*Ridiculously Earnest Reviews Out of Time

I feel I am gazing upward from Everest Base Camp. Alright, a little more confidence this year, comfort level a little higher. This is a recipe for self-satisfied smugness. To combat that, an embarrassingly cheesy song parody! (With deep apologies to the Fab 4)

It’s been nearly a full year today
Since I reengaged with IF play
When I cobbled up a review style
That tried way too hard to raise a smile
And now I recommit to you
The act that barged in just last year

My rubric from last year served me pretty well. Will use it again this year. Last year I found bonus/penalty points were a way to adjust a game’s rating when the rubric fell short (about 1/5 got one), so I’ll keep that flexibility too. Same as last year:

score	artistic response	fn()	tech intrusiveness	
1			Bouncy		    AND		unplayable		
2			Bouncy		    OR*		unplayable		
3			Mechanical	    AND		intrusively buggy	
4			Mechanical	    OR*		intrusively buggy	
5			Sparks of Joy	AND		notably buggy		
6			Sparks of Joy	OR*		notably buggy		
7			Engaging		OR*		mostly seamless	
8			Engaging		AND		mostly seamless	
9			Transcendent	AND		not seamless		
10			Transcendent	AND		seamless		

*XOR, technically

Key Terms:
Bouncy - subject matter or writing style that bounces me away, whether author’s fault or not
Mechanical - material that may not bounce me, but doesn’t connect with me either
Sparks of Joy - uneven material that nevertheless has bright shining spots of “Hell Yeah!”
Technical Intrusiveness - bugs or technical limitations that downgrade the experience.
“Intrusively Buggy” will mean its technical flaws dominated my experience.
“Notably Buggy” means technical issues colored my experience but was able to work around or power past.
“Mostly seamless” means there were issues, but they did not shade the game’s imapct.

As before, I will embargo reading other reviews until I have commited my own, meaning awkward after the fact discourse from me!

Also as before, I am entrusting the personal randomizer to turn IFCOMP23 into a review-based emergent narrative meta-game!


Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest by Joey Acrimonious

Ok, randomizer, I see how this is gonna be. First game in a field of 75: HIGH FANTASY PARSER EROTICA! Probably should have buckled my seat belt before clicking. No sense starting slow, right?

So human sexuality, that’s a huge thing innit? Nearly universal in concept, infinitely unique in application. I am hard pressed to think of a tougher genre to write broad-audience-targeted fiction in - the variations are SO numerous and SO personal finding the magic combo that hits broadly with an audience is statistically laughable. The easiest, most knee-jerky response is going to be “works for someone I guess, not for me.” Gonna resist that. The OTHER easiest response would be a throaty “I’ll be in my bunk.” Will set that aside too.

RBLPQ does a few things right, out of the gate. By choosing a sexually aggressive female protagonist, we simultaneously acknowledge, parody and skirt eggregiously toxic male sexuality which looms like a cancer over a lot of sexual entertainment. It also fundamentally understands that humor and sexuality are great partners. Cultural shame is best combated by reminders of how FUN healthy sexuality can be, and humor is the weapon of choice in that war. Here, the humor on display so far rests on two pillars: 1. The over the top Alpha behaviors of our heroine and 2. Juxtaposing stilted “olde Englifh” fantasy-speak with brazen, in-your-face sexual desctiptions.

I found the first to be consistently pretty good - her bog-simple motivations and confidence are consistently entertaining if not laugh out loud. All her NPC interactions were fun, but in particular her distaste for NPC backstory brought some earned chuckles. She is helped by at least one legitimately entertaining plot twist that she gets to react to. We are paired with a fun protagonist, inhabiting an engaging narrative.

For the second pillar of humor, well, assume spoiler blur is ALSO NC-17 blur for this review. You’re going to want to find these funny in close proximity: “I shall plan thee a grand feast,” she spake. “Every accoutrement and revel shall be accounted for, and naught awry.” “his girthy, slick schlong flopping down on his meaty pubic mound with a satisfying plop…” And here, I think the composition choices maybe undermined the work a bit. When it worked best was long stretch of florid, then short punch of profane. That’s a winning combo. Too often, I felt the reverse - long passages of profane with tepid thou’s and thee’s peppering the outskirts. There was one encounter in particular where the sexual acts were described WITH the olde Englifh flourishes. That actually worked kind of ok until it fell apart, reminding me what a tightrope walk this was.

