Barcarolle in Yellow by Víctor Ojuel

“I love your work.”
“You mean, you love to watch me die.”

Students? This is how you start a film. Crisp dialogue, like a punch in the chest. Get the audience enthralled from the get go. Today we are studying a retro-Giallo, Barcarolle in Yellow. I trust you have done the required reading, and viewed the background Argento, Fulci, Bava. You’ll want that background later when we cover DePalma as well.

First thoughts. Anyone? Hm, let me prime the conversation a bit. Note the playful opening credits, the rapid single dialogue snapshots, intercut with spare authorship text, building to the roar of the graphical title page. Delightful. The graphical design of that title page itself is pitch perfect in setting the mood.

Then the complete break to… anyone? Spaghetti Western, yes of course. The western scene that itself was a fakeout to introduce our star. Terrific use of pace and misdirection to keep the audience on its toes, looking for purchase. I am hard pressed to think of a film that so sure-handedly established its protagonist, mood and expectations.

What do we think of the train station scene? Less focused, no? It starts to get away from the director here. I’m sure you all spotted some technical issues, anyone? Yes, our protagonist seemed to search too long for the right wordplay. The director insisted on overprecise blocking, but declined to leave instructions for the actors. The effect was a floundering performance, where if the actress did not say or do the EXACT phrase, the ensemble left her hanging. The ‘hail a cab’ sequence was particularly befuddling where sometimes it was on screen, and sometimes not without clear explanation. The director helpfully provided a script, but it was woefully incomplete. In the later bridge scene it was actually deceptive, but lets stay in the train station a bit longer.

After an interminable march of repeated dream sequence deaths or static head turning, I hope you all consulted the provided shooting guides. The “Walkthrough” in the parlance of this director. You will note that what the director was looking for was a dropped scarf. You cannot fault the actress for not reading her director’s mind. Only after this arbitrary and unforeshadowed detail is finally serviced do we proceed, nearly a half of our runtime expired! You will note some jarring editing choices there, too. Previous characters appearing from nowhere, non sequitor dialogue and inexplicable footage of the director themself intercut with a tense chase scene.

What do we think of the production values on display here? The Venice setting is lovingly rendered in the large, but closeups suffer. Granted, this can be an afterthought to some giallo, but the masters perversely paid INSANE attention to it. For Argento it sometimes was the POINT of a scene. There are flashes in Barcarolle, but all too often the camera panned too far one way or the other and the set was exposed on screen. Even for simple things, like views through windows. The film makes the curious choice to chide the lead actress for these shortcomings. At first playful it starts to feel vindictive after a while.

There is a short scene of voyeurism and aggressive sexual tension that does some work to restoring the atmosphere of the piece, though even there, the director character inexplicably repeats their dialogue.

The subsequent bridge scene repeats a lot of the sins of the train terminal. Our protagonist is asked to perform to a script that turns out to not be what the director wanted. One sequence, where the script called for snapping a photo of the bridge, then the antagonist, until the protagonist did them in reverse order the scene was allowed to drag. Similarly, her scene partner was supposed to be a provacatively dressed woman, when the bit player was instead an elderly man. The main actress can be forgiven thinking she was off mark for long stretches of time there.

It ends with a tense fall from the bridge, to a dream death after reasonable attempts to swim to safety are rebuffed.

Well, that was as far as we were assigned today! So how do we assess this effort so far class? It seems hard to believe the director is allowing the lead actress to flounder (with contradictory instructions!) without some underlying purpose or artistic statement in mind. But if intentional, the first two hours show no hint of it. Even if true, I think the impact on the audience is the same - without access to the “walkthrough” the audience has no practical hope of understanding the work. Certainly, modern multi-media artworks utilize this kind of cross-media trick, but for a retro-Giallo it seems misplaced. The directorial choices, and perhaps sloppy shortcomings are deeply Intrusive to the viewer’s experience. And yet, do not lose sight of that powerful beginning, and many wonderful details throughout the work. There are Sparks to this work without question.

I see our time is nearly up. For tomorrow, let’s look at the cross influences of Hitchock and Giallo. We will return to this work after the semester is complete, for those interested in extra credit.

Played: 10/6/23
Playtime: 2hrs, not finished
Score: 4 (Intrusively Buggy, almost Unplayable without walkthrough. Sparks of Joy in subject matter and opening sequences)
Would Play After Comp?: Probably. I am too enamored of the source inspiration not to.


Thank you so much for spending time and effort reviewing my game. I am choosing not to make any specific comments about reviews until after the comp, but I assure you that I am grateful for any and all comments, which are so useful in improving my game and future games.


We All Fall Together by Camron Gonzalez

Over time I have developed a love/hate relationship with Texture as an IF platform. There are a few things it does uniquely well. I am super enamored of the drag and drop paradigm. It suggests connecting thoughts in an organic way that is appealing to me. Because the connecting words are highlighted only after selecting a command, it can create intriguing surprises about the connections the author is offering. The text bubbles that appear when you connect words can similarly be used to great effect, refining the nature of the connection you just made. For me, it adds up to a powerful and unique authoring opportunity.

As much as I love those things though, there are two things I hate. Actually one I hate and another I HATE HATE HATE OMIGOD WHO DO I BLAME AND HOW DO I BRING THEM TO A DIRE RECKONING HATE. The former is that making those connections allows inline (rather than appended) text changes. On dense pages it creates a ‘hunt the new text’ problem, where new text probably but not necessarily shows up where you just clicked. Because it is most buried in large blocks of text it also means often REREADING large blocks of text desperately searching for the New Thing.

That’s bad, but the factor that aggreives me beyond all rational thought is the font-resize problem. Texture dynamically resizes font, based on text volume and window size. You’re not getting it? Every page potentially changes its font size during play as text is added, sometimes multiple times and WILDLY so. Then all over again with a new page. How are you not as mad as me now? My hands are trembling in fury and/or PTSD just typing about it. It is maybe the worst reading experience since Catholic Grade School where nuns whack you with rulers on mispronunciations.

