, it controls you now.” The ludic vibrancy of dreams’ kaleidoscope has been drained into scratchier, less suggestive forms, a morass of pointlessly shifting details of the dreamspace, undetermined flux that warps shapes suggested by the familiar into juxtapositions seamless in the fuzz: “Perhaps the word ‘door’ isn’t quite right. It’s a large opening in the wall, completely open to the void outside. You haven’t been sucked out or found yourself unable to breathe, but that isn’t surprising, as it’s your lucid world and your psyche doesn’t have much time for inconvenient realism, even if your dreams aren’t as boundless as they once were.” Every object, even so simple as a door, isn’t even able to render that solidity upon inspection; look anywhere too close, out peeks the void. Half remembered items magpied from waking life are littered densely sans rhyme or reason, so close they congeal, waves of sludge that close in around you, spaces so much less boundless than they appear, so much less alive, less troubling, less personal: “You instinctively gasp, but quickly remember that nothing can hurt you here. Unless you want it to.” The 3AM bittersigh of why can’t I have a nightmare, that at least would feel like something.

This brittle certainty of terse mere appearance eschews the more enchanted associations of dreams to emphasize how tiredness, tiredness, tiredness until you’re tired of tiredness. To that end, usually the game remains pretty blithe about the symbolism of dreams, refusing to render any compelling connection between the spaces you sort of inhabit, then dryly noting that refusal with a shrug: “You’re not sure why your psyche thinks you need to replicate the dull experience of a doctor’s waiting room, but there you are.” There you are indeed, the game eying you suspiciously, as if you might start to guess. You’re trying to diagnose too, I take it? Well, there’s no great secret to it; when the game does hazard a guess, its literality drains all the color out of the word guess: “You are in a hollow at the top of a gum tree. Just realising that the tree is a gum tree makes you wish you had a pack of gum, or better yet some actual food, because all of a sudden you are incontrollably, ravenously hungry. It’s probably because you’ve been eating your ‘evening meal’ at about 3pm back in the waking world, because your husband read that insomnia can be caused by having too much food in your system.” There you are, mystery solved.

Our interactions are likewise deflated, each dreamspace falling apart as we attempt to inhabit it, puzzles that drowsily gesture at solutions, a series of commands that languish in their lack of agency and urgency, with each lurch towards progress slamming us against “Your bedroom is plain and stark white, the moonlight streaming through the blinds.” This gives the game a pervasive flippancy, even a grouchiness, that can make you recoil, like if you didn’t want me here why did you invite me over: “You know this dream - you’ve visited it so often.” Yes, and so it seems I am likewise obliged, if you don’t mind. Perhaps aware of all the grays matting indistinguishably, sometimes Lucid Night channels its flippancy into a cartoonish moue: “You start counting sheep. This always takes a long time to work, but sheep number 1,362 manages to drag you back into your non-waking world.”

But if, by the end of it, you feel a little wearied yourself, then the immersion has worked, and the knotty, headachey thinningness of a night tossing and turning and just barely dreaming has taken you with it into a communicative experience that does make “You feel like the real world is becoming more real.” Now how about some coffee?


Thanks so much for your beautifully written review! You always come up with such wonderful thoughts and insights :slight_smile:

PunyJam Review #3: Strike Force by Christopher Drum

Strike Force advertises itself as an homage to the upbeat bravado of 80s US cartoons, in which plucky problempunchers foil the scheme du jour of whichever Noun Man is threatening the world: “Strike hard. Strike fast! STRIKE FORCE! / Strike Force is a multinational team of special mission operatives based in international waters. They serve to protect the world from HAVOC, a relentless force for evil and chaos.”

Despite this cheery ambition, Strike Force is too watchmakery to really live out the promise. Instead, this is a game that contains the sentence: “There are theoretical ice structures that an inducer could coax out of even basic H20.” Rather than MacGyver our way through an endless tide of henchmen, Strike Force is a heist game, where to get the best ending you have to put everything back in order before you leave, so that nobody knows you’ve even broken in. Puzzles consist of intricate interactions with technical systems: “A cable of 13 thick wires each a different color. You’ve hotwired enough security locks to know the red and black wires will unlock the door, if you reverse their polarity. The green wire needs care; a simple cut should disable the alarm. / The multihued wires in light/dark pairs are trickier. Fathom, Strike Force’s deep sea expert, taught you they balance airlock pressure against sea pressure, to allow the door to physically open. Cutting one will apply a pressure differential, as measured by the pressure gauge.” Multiphase manipulations approximate a mechanic’s focus on diagnostics and repair, navigating a set of relations towards a desired outcome. In this puzzle, you need to cut a sequence of wires based on PSI value to equilibrize, cut the alarm wire, solder the security wires into a reverse polarity, before then maintaining fidelity to stealth by resoldering the entire panel back to its place. Not very cartoonish, you’ll agree.

The narration picks up on this tonal difference, incorporating the disjunction with a shrug. Rather than over-the-top-of-the-lungs cartoonish extravagances, the humor thrives on this understated contrast, giving us a cupboard with boxes of rigatoni: “On the backside in bright yellow is a tastefully restrained HAVOC logo.” Perhaps as a metonymy of this overly realistic version of eighties cartoons, after we break into the facility: “In quiet unison you chant, “Strike hard. Strike fast. Strike Force.”” We need to cite our catchphrase, of course, but quietly, to preserve opsec. Despite the intro/outro bookends, which lavish confrontational camp on the enterprise, breathlessly fretting over HAVOC holding the Great Pyramids of Giza for ransom, Strike Force is content to leave us alone meddling about a lab station, encountering HAVOC personnel only once in what can perhaps be described as an awkward bathroom escapade. Hardly actionpacked adventuring.

Brushing aside the tonal disparities, Strike Force’s heisty intricacies can still entice the pulse to race while the brain racks. Entering the secret laboratory, we’re given an atmospheric playground to puzzle through: “The steps encircle, and the room is designed around, a proud display of the prize at dead center: an immense glass cylinder that runs floor to ceiling, filled with a dense mass of shimmering blue crystals. They are charged with an internal energy, and give off refracted, alien light that prisms about the room. Combined with the mod stylings of the interior, you can’t help but feel transported to an otherworldly discotheque.” After searching around, we finally connive up a tense sequence, complete with a timer nearly ticking to zero, which requires us to be a little creative to speed up the solution, the flash of fleet ingenuity that winks at us with a little trickster pleasure.

To the extent those flashes of pleasure cohere beyond text adventure bric-a-brac, they resolve around a delight in tinkering, playing with finicky nested dependencies that allow you to reverse engineer systems with the same careful attention of a programmer. As an exercise in PunyInform, this game invites us to pay the same attention to qualities and states that it has to. So many items you interact with display that same interest in current values, with a perfect playthrough requiring you to restore every value, rebuilding the puzzle set. If, after rebuilding from the blueprint, it doesn’t all fit together magically, well, neither does anything from IKEA.

PunyJam Review #4: Submarine Sabotage by Garry Francis

Deep beneath the frigid waves, a plucky submariner is in dire straits: “The USS Ibis is currently on a training exercise in the North Atlantic, just off the coast of Alaska. You were doing some routine maintenance at the aft end of the submarine when the sirens sounded. You thought this might have been a training exercise until you noticed a whitish-coloured gas approaching you from the aft bulkhead. Training and instinct took over. You couldn’t get to a gas mask in time, so you dived into the nearby airlock and closed the air-tight hatch behind you.” That’s right, things have gotten really bad: somehow the submarine has wandered off-course and ended up in a completely different ocean! I guess that’s why it’s called a training exercise. Well, you’d always been hoping to do a tour in Hawaii…

Before we can attempt to convince US Pacific Fleet that this submarine has definitely always been here, we first need to deal with the minor nuisance of a saboteur who has poisoned the crew and planted a bomb on the hull. And I do mean a minor issue, as our plucky submariner doesn’t seem particularly concerned: “You know from your basic training that it takes about 4 hours for the sub’s filtration system to clear the air of toxic substances. You’d better settle in for a long wait. Maybe you should have a snooze. / > snooze: There’s nothing else you can do to kill the time, so you settle down to have a snooze. Zzzzz…” Stuck in a metal tube careening towards the ocean floor while poison gas kills everyone onboard, you are reminded that you had to wake up at 4am for maintenance. Why not hit the snooze button a few times? Not like the captain’s still around to chew you out.

