JJMcC's SpringThing24 A-S-2-T

Social Democracy: An Alternate History by Autumn Chen
Playtime: 1 hr, long civil war ending, but hey, no Hitler!

There’s a lot of folks ready to draw parallels between the rise of Nazism and current US politics. I’m not historically literate enough to contribute to that dialogue, but boy am I intrigued by (and sympathetic to) that analysis. My antennae twitch whenever the topic comes up. I ALSO happen to dig modern board games, particularly card-driven political games. So this entry could not have been more engineered to my fascinations unless maybe it included 80’s slasher icons. Boy would I play the HELL out of a Jason v Hitler game.

It wasn’t immediately clear what I was in for. Given the intimidating plurality of German political parties, each with their own permuted relationships and alliances, and percentages that suggested a fine grained-navigation of cold public sentiment algorithms, I feared my historical illiteracy would be a prohibitive handicap. Thankfully, and also dauntingly, there is a library of background reading to set the player up for what follows. The game had pre-requisite reading! I don’t think I was at ease until I saw the Deck/Hand paradigm. Turns out the transition from apprehensive to ecstatic is super easy.

What followed was gameplay that echoed any number of cardboard experiences, requiring juggling party and government decks (each presenting a series of unattractive choices), a limited resources pool, and unstable political alliances to hopefully keep the country steady enough not to give the Nazis an opening. History has kind of foreshadowed how hard THAT was going to be. I was smitten after the first two cards played and just totally immersed from there, nevermind that my choices had uncertain impacts. Nevermind that some special powers were more opaque than others. Nevermind that most of the historical cast were unknown to me. I was fighting Nazis fer cryin’ out loud - no time to bemoan fog of war, just start swinging!

I cannot speak to the historical accuracy of the thing. It certainly presented as well researched. I cannot speak to the compromises, algorithmic or otherwise, made to facilitate gameplay. I can say my hour was a white knuckle series of challenges, moral quandries, and frustration with my fellow Germans. Holy Crap was it compelling. Behind it all danced the tantalizing ‘well this does/doesn’t have a modern US parallel’ dialogue.

This is clearly the gamiest entry thus far in the Thing. The narrative is emergent, as most well-designed themed boardgames’ are. Is it Interactive Fiction? Technically, yes, but maybe in a way that unnecessarily muddies what we mean by IF when there are crisper ways to summarize this experience. Is that a lick on it? Oh, hell no. My playthrough ended in civil war, because I was unwilling to cede to the Nazis. I got chills as I let the modern US parallels sink in.

This thing is bookmarked. ABFF. Always Be Fighting Facism.

Mystery, Inc: A construct this intricate? Fred
Vibe: Boardgamegeek Top 10
Polish: Smooth
Gimme the Wheel! : If this were my project, I would Kickstart this thing as a prestige-format boardgame. Wooden pieces, thick cards, the whole nine yards. Yeah, I’d need to lose the opacity of algorithms, and streamline mechanisms to adjust public sentiment, but small price to pay. Maybe as a backer bonus thresshold, provide US 2024 alternate decks.


Given what happened to me some time ago, I would avoid having too many references to real-world contemporary issues.

1 Like

I didn’t know this until after I published my game, but apparently there’s already a board game called Weimar: The Fight for Democracy, covering the entire Weimar Republic time period, and glancing through the rules it seems to have some similarities to my game.


Well, ok, but I’d rather give my money to YOU! They are unlikely to have the Slasher Icon backer bonuses I crave.


To Beseech Old Sins by Nic June
Playtime: 30 min

Up front, the game told me this was part of an ongoing series to which I had no prior exposure. These disclaimers immediately prompt the question, ‘Am I too background disadvantaged to appreciate this?’ My success rate with these kinds of things is pretty high - Series like Little Match Girl and Lady Thalia notably ease new players in without friction and quickly get us in the swim.

Beseech didn’t quite achieve those heights. Interestingly though, for a while, it used that opacity to its advantage, creating an interesting frisson between a world that of course knew who our Power Thruple was, and me who was desperately trying to catch up. If I’m honest though, that frisson was kind of an artificial boost. There were some narrative choices and gameplay choices that didn’t play for me, and absent that ‘gotta figure out what’s going on here!’ charge, would have tired of it much sooner than I did.

The first narrative sin, for me, was the Power Thruple themselves. Cast as uber-Space-Marines who were so valuable that military structure bent over backwards to accommodate their flagrant insubordination. You know what that kind of double standard does to unit discipline? No, the work does not know. And worse, the Thruple were so, so, so smug about it. About the only time I can tolerate this kind of archetype is either when they subvert their competence somehow, or when we fast forward into outlandish pulp adventure. Beseech did neither.

The second narrative sin, though perhaps specific to new readers, was that their identity was revealed so offhandedly, so late in the story, that it was very much a ‘burying the lead’ moment. They are Horny Space Demons! Maybe I could have learned that a lot earlier, certainly before they go on a mission? The reveal was so vastly underplayed as to effectively be anti-climax.

