Josh Grams's's 2022 IFComp ramblings

I always waffle about if I want to be reviewing/judging at all: I’m almost exclusively interested in “how could this thing work better?” so then I’m probably more critical than is helpful to anybody, authors or players. I’m also… pretty impatient with works that make big claims and then fail to live up to them (or even just “unique! compelling!”: don’t tell me how I feel about it), where I might enjoy the exact same thing if it was clearly “here’s a weird experiment that maybe doesn’t quite work, but eh, some people will like it.”

I’m probably better as an early- or mid-stage tester when you’re trying to decide if a concept has legs and which parts need work. But I think I’m going to throw some thoughts in here and try to keep it fairly positive…


This is short, it’s charmingly illustrated, there are no wrong choices: it’s basically an illustrated children’s book. I loved the little detail of the re-colored illustrations at the end for the different flavors of pudding. Well worth the 5-15 minutes you’ll spend with it.

Critical thoughts

I definitely went, “why is there a halved-avocado-plus-pit as the logo, and as the bullet point for the choices … oh.” But even looking back, it felt more confusing than intriguing to me.

The whole “pretending to something you’re clearly not because you think it makes you look good” isn’t my favorite, but lots of kids books are about people looking foolish because of their poor behaviour so, eh, it was too short for this to really bother me.

Trouble in Sector 471

Regulars will know that Arthur DiBianca often writes puzzle-boxes with a minimal frame story, sometimes with an extra-fiendish second half that you have to find a secret entrance to even see. But recently he’s been making more approachable games and this one is no exception. I managed to get all 8 of the optional objectives in about two-and-a-half hours? And talking to the robots made it feel a little more story-like to me. The map was a nice size, big enough to have interesting connections but small enough that it usually wasn’t too annoying to walk from place to place. I love the naming of the commands that you pick up: in particular I kept chuckling at HUP for jumping, and a bunch of its uses were very silly and fun.

Critical thoughts

I wasn’t a huge fan of the “you know what that means, and you know what to do” attitude at the very beginning when, as a player, obviously you don’t. But eh, whatever. The first bit is linear enough that there’s one clear way to go, and by the time it branches out you’ve found your footing.

I wished there had been a third mode to the map that showed where the robots were. And the abbreviations felt a little too similar sometimes and I had a hard time remembering which was which. But I don’t know what you’d do about that. And of course the ASCII map isn’t going to be screenreader accessible, but again, I don’t know what else you could do within the restrictions of a glulx interpreter…

Admiration Point

The author said on Twitter “I have played a lot of dating games in my life, and they are all based on the fantasy that having a crush is fun and will be reciprocated. What if neither were true?” Which I think is probably a better description than the one on the IFComp ballot or in-game. So “fun” is maybe not the word for this, but it’s an interesting treatment of an under-explored topic in a near-future sci-fi setting.

Critical thoughts

Just damning-with-faint-praise sort of stuff? The writing is fine, the implementation is solid, I liked the presentation.

I never got into fanfic (largely because I’ve had zero contact with any of the source material, probably), but I went through a period where I read a lot of free or inexpensive self-published novels online. This gives me that feeling of one of those where it’s clearly head and shoulders above most of the free stuff, but it doesn’t quite have that quality that makes you think “this is going to disappear one day soon because the author found a publisher.”

The Archivist and the Revolution

I just started this one, so not many thoughts yet. If you like Autumn Chen’s other games, go for it. As a technical detail, I like the filters for the backgrounds: mostly just a couple colors with dithering, but where the dithered points of color are much smaller and sparser than the resolution that their spacing suggests. And the detail that the TV/monitor gets colored in the “entertainment” menu: excellent. The writing seems solid, it’s revealing itself nicely. For some reason I’ve been reading it out loud to myself, so have a crummy recording of days 0 and 1 of five if you’re into that sort of thing. Well, not all of day 1, but likely most of it, I think.


Thank you so much for the review! :heart: Critical feedback always welcome.

The Archivist and the Revolution

Finished it. Wow, that’s an intense game. Also I don’t know what I was thinking about the length: day 5 is just the first time you have to pay rent, of course. I think the whole game was 15 or 20 days long, or something? I stopped paying attention at some point, and I think it’s intentional narratively and mechanically that they blend together at the end, at least in the ending I got.