The sex scenes themselves were also employed unevenly. They were most successful when erotic activity was actually incorporated into the gameplay as puzzles. Ok, I’m not crazy about the mental picture you the reader have of me on reading that, but hear me out. You’re playing IF, right? If you just want raw titillation boy has the internet got you covered, no problem, you’d probably be there right now. But playing IF it is not unreasonable to say, ‘ok, but I’d like something in an interactive option.’ Too often, it felt like the erotica was pasted on the side, separate from more standard ‘find the…’ ‘give the…’ ‘use the…’ parser puzzles. For long stretches it felt like big mode switches: EROTICA ON, IF OFF; EROTICA OFF, IF ON.

Even when the game leveraged its unique power, it had a new challenge: how do you make IF sex fun? Humor is the key there, and I consistently felt it was ALMOST but not quite there. See, a less disciplined reviewer would make an ‘edging’ joke here, but not me, nossir. I am too dignified for that.

Now all of this is circling the most challenging issue of this game: gameplay. There are a lot of parser implementation issues, most of them Classics. Incomplete nouns are everywhere ("A few low, wooden benches were set about the place, … " >look under bench “She couldn’t see any such thing.”), NPCs are not described as being present in room, making it a shock when they speak. Exits that appear in banner are not implemented. Debug messages still in the game? (>x crate “Insert uh.”) There are inadequately clued puzzles (one character is interested in a trade, but the descriptions don’t really gel and it gets solved with trial and error TBF, that particular puzzle was wryly amusing.) You are wearing a cloak that does not appear in inventory, nor can you manipulate it. Not seeing a ladder you just climbed. YOU HAVE WINGS BUT CANNOT FLY. I think maybe if the technical issues were more polished, the work could breath a little better.

In the end the amusing protagonist and plot couldn’t quite escape the implementation issues and text choices to provide the Sparks of Joy I wanted them to. And yeah, I promised I wouldn’t but the erotic content “works for someone I guess, but not for me.”

Played: 10/1/23
Playtime: 1hr, 50min, 2nd Act stuck above public house
Score: 4 (Mechanical/Notable Implementation gaps)
Would Play After Comp?: Unlikely, not my kink


Thanks for the review! I’m glad you enjoyed some aspects of the game, at least. Your critiques are informative and I’ll keep them in mind for future projects.

I have learned of a number of bugs and implementation gaps since release, including from your review and transcript, and have since made an update that addresses many technical issues.


Death on the Stormrider by Daniel M. Stelzer

I guess I should just submit to the inevitable. “Here There Be Poopdecks,” the nautical themed sub-series to JJMcC’s REROOT kicks off (on game 2 no less) with a shipboard murder mystery. The setup is this - two down on their luck brothers find work aboard a foreign cargo vessel, only to be accused of the murder of the only person that speaks their language! Now one brother must solve the mystery before they arrive in port and are committed to foreign justice. Also, it is an airship. Still counts!

It is a confidently compact setup, both in the tight map and the crisp text renderings of the environs. Maybe a little too crisp? The first puzzle, getting tools to escape your quarters, is straight forward enough. But the timing is a little wonky. There is a reveal about the nature of your boat that feels surprising, except it is so underplayed that it initially reads as buggy text. It is not actually clear if the author intends it as a reveal, or they believe you already knew.

Great swaths of the game are like that. My initial impression was that the world building was half-baked. But the more I played, the more I realized the world building was actually pretty robust, it was just communicated through oddly underplayed or weirdly timed details. It made it hard to get a bead on what was happening, and made the puzzles harder than their construct.

During another early sequence, you are navigating a space with two parallel hallways fore/aft. To do so requires counter-intuitive ‘port/starboard’ directions to get into the right passage, then ‘fore’ to continue. Particularly when avoiding speedy NPCs, its just enough to trip up. At other points, when handling containers, the text refers to them by contents you haven’t seen yet. You don’t meet the crew exactly, they breeze past you with vanishingly small expository text. There is machinery maddeningly, opaquely described. It all added up to a first hour and three quarter where I made slow, steady progress, but often wasn’t clear why things were working or failing, and only a hand drawn map keeping the geography clear. If asked to stop and rate at an hour and a half, I likely would have rated it a mechanical exercise of clever puzzles and inadequate (and occasionally misleading) text.

But something happened with 15 min to go - the cumulative weight of the drip-fed world building, the opaque NPC movements, the clues that had been slowly accreting, even the arbitrary-seeming game mechanics suddenly crystallized. I hit some sort of informational critical mass and the machine of the game revealed itself to me, and it was pretty cool! On the heels of that revelation came a second: the author had super effectively put me in the shoes of a man stranded in a society not his own, outside looking in. It was kind of opaque to me because it was kind of opaque to him too! Slow clap, author, slow clap.

Unfortunately, these revelations were not in time to finish the game, at two hours it remains unfinished. I had spent too much time adrift to call it engaging, but under the wire the game sparked white hot.

I would fix those premature contents messages though.