The last narrative sin was lack of interesting conflict. They were presented at the jump as final-resort weapons of irresistible effectiveness. They were employed as such. Sure enough, they lived up to that reputation. There were no reversals, no intricate plans, not even any portrayal of HOW irresistible they were. Hell, there wasn’t even any conflict - the antagonist surrendered without protest, and in fact went out of his way to say how awesome they were. Uncharitably, the arc of the piece was ‘We are awesome. The enemy agrees. Now reward us!’

Now, as part of an ongoing series of games, maybe this isn’t so terrible? Maybe this is just a low-stakes interlude (as suggested by introduction) between high stakes adventures. It’s not unreasonable to see it that way. For me though, as a standalone story without background literacy, it did not work.

The narrative was not my only friction with this piece. The Twine link-select UI also chafed at me. Visually, it was attractive. A futuristic font with unique highlighting on choice links. The problem was, there were two types of links. The first was an aside - some comment on things going on. These were actually the best part of the piece. The wry aside observations from the protagonist were funny in their often blatant horniness. The second kind of link was the ‘proceed with story’ link. I did not detect any links of the ‘affect the narrative’ variety. The problem was that the words chosen as links gave no clue which type they were- not in phrasing or position. An example (choices between //):

There was no hail of gunfire, no //clouds of smoke and war//. Instead we were greeted with something //shocking//. Something none of us thought we would ever see in our life times.

You might expect from that construct that the first link would provide some additional detail, while the second would naturally push the scene forward. No, it was the opposite. The work did this ALL THE TIME. This example is somewhat atypical anyway, in that more often, the highlighted words seemed arbitrary. Like if they were ‘There was no’ and ‘thought we would’ in the above sentence. Even worse, many times there were multiple paragraphs, where the natural thing to do would be select links as you read them, except the first link might move the story forward and expect you to have read the whole page! Independent of any narrative quibbles, this link confusion drove me to distraction.

Between the character, plot and UI choices, this was not for me. I could certainly see this playing better in context of a larger series, and hope longtime fans appreciate this more.

Mystery, Inc: Daphne
Vibe: Horny Space Demons
Polish: Textured
Gimme the Wheel! : If this were my project, the UI is where I would put my energy. It is a linear novel of sorts. I would give a lot more thought to the link architecture and its impact on how the piece is read. I would especially make sure those nifty asides are consumed in a natural way.


You Can Only Turn Left by Emiland and Mary Kray, and Ember Chan
Playtime: 15min, two passes

I know I just said two passes, but this is a one playthrough game. It pretty crisply tells you exactly what it is up front - an exploration/simulation of the grey area between sleep and wake. The presentation is terrific - swirling backgrounds of symbolic dream images or sleepiness-contorted real world fragments. I think the plunging, swirling staircase was my favorite. It also plays with font and layout in intriguing and evocative ways very much adhering to its mission statement.

The story it tells is drowning in specificity, to its great benefit. It’s not trying to be a general dream state, with shadowy details that might or might not resonate with you the reader. It presents a protagonist of specific experiences, well and tightly described, then sleepily distorts those vignettes. That is its true power. Those specific details are our entry into this halfway-state. Only by understanding what clear looks like to we appreciate the depths of murky. I was swept along in its thrall, and happily report it delivers its intent with panache and confidence.

My first playthrough left me in a happy fog, kind of like an hour into an evening of edibles. Uh, so I’m told. Always leave them wanting more, right? Well, when I want more, I want MORE. In this case, that meant revisiting this short work.

Peppered throughout the proceedings are occasions where you get to select sleep v wakefulness. I decided to poke a bit, see what those choices amounted to. This was a mistake. During first playthrough, my selections had everything to do with the ebb and flow of the dreamstate. Where did it FEEL like I was going. That was cool.

Second time, deliberately playing with it, it looked to me like those choices had no effect on the narrative. Worse, the way I determined that was making a choice, then going back and making the other choice. Sometimes this was not possible, but when it was I detected no difference in the subsequent text. It didn’t seem to matter which choice you made. Except it did, because making a choice and rolling with it kept you in the flow of the piece. Stutter-stepping back and forth shattered that calm and effectively destroyed the mood of the piece. Which was really its whole point!

Learn from my mistakes, team. This is a really cool one-off experience. Like my oft-cited butterfly, examining it closely wrecks it.

Mystery, Inc: Shaggy. You know why.
Vibe: Pre-Munchies Fog
Polish: Smooth
Gimme the Wheel! : What would I do if it were my project? Good question, it is very accomplished at going after its goals. I think I would expand the use of music. Ambient sounds often try to reflect the current scene, but their transitions to new scenes are usually abrupt. Rather than disrupt the flow, I think I would commit to an unbroken, dreamy soundtrack. Music could powerfully underline the mood it is going for. Even better if you could engineer smooth thematic changes as the game progresses and avoid those jarring cuts.


Voyage of the Marigold by Andrew Stephens
Playtime: 1.75hrs, 4 plays, 4 fails

Have we culturally saturated ourselves on Star Trek riffs? I won’t leave that hang: No. No we have not. VoM leverages a deeper-cut aspect of its inspiration to tremendous advantage: reductive two-fisted approaches to complicated problems.

