Lava Ghost's IF Comp Reviews

Alright! I judged the comp in 2018 and 2019, and this time I might go further and write some reviews. If I do, this is where I’ll post them.

My plan is to play the games in reverse alphabetical order, skipping Twines (I’ll play other choice games.) My hope is that using an alphabetical order will give me more of a sense of forward momentum.

In the past I’ve ranked the games relative to each other as I’ve played them, and only assigned numerical scores near the end. I’m going to continue that practice this year. This means my reviews will be based off only two hours of play. I’m playing mostly from the Comp .zip for my own convenience, but I’ll keep my ear to the ground for major bug updates.

I’m really excited for this year’s games! Judging by the blurbs, this year’s Comp is full of exciting ideas. I’m eager to see what everybody made!

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First on the list is

What remains of me, by Jovial Ron

, which is an awkward place to start, as it falls into the category of “personal work which really shouldn’t have been released to the wolves.”

I should mention, all my reviews will be spoiler-filled.

What remains of me (SPOILERS)

We start with an awkward one to review: a self-professedly autobiographical game, using a homebrew interface, about trying to find an ‘objective in life’. Note: I was unable to play the offline version of this game.

The goal of finding an ‘objective’ is immediately equated with getting on a train. In the process of getting on the train, you are encouraged to help a number of NPCs. This ‘help’ universally takes the form of giving the NPC an object from somewhere else in the world using the “USE” verb. The ultimate implication is that helping people is the PC’s purpose in life.

The PC reads an atlas for fun, and thinks about the items he comes across in terms of general facts about that type of item. (For example, a fish is “the primary diet in most parts of the world”.) The blurb indicates that the game is partly about “the way [the author] sees the world.” I don’t want to presume, but this would seem to suggest the author and PC are neuroatypical, as am I.

The PC is generally depicted as trusting and somewhat naive, as befits a guy whose ultimate goal turns out to be helping as many people as possible. He considers people who despise him to be his ‘friends’, and his response to encountering a bizarre flat-earther is merely confusion. I reckon, though, that I sense some less noble attitudes bubbling under the surface. There’s an undercurrent of contempt in the depiction of Lory, his roommate, or maybe it’s just me.

More problematic, though, is the surreal sequence with the girl who’s transformed into a talking frog. In her froglike state, she exhorts those around her not to call her a frog - which is interpreted as “threatening people for some reason” and “making all kinds of noises”. Being given a love letter transforms her back into human, after which the PC is commended for his “bravery” in approaching her. The semiotics of depicting a girl as a “frog” who is unattractive, unreasonable, and unapproachable, but who can be transformed by a display of romantic affection… are kind of ugly.

The phrasing is often odd (“You can’t film it for a TV show though”) or overly utilitarian (“There is some '90s music playing on a stereo, you like the music.”) Comma splices abound. The overall effect is sloppy. The limited world model adds to this effect: room descriptions do not change even after significant events that really should change them, and neither do ‘TALK’ responses.

This was clearly a personal work for the author, but I don’t think it was ready for general distribution. I’d advise the author to give more care to their sentence construction, beef up their world model, and also try to come up with more diverse puzzles, if they can do it within the limits of their interface.

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What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed, by Amanda Walker

Spoilery Review

You awaken in an attic with no memory, or, for that matter, body. That you are a ghost is immediately obvious. What happened is less clear. You must explore the house to learn how you died, and how you lived, and what to do about it.

What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed is a well-done limited-verb parser puzzle/exploration game, in the gothic horror tradition (although it’s not going for scares). It advertises itself as taking two hours, but I finished in a little over one.

The central mechanic is original: to do tropey ghost things, you must channel your emotions in specific ways (those are your verbs). You learn which emotions lead to which tropey ghost things by examining emotionally significant items. As you gain your tropey ghost powers, you’ll use them to navigate a series of straightforward but smart puzzles and uncover the carefully gated backstory.

Said backstory is fairly typical of the gothic horror genre, so I won’t get into it too much. The family is effectively broken, its secrets effectively dark, its characters just as complex as they need to be. I do feel that sometimes the text comes on a little strong; for example:

You stop a moment and look back at the room that imprisoned you. Your family-- all of them-- thought you were a monster, and treated you that way.
But now you know who the monsters really were.

or:

You were such a gentle, loving person. And you were unloved, forgotten, imprisoned all your life. And now killed. For money.

