Joey's IFComp 2021 Reactions

Hi all! It’s a pleasure to see the community so alive during IFComp.

Looking through the list of entries this year, I’ve got to say: wow. They all look so promising! I already feel like there’s a distinctive zeitgeist to this year’s comp, and perhaps I’ll comment more upon this later - suffice it for now to say that there seems to be an extraordinary selection of thematically ambitious works.

Thank you to all the authors for sharing these games and stories with us!

Current reactions in alphabetical order:
AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze
After-Words, by fireisnormal
An Aside About Everything, by Sasha
Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner
The Best Man, by Stephen Bond
Closure, by Sarah Willson
The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair
Cyborg Arena, by John Ayliff
The daughter, by Giovanni Rubino
The Dead Account, by Bez
Fine Felines, by Felicity Banks
Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda and Luke Marceta with art by Kristina Ness
The Last Doctor, by Quirky Bones
The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag
The Miller’s Garden, by Damon L. Wakes
Smart Theory, by AKheon
This Won’t Make You Happy, by Mike Gillis
Weird Grief, by Bez

AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze

Of all the tantalizing blurbs I scrolled through, I naturally gravitated most strongly to the one that promised a beat-up 1989 Toyota Celica. This probably speaks volumes to the quirks of my psychology, but let’s not dwell on that right now.

In some ways, AardVarK is about what I expected (and hoped for): a ludicrous, irreverent, action-packed teen comedy. Our plucky, disaffected young heroes are a motley crew. They are caught in that stage of life when defining oneself is an almost existential struggle - that stage when the excesses and contradictions of counterculture seem much more palatable than the prospect of conformity with an absurd status quo. Except, in this case, their psychological struggle is writ large as an actual existential threat posed by a murderously absurd mainstream.

In terms of technical sophistication, it surpassed my expectations with a fairly complex scheme of POV-switching and time-shifting. The puzzles were mostly easy and fun in a zany kind of way, and any difficulties I encountered were mainly due to me not reading a few key lines carefully enough.

I encountered several minor bugs and one fairly annoying one, but nothing game-breaking.

Somewhat more spoilery musings for the initiated:

I view AardVarK as a sort of abbreviated bildungsroman. It’s a story about adolescence and the struggle to become emotionally/socially mature, but not much (if any) actual maturation takes place - it’s just a snapshot of a point in the process. Confronted with an absurd world (one in which their peers have become zombified by evil soda), the heroes do what any teenager would do: stake out their own identities, insisting on self-expression by way of loud music, which will surely save the world.

It’s the sort of self-centric adolescent fantasy that just makes sense. The fact that the plot is designed in such a way that the fate of humanity itself hinges on some kids’ ability to play their garage music is perfectly evocative of the kind of overwrought conflict that classic teen drama is all about. It’s brilliant in concept.

The ending, I think, is the weakest part of the story. The author does a great job of building up tension and excitement for a hilariously convenient final confrontation. But then, when the player finally clears the final hurdle, the climactic moment is very brief, and while we can draw inferences about how things ultimately turned out for the protagonists, we never see any real closure for them. If they learned anything and grew as people, it’s not mentioned; or even if the ending is supposed to be pure power fantasy, it is subverted by having such a short, abruptly-described moment in which to appreciate the heroes’ triumph. If the final (pre-epilogue) scene were to be expanded upon for more of an emotional payoff, I believe it would take this story from good to excellent.

The Best Man, by Stephen Bond

Dealing with people is not easy, nor is dealing with the (great and small) traumas that arise when one’s relationships do not go as desired. Different folks deal with these difficulties in different ways, developing their own imperfect adaptations for navigating the social landscape.

This, I think, is basically what The Best Man sets out to explore. As one proceeds through scenes involving several different viewpoint characters, one gets a sense of how they’ve learned to interact with people, how they’ve come to think about their relationships with those around them. Every viewpoint character has dealt with some struggle and come out of it with certain tools for getting by as a social being, but they are always provisional tools. None of them are fully satisfied with, or fully in control of their social lives. They’ve just learned to satisfy their needs as best they can.