It feels really well-done: it’s mechanically a bit of a Papers, Please sort of situation where you’re in a bad situation that’s getting worse, and you’re always making somewhat hopeless decisions about what to prioritize. But here it’s a story and not just money: do you decode particular snippets even for the knowledge or story even though you know they won’t bring you any pay? Do you decode others knowing they might betray people you have known? Do you file them for money? Do you discard them, or keep them for yourself, even though you need the money? And there are always a bunch of interesting things to choose from, inside and outside of work, and with the DNA snippets, I was never quite sure out but it felt like the letters in the sample IDs, at least, had some significance (S for science, maybe?).

I liked that at the end you have the opportunity to see instructions for reaching all 15 (?) endings. So many of these games, even if they tell you how many, you still have to ask if you really want to play it yet again to try an experiment that might just get you to an ending that you’ve already seen three times? I do think… I’m pretty sure the endings all have short names, so it would be even nicer if it listed those first and then let you click through to reveal the instructions individually.

The choice design was mostly very good: sometimes frustrating but I never hit a point where I felt that choices were out of character or that there were in-character choices that should have been there but weren’t. The only thing that wasn’t clear was the first time that I could meet with A___: the meeting was at 6PM so I figured I’d go to work first and then go, but it wasn’t available later on. But once you realize–I think it’s consistent, and intentional, that those meetings are your full priority and energy budget for the day.

Otherwise… yeah. I’m not sure I feel competent to comment on it, much. It was good.

No One Else Is Doing This


I actually played this a few days before the comp after the author asked me to look at a very strange bug report. Dunno if that really counts as beta-testing when I didn’t manage to reproduce it or come up with a plausible explanation for how it could even theoretically happen, but, uh, full transparency. I won’t vote on it, etc.

This is what it says on the tin: you go around knocking doors, trying to sell people on getting involved with a community organization, financially and potentially volunteering? It’s a short story about idealism and enthusiasm being worn down by the ugly reality and often uglier organizations that we often build (accidentally or otherwise) around these causes.

Mechanics spoiler

It presents itself as a resource management games but there are no happy endings here.

I ran across Lauren’s work a few months back with the release of Ataraxia. I liked her skill there with all the little world and character details that make it feel grounded and real. And I believe this piece is written somewhat from experience? You can almost taste the bitterness. Maybe that’s too strong. Exhaustion? Resignation?

Anyway. It’s short. It’s well written. It has a meter that tells you how badly you need to take a piss.

Critical thoughts

Not too much: the presentation is the weak point here. I completely overlooked the glossary the first time 'round (I know, I know, it’s right there, but…). That could have maybe been up at the top and maybe a different color and a larger font, not too hard.

But it also ended on my first playthrough because I wasn’t watching my stats and had to stop and take a piss. (Again, good job reading the brightly-colored text that’s right in front of your face, yeah?) That could have been better with some animation or maybe there’s a way to design the layout where the stats would be closer to the house numbers that I was focusing on? But of course animation and layout design are harder, especially since Twine doesn’t give you much support for that kind of thing out of the box.


Tried three in a row that…weren’t my thing right now: time to call it a weekend.

  • Lost at the Market: tried largely because it was Gruescript. It’s intentionally surreal but also the text is just off enough that I couldn’t tell if some of it was accidental or intentional rejection of traditional punctuation etc. Didn’t grab me enough to try to push through and form an opinion, personally. And the nouns and verbs keep switching around which, again, is it underimplementation? Or intentional surrealism? If surrealism is even the right term. I think it’s supposed to be an interactive poetry/dream sequence kind of thing, so if that’s your jam…

  • The Thick Table Tavern: Had a looong opening sequence with a disembodied voice being generally ominous and mysterious while also demanding your name etc., which was entertaining to argue with but a LOT of clicking (you could probably short-circuit this by being cooperative, but who does that?), then a full-screen close-up animation of beer sloshing which almost made me dizzy, so watch out if you get motion sickness, and then an introduction which badly needed copyediting/line edits and was also verging on purple prose, so I quit before I got to the bartending part. But I am curious about that, so I’ll probably go back to this when I have more energy for it.