These are too much, in my opinion: most of the people playing will already have understood what happened and how monstrous it was, and these inserts feel editorialistic and redundant. Furthermore, my opinion of Ian had already dropped precipitously by the time the PC becomes explicitly disillusioned with him, and I feel the game could have trusted in PC/player identification more here.

Still, these are minor criticisms. This is a good and satisfying game with a tight design which does everything it needs to. Amanda Walker is a newcomer; I’m looking forward to seeing what she does next.

Note: In addition to the warnings in the blurb, What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed deals with ableism and suicide.

Ranking

What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
What remains of me

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WHEW!
Thank you! You probably know how nervous I was about getting my first review, so thank you for this!

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Walking Into It, by Andrew Schultz

Spoilery Review

Walking Into It requires Python to be installed: a minor barrier to entry, but one I was certainly willing to overcome, given the intriguing blurb.

Andrew Schultz likes systemic puzzly games with a fair amount of abstraction, especially wordplay games. This time he’s written a tic-tac-toe simulator. It’s widely known that tic-tac-toe is solved; any competent player can force a draw. The twist here is that the goal is to let your opponent - a charming kid named Hil - win, but not in such a way that it’s obvious you did so. This means you have to set up scenarios in which you can’t stop him winning one way or another. Hence, “Walking Into It.”

From what I can tell, there are six scenarios you have to lose: you starting or Hil starting, in either of the corner, side, or center. I lost five of six scenarios, but then while I was trying to lose the sixth Python Launcher unexpectedly closed, deleting my progress. I decided not to play back through the game.

That isn’t a knock on the game. In addition to being lovable, Hil is also smart - they seem to learn strategy over the course of the game, and it’s a pleasure to lose to them. The thing is, I feel like I would get more out of the game if I was really able to get into its mindset and think rigorously about the losing states of tic-tac-toe. Today, I wasn’t able to do that: I was distractible and unfocused. This is similar to my response to the last Schultz comp game I played, Ailihphilia.

I may return to this game at some point after the comp. I’m confident I could find it super engaging in the right circumstances.

Rankings

Walking Into It
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
–big gap–
What remains of me

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Wabewalker, by Ben Sisk

Spoilery Review

“Wabewalker” is the title given to the protagonist of Brian Moriarty’s Trinity, published by Infocom in 1986 and the finest work of interactive fiction of its era. Connecting its puzzles to its themes in ways never seen before in an adventure game, it elegaically conveys the weight of history and the horror of the bomb in an artful time-travel-fantasy design. The modern IF community still owes an enormous debt to it.

Wabewalker the 2021 IF Comp entry by Ben Sisk doesn’t have much to do with Trinity. There are a few things you could see as connections: You rewind time and move in cycles, there’s a cloaked figure who might be you, Trinity has a short sequence in Japan and all of Wabewalker is set in Japan. But in practice they are nothing alike. Instead, Wabewalker is a puzzle game focused on a specific mechanic and set in three distinct locations, with heavy stylings of Shingon Buddhism.

That was a fraught decision. Shingon Buddhism is a living religion, albeit esoteric, practiced by real people. I have to say that I am not an expert in Shingon Buddhism, or any form of Buddhism. I have never been a Buddhist. That said, Wabewalker’s use of Buddhism seems, from the small amount of checking I’ve done, to be… careless.

For example, in the game, Avalokiteśvara and Kannon have seperate shrines. But Wikipedia tells me that Avalokiteśvara and Kannon are in fact different regional versions of the same bodhisattva. A list of sutras and mantras is provided in game. These are apparantly all named after real sutras and mantras - but the actual text of these sutras and mantras is replaced with a list of body parts that must be chanted (after being ‘translated’ into words that also don’t seem to mean the things they’re supposed to mean in either Japanese or Sanskrit). And when you think about it that way… think about chanting lists of body parts as a religious practice… it’s kind of ludicrous.