So yawning awake, hair a little tousled from four hours cuddled in an airlock, we’re ready for some morning puzzling. We’re immediately given signposts, with a door that won’t budge and a grille covering a service duct, teasing you with forward trajectories that are inhibited by emergent short-term goals that invite you to explore the current playspace. We sift through the remnants of life aboard the submarine, finding bits and bobs, each one an opportunity to brainstorm solutions to your obstacles. To prevent this possibility space from expanding too quickly, the game is always keen to provide some railings, guiding you back to what matters: “This is a highly complex and technical area - way above your pay grade. You think it best to leave everything alone, as you don’t want to cause any damage that will prevent you getting back to the surface.” Alas, I’m not the only one who’s way below pay grade, as we find the corpse of Petty Officer First Class Nelson next to a can of WD-40. It’s a shame, of course, but in these difficult times England expects every man will WD-40.

Protected by such railings, the game bounces you from goal to goal, as most puzzles are meant to be solved upon the encounter. If you do a good enough job searching each room as you go through, then you don’t really need to backtrack, although the railings sometimes dissonate with our need to seek out hidden objects: “The storage lockers only contain clothing and personal items. Your sense of decorum tells you to leave them alone.” Oh thank goodness my sense of decorum, it’s returned, was wondering where it went while I was rifling through corpses to snatch whatever they had.

It’s a well-oiled frustration-to-lightbulb-to-satisfaction pipeline, and the parsing is pretty seamless, if sometimes a little ungainly in its specificities, as when we need to “>unscrew screws with screwdriver.” While there are plenty of red herrings strewn about, we’re kept on target by the affable if utilitarian tone, which straightforwardly highlights what’s important even when it nods at you with a grin: “It’s a magnetic bomb that’s attached to the submarine’s hull by a very strong magnet. There’s no way you can remove it. A red LED is lit. You presume this to mean that the bomb is armed. You can see two wires exposed outside the body of the bomb, one red and one green. Those colours don’t conform to IEEE standards. That sounds like a safety violation!” So long as you pay attention to wherever the spotlight flicks, you’ll solve your way swiftly through a puzzleset that feels satisfactorily packed because of all the red herrings’ implied possibilities without becoming a needle in a haystack headache. Each room is just detailed enough to breathe some life into the playspace, but as soon as you get too curious and wander off the beaten path, a friendly nudge keeps you on your way.

This attention to player experience helps this puzzlefest feel breezy and goodnatured, with enough ahas to brush aside the few uhwhas (really I just, just like take the fuse?). Although the style can be pretty spare, it does make an effort to flick some color onto the canvas, with a tense intro and even a twist ending that’s implied in an earlier section if you pay close enough attention. So maybe there isn’t some complex multistage puzzle about fixing the pump system or a frenetic timed sequence about firing a torpedo, but honestly so much the better: this is a game very keen for you not to miss the point, and the point is that I had fun trying to rub soap on a hinge to see if it would come loose.


Thanks for the review. It gave me a chuckle.

Oh, crap. After all the research I did on this game, how did I get that wrong? I remember adding “just off the coast of Alaska” as an afterthought. Obviously, I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I’ll fix that in a post-comp release.

SeedComp Review #1: In a dream I told my mother, “I want to go home.” by Milo van Mesdag

A yearning for prelapsarian childhood: seethefrozen destruction twisting all roads to the impossibility of return: “Boulders litter the path, fractures of rock splintered and spat out of the gulf when the shock waves ripped backwards and rent this land apart … Now, finally, he crawls. He knows his fingers would be ripped and bloody, his knees scraped, but the suit holds him. He uses the rings, then the fine china, the kitchen utensils, the bed sheets embedded in the rock as handholds as he slides up and down. He trips; his visor is left scratched where he lands on it … And then all of a sudden he feels the heat, sees the light, hears the sounds. Cracking, snapping, orange, hot. The gulf is as wide here as it has always been, but up ahead something spans it … A burning house.” Landscape both a ruin and a reminder of the familiarities that lie beneath it taunts us with the pervasive symbol to which all the burned bridges cannot lead back. Through a dream sequence of inhospitably liminal vaults, the narrator seeks to navigate a return from the waylays of seedy squalor that have collapsed his sense of self to the pseudosecurity of being imposed a fixed compass through childhood: “Beyond the crater he sees the house, still burning, still straddling the gulf, long cooled. / Beyond are the other places. The car part mines. The collapsed church, where his father lies. The forest they walked through before. The house where he once thought his family was whole. The altar of Aphrodite, desecrated and left to dust.” In the gap between desecrated Aphrodite and a collapsed church, the narrator shivers: “Naked and alone, he pulls himself up into whatever awaits.”

Animating this gap are sequences that are not so much metaphor as ballet. Each grotesque left turn induces a likewise sway, until the dreamspell slips us under its sway: “It is the sea, the world, that moves, not the entranceway. He touches it, moves his hand along the wall, smooth in a world of natural curves and jabs.” This dreamspell allows the game to approach material from just the right askew to slide under its surface, rendering literal the conflicted, indefinable emotions encased in memories we wish not to communicate. In some of these sequences, the narrator is just conscious enough to think along its contours, coursing a train of thought that can power through the terrain: “There are things his mind cannot easily hold, unconscious instincts that need to be overridden so that they can, consciously, become quite different unconscious instincts. / For example: every night of his life he has looked up and seen black. The black has never hurt him. He would lie in the top bunk, the blind of the VELUX up, and know that, if all he did was look up, everything that he needed was below him. East, south, north and west the earth curved away and nothing came from above. / Things, fears, hopes: at any time he could climb onto his bunk and be above all of them, like a dragon on top of its horde. / Above him is black. His instincts tell him he is safe, but he must forget them. He must force himself to remember that he is not.” The unknowable distance that, as a child confined at home, we romanticize, becomes dangerously alive with the irreversible as we step tenuously into its hold. Imaginary figments of fears and hopes immersioncrush: “A thousand engines, a hundred million gears, all seven of the seas rushing through uncountable pipes. The sound is ahead of him, beside him, behind him, above him, below him.” Everywhere you turn is turning around you, including you in its processes.

Processes which feed on youth seeking adulthood from neon flashes in the dark present us with sexual precarity: “The music would be deafening if it wasn’t muffled by his helmet. Lights strobe and flash, all red. The dance floor is made of plastic panels over block LED lights, each a different shade of white: baby blue, baby pink, artificial lavender. Some of the panels are cracked, some chipped, but all still comfortably bear his weight and the weight of the speakers. / They litter the floor, some loose, most grouped. They throb up and down and back and forth on their own, some off-beat but most not. They’re little black boxes, just small enough to be held in a single hand. Most shout or whoop: he hears the word’s ‘DJ’ and ‘Love’ and ‘Fuck’ many times. Some sit and tremble silently. At least one, somewhere in the mass, cries, at least one screams.” Compulsion of the rhythmic pulse of music, of the illogic of crowds, simultaneously tempts, taunts, and terrifies. Increasingly, it simply tyrannizes, lubricates the gears to override your frictions: “The floor grips his boots with layers of spilled fluid. / The bar is lit with clear white lights, the bottles behind it framed: the headline act. He walks to the bar to read the sign, a little pyramid of paper sitting at a coy angle next to the flask, the only other item on the bar. / “The first one is free.””