Let me start by acknowledging ALL narrative is reductive. Figuring out what to reduce to tell a compelling story is a core challenge of storytelling. What details are important to the tenor of the piece? What details destroy the piece with abject ‘realism’? Adventure fiction in particular uses two-fisted action either as metaphoric shorthand or as a mechanism to deliver morally-unambiguous thrills. In our post-COVID world, the idea of sending an under-fueled, under-gunned boat of cure through enemy territory with insufficient resources to get there… ridiculous! This is a diplomatic/large military operation of infinite complexity and nuance!

In Star Trek world though? THIS IS EXACTLY THE CORRECT APPROACH. Evoking that vibe bypasses any quibbles we might have and puts us smack into the right frame of mind. The piece does not provide thinly veiled caricatures of familiar characters. Why would it? There’s plenty of that out there already. Instead, it crafts a series of Trekky scenarios in just the perfect combination of unique and familiar. We are essentially watching a season-long arc (presuming Trek trucked in that) on fast forward. Our familiarity plays off these scenarios in exactly the right way to maximize our enjoyment and minimize drag. We don’t need the details, we get it. It is a terrific choice, implemented confidently, and lands like gangbusters.

We are blindly exploring a sensor-defying nebula, searching for the route to a plague-ridden planet. Encountering all manner of alien species, strange phenomenon and ancient artifacts, not to mention meddling Glingons. And solving them all via WWKD. (What Would Kirk Do?) Each mini-encounter is an abbreviated television episode where we are trying to wring out fuel, weapon upgrades or information and not lose TOO many redshirts. They are satisfyingly broad, varied and dangerous. If we seize initiative and power through, with a little luck we might save the day.

First time, I didn’t . Ran out of gas. Barely skimmed the endscreen before cycling back in for more. On repeat play, some gameplay artifacts started showing. For one, encounters started repeating. Obviously I was more successful second time. For another, the path through the nebula randomized, meaning every game would feature blind exploration, with many possible deadends and backtracks. I failed again, this time as a result of an encounter decision I had no way of deducing. Just guessed wrong. Then out of fuel again on a third run.

Then a playthrough that broke me. Applying what I had learned to by-now-familiar scenarios, and focusing maniacally on refuel opportunities I explored to within four jumps of the end, with three doses of fuel. It was in sight! I was presented with a wormhole that promised to shoot me… somewhere. No way to predict, just guess. I guessed… wrong. It shot me so far from the goal, and provided no opportunity to refuel. I conclude: 1) the randomizer is not adequately constrained for balanced gameplay and 2) waaay too much weight is placed on blind guessing problem solving. The latter is bad, but at least manageable through repeat gameplay. Coupled with blind exploration, the former is death. To know that I can exhaust fuel through no fault of my own, or be placed in unwinnable state by random luck… these are deeply unsatisfying experiences.

Even with all that though, the charm of the setup and encounters still shines through. Yes, maybe they get a little tiresome once ‘solved’ but they haven’t yet chafed. Yes, it was a fun, immersive experience for the first few runs. No, it is not compelling enough to fight the randomizer until you win. But honestly, you still get plenty of grins without that.

I realize, due to my stream of consciousness ramblings, I have neglected to praise the MacIntosh-1bit graphics which are just delightful and resonate with the retro-narrative vibe in a terrific way. For whatever reason, Ink continues to showcase superior graphic design, and Marigold is a proud member of that fraternity.

Mystery, Inc: “We’ve got a Mystery on our Hands, Gang” Fred
Vibe: Boldly Going…
Polish: Gleaming
Gimme the Wheel! : If this were my project I would pay attention to the route randomizer, and ensure refueling opportunities are presented frequently enough to avoid dead runs. I would ALSO double, maybe triple the encounter mix, so that replays have a decent chance of showing some new ones in with the old. Reward replays with new challenges and opportunities to bellow loudly at the sky. GGGLLEEEEEEXXX!!


Thank you for such nice words about my game, you completely got what I was going for. “Watching a season-long arc (presuming Trek trucked in that) on fast forward” was basically the design summary.

I am flabbergasted that people are replaying VotM so much, I assumed that most people would play it once or twice and be done with it. The game does make an attempt to give the player a fair chance to reach the end with some helpful sectors but it is still possible to have really bad luck.

That said, I am sure your decision to enter a strange wormhole when the end was in sight came up at the Federation court martial when the Marigold was finally rescued.


Loose Ends by Daniel Stelzer and Anais Sommerfeld
Playtime: 1.75hrs, Stayed in city, joined a faction

For as big a horror fan as I am, vampire-fetishism has never been my bag. To the extent that I have any tabletop RPG history it would be more Call of Chtulhu than : Masquerade. Despite leading with its inspiration (the latter), I was very pleased with the smoothness Loose Ends got me up to speed on the deep background of factions, norms and abilities. Trickle feeding lore as it was needed was so much more engaging than a massive infodump would have been.