Maybe Sisk is a practicing Buddhist and I’m haranguing him for creatively reinterpreting his own religion. Certainly I can’t be the judge of what is and isn’t respectful to Shingon Buddhists. But. This presentation does not give me confidence.

Let’s move on to the gameplay. We have a custom parser here. As usual, many of the conveniences afforded by standard parser systems are not present (no UNDO, no OOPS, no pronouns). That’s fair enough under the circumstances, and I do get why designing your own system is an appealing challenge. The verb set turns out to be sharply limited, and there are some guess-the-verb problems (e.g. fishing requires a specific phrasing). There are some missing determiners in procedural text, e.g “There is book here”.

That said, this feels polished in other ways. The non-procedural text is clear and unobtrusive, if brief. The implementation of the central mechanic is solid; in fact, I didn’t run into any implementation bugs. I was impressed when I got killed and woke up to see my corpse on TV: a great moment which made it clear this was a more complex and unique game than I’d initially expected.

Speaking of the central mechanic, though… This game takes a different approach from most central-mechanic games, and I think it hurts for it. When you think of a game like this year’s What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed, or Hadean Lands, or the works of Arthur DiBianca, or any number of other games, they tend to introduce a simple mechanic clearly, and then extend it as the game progresses. But Wabewalker is different. It asks the player to intuit the entire mechanic, based on clues presented in game. But after that, the whole game is cracked wide open.

Readers, I did not intuit the mechanic. I got it from the walkthrough. Which I’m a little embarrassed about, as all I had to do was pay a little more attention to the way the lights on the knobs were decreasing. But I turn to help quickly when under a Comp deadline, and it didn’t occur to me that my bodies in the different scenarios might have independent existence, that REWIND might be useful outside the context of returning to a previous scenario. (I didn’t end up making the deadline, by the way.)

But the problem is - this effectively turned the rest of the game into busywork! Most of the rest of the game was going back and forth, back and forth, implementing the paths I knew I needed to follow to get each panel working. Occasionally the results would be interesting, but often it would just be another scroll to add to my notes. I don’t want to act like this was the height of tedium, or anything. (Although the one chant I did manage to get off before the deadline was a truly annoying exercise in data entry, and I can’t imagine the others would have been different.) But it meant the game became a weaker experience for me than games like I listed above. This game is designed around one moment of clarity; others are designed around many, and are better for it.

Rankings

Walking Into It
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
What remains of me

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The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte

Spoilery Review (not that spoilery)

The Vaults left an immediate bad impression by taking thirty-three minutes to load, and then presenting me with a “two-minute” cutscene video that, in fact, took far longer than two minutes. Couldn’t this game have been released as a standalone application, if the creator couldn’t find a web host that could provide the Unity engine in a reasonable time? You can bet I would have counted all that against the deadline. But, in the end, I did not even last long enough in the game for that to matter.

I can applaud Daniel Duarte for his ambition. Building an entire RPG from scratch is no small feat. But I could not work out how to play this game. The tutorial information that was provided was incomprehensible: lots of terminology thrown at the player, but no clear start-to-end explanation of how the game is played. And even the information that was provided was only shown once. I was able to put together a deck, but when thrown into combat (after a text intro I was not given time to read) I was unable to work out the most basic elements of the interface or mechanics. Fair to say, folks, that this game was not for me.

Rankings

Walking Into It
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
The Vaults
What remains of me

“Wait, you put the game you could barely begin to play over a game you played to completion?” What can I say, I reward ambition.

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Unfortunate, by Jess Elizabeth Reed

Spoilery Review

Unfortunate has a good idea. The fortune-teller who takes a more active role in guiding the future is fertile ground for a puzzle game. But it fails in the execution.

Fortune-telling in the world of Unfortunate is real and takes the ‘psychic power’ model, rather than the ‘body of technique’ model. You the PC are only barely gifted, being able to draw up fleeting images (which serve as helpful clues) but no detailed visions. You have been challenged to provide correct readings for every other guest at a house party you’re attending.