Into the resulting mire howls the game’s primary revulsive energy, a nightmare staging “Hundreds, shrouded in the filth of their own bodies. They lie and crouch and sit and huddle, thin beings with only each other to feed on.” In its orgiastic glut of disgust, the more elegant if vague ballet gives way to filth as a reliable substitute for emotive pull. Take this image, which on its own has a certain vogue of pose that stylizes the uninflected selfevidence of its symbology: “A line of bodies snakes along the pipe and he must walk perilously close to the edge to make it past them. Each holds a syringe, stabbing it into a black, bruised hole in their neighbour, squeezing, pulling out and refilling it from their own blood.” Stopping here, the image is effective, but the game doesn’t choose to stop there, instead incessantly emphasizing the uninflected selfevidence until it fizzles to schlock grime: “Yet the man ahead of her does not react when she jabs the inch wide tip of the needle into his blood-caked buttocks. When she pushes, the liquid holds inside his body for just a moment, and then drips, pours, gushes out of his mouth, his urethra, his anus. It runs off quickly, flowing across the curvature of the pipe to drip off into the open mouths of others waiting hundreds of feet below.” Hmm, yes, quite. The game asks if you want to drink some of it, of course.

This tendency to maximize gutwrench flattens some of the emotional import into cartoonish flourish. Indeed, the game seems to actively choose this, twice hinting towards the sexual assault scene that’s been cringeloaded by the mire, then retreating, deciding that it doesn’t quite want to go that dark, choosing to lounge instead in the aesthetics of horrorgrime, which is fine, possibly for the best, but it leaves the game’s revulsive intensity somewhat aimless, as when a scene of an intentionally puerile male dominance fantasy becomes only more puerile by its blithe commitment to the bit, a tastelessness that doesn’t become more tasteful just because we know the writer is in on the joke: “McAlistair is like most of them: they don’t realise that the point isn’t fucking her, the point is letting them all know that he’s fucking her. / He stands behind her as he delivers the speech. He doesn’t think about his words, and he knows that none of the men watching are thinking about them either. They are all thinking about his dick, his dick, sliding in and out of her pussy. Some of the women there were probably thinking about that too. Some of them, self-righteous harpies, are probably thinking about his poor wife.” If anything could be made from the gestures that pile on and pile on, executive parking lots and bank accounts and Anne Summers, we’re left to guess, careening instead into the next liminal living room.

Instead, in the moments that gust ambitiously to the atmosphere, the game creeps on effectively, sudden rollbacks of the eyes into the dreamtwist: “The dirty man crawls closer and begins to use the man in the suit as a ladder to haul his way up into the vacated section of pipe.” This atmosphere-building finesse is most potent in the opening oilrig sequence, as in this startingly punchvivid image: “The lift shakes in the wind, and will shake when it hits the waves, but he knows that it will not be long before it calms. / The Chief Engineer slaps him on the arm. He barely feels it. He shouts but it cannot be heard. Then they begin to slip away, the rig moving up and away, the sea moving up, up, and around.” The moment of disconnection when nothing can translate, alone.

When primed just right, slyly implicatively elusive, the game can sneak its whole fever in a fraught phrase: “The water keeps him steady. The world pushing back at him. Allowing him time to rethink all of his actions.” While each introspective step thence negotiates the uncanny depths, still the narrator “knows it through its feel: the way the ground trembles with familiar, human frequencies.”

SeedComp Review #2: Cozy Simulation 2999 by KADW

The problem with a job is that you’re paid. A series of rhetorical genuflections yielding to acts performed for the express purpose of being paid. Because you exist atop an irreducibly complex interdependence of abstractions that have costs, because maintaining your existence requires you to tend all debts public and private. Because, having been born, you wouldn’t mind also being warm: “Somewhere a fireplace is crackling. You are wrapped in an old quilt. Soft downy fuzz. You remember a patch of sunlight on the carpet. Your head feels languid with dreams.”

In the fuzz of enclosure believe you’re sufficient, continuance as easy as breathing in, out, in, out, persisting at perpetual equilibrium, living the dream… “It would be so easy to sleep here.” But you can’t, the alarm yelps, you are required, no, not you, but the work of you in the age of mechanical reproduction: “In front of me are numerous bodies. / Behind me are numerous bodies. / Each body is covered with a suckling angel. / Above and below me, the other conveyor belts carry other cargo. / Angels graft neuroregimen patches to vacant-eyed patients heaped on racks. / Angels snip and sew at piles of raw bleeding organs assembling them into fresh new lifeforms. / Angels jab tendrils into dry skeletons and inject them with nutritional sludge until they swell into healthy individuals ready to enter society. / Angels swarm through the air, radiant against the dark machinery.” Hyperstructures automating particulate response into actualizing forces you adopt to adapt to where nutrients await to feed itself, you.

Thence hence thence the perpetual motion machine that spins you out to spin it out to spin all of this out of control, no, there will be control, any anomalizing outside of useful whiplashes into industrial ultraviolence: “Beyond the window the bleak metal of rusty girders shining black and lurid in the haze. Wind whistles through jagged glass. / Huddled on the floor slick with mold and blood. The buzzing of the machinery outside is endless. Mechanical churn and clatter.” You can fight, sure, of course, with which resource? You have nothing, no fuel, you will go nowhere: “Need to run. Can’t muster the strength. Hear machinery buzzing beyond the broken window. Can’t muster the strength.” Listen, yes, it’s so exhausting, this whole, well, listen, I hear you, that’s totally normal, “The desire to curl up and close your eyes.” That’s a debt you can pay. Trust me, once you earn enough, you can cycle through activities purely for itself, yourself I mean, you can savor any uselessly manifest: “Go outside / Drink something / Watch the fire / Read a book / Watch the holoscreen / Eat something / Create art” Anything is possible thanks to these “Transmission towers bristling with frozen satellite dishes. Electric current humming through barbed wire.” Choose whichever delight you like, choose two, choose three, until the desire to sleep overtakes you, suddenly the alarm is screaming, you are gushing through “great churning machines and smokestacks shooting black plumes into the viridian haze and crowds of strange and beautiful things but I know none of it because we are born to the hive and we die to the hive. We swarm through the pipeways under the angelic harmony of a thousand others and we are never truly alone.” And you owe obligations to the others, don’t you? You don’t want to be a burden, do you?

Crawling your way back each and exhausted time as “Numbing tranquility fills you … Even as the mass of tendrils comes closer and you recognize vaguely the shape of blades. / Even as blood spurts from fresh wounds and is immediately licked up by our brethren nearby.” Rest assured, “You will be put to use in the best way possible. / All things are as they should be.” If your use wasn’t valuable, the currents wouldn’t flow through you. In each electrification assured you still map to the grid, oriented to the coursing, where you belong. In the alternating current of velvet and voltage. “You would be beautiful divided into your component parts, each individual part of your mind humming along in perfect beauty.”

Seedcomp Review #3: After the Accident by Amanda Walker

The struggle is never the moment but all the ones that have to come after. Context constricting which kinds of moments can thence arise, what can ever be found again in them, but in the moments before they calcify to context lie vibrancies bleak and beautiful, shivers welling up inside you such profundity beyond the summons of these passing days.

This tension between a moment, its kindling, its freedoms, its capacity to believe in enduring, and memory, immutable definitions pressing you to the edge, simmers the wistful anguish of After the Accident. It flourishes into “gold fire touching the place where the road meets the sky,” it winces from “The sun smoldering ahead, as if you are driving into a fire.” The pain of a relationship breaking the more of each other we once made starkens in flashes of physicality skinbright, literalizations of the tempestuous phrases that haunt the mind away from such raw shape and color: “such unforgivable things said as the rain roared and the wind shrieked”. In the oscillation between car crash and the slow motion up to it, we find in each grip the white knuckle implied, the tumbling expands to exceed the speed of your own heart beating: “and you lean over and kiss him and suddenly the ground is shaking, the earth moves and books tumble from the bookshelf and you both leap from the bed as the earthquake echoes the thunder in your heart.”

Carried away by the intractable stream of choices unretractable, inevitability after it’s happened stirring the moments into fireworks of eidolon: “the light streaming in, and it’s blinding, and the air is filled with noise and you hear a snatch of the song about a landslide, about an avalanche, and then you are in the avalanche and your eyes are filled with stars and light and dark and you are floating and then and then and then”. Thens which follow from each other, so you don’t need to, you will go where they lead, flaring up and flaring up until the fire catches, and every otherwise melts away, smoke of the irretrievable occluding whichever horizon you were heading to: “You run in that direction, seeking, seeking, but lost, unable to leave because you didn’t leave that night and so you can’t do it now, circling the fire.”