So, this is a Texture piece. Like most, it will live and die by how it maximizes its platform’s strengths and minimizes its… challenges. Let me say that differently. A Texture piece that does NOTHING on either front is going to default to infuriating, without counterbalancing merits. That is an unfair burden to place on even the strongest narrative. Fall may not recognize that peril and is brought down (heh) by it.

Fall is a surreal, metaphorical story about connections and fear while navigating a life we have little control over. It is about perfectly sized for what it is, though maybe the narrative balance is a bit off. We spend what feels like 1/3 of the time getting to know our two mains vs 2/3 describing the weird environment they are in. That feels imbalanced, though I didn’t count words and maybe my impression is off. If it is, then I would say the time could be better used, as at the end I had only the vaguest sympathy for the pair. The details were a little too generic to enthrall me, which is a weird thing to say about a person in a spiked leather jacket. The message of the piece was well taken, but lacked emotional punch.

To leveraging Texture’s strengths, I consistently (and painfully) felt missed opportunities abounded. Most word connections were exactly what you thought they would be, and the connection-bubbles basically concatenated the two words rather than offering any surprising insight or nuance. That reduced the drag and drop to a nifty variation on Twine/Choicescript “click the options.” In some cases, connection choices remained on the page even when there were no further connections to be made.

And those Texture-Cons? Hoobidy, they were present in spades. Font Dancing was my persistent companion, made worse when Text Hunting revealed the connection I made was say an eye color and nothing more. I think maybe Texture is the Arc Welder of IF authoring tools. Insanely powerful in practiced hands, guaranteed to severely injure the enthusiastic novice. I’m going to inaugurate another REROOT sub-series “Playing With Matches” to tie the Texture reviews together!

Played: 10/6/23
Playtime: 20min, 2 playthroughs, different choices changing nothing
Score: 4 (Mechanical, Notably buggy. Why not Intrusive? Honestly, because 1. it is short and 2. Its page length sometimes dodged resizing which elicited actual sighs of relief during gameplay. )
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience feels complete


Beat Witch by Robert Patten

Last year I thoroughly embarrassed myself tossing around a “My Little Pony” comparison without any real understanding of the property. That worked out so well, I’m back in the saddle this year! From a guy whose son is in the weeds with Anime, but whose only personal exposure was Starblazers/Spaceship Yamato (do I need to say decades ago?), this read to me like a strongly Anime-influenced work. Yup, let me explain in depth something I only superficially understand! To be generous, let’s assume I am aware that Anime is a large tent that encompasses an insane breadth of tropes, tones and artistic preoccupations. For the duration of this review, assume the anime I am pointing at is the most mainstream, western-popularized, highly stylized, modestly ambitious anime. Involving world-defining but misunderstood superpowers.

The setup is a persecution-turned-war between humanity and the titular Beat Witches: girls that at some point in their lives (tradition would say ‘onset of puberty’ but the work declines to specify) become mute psychic vampires, undone by music. Pretty cool, and to my untrained eye, could easily be an anime premise. (Also rife with potential metaphorical interpretation, though maybe kind of toxic. To be fair to the work, this does not seem to be its intent.) It is billed as ‘an interactive loneliness’ which is an interesting blurb to be sure, though ultimately feels tangential to the goals of the work.

The opening is a pretty effective fakeout, though it does trade heavily on player knowledge lagging protagonist knowledge. I am always fascinated by this choice in IF. While this often work like gangbusters in movies - where what we think we see turns out to be surprisingly wrong – its use in IF carries more burden. When we are invited to inhabit the protagonist, there is a presumption of agency and alignment on the player’s part. When the twist is revealed it immediately creates a break between player and PC. It is a betrayal of sorts, made personal to the player rather than something they appreciated dispassionately. If the work leverages this frisson it can be quite interesting. If it apes movie tropes without understanding the difference, it cedes a goal in the first minute of play, and is playing catchup from there.

In the case of Beat Witch, it doesn’t feel intentional in the sense of deliberate player effect, but it is super consistent with gameplay. The game continually denies player agency to distancing effect. Mainstream puzzle IF can be uncharitably characterized as ‘on rails’ (narrative IF typically even more so). The author is positing a problem to which they have a solution in mind, and until the player regurgitates that solution they are blocked. But if the intent is to put the player in the driver’s seat this must be offset by real or perceived autonomy. The act of puzzle solving itself is one method, one of the first. Enabling multiple paths/solutions is another. Really deft wordsmithing to make the player feel autonomous and not detect the strings being pulled is yet another. Even something as simple as ‘open world exploration’ can give the player a flavor of it. Sure, to advance you have to do the specific framistat jiggering the author wants, but at least you can do it on your own time.

For my playthrough, none of these were in evidence, and to some extent I blame the anime-ness of it all. The vibe the piece is striving for is a hyperactive enhanced reality of action set pieces and cool visuals. Pace is absolutely a key element of all that, but the author refuses (maybe justifiably so) to trust the player to play along. Instead, the play space is constrained, choices are telegraphed the moment they’re needed and rejected any other time. A sequence that drove this home for me played out as follows:

  • aah! bad things are happening, let me look around and see what I can leverage in the environment!
  • (para) “Wow things are bad, but nothing is revealing itself”
  • yikes! ok, let me try this other thing
  • (para) “Well that didn’t work. You should probably look around now.”
  • really, game? should I look around now? ok, >L
  • (para) “Hey! Here is this thing that is the only thing that will help you now!”

Even when I have the right idea, legitimately arrived at through player initiative, the game rejects my input because it prefers to LEAD me. That was particularly enraging, but the work makes these choices all the time. It is common that you only have one cardinal direction to move from place to place. The protagonist has unspecified ‘powers’ of some sort, and the game is super-ready to tell you ‘sadly that is not one of your powers’ but never tells nor provides a mechanism to define what those powers are! Then, powers (most especially super strength) that might have opened doors for you earlier are suddenly revealed. But wait, there are two powers the game explicitly tells you about, but almost never rewards their application! Except when the game DEMANDS their application. Even what may be the only legitimate choice you as a player have, how aggressive to be with the villain, is undermined because you are asked to specify it before you’ve actually met the villain. As a player I mean. The protagonist sure has a backstory that could inform things, but that is opaque to the player at the time of selection.