  • Arborea: this dumps a lot of disconnected info on you up front but with no real hook? And it’s weirdly cued, or not cued? Unless you type help you don’t know what you’re even supposed to do to get untrapped from the first room (I guess if you just try all the directions you’d find it, but…). Then there are eight directions all with tree themes but no clear reason to choose one over the others. I came to a blind monk who’s giving me tea with sugar and the game is giving me unsubtle “hints” that I want to trick him into giving me a (rock-hard?) sugar cube without dissolving it in the tea, but I have no idea why, or who I am, or what I’m doing here, or why I should care about any of this? So I stopped. The individual elements did seem intriguing, so I’ll likely come back to this one as well.


Thank you for trying TTTT out!
There is an option in the settings to remove animation (text and otherwise). The links are also key-binded if you prefert to use a keyboard instead of clicking.
If you just want to mix some drinks (the purple prose comment is very fair, I tend to over-write a lot), you might want to check the Arcade mode instead :slight_smile: (no pressure obviously).


Right, I saw the animations setting, which is awesome: it’s clear you’ve put a lot of work into this. But I think you can’t turn it off until after you’re greeted by this (where the whole background is lurching around like a ship in a storm)?

Oh, I didn’t notice the key bindings. And I usually check for that, too. Excellent.

And I forgot about Arcade mode, yeah. But I’ll probably go back for the story: I was curious to see where it went, but my brain was too much in editor mode to enjoy it this evening.


Ah yep yep yep. The beer wave at the first go without setting was probably not the best way to start. I’ll either change the default setting for the annimation or make that first background static only.

I’ll be the first to admit the story mode is a chunky one, so if you can’t get back in the story at all, that is no problem at all :slight_smile: (still mind blown about the pruple prose comment, it is so on point for this story…)


Thank you so much for the review! I loved hearing the story read out loud. I wasn’t a huge fan of Papers, Please, but now I definitely see the resemblance; maybe it was a subconscious influence? Also, you’re right that the letters in the sample IDs have a significance (it’s explained in the walkthrough which I just uploaded).


Ohhh. I bounced off Papers, Please fairly early so that didn’t even cross my mind: I wasn’t thinking of it as an influence, but as a reference point for readers, as a well-known example of intentionally putting a positive-feedback death spiral at the center of a game.

And while I’m on that topic, Kathryn Li’s Goat Game from last year also feels somewhat similar to me, though that’s much more focused on the ethics of scientific research. But sci-fi, player character in a somewhat crushing situation, etc.

digression on Lucas Pope

I tend to think of Lucas Pope not as someone who’s unusually creative but as someone who goes hard on looking for unusual places to put mechanics or technology.

Papers, Please: What if we took all these “don’t do that” kinds of mechanics and found a game to build around them where they’re thematically appropriate? Positive-feedback death spiral, dumping tons of rules on the player and not giving them time to learn them, putting too much stuff in a small space so you have to overlap them and can’t find the ones you need, etc.

Obra Dinn: lots of people think those logic grid puzzles are boring, or tedious, or kid stuff (for the record, I loved these as a kid). But what if the clues were implicit in a 3D first-person mystery game? Also: what if we took a one-bit (black-and-white) display, and used edge detection and fancy dithering to do a real-time 3D display that’s so incredibly computationally intensive that it would have been completely unimaginable on the kind of hardware that would have had this sort of display? (which is actually the reason I’ve never quite brought myself to buy Obra Dinn: as a programmer who grew up with some of that hardware, it feels so jarringly viscerally wrong that I had a really hard time getting into it when I watched people playing the beginning…)

spoilers for Archivist and Revolution

Also, huh. I definitely didn’t realize there was that direct of a connection between the letters on the DNA samples and their classifications. The game tells you about the X ones, and when the R ones are introduced I noticed that they were about the revolutionaries. But I think the first few you encounter (W, S, F) that starting out with two or three or four different letters, and then only decoding a few of them, I hadn’t picked up on that (other than Science, as I said in a previous post).