Played: 10/1/23
Playtime: 2hrs, not finished
Score: 6 (Buzzer beating Sparks of Joy, recasting Notably Buggy descriptions into Mostly Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: Most likely yes, now that I finally feel the click.


Thank you very much for the review! Could you PM me (or post in spoiler blurs) what the prematurely-revealed contents were? I rewrote some of the container code worryingly close to the deadline and I’d like to fix that asap.


I very much agree with your thoughts on Death on the Stormrider, especially when you described the rather tight timing on the port/starboard. I wasted a turn there and failed that puzzle numerous times. Navigation in the game is overall quite confusing – even with the map, I had difficulty parsing how the game looks.

Embarrassingly enough, I actually spent several minutes figuring out how to go to the lower deck because the text is formatted in such a way that I kept missing the line mentioning the stairs.

I’ve only gotten 90 minutes into the game so far and while I appreciate the almost mechanical clockwork-like nature, the pacing was rather off. I’m glad to hear that the game has more juice to it than I previously thought, but I may have to revisit it after IFComp. The game is too disorienting for me to speed through the game with IFComp’s “generous” 2-hour rule.


I don’t want to comment too much while the judging is in progress, but you can always UNDO freely if a move doesn’t go as intended—I used that liberally in testing.

(In hindsight, I like the flavor of the nautical directions, but losing access to NE, NW, SE, SW made the map a lot clunkier than it could have been. Because you’re right, PORT and STARBOARD are very unintuitive ways to describe that layout.)


One Knight Stand by A. Hazard

It occurs to me that due to some accident of providence over the last year I have seen very few ChoiceScript games. The ones I have seen have had respectable polish, so I’m starting to think of it as the luxury car of IF authoring brands. OKS makes a case for itself here early. The graphical components utilize a crisp iconography that quickly establishes a visual identity. There are some very nifty tricks with font (I particularly liked what I called “arcane crossword puzzle font”) to build atmosphere.

There is even a generous dose of sound and music, albeit somewhat less successful. The pages of text tended to be long. Not a problem, the work had a lot to say. When the sound mapped to top-of-the-page text it was pretty ok - the sound punctuated the text you were reading. When the sound was relevant to a passage halfway down the page it created incongruity. At the top of the page, you got an irrelevant noise that only made sense a few seconds further down. Notwithstanding that artifact, the presentation overall made for an ambitious package.

The ambition seemed to be promised in gameplay as well - a pregame peek at the status screen showed an RPG-like character page full of intriguing stats, customizable descriptions and character background.
You’ve set quite the expectations here, game!

The setup is an encroaching Arthurian Apocalypse with only polo players to save us! THE HORSE KIND OF POLO!! This work inaugurates a Heroic Polo genre!! I mean, huge points for innovation there.

Our protagonist is suffering some outre’ incidents that quickly escalate. Actually, quickly is not the word I want to use there. The work does something I admire in theory: it attempts to have you define and customize your character via narrative. Theory. So that immense character sheet I mentioned earlier? You go through page after page of text and selections to fill out that sheet. Its not enough to know I have brown hair, I need to define the SHADE of brown. The process took 1/2 hour before I could leave my apartment. The whole time, I am given tantalizing hints of the drama to come, and presumably my reactions to it are helping frame characteristics, but it got chafing fast. You’re telling me about all this cool stuff, but I can’t engage that until my eye color is established?

Then finally, you are off to polo practice (I know! Such a WEIRD detail, I love it!) and introduced to some supporting cast, then more plot prologue. At this point I want to stop describing the details of the plot, though I will say I found the urban magic/horror aspects pretty effectively done. Instead, let’s talk about pacing. ChoiceScript is, unsurprisingly built around choices. Each generous page of (pretty well-written) text ends with a series of possible choices. Select one and presumably some game effect will payoff down the road. These games live and die on the choices offered, and they are DEEP here! With every development you are given a broad array of nuanced (and often funny) responses to choose from, and your choices are acknowledged deftly on the next page! It really does feel like the narrative is listening to your choices, regardless of the stakes, and that is gratifying. But. Then you get the NEXT dense page of text with a deep array of choices. And the next. The effect of all those words, and evaluating and selecting among nuanced choices, is to slow things to a crawl.

As the prologue creeps forward, another curious narrative choice was made. Now, given the deep decision tree that got me there I can’t be sure it wasn’t my own choices that boxed me in, but when the action started in earnest… the game sidelined me. I was a spectator while NPCs did all the work. Sure, I still had lots of words to read, and decisions to make, but I couldn’t DO anything. If I tried, the narrative quickly shut that down.