Yet, paradoxically, in the eye of the storm, a certain pretty of calmed, “The quiet of an aftermath, of the intake of breath before the song.” After the Accident sparkles its violent rupture, a painterly nod at the ambition of your own devastation, as all the follies collapse emerges a wreckage as grand in scope: “You are standing on a sparkling carpet of broken glass, like diamonds on the black asphalt.” In the anguish of irretrievable, a certain tenderness emerges, more selfless than when bewitched by giving your self up to the motion: “there he is, lying curled” so you “curl around him like you have so many times, like an angel to guard him from hurt although you’ve hurt him so many times and a memory is wrapping around your throat, darkening your eyes and calling to you.” You are being called away, you know you cannot stay, suddenly you remember why you once tried to.

In that severance, however, slithers out a surprising lightness, a sudden anew: “You were somewhere else a moment ago, with him, and he’s not here, but you are, glittering in the last sunlight as a memory whispers in your ear and strokes your cheek.” Though you are called back into the old motions, you are also called forward into a new direction, possibility as it oozes from your wounds: “Panicked people push against you, you lose his hand, you’ve lost him (do you want to find him?) and people are running in every direction, away from the destruction.” It’s not that it feels good, but that, having followed feeling bad as far as you could, you try to let go, refuse it the future once drained of color in its sway: “your head hurts and you want to leave, to avoid the future, the past, to do the opposite of remembering…” In the absence, “you can’t see him / and you’re glad / and you’re sorry.” As the irreversible takes hold, simply “watching the transformation as the ingredients become a new thing”. Will it be better, worse? Tomorrow often is better, worse.

That emotive dynamism compels the game beyond the obvious framework that a literalizing the metaphor concept can sometimes threaten. There is enough heartfelt wisdom to wreathe the anguish genuine. Occasionally the trundling force of the text can hiccup: at the very end of the game, your phone buzzes, so I tried “>read message” as I had in an earlier sequence, which accidentally teleported me back into the old sequence, statelocking me out of progress, so that I had to restart from the beginning to do a single move differently. When the landslide does bring you down, Walker’s scintillating sadness strength carries you through landscapes beautiful for the burial.


Getting a review from you always pours honey on the pleasure center of my brain, Kaemi. Thanks so much for engaging with it so thoughtfully.

Sorry about that bug-- Brian ran into it, too. Although recently I’ve been bitching and moaning on the forum about updating games, I will absolutely fix this bug.

SeedComp Review #4: While Rome Burns by CSR

This game lampoons the snooty selfobsession of the imperial believing all the reverence he receives. As Emperor Nero during the Great Fire of Rome, you wander around naively frustrated by “Everybody whining and blubbering, and, most important, not paying attention to you!” As you can judge from the tone, this lampoon settles into the stock character of the urbane aristocrat: “There are also servants nearby, obviously. Like a great, mighty man like you would degrate yourself to do peasant-like tasks.” That this is a slightly strange characterization of Nero, who on the contrary was considered a garish spectacleer who reveled in popular grandeur, is par for Nero, who has been spuriously commandeered for any mockery to which Roman emperors so readily lend themselves. In that spirit, While Rome Burns keeps up the tune of the frustrated emperor delivering jaunty offhand comments which show a glorious lack of introspection: “You are very well known all around Rome for having a kind of a… temper, if you may. Honestly, people could be so dramatic. You yell at some servants for being incompetent once, curse some senators for trying to interfere in a new project of yours other, and suddenly you are some kind of a hot head. Tyrant, some of them started to call you. An absurd.”

Of course, a stock character runs out of runway pretty quickly. While Rome Burns adds additional mileage to its central joke through the characterization of Nero as preening in a public spirited way: “Someone must have alerted the crowd of this result earlier, because your people is already crying and pleading when you go outside tell them the bad news. The proof of how much they love your presentations gets you emotional, and pilling up with your deception for not being able to do the show you so desperately wanted is enough for you to burst into tears.” The pseudoempathy is a minty cardamom, the parasocial appropriation of adulation giving this Nero a more perfumed nuance than the usual fiddler to the fire. Delusionally naive balances with the usual brutal notes, providing some unexpected relief from the declaiming, as when Nero gets the idea that he can cajole the servants out of their lamentations with a bit of grandiloquent praise: ““Oh, dear servants of mine! How grateful I am to have your presence! There are no people in this world more graceful, more kind than you are. Would you like to help me to share my beautiful concert to the habitants of Rome?” You proclaim, trying to be as convincing as possible.” It’s an amusing left turn that improves all the straightaways it took to get there.

Not to say the result softens the intended tone, since Nero’s phobic revulsion of his servants causes the central conundrum, which is that he just cannot understand what these wretched creatures are doing: “The closer you look, more nasty details start to pop off. Their eyes are swollen from all the tears and there is snot dripping from their noses and spreading in the lower part of their faces, denouncing they must be going on it for a good time. There are also sobs ripping out from their throats, sounding like they are being pulled from the deepest parts of them.” Indeed, most of the gameplay involves trying vainly in vain to parse why “these ants making such a fuss when you have a busy day ahead to prepare yourself to a concert?” This promises a series of sketches as Nero floats through calamity in a highwire act of being out of touch.

Those sketches don’t quite come through though, since the gameplay is, like your concert, haphazardly thrown together. Most choices are random or vague, often ending the story abruptly without demonstrating any consistent progressional logic. If you do manage to get deep enough into the game, it starts to break, popping up the Twine debug view. Once I got to what I think is the proper ending, only the link didn’t appear to the next page, leaving an incomplete sentence and a broken passage. Compounding this lack of polish are several formatting oddities, numerous typos, and a few mistranslations, all of which a round of editing could have improved.

Editing could have also helped the game feel less rambling, a fleetness that proves quite useful when the game’s concept isn’t much thicker than the napkin it was scribbled on. Take this paragraph, which is already operating at yes I get it ha ha, but flounders on: “You can clearly see that your guards are out of their comfort zone here, wobbling through your clothes with widened and desperate eyes. It’s obvious they have no idea what they should be doing. After this day is over, you will have to fire them all and hire people who are more suited to such a prestigeous position. Honestly, how can they not know how to dress someone up? Their inexperience is almost palpable. Their hands are hesitant and tremulous while they try to understand how the fabrics work and in which order the fancy clothes should be put. Your guards fall more into desperation as time passes and they can’t understand it. This is not going to work. From their panicked faces, you know they’ve realized it too. In the end, they couldn’t even manage a simple task like dressing you up. Useless, all of them! Honestly, you are still incredulous about how such incompetents could be contracted to work under a man like you. You should fire them all right away. But it doesn’t change the fact there is still no time left for you to try any other thing. You will have to go on like this.” It repeats the setup several times, but then forgets to emphasize the punchline, which is that this is coming from someone who can’t dress themselves.

The ideas are all here, just not sculpted from the stone. While Rome Burns translates its historical setpiece into a surprisingly relevant satire about adulated parasociality spinning isolation into tastelessness, but it’s still several iterations away from sticking the landing.

Spring Thing Review #1: Aesthetics Over Plot by Rohan

Aesthetics Over Plot, as a title, gestures grandly towards a committed artistic philosophy, a desire specifically to oppose aesthetics and plot sufficient to impose a hierarchy, clinamen into a new field, Kandinsky kicking down the doors of figuration to cascade visual hyle, Schoenberg splattering the scales to cascade tonal hyle. Although little stitches of that idea weaves through the quixotic crazyquilting, it seems the title is actually suggesting the opposite, which is, please don’t take this too seriously, don’t think about anything really, by the time you have a thought about it it’ll be too late, we’ll be three things further, since the stream of nonsequitors prevent anything from accumulating any resonance beyond the initial impact.

