JJMcC's R-A-T-A-T-O-O-T-Y '24

* Review-A-Thon Assessments, Thoughts and Out Of Time Yammerings

Isn’t it just the way things go? You make a hasty off-the-cuff promise and sooner or later, some one calls you on it! Fresh off a rejuvenating Canadian vacation, I am charged with energy and purpose (and drained of excuses) so will wade into this exciting project. I look forward to experiencing overlooked works not created for/filtered through Big Comp.

Gonna try something new this time. No frameworks. No crutches. No ratings. Just those sweet, uncut fumes straight off my brain juice. Good luck, reader! (I almost promised ‘no gimmicks’ but realistically, that is a promise destined for breakage.)

Will be working from a constrained randomizer, biasing towards unreviewed/unranked works and avoiding author repeats until everyone gets at least one. Randomizer snapshot on 7/6, will update new adds at some point.

If you think I am insufferably pleased with my acronym for this review series, you are at least passingly familiar with my prior work.

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YEAAAAASSSSSSS
:partying_face:

(also the tittle is making me hungry :rat: )

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(thanks for the tag add. I was just so excited!)

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Halfling Dale by Wysiwig Wizards
Style: ChoiceScript-y
Played: 7/6/94
Playtime: 15min, chapter1

I did not expect this here! A preview chapter of a pay-to-play text adventure! I am delighted beyond words that this thing exists. The application was very attractive on my Motorola - a very professional, evocative presentation, graphically appealing, choices sliding in crisply from the sidelines to facilitate my agency.

There is a bit more text here than I was ready for - some pages required scrolling to get to choices, though I must say that friction quickly faded. The writing is warm and functional, but still concise enough to not waste your time so it rarely felt like description for description sake. It FELT very ChoiceScripty to me. There was a good bit of establishing character traits and phsysical appearance, some soft relationship building all on the way to a background mystery involving your brother and his shifty Dwarf friend.

As a preview, it had a few things going against it. For one, the non-character choices you were making had uncertain effect on the narrative. It wasn’t clear beyond some flavor text ANY choices actually did anything. Which is always an unfair statement, clearly building character is ‘doing something.’ But relative gameplay there were few hints your choices had consequences or effects. Meaning by the end of the chapter I didn’t really have a feel for what this fellow I was building would be DOING in subsequent chapters. What my gameplay was going to be.

For a second, as an intro chapter, it had a LOT of infodump work to do in establishing setting, NPCs, stakes, and of course your ChoiceScript Character Sheet. The setting is super Tolkien adjacent. Not a dig. Featuring Halflings, there is no universe where that is not true. It also includes a distant man-elf war against a dark power. A mysterious ‘protector’ that has really strong Ranger vibes. It’s close is what I’m saying. It also seemingly extends my least favorite Tolkien artifact, elvish racism against Dwarves, to Halflings. Why is THAT the JRR Touchstone?? All of it is pleasantly enough conveyed (barring that poor Dwarf - which, to be clear, I am exaggerating for effect), but for a High Fantasy Tourist like me, not so compellingly.

For my part, being a casual-at-best ChoiceScript engager, unmoved by fantasy as a genre, and unclear what kind of IF ride I would be signing on for, I probably pass on the rest of it. If I had any suggestions, and I recognize like most post-publication feedback is mostly academic, I would proffer that the free trail chapter might be better served showcasing gameplay to some extent: a training wheels combat, introductory throwaway find-use puzzles, a quick relationship based levelup, whatever the game itself centers on. Something to telegraph the gameplay to follow. To its credit, I will say the combination of presentation, crisp writing, and toned down CS-iness had its charms, even to me. I could see ChoiceScript fans having a more promising engagement, and fantasy fans finding a lot to be happy with here. If you consider yourself one or both of those, I do recommend it.