Now part of it was a mind-control attack of some kind. The mechanism for this was kind of cool: you are presented with a full slate of choices, but only able to SELECT what the bad guy (or circumstance) allows. I could SEE the other options but was powerless to choose them. The author was super clever with variations on this, sometimes for drama, sometimes for laughs. As GAMEPLAY, when I was struggling to do anything, it was taunting me.

This sidelining happened not just during real peril by the way. THE GAME DIDN’T EVEN LET ME PLAY POLO WITH MY TEAM.

There were some other odd choices: remember that character sheet? Yeah, you were still filling it out, even when the action got going. In particular, as you were fighting to get involved with the plot, suddenly you need to pause and choose a secret backstory. Boy did that chafe. Not just because the choice is completely orthogonal to the urgent action around you, but also because at this point you have painstakingly established a clearly defined character, and now you are asked to decide how that was partially a lie! You might imagine a narrative where that was a cool twist. Maybe if I felt any kind of agency, or if it was related to any action in progress to that point it might have.

So two hours in I had exhaustively established a character and some NPC relationships, been along for the ride in some actions sequences and got PARTWAY through an infodump background exposition. And never really saw those character sheet stats employed in a meaningful way. You ask too much of me game. I liked the writing, found the choice architecture often very clever, respected the graphical presentation, LOVED BEING A (what??) POLO PLAYER (even though yeah, that’s just an excuse to get on a horse later, innit?) but eventually time and my patience ran out.

The game on display is so much bigger than the 2 hrs of IFCOMP. It is not well served by the judging limit. There were lots of in-the-moment sparks and a seamless implementation, but I am assessing a penalty point for infuriating slow-motion player impotence. If I’m honest, even if it turned out to be a 100hour game, 2 hours is just too long to get where I got. At least I made it to the amazing pop culture Merlin list. I at least got that. But c’mon, you coulda let me play polo.

Played: 10/2/23
Playtime: 2hrs, infodump w/ Merlin
Score: 5 (Sparks of Joy, Seamless, penalty point for 2 hrs of escalating impotence)
Would Play After Comp?: It is hard to imagine having that much free time.


Interrupting our regularly scheduled programming for a moment, woke up to this this morning:

Holy crap, it HAS been a year. Sure, the Sgt Pepper’s riff above told us that, but this unassuming badge somehow made it real. And I had at least one post! Been a terrific year folks. Between comps and the TADS board you have consistently forgiven my opinionated snark and welcomed me like a member of the family. Even that black sheep that needs to be discussed in hushed tones and rolling eyes is still family!

Didn’t know I was looking for an online hang, but you folks made it easy. And made me question why I waited so long. You all rock and I appreciate you all. Best online forum evah, 10/10, would recommend. And my sincerest gratitude.

I am definitely on pace to post at least once this year as well!


The Finders Commission by Deborah Sherwood

What a lovely palate cleanser this was. A short, unadorned Twine game about thieving, that is to say, finding. Fine, heisting. I had to laugh out loud when my chosen thief Quinn noted biscuits and gravy were their favorite. Mine too, just had them yesterday! I see you Quinn! Now, my position on felines is publicly documented so I won’t weigh in on the client. Suffice to say, for me and Quinn a job is a job. After being given your target, off you go to improvise some crime! A quick glimpse of the city (I was partial to the pocket museum) then down to tacks.

You explore a 5x5 grid of Egyptian displays, avoid cameras and cops, engineer the crime and get out. In general the text is terse and tight. Not a lot of flair or adjectives, just some concise tangible details to set locations in mind. A few nice environmental changes on revisits so things don’t get too static. A little bit of character work with a tour guide. All of it with a light, deft hand. Don’t want to spoil any of it, but exploration is rewarded and you eventually cobble up a multi-phase plan and execute. I appreciated the gentle nudging the game provided. Notwithstanding the clearly signposted puzzle elements, the player still feels some agency and initiative thanks to the neutral text. Things progress with light tension. If your plan fails to disarm the alarm, you have a timer on your escape (which ups the tension!). The puzzles are logical and satisfying if not brain burny, then you get to see the achievements screen and done. I might have wished for a little last minute sass from O’Brien, or Agatha(!) but success is its own reward I suppose.

Only one possible bug found - after a few tries at using a thieving box it disappeared from my inventory, and a cursory cycle through the museum did not turn it up. Also not enough text detail to make camera positioning clear, though in retrospect I have a pretty good idea what to do. Probably lost some endgame points for those, but had enough other tools to complete the job.

It was start to finish a breezy, pleasant outing. Just a bit too slight to be Engaging, enough personality to Spark, a great way to shake the weight of some longer entries.

Played: 10/2/23
Playtime: 35min, 82/100 after some timer backups
Score: 6 (Sparks of Joy, Mostly Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


Thanks for a lovely review. I will definitely track down that bug.