I felt that all of the viewpoint characters were very believable, and most of them richly realized. Verisimilitude is prized. The author has a remarkable talent for conveying a feeling of who a character is, and why they are that way, even if that character features in only a small part of the story. To read The Best Man is an exercise in empathizing with a broad range of different types of people.

At the heart of it is the main viewpoint character, Aiden; to explore his psyche is to at least dip one’s toes into madness. But it is a madness that is all the more chilling because it is understandable. Every one of Aiden’s bizarre acts and wild misperceptions make perfect sense in the context of his attitudes toward himself and others - attitudes which arose as adaptations (or rather, maladaptations) to his circumstances, allowing him to fulfil his psychological needs when more wholesome solutions were not forthcoming. It all makes sense; it feels real, which makes it powerful and disturbing.

Somewhat more spoilery musings for the initiated:

Suppose that you want to be loved and respected (which, I think, will not require much imagination on the part of most people). Now suppose that you are looked down upon by all - for your awkwardness, for your weird movements, for your strange sense of style, for your poor ability to read social cues. Suppose that you are viewed with contempt, or at best, pity from those around you.

If those things were all true, could you accept it? Could you admit it to yourself?

Aiden could not, and that is why he inhabits a world that is, to a great extent, his own fantasy. Reality, after all, is a constant onslaught against Aiden’s sense of self-worth. To combat it, he retreats into a world in which anything that can affirm his value is distorted and amplified to grotesque proportions, and anything else is ignored. His resulting flights of grandiosity and inability to tell when people have problems with his behavior only serve to marginalize him further, reinforcing his need to ignore reality.

While all of the viewpoint characters are well-written, the dynamics of Aiden’s mental landscape are rendered in especially nauseating detail. I feel that the author’s skill in conveying this material is exceptional. The work is beautifully, evocatively uncomfortable.

The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair

This choice-based story is told through somewhat indirect means. Most of the action is shown retrospectively as the protagonist inspects transcripts, emails, and other documents related to a court case that has already been decided. Even the framing narrative is shown mostly through a text conversation rather than being directly addressed to the player.

In principle, I have no opinion one way or the other about this structure, but I will say that I thought the documents were very well done and presented a convincing sense of authenticity. Take that with a grain of salt because I am not an expert on what the various example of legal/medical documents are supposed to look like; all I can really say is “could have fooled me.”

The experience mostly consists of learning the details of the court case, and being encouraged to take an opinion on it. I found the case itself quite engrossing, but the interactivity is a bit of a weak spot. None of the options are hugely committal, but even so, I felt like the game expected me to make some calls before I had enough information to really form an opinion; I would have appreciated the opportunity to select a purely noncommittal option at certain points. The options are relatively few and don’t feel like they have a lot of gravity.

Somewhat more spoilery musings for the initiated:

The case itself is complex enough to present some ethical dilemmas and call for some interpretation; a person could spend a lot of time thinking about their opinion of it, which I did. Was the defendant criminally negligent? To what extent, if any, does the prosecution’s witness bear responsibility for the terrible outcome of the child services hearing? If one agrees that the defendant should have been found not guilty, might one still approve of the decision to bring charges against him as a means of encouraging institutional change?

This is indeed an engrossing story. But the in-game dialogue options explore the issues only in terms of very general sentiments. Throughout the story, it is teased that the protagonist will have to face the boss and talk about the case, presumably taking a position on some specific issues, but the work ends before that actually happens. I think I would have preferred for such a scene to be included for the sake of offering some closure and allowing the player to structure their take on the case. Perhaps this was not done because the author felt that the case was too complex to be reduced to a choice-based analysis? But I think it could have worked and offered a more satisfying payoff.

The Last Doctor, by Quirky Bones

In a walled enclave, a doctor does the best they can with very little.

Though the blurb is brief, it gives a very accurate sense of what this game is about. Faced with limited resources and other constraining circumstances, you, as a doctor in what seems to be a dystopian future, must make decisions about how to run your practice.

Three decisions, to be exact (in each of my two playthroughs). This is a bite-sized game. I enjoyed it; what is there is well-written and poses some real ethical dilemmas to the player.

