JJMcC's IFComp22 R-O-O-T (Reviews Out of Time)

So I’ve got enough head of steam that I like my trajectory in meeting my review commitments this year. For the reviews that follow, some context about the criteria I’ll be using. The supporting materials seem to encourage using a judging framework of some kind, which makes perfect sense. I settled on the following, organized, as anything worthwhile in my life is, as a spreadsheet. Quick disclaimer: I will reserve the right to adjust these criteria over time if they prove less useful than believed. I am laughably unprepared in community and hobby context to judge how valid these criteria are, and am really just winging it by imposing an artificial order on the chaos of life. Though on some level, aren’t we all? :]

score artistic response fn() tech intrusiveness =overall
1 Bouncy AND unplayable bad
2 Bouncy OR* unplayable bad
3 Mechanical AND intrusively buggy meh
4 Mechanical OR* intrusively buggy meh
5 Sparks of Joy AND notably buggy you have my attention
6 Sparks of Joy OR* notably buggy you have my attention
7 Engaging OR* mostly seamless good
8 Engaging AND mostly seamless good
9 Transcendent AND not seamless great
10 Transcendent AND seamless great

*technically XOR, if that makes a difference to you

Of course these are not unrelated aspects that I have separated. You could theoretically envision a seamless implementation of a contemptible artistic statement, or text so transcendent that no amount of bugs dilutes the experience. I expect in practice I will use the “Artistic Response” as a maximum score, and “Technical Intrusiveness” as a modifier. Will likely burn some text in reviews explaining how that balancing resulted in the score I gave.

Some terminology clarifications:
Bouncy - subject matter or writing style that collides directly with one of my many character flaws and bounces me off the material like I was fired from a cannon
Mechanical - material that doesn’t actively repel me, but elicits no feelings of emotional engagement. Just pushing buttons.
Sparks of Joy - uneven material that nevertheless has bright shining spots of “Hell Yeah!” be it an amazing setpiece, really engaging prose, a mechanical or story twist that I admire, etc
Technical Intrusiveness - mostly bugs, but also fundamental technical limitations that downgrade the narrative experience. “Intrusively Buggy” will mean its technical flaws are primarily what I remember, due either to their eggregiousness or raw volume. “Notably Buggy” likely means I was able to work around or power past the issues in a way that I can’t forget, but that won’t disrupt my entire experience. I do have some patience here. “Mostly seamless” means on reflection I might remember some glitchy moments but only if I force myself to think about them.

The rest is probably self explanatory. I am using the personal randomizer to review and have set a goal to meet or beat 3 reviews a week for the duration of the period. My whatever-is-just-shy-of-OCD likely dictates that the final review count will be divisible by 5. Without further ado, here we go! Your advice and guidance appreciated, if I go far astray of community expectations for this kind of thing.

9 Likes

Staycation by Maggie H

This was my first exposure to Texture pieces. Maggie H’s use of it, including formatting, color choice, response management and graphics use felt like an extension of their expressive prose in setting an overall mood of the piece which I’ll call ‘lazy disquiet.’ Even where the choices were limited to one or just a “next” button, the text blocks, breaks and changes all felt deliberate and evocative is a really nice way.

But there were bugginess issues. In particular, it seemed that regardless of my choices (and boy did I try a lot of permutations of them) I could only get at most two nights’ sleep that ended either in waking up with an unexplained loss of time that seemed narratively important, or on a page whose bug was that none of the presented choices allowed you to leave the page. Stuck.

I hit both of these end states within 15 minutes and spent the next hour and a quarter trying choice combinations and failing to achieve a different result. Early on, this actually seemed intended (stuck bug notwithstanding), striking a “Russian Doll” / “Edge of Tomorrow” / “Happy Birthday to Me” vibe which generally is catnip for me. (Just realized I didn’t invoke “Groundhog Day” above. Is this where we are now? We’ve now got so many it’s lost its primacy as naming this genre?) If that was not the intent, boy did I misread it, though it was that read that motivated me to try and push through.