That’s seven guests, and in fact you have the ability to select one of three readings for each guest. This would suggest twenty-one puzzles, of which you may choose seven - and be more or less benevolent or malevolent, depending on your choices. But in fact, some of the readings seem to come true regardless of you actually doing anything. And, from decompiling the code, it seems some of the readings may not actually be achievable. This is problematic because it means some of the options are effectively traps. The game has a short time limit, so it’s possible this was intended as a replay-to-win game. I wasn’t very interested in replaying even though I got a poor result.

It’s more likely to me that the game was simply unfinished. Other features of the game make it feel like a first draft. The dialogue is perfunctory and the characters feel wooden, which is especially disappointing given that this is, conceptually, a game about social interaction. Tellingly, the descriptions of each of the characters focus almost entirely on physical appearance.

More troubling are the many implementation issues, the first of which involves the notebook in which you record the readings you gave. The notebook is implemented perfectly well except for the fact that it doesn’t exist. There is no notebook object in your inventory or anywhere else, just a command CHECK NOTEBOOK which acts as if a notebook were present. This feels almost hostile to the idea of a ‘world model’.

There are also underimplemented oblects like an unopenable trash can and an unpullable shower curtain. I was able to see the same series of events twice by going into two separate rooms. Worst of all, after a certain point the exits from the kitchen simply stopped working, leaving me trapped in the area until the time limit ran out. I appreciate the difficulties of coding dynamic NPCs, but all of these problems could have been caught with proper testing. The most Unfortunate thing of all was that the author decided to release a game in this state to the IF Comp.

Rankings

Walking Into It
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
Unfortunate
The Vaults
What remains of me

Sting, by Mike Russo

Spoilery Review

I, too, got stung by a bee young enough to develop a complex around it. I strongly identify with this element of the game.

Sting presents initially as a memoir about the six times in which the author, Mike Russo, was stung by bees. It eventually reveals itself to be not just a memoir, but a memorial: to Russo’s late twin sister, who is a constant presence throughout the first four segments of the game.

Being a memoir, the story needs to stay on the rails of the author’s actual lived experience. This puts it in the Photopia tradition of a work of parser fiction that isn’t actually that interactive. My most old-school opinion is that this isn’t the most effective use of the medium. (I realise this is an ancient debate.) In this case, I often found myself doing things just because they were obviously the only way of moving the story forward. (The signposting is blatant.) Eventually this was all I was doing.

Having said that, it was very nice to be able to STICK OUT TONGUE AT LIZ on the first turn of the game (as she stuck out her tongue at me), and be understood. The menu-based conversation system does allow for some reflective choice, which I appreciated. There’s real care here in both the implementation and the prose. I particualarly liked the way the fifth vignette portrayed a relationship that was unhappy in a low-key way. The rest of the game also had a pleasing specificity (as one would expect).

Now we come to the really awkward part of the review. When the game revealed that Liz was dead, I was gutted. But upon reflection, I was only gutted because I knew she was a real person. She was, as I said, a constant presence in the first four segments of the game. But to me her character was a neutral presence. She had a strong competitive side and the sort of meanness that’s socially acceptable among siblings and a counterintuitive fear of bees, but nothing - not even the romantic advice scene, in which her dialogue strangely fails to be naturalistic - that would really explain the PC’s bond with her, as characters, to me.

But I do not need to judge Mike Russo’s bond with his sister, on the basis of these adapted memories or anything else; nor do I need to judge the fact that he chose to memorialize her in this way and with these stories. Any criticism I have made here applies only to the artifact itself; it does not and must not extend behind it to any element of the context. Mike Russo was brave to release this game, and I’m grateful he shared it.

Rankings

Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
Unfortunate
The Vaults
What remains of me

3 Likes

Thanks so much for the review – I really appreciate you sharing your thoughts, and thanks for the kind words on what worked for you! A quick response under spoiler-block on the thing you mentioned feeling awkward to include in the review:

It’s totally fine to have whatever response to the game as you have, of course, since as you say the judgment is just on how (and how well) I wrote the thing, not anything personal – and I tried my best to preemptively keep folks from feeling bad about stuff like this in the afterward! But on the specific thing you mention – not feeling as much of a strong, positive, emotional connection to the character of Liz as presented, either for you directly or between her and the Mike character – that’s actually a response I expected and maybe even intended? I wanted to steer clear of having the thing come off too sentimental, downbeat, and woe-is-me-ish, and frankly I’m not sure I’d have had the mental or emotional wherewithal to actually write the thing if I’d tried to communicate what we meant to each other, vs. trying to stick rather strictly to exactly what happened, and was felt, in each of those memories. Probably this makes the piece weaker than it could be, so I think it’s absolutely a fair critique, and definitely not anything to feel awkward about pointing out (you should feel perceptive :slight_smile: )

Cheers and thanks again!