I loved them as a kid too. My friend Melvin even implemented a generator of these logic grid puzzles. Once you get the conceit they’re no longer challenging, or rather, the challenge is in working out facts implicit in the way the clues are stated. Obra Dinn does a great job of taking the fun step of the puzzle and expanding it into a full scenario.



OK, I went back and worked through this. I figured out a few more things by myself but mostly went back and forth between trying a bunch of things and then giving up and going back to paging through the walkthrough.

I think… if you’re a big fan of oldschool parser puzzle-quests and the moon logic (?) of the old point-and-click adventures, you might really enjoy this one? Otherwise it might be a little much. Though it does have a good walkthrough: it’s written in prose, it’s not just a list of commands, so it’s fairly easy to jump around and find a particular thing you’re looking to do and then backtrack to find out what you missed. And at the start of each section it tells you what objects you need and usually where they’re from. Well done.

But it’s a lot. There are eight separate tree-themed areas in the eight directions from the forest hub where you start. Each of them has several rooms, and the puzzles interlock across them, so it’s a puzzle to even figure out where you can start, and then where you can next make progress. I didn’t map out the puzzle dependencies so I’m probably wrong about this, but… I don’t think it’s completely linear but it felt close to it? Like sometimes you could progress in multiple places but mostly you were trying to find the one or two rooms out of this whole sprawling map where you could now do the next thing. I found that frustrating, but if you like making maps and taking notes and keeping track of which obstacles are still waiting to be solved, this might be right up your alley.

And the writing exacerbated this for me. It wasn’t bad (in fact it was pretty good), but it felt like a bit of a mismatch for how puzzly this game is. If you compare to–well, let’s take an example from this comp–Arthur DiBianca’s Trouble in Sector 471, the writing there is very concise: you know (or at least strongly suspect) that anything there has a use. In Arborea, it’s much more telling a story and placing you in these 8 worlds. But that meant I was, say, struggling to interpret that one sentence in the middle of the second paragraph that describes the area and figure out what the exit directions were. So that question of “is this here for story and place, or is this a mechanical clue?” on top of the “which of these twenty-some locations am I supposed to use this thing on?” was a little much for me.

And then the verbs were an odd mix of feeling a little under-implemented for common synonyms (you can’t pick fig, you have to take fig) and then a lot of specific custom verbs for specific puzzles (boldly go south!?). The custom ones were usually cued in the text, but missing some more basic synonyms had sort of a chilling effect and made me less likely to try unusual commands like that. And there were a bunch of places where you had to disambiguate between objects with similar names, where I feel like a more experienced author would have designed around it.

So yeah. I have mixed feelings about this. Ugh, and according to the review spreadsheet this is the first mention of it, too, so I don’t want to be too negative. Because it’s definitely worth a try if you like big puzzly games. And again, it does have an excellent walkthrough if you want to play tourist, or if you want help for a specific puzzle. And the writing is pretty good. But it’s a very ambitious project from a first-time author, and it feels like the design is a little conflicted. And though it lists four playtesters, all of whose names I recognize, it still feels like it could have used a little more playtesting or more time in the oven (e.g. put the x trees output directly into the forest hub room description, please!).

And I bet there are plenty of people here whose playstyles will click with this game a lot better than mine did.

Edit: I actually kept a transcript on this one, so I went back and edited a bunch of comments into it, with the usual >; format… (54.1 KB)


Hi Josh,

Many thanks for your review. I mean, you know, I get that it wasn’t quite for you, but I really appreciate you sticking with it and the effort you’ve put into the review, and I’ll definitely look through the transcript.

All the best



Thick Table Tavern

Went back and finished this one too. Hmm. It didn’t feel like there was as much story as I would have liked, but looking at Mike’s review I think I just got really unlucky: I only saw a single patron event (the fortunteller) so there were just the daily bits of banter with your boss and coworker, which felt like light variations on the same thing, pretty much. I didn’t even realize there was supposed to be a second coworker, a chef? I did get one event with more rushes than usual where someone came in and cooked tons of food but that was the only time I ever saw that character, though he had been vaguely mentioned once before, so I thought he was just some random crazy relative of the boss or something.

I also think I probably hit a bug at the end: I didn’t track and add up what I was making but I’m sure I was well over 300, and I thought we were counting up my money to make sure, but when I clicked to continue it blipped to some other guy buying the tavern with no transition text or description.