According to my untested judging criteria, my first few playthroughs elicited true Sparks of Joy in turn of phrase, surprising interactions, creepy description variations. This was not to last. Repitition, especially in time loop type games relies on setting narrative expectations, then either building on them or infinitely and creatively varying them. Without either, there are two possible progressions: long blocks of text will be ignored and clicked through mechanically; short bursts of text will be read so frequently that, like rapidly repeating words for a not-so-long period of time they will lose all meaning. Both happened here, though a third thing did also. Maggie H’s prose is wryly singular in a way that sustains it for a while. But with repitition, many passages seemed to undergo distillation - with every cycle, they concentrated. Not unlike boiling sugar water until it sublimates from lightly sweet liquid to way-too-sweet syrup. An example: the game poetically presents a few things as “gaping.” That is an insanely powerful word, immediately invoking a symphony of feelings. But the more you read it, the stronger its impact is, until you start engaging it with “Is this really the right word here?” “This is saying a lot more than it should.” “Oh my God please stop saying ‘gaping.’”

So I’m left with very positive feelings of my first half hour, quickly eroded away through repitition and lack of progress. My criteria already shows its flaws: while my impression showed “Sparks of Joy” initially, repitition eventually sanded those moments down to “Mechanical.” Alternately, if repitition was NOT the point of the game at all, maybe my experience was due to “Intrusively Buggy”-ness. (There is a third option. That I was too dense to make progress, missing some obvious out for over an hour. I acknowledge the possibility but “Just Know Something You Can’t Figure Out” has never been actionable feedback for me.)

Author: Maggie H
Played: 10/3
Playtime: 1.5hrs, stuck for 1.25 of it
Score: 4 (Sparks of Joy → Mechanical; and/or Intrusively Buggy)
Would Play After Comp?: Maybe? If reminded and bugfixed

Quick BTW - is there a spoiler syntax here? Would like to Spoiler parts of reviews and my Score but not sure how.

5 Likes

Yeah, you use [spoiler]blurred text[/spoiler] (or you can select the text and then use “Blur Spoiler” under the gear submenu (rightmost of the formatting buttons).

Or to hide things in a collapsible section

you can use [details="short text"]long text[/details] (also in the gear submenu).

2 Likes

Blood Island by Billy Krolick

I think I played the ‘catnip’ card way too early, in my very first review of Staycation. I am coming to realize that my world is composed almost completely of catnip and broccoli (apologies to inscrutable lovers of that nasty, tree-lookin veg). I am a big horror movie nerd, and marrying deep genre love to a reality show setting? We’re firmly in catnip territory here.

Billy’s informal writing voice perfectly capitalized on my goodwill. They adopted a confident, playful and straightforward tone that quickly sucked me into this goofy world with a time-honored genre trope, deftly executed. Throughout the game there are just enough winks to keep the wry feel, but not so dense that they erode the narrative tension. It was a nice and consistent tone achievement. I also admired that a broad range of human gender and sexuality seemed to be accomodated in NPC casting and player choices, and done so organically and naturally. (At least for the choices I made)

The playful voice is most evident when engaging the NPC contestants. They are a varying mix of familiar archtypes and archtype subversions. I think this is a crucial choice actually, as the cast is somewhat large and all introduced at once. Without an initial archtype hook it would be impossible to keep them all in your head. I wouldn’t say any of them are truly 3- dimensional but the story doesn’t need them to be. Really the story only needs 1 dimension and still delivers between 1 1/2- 2 1/2 depending on character.

Billy’s menu-based interactions were also well done. Which is good, as it is the driving mechanism of the game. When I encounter this system in video games it is rare that I don’t chafe under guard rails of responses and reactions I want to give, but the author has failed to accomodate. Or worse, cues that suggest a response I want to make but instead deliver something I NEVER intended when clicked. Blood Island menu cues are refreshingly concise and clear, and at least for me, never betrayed expectations. It feels ungenerous (in a way Blood Island never is) to quibble that missing responses did crop up. I mean it as a compliment when I say this was infrequent enough that it felt jarring when it happened, as my expectations had been consistenly raised and met. It was those relatively few times that caused me to “Mostly Seamless” it. Too, the game’s responses to player choices were smoothly integrated into text blocks, both in format and voice, with none of the jarring “<<CHAR_NAME>> heard your answer and is <<CHAR_EMOTION>> at you.”