Gestures Toward Divinity by Charm Cochran

Notwithstanding the weird nautical zeitgeist this year, one of the things I love most about comps is the breadth of subject matter the authors bring to the table. This is a melancholy work about Francis Bacon, the troubled violence artist. I know the blurb denied this but I am unconvinced. The player is in a small, three room museum, examining three triptychs spanning the artist’s career. In a quite literal sense, the game is a dialogue with the works, thematically tied to Bacon’s demons and how those demons impacted his relationship with his longtime muse/model/lover. Ok, yeah it’s nominally about the muse, but Bacon himself is the dominant force over all of it.

The most prominent feature of this work is the writing. It is soaring and often sublime. The game is strongly NPC-driven, and between the crazy-broad conversation branches, the subjects you are steered to pursue and the nifty voices of the characters it is Engaging right out of the gate. Here’s some examples that really resonated with me. If you don’t recognize these quotes as top tier writing, blame me for yanking them from context:

“I will be his father and his patron and his lover and his lover and his lover and so many more of his lovers, and one day I will be him. It is inevitable, as much as I wish it weren’t.”

“That’s why The Underworld, or Hell, or whatever you want to call it works, you know. Because you have no sense of solidarity.”

The game also performs a minor miracle… actually I don’t want to call it that. It implies some kind of providence or accidental confluence. The author’s wordsmithing talent and painstaking word-by-word precision has rendered deeply affecting, wide-ranging, almost natural conversations on super heavy topics of mortality, trauma, art, unhealthy sexuality, and corroding relationships. I know, right? With parser-IF NPCs!

There are two tricks the author leverages, and again I don’t want the word ‘trick’ to cheapen the achievement. Firstly, the use of TOPICS provides a quickly-disappearing gentle steer into all that great dialogue. Second, the nature of the NPCs provides just the barest distortion that papers over whatever uncanny-valley glitches might be there. These choices ensure the dialogue shines bright without the slightest scuff. And boy howdy, the stories they tell are complex, tragic and affecting. By the time I had plumbed the depths (breadths?) of the triptychs, I was ensnared in the tragic history and surrounding discourse.

And then the thread ran out? The art narrative had pulled me along with ever deepening ideas, drama and tragedy, and then kind of stopped without climax. (Or perhaps a tragically understated one.) Had the game ended there, it would have been fine. Had the painting climax been echoed or integrated into a larger ‘real world’ climax it would have been better, and we might be talking Transcendent. What it did instead was segue to a different kind of wry but simple puzzle collection.

The story all along was signposted by ACHIEVEMENTS. I think I understand this choice. It kind of refreshingly kept things from becoming too self-serious and provided a teasing counterweight when exploring the paintings. Buuut they also triggered my inner Ash Ketchum, and so I started chasing other achievements. Much more mundane ones. And I interacted with other NPCs that didn’t have the… distortions… that the paintings did and felt just the slightest off because of it. I don’t want to be too down, these mini-puzzles and real human interactions were sparky and joyful and fun. Objectively, stronger NPC implementations than 95% of parser games. The barista’s reaction to the philosophical topic list was particularly giggly. But they were qualitatively a step down from the central story of the art (barring one interaction with the guard that DID subtly resonate in a complex hopeful/creepy way).

So I’m left with a work that was deeply Engaging for 1/2 of its runtime, then downgraded to Sparky to the finish line. This seems unfair as I’m thinking through it though. The second half was actually Engaging as a parser puzzle, it just wasn’t the SAME Engaging as the first half. After expertly cycling me into an affecting dramatic state, it asked me to take a breath, then just play around a while. Am I really complaining that I had to deal with two different flavors of Engaging IF? I think I have to acknowledge that Engaging+ added to Engaging- is still Engaging. Yeah, maybe I could have wanted more connection between the two halves but maybe I should just shut up and not look an IF gift horse this wonderful in the mouth. Engaging it is.

Two final disconnected notes. Don’t limit yourself to provided topics, these characters have DEEP wells of things to say. Beyond the tour de force dialogue implementation, the whole package is the most robust amateur parser implementation I’ve seen to date, in terms of fully implemented nouns and organic ‘can’t do/talk about that’ messages. I have the vague sense there were glitches around characters remembering-but-not-remembering you, but have no specific memory of them. Vanishingly close to Seamless.

Played: 10/3/23
Playtime: 2hrs, 12/17 achievements
Score: 8 (Engaging, ~Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


There is somewhat of an epilogue/closing chapter that’s only accessible if you’ve gotten a certain achievement—playing through it gave me a new perspective on the game!