I was positively delighted that gameplay and story owed a lot more to Noir Detective than RPG sourcebook. Like a lot of great Noir, it uses a very specific political and social backdrop to inform a more-than-appears mystery, with a hard-boiled, out-of-their-depth outsider player-detective. It also seems to be a pretty deep implementation, supporting a variety of play styles. A handful of selectable skills and abilities seem to permute the player space in a nicely customized way.

It is a choice select mystery. This is a challenging paradigm for mysteries, as without careful curation, even simple absence/presence of options can provide unearned or mimesis threatening cluing. Loose Ends is not perfect here, but it is pretty darn good at it. Its biggest compromise on this front is marking options that may hold information with icons. It acts as a stealth hint system, that often wasn’t needed due to well-connected chains of clues. In one case though it did generate a repeat visit I might not have otherwise bothered with. I think on balance its value as a soft ‘director’ outweighs its downsides.

In addition to enabling a variety of player capabilities, the work also seems to enable a variety of player motivations and story paths. With diligence you can solve the (pretty cool) mystery, but what you DO with that solution seems to be up to you! That’s just nifty. It leverages Telltales’ ‘X WILL REMEMBER THAT’ mechanism to great effect, rewarding player choices with faction alignment that potentially changes the levers of power in the city. (Sidebar: Is there a more important narrative-game innovation in our lifetime than that pregnant phrase? I guess barring folks old enough to have seen the genre invented in the first place.)

My biggest quibble with the game is its lack of state awareness. Many times throughout the game, stock location descriptions include objects that have been removed, refer to dialogue that is no longer relevant, or concatenate game state text in jarring ways. In its most egregious artifact, it allows recovery of clues that have been destroyed. Below is an intrusive example:

Varkonyi has been waylaid by Lucille before he reaches you, and from the look on the Ventrue’s face, this is an inconvenience he doesn’t need. Lucille gets in close and Varkonyi meets her eyes, raises one hand, and spits out the word “Obey.” Lucille freezes—then a spasm runs through her body as her control of her own nerves is severed, muscles and tendons moving as Varkonyi directs. With another gesture he shuts down a bundle of nerves, sending her sprawling to the floor. For a moment she can do nothing but twitch, but with effort she staggers back to her feet.

Lucille stays close to your side, watching and waiting for the right moment to strike—and then she finds it. In a split second she’s right in the middle of everything, laughing wildly as she whirls around in a flurry of steel. Another split second and she’s thirty feet back, covering your advance.

I have some forgiveness for these kinds of artifacts and even so, the work had enough to push itself past my ‘just ignore it’ threshold.

The only other off note for me was the denouement. As these things do, it kind of summarized the net effect of your choices on the ultimate outcome. I was unpleasantly surprised to see my choices showed me aligning with a faction I had no intent of aligning with. In fact, I had deliberately attempted to preserve faction-free independence throughout the game. I suppose some combination of my final actions and who I chose to ally with swung the algorithm on me, but I was not expecting it.

So yeah, slightly sour ending but engaging through its runtime for sure. The story was recognizably employing Noir plot tropes with enough variation and specificity to keep it entertaining. A very worthwhile entry just not quite polished to perfection.

Mystery, Inc: Shaggy, though see the argument for Velma
Vibe: Vampy Noir
Polish: Textured
Gimme the Wheel! : Absolutely my version of this project would try to polish its state awareness as a first priority. I think I would also try to soft hint faction alignment implications to give a little more player information and influence on the outcome.


Octopus’s Garden by Michael D. Hilborn
Playtime: 45min

How smart are Octopi? One list had them #8 in ranked sub-human IQ, below Orangutan/Chimps, Dolphins, Elephants, Crows (wow, you go crows!), Pigs and Dogs. Other fun facts: Chimps and pigs have played video games. Smarter dogs have learned basic Parser vocabulary and Verb-Noun syntax. I mean, none of my dogs for sure, but some.

What drove me into that divergence was a sneaking suspicion that I was not as smart as an Octopus.

This is a one-room parser game. As a pet octopus (probably a thing, right? Some folks keep tigers and alligators, so sure), your goal is to change the view from your aquarium, and not get in trouble doing it. It is a wry, tight little game - maybe a three step puzzle with some red herrings to sort past. The nature of the puzzles were clever enough, yet because I declined to >X ME still required a hint. Followed by a headslap.

The humor here is gentle, mostly of the baffled-Octopus-take-on-weird-humans variety (I particularly liked the ‘For Neptune’s Sake’ expletive). If nothing else, the image of a baseball-cap wearing mischievous Octopus is a gift to all of us. If you imagine a balance-scale, with gameplay frictions on one side and puzzle challenge/raw humor on the other, a great IF experience would tilt noticeably to the latter. The greater the goods, the more frictions can be shrugged off. Here, the challenge/humor was lighter, and correspondingly, minor frictions suddenly became impactful to the balance.

There were quite a few: vocabulary was notably lacking in synonyms. Pillows but no pillow. Cap but no hat. Bathtub but no bath, and on. You were able to put items on the dresser before knowing how to retrieve them. Missing verb/nouns previously referenced in the prompt text. A continual need to resubmerge, but no shortcuts (that I found) to long form >GET IN AQUARIUM. Inability to >JUMP past an open drawer. None of these are fatal, but do accumulate against its lighter charms.