So, how much do you like the specific Anime I am describing? Because if you do like it, there are things to enjoy here. There are some effective, over the top horror and action set pieces. The pace is often frenetic and twisty. Physics is routinely sacrificed for a cool visual, things like teeth flying over modest impacts, glass shards defying physics. There are fun plot twists and a monologuing villain that falls short of even a single dimension but is so committed to their one note as to be entertaining. Even the details of the Beat Witches are just strange and specific enough to ring some bells. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the sole gameplay moment that landed for me: a death scene and the subsequent, standard RESTART, RESTORE, UNDO or QUIT prompt was recontextualized in a delightful way. Unblur with caution, you probably want to experience that for yourself.

For me, it was not enough. I chafed at the author’s heavy hand too much to enjoy the rest. Mechanical and I’m going to call rejected player agency as Notably Intrusive. On top of that, I am THIS CLOSE to a penalty point for this line: “squeeze you like a juicy fart” but will refrain.

Played: 10/6/23
Playtime: 1.5hrs, finished
Score: 4 (Mechanical, Notably on rails)
Would Play After Comp?: No, not what I come to IF for


For whatever it’s worth, as a certified loser anime nerd, I didn’t think Beat Witch felt especially anime, but I agree it felt like it was trying to be cinematic at the expense of being a game.


Thank you, that was a lovely format! Oh, I miss the breakfast reviews so badly…


Lol, well that was inevitable, wasn’t it? :laughing: This is all fun and games, but I’ve gotta get smarter about this before I try to explain non-binary experience or problematic racial history!


GameCeption by Ruo

Alright, with a game name trading on Inception you are inevitably going to bring some baggage to this one. Early on there is imagery that invokes Squid Game as well, so you’ve got a heady mix of influences informing your expectations regardless of gameplay. Given the inspiration source material, you might expect some significant spoiler risk in a review, and boy would you be right about that. I’m going to endeavor to minimize or shade that as much as I can but with a game whose conceit is SO central I don’t know how that’s going to play out. Let’s find out!

Its starts out with the protag and major NPC introduction. They are fairly blank slate, but I did find the history of their friendship nicely and economically observed as they transitioned from (probably one-sided) rivals to fast friends. The game is not a character study, and barring a limited aspect or two the characters are not that specific or intriguing. The game doesn’t need them to be, that’s not what its after. Which made this intro stand out a bit in a pleasant way.

From there, we cycle to the main event: a mysterious competitive game, driven as most atrocities are by capitalism. I’m kidding, autocracy is equally capable of atrocities. Uh, digression there.

The run up to the game is similarly invested with unnecessary but nice touches. I particularly liked a bus ride that started as “c’mon, there is no way that’s how the fellow commuters behave” and quickly shifted to “Lol, ok game, well played, you got me there!” It did it once or twice more, in one instance leveraging what seems a misguided interface decision into a nice bit of meta playfulness.

In isolation, you might think of those as Sparks, and in isolation you’d be right. Unfortunately, this game creates a HUGE burden for itself that it never quite escapes. Thanks to the prominent metagame context, you the player are SO far ahead of the characters in terms of what’s really going on that it borders on ridiculous. Not that in ‘Real Life’ would anyone’s first thought be ‘OMG they Squid Game’d me!’ But the idea would be inescapable even if unprepared to accept it as a realistic possibility. (Hm, why did I irony quote ‘Real Life’ there? OMG it’s because I’m trapped in the game aren’t I? AREN’T I? AM I STILL PLAYING THIS GAME??


Ahem. I was talking about metagame context. The context is SO prominent that not only are the characters jarringly behind the curve, even the game’s central conceit and final twist is kind of telegraphed. So that when the characters and later the game play up major revelations with implied swelling music sting, you’re already there and have been snacking and doing crossword puzzles waiting for the game to catch up. And then its over, the final twist a victim of its own heavy-handed foreshadowing.

I think though, that this kind of narrative is polishable. Certainly, the core idea here is pretty cool. It requires a much defter, softer touch in foreshadowing. Change the name of the game to something bland and without baggage. Construct a not-so-familiar scenario, then misdirect characters with red herring reservations to keep the real machinery hidden. Do not explicitly ask the player questions “Who is the player?” whose very posing reveals the conceit. What you’re after is to lean on misdirection to let the reveal impact the player as well as the characters. If you can manage it with metatext even better.

Between the lack of finesse and the dominance of the central conceit, all the sparks felt like incidental pops in the periphery. Their presence was nice but so tangential as to not ameliorate the fundamental Mechanical nature. Mostly Seamless implementation.

Played: 10/7/23
Playtime: 40min, finished
Score: 4 (Mechanical, Mostly Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: No, Experience feels complete. Well, I would try a more subtle one as described above. Though then I would have THIS game as meta-context and… THIS GAME WON’T STOP INCEPTIONING ME!!!


All Hands Abandon Ship by David Lee

Part 3 of the REROOT sub-series “Here There Be Poopdecks,” this one on a spaceship. Look, we’ve established that counts, don’t get pedantic on me now. This is a light ‘escape the doomed ship on a timer’ joint. The playful tone of the thing is its dominant feature, and who doesn’t like that? From object descriptions, to the increasingly sassy emergency voice, to the voluminous easter eggs you are encouraged to meet the game on its own feather-light terms. Even the puzzle play is pretty unadorned, ‘get X, goto room Y, use X.’ This is not a terrible choice, it ensures the focus is on the playful miscellany, not just the [orchestral sting]MAIN PLOT[/orchestral sting].

A game with the lightness of a feather its going to succeed on how well it can tickle you. Don’t pretend you don’t see what I did there, I know you saw it. And boy did I try to meet the game on its own terms. I tried all the things, I snarked back to the overhead voice, I did Star Trek stuff in rooms that begged it. I also solved the main puzzle and speed ran it (where I think I shaved a move off? (I don’t think you have to sit on the couch before launching the escape pod.). I read the accompanying feelie (which, awesome production value) and tried a lot of the recommended things.