6 Likes

The Way Home by Kenneth Pedersen
Style: Parser
Played: 6/7/24
Playtime: 15min, lost, 1.25hrs later, won

The Way Home is an ADRIFT game. For a Linux user, ADRIFT games are … suboptimal. As far as I can tell, the only way to play is to run Frankendrift after installing MS .NET (ptoo ptoo). Which, because I am a hero of BASHian proportions, I did. Frankendrift needs some love it turns out. While it starts zippy enough, over not very much time, it slows to a drag, eventually every command prompting you “app not responding, end or wait?” At which point, your only practical option is to wait it out, save game, kill app, restart, and load game. Unworkable? No. Teeth grate annoying? Oh yeah.

This is not the game’s fault by any means, but inevitably it can’t help but negatively color the experience. I will say I did appreciate the crude but effective-enough mapping window. Thanks to sometimes spotty direction descriptions it was very useful.

The game itself is part 2 of a fantasy adventure, though as these things typically go, is more puzzle than swashbuckling. Also very much NOT required to play part 1. It stands on its own with two meaty puzzles composed of subordinate mini-puzzles. Very classic vibe in that way. I understand it to be an update of a Commodore 64 game? Wow, cool! I can very much see this being of that time and place. Descriptions are spare, from a time when storage was not cheaper than water. Just enough to set the stage and highlight important items, with bare minimum chrome to color things. Gameplay is very much classic parser, with a limited but set-complete vocabulary. Also very classic in that synonyms are in short supply - pretty much everywhere but most egregiously where “VOCAB” in all caps is recognized but “vocab” is not.

I am happy to report that the hint system is fully functional, helpful, and context aware. I needed it twice, once because I was convinced I needed to build a sled instead of … somehow… ride a ladder, and a second time because locksmith was not a synonym for keymaster I wouldn’t say either of those were infuriating, but neither were they satisfying once spoiled. I will also say that while I did solve another puzzle it felt very much like an “if all you have is a rat, all problems look like cheese” situation. There are some death fails, but thankfully they occur early enough in the proceedings that a restart isn’t TOO onerous.

So yeah, very faithful old school recreation, of a time when IF technology was more fussy, puzzles more streamlined and ideosyncratic, and prose less adorned. I didn’t dislike the experience, but it is hard to justify the interpreter struggle to my fellow linux users. For non-linux it is a nice dose of old school Adventure, still cruel but less than most, good for a relatively tight nostalgia shot.

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Thanks for the thorough review. I did not know that the Linux version of Frankendrift had these issues. Also the VOCAB issue is not present in the webrunner.

It sounds like it would be better to recommend the clunky webRunner for Linux users, compared to the current state of Linux FrankenDrift(?)…

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Thanks for the tip, didn’t try that initially because I needed to play the first half dozen offline. Just replayed online and can confirm only slightly laggy, def a better linux experience. Will update review for IFDB, thanks!

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Andromeda Chained by Aster Fialla

Style: Choice-Select
Played: 7/6/24
Playtime: 13min, 8 playthroughs

GONNA DISCUSS WITH BIG SPOILERS, LIKE NOTHING BUT
it’s pretty short, go ahead and play first

Is there anything more dispriting than social impotence? Is dispiriting the right word? It feels like it is, but it also feels like it isn’t… big enough? That your life exists only in the minds of those around you and no amount of cleverness, resistance, will or empathy, nothing actually of you makes the slightest difference in that. History is choked with marginalized peoples and genders that exist as outright property of others. Vast swaths of modern life still carry these impulses, usually applied to people whose lives and agendas are inconvenient to our own narratives. It is the worst kind of dehumanizing. I don’t know, maybe I shouldn’t try to rank those kinds of things. It’s pretty bad though.

This is a work that uses a heroic narrative from Greek mythology to drive that point home. The packaging is super attractive, opening with classic art, then a story-appropriate background painting of roiling seas under translucent text box. As a player, you are making a series of choices as Andromeda during her attempted sacrifice and subsequent rescue. An amusing variety of responses from ‘sweep me away broad shoulders’ to ‘back off entitled ass’ are available to you. The inability of any of those choices to alter your path are the crux of the work. You can be sassy, reasonable, unreasonable, compliant or enthusiastic, and none of it gives you initiative in your own life. Depending on a particular runthrough, this can vary the experience from spineless surrender to despairing defeat.