The final puzzle solution itself is probably the funniest part of it, and even that is a LITTLE weird because I-the-player landed on it super fast, but I-an-OCTOPUS would never have any idea to do that, nevermind what the outcome of his actions would be. There was a bit of a subversive charge to that dissonance that made for a high note ending. So, maybe I am smarter? Maybe it’s not a competition though, maybe the real competition is who is less delicious? Which I win HANDS DOWN! Hopefully unverifiably so.

Mystery, Inc: Scooby
Vibe: Playful
Polish: Textured
Gimme the Wheel! : Ironing out the vocabulary frictions for sure would be my priority if this were my project. This is a clever, wry little game. Getting the parser out the way would let it land without caveat.


Thank you so much for your review! I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and it sounds like your experience was almost exactly what we were going for.

I see what you mean about the state-tracking problems—if you have a moment, we’d really appreciate if you’d send us the details of the worst offenders, especially the one that recovers a destroyed clue (oops!). Having Lucille fight on your side was originally only possible if you agreed to join the Camarilla, which is why the ending is written that way, but I see now we added another option without modifying that appropriately. The intent is you’ll only get that ending if you explicitly say to Belmont “I want to join you”.

But apart from those issues, that’s exactly the sort of experience I was hoping people would take away from the story, so I’m so glad it worked for you despite those snags.


Zomburbia by Charles Moore, Jr.
Playtime: 2hrs, unwinnable at 1.5. Restarted, 1.25hrs later ANOTHER unwinnable state? score 260/300, Read spoilers, done

An old school lightly-horror-themed parser? Seems like this entry would be talking my love language. Thing is, my intro to the hobby decades ago is definitely seen through rose colored glasses. There are aspects to parsers that I enjoyed when we didn’t know any better but DEFINITELY don’t want to revisit forty years on.

Let’s start with the good callbacks. I have referred to something I call the “Implementation Horizon” in parsers - the level of implemented detail that acts as a soft signal to the player where to stop poking. Zomburbia integrates this horizon deftly into its gameplay by leaning to VERY SHALLOW. This is not a problem, in fact it is very much a strength. Because the implementation is shallow, area descriptions are terse, punchy, and signal interesting items clearly and crisply. There is no futzing about with smothering detail, hunting out the one interesting noun in a sea of them. You don’t need to be TOLD you need the brooch. Its simple presence indicates that quite clearly. This should not be underestimated as a creative choice, it really smooths out player frictions and drag in a seemingly broad space.

The shallow implementation also dovetails nicely with old-school brevity. Descriptions are not flowery and dense, they convey their imagery and importance economically and crisply. The net effect is to make this mid-sized game kind of zippy. Couple that with a good-natured, quirky setup and cast, light humor (especially in death scenes) and it enables a very amiable old school experience. One of my favorite touches was the protagonist slowly turning into a zombie. A great little goose to the proceedings. Kevin was also just delightful.

It definitely has gaps though. It is one thing to have a shallow implementation horizon, it is another to not fully plumb that horizon. There are a LOT of unimplemented synonyms, inadequate disambiguation prompts, and bugs (in one instance, dropped items were not listed in room location, and needed me to reread my transcript to figure out what needed picking up.) Some papers were coldly listed as ‘not flammable’ as I sparred with a particular puzzle. It did not fully recognize game state, in one instance telling me You can’t find anything wrong with the broken hedge trimmers. Those broken ones you mean? Nothing notable comes to mind?

All of that could definitely have been forgiven had the game not also leaned into my two LEAST favorite old school tropes: inventory management and unwinnable states. The former was never really entertaining as a puzzle, it was a misguided attempt at ‘realism’ in works that didn’t need or want it. Its effect is book-keeping drudgery of the least entertaining kind. And this from a guy that plays with spreadsheets. Unfun wastes of my time grate here, particularly when the overall vibe is otherwise so fleet.

Which brings me to the unforgivable sin (according to Monsignor McC) of this game: quietly unwinnable states. My first playthrough, after two hours I stumbled into two of them. One of them was at least clued by in-game warnings, another… just happened? I was on the edge here: was the game enjoyable enough for a replay, two hours in? Its attitude was so friendly, I wanted to give it the benefit of the doubt, so I plowed back in. Took me ~40 minutes to retrace my steps which was longer than I wanted at skim-speed, but then got back in the flow. Thirty-five minutes later I had racked up 260 points and was firmly into endgame… when I think I hit another one. I say ‘think’ because I had a flash of something I should have done, but at that point was beyond my UNDO window to revisit. It is possible that the game could have provided NPC business to reopen that window, but nothing in my experience so far indicated that was likely.

Ok, yes, not having a savepoint is on me. I knew what I was in for at this point, I’m an adult with some level of object permanence and cause-effect understanding. What can I say, I let the breezy environment lull me. So here I am, maybe two steps from end, do I go back AGAIN, maybe another hour’s worth of replay? I do not. Old school parsers didn’t have a wealth of alternatives vying for our time. They were what they were, was up to us to meet them on their own flawed terms. Today? I got choices, man. I chose to read the Hint sheet to see what I missed and yeah, I was on the right path. Yay? sigh I woulda really liked that, had I not needed to rewind so far.