I won’t talk about the plot, obvi, except to say that it embraces deconstructionist horror ala Scream/Leslie Vernon/Final Girls (the movie) and integrates Final Girl (the trope) critical commentary in an engaging if not completely organic way. At least for me. This is totally my jam. I could see where someone less taken with the source inspiration might find the commentary clunkily intrusive. Let them write their own review, I dug it!

It was also noteworthy that the setpieces had propulsive urgency, twists and shocks and strong feeling of stakes in them, as the best of its inspirations do. Is there an M Night Shyamalan “oh snap no way!” moment? No. But there are heaping helpings of “yeah you did!” smiles and fist pumps. It is an old saw that horror/comedies only elevate when they succeed equally in both. If I assume that would also apply to reality/meta commentaries, Billy is tackling all FOUR of those. They succeed with a thoroughly winning light, wry and generous touch.

Author: Billy Krolick
Played: 10/4
Playtime: 1.5hrs, finished
Score: 8 (Engaging, Mostly Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Definitely! So much comfort food.

5 Likes

Under the Bridge by Samantha Khan

A very short mood piece with some sharp if narrow observations to convey. As a web-driven experience I appreciated the integrated mood audio and the restrained but clever use of font (especially dug the protagonists’ ‘voice’) and layout. The art was hit or miss, with the notable exception of the various renderings of the monster protagonist, which I found compelling and evocative.

Taken together with the prose, the whole package effectively conveyed an underlying melancholy behind a handful of setpiece encounters. The experience was brief - in a half hour I completed 7 or 8 circuits and got 5 different endings, with little left unexplored (I think). This tight scope and short duration achieved a slightly different effect than many “Play Again?” prompt games. Rather than a time loop or full narrative reset effect, this rather felt like exploring a multiverse where we are granted a god’s eye view of all possible outcomes of this combination of character and situations. While simultaneously building some larger understandings.

What sparked my joy was how these runs, most especially the endings, played off not only each other, but more significantly off the protagonist and NPC expectations and biases that are revealed across the runs. A single run showcased a moody cause and effect chain. Across all runs, a full and consistent picture of the protagonist, the world, and human society is assembled and contrasted to intrinsic biases. Because this feels like the ace in the piece’s sleeve, I am reluctant to write more clearly about it. Thematic spoilers are real things too! Suffice to say there is more subtlety here than its form and scope would suggest.

I don’t want to oversell it - this is a very brief piece, with limited meaningful choices. It is not a puzzle to solve, or maybe is at its best when it doesn’t have to be. I appreciate that it builds some sharp commentary and effective mood with relatively few moving parts. It is a melancholy short story I was glad to spend time with, but probably won’t need to revisit.

Author: Samantha Khan
Played: 10/4
Playtime: .5hrs, achieved 5 endings
Score: 6 (Sparks of Joy, Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Doubtful, experience feels complete

6 Likes

Jungle Adventure by Paul Barter

I was cautiously looking forward to this one. Looking forward, as my fondness for early text adventure is just a thing about me by now. Cautious because those early days are much more enjoyable in my head than in front of me. And as a standalone app, unless Paul was building on a rock solid parser there were decades of learnings he’d need to implement.

I was right to be cautious. Part of it was my fault. I was bringing TADS-like parser dialect to this game. I did reasonably quickly figure out my blindspot and adjusted to this new parser syntax. But man was it frustrating. So much guess-the-noun, guess-the-verb. A tried and true way to combat this is to artfully provide valid words in descriptions and error messages. Not only do we NOT get that here, the text actively steers us wrong. An early puzzle involves getting out of a thick copse of trees, but…it requires you pull an object out of your pocket, which I never thought to do as a ‘status’ command had previously told me I was carrying “Nothing, zilch, nada.”

Other tried and true ways to combat search-the-X problems is the hint system and walkthroughs. The hint system is context aware, but pretty primitive in that its suggestions are of limited help and relevance. But the walkthrough, I’m not sure what to do with that. I explicitly tried commands suggested by the walk through to be variously met with “Be more specific” or “you can’t do that.”

To be fair, early games sometimes used “You can’t do that” as a synonym for “You don’t need to do that yet.” I certainly tried to embrace the experience with that in mind. So for 40 minutes I exhausted the hints and walkthrough and just typed variation after variation trying to hit the magic combo that would do what I wanted (as told by the walkthrough!) to do. I gave up at the 1 hr mark.