I’m craving more, though. A longer and more fleshed-out version of this game sounds very appealing. I especially would like to know more about the history and current state of the city in which the doctor operates. The worldbuilding was enough to pique my interest.

This Won't Make You Happy, by Mike Gillis

Contrary to how it is advertised, I did not find this game funny at all, but I found value in it nonetheless.

Spoilers follow, it’s difficult to say anything substantive about this game without them:

This Won’t Make You Happy has much to offer: trying to eat stalactites; killing a goblin (it was self-defense, I swear); staring at a black wall. But most of all, it consists of collecting gems. Why? The protagonist studies the works of several real-life video game theorists to try to answer this very question, and ultimately concludes that it’s because the gems are shiny and it’s just fun to collect them.

One can also attempt to eat the gems, which is not successful. This, I feel, is the most important aspect of the game. To be clear: it’s a choice-based game and the author intentionally provides the option of attempting to eat the gems at several points.

So I think there is significance in the juxtaposition of the choice to merely collect the gems, which is successful, against the choice to try to eat them, which is not successful. Perhaps it is a comment on the nature of gaming, or at least of certain types of gaming. One can get a fleeting pleasure from collecting virtual macguffins, but it can’t nourish the human being in the way that one really needs. Ultimately, such a diversion won’t make you happy.

That, at least, is my best attempt to interpret this work.

I played The Best Man based on this review, and I am so glad. I normally don’t care much for choice-based IF, but this one is really stellar. Thanks for pointing me to it!

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Glad to hear it!

Smart Theory, by AKheon

Imagine the most unscrupulous, the most manipulative, the most intellectually dishonest rhetorical tactics you’ve ever heard from an ostensibly left-wing intellectual trying to sell something. Now make it 10% more absurd and goofy so that you can laugh instead of cry. That’s Smart Theory: basically a lambaste of bad, hypocritical rhetoric. You get dragged into a lecture to listen to a caricature of someone like Robin DiAngelo try to berate, threaten, and otherwise manipulate you into buying a book.

It’s a political commentary of limited scope. No actual policy positions are criticized, only the rhetorical tactics that certain people have used to argue for them. The titular theory itself - the one being promoted by the lecturer - consists of nothing identifiable with any real-world ideology even though the language used to promote it is very clearly a lampoon of things said by leftists.

I do not believe that Smart Theory is intended to stigmatize leftism and its adherents in general, because that would be at odds with the fact that it obviously decries that kind of absolutist, us-versus-them thinking. Indeed, saying anything about leftism as a broad, abstract cultural entity might be against the ethos of the game, which prizes nuance and satirizes political tribalism.

Maybe it is intended as a scathing indictment of everything and everyone left-of-center, but this would make the author wildly hypocritical according to the above points, and I have no reason to believe this is the case.

On the other hand, I have every reason to believe that some portion of the audience can and will interpret it that way, whether to their joy or distress. And I think it is a weakness of the game that it leaves itself vulnerable to such an interpretation. If I am correct in thinking that the goal here is to criticize bad rhetoric rather than any specific policies or ideals for which it is mobilized, then this message would have been bolstered by including some bad right-leaning rhetoric as well.

Closure, by Sarah Willson

Right away, I was impressed with the presentation of Closure, which simulates a smartphone-style text conversation within a parser game - complete with speech bubbles! The entire thing is framed as the protagonist sending and receiving messages to/from their friend, who acts out or otherwise responds to the player’s input.

I think this is an excellent idea. It’s the only example I’ve seen of a parser game directly contextualizing the player’s act of typing within the simulated world (although admittedly I have not played enough parser games to know if this really is the first to do such a thing). Either way, I like the concept a lot, and it’s very robustly-implemented. I tried to break the system by typing obviously incorrect things, and was usually met with a more-or-less plausible reply from the friend; I only noticed one command that failed to produce a proper in-universe text and instead defaulted to Inform’s normal failure response. From a technical design and implementation perspective, I would call this an enormous success.

Somewhat more spoilery musings for the initiated:

It is quickly stated that the goal of the game is to help your friend find a picture (while she is trespassing in her ex-boyfriend’s bedroom and rifling through his stuff, naturally). I find this a fairly hilarious concept for a game.