It is worth noting that “nothing you do will change anything” is one of the emergent staples of IF-as-narrative. Its theme-to-implementation-difficulty equation has an off the charts ratio, especially in shorter works. It is one of the easiest things to implement, no? No branching narrative, maybe a state variable or two, just the one path with some alternate text. The success or failure of a work like this depends pretty definitively on how convincing and/or entertaining that message is, relative the theme of the piece.

It is pretty perfect against a theme of social impotence.

Is it fun? I mean, does that SOUND fun to you? This is not a piece aimed at entertainment per se (though some branches to have a wry wit to them). It has a point of view, a message, and is super effective at delivering it. As a short work of interactive art, AC accomplishes a vivid, crushing evocation. This fucking sucks. Remember that, sez the work.

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thank you for the kind review!! it’s kind of gratifying to see my <10 minute work get a massive spoiler review haha. U get it

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How Dare You by alyshkalia

Style: Parser
Played: 7/6/24
Playtime: 10min, 4 playthroughs

Hm. This is the latest work that confounds my reductive reviewing approach with another in a seemingly endless series of ‘howmygonnadothis?’ choices to make. When reviewing for Comps, judging is in the mix so I feel compelled to explore the factors that led to a specific rating. That pressure/justification is absent here. While my aim is more towards fellow players and the author, I try to be congizant of the Key Review Question.

The unspoken question is ‘is this worth a player’s time, and if so, what kind of player?’ Single-conceit Jam games are typically so brief that it would be near impossible to fail that test. BUT, they are also so brief that their single is conceit IS THE WHOLE THING. So if, in a review, I tell you the single conceit there is nothing left to experience unspoiled. In a large game, spoilers may not be ideal, but with some surgical precision you can limit the damage while making relevant points. In a small game, there may not be much left after the damage.

Sure, that’s kinda what spoiler tags are for, but also is our global energy system well served by delivering scads of 100% illegible reviews to browsers across the planet? Fool me once

What I can say is that this work telegraphs a kind of distasteful style of gameplay, but whose central conceit thoroughly and completely redeems it. Even THAT feels spoilery. Is gameplay fun? I wouldn’t say that. Is it engaging? A little too prickly and bare bones for that. But its central message and gameplay headfake are well rendered at exactly the right size, exactly the right conciseness to drive its message home. Its prickliness serves that conceit wonderfully. I found this game expertly calibrated and pretty darn cool.

howdareyou_jjmcc.txt (12.6 KB)

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Not Just Once by TaciturnFriend

Style: Choice-select
Played: 7/6/24
Playtime: 25min, 5 playthroughs, 3 endings

This is a short piece about an odd encounter one winter night. I guess it is a slice of life kind of thing. Certainly the simple majority of my playthroughs led to a denouement that was essentially a low stakes, “well that was a weird memory, wasn’t it?” That’s not a problem. I mean short stories trade in that all the time, the intriguing but trivial anecdote in an otherwise offscreen life. No connection to anything else, just a wild thing to reflect on from time to time. I would say, the first three playthroughs were unevenly implemented, in the sense that it was no more or less remarkable whether I engaged the strange phone booth or not. In fact, some ending text PRESUMED I had gone way farther than I actually did, referring to a girl that particular playthrough had not encountered. (There was another weird instance of me opening cans when I had bought bottles.)

The other two playthoughs more interestingly justified the time, one developing into an unsettling stalker scenario, the next into a ‘random hookup gone wrong’ vibe. In both cases though, the narrative pulled WAY short of any significant consequences or backstory, just ended up being different flavors of ‘hn, that was weird.’ Lots of intriguingly suggestive details but no solid answers. I think your enjoyment of the piece will hinge on how open to these kinds of mini-narratives you are. There was no character arc in my playthrough, no dramatic crescendos or reveals, just some weird details that defied explanation. Like a story you might tell at a cocktail party, whose whole point is ‘here’s a weird thing that happened to me…’

I think this might be a stronger piece with some narrative throughlines. There are hints that the PC might have somehow done something bad in the past, or that the visitor intended something bad, but nothing came of either in my playthroughs. It is possible my mix of choices derailed any of that, but just as possible that the hints were the whole point of the piece and nothing more was there. The latter FEELS more consistent with the work, so if it was the former, a stronger authorial hand would need to show the cards a little more prominently.