It’s a shame the parser problems are so dire. The bones of the game seemed amusing - the ASCII art was the perfect note of blast from the past, and much of it was really well done. It was SO well done I could even use the pictures to suggest relevant nouns, but that ended up being unevenly implemented. The few puzzles I encountered were simple but very evocative of early text adventures and would have elicited wry smiles had it not been so hard to bend the parser to my will.

Really, it feels like this would be a warm happy play if the parser could get out of the way. It would probably take heavy coding, but parser work alone wouldn’t solve it. Even with the current parser, the author could do a lot more in descriptive text to clue the players, and in beta testing to wring out contradictory, even deceptive text. I kind of hope they do, as this is a thing that makes me happy it exists, but the parser won’t let me enjoy it.

And at a minimum, ensure the walkthrough gives actual commands that work! It is the promise of this that pushed it from a 2->3 for me. A valid walkthrough would be a good way to show it is not Unplayable. Yes, I am committing the cardinal sin of critiquing on content that doesn’t actually exist.

Author: Paul Barter
Played: 10/5
Playtime: 1hr, stuck for 40min of it
Score: 3 (Mechanical, Intrusively Buggy)
Would Play After Comp?: Probably not but Maybe? If hint/walkthrough and in- game guidance significantly improved.

2 Likes

Thanks so much for playing and for leaving a detailed review. This is only my second IF game, so seeing what the community likes and dislikes is super helpful. Thanks again!

4 Likes

I’m really surprised this was only your second IF! Your game seemed so polished. It was well-written and I was impressed you got so much characterisation into such a big case of characters.

(For context, I am completely new here, and wrote my first IF for this competition this year.)

4 Likes

This is also my first year, so Graham and I may not be the best to represent the community. But for my part, I loved it, well done!

3 Likes

The Only Possible Prom Dress by Jim Aikin

Aaaah, TADS. Like slipping my feet into a warm bath. This is the parser-based IF experience I look for. Amazing, goofy premise and quest, large map, many puzzles from lever-and-button to locked-door to coerce-NPCs to (probably) wildly inappropriate and satisfying uses of everyday objects. The narration is capable and fun, integrating game-facilitating pointers and sly humor in equal measure. It’s not perfect: one NPC seems to attach to you without much lubricating text; a few incidents of can’t-do-that would benefit from a variable list; dense place descriptions without subsequent shorter summaries and/or bolded direction cues.

But really, those feels nit-picky. Especially in the face of a tremendous effort to flesh out nearly every noun with flavor text that makes poking around rewarding in the best traditions of early IF. Even the relatively limited NPCs which won’t make you fear the singularity, they are imbued with enough personality to remind you of NPCs of days gone by. Yes, they are code constructs, but they are amusing and welcome ones.

And that map! A gloriously dense and elaborate multi-level map to explore. Daunting even. Many locations have 4 or more cardinal exits and maybe some ups and downs too. Navigating the map was a treat - most locations have personality too, unique and idiosyncratic: weaving flavor and nav puzzles all over the place.

And here’s where my unfortunate game experience intrudes. For the first hour I wandered around mapless. I was so caught up in the delightful spell the place descriptions were putting on me I darted from one shiny exit to another without much rhyme or reason. And boy did I get lost. Over and over again. It was fun doing it! But eventually I realized I was never getting the dress this way. So I saved my game at one hour, determined to pick up next day with graph paper in hand.

Next day I went to restore my save… and couldn’t. Appears to be a bug, where the save command works just fine, but the load command (or LOAD, or Load) is unrecongnized. I corroborated that both the web and downloaded T3 behave the same way. An hour of progress flushed away, and only an hour left on my review timer. Neither path forward seemed ‘fair’ in the spirit of IF rules: do I restart the timer at 0 and pretend yesterday never happened, nevermind the accumulated good will? Or base a review on what seemed likely to be 1 hour of unique playtime in 2 hours? There was a third option. In the course of HELPing all over the problem, I noticed Jim made maps (and walkthrough which I ignored) available! For sure, I would add the maps to the game entry walkthrough/downloads box instead of burying it in a help screen. Armed with those maps and the previous day, I decided efficiency would make up the difference.