But the real beauty of it is revealed as it gradually becomes apparent that finding the literal picture is nothing more than a nominal goal; the real thrust of the story is that you help her get the metaphorical picture. That is, you help her come to a deeper understanding of who the ex-boyfriend really is as a person, and what went wrong in the relationship. A neat, concise bit of symbolism that really sold the story for me.

After-Words, by fireisnormal

Two words. All descriptions. Point, click. Abstract map.

Strange city. Artificial denizens.

Alien customs:

  • Techno-religion.
  • Opaque economy.
  • Security plants.
  • Unknown sports.
  • Inscrutable hierarchy.

Cool setting. Difficult play. Nested descriptions: excessive clicking.

One complaint. Author sometimesbendstherulesbystringingwordstogether.

Then at the end, the protagonist unlocks the power of sentences composed of more than two words, and it’s an enormous paradigm shift that provides a very satisfying payoff. That said, I still feel like I would have gotten more enjoyment out of this game if it never had the two-word limitation in the first place; there’s a fascinating world here that is hugely obfuscated by the brevity with which it is described.

An Aside About Everything, by Sasha

A surreal experience in which a person (or a god?) journeys to the center (of what?) in search of a woman (who?).

An Aside About Everything is full of strange scenery and inexplicable interactions. It follows a dreamlike logic as you jump from place to place, watching the lines between different characters blur and not fully understanding why things are happening or even what exactly is going on. But there is a sense of grave emotional weight to it all, and while I cannot claim to understand all of the details, I do feel that there is a symbolic meaning behind most of what happens.

On a replay, I unfortunately encountered an infinite loop bug that occurs when trying to “take the plunge.” In order to avoid this, it is necessary to select the second dialogue option, “Besides what?”, when meeting Ciara for the first time.

Somewhat more spoilery musings for the initiated:

The main thrust of the story is that a man is looking for a woman who has been lost to him for a long time. A former lover, perhaps? Along the way, he interacts with several other women. He doesn’t know most of them at first, but they all mysteriously seem to know things about him.

His pronouns, He and Him, always with the first letter capitalized, give the impression that he is a god. But his only special power seems to be forcing the women around him to do what he wants them to do - a power to which some acquiesce and others push back with fear and desperation.

Taking these two things together - the fact that the women seem to know the protagonist, and the fact that he can (partially) control them after becoming acquainted with them - I get the feeling that the women are in some way elements of the protagonist’s psychic landscape, that they exist in his mind. But to call them merely figments of his imagination would be an oversimplification, since they have their own inclinations and sometimes resist what the protagonist demands of them. Maybe they represent aspects of his own psyche that are not entirely under his conscious control.

But I feel like they have a link to the external world, as well, because of their significance in the search for the missing woman, who feels very much like an Other, an outside force with whom the protagonist is desperate to reconnect. I definitely believe that the missing woman is (or was) an actual person, existing independently of the protagonist. Maybe the same is true of the present women, maybe they are his mental schema of actual people or the archetypes by which he views actual people. Maybe they are all his mental schema of certain aspects of the missing woman. I couldn’t say for sure.

But the important thing is that finally meeting the missing woman is dependent on the protagonist relinquishing his control over the other women. Doing this, he is able to meet the missing woman one final time, and she basically tells him to let her go, that they ought not to be together.

I think this final scene makes the crux of the story clear. Well, clear relative to the rest of it. What our protagonist is really seeing is his memory of the missing woman, and he is able to see her clearly only because he relinquished his control - he became able to approach the memory of who she was rather than grasping after who he wanted her to be. And he dies what I think is probably a symbolic death, since his identity is fundamentally altered by the realization that she, the subject of this whole aside, can no longer be his everything.

That, at least, is my best attempt to interpret this work. I enjoyed it immensely.

Cyborg Arena, by John Ayliff

Cyborg Arena consists of a single totally badass cyberpunk gladiator fight, interspersed with cutscenes which tell the broader story. The fight itself is of a fairly classic rock-paper-scissors type, but with the added element of needing to balance effectiveness against panache if one wishes to stoke the audience’s enthusiasm - a big “if,” which indeed poses a personal, maybe even ethical dilemma and can have real consequences for how the fight pans out.