The resulting dizziness is the core of the humor, which delights in lateral strikes, sometimes in puns, sometimes in sheer zaniness, often both: “You grab a spider from under a table and flick it upwards, the wind blows it towards your right, “that’s where I have to go” you declare. / “Spider Sense, we used to call it back in my hometown” you take pride in your accomplishment. / You see a crowd centred around a large table, as you push through the ground you realize that the crowd is surrounding … a Really Cool Looking Donkey ! / “What?” you whisper to yourself, but then you notice that the donkey is wearing glasses.” There a number of things you could say here, from the way the loose grammar heightens the motion blur, or that nonsequitors don’t really pack much of a punch when they interrupt other nonsequitors, but by the time you could make any of those points, you’ll have missed the bus.

Which could be really exhausting if sustained for any meaningful amount of time, but luckily the game does slow down a little after the first chapter, allowing its satirical subject of The Job Interview to come into focus. In this slower mode, the sharp left turns apply whimsy: “You lean closer to the cactus and try to establish a mental connection. You focus your thoughts and send them to the cactus. / “Hello, Mr. Cactus. I’m very impressed by your work. You have a very unique style and vision. I’m a biologist by profession and I have some ideas that could benefit your business. For example, have you considered using photosynthesis to create renewable energy? Or using spines to create weapons and tools? I have the expertise and experience to help you with these projects.” Taking a silly premise seriously is a classic satirical route, and Aesthetic Over Plot’s breeziness means that a biologist pitching themselves to a cactus easily jaunts out the jokes without dwelling in the punchline for drier and drier reprises. When in the mood to adhere to this clarified satire, the game can sly some witticisms with a candor differentiated from the surrounding zaniness: “The trick to finding who is the most important person in a party is to observe who surrounds themselves with the most amount of people. It’s simple math.” I particularly like the cynical wink of “who surrounds themselves with” instead of “who is surrounded by”. The exuberant assertiveness of “It’s simple math” keeps the tone ebullient though, and the stakes never feel at odds with the wild ride mentality, even when you are confronted by your ex-boyfriend, to whom you must sheepishly apply for a job: ““Hello cthenion, who will still bleed when no more will the world. Fancy seeing you here” he says in a sweet but sarcastic tone … “Oh, this? This is nothing. Just a little hobby of mine. I started my own company after we broke up. You know, because I was bored and had nothing else to do” he says with a smirk. / “What kind of company?” You ask, trying to hide your curiosity. / “Oh, just a little biotech company that specializes in creating custom organisms for various purposes. Nothing too fancy” he says casually. / “Wow. That’s…amazing.” You say sincerely. / “Thank you. I’m glad you think so.” he says with a smile that doesn’t reach his eyes.” The surprising sincerity here is its own nonsequitor, infusing a bit of humanity in the otherwise whirlwind, almost tempting you to believe in that sincerity, try to make a delicate connection: ““Umm … Jack …, I’m sorry for what I did to you. I was wrong to break up with you. I was too focused on my work and I didn’t appreciate you enough.” You say trying to sound sincere. / He looks at you with surprise and then with indifference. / “My name’s not jack and is that all? Do you think I’ll just forget how you dumped me over the phone? How you said I was holding you back from those trees you were working?” he says furiously.” Nope, the game grins, no catharsis here, keep moving, there are more jokes to get to.

Whipped up into this frothy cartoonish whimsy allows for your character to make many a bold choice and have each frictionlessly applied: “You decide to flirt with the cactus. You say “Did anyone ever tell you how prickly and cute you look …”, the familiar voice interrupts you, “let’s not make your presence hear any awkward than it is” the cactus responds.” Okay, well, maybe a little friction. Perhaps you’re not the best match anyway: “You hug the cactus. You feel a warm sensation in your chest. You realise it’s blood.” Ah, Cupid, your arrow…

I suppose it goes without saying that none of this adds up to more than the sum of its parts. On the contrary, elements of its implementation can feel a bit slapdash, especially on multiple playthroughs: the game is pretty linear but presents itself as more openended, each round starts with a selection of choices which ultimately feel like an afterthought, the imposition of chapters feels jarring, etc. Still, there’s enough variety abounding to keep you entertained as your shuttle careens off a cliff.

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Spring Thing Review #2: Lady Thalia and the Masterpiece of Moldavia by E. Joyce & N. Cormier

Lady Thalia thrives on the central but gentle hypocrisy of the heist, subverting wryly the high society classiness in which it so eagerly luxuriates. Calibrated here in a floating Edwardian vibe, not actual Edwardianism but more the multicolored memory of it a la Vita Sackville-West and Christopher Isherwood with a touch of PG Wodehouse, we follow a gentlewoman thief as she performs a series of dashing escapades with, with enough care, dazzling panache. In each installment, it is this panache, your quest to live up to it, that takes center stage, with the actual prizes themselves handwaved away; indeed, in this game, we are treated with an amusing scene where Lady Thalia takes a moment to admit the Masterpiece of Moldavia is a decent artwork, on the whole, when you actually look at it. Perhaps that’s why, presented with several opportunities in the denouements and confrontations on offer to proffer a grand theory of our thieving, we end up with just the liking of it, with husband-in-law Oscar and his beau joining the escapades this time round simply for the lark of it. It’s a game, and it’s happy that way.

This laissez flair accords with our journey through the series so far, with jaunty little jobs whirlwinding through a disposable series of backdrop characters, caricatured for efficiency: “She is, however, given to amusing herself with petty cruelties, and she has it out for you in particular for having the temerity to move in her social circles while not having so much as one title.” Mostly, these games care more about its tight circle of principals, the tete a tete of Thalia et Mel, even to the extent that when a character does become important enough to disrupt the dance, they recede easily back into the background, like the Rose of Rocroi’s Baron d’Acanthe, whose climactic denouement is rather clipped, even somewhat brutish, as opposed to the philosophical camp of the aristocracy reclaiming its heirlooms that could have lavished a villainous moonlight duel in Paris.

To a degree, Masterpiece of Moldavia follows suit, with a set of incidental characters with more clues than character. Each one is given just enough of a type to color the conversation puzzle you have to press them through: “He is the sort of man who dresses as if he were going hunting even when he is in fact attending a poetry reading. (To his credit, unlike many such men he does actually go hunting sometimes.) His great passion is dog breeding, and he is only too happy to tell you about it.” This is a fairly standard Victorian archetype, though usually the obsession is oriented more towards horses than dogs? ““Oh, she’s quite well, thank you,” he says, and then goes on to tell you how his daughters are, and then somehow segues into a description of a horse he’s thinking of buying.” Ahp, there we go, we’re checking all the boxes, could fit in a George Eliot novel now. Even among the characters that matter, this stay-on-your-feet hospitality keeps dramatic reveals more to the tone of Thalia than Melpomene: “The three of you all sit down, and you explain that you are Lady Thalia, the thief who has been bedevilling high society for the past several years. / “I say,” says Oscar, “well done! I’ve read about some of her— er, your— exploits in the papers. I particularly liked the one at old Fanshaw’s dinner party. Foolish of him to have a priceless vase as a centrepiece anyway, I thought. What if someone had knocked it over?” / He’s off on a tangent—as usual—but it is rather flattering to know he was paying attention.” Don’t you just hate it when you try to tell your husband that you’re a legendary art thief behind some of Europe’s most notorious crimes, and he prattles on about vases? Explaining oneself to a spouse so drains the romance of being.

This expediency works well for Lady Thalia’s focused choreography, using its charm smartly to accentuate important observations, to-the-point hinting leavened with little helpings of humor: ““He has a locked safe in a locked room whose keys he keeps in his locked desk,” Herbert says. “Rather a lock of locks. Er, lot of lots.” He waves a hand. “You know what I mean.” (He’s getting drunker by the minute, evidently.)” Many clues abound, and Lady Thalia is keen that you notice, neatly highlighting what matters to you with crisp efficiency. Thinking about space through a thief’s lens helps make a home of the breezier tone, infusing character within the forward momentum by casing each place you enter: “You head for the Northern Egyptian Gallery (which is the part of the Egyptian gallery at the northern end of the museum; nothing to do with the geography of the country itself). The fresco won’t be there, of course, but it is close to the museum’s back rooms, which you are hoping to get a look at.” We follow on from this fixed intent through a maze of backrooms that underscores the British Museum more as a bustling workplace than as a vault of our most iconic antiquities. I’ve been to the British Museum a number of times before, and I’ve never really thought of it so geographically; it’s such an overwhelming cavalcade of magnificent historical excess that you lose the sense of place or continuity, mesmerized as imperially intended by the gaudy heaping of humanity’s treasures; but of course, we’re not here to see any of that: it’s precisely this precision that keeps Lady Thalia on its rails, a series of mechanisms that function no matter how you bumble over them, gleaming all the while with characterization so direct that it feels like a punchline: “Gwen, with her motorcycle, is waiting nearby. She has pressed upon you a portable radio device of her own invention.”