At the second one-hour mark I had fully recon’d the mall (locked doors notwithstanding) and a bit of its grounds, but only really ‘solved’ two puzzles. Plenty more were tantalyzingly layed out before me. And yeah, I was definitely Engaged. The narrative tone is friendly and fun, details plentiful and unique, and puzzles littering the joint. I found myself typing faster and faster as I noticed the clock running out, trying to eke out just one more location, conversation or search.

So now I’m left with a TADS window open on my desktop, knowing if I close it I’ll lose my SECOND hour of progress and not sure it won’t die between now and end of judging. With a game this big, save/load functionality feels less optional. Ah Mephisto, your Damoclean Swords are super specific these days.

Author: Jim Aikin
Played: 10/6
Playtime: 2hrs, incomplete
Score: 7 (Engaging but short of Mostly Seamless, primarily due to one big bug)
Would Play After Comp?: Likely, but that Load bug looms large. Who’m I kidding? Yes.

5 Likes

“Restore” works. Unfortunately, the help text in the game itself mistakenly mentions “load” (whereas the full “instructions” have it right).

5 Likes

Oh man, thanks so much. Now have a viable save! When I said I was ‘teaching myself TADS’ I definitely didn’t say ‘quickly.’ :]

2 Likes

Esther’s by Brad and Alleson Buchanan

Hey, there are IF works for new readers! This was an absolutely delightful interactive rendition of a children’s book. When first few clicks showed no choices, I grew uneasy. The illustrations were note perfect for the milieu, but my family situation is quite removed from kid-lit. Turning virtual pages was not significantly different than leafing through a kids book which I never do. (I mean, Seuss excepted, what am I a monster?)

That ungenerous thought couldn’t even gel before the choices started. At that point the illustrations, text and choices played off each other wonderfully. Even then, I wasn’t won over immediately because I am damaged. For whatever reason after a few choices I spontaneously conjured an imaginary child next to me… what? you don’t know my life! Reading this work, imagining a small child sounding through, making choices, then experiencing the results of that choice — that’s when it clicked into place for me. The playful problem solving, character frustration, trial and error, evocative illustrations and unexpected outcomes would play like gang busters to a new reader, and through that imaginary child’s eyes I could experience their delight.

Older IF fans take as writ that interactivity is the differentiator in this medium. The (however illusory) perception of choice, narrative influence and immediacy provides a whole new dimension of immersion to the reading experience. Esther’s uses its new reader format to remind me that even the most tired, hoary cliche’ is going to be someone’s first time and that initial exposure can be deeply revelatory. That came out wrong, I’m not suggesting Ester’s is cliche’d, just using that as a poorly chosen metaphor for IF in general. What I’m driving at is that its deliberate invocation of children’s lit tone, illustration style and whimsical content re-presents the form in a first timer perspective. How magical is that? At least that’s what I got from my imaginary co-pilot.

Scoring this feels like a no win situation. I mean would I criticize the narrative voice in “Hop on Pop?” The graphic compositions in “Hungry Caterpillar?” Like this work, they meld text and illustration into a product aimed at delighting children. That’s really the only metric worth discussing I think. Esther’s stands shoulder to shoulder with its paper inspirations, even before it ups the ante by integrating interactivity. While I wouldn’t say I found it engaging, I did get Sparks of Joy watching my imaginary companion’s delighted introduction to IF.

This review was brought to you by the word ‘delight.’

Author: Brad and Alleson Buchanan
Played: 10/6
Playtime: 10min, finished
Score: 6 (Sparks of Joy, Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Maybe to share with grandkids WAAAAAAAY down the road

6 Likes

:heart: Thank you for the review!

The new version, just now uploaded, fixes this. RESTORE works correctly, and the Help text now advises this.

You’re right about making the mention of the maps more obvious. Maybe I ought to put that bit in the opening text, but I was trying to keep the opening text as brief as possible. I don’t think the Comp is set up to offer a link in place of the downloadable walkthrough. Okay, you talked me into it. In 5, 4, 3, 2, 1…

4 Likes

Which game did you submit? I want to make sure I get to it!

Thanks Billy. Mine is The Thirty Nine Steps.