I really went above and beyond to embrace the work’s spirit, if I say so myself. And I came away thinking ‘Maybe this is TOO light?’ It doesn’t help that there are some common implementation issues - unimplemented nouns, overtight verb space, at one point asking for disambiguation between ‘south’ and starboard’? Recommended easter egg commands that didn’t work (>TAP ON GLASS), though later did without clear reason why. A dumbwaiter that was clumsy to navigate. To the game’s credit the light tone did a lot to minimize the impact of these artifacts.

I think where I most wanted more was the easter eggs themselves. You can do a wide variety of silly things as you amble your way to rescue, but the most common response to doing them is “Yup, you’ve done it!” Ok, but maybe goof with me a little about it? Like, even the most tepid attempt at joke would work, I’m not holding a high bar here, just something more than 'Dunnit!" In the end, I felt like I was doing more work than the game to keep things fun and that kinda lost me.

I will say, there was a vertiginous moment when I thought the game was talking to me directly. Jumping into space unprepared led to a death message: “You’ve been sucked out into space. This does not spark joy.” For a mad moment I thought it was talking directly to me and my scoring criteria. That’s how big MY ego is. It was clearly referencing Marie Kondo though, another deflation for me.

Sparks of Joy (MINE, not Kondo’s) and Notable Intrusiveness in implementation, and yearning for just a little more playfulness to realize its goals. That’s where we land. I did get a soft chuckle at “USS Icarus.” I mean, second only to “New, More Unsinkable Titanic” in hubristic boat names.

Played: 10/8/23
Playtime: 1hr, escaped once, died once, stranded twice
Score: 5 (Sparks of Joy, Notably Intrusive)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


Fix Your Mother’s Printer by Geoffrey Golden

I do love me some Adventure Snack. A “slice of life comedy” seems in the brand’s wheelhouse, particularly given the pregnant-with-possibility title of the thing. I found it long on slice of life and short on comedy, though I don’t mean that as a dig. Yes, I had expectations coming in based on some truly funny prior games, but the game’s graphic presentation is assured, quickly establishing its own vibe and rhythm. There is no misdirection in title. You are in a Zoom call (sorry, Swoon), fixing your Cartoon Mom’s printer.

If I try to look at it dispassionately and objectively, it is a weird beast. Lots of time spent on the minutiae of printer debug. Lots of family story digressions (including the repetition of family chestnuts!) that are traditionally more entertaining to family members than strangers like me. Some family drama, some advice, questionable hobbies, an intrusive cartoon dog, it all adds up to a surprisingly long runtime, low on out loud laughs.

What it has going for it though is exactingly tight timing and near-supernatural verisimilitude. The printer debug steps (including the missteps!) are exactly correct, as my extensive family tech support experience attests. Cartoon Mom’s tolerance for confusing technical exercise is laughably, relatably short, leading to wild, random topic changes and stories. That are ALSO paced quite well, sometimes needing player intervention sometimes not to get back on task. The whole thing, even the attendant mild impatience with slow progress and digressions, just FELT real. This was a laser-precise, loving simulation of its title.

Maybe let me underline that. This game builds a mood of exasperated impatience, coupled with fond forbearance. ON PURPOSE. Have you ever been impatient with a loved one? Of course you have! Swooning romance, intellectual puzzles, physical thrills, dread and horror, grief and regret. IF trucks in these things ALL THE TIME. “Pssh, low hanging fruit,” sez FYMP. “Let me offer you a tightly curated mix of frustration and good will. How’s THAT taste?” Honestly? Pretty great!

This is how well-constructed it was. I restarted the game, determined to “ok this time I’m gonna be a jerk and see if that unlocks Adventure Snack Comedy ™.” AND I COULDN’T DO IT. I couldn’t be a jerk to my Cartoon Mom. The atmosphere felt real enough that even second time through, the idea of getting selfish and snippy with Cartoon Mom was unthinkable. Yeah I was modestly jerky, but when it came time to commit to full on garbage-child mode I balked. Cartoon Mom didn’t deserve that!

I’m usually only half Engaged when providing real life tech support, so topping out at Sparks of Joy seems perfect. Seamless and attractive implementation. Bonus point for cutting new ground and just nailing its conceit in a stunningly accurate, pitch perfect simulation. Adventure Snack - not just comedy anymore! (Though I do miss that just a little.)

Played: 10/8/23
Playtime: 45min, two playthroughs
Score: 7 (Sparks of Joy, Seamless, bonus point for uncanny accuracy)
Would Play After Comp?: I promise, I’ll call next Sunday! (but I probably won’t)


Lonehouse by Ayu Sekarlangit Mokoginta

The second of the REROOT Subseries, “Playing With Matches,” covering our Texture entries! Thanks to my sassy randomizer, this is Texture Day here at REROOT - two back to back. I went into depth on Texture as an authoring platform here. A quick summary: lots of possibilities in drag and drop UI, deep presentation challenges, keep it on a super short leash.

Lonehouse is a short study about loss, not just of an important person in your life, but of the possibility of ever re-closing an emotional distance. The player is inhabiting a surviving sibling, going through her somewhat estranged sister’s things. Texture is a good choice here, almost tailor-made, as the entire thing is about connecting thoughts with artifacts.

For most of the runtime, I found the implementation uneven. In particular, the connection balloons - text that appeared as you were about to do the drop of drag’n’drop – often asked yearning questions about the thought being connected. Connecting THINK to PLUSHIE: “How long have you kept him for, liv?” Sadly, they just as often did not. On the same page as the above, connecting THINK and CHILDHOOD simply read “think childhood.” More than just a missed opportunity, the contrast felt mocking, belittling, and cast a pall on the revealed text. Some pages managed the crime-against-nature font resize well with short, punchy text and page breaks. Others jumped two or three sizes with multiple selects, further adding insult by exposing text ordering problems that broke the flow. For example, text about a door decoration:

“The other had a strikingly red knitted organizer, filled knick-knacks and keys hanging over the knob. You know this thing. You’ve made it yourself.”

If you examine the other door, the injected response (in bold below) mangles the text around it, sapping the integrity of the page:

“The other had a strikingly red knitted organizer, filled knick-knacks and keys hanging over the knob. A plain white door. You can only assume it’s the bedroom. You know this thing. You’ve made it yourself.”