These traits could add up to a perfunctory entry in the series, but that’s avoided by a notable escalation in ambition. In Seraskier Sapphires we thieved alone, in Rose of Rocroi we held an uneasy alliance with Mel, and now we have a veritable heist team, working in tandem and switching characters in an elaborate multistage heist that incorporates numerous rounds of interconnected iteration, all of which compounds in your experience on the night as your plans are pitched against a new villain and an ever more uncertain alliance with Mel. This complexity is kept accessible through an admirable balancing act; in perhaps one of the strongest testaments to the quality craftsmanship, rather than feel intimidating or tedious, the centerpiece heist races you along quickly through setpieces, with rapid immediate goals popping up constantly in a revolving setup-resolve-setup sequence: “Luckily, Mel has very good reflexes and immediately throws herself hard to the right, dragging the nose of the cart towards the door. You barely manage to keep a hand on the fresco as the cart tips slightly and the back end clips a glass display case with a loud CRACK! But the fresco and the cart are both intact and that’s what matters. Mel kicks open the next door a split second before the cart sails through. / You’ve emerged back into the western supply room, which means you’re almost to your destination. Unfortunately the guards have caught on to your plan and have beaten you here. They form an ominous line blocking the exit to the workshop beyond.” A problem emerges, so you take a calculated risk, and before you can feel horror or relief you’re stressed to the next problem. Crucially, you can’t fail, preventing a hard hangup from quelling the adrenaline rush; rather, the game tabulates a score which keeps the stakes without haranguing you with them. Rather than undermine the skill of the heist, it takes teachable moments as a positive rather than a punishment, a testament to which is the fact that in this game, the third in the series, I’ve finally managed to gel enough with the internal train of logic that I got my first perfect heist and finished with 35/39 points, despite having made rather a mess in previous entries. Lady Thalia offers a compelling model of how to hone skill without screeching halt skillchecks.

It’s not just the gameplay that’s more ambitious in this entry. We are treated to emotive twists derived from satisfying character arcs several games in the making: ““It’s just… I thought about it last night and I realised I didn’t want to arrest you.” She huffs out something resembling a laugh. “That sounds daft, doesn’t it? But, I mean, I could have caught you last spring. I could have caught you in France. I could, in fact, have turned you down when you asked me to help you steal the fresco and arrested you on the spot. You must have noticed I was letting an awful lot of opportunities slip by. Scotland Yard certainly noticed. So in the end I had to admit to myself that, well, my heart just wasn’t in it.”” Rather than settle for sitcomesque inert eternity, as might be tempting for a serial game, we’re instead dialed into thoughtful progressions that build on previous entries to celebrate a richness and vibrancy of characters whom you have come to know in rounder, more robust ways. Indeed, Lady Thalia is ready to throw everything out the window in search of genuine development, with an epilogue moving us away even from the core concept of thieving, an excitement about new possibilities of the formula kickstarted by Margaret’s invitation to start sleuthing rather than heisting: “But in the moment that she asked you, you were sure it was the right thing to do, and you’ll have to trust that instinct. And after all, aren’t you always in search of new adventures?” While it likely won’t be too much of a left turn, after all we’ve been doing some legwork for Scotland Yard already, this enthusiastic progression demonstrates the arc of Lady Thalia as a series rather than a series of. There’s strong identity here to remain recognizable, but it’s not trapped by its roots. Still, whatever the future may hold, I’m sure it’ll involve checking books for a code.

At its core, Lady Thalia is a cleverly assembled gauntlet of character-driven heisting, emphasizing the human aspect of the places through which you escapade, heists driven by empathy and curiosity that those you subvert lack. Through witticisms that zip you through setups to carefully orchestrated chaos that forces you to improvise on the job to the understated but emotive character dramas that underwrite our motivations, Lady Thalia has always been, from its very first entry, a neatly designed experience, and the Masterpiece of Moldavia is a masterclass in amping up the ambition organically through earned development of thematics and gameplay schematics. For the last several years, Lady Thalia has been a Spring Thing highlight, and we find it this year in its finest form.


Incoherent screaming

Thanks so much! I can’t imagine higher praise.


Thank you! This is incredibly flattering.

Not to ruin the mystique, but to be honest, this was less a considered decision and more the result of Encorm burning out before the finish line and action scenes not being my forte. (I do most of the “daytime” sections and Thalia/Mel interactions, but the heist stuff is usually mostly her except for the extended battles of wits with antagonists. She also does most of the “exploring a physical space” stuff.)

I feel like serial fiction tends to go for either long plot arcs where everything has to be tied together, usually by some single antagonist, or an entirely episodic existence in which, as you say, nothing is ever allowed to change, and I often find both of these things unsatsifying. So we’ve aimed for a middle ground that allows for character progression while keeping the main plot of each installment completely self-contained—I suppose more along the lines of Dorothy Sayers than the late-Victorian/Edwardian serials that the games are mostly drawing on.

Besides, personally I find it hard to get into fiction that’s too arch; if I’m being held at arm’s length from all the characters, if they’re all caricatures that I’m meant to look on with derision, it leaves me a bit cold. But I think the games wouldn’t really work if the NPCs weren’t (as you note) largely period-fiction stock characters—by nature, there must be many of them, they need to be distinct from one another, and the player ideally should be able to get a read on them quickly and shouldn’t feel too bad about deceiving them. So we’ve tried to make the main characters a little more nuanced (as far as that goes for what’s still largely a slick heist-comedy) to allow for some emotional investment, and we’re always happy to hear that that’s coming through.

Spring Thing Review #3: The Withering Gaze of the Earth by Emily worm

The Withering Gaze of the Earth wastes no time leaping for the gothic. You wander ashore a strange island as the ship the brought you here recedes, leaving you to explore an abandoned house: “You carefully climb the stairs, slippery from the rain. There was a railing here once, but its been broken by a fallen tree limb. The windows of the house are almost all broken, blown out by the storm. The back door hangs ajar, the latch torn free from the frame.” The gothic, since Victorian ingenuity and a bit of bureaucratic recordkeeping first defeated Dracula, expands easily into occult tech, and The Withering Gaze of the Earth dutifully follows suit with evocative gadgets like an “ethereal radio” and an “ontological engine”, which grant the space an implied field of connectivity, which we monitor nervously through Geigeresque PPM as the anomalies intensify.

These aesthetic gestures don’t envelop the reader, however, because they’re kept at an arm’s length by a pervasive streak of flippancy. The narration isn’t immersed in the mood it’s creating, a cynical detachment resonant with the protagonist’s anger at the occult machinations of her mother. In perhaps the most telling example, the climactic confrontation with your mother as cosmic destroyer remanifesting in blood, which could be the moment the tropes apotheosize into gilded miniature, quickly dissolves into moooom you always do this bickering: ““What are you even doing? We can tell you’re trying to claw your way back into the world, and probably attain godhood, but…” / “Oh that’s simple, you’re correct about both,” your mother says. / “I mean that wasn’t really my question,” you say. “But you’re just going to be an unhelpful dick about it, aren’t you?” / “I’m sure you think that’s my greatest sin, not bending over backwards to cater to you.”” This gap between the notional material of the conversation and its emotive affect typifies much of the character’s relationships. Conversations are disjointed laconic, burbling quickly from ““I’m fine,” she said, wiping some more blood off her face. “And I didn’t murder anyone, either.”” to oh-yeah-and-also swerves like “Despite the circumstances in which we met, or, in many ways, perhaps because of them, we got married three months later.” Reader, first I spent about three hours in the shower trying to scrub the gore, then I married her.