Mystery, Inc: “Z-z-z-ZOMBIES?!?!” Shaggy
Vibe: weirdly enough, Scooby-Doo Horror
Polish: Rough
Gimme the Wheel! : If it were my project, I would eliminate any and all possibility of unwinnable states. Just kill them with fire. If that doesn’t sate my blinding rage, then nuke the inventory management too.

zb_jjmcc.txt (172.9 KB)
zb2_jjmcc.txt (149.1 KB)


Thanks for playing.

I also hate unwinnable situations with a white-hot passion. FYI, there is a “winnable” command in the game (it’s off by default) that will notify the player when they’re in a walking-dead state.

I’m only now realizing, though, that if the player never types “about” or “help”, then they’ll never know this. Duh. In the future, will make this more obvious up front.



Pass a Bill by Leo Weinreb
Playtime: 25min, Master of Politics, 4/7 deaths

If there is a more fraught topic to mine for slapstick comedy at the moment than US politics, I’d like to know what it is. Biting Satire? Caricature? Anarchic Absurdism? Absolutely. Anything with a point of view and an edge, the sharper the better. But slapstick requires a much lighter devil-may-care tone, especially if you’re going to have the player engage in cartoon violence with actual fatalities. Due to an accident of birth coinciding with narrative cues, I can only interpret this work through the lens of US politics. I apologize to anyone looking for different.

The work seems to understand its comedic challenge, and opens by positioning itself atop three super-exaggerated supports. 1) Ossified Bureaucracy cynicism. 2) Both-sides-equivalence-ism. 3) Narrative Simplification to the point of abstraction. The latter, I think, is the one that gives this piece its fighting chance of working. The unsung hero of support #3 is the illustration style. There is no better clue that nuance and accuracy are not welcome here than its visual palette and artwork style. I do not intend it backhanded when I say it is reminiscent of childlike doodlings. In fact, it is quite crucial that it is. The visual/artistic shorthand gives permission in a sense for the other two legs to stand unashamedly.

Absent the graphical cues, legs one and two seem hopelessly misguided against the last decade. We are not pretending to distort and mock actual politics here, we are exaggerating inadequate cliches about politics as a backdrop for madcap antics. The player intro drives this home superbly - our goal is to pass the most hilariously inoffensive law imaginable. Just the one. These low-seeming stakes in this alternate-reality West Wing divorces us from having to parse real-world parallels, or suss out layered meanings. So when bizarre character turns, hidden labs, Looney Tunes violence happen, we are not bound to decode them, we can just roll and play in the space. Even the ending that provided the most hope was a funny bit of cynicism that would be actively appalling played against a more real backdrop.

I was game to do my best to go along for the ride. I committed to and suffered cartoon violence. I found all the non-death endings. I freely sampled the actual death endings. I don’t think I ever fully escaped the spectre of its inadequacies in reflecting its purported subject matter but I got pretty close. There was a detail that troubled me about this more than any other - that the unnamed opposing parties were colored red and blue. For me, I needed to be pulled OUT of that space, and those colors were a counter-productive reminder. Literally any other colors, I dunno, pink and teal?

Ultimately, it didn’t quite succeed for me in replacing our dire reality with its own. But there were sequences that absolutely did pull me into its mad orbit for a few moments of subversive glee. At its best, it kind of made me long for ITS version of toxic politics over what we are actually living with.

Mystery, Inc: Scooby
Vibe: Slapstick
Polish: Smooth
Gimme the Wheel! : For sure I would change those colors, if this were my project. I would also try to infuse other touches to further distance from current reality, and sell the Bizzarro Congress. The zanier the better.


Altarach by Katie Canning and Josef Olsson
Playtime: 2hrs

It is rare for me to see the ‘Interactive’ and ‘Fiction’ aspects of a work as truly separate things. Sure, I sometimes lean on those aspects when writing about IF works because its honestly pretty convenient, but the alchemy is how they come together to form a new, more interesting thing. I mean, isn’t that why we’re here? Fiction without interactivity is a story. Interactivity without fiction is a parlor game. There is always an implicit question about the combo, ‘what does interactivity bring to the table v like, just reading a book.’ (That is somehow a more interesting question than ‘what if bingo had a character arc???’)

I’m not an academic, and there’s probably much better thought out constructs than whatever I’m about to type next but let me try to call out some explicit things interactivity can bring to a narrative.

  • collaborative character building through choice architecture and prioritization, more strongly investing the reader in a protagonist
  • narrative pacing for dramatic effect
  • dynamic graphical flourishes to enhance specific moments
  • collaborative plot development, letting reader input influence events; at its most pronounced resulting in multiple, orthogonal stories (all of which provisioned by the author in some way)

There is a temptation to categorize based on the latter. Is it a linear story enhanced by Interactivity? A pass/fail narrative of puzzle solving? A full branching narrative of ever-richer complexity and text volume only the minority of which is presented in any one playthrough? None of these are inherently better than any other, just different aims.