So, from a technical side, Cyborg Arena is very well put together. Short and simple to play, but with enough moving parts to keep it interesting and open up a surprising number of possibilities.

The cutscenes establish enough context to give emotional weight to the fight. The author covers the important stuff without wasting any time, and as a result, it actually feels like quite a lot of story is packed into this little fighting game.

The game is also (like all authentic cyberpunk, I would argue) a political commentary, although this aspect is handled with such flippancy that I’m not sure how seriously it is meant to be taken.

My primary criticism of the game is that it has a very abrupt ending. Setting aside the long-term consequences of the player’s actions, I’d be happy just to see the immediate consequences of the player’s actions; instead it cuts off so soon after the climactic moment that it is left quite unclear what will happen next. Earlier in the story, the player is teased that certain important events may be on the horizon, and I would have appreciated a final nod to this as well.

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Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner

I’m very ambivalent about this one. To explain why this is, I think I can divide my experience of Beneath Fenwick into three stages.

First, there’s my initial impression based on the blurb, the cover photo, and the first 15 minutes or so of gameplay. This can all be summed up as “flawed but entertaining.” It’s obvious that we’re going for a Lovecraftian horror vibe here: mysterious disappearances, old rural New England town with suspicious and deformed residents, purple prose, all that kind of thing. It oozes a familiar flavor that can easily be enjoyed.

But it pulls it off in a campy, not-quite-right kind of way. Lovecraft had intimate knowledge of the New England landscape and could write convincingly about it; this author sets the story in a Massachusetts township (when in fact the township as an administrative unit does not exist in Massachusetts, nor any other New England state) and represents it with a photograph of a French village. The purple prose bleeds over into stilted dialogue that would never be uttered by any human being. The setting is described in excessive detail but does not feel real at all. You know things that you shouldn’t know - like that the pavement is crumbling because it dates to exactly 1945, for example. The first major puzzle, in which you want to talk to a guy who works at a service station by summoning him with the currently out-of-order button in the office, so instead of just knocking on the door to the back room or trying to go through the service bay, you steal a yardstick, buy some twine, use the twine to affix a meat hook to the yardstick, then use this unholy construct to subtly swipe a package containing a new button without being seen through a window by the guy (that is, the guy who is right there who you could easily contact by knocking on the door), then go back into the office to remove the malfunctioning button and have your companion use a screwdriver (which I’m pretty sure you also stole from somewhere) to install the new button so that you can summon the guy to the office and watch him pick his nose IS PATENTLY RIDICULOUS, but also, it’s glorious and I love it.

But what I’m going to call the second stage of the game is another can of worms entirely. After clearing the first puzzle, the ridiculousness dies down somewhat and some real suspense starts to built. Clues make themselves available, breadcrumbs hint at as-yet unplumbed depths. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I believe the setting, but I’m starting to feel like there’s an actual reason why it is the way it is, and that this reason will be explored further as new information comes to light. Tension builds, danger increases, strands of inquiry come together and I feel that this case is about to be blown wide open. This part of the game, lasting from late Day One to just before the climax, is quality mystery - very enjoyable and almost beyond reproach.

(As an aside, when it comes to the parser vs. choice-based dichotomy, I don’t generally prefer one over the other. But both paradigms have certain strengths and weaknesses, and I feel like an actual parser might have been a better fit for a mystery-oriented horror story of this nature. After all, compared to Twine, a parser is clearly more mysterious and horrific.)

Anyway, once we’ve gotten to the point where it feels like the strands are beginning to come together, a climax is approaching, and the significance of earlier clues will come to light, we enter what I will refer to as the third stage of the game.

Massive spoilers to follow, recommended only for the initiated:

The third stage of the game lasts for about five seconds. Le fin.

Why does the gardener still have such a strong Scottish accent if he’s lived in Fenwick for the past several decades? Why is Ms. What’s-her-name growing central Asian apple trees? How did the UPS person know where to put the package? Does that dog really have rabies, mange, and gangrene? Is there a fourth passage into the basement that we don’t know about? What happened at 6:47 on an unspecified day in 1962? Are people being tenderized in the back of the gas station to be used as fertilizer for asters? Who is maintaining the 1957 Plymouth Belvedere? What horrible fate befalls us? Is it time to take an aspirin?