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Thanks for responding to my review! I agree that it likely wouldn’t benefit the story to be extremely sentimental, so maybe it is for the better that it’s just, “Here are specific events where she was present.”

I appreciated this window into your/her lives, either way!

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Thank you for the review Lava Ghost!

If you are worried about Shingon Buddhists being offended by Avalokiteśvara and Kannon having different shrines, just know that before Wabewalker was text-based, it was a point-and-click prototype using graphics from Google Street View. The two real-life shrines had signs beside them, which my friend from Japan translated as “Avalokiteśvara” and “Kannon”. So while they represent the same thing, people do not always name their shrines the same way. As for cryptograms, symbols don’t usually “mean” the things they encrypt. Rest assured, we aren’t chanting body parts, haha.

I hope that relieves some of your worry about possible offense to Shingon Buddhists. I appreciate your feedback!

2 Likes

The Spirit Within Us by Alessandro Ielo

Spoilery Review

The Spirit Within Us is a strange mixture of the old-school and the new-school. The old-school, in that it’s a custom parser with an inventory limit and health daemons, even randomized combat; and the new-school, in that it invokes weighty themes, has a PC with a rich interior life, and asks the player to make moral decisions on the PC’s behalf. The game advertises four endings - I found three, unless the fourth ending is ‘drive away and end the program prematurely’, in which case I found all four.

This old-school aspects of the game don’t really turn out that satisfying. You start the game wounded and in pain, in someone else’s bedroom with no memory of the past few hours, and unless you regularly consume food and medication you will eventually die. I see the appeal of a survival game with harsh mechanics. But I never really felt at imminent risk of bleeding out, so the impression was more of wandering some guy’s property snacking on his victuals to keep a number high. (I would have liked the opportunity to bandage my wound, by the way, perhaps using the sheets in the starting room. That’s the sort of thing I’d actually try to do if I was at risk of bleeding out slowly.)

The inventory limit was an annoyance in a game where you often have to pick up an item to interact with it in any other way at all. In fact, the lack of implicit action support in the custom system hurts in general. The implementation in general could have been worse (and I am always mindful of the amount of work it must take to establish even a basic text adventure parser and world model from scratch.) But I must note the presence of a loop of rooms which were clearly written to be experienced counterclockwise even though it is perfectly possible to take them clockwise. It’s also possible to be trapped in that area if you don’t bring the right item. And one important piece of story information can only be found by typing LOOK NORTH - which is nowhere suggested as something that it might be useful to try.

The story - once reconstructed by exploration and flashes of memory - turns out to be as follows. The PC is a CSA survivor who also has dissociative identity disorder. After discovering child pornography left by the janitor at their school (they seem to be employed there, rather than a student), they went to confront the janitor at his home. (From the environmental evidence, the janitor has put a fair amount of intellectual effort into justifying his actions, which is a nice point of characterization.) A violent identity surfaced and tried to murder the janitor, but a different, protector, identity took control and merely locked him in a shed. The PC has the option to try to ‘become whole’ by either embracing their violent side and killing the janitor, or resisting it by facing the janitor but leaving him to his own devices.

So we have the idea that mentally ill people and trauma survivors are predisposed to violence; not great. The edges here are somewhat sanded off by the fact that the game doesn’t actually judge you for choosing violence. Both options seem to be a valid therapeutic foundation; arguably the game prefers violence, as in the pacifist ending it takes care to remind you that the janitor may continue to claim more victims.

Is this really the choice, though? In real life, we recognize options in between passivity and extrajudicial murder for dealing with evil. I tried taking the box of photos with me on a pacifist ending, to see if I could report him to the authorities, but no luck. Of course state violence is still violence, so it’s possible the game is trying to transfer its ethical point into a more convenient package. But if this was the idea, it should not have conflated its ethical question with a very individual therapeutic question.