I’ve spent a lot of time on this explication, while nominally discussing Alltarach (seems I gotta get there sooner or later). I’ve done that because this is the first work I concluded the interactivity might have detracted (though not completely!) from the experience. So, let’s surgeon scalpel this thing and talk story first.

This is a deeply accomplished story with a compelling central conceit: that Irish Myth and Christianity (specifically its lore) coexist on equal footing with each other. That Cu Chulainn and Saint Patrick are basically peers, and exist and influence mortal affairs in qualitatively similar pro-active ways. What an amazingly subversive and challenging premise! I honestly gasped when I realized what it was about. It takes the trappings of Mythic lore and applies them to a time of growing Christian influence in a Battle of the Gods as it were. CHRISTIANITY IS EXACTLY AS TRUE AS MYTH. Whooo, swinging for the bleachers! I love the unrestrained chutzpah of it! It does make for some really shocking and strange juxtapositions, like when Christianity (as the newcomer) is positioned as the more liberal, accepting strain of belief. I didn’t read that as a fault though, more as a bold-faced CHALLENGE. It is a gutsy, supercharged take of pure audacity and I love it for that.

And it is EARNED. Thanks to a detailed bibliography, its mythic trappings are comprehensive and well thought out, employed progressively through a story of escalating scope. The text veritably oozes with Irish authenticity. Literally so, if you read the copious footnote bubbles as pushing through the story, so dense that the story cannot keep them contained. Between the richness of the tone, its authentic patina and pure audacity, it is easy to be swept along by this tale and I was.

So let’s talk about that tale: a sister searching for a lost brother and uncovering mythic truths and family secrets. The brother is portrayed as a stoic but compelling mystery, the protagonist as detached and a bit helpless, and both grow and change throughout the story. They are mostly up to the task of navigating this deeply compelling world, but for different reasons can’t help but pale a bit next to it. The WAY they pale though, almost always devolves to the way interactivity is employed.

Let’s start with the protagonist. She is our main interactive avatar for most of the story. We set her priorities in how we pursue the investigation. We set her character in how we choose to interact with other characters. We collaboratively build and invest in her… to a point. The story is often good at integrating our input, but significantly also often whiffs on it. In my play, there was a local boy of repellant ego who I rejected at every turn. Nevertheless, the story insisted on a path I had avoided. Similarly, another boy I flirted with amounted to nothing. Choices I had intended to be mild reproach turned into bitter, over-emotive outbursts. Discussion topics I prioritized according to an inner character priority read out of order, emotionally. It all had a distancing effect where my Brid was at war with the piece’s Brid.

Similarly the brother. While I liked the graphical cues when the narrative shifted to his perspective, his interactions struck me as distinctly different than his early characterization. I could rationalize early scenes, where he was alone and presumably we were seeing an inner life he shields from others. But when reunited, if anything, he gets MORE emo and expressive, as presented in dialogue choices I might select. Okay, that was a bit glib. Admittedly he was going through some stuff. Even so, the contrast to his early characterization (unremarked upon by our protagonist!) was jarring. The cumulative effect of both of those things was characters at war with the narrative because of interactivity.

Perhaps its biggest deflation was in plot influence. The climax is structured as a conversation between the siblings to decide the results of the quest. Interestingly, the player gets to cycle between them, taking both sides of the dialogue. I liked this in concept. On the sister’s side I felt this was reasonably well implemented, and fit a dialogue-based game paradigm of ‘can I convince him through topic selection?’ The other side though, felt kind of all over the place - inconsistent characterization, uncanny and incomplete response availability and ultimately a BIG DECISION. My problem was, until the end none of it felt strictly under my control despite my nominal driving, to the point the final real choice felt untethered. Because I could form no coherent character in my head, I actually had no idea what me-as-brother would do, or even why those choices were available at that specific point. So I cheated, and chose what the sister wanted (she earned it!). And didn’t feel great about it.

To walk back some negativity, let me say the other aspects of interactivity - graphic flourishes and text pacing were done very well, and to advantage. In particular the POV cues in color and font were really nicely rendered.

So where does that leave me? A piece whose setup and background are top tier that I can’t express enough admiration for. Whose employment of Irish Myth was entrancing. Whose take on Christianity was confrontive and challenging. Whose language and narrative are superb. And that only fell down when it let ME get involved. So, who’s the problem here?

Mystery, Inc: Daphne
Vibe: Mythic
Polish: Gleaming
Gimme the Wheel! : If it were my project, I would marvel that I had anything this transgressive and marvelous in me. Then I would, with great regret, excise the brother’s side of interactivity and focus on sharpening the sister’s choices, responses and climactic gameplay. Because y’know, SAYING I’d do that is just super easy.