The Thick Table Tavern by manonamora

Ok, take two parts snarky, amusing characters, 2 parts crisp custom graphical presentation, one part grind and a dash of IF. Serve over ice with umbrella, and a sense of wanting more?

Let’s start with the most tangible detail: the graphic presentation is just winning. From the Day placards with flowing beer background, to the text scrolls, the fonts and iconography, even the adorably cartoonish bar area it all just fits together for a complete graphical experience. Like a glacier cool martini with a lemon twist suspended in the hyper-chilled surface tension, the hint of its oils eddying on the icy-taut surface.

The narrative tone and character voices are all welcoming and fun, neither over- nor under-written, and all of it moving along at a snappy, snarky pace. You speed through the text rapidly, a smile tugging at your lips due to the turn of phrase or an outlandish character moment. It pulls you through as steadily and satisfyingly as a tiki drink! (Ok, I’m going to try and resist the urge to end every paragraph with a barely-relevant cocktail metaphor. I don’t want to SOUR you on… ow ow ow ow OW OW)

Triple-T has so much going for it, so why don’t I find it more engaging? Let’s start with the opening - there are fully two different intros, and they are kind of disjoint from each other. After two hours of play, one of which isn’t really justified. Neither opening is short, and both are minimally interactive. Once the table is set (bar is stocked?), our motivations and goals established, and the basic bartending mechanisms taught, we’re finally ready to go. Time to start grinding out drinks from recipe cards. As a simulator of mixology, seems about right. An endless flow of drink orders to service in the most mechanically efficient way possible, until your shift is over. You are at least insulated from having to deal with increasingly obnoxious drunks while you work.

After a gameday of serving drinks, there is some lubricating text and interactions, then you’re back at it next day. And then again. It is unclear whether your choices, either conversationally or actions taken, have any effect on the overall narrative flow. Certainly, neither seem to derail the job you have to do. The situation varies a bit, but your tasks don’t. So far, it felt like a grindy, minimally interactive kind-of-RPG where you are earning pay towards a goal. On Day 3, I achieved enough money to satisfy my goal. However, the game did not acknowledge this, and instead repeated itself for Day 4. Literally. Day 3 was an amusing day, thanks to a character’s screwup, but I guess that screwup happened again? This time jarringly without the establishing text, but otherwise word-for-word identical. And then time ran out.

At the end of two hours, I had powered through an overlong double intro, enjoyed some peppy text and graphics, grinded a LOT, and then got Groundhog-Day’d when I met my goal. The stakes were pretty low to start with – which can be cool actually! Not everything has to be save the world. In this case though, for all the entertaining wordplay the motivations just didn’t click into place. Meaning when the timer expired, the snappy presentation and writing couldn’t overcome the mechanical central mechanism and worryingly repetitive 4th Day.

Sorry, no more for me. I’m driving. (You got 3 cocktail-free paragraphs, take the win.)

Author: manonamora
Played: 10/7
Playtime: 2hrs, finished 4 gamedays
Score: 5 (Sparks of Joy muted by grind, mostly seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Don’t think so. Too much grind and Day 4 was a worrying portent

5 Likes

Nose Bleed by Stanley W Braxton

Nose Bleed was the second Texture piece of the Comp, and ever, for me. It is a very short work that attempts to use interactivity to bring immediacy to a tightly focused horror story. The impulse to treat social anxiety as a horror premise is really a great idea. Popular media is overrun with social anxiety stories that mine childhood bullying for drama. Few of those are horror stories, despite having truly horrific events depicted, and much more commonly leverage the horror for the carthartic overcoming of it.

Adult social anxiety is a significantly less-trod ground, and a horror focus is even more rarified air. I seem to have slipped into a mountain climbing metaphor, not sure why. The mechanism of a nose bleed as source for that social anxiety is also kind of a genius choice - it is something we have no control of and is plausibly not serious enough to push people past irritated inconvenience to empathy. The choice of workplace was also a crucial one, as it is one of few places adults HAVE to interact with people they don’t want to. Points for really interesting and challenging thematic concept!

The chosen implementation fell a bit short is my sense. For a few reasons. The graphical presentation didn’t really serve the narrative. Having a taste of what can be done with graphical integration in Staycation, I couldn’t help but see missed opportunities here. It is generally not my intention to contrast entries against each other, but graphical the difference stood out. That said, there were two instances, about 2/3 into the game where the graphical choices were surprising and effective. I would have liked a lot more of that throughout the playtime.