And the drink-mixing minigame was fun at first but there’s not actually that much there: just read the recipe, click the things, go. I don’t do alcohol at all, ever (I think it all tastes awful and I’ve always found it to make people excruciatingly boring, even just at having-a-drink-or-two-with-dinner levels) so I didn’t have any reference for what the drinks or the ingredients were, but even so I didn’t have any trouble. Even on hard, the timer is pretty generous: I rarely needed more than half the time. Except for the single-ingredient drinks: then it flies by. But that was on a second partial playthrough so I remembered what most of them were anyway.

It’s very pretty, but on closer look not quite as polished as it seems. The longest recipes overflow the box and you can pretty much see enough of the last line to know what it says but I generally scrolled down anyway to be sure. The name of the drink isn’t anywhere on the actual drink mixing screen, I think? The different glass shapes and color changes when you add an ingredient are fun, but the color changes, at least, seem to be random: I made the same drink three times in one batch once and they were all different. I guess it serves to let you know that you added something, but it doesn’t tell you if you got it right or wrong. The ingredients on the recipe aren’t in the order that they are on the shelf, but the order you add them doesn’t actually matter: if you want to shake or stir the “drink” before you put any ingredients in, go ahead. Likewise, it asks you to restock the bar but it doesn’t seem to affect the game if you don’t. I’m not sure if the other little tasks change anything either. Maybe they affect how many customers you get?

Altogether, it’s pretty, the story is fun, and if you can get past the overly-enthusiastic writing and the feeling that English is probably not the author’s first language, the dialogue is actually really well done. (I didn’t want to derail Mike’s thread any further, but I’ve also helped edit IF by speakers of other languages and that’s always fun, so if anyone’s in that boat feel free to ask.) The minigame got to feel like a grind, but the game wasn’t so long that it overstayed its welcome too badly for me. Well worth a try.


Thank you for giving the game another try and giving it a more extensive review. I do appreciate it a lot!

You’ve given me a lot to thing about, especially regarding the fine-tuning of the bartending experience (timer on hard difficulty/notification of it being right from wrong/maybe other events happening during the rushing). I should probably introduce Brom, the chef, before the randomisation starts too.

Regarding the bug/issues:

  • I think you caught a different bug for the Ending. If you had a passage where you and the other NPCs counted the coins, you should have gotten a dialogue between you, the boss and the notary to sign the papers. I will check my code and fix that.
  • The name of the drink should always appear at the top of the bar, after the Order:. If this is not appearing, then there might be something wrong on my end too :confused:. Would you have by any chance a screenshot? (If not, no worries, your review is already plenty helpful!)
  • After the morning of Day 2, the rest of the game/passages is randomly generated. So you may indeed have been unlucky with the lunch-time patron. I do plan on having more people coming in in the future, so this should be less of an issue, then (I didn’t have the time to include it before the deadline)

Thank you again for the helpful and critical comments! :smiley:

1 Like

The ending passage was the one where they hide your tip box to scare you. And then ends with Roscoe pulling out the plug and the coins pour out, and he says something like “let’s make sure it’s all there.” And then the next passage you find him and he’s surprised to see you and you ask who he’s waiting for and then the guy shows up and apparently buys the place?

Oh. Huh. The name of the drink is there in the one screenshot I have. I guess I’m just oblivious. Hrm. Maybe I was only looking for it on the recipe pad? Dunno.


Then it’s definitely an issue with the code. I’ll fix it when I have access to it again. Thank you for letting me know!
No worries about the second one :slight_smile:
Edit: @JoshGrams, that one is fixed. Thank you again!


The Grown-Up Detective Agency

You’d expect this from Brendan Patrick Hennessy, but… wow. This one is SO good. Really nails the vibe of an updated version of old “plucky kid adventurer has zany but barely plausible adventures” books like Encyclopedia Brown or Homer Price or whatever. The art is spot-on too. 12-year-old kid-detective Bell Park accidentally time-travels forward to straighten out her 21-year-old grown-up-detective self. Does a good job with “things are a mess but there are still reasons to be happy, so hang onto them.”