But that seemingly was not the work’s aim and that’s fine. It ably accomplishes a Wierd Cocktail Party Anecdote simulation, which, if those were uninteresting, we’d never bring them up at parties would we?

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Teatime with a Vampire by manomanora

Style: Choice-Select
Played: 7/6/24
Playtime: 35m, 4 endings - 3 short, one very long and very good

This work gave me cause to ruminate over the nature of multi-ending IF (MEIF for short). It’s got 14 of them. I have far from a categorical knowledge of this class of IF, but have seen enough to start to wonder about them. “Endings” is kind of a loaded term anyway, right? “Endings” implies a finality, a closure, in the context of fiction, a dramatic culmination. These are things you build towards, planting thematic resonances, scattering then gathering plot threads, evolving relationships and character traits to some final overarching statement of satisfying surprise or inevitability.

They are such fragile, complicated things, it’s a wonder authors can do ONE of those in a given work. What hubris stirs these IF artists to presume 5, 10, 14? There’s a few approaches to multi-ending that have enough merit to be enumerated.

The first is to eschew linear narrative constructs altogether - make the multiple endings the POINT of the work. There is little narrative flow beyond the simplest …and then… , it is the ENDINGS that carry all that weight and the more you see, the better you understand the narrative mosaic. Or, more often, the gag. Because this approach challenges our relationship with traditional narrative, it is particularly suited to humor.

The second is to use interactivity to change the player’s relationship to the narrative, but not the fundamental plot beats themselves. The varied ‘endings’ then reflect how successfully the player aligned to a linear plot - I do not mean this as a judgement. In classic IF this is the ‘You have Died’ ending. You failed to advance along the plotline beyond point X. One might conclude that this is the LEAST interesting MEIF, in that the “ending” is clearly not a NARRATIVE one, and the player is intended to try again and again until the true ending is achieved. A more interesting approach is to allow the player character choices responding to the plot - are they complicit in horrors, a victim of bad choices, or exonerated by thematic alignment? Great dramatic effect can be wrung from player ‘plot failure.’ The challenge is to craft the choice architecture to manage the different endstates in a way that feels organic and satisfying.

The most difficult by FAR is the branching narrative, where player decisions are meant to influence the plot. Cold mathematics quickly steps in to nP the space beyond human capacity, so the art here is to judiciously choose a manageable number of threads, then architect choices in a way that feels more open than it is. THEN ensure that everyone of them justifies itself against every possible permutation of player choice that terminates there! One approach to this problem gave us ‘hidden score threshold’ IF, where choices add up to a scorecheck at key branching crossroads. More manual solutions also exist, most successfully in smaller, tighter works.

There is some real existential handwringing to do over MEIF for the prospective author. The first question to answer is ‘How do I want the player to engage this work?’ Will they be playing through only once, experiencing a narrative tailored to their specific choices, the majority of the work going unseen? Are they to Ash Ketchum that sh*t and greedily gobble up all of it? Somewhere between? How do you signal to a player which of those is the desired mode? And how does your game respond when players do whatever wild thing they want to do anyway?

Classic IF authors instinctively understood that if you characterize an ending as “FAILURE” players will want to reengage to get the win. That’s kind of a gimme. More elaborate constructs still feel pretty elusive to me - I have seen some very successful comedy pieces, one memorable mosaic ending dramatic piece. Telltale came as close to branching narrative success as I can think of right now. I have seen some dramatic failures in all those types though. The critical thing to understand about MEIF is that for subsequent runs, the player’s eyes are glazing over parts they’ve seen before. The more text you put before an interesting choice point, the more like drudgery it will feel to the player, and the more the endings need to justify or compensate that.