This kind of disconnect can be a useful twist, building a parallel logic which suddenly moebiuses bizarre when you’re forced to reencounter it from an external perspective, a tactic with which The Withering Gaze of the Earth does feint, creating little air pockets of humanity in the horror extravagance: “Death calls to death, and I was only dead for a few days before a fragment of a dead god lodged itself in my heart, and I awoke screaming, with a maelstrom of blood as the fire of my rebirth” transitions starkly into “My family, of course, did not really want to be known as the family with a nightmarish creature as a daughter, and hurriedly sequestered me away from public life, while my mother poured herself into her research on how to fix me; subjecting me to numerous painful rites in an attempt to banish the thing I had become.” There’s a compelling pathos hinted here, one that sets up the mother’s antagonism while also providing a complicating nuance of her desperation to help her daughter with some unfathomable condition. Whether this heightens or cheapens the twist, that the mother actually caused the condition, depends on which way you’d rather pull the story, more into the mother/daughter angst or more horrorcore. The story can’t quite choose either, which is further alienated from the reader with its moue monotone: as reality breaks, causing text to crash across the screen, the tone goes for both the grandiose “The world writhes in pain” and the mundane “”Have I ever mentioned your mother is a huge asshole?”” Indeed, the game almost seems to undermine itself with a kind of disinvested contempt. The finale, escaping this pocket dimension as your mother collapses it in her rebirth ceremony, is handwaved away with a snort and eyeroll: the protagonist asks what just happened, and the reply is ““Uhhhh, based on your description, and the extremely high breach contaminants, I think the combination of her divine weight and the unraveling of reality broke open the barriers between worlds and like… You know how that sea you saw yourself on? Its what the death infused water here comes from, and I think that got pulled in and she just was destroyed by a deluge of the rain or whatever.”” Whatever indeed, whatever else?

Which is saddening, because when The Withering Gaze of the Earth cares about its imagery, it shimmers: “Behind you, a sigil of fire hovering over the bridge. It flickers and shifts between a dozen different forms in the span of a second. Rocks hover in the air around it, screaming of the endless wake for the rotting god. The abandoned car has sprouted roots that writhe upward into the sky.” The succinctness propels its vividness into a genuine urgency. With all the time jumps and exposition swipes pumping a techno beat, that urgency keeps your motivating condition raw and anxious: “Breath has been denied to you, since your death and rebirth. / Your body still kind of works like a living person, so you stop for a moment to see if you can get some of your energy back, but unfortunately the clawing music and the crushing weight on you only gets more intense when there isn’t the struggle to press onward to distract you, so you’re left with no choice but to struggle onward.” The pull to confront your mother, but also your own embodied conflictions, as well as the cosmic overtones whorling the whole thing into watercolor, creates some compelling thematic pulses, but alas, none of which the game seems eager to sustain.

On the Spring Thing page, the blurb admits the story was waylaid by Covid, ending up truncated and perhaps a bit first drafty. Certainly, there are many places where details run sparse, like our shotguns-out marriage or the lore of creatures like the ataxic sigilites. One wishes the author health and serenity, and perhaps in a better situation this story could be revised to fulfill the full colors of intention.

**Spring Thing Review #4: Protocol by 30x30**

Protocol is lyrical, Protocol is declarative; every quality in its symmetry, so you’ve been told: “For each differentiable symmetry of nature, there is an exact law.” For every action, a reaction, too many reactions, reactions overwhelming, no, undo it, how could you act, why should anyone? All the dynamism building until it bursts, until it destroys everyone and everything, supernova brilliance erasure: “When density in a molecular cloud reaches a critical threshold, it collapses. A calculated yet brutal dance, filamentous tendrils of gravitational potential energy reaching out, like seeking like, accelerating, exponential growth unbridled as breakneck collisions gather mass.” Possibility crashing in on itself until it compounds and overwhelms, if only you could stop this, find some other way to exist, escape the combinatory overload dying to create life: “Sodium and potassium, the movement of their ions sparking the electrical impulse necessary for nerve function and thought. Your thoughts are blurred images and words that stutter along in a confused narration. Calcium, used in the construction of bones and necessary for their repair. You have likely fractured your skull. Iron, its oxidative properties commandeered by the protein hemoglobin, lending the liquid its distinctive red color. You are bleeding, more slowly now, a ruddy stain across the sleeve and breast of your pale uniform.” Tenderness of obliteration denied, for the moment, just for the moment, in the violence of denial. There can only be denial, for you. Everything exists on sides of a divide; each positivation derived from negations, letting go of one form, letting others arise; in the transition of being to being, nonbeing of the affined.

Thence the panic, prey before the predator, transfer of sunlight from one to another: “After immeasurable time alone and much more spent in the eclipsing orbit of another, one star draws nearer. Pulls at the fabric of the other, leeches at it, tastes the coronal flames and decides it wants more fuel for its fiery hearth. And the lonely star, not knowing that this is the beginning of the end or perhaps aware and still willing, will surrender what it wants. Will give it all it wants until the once generous host, having offered its love and light, dwindles away until it can give no more, not without ceasing to be. It will cease to be. This is how that story always ends. It can end no other way. That is the sacrifice made in knowing the light and warmth of another. It must end.” Any assemblage of qualities implies these qualities can be assumed, assemble elsewise, so sloughs the gestalt, births the gestalt: irreducibly more made of irretrievably lost, is it worth it? Transfer the airless void compressing you to this composite home, “a wound that does not close”, an artificial imitation with “arterial pipes and venous branches of sheathed wires, a pseudo-neural pneumatic network, a beating heart splayed across the walls and hidden under the slatted floor”, but which “cannot speak nor bleed, at least, not like a person can.” And you haven’t been a person in a while. Floating in the nothingness, in the silence, “It was never alive, the station. But it was, perhaps once, something different. Something contained. Something abated. Something satiated.” That’s enough, isn’t it, to, to persist, isn’t that all animals are, systems which propagate protocols? What else could there be to want? “To advance - to escape - is to dare, to overcome the sheer terror in your veins and move deftly, make no mistake. To make mistakes and survive them, to get knocked down and pick yourself up again, again, again. To have the want to survive”. Dare for what? Want what? What could be more than this enclosure? Advancement suggests a progression, and the symmetry rubberbands you back wishsnapped. Nothing comes from nothing, how could anything emerge from the void that wreathes you, coronal crushed and crushed and crushed deeper and deeper inside until the bonds we force break, everything comes loose, surges into new possibilities, what would it be like to choose openendedness, to choose the mistakes that fuel survival, the feeling of something, anything, even if for the moment only terror, in these veins pumping something into life, something more than this pressured into stillness: “The third thing about the breach, you note, hauling yourself through the emergency hatch and sealing the door behind you, is that you are afraid. Past the airlock beginning to depressurize is nothingness, the abyss, certain death … Disembodied, you proceed, finding your hands distant and unwieldy, your legs wholly useless. You have no choice but to continue, unfurling the tether. A way of returning, should the way prove too dangerous, should you fail.” Umbilical unto the gulf below, tentatively abseiling, “Tentatively, you press your palm to the glass, staring at the reflection, at the back of your hand. At the other side of the glass. At where your reflection shifts, stands opposite to you. You, who is no longer alone; you are on the other side of the glass. You, who is no longer alone; you are inside the quarantine cell. / You stare at it, at the pale eyes stained pinkish, at the swollen gash from temple to brow, at the short, dark hair, at the soiled and ill-fitting uniform marked with a name that belongs to both-neither you nor this apparition, at the familiarly dull expression, at everything that you are. The apparition slowly tilts her head to the side, regards you with wide-eyed curiosity, with bated-breath horror, with the all same emotions that flood your veins. With a trembling chin, trying not to cry as she smears the outstretched hand down the glass, as you stare at her and she stares at you. As you stare at yourself. As she stares at herself.” Sutures forcing together two sides of the split, will it heal, can there be any feeling but the tearing apart?