In The Spirit Within Us, there is no role for society in containing evil; there is only you, versus demons within and without. There is also no role for society in helping the abused or traumatized to recover or empower themselves. The path to healing begins not with getting into therapy or reaching out to the people around the PC, but with looking at a pedophile and deciding whether to kill him or not. The impression given is that you, the individual, are completely alone. And for all the apparant optimism in the ending messages, that’s a really bleak vision.

Rankings

Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
The Spirit Within Us
The Vaults
Unfortunate
What remains of me

The Song of the Mockingbird by Mike Carletta

Spoilery Review

The Song of the Mockingbird is lovely. I haven’t played Mike Carletta’s earlier game, but this one is a good example of genre-appropriate puzzle design. It’s a nonlinear puzzler, but everything the PC does feels like something the protagonist of an actual Western serial might do. A good hero uses his wits, after all. For most of the game the protagonist is sneaking around, trying to avoid being shot, but it’s clear that in game terms he’s never actually in danger, and this is also fine: we know the hero in a pulp genre isn’t actually going to die.

One thing that is notable about the game (I don’t know enough about serial film tropes to know if the game diverges from its inspiration here) is its willingness to treat violence as horrific. To recover his love from the Black Blade, Boots must kill four men - actually, many men, but in four discrete acts - and the results are described, not graphically, but sufficiently to make it clear that they’re ugly and upsetting. And it affects Boots, too: He always stops to mourn the wasted life.

Indeed, Boots often seems like too good, or perhaps too naive, a man to be in this sort of adventure. It’s clear early on that he’s missing some fundamental information about what’s going on; I was actually anticipating a more radical twist than we got. The ending was possibly the weakest part. Rosa was working for a Confederate holdout, but is still sympathetic: a fraught choice given today’s politics. And I don’t know that I bought Boots’s continued devotion to her. Then again, I didn’t see the first eleven episodes.

The ending does, however, manage to be effectively heartbreaking: not because of the character of Rosa, but because it drives home the sense of waste. Boots never needed to come to the Crossed Keys Ranch and burden his soul with those lives. There was no way to save Rosa, and the Black Blade was going to deal with herself and her men anyway. The whole affair was simply a tragedy. It’s always a risk telling players what they did didn’t matter, but in this case it came off beautifully and painfully.

I encountered guess-the-verb problems setting the loft on fire, but no other implementation issues. The setting was also well-researched, and Carletta showed his work in the endnotes. A strong game.

Rankings

The Song of the Mockingbird
Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
The Spirit Within Us
The Vaults
Unfortunate
What remains of me

3 Likes

Smart Theory by AKheon

Spoilery Review

So, Smart Theory turns out to be an extended gripe about the Quality of the Discourse, in the form of an Ink piece describing a cultic group setting up in a university. I share the author’s concerns about some phenomena, but overall I suspect their values are very different from my own. In fact, this piece shows that, despite their claims to critical thinking, it is actually the author who is pro-censorship and wants to stifle knowledge.

The ‘Smart Theory’ cult as depicted in the game is deliberately described as low on actual content (at one point it becomes actual gibberish), but aggressive and totalizing. It advocates all sorts of things we are not supposed to approve of, such as:

  • Accusing people on the street of being bigots.
  • Making inflammatory replies on social media.
  • Fixing society by ‘criticism of media and grand narratives through a Smart lens.’
  • Socially ostracising people for ‘questionable’ statements.
  • Rejecting ‘[i]ndividualism, liberal humanism, consistent social values’.
  • Attempting to tear down society without a backup plan.
  • Printing books like “Dumb Fragility.”
  • Removing STEM courses from academia.

The game is Very Online; it stays on the topic of social media for a lot longer than the above list suggests. At the same time, it freely conflates social media discourse with academic discourse.

Now, I share the author’s concerns that social media has caused people to internalize a lot of totalizing beliefs about the way the world works that do not stand up to scrutiny; that it allows misinformation to fester; that it encourages glib ‘dunking’; that it encourages people to make performative statements to gain cred which may not be true or throught-through. But this is not specific to any specific ideology. It’s a function of social media itself.