Out of Scope by Drew Castalia

Stealth entry number 2 in the “Here there be Poopdecks” REROOT sub-series? The blurb had me excited for this entry. These were bold themes: forbidden sibling love, violence fetishization, family and social hypocrisy. I eagerly launched the web version on my Linux machine and watched Unity, a platform I have no experience with, fire to life. In retrospect, the opening screen was a foreshadow of things to come.

The opening is a clever sniper scope graphic, inviting the user to ‘fire’ on menu options. It was not exactly clear how to operate it, but swooping around found menu options and I deduced a trigger was needed. I inadvertently hit CREDITS and for a mad moment thought the game was a one click prank! I chortled at my ineptitude, then fired again like a mischievous child. Then the screen locked up.

Restarting, I was able to begin the game, and then my long battle with the UI started. The UI is a series of text bubbles of various sizes, floating in a virtual space much larger than the browser window. The first two I got were obscured on either side of the window, neither legible. I figured out I needed to start panning around a virtual space, but the calibration was punishing. The slightest track pad movement rocketed text bubbles across and off screen. Arrows helpfully pointed to where offscreen bubbles might be but it was a trial of extreme precision to get any one of them centered and readable on my screen. I can see how the bubbles were loosely organized to navigate around the grounds of an estate, but the chore it was to find even one of them, let alone manage any kind of deliberate exploration, was exhausting. Often as not I was clicking options not because I wanted to go a particular way, or explore a particular location. Rather, I had just managed to get a random one centered and bird in hand…

It was particularly frustrating, because I could see a winning UI trying to establish itself. The thought baloon choices in particular I really liked. Perhaps a more damped motion scaling. A zoom or inset full virtual space map. A vertical wrap to match the horizontal one. These could have flipped the script completely and made me love it. But you live the life given, not the one you wish you had, no?

Looking past the UI, reading the text bubbles was a different kind of challenge. I can be fussy about language, I know this. While comps have treated me to wonderful examples of elevated, poetic language, I find those the exception. Far more common in my experience is florid prose aiming high but falling short. I found passages like “A southeasterly tor watches and chills and wets you from its prominence, irrespective of yours.” and “a rifle getting its colon cleansed” representative examples and well short of the lofty goals they strove for. Distractingly so.

Now, the underlying story being told was damned interesting! The opening game of cat and mouse, the fraught family drama of social shame and innocent yearning, the political intrigue, the indoctrination of martial violence, the alternating brother/sister POV, all of these pulsed with life and energy when the text got out of the way. I grit my teeth and strained my wrist and powered through as best I could. I was not giving up on the emerging drama, dammit, I was not!

Until I hit a blocking bug. In a Zoe scene, on the eve of my brother’s deployment I found myself upstairs in a statue hall. I spoke with some guys in a study, came back out, then selected “Turn around” At which point, only a single, unselectable bubble RJ and the Great Ham continue their mating ritual… remained, no matter how frantically I swirled around the virtual screen. I was stuck, trapped in that finicky space.

Whatever the review equivalent of ragequit is what I did. I was prepared to submit a review and a score that encapsulated all my frustrations and disappointments, and even documented them in the first draft of this text. Then I went to bed, woke up and remembered, “wait, there was a RESUME option on the main menu.” Sure enough, firing it up again, I was restored just prior to the blocking bug and successfully steered clear.

I can’t tell you how ambivalent I was about this. Ok, that’s not accurate, I am kind of telling you right now. I dreaded fighting the UI for another hour. Thankfully, the game had a few tricks up its sleeve. Starting with a dinner party, the UI shifted modes from player led exploration to chaotic table conversation. Instead of asking me to navigate around, the UI itself shifted around with spontaneous conversation options, centering themselves for my convenience! It was an exceedingly clever use of the interface, though I’m not sure how much credit to attribute to “you momentarily subverted my agony for a clever twist.”

Nevertheless, buttressed by that twist, I was able to complete the story. I am not sure how much my choices impacted the tale or if I was subtly steered to a single story, but plotwise it was pretty good! Betrayals, deceptions, misunderstandings, complicated feelings. The text and a return of UI navigation still made me work for it, often too hard. But by alleviating, at least a little bit, my UI pain, I was emboldened to power through.

So where am I left? I have to call the underlying story Sparky - it engaged very nuanced topics with admirable ambiguity feeding interesting plot twists. But that UI was frustratingly belligerent, no two ways about it. Couple that with great swaths of text that triggered my, “please do less!” reflex and Intrusively Buggy is the only legitimate rating. [reminder: tech rating is not just bugs, but technical intrusiveness into the reader/player experience.]

Played: 10/3 - 10/4/23
Playtime: 2 hrs, finished at the wire
Score: 4 (Sparks of Joy in the underlying plot, sabotaged by Intrusive UI and verse.)
Would Play After Comp?: Y’know what? Some overhauling of the UI and maybe. That plot could soar if it was free.