It’s a shame Texture was allowed to run unfettered, because there are some very affecting passages, including a nicely metaphorical stuffed animal that does double duty as subtle possible explanations for the initial distancing while also providing hints of path forward.

There are other technical glitches though: options remain on screen when no further use is possible. In one spot the choices MOVE and INSPECT are available, but INSPECT does nothing and MOVE provides text (para) “no need to move, lets inspect this thing” The tool allows out of order connections, but the narrative does not accommodate them - sometimes you get word salad, other times you advance without seeing key details. Cumulatively, despite flairs of leveraging the Texture platform, I was prepared to write this off as another narrative undone by inexpert use of a super sharp two edged sword. Until I came to the Journal page.

I’m going to try this with minimal spoilers, but its gonna be tough. I found opening the journal to be about the most powerful use of Texture I have yet seen. Seriously, it might as well be the Platonic Ideal Texture implementation. You are connecting with obscured passages, and each time, the connection bubble changes your understanding slightly, then the new text powerfully replaces one character’s words with another’s thoughts. You experience things through the filter of yearning questions rather than declarative narration. AND THEN CAPPED BY A FINAL HEARTBREAKING CONNECTION BUBBLE. (And not for nothing, the page size is rigidly engineered to avoid font changes, at least until the end.)

This is the reviewer’s lament. I am trying to recall an exceedingly powerful moment to an audience that may have played it while also trying to entice without spoiler an audience that hasn’t even played it yet. I THINK if you play it, you will know it when it hits you. It sure hit me. If you haven’t played maybe just take my word that embedded in this flawed experience is a deeply affecting sequence.

I have to call it Sparky even before that moment, as the work was decidedly if unevenly leveraging Texture’s unique powers. It didn’t completely escape Notably Intrusive thanks to those jerks Text Hunting and Font Dancing. But that one moment was a white hot spark of “THIS. THIS is how they should teach it in Texture School.”

Played: 10/8/23
Playtime: 20min, two playthroughs
Score: 5 (Sparks of Joy, Notably Intrusive lack of constraints on Texture)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


All Hands by Natasha Ramoutar

Part 4 of the REROOT sub-series, “Here There Be Poopdecks.” I do like that so far there’s been an airship, a spaceship, a naval officer (though no actual boat), now a ghost ship! So many permutations, this Comp is awesome. But not ONLY is this a REROOT - HTBP sub-series, it is ALSO part 3 of the “Playing With Matches” sub-series! A Texture piece, the randomizer has puckishly slapped on the heels of another, 3 of the last 7. Randomizer gonna random.

You guys all know my opinion on Texture by now, but for context-free IFDB posterity here they are again: lots of possibilities in drag and drop UI, deep presentation challenges, keep it on a super short leash.

All Hands took a very different approach to Texture. Rather than try to integrate the UI into its story, it instead pressed it into service as a lightweight choice-select mechanism. Effectively, the player is given three tools to interact with every page of text: REFLECT (think about, remember or examine); APPROACH (move around, probably to new page); TAKE (sieze, but also ‘internalize abstract concepts’ especially songs). It becomes an action menu of sorts, all options present until the end, even when a particular page has no response for them. Selecting an option shows any number of words to pair it with. The most effective strategy is to exhaustively explore them all, as unconnected commands could limit options toward endgame.

I respect the chutzpah of bending this VERY singular UI to new purpose, but it is hard to escape that it is a hack. The mechanics are clumsier than choice-select implementations, and the connection balloons read awkward and superfluous almost all the time. Even without balloons, forcing interactions to one of those three verbs results in some notably clunky leaps in phrasing.

So the interface was not fully successful but interesting as an attempt to grapple with the platform. My old nemeses Dancing Font and Hunting Text were left mostly unattended. Hunting Text at least was managed better than most through careful wordsmithing - while still an intrusive exercise at least text made sense before and after revelation which is not always a given for this engine. Dancing Font though, ran WILD. In many places there were plentiful connections for all three commands. Because the author eschewed new pages even when adding very wordy revelations, ALL the text ended up on the page. As selections were made, font size went from “Grandma’s Sudoku” to “Microfiche” appallingly often. Have I mentioned this is a TERRIBLE reading experience? Just awful.

Now, all this presentation cruft is employed in service of a story - a man’s dreamy interaction with a sinister ghost ship. That story itself has Gothic and Lovecraftian overtones. Our protagonist feels pulled by forces stronger than himself, but still retains some degree of autonomy. It is an interesting dance that the author pulls off very well through excellent mood and tone building. Gameplay choices that might feel chafing and railroading elsewhere, here are nicely integrated into the dreamy vibe of the narrative.

The story also neatly balances detailed background (with successful investigation) and unknowably alien horror. The details of the setting are wonderfully bizarre and off-putting, and build through its runtime. Often in horror, when a monster’s background is revealed it has a deflating effect. The specifics of backstory are almost never as compelling as a dark mystery our imagination probes but cannot resolve. The author here does something extremely effective: provides specific details that are WOEFULLY INCOMPLETE. We understand some aspects of the proceedings, but only some. The rest remains in shadow, if not compounded by other dissonant details. The horrible unknowability is maintained to the end! Effective!

There are multiple endings achievable, at least six by my count. Unfortunately, most of these endings require renavigating the full story for a final choice. I replayed to find four of them, but as interesting as the story was, it was not up to the stress of full repetition, including the clumsy UI and the chaos twins Dancing Font and Hunting Text. The four I found were legit horror short story climaxes: reasonably justified by the buildup, and different enough to justify their inclusion. As I contemplated firing up for a fifth run, I couldn’t help conclude this Sparky story would have been much better served by say Twine or ChoiceScript. Something much less Intrusive.

Played: 10/8/23
Playtime: 40min, 4/6? endings
Score: 5 (Sparks of Joy in the effective story, Notably Intrusive unmitigated Texture artifacts)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience feels complete. I would be open to a reimplementation in a different engine!