The answers to these and many other questions are never given. Not at all. Right when I felt like I was getting to the payoff… le fin.

Certainly, Beneath Fenwick is not the first entry I’ve tried in this comp to feature an abrupt ending, nor do I expect it will be the last. But I strongly suspect it will stand head and shoulders above all others in terms of the magnitude, the sheer extent to which the abrupt ending is like a totally unexpected slap in the face.

When’s the sequel coming out?

The Miller's Garden, by Damon L. Wakes

This game about tending to a garden is fairly short, very simple, and extremely repetitive. It features some lovely poly art and a pleasant ambient soundtrack, but after a few rounds of clicking through rote tasks that I felt I had no reason to care about in the first place, even those felt like scant rewards for my efforts.

But while I did not find the gameplay at all fun, this is also beside the point. The gameplay is presumably not meant to be enjoyed per se. Instead, it’s the means to an end, a necessary step in conveying the actual message of The Miller’s Garden.

More spoilery musings for the initiated:

The piece seems to be mostly a meditation on the transience of human endeavors and the cyclical nature of things, a theme which The Miller’s Garden aptly symbolizes by evoking the motif of a spinning waterwheel. No matter how many times you tend to the various things around the garden one day, you’ll find that nature has effaced your handiwork by the next day, and so on and so forth, until the garden ceases to exist. It reads like a clever, minimalist Ozymandias: a piece of interactive poetry in which the meaning becomes apparent not through the words on the screen, but through the process by which the player interacts with them.

First paragraph aside, if one gets far enough to appreciate what’s really going on, I feel that this is a very fine game. It is well worth its short playing time.

My sentiments exactly. Not that there should be a “winning”-scenario attached to your summary and opinion of the case (it’s also mentioned that the boss decides whether to keep you on as a member of the legal firm based on your handling of this case), but it would give the player more closure and perhaps add a more game-like feeling to the piece.


Thank you for the kind review, and for the suggestion of a climactic scene with the head of the firm. Looking back I now feel that I perhaps teased such a scene without providing it and I apologise if that was your experience.

Thanks also for your time, I know it’s not the most interactive piece you will review during this comp so I’m grateful you stuck with it.


Oh, I never had any doubt about seeing it through to the end. Your writing was on-point.

I hope to see more games from you in the future!

The daughter, by Giovanni Rubino

The daughter is a very mysterious game, and I’m not sure what to make of it. The concept - queer utopian sci-fi mystery about the apparent murder of the first child born in millennia - sounds excellent and gave me the impression that there could be some pretty high-concept stuff going on.

The writing is very opaque. This is partially because apparent spelling and grammar mistakes abound. Most of them aren’t bad enough to obscure the meaning of what’s going on, but occasionally I was left scratching my head, wondering “huh?” At the same time, something hard-to-understand is going on with the viewpoint character. Either their pronouns keep changing from one moment to the next, or we keep briefly switching over to different viewpoint characters. I couldn’t tell which. I got the gist of the story, but it’s safe to say that it was not easy to read, and many details probably eluded me.

The story is very short, cutting off in the middle of a scene with no warning and no acknowledgement of an ending. The links to proceed are just mysteriously missing.

On the surface, this feels like an unpolished and unfinished game, and maybe that’s exactly what it is. But I have to wonder if there’s something else going on here.

A word of caution. While I fully intend to rate this (and every other entry I judge) solely based on what is “on the page,” the following observations go beyond that to discuss a few broader points about The daughter, which I felt was necessary in my attempt to understand the work more clearly. If you also wish to judge this entry independently of any information from beyond the text itself, you may prefer not to continue reading this reaction until you’ve done so.

There were two things that I wanted to look into, outside the text as it is presented to us.

First, it occurred to me that the abrupt ending might be a bug - maybe more was written, but the option to proceed had unintentionally failed to display. Probing through the source files, I found that this is not the case. There is no inaccessible material in the game; what you see is what you get.