Doctor Jeangille’s Letters by manonamora
Playtime: 1.75hrs, all but 1st on FF, 3.5 endings

Epistolary works - fictions composed of purported real world text artifacts - are a compelling conceit. They allow for indirect world and character building where the reader is assembling an oblique narrative in their head. Part of the joy of these kinds of work is watching it evolve and click into place. The other part is the charge ‘real world documents’ give to the proceedings. A lot hinges on the form of those documents - they need to be a fine balance of plausible and informative. In particular, any sense that the documents are aimed at a third party reader (us!) instead of their in-world targets can undermine everything it wants to achieve.

I am delighted to report Jeangille just crushes the form of it. From its graphical presentation, its font use, to the measured content of the faux-missives we are drip-fed a tale of forbidden love and forbidden… other stuff. I found it unimpeachable in its conceit, almost never cracking to the pressures of info-dump to uninformed third party. Rather, it was deliberate in alluding to events the correspondents clearly understood in a way to slowly and naturally bring us up to speed. In particular, the mercurial tone of the author was nicely observed - they are not in the same monotone mood throughout their notes. Longing, anger, depression, new fascinations, petty jealousy, all are on display underscoring the fullness of the protagonist and the emotional passage of time. The crucial element here is the correspondents’ fascination with ‘gossip,’ allowing for plot-relevant events to be conveyed without artifice.

The language of the letters equally does some heavy lifting here. Its Romantic formality is the right balance of omnipresent but conceding to modern sensibilities in a way that allows us to acknowledge but not be distracted.

The interactiveness of the piece leverages its strengths in a dynamite way - periodically we are given opportunity to shade emotions, events and attitudes by selecting among alternatives. When done well, it has the precise flavor of composing a letter! Toying with a variety of subjects and phrasings to convey exactly what we want and putting us firmly in the protagonist’s chair. If I had any notes here, it would be that it was more powerfully realized when the page was blank below the choice, and filled in after, rather than embedded in otherwise unchangeable text. That underscored the ‘composing a letter’ dynamic that was so cool.

Through these interactive choices, the plot proceeds to a climax of which, depending on how your choices landed throughout the correspondence, I found 3.5 possible endings. And here’s where I can’t keep being coy about the plot, will try to spoiler my way through it.

We all know what is arguably the most famous epistolary novel, right? (LINK IS A SPOILER) It’s so foundational, it becomes a trope of that genre in other works. (LINKS ALSO SPOILERS) Ok, fine. Vampires. The prior art is Vampires. Those resonances are so pronounced that even the slightest supporting event, alluded to most obliquely, immediately sets off alarm bells in the head and everything forward is contorted through that lens. We are ahead of the narrator, biting our nails for the inevitable escalation. Or better, awaiting the knowing twist from the author that crushes our expectations most delightfully.

The latter does not happen here and in another format that might be a slight let down. I mean it is here too, but it is more than compensated by the interactivity. As a player, we can low-key steer things into various endings in a VERY satisfying way so what we lose in meta-surprise we more than gain in the narrative collaboration. There is still a slight issue here, so slight I hesitate to bring it up, but I’m in this far. At the climactic decision we are meta-empowered to drive to a conclusion, clearly conveyed by the choice wordings. On a single playthrough, it is not clear how deeply our prior choices inform things, and we might be tempted to metagame it in an unsatisfying way. I didn’t, but I dwelt on the choice enough to recognize the peril. That musing itself pulled me out of the narrative flow at least a little bit. In one sense it might be more powerful if those final choices were less broad, instead informed by prior selections. (At least one choice IS so constrained.) In another sense though, that might backpressure replayability, burying its strengths under opaque gameplay that the wordiness could not sustain. After much reflection, I think the right choice was made. What a relief for the author!

Because even this minor quibble faded on repeat plays. My admiration only increased for the work in the sense that the 3.5 endings I got were all different, yet satisfying conclusions to a choice architecture that allowed me to build naturally to each one. Ok, not the 1/2 ending, that one made me play-mad, but the rest for sure.

So that’s my conclusion. A well-realized, graphically compelling, tightly controlled work with satisfying plot arcs under player control. Thanks for coming! What remains are two short observations to the author, no need to stay around for those. Bye now!


I think maybe my browser is to blame, but the nifty corner controls appeared to have missing characters or graphics?


I thought the translation was top notch. Sensitized to it by the blurb, I thought I would grab any phrases that jarred (y’know, to be helpful), but I only got one. I’m not sure what the original intent of the phrase ‘deleterious of any story’ is.

Mystery, Inc: Daphne
Vibe: Snail Mail
Polish: Gleaming
Gimme the Wheel! : I think, were it my project, I would double down on the ‘composing a letter’ paradigm and stage the text rather than provide inline options. Now I SAY that, but there is every possibility the reality of that would not be as satisfying as I think, and I’d end up reverting it anyway.


I’m on team Choderlos.


But, but, there’s not even one vampire in that!


Emotional drainage, my friend. Don’t even need fangs.

And I understand that it’s become a very vampiric thing to declare one’s team allegiance.


Thanks so much for the thorough and incisive review. Do you mind if I PM you about some of the sticking points you mentioned? We were definitely aiming for a basically linear story enhanced by interactivity, but you’re not the only person to mention feeling a divorce between your choices and how Bríd reacts so I’d like to interrogate that disconnect.

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