All of which brings us back to … Teatime. I played through four times. The first three endings were kind of unsatisfying. Variations on ‘life is hard and couch is comfortable, but should probably get up.’ But not really dramatically satisfying (though buoyed by energetic, fun text). Also, not for nothing, longer to click through than their resolution justified.

My FOURTH run though, I kind of took the game’s broad hints of ‘this is probably the path you should engage’ and did. I was treated to some Videodrome/Alan Wake II reminiscent stuff that was flat excellent, including a graphic presentation change, some talk show format clowning that had interesting choices, impactful character moments, and took a fun, funny, kind of endearing path to a dramatically satisfying close. It was also 4-5 times LONGER than the already kinda long other branches. Meaning, if there are multiple endings buried in that branch I will never see them.

But y’know what? I don’t need to see anymore. The remaining 10(!) paths could be long or short. If short, my experience says maybe not as satisfying as repeated clicking will warrant. If long SOOO much repeated text to get through, and hard to imagine it improves on the one I already got. That one long path was worth the price of admission, and I’m glad I stuck it out.

Which only made me ask… Given the narrative tightness of the longest path, what was the POINT of all those other endings? This work gave me cause to ruminate over the nature of multi-ending IF (MEIF for short). It’s got 14…

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How to Make Eggplant Lasagna (with ####) by E Joyce and N Cormier

Style: Choice Select
Played: 7/7/24
Playtime: 15min, 4 endings

I swear, fresh off their IFCOMP23 performance, @EJoyce has decided to just troll me exclusively. Veggie lasagna? With CATS??? About the only part of this game I related to was not wanting to let my partner down! This is a game where you try to make (occasionally dubiously hygenic) pasta while cats try to foil your every move. AS THEY ALWAYS, ALWAYS DO. You know where my dog was while I played this? Snoozing peacefully in the corner! Dogs respect your boundaries is what I’m saying, and I’m providing no glimpse into the wealth of counter-evidence at my disposal that might undermine that thesis.

As a choice select game, you are typically asked to choose between ‘do I indulge my whiskered tormentor?’ or ‘do I stay on task?’ while making lasagna. Which path is most successful? The answer may surprise you! Sure, the challenges presented by these feline monsters are varied, humorous and seemingly endless. The text is crisp and propulsive, never letting you get TOO mired in cat-minutiae. As other jams, it has one central conceit, lets you play with that for a while, then provides a subversive set of endings that justifies its runtime quite nicely. I went through four times, spanning the breadth from ‘get out of here whiskers, you’re my partner’s problem’ to ‘ooh pwetty kitty, what was I doing again?’ (that latter proving yet again, as if proof were still needed, just how heroic a reviewer your humble servant is!) The endings were suitably humorous, not the least of which… eh, I made it this far, no spoilers. I do recommend spanning the breadth of endings yourself. I do NOT recommend serving some of these to you partner!

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Dogs never respect my boundaries, which start about 500 feet from me.

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constellate by 30x30

Style: Choice-Select
Played: 7/9/24
Playtime: 20min, 4 playthroughs

Sometimes my subconscious is an a$$hole. There is a phrase that came to mind during my third playthrough that was deeply uncharitable, kind of mean, and I could not shake once it hit. It also came kind of out of the blue, like a dreamstate free association. This is the second work by this author I have played, and I am just an outright fan of their prose. The dreamstate is a natural outcome of this mesmeric writing style, whose use of swirling imagery, conflicting clauses and poetic descriptions weave a spell like few others.

In IF I have encountered many, many attempts at this kind of word alchemy, vanishingly few this successful. The prose whisks you along, hinting at backstory through misty descriptions that leave an impression then maddeningly waft away, propelling you to the next thought or emotion. My first two playthroughs, I was driftwood caught in the eddies of this work, sliding to and fro, gently prodded to one direction or another and constantly, comfortably rocked while being so. I found it a joy to read. An example which, because I am a word nerd, stopped me in my tracks to admire it: “a place in her long shadow shaped exactly like you”

constellate tells the story of the reunion of two soldiers, one retired, who share an emotional history while hinting at the harsh backstory that led to their separation. The protagonist/player is processing deeply conflicted emotions at the reunion, and the gameplay centers around how you choose to engage that conflict. It employs one of my favorite (when done well) mechanics: links that change text inline to refine the sentence they inhabit. Here, this mechanism perfectly conveys the protagonists conflicted mindset, and gives the player some autonomy based on where it ‘resolves.’ I cannot tell if the narrative changes based on where the final click leaves things, but the thought that it might makes me happy. It certainly does yeoman’s work to sell the protagonist’s internal conflict.