Thence the panic, predator before the prey, seeing sunlight glint from widened eyes. Recognition of annihilation, negative sum game, you cannot sustain what they can, you cannot be sustained, you will be sustained, it is the only way for you to live. You will do what you must to keep yourself together, whoever that makes of you. “You do not have the capacity to wound and yet - you know yourself responsible. Pain and the infliction of it are human qualities, as is the anger with which you swing the pipe at the window, as is the sharp hiss of frustration released as the glass reveals itself impervious to your rage. As is the flickering of imagination, a skull splitting instead of the pane. You, brute, know yourself responsible. Fingers pressed to the wound in your forehead, you lurch away, breathing heavily. The pipe falls from your hand, loud against the floor. It tells you to pick it up again. It tells you to try again. Your hands are strong. You are capable of brutish things. And the window shatters under the force of your swing.” Semblance, and the window into its world, shattered, preservation of, annihilation of, it isn’t so different, you don’t want things to be different, you can keep the screen lucid: “The display blinks, flickers like the eyes of someone on the verge of waking. Like her eyes when - you move on to the second set, breath bated. Your hands shake, carefully undoing what you have already done. Something you have never done; the task all but intrinsic to your being. The wires come apart, the screen roars to life - one frantic wide eyed gasp - and is consumed again in evanescence until you are left gazing into the eyes of a corpse.” There is a moment when you let go; there is a moment when you’ve held on. Symmetries that can be held in balance forever, exact symmetries that are exactly what they are, conservations of matter in laws, enforced seals that will never slip into anomalies “highly localized and relativistic”, where “an irreversible or spontaneous change from one equilibrium state to another will result in an increase in entropy”. Safe in the invariable prevalence of order, the perfect closed system in which entropy approaches a constant value… doesn’t quite reach zero… “She was an isolated constant like that of the equations that crawled off her whiteboards and onto the walls and floors and windows. / The calls were frequent at first.” No, everything is quiet, nothing can hurt you now, everything is sealed: “This window has been broken before, and in one singular moment the laws of the universe balanced what human hand had undone; the atmosphere collapsed and the abyss rushed in, displaced all there was, all life, all light, all warmth. The window is sealed now, a shameful past covered over in this rotation, a capitulation of previous rotations pretending as though the cold does not seep in from the cracks.”

The protocol has repaired the station, the state remains unchanged, the laws conserve what matters, what matters of what else lingers? “The ghosts of the station whisper the stories of those who tried, speak only in whispers, lest the station hear them, lest it wake, lest more ghosts join the first, the woman who gazed upon the stars and saw nothing but hope, sought nothing but love, found nothing but a choiceless grief that carried her back to this place, the empty hangar, and did not let her leave.” If you can’t exist, nothing should, since that nothing makes up your existence. What else would you become? In the silence of confinement, there is only the burning, the burning, why doesn’t the burning stop? Don’t they see what you have managed to conserve? The chaos lies controlled in your orders, you have differentiated yourself in the violence of the void that compels you. “Administrator, it calls you. Lies to you.” Lies to you? No, that’s, I mean, you’ve chosen irrevocably, become irrevocable, you are the agency of commission, have through all the pain built your unstealability so steely assured. And yet, the gnawing, the differentiation of yourself arising only in violence. “You are not like it, this station that weeps and bleeds and remembers? Do you see your own hypocrisy, as clear as staring at a reflection that stared back at you? Your own mirror, dreadful and terrified alike, would you not call out for her help if the help she could provide would prove to be your salvation? Do you grieve her? Do you grieve yourself, the life trapped in your head and the blood on your hands?” Die to live, live to die, existing on both sides of the symmetry, not existing on both sides, symmetry itself a tension, implying correlated is and knots. Of any observed obverse, its reversion to the meaning… “In a sudden tautening of muscles, you flinch away from a resurgence of the sirens that never comes. Punishment for your perverted remembrance - this was not the way things went, this is not the way things were, how dare you - you - defile her memory, how dare you remember to begin with? How dare you, pale imitation, fraudulent ghost?” Killer and killed, dance of stars burning either side of the binary, death and becoming, romance of scars preserving neither side of the bind. “Scars that tell you any attempt to save the station would have failed. You could never save it. You can never save her, the sudden absence at your back, a shadow no longer trailing. You can never save her, you turn and expect to see your mirror image and are met with nothing; you cannot save someone who never existed to begin with.” Equilibrium is the condition of a system where the sum of all vector forces is zero, where the nothing will continue indefinitely. The externality illusion, that discontinuity can be assumed, that a quality can be preserved through its realization as that same quality, that every coming-into-being lies contiguous with beingness, that you can exist equally with the you that insists, cannot connect with the violence innate to these conflictions which “belong to you, you who has bled for your freedom, who has suffered for the cruelty of this station”, not for some ghost, some angelic afterlife, which effects the change of the charge of recognition, when “blood pools along the seams and ridges and sills of an inset panel, one that struggles briefly before accepting your handprint.” Dissimulation requires loss, the currents flow through our gated imaginative to circuits we have to hope illumine the beautiful. There is hope, an infinite hope, but not for us. Assumption, or descent, or ascent, into phenomenon and all its destructive apperceptive definers reconfigures us into “a name that belongs to both-neither you nor this apparition, at the familiarly furious expression, at everything that you were. At everything you killed. / At everything you have become.” Faced with this conundrum, the ineluctable entwined of the symmetrized, existing only insofar as an equal force tugs you to the zeropoint, the natural complaint of exhaustion outcries, desire for some nihil in which internal energies eternalize in mutual negation, destruction eternal where finally all this misery “won’t matter. Brain activity will stop and all will cease to be, and here in the dark, your story will end, extinguished alongside your broken body, dead and gone and steadily cooling to equilibrium.”

Otherwise, what are you forced to do, live out that violence, imbue destruction in every overfiring nerve, to suffocate by your own hands, ripping and tearing at your being until everything breaks, most of all you and you both: “A spiderweb of cracks beneath your skin, the gash growing wider, your face drenched again in blood, if you can bleed and it is not your thoughts that leak out instead. You scream. You scream and strike again, again, again, again until the darkness consumes you, until your brain spills out onto the floor and the station crawls up with curious fingers from the slatted floor to taste it. To know you. Because it cannot have her, cannot have both her and you and thus you become sacrificial lamb. You are destined to die here by your hand or hers or its and you can do nothing to change it nothing at all you are doomed you are”… and, isn’t it worth it, irreducibly more made of irretrievably lost? Isn’t the ideal aspirational insofar as it requires the absolute sever from the one who breathes? “It is impossible to achieve the aim without suffering. This is the simplest maxim, the guiding axiom. The gauntlet is a powerful tool - it will help you reach your goal and thus, suffering is a necessary step, you tell yourself.” Through the gauntlet you go, enduring all the suffering, in some vain hope that the it that leads somewhere includes you, that alchemy enshrines what makes up its gold, this insatiable and destructive and vicious and wretched and worthless and pointless and overcharged and confused and inexplicable in all the ways you need to answer and irruptive and ruinous and cold and bitter and broken beyond the meaning of any of the pieces and unreal and real and unworthy of all the adjectives suited to you, unworthy of the belief that all of this adds up to something worth preserving, why not let free the feelings that annihilate whatever this is, in the merciless admissive may these compounds compound into stronger, stranger bonds, why not let go of everything but the need to “touch her skin, to acknowledge her as real and tangible and not only that - but to recognize her skin as you would recognize your own. She does not flinch as fingertips brush her face; she holds her ground and bites her tongue, stifles all but the single tear that runs down her cheek. She wears all the same wounds as you, arm shattered and dubiously repaired by the presence of the gauntlet, forehead gashed from temple to brow, but she is unbowed by them. Her skin is warm, the pallor diffused, her breathing steady, unlabored. And you are cold, getting cold, struggling with every little motion. It is alive; she is alive. And you are dying … You will die. And she / She / She will live on in your stead.” And isn’t that all you want, really, life? Better that it isn’t yours, you have none to give. “For her wishes to be true - for her to live on in your stead - she must leave while she still can, while she bears only your visage, before she can bear the emptiness of your memory, the heaviness of your willing self-destruction.” Selfless, not as a kindness, but as finality’s honesty.


This is incredible, thank you so much for your kind words and review. Wow. Just wow.