Assembly by Ben Kirwin

"In his house at I’kea dead Cthulhu waits dreaming.”

This work is a masterful mashup of Elder Gods and Ikea-based gameplay. Sure, I know what you’re saying. “sniff At this point, haven’t we had pretty much Allll the possible Elder Gods + X mashups?” Yeah, that’s what you sound like with that question. Because NO. We have NOT had an IKEA and Elder Gods mashup, Captain Buzzkill! As with most mashups of this kind, the glee comes from the wildest possible disconnect between Elder Gods and X, where X here is deeply in the sweet spot of ridiculousness.

Assembly makes the crucial decision to commit to its bit completely and totally straight-faced. It has the (justified!) confidence of its premise to not apologize for, nor snark at, itself, the best way to completely sell the conceit. It commits not just tonally, not just as reflected in cutscene backgrounds and scene setting, but in gameplay itself.

See, if you divorce the outre’ aspects from this, what you are left with is a pitch perfect parser IKEA simulator. Not an outright reimplementation, but an interpretation that replicates the feel of the experience through the unique milieu of parser IF.

And prefab furniture is a right of passage for most young adults at this point, no? Those weirdly efficient fasteners, precisely milled parts and cartoon instructions. An endeavor that despite the exacting Nordic engineering and studied graphical communication, can go horribly wrong with the slightest misstep. Assembly distills that experience down to (usually) three precise steps that you better follow to the letter. ATTACH X to Y is the given instruction, but if you ATTACH Y to X, you are suddenly asea, falling in a deep space you only had the thinnest of tight rope wire to support you through. Just like real life if you stray from your cartoon orders! Assembly has reduced the IKEA assembly experience to its essence, distilled and streamlined it, translating it representationally to parser IF play in a way direct transcription would fail. Could you imagine a 40-step sequence of fussy parser tool work?

Then it repeats the feat with the shopping experience! The “twisty little maze” (chortle) of showroom is both unnavigable and forgiving in gameplay, giving you the essence of the box store experience without falling into parser-nav hell. You are introduced to a handful of inexplicably named furniture, then it is pure IKEA/parser gameplay. It is all very tightly integrated, paced well with a few VERY organic puzzle variations, then out before its welcome starts wearing.

It feels ungenerous to rate it shy of Mostly Seamless, because it has taken on the Herculean task of representing half a dozen or more pieces of furniture, each with multiple components and fasteners, and not falling into the “Which screw do you mean, the screw, the screw, the screw, the screw or the SCREW YOU!” trap. It is a testament to the author’s diligence and creativity that it fails so infrequently. Perhaps inevitably there are glitches though, most notably with the instruction books. Toss in a handful of unimplemented nouns and just shy is where we land.

But those complaints are nits that do not detract from the Engaging experience. The combination of inspired gameplay engineering and unblinking straightface against its ludicrous premise is winning.

“Ia, Ia, Kraka f’Dolmen.”

Played: 10/9/23
Playtime: 1.5hrs, finished
Score: 7 (Engaging, short of Mostly Seamless)
Would Play After Comp?: No, experience seems complete


I can’t believe I just saw this. Thanks for identifying where you found that bug so precisely, JJ, and for giving your helpful thoughts on the language and the interface!

1 Like

Last Vestiges by thesleuthacademy

The classic closed room mystery makes an appearance! Here, a bloody body with no wounds, and a somewhat spare residence to extract clues from. It’s a parser game, so you are X’ing everything you can find, and asking your partner and the victim’s landlord anything you can think of. It’s a fairly quick play, but man is there a twist at the end.

For most of its runtime you are pushing against a Notably incomplete parser implementation where puzzles are harder than they should be due to terse descriptions that hide lower level details. The most egregious will not let you manipulate objects, but if you X an incidental object, then moves items around for you. Puzzles like these are tough, because when you find let’s call it the Implementation Horizon, the level below which parser commands yield only ‘you cannot’ or ‘there is no,’ as a player you might conclude ‘this is a dead end, there’s clearly nothing more here.’ But this game will pierce that Horizon randomly with super important low level details amidst a sea of gaps.

It also has a few code breaking type puzzles - one of which is clever enough, but the other defies in-world credulity. It is nominally a mnemonic for a password, but it is the most convoluted mnemonic imaginable and nothing anyone would actually use. But it is a puzzle, and it can be solved, so there’s that.

Conversation similarly has a an Implementation Horizon problem - talking to the two NPCs about everything you find yields information, until you start getting ‘no answer.’ (Ignoring you is a curious choice for this messaging, given you are actively trying to solve a crime the NPCs are notionally invested in!) Made worse with incomplete synonyms. If you ask for details about the victim by his LAST name, you get an answer that suggests there’s nothing to learn. If you ask about his first name, hey, info! If you ask about an autopsy you are told its not done yet. But lower level medical details are still in the chamber!

Inhabiting this unevenly implemented world are a protagonist and NPCs that are all but ciphers. The most human personality you encounter is through investigating the victim, and even there the details are spare and incomplete. All of this combines to a kind of representational reality, a parser-based psuedo-world, rife with simplifications, non sequitor logic puzzles, and short-hand logic leaps. Like animators only drawing three fingers because that’s representationally good enough.

Thankfully, the game does come with actually helpful hints to point the way through the darkness, at least as far as the parser-search. When you exhaust your environs, it’s time to solve the murder, via answering Who/What/Why questions. The first two questions reasonably trade on what you might have learned from your first half gameplay. But for that third… it’s like you jumped from an abstract cartoon mystery into the middle of a busy emergency room!

That final question encompasses DEEP cuts of biology, science and tragic inferences. Where most of the game was soft and well-meaning, suddently the last question was gritty, clinical and super detailed! Boy, if you could have seen those options FIRST, before stopping the inquest… because it turns out, that you COULD ask about a lot of that. Based on the light gameplay, there was no hint that you SHOULD, but you could. I ended up taking reasonably educated guesses and hitting it, but it didn’t feel earned. The fact that that last question was so out of place relative the prior gameplay was shocking and kind of subversively fun. The fact that that level of detail was also implemented in conversation (if you go back and try it) was amazing. Sure, all of it deeply unfair, but amazing. I can’t say it justified the unnecessary struggling or elevated it above Mechanical, but I’m glad I saw it.