I didn’t realize until late in the game that you can use the browser’s history controls to go back and forward through the story: that’s a nice touch. I wonder if that’s a Snowman thing? The other Twine story formats don’t do that, I think mostly because browsers disallowed it for a while?

I think this story is pretty much going where it’s going: you can track down the clues in any order and it’s very smooth about accommodating and acknowledging the things that you’ve already done but I suspect that otherwise the branching is minimal. Which in this case is a good thing, I think. There are no wrong choices here: it’s a comfortable space and you can play it however you want.

I think the only little quibble I have is that the first conversation starts right out with two character portraits so if you haven’t looked at the cover art then you don’t know which one is Bell and which one is Cassidy. It becomes clear as soon as you have a second conversation, but the first one goes on for a while, so it feels like that could have been finessed so it was clear from the start: have Bell talking to herself for a beat before Cassidy comes in, or, y’know, mention one of their hair colors in the prose, or something.

It doesn’t really have anything for the “it’s not a game if it doesn’t have puzzles!” crowd, but otherwise… I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this one wins the comp.


Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s

How did I forgot to mention this one? You are a Psychic Brand Ambassador for Schtupmeister Beer in this absurd little adventure from Geoffrey Golden (who also gave a great NarraScope talk about the 65 bite-sized interactive stories he’s published through an e-mail newsletter over the past three years). Anyway:

Your top secret corporate mission is to mentally suggest customers buy a product. But out of fear over legal action, you’re only allowed to whisper “Schtup Up to Schtupmeister” into their brains once per night. So your timing must be right.

It’s short, it’s very silly and over-the-top, it branches a lot based on what order you listen to people’s thoughts and how long you wait before making a suggestion. I don’t want to make this review longer than the game, so go play it. And, y’know, maybe go subscribe to Adventure Snack too, if those seem like your thing.


The Princess of Vestria

I wasn’t expecting much from this, given the sparse description, lack of a cover image, default SugarCube styling, and screen-and-a-half of text between choices. But it’s actually a very pleasantly middle-of-the-road entry. Sort of an interactive adventure novella: if this were a mass-market paperback there’d be a choice about every page or page spread. But it reads nicely enough, and the choices feel well-placed and fairly consequential: most of them either get you immediately caught or switch up the options you have later on. It gives you 5 “lives” if you want to play straight through, or you can use the default SugarCube menu to save and load if you want to be a little more experimental.

The story is your basic “young person goes off on a quest: hijinks ensue.” Feels like the kind of thing Lloyd Alexander liked to write. The writing is perhaps more workmanlike than inspired, but it’s perfectly competent. It definitely gets into info-dump territory for a bit at the beginning but not too badly. There are a couple of odd jumps but it mostly follows pretty smoothly (you go to buy a horse and you ask the price and then it jumps to you riding along a few miles down the road, that kind of thing).

The other place I found a little jarring was

You’re from a country that has outlawed magick, you find a book that will teach you magick and is clear about the difference between allowable and Dark Magick. I tried some basic telekinesis, then rejected attempting mind control on my companion in a pinch, then the next time magick came up I was performing mind control on a fly, with no choice given. I guess this is relatively harmless, and it was the setup to a plot point later on, but given that mind control is clearly over the line into Dark Magick and your character has been expressing guilt over committing a crime by performing magick at all…

I also didn't get the music-box riddle at all

I know, it doesn’t matter if you can’t solve it, you can still keep going (though I kind of wish there had been a link to skip the 5-minute timer and just give up and move on). But I went back and cheated by peeking at the code to find the answer and I still don’t understand it.

There wasn’t anything too outstanding about this, but it was pleasant and kind of charming and I enjoyed it.


I’m playing this at the moment and I did eventually work it out, so here we go…

The woman’s name is Julia. There are five words on the music box: Joy, Beauty, Fulfilment, Happiness, Passion. In the first word, J is the first letter; in the second word, U is the fourth letter; in the third word, L is the third letter; in the fourth word, I is the fifth letter; and in the fifth word, A is the second letter. So it’s 1, 4, 3, 5, 2.

It took me ages to figure out! I also wanted a button to skip it, but then it was satisfying when I got it.