So I went through twice in kind of a dream haze, savoring the warm, enveloping prose, the charge of conflict presented to player/protagonist. I think there was a weird schism there though, because while I definitely felt the conflict, the actual romantic feelings eluded me. If anything, an unhealthy lust, fueled by protagonist’s self-hatred, seemed a more convincing response… until some random firing neurons produced this:

Space Nazis in Love

Once that cold, cruel phrase bubbled through the prose miasma to hit my forebrain, it became the only prism I could view through. My subconscious is an a$$hole, but, it’s not totally wrong? Without hint that the backstory is unreliably reported, which we have no reason to believe, we are instead left with two people who commit horrific acts, only one of whom seemingly has any regrets. Yet that pretty fundamental difference is still secondary to their strong chemical attraction. The author is not unaware of this contradiction, certainly the climax is fraught with conflict and compromise. As a player though, I kind of lost connection - sure, they’ve got pretty epic baggage, but even bittersweetness carries sweetness. Is that really what they deserve?

So my recommendation is play through this game for sure - admire its seemingly peerless prose; marvel at the effectiveness of the static links; get swept along by its rhythms and beats. Just stop after twice.

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Thank you for the review—this line in particular made my day!

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Your dog must be from a different planet than every dog I’ve ever had, who do not understand why there should be any boundaries between their noses and any person’s nethers. Are you saying your dog does not goose you and everyone you know with its snout every chance it gets? Or are you saying that being continually goosed by a dog is well within your boundaries?

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I’m pretty sure the reason my cats always get into things they’re not supposed to, is revenge for how often they’re sleeping peacefully until I pick them up and kiss their little heads.

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Lol, well this has turned into a ‘do you still beat your wife?’ moment for me hasn’t it??? It is true that when the old man was younger first time visitors were introduced to the house’s ‘Crotch Punch Hello.’ Second time visitors entered sideways.

If there is a clearer day-to-day example of ‘poking the bear’ I am hard pressed to come up with it. :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

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Codex Crusade by leechykeen

Style: Twinesformer (parser-style choice-select)
Played: 7/9/24
Playtime: 45min, two restarts due to bugs

I was immediately won over by the sly, subversive wit that permeates the piece. It is nominally modern, but also medieval, and slides across its academia/occult knowledge/farce vibes with confidence and panache, dropping academic treatises and pop culture references with equal weight. It’s a quest for a portentious tome in the bowels of a library you are interning at. You need to make porridge, as is usually required in these things. There’s fights, snotty students, amusingly off-kilter puzzles. Two quick samples that I snorted in delight at: “[RE granola]The loudest, crumbiest of all the snacks.” “the medieval peasant you keep in your head for dialectical purposes cackles at you,”

It’s also, unfortunately, intrusively buggy in one of its central puzzles. In one early section, you are asked to concoct something. If you explore out of order, you can find yourself carrying the wrong ingredients for your puzzle solving mixture, with no way to replace incorrect items. In the course of decoding its mild complexity, I twice found myself in endless loops, unable to click free and needed to restart. This early in the game, not a huge problem but certainly jarring and unwelcome. If appearing in a longer work, would be game ending.

Even when not outright blocked, I was sometimes treated to buggy text as well, the following appearing after a paragraph of normal text:
"(set: the recipe card,jerky to it - jerky
what I can only presume to be internal code.

So yeah, a flawed experience, but honestly the rest of it is so witty and good-natured it was easy enough to forgive. The graphical presentation is pleasing, the use of sound amusing and deftly employed. A little more polish and it would be an unambiguous recommend. Will keep my eye out for promised subsequent chapters.

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