Played: 10/9/23
Playtime: 40min, “solved”
Score: 4 (Mechanical, Notably uneven implementation)
Would Play After Comp?: No, mystery solved!


LAKE Adventure by B. J. Best

This one shares some DNA with SPOILERSPOILER Hand Me Down and some more with Spring Thing 23’s Repeat the Ending . That is excellent DNA to share! Like a champion livestock breeding program! Ok, not that DEFINITELY not that. As with those spoilered, very worthy titles, LAKE Adventure is a modern (or near modern: COVID-era), nostalgic look at IF creations intersected with family trauma.

Here, you the player are Zooming with a friend during COVID, playing a recently-rediscovered DOS-based adventure game they authored as a teenager. The implementation is spot on. From the 32-bit graphics to the DOS bootup screen, the font, everything rings immediately, immersively true. Threaded through all that is constant commentary by your embarrassed friend, slowly recalling their personal history with the game’s development.

The game itself is so perfectly realized: the limited descriptions and telegraphed noun space, clever but imperfectly coded puzzles, the sometimes awkward gameplay, all befitting its tween author. It weaves a spell on the player (maybe moreso for players with experience in the inspirations?) where implementation gaps that might otherwise draw stern “Intrusive!” proclamations instead elicit wry smiles of ‘yeah, that’s about right.’ Talk about turning bugs into features!

Insta-death, childhood home as setting, author as protagonist, repeated respawns, mazes of sorts, all de rigueur for its time and author, rendered sweetly melancholy by the helpful and embarrassed modern narrator. The narrator’s voice is vital to the proceedings, by turns embarrassed, sad, deflecting with humor, helpful and forgiving of their younger selves. The interplay between the game progress and their recollections are natural, understated and impactful, as well as subtly guiding the player forward through the narrative. The underlying adventure is not the star here, it is a character, painted not by adjectives and nouns but by gameplay. The whole thing just so effectively captures both youthful grappling with tragedy via unsophisticated but earnest fantasy, and the bittersweet remembrance by the older author.

If there was an off note, I would say the timed intro/outro sections - they were too fast for me to devour the details I wanted (I barely clocked my ‘score’ before it vanished!) Yeah, that’s it. All the other stuff I usually complain about was here and it was PERFECT. Geez, I didn’t even mention the spiral Mead pdf-eelie that was note perfect as a youthful development logbook. Yeah, its a hint/walkthrough of sorts but even if you don’t need it, check it out when you’re done.

Oh, it was Engaging. So very, very Engaging. Yeah sorry though, not counting it for “Here There Be Poopdecks.”

Played: 10/10/23
Playtime: 1.75hrs, finished, 748/750 points
Score: 8 (Engaging, mostly Seamless, and when its not, in JUST the right way)
Would Play After Comp?: Probably not? I mean experience feels complete, but such a lovely time… maybe?


Thanks for the review and feedback! You have an interesting style of writing reviews and reading yours made me smile.

I guess I was quite ambitious in trying to incorporate the typical escape room elements (which are usually not very intuitive and not meant to be aligned with the plot) in a detective mystery. Many of the responses and descriptions were terse for good reason: much of the game was designed based on how I preferred such games to be, i.e. for the player not to be distracted or overwhelmed with redundant information but to be able to think through what is relevant (though some red herrings are welcome and expected) and deduce the solution. After all, it was designed as a teaching tool :slight_smile: There are some initial “handholding” hints but those would only appear if the player knows what to ask when he enters the crime scene.

Regarding not getting a reasonable response when the NPC’s last name is typed - I remember now why it’s not programmed to be so - did you manage to come across other NPCs along the way?

Glad you enjoyed (or at least, part of) the game :slight_smile:


Eat the Eldritch by Olaf Nowacki

Part 5 of our nautical sub-series “Here There Be Poopdecks.” And its about time we got us some eldritch horror, no? In the Assembly review I alluded to an Elder Gods + X formula, but I didn’t give you the whole thing. Here it is:

Elder Gods + humor + X = PROFIT!!

I guess X here is a fish factory? Hey, the formula does not require that X be High Concept all the time. Don’t complain to me, the math is the math. The game is a lighthearted battle at sea on an underpopulated fish factory. Eat the Eldritch is a delightful wordplay of a title, perfectly matched to the spunky artwork that sets the tone out of the gate. And that tone is Its biggest asset. Some favorite quotes:

“You have a screwdriver in your ha… hm… You have a screwdriver, but you have no hands. Whatever.”

After encountering an elder beast of epic proportions: “It’s fascinating, you really don’t see that every day.”

I have gotten good at curbing my impulse to just throw lots of stolen funny quotes at you, so I stop here. In addition to prevasive wry humor, there is red meat for Lovecraftics - Randolph Carter makes an appearance, as well as an unseen crew from either Arkham or more likely Innsmouth. All in service of that gloomy but somehow also bubbly tone. There is modest puzzle work at play here as well, and for quite a long time things clicked along at a crisp, breezy pace. The puzzles were up and down the fiddly/clever scale, as well as the story-organic/puzzle-for-puzzle-sake scale, but reasonably well clued so it moved.

There were some technical issues - in the Dream Void, messages like this would pop up:
*** Run-time problem P39: Attempt to say a snippet value which is currently invalid: words 0 to 0.

The biggest flaw though is the climactic puzzle. Somehow, here the nudging signposting ran out, and you were foiled repeatedly by specific word and sequence requirements. There is a special kind of ire reserved for a puzzle where you have assembled all the component parts, deduced a clever way to employ them, then spend 30min failing to get the game to accept it. Shrugging, you resign yourself to checking the hints (which, sidebar, I really liked the backwards text format to prevent glimpsing unwanted information. not sure how that plays for accessibility but worked for me) to see where you have gone astray AND THEY TELL YOU TO DO EXACTLY WHAT YOU’VE BEEN STRUGGLING TO DO.