Thank you so much for this review! I’m glad you found the experience as effective as you did, and what you wrote here has just about made my day.

I’d be interested to know which five achievements eluded you, as (as you noted) some have major story implications and others are puzzle-driven.

I did have some testers want to hear more from the barista, and I made her dialogue beefier as a result—I expect I’ll further develop it in the post-comp release.

Thank you again for this. It’s high praise you’ve given me, and I shan’t forget the honor.


Ok, you and @alyshkalia have convinced me. I am amending this part of my review:

Would Play After Comp?: You mean there are more connections to unlock??? Hells yeah I’ll play more!

(Sorry, I didn’t grab the 12 achievements logged when the timer ran out.)

Also, thanking ME seems weird. All I did is point and say “Everyone! Look at this amazing thing that exists!!!” You did the hard work! :slight_smile:


That’s exactly where I had to quit and resume. I thought it was just me missing something the first time, but it must be a bug.


Who Iced Mayor McFreeze? by Damon L. Wakes

Guys, I been around the block long enough to clock a continuing series! Another great milestone for REROOT! Here we are revisiting one of the best concepts from last year, Bubble Gumshoe and the syrup-slick streets of Sugar City! That’s the most alliterative thing I’ve done today.

I have a unique relationship with these works. I find the pervasive, over-the-top candy puns and unreserved embrace of its conceit hits me just square in my pleasure centers. Last year, we opened with rain, as mandated by Noir Law. This year, we get rain AND shadows cast by Venetian Blinds! Way to up the ante, author! Slow sax, swirls of powdered sugar/smoke and rotgut cola are still on the table for upcoming entries, no fear. Yeah, the commitment to the bit is impressive. Rather than pull them all (cause boy did I grab a TON as they went by) let me leave you with an ur-quote that is deeply representative:

“[…] the Good Ship Lollipop foundered right in the middle of the channel - blocking access to all other vessels - that was the final marshmallow in the s’more.”

But for whatever reason, as much as I click with the atmosphere of these works, I struggle a lot more with gameplay. This time, we are escaping a locked warehouse before it explodes and by the way looking for clues to a murder as we go. I knocked around A LOT in this one looking for daylight. I’ll take the hit on the first room. At this point, there is a classic IF locked door puzzle I should know enough to try. Like in every game. sigh Not me. But as I hammered around the game I got a lot of unimplemented nouns, odd descriptions and deceptive messages. In one spot, the game aliased >GET NOTE to a note that was already in my inventory, and it took me a while to realize I didn’t actually collect the new one. Imagine my confusion, thinking there were two copies of the same note! In another, two locations open to each other, with adjacent items in their descriptions, nevertheless had no shared scope when examining.

The biggest flaw to me though was inadequate descriptions. A key clue noted blue staining as important, but the only reason I knew the victim was blue was the cover art, not the text. A super important item, the det cord is never fully described. In my head, I was carrying a short length of flammable fuse. According to the game it was a weight-bearing length of rope! With just a few more adjectives and detail casually tossed in I would not have operated under that misconception for so long.

This applied to the protagonist as well, btw. I went all of last game and most of this game with an ungendered detective I just inhabited. In the blurb, we are informed Bubble Gumshoe is female, but in the text of the game this is not mentioned until late in the endgame. It provides a dissociative shock when our mental picture is torpedoed late in the game. Not fatal obviously, but when our mental picture is let free reign, then later contradicted, it just jangles.

This time around I did solve the mystery, though it relied on some information the character had that I didn’t, which again was a slightly off note. In the end, I am fully invested in the wry setup and epic commitment to the bit. But the gameplay has enough friction that I can’t quite engage. I guess that is the textbook Sparks definition. Implementation issues were a constant feature of gameplay so I have to score that as Notable. But it wouldn’t be representative of the Joy this series gives me if I didn’t award a bonus point for leaving it all on the court, conceit-wise.

Played: 10/4/23
Playtime: 1.75hrs, finished
Score: 6 (Sparks of Joy, Notably Buggy, bonus point for committing to the bit)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


Trail Stash by Andrew Schultz

This author is all over the map, we know this about him. He has produced games that tickled me, engaged my math-puzzle brain, and bounced me with material not for me. This entry recalls my favorite product line of his, the… Wordplay line? Here, we are engaging Spooneristic items and locations, trying to match them, to notionally transform them into their better Spooner partner! An example: I would give anything to turn a Gabby Trump into a Tabby Grump. (Cat-skeptics are much better than Mad Despots! That is its better form!) Should I use a generous do-gooder, the Gifty Nun or… the other? Ehh, maybe don’t ask me that question.