Ultimately, the graphical presentation is not a minus, more of a missed plus opportunity. Choices made to leverage interactivity for this story were harder to get past. Social anxiety works a little differently in 3rd person stories than first person IF. In the former, the trick is to get the reader on the protagonist’s side by making them some combination of relatable, sympathetic and/or rootable. This is commonly done via non-anxiety scenes where we can care about the protagonist to empathize with them when their social group turns on them. Here, the work is aiming to invoke anxiety in the player by having them ‘experience’ it directly. Which is an excellent use of horror IF if it works!

By omiting the shell of a separate protagonist though, you need to craft a narrative that the player buys into. It didn’t come together for me that way. For one, the descriptions of the injury grew increasingly horrific, in a way that made the NPCs ignoring it look decreasingly human, in turn making me less invested in their social pressure. The situation didn’t quite gel for a few other reasons. Often the choices you are given don’t fundamentally change anything except narrative texture. Adding up to a feeling of lack of agency, without clear narrative reasons for it. A lot of early game is interacting with a single other character. Social anxiety is most effective when you feel isolated from the entire community around you. When its only one person, it’s just as likely they’re just being a dick which is a whole different dynamic. Later in the game when the community expands, there isn’t a narrative reason why the PC is with them. Adults have many degrees of freedom to avoid toxic communities, like Ubering separately to work functions. I’m not saying its super easy to avoid toxic life scenarios. I’m saying the game didn’t do the legwork to convince me I was trapped.

Without that legwork, I was often thinking “well there are a lot of different ways that could be avoided” which had the effect of me decoupling from the protagonist that was supposed to be me. I started to think of them as willingly submitting… which again is definitely a real thing. The story just didn’t get me there. Instead it actively disconnected me from the protagonist. So that’s how I got to a Mechanical playthrough. Really only the short duration and the nifty graphic flourishes kept it from being Bouncy. I think this reaction is actually a testament to the author in one sense: they attempted a unique horrific experience and while not getting me there, clearly their themes elicited some response.

Author: Stanley W Braxton
Played: 10/8
Playtime: 20min
Score: 3 (Mechanical, Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Doubtful, experience feels complete

5 Likes

You May Not Escape by Charm Cochran

Well I did!

Yeah, it’s a maze (maybe procedurally generated?). A very thin dystopia skin on top of a maze. It’s a fair play maze, it graphed on graph paper exactly as you’d expect. Along the way, there is NPC interaction, (limited), items to pick up, a few unique scenery or locations and many more repeated ones, a series of heckling message scroll boards to read. Other than the clear motivation to escape the maze, there wasn’t much in the way of guidance or story. Intellectually, I think I kind of liked that about it. There was stuff, samey rooms, text to read but it was all ancillary to just getting out. If you did more with the stuff there, great. If not, just fine too.

I got the sense that maybe there were a few second level puzzles to suss out, particularly with the message boards. My end stats showed there was at least one big thing I could have accomplished before escaping but didn’t. In fact it showed a whole series of scores, some of which I achieved others I did not. Even the ones I achieved, it was fully without prompting by the game. I just did them, then turns out there was a score involved. That was kind of subversively fun, too. But all that fun was cold, meta disassociated fun. Emotionally there was nothing, presumedly deliberately so.

Without a story, humor or character hook of any kind, you’re really just wandering around, drawing on graph paper, and picking up minimally rendered items to no clear end. Yeah I played with some items just for fun, and game did enable me to do so to its credit, but it was just killing time. My perverse perseverence pushed me through to the end, but if at any time the game crashed I could have just shrugged and not restarted. Only one bug, error message “runtime error p50, empty menu list” I believe, but it didn’t stop the game. Or break any mimesis or even jar the experience. Just kept walking and mapping.

This was really a poster child for Mechanical execution. There is a place for this of course. Soduko still has its fans, picture puzzles relax millions of folks. Find-a-words, pencil mazes, all of that. A solid implementation in that category if that’s for you.

Author: Charm Cochran
Played: 10/9
Playtime: 1.25hr, finished
Score: 4 (Mechanical, mostly seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Doubtful, maze solved

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