THEN YOU SPEND ANOTHER 15min TRYING TO MAKE IT WORK. Yes, I spent more than a third of my playtime on one puzzle. A puzzle I had a fair idea what needed doing. I did manage to finally get it, finessing a sequence nuance the hint fails to mention, but time ran out and I could not complete the game. So for something this fizzy and light, how do I justify that much time on one puzzle? Is it me? Did I get hung up on a fatal blind spot? Maybe, probably. As a judge am I empowered to take it out on the game? I mean yeah, if my experience was frustration, how do I NOT? I will justify that decision by saying that somehow the cluing text, crucially including failure text, that had serviced so well to that point suddenly abandoned me. Simultaneously the forgiving puzzle flow suddenly became super finicky about position and timing. It was a recipe for getting it wrong with no help identifying WHY. If you make finicky puzzles, provide the player failure feedback, that’s MY hint. If not the puzzle mechanics, then at least if you provide hints, ensure you provide COMPLETE hints.

But. The fact that I was so mad about it is a clue how Engaged I was with the story. It is not heavy, nor revolutionary. It is wry and playful and a very fun hang kind of game, where you agree with the author to just do some IF Lovecraftian clowning. Then drink some sake.

Played: 10/10/23
Playtime: 2hrs, not finished, score 45/55
Score: 6 (Engaging, Notably Buggy error messages and infuriating final puzzle)
Would Play After Comp?: No, will finish after locking review and score, then experience will be complete


Thanks for taking the time to play my game and thanks for the kind review!

I am very interested in the circumstances that led to the runtime error. I would like to fix that immediately. As for the last frustrating part: if you have created a transcript I’d be happy to see how I can improve that.


The Witch by Charles Moore

It is with a head hung heavy in shame I must confess to you, dear reader, that REROOT has hit another milestone in its short life. This one is somewhat ignominious. For the first time as a comp reviewer/judge I did not persevere past an hour and a quarter playtime of a long game. As with many other prior failures, I had cause to reflect on larger issues and learn a bit about myself in the experience.

Witch wants to be old school parser. REALLY old school, like dawn of IF old school. These formative IF works were notoriously opaque and cruel, the gameplay PRESUMED innumerable restarts and experimentation to make progress. They were also necessarily spare - they were often operating within hard storage limits so wit was applied where room was available. Mostly it was a tight, shallow “only what’s necessary” implementation. If assessed on a ‘unique text/hour’ metric, the numbers would be shockingly low. They would complicate progress with things like inventory limits, need for food, water and sleep. Quiet, unwinnable states were commonplace. Instant death with no reasonable foreshadowing. Hey, they were busy inventing the form, cut them some slack!

The net effect of early state-of-the-art was to make the puzzles punishingly hard, deeply trial-and-error, extremely time sinky, so many restarts, and triumphant once finally beaten. At some point, people started questioning, was the triumph really all THAT great, compared to the chore needed to achieve it? The consensus answer seems to be ‘no,’ but it is true that it was a very specific pleasure that is hard to come by these days.

I have fallen into the trap of over-explaining what this community is well aware of.

Witch doesn’t initially present itself as that. It presents itself as a flawed, incomplete implementation. The game is rife with “You see Z; >EXAMINE Z; You can’t see any such thing.” RIFE with it. At first it I attributed it to “unimplemented nouns, amirite?” Parser IF is riddled with this, it comes with the territory, you pretty much have to have some forgiveness to engage at all. But it is one thing when scenic elements that have no gameplay function are missing. It is quite another when a key puzzle is undermined by it.

“You see a magic tree.” >X TREE. “You can’t see any such thing.” >CLIMB TREE. “You can’t see any such thing.” To later learn via walkthrough that you need to >UP. A key puzzle requires you to engage with an object, but refuses to acknowledge its existence! The player can be forgiven never thinking to try this, even through Herculean trial-and-error.

The game is crammed with this kind of thing. Later, the one complicated puzzle I solved refused to acknowledge I had solved it because I did it out of order. And treated me to bafflingly contradictory state messages until I spammed things into the right order. I did endure for an hour and a quarter, wandering around collecting things, performing teeth-grittingly unrewarding inventory management. I eventually got to a point where I needed to consult the walkthrough.

And there, dear reader, is where my resolve abandoned me.

On the first few pages of the walkthrough I realized: 1) there were two puzzles (including the above) I would never have solved on my own, requiring me to detect where the game was actively deceiving me; 2) solving the above case leads to a throwback trial-and-error maze which, classic yes, but good riddance; 3) another puzzle I would only have solved through belligerent spamming then BEEN INFURIATED by the solution; and 4) that I had put myself into not one but two unwinnable states, with no hint that I had done so.

Dear reader, I had until that moment considered myself made of sterner stuff. It was not rage that undid me, it was stunned incomprehension.

Now the framing story for this is similarly old-school. Occasionally playful generic fantasy with unapologetic anachronisms among the setting. But even back in the day that was a super thin framing device, unique when it started, exhausting its novelty very quickly. Nothing is done to burnish the tropes here: no unique twists, no knowing asides, no innovative variations. Even when flashes of wit present themselves, the game quickly abandons them. I had a sinking feeling when up front this sequence played out:

You're carrying:
  a plain flagon (which is closed)
  a headache
Are you familiar with the term "intangible"?

Yes, amusing in its inclusion, but why abandon the bit so perfunctorily? Absent compelling story or bouying humor, the gameplay bounced me hard. I am of the camp that all history does not need to be repeated, some is best left in the past. While I am amused by 80’s hairstyles, I will never purchase a feathering comb. It’s fine that it’s of its time. I was tempted to rate it Unplayable, but was it really THAT much more unplayable than early IF?

I kind of respect the author’s effort here in one sense. In this day and age to develop a game of this size (36 pages of walkthrough!) committed to this style of gameplay… it is an old saw to “make the art you want to see in the world.” I hope it finds its not-me audience.

Also, thankfully, at least the Elves here aren’t racist.

Played: 10/11/23
Playtime: 1.25hrs, seems got to two unwinnable states, score 10/150, declined to restart
Score: 2 (Bouncy, Intrusively buggy gameplay)
Would Play After Comp?: No, my nostalgia only reaches so far