The fun here is the wild logic leaps it takes to use say a “dummy scoop” to somehow transform a “Zany Brew.” (NOT A REAL EXAMPLE. WELL, NOT EXACTLY.) They are not obvious, they are not fair, but boy are they fun. It is a somewhat trivial puzzle, easily solvable by trial and error, but much more fun when you try to outguess and predict what moon logic contortions are going to effect the transform. It is a short lark I took my time with. It lands where most short larks do for me - Insanely sparky just short of Engaging. Seamlessly implemented. Such a good use of 45min.

But really game, this is FAR from Trail Stash! I would purchase endless 50’s song compilations through Crooner Spam to get my Spooner Cram!

Played: 10/4/23
Playtime: 45min, finished
Score: 6 (Sparks of Joy, Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience feels complete


Bali B & B by Felicity_Banks

How can you be mad at a game that checks all these boxes?
Amiable, inoffensive protagonist
Light, character-based humor
Solid but non-urgent plot
Lovingly rendered from a place of knowledge and affection

It hurts my heart when despite all that goodwill, I cannot connect with the material in the way the author does. I am a cold, emotionless husk it seems. My play experience was characterized by in-the-moment investment but tellingly, little regret when my gameplay led to unwanted/unintended places. I just kind of rolled with it.

Let me start by emphasizing the game’s superpower. It is chockablock with specificity, both in the setting, the characters that inhabit it, and the B&B that is the central location. The setup is, you are tasked to run your Grandmother’s B&B for a week, a job you are uncertainly prepared for. It is all painted so smoothly and effortlessly with straightforward, effective prose. All too often, I find IF text showy and distracting. Here, the text disappears and images and events are planted in your mind with economical aplomb.

The choice to make the narrator the main protagonists’ stream of consciousness is well taken. It allows for often wry comic observations to also simultaneously act as scene-setting and character building moments. It’s not a chuckle-fest, that’s not how the protagonist rolls, but there are smiles aplenty to be had from their understated comedic observations.

The NPC work is similarly effective - the array of guests and staff all have unique personalities and voices, and must be interacted with uniquely. As a writer, this is often much harder than it looks but plays out seamlessly here. As a hospitality host your job is to make them happy, and it does feel like the tasks (and results) are satisfyingly specific to the personalities involved. Really strong verisimilitude and world building.

So. With all that going for it, why did I feel at arms’ length the entire time? For one thing, early on you are asked to establish the protagonist’s goals. The scenario is very subtle and complex! It is overrun with NPC personalities and protagonist motivations! That kind of complexity itself is hard to do so well, and another reflection of the author’s talent. But the player choices are more constrained. I selected what felt best to me, but the ensuing gameplay kind of sidelined that choice in away that felt… ignored? The author painted a nuanced set up, but the IF-specific demands of player choice anticipation were just too great to honor those choices. It’s hard to get my head around. The day to day operation, much like life, is NOT preoccupied with overarching life goals and shouldn’t be. But the author is SO talented at soft word choice character building, even the phrasing of ongoing events pushed against my mental model of the PC.

The other facet that I think kept me at a remove was the problem set. Now, with this setup you can easily imagine a comedically escalating madcap farce of compounding, competing crises. This is not that, and doesn’t need to be. Instead, you get a series of low-key hospitality issues to manage, each with multiple reasonable and straightforward strategies to resolve. You may make a soft choice of prioritization, but nothing dire. I think maybe the protagonist specificity worked against things here. You make choices, yes, but the protagonist knows so much more about B&B running than you do (thankfully!) that they do the heavy lifting of problem solving once you nudge them in a direction. Often utilizing skills or knowledge it wasn’t clear they had when you made the choice. That gameplay decision had the effect of keeping me from fully inhabiting the protagonist, and more watching them work. Yes, I wanted good things for them, but I wasn’t convinced they needed me to make those happen.

There is a climactic problem to solve, again seemingly more under the protag’s power than my own, and then a final choice. The dramatic arc is there for sure, it just felt like my participation was more directorial than performative. “Sparks of Joy” is the measure I chose for my rubric, but how does that map to “Low, Pleasant Glow”? Was it Mechanical for me? Kind of, but not with the cold disappointment that metric implies. Implementation-wise it was mostly seamless - there was some wonkiness up front with version selection but clean after that. I guess I have to go with Mechanical, Mostly Seamless, but that rating really sells short the super strong writing and warm vibe of the piece.

Played: 10/4/23
Playtime: 1.25hrs, finished
Score: Starting to feel like I am overusing the bonus crutch. 5 (Mechanical, Mostly Seamless, bonus for warming my cold heart at least a little.)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience feels complete