Second, I wondered whether the apparent writing errors might have been intentional, a possibility which other reviews have already raised. I followed the link provided to the author’s Twitter, and from there to his itchio page, where several other games are available. From this it became apparent that the author has written plenty in correct, fluent English.

The way I see it, these two observations raise more questions than they answer. Perhaps the simplest explanation is that the work was assembled in extreme haste and submitted without being finished or proofread, maybe due to time constraints? But the technical errors are too consistent to be mere typos, which inclines me to think that the writing might be intended to simulate a far-future version of the English language that does not conform to our contemporary rules. This would not explain the abrupt ending, however. Maybe the truth includes all of the above. Or maybe everything is as it is intended to be - for what reason, I dare not speculate.

Anyway, I’d be very curious to hear others’ takes on what might be going on here, if indeed there are more players who share my intuition that some of the apparent problems might be intentional features of a work that I have yet to fully comprehend.

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Since these games explore the same story from different angles, I’ve opted to discuss them together.

Please note that Weird Grief contains some adult (i.e. sexual) content, which I comment upon here, albeit only in the vaguest terms.

The Dead Account and Weird Grief, by Bez

These tell the story of people left behind by a person who died, and the ways in which they experience and cope with their grief.

They present a thesis and antithesis, which together paint a nuanced (or maybe I should say, multifaceted) picture of the whole ordeal.

There are certain things that need to be done when a person dies. People need to be informed: friends, relatives, government agencies, commercial entities. Phone calls need to be made, death certificates mailed, attorneys consulted, affidavits processed, funeral arrangements made, etc. All of this work adds to the emotional burden on those closest to the deceased, and unfortunately, the processes are often not designed to make it any easier on them.

I think The Dead Account evokes the worst of this, showing what happens when the needs of mourners come into conflict with the demands of bureaucratic hell. Spoiler alert: the latter stomps upon the former.

Basically, you’re a person whose new job is to close dead people’s accounts on some kind of furry social website. AI used to do this. Then some higher-up(s) decided, in their deep empathy for their fellow human beings, that this delicate task requires the warmth and discernment of a human moderator. They have thoughtfully codified the following steps for you to take in carrying out your job (actual spoiler alert):

  • Snoop on the account’s PMs to determine whether it belongs to a dead person.
  • Upon determining beyond all doubt that it belongs to a dead person, summon all of their surviving friends/lovers/relatives into a group chat.
  • Waste their time by demanding that they all state their names and pronouns, despite already knowing these from having snooped on them two steps ago.
  • Use your authority as a moderator to push every single one of them to individually repeat to you what you already know: that their friend/lover/relative is dead.

On the one hand, this process feels like a caricature of some of the inconvenient, emotionally-difficult hoops that people are forced to jump through (for other people’s sakes) after losing a loved one. On the other hand, I also have a sinking feeling that someone, somewhere, has instituted or will one day institute the same process in a real organization. That person, no doubt, did/will feel very proud of themself.

You can probably tell by now that I had a strong emotional reaction to this piece. I found it effective.

If The Dead Account is the thesis, then Weird Grief is the antithesis. The latter is about the actual warmth of friends and lovers acting to support one another.

Like the other game, I can’t go so far as to call it unrealistic, but it feels a bit exaggerated to me. As the group of four main fellows-in-grief interact with each other, they always seem to know when to give intimacy and when to give space. Their trust in each other is deep and abiding; they feel free to speak their thoughts openly no matter the subject. Their interactions build each other up at every turn. As a group, they have an astounding ability to respond to each others’ needs while also maintaining each others’ boundaries without anyone ever coming into conflict with another - even if you, as the player, choose the most contrarian options possible. And they ease their longing for the affection of their lost loved one by enjoying lots and lots of mildly kinky sex with each other.

I don’t doubt that a support network like this could exist, and I’m sure it has existed for some people at some points. But I don’t feel that it is at all an accurate representation of how most social circles adapt to a death, because everyone’s moves are too perfect. It feels more like an ideal that folks could strive toward.

Taken together, then, the two stories offer complementary takes on mourning: one offering bitter catharsis, the other offering some hope and comfort, both close enough to their respective extremes to provide a stark contrast between them.