As for other spheres of discourse: It’s clear that what AKheon is actually opposed to is critical discussions of social justice. If this wasn’t obvious before, it becomes blatant when they bring up “Dumb Fragility”: clearly derived from the term “white fragility”, a term used to describe the defensiveness white people often display in discussions of racism, coined by diversity cosultant Robin DiAngelo and later used as the title of a book by her.

And if they think this is the big threat to open discourse: look. I don’t know the situation in Finland, but in America you have a situation where a journalistic project which points out “Hey, slavery was pretty important to American history” receives major backlash and tenure denial, where conservative activists and legislators are suppressing all discussion of racism in schools because it’s “Critical Race Theory”. So ask yourself what views are really being suppressed.

rubs temples The title ‘Smart Theory’ is obviously intended to be ironic. The writer doesn’t think it’s smart, he’s just trying to paint his opponents as pseudo-intellectual. They see themself as the smart and rational one. So let’s think about smartness. Or actually, they’re right that ‘smart’ and ‘dumb’ are totalizing terms. Let’s think about wisdom and foolishness.

What’s wisdom, then? An important part of wisdom is being aware of the limits of one’s own understanding (this has been understood since Socrates.) A wise person embraces the idea that others may know things that they do not. If they are curious, they will pay attention to many perspectives, knowing that knowledge may be found anywhere. They should evaluate claims and may have to reject some, but not without first understanding them. Open-mindedness is an integral part of wisdom.

Has the author of Smart Theory engaged in open-mindedness? Well, they do not seem to have tried to understand the theories they despise. They actively suggest that the theories are circular, non-substantive, and gibberish, and they do so in particularly lazy ways such as presenting the theory as a list of movie quotes. They are preoccupied with “postmodernism”, a term they use with no apparent precision. They make the paranoid suggestion that STEM fields will become marginalized. Nobody with any power is actually coming for STEM fields; and the implication that they are merely reflects a horror that there might be more than one valid source of knowledge.

The whole endeavour is, frankly, exactly the ad hominem that they accuse Smart Theorists of. It’s clear the author does not accept certain academic fields as legitimate and would like to get rid of them - and they’ve also conflated that with a bunch of frustrations about social media. The certainty that they have nothing to learn from those fields is closed-minded and foolish, and reflects the binary thinking they despise in others.

Ranking

The Song of the Mockingbird
Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Wabewalker
The Spirit Within Us
The Vaults
Unfortunate
What remains of me
Smart Theory

EDIT: To fix the tic whereby I put the emphatic “Look.” in three consecutive paragraphs.

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Hm, I don’t read so much into this game. I just don’t know much about the PC based on what’s in the game, or what’s happened in their life prior to the half an hour or so depicted in the game. I take the events depicted pretty literally, what with all the hit points and such.

-Wade

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Thank you, Lava Ghost, for your thorough review! I appreciate it!

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Silicon and Cells by Nic Barkdull and Matthew Borgard

Spoilery Review

Silicon and Cells is a choice-based cyberpunk investigation game implemented in Unity. I didn’t think I was going to complete it in two hours, but then I did, although I only reached one of apparently nine endings. It has all the normal cyberpunk stuff like body implants, a VR cyberspace, and killing God, who is a computer. I do want to say that it advertises as having “a large dose of parody”, but I didn’t get that out of it, although there’s sometimes a dry, referential wit.

The game’s primary means of gating progress involves ablities which you can ‘power on’ (potentially taking energy from other abilities) to gain new options. One can take most powers in either bionic (body modification) or psionic form. At first it seemed like the dichotomy between transcending the body with external augments or enhancing one’s internal powers was going to be a major theme of the game (especially because of the name). It wasn’t, really, which was probably a good thing as it wouldn’t have been a very interesting theme. It does, however, leave the point of the options unclear: they’re different flavors of the same effects!

There’s a lot going on in Silicon and Cells. There are some casually innovative ideas like a person who ascended into the digital realm and became an encyclopedia. The creators have put in work to ensure that every significant character represents a different philosophy of how to deal with the world they find themselves in. The depiction of cyberspace is informed by the right parts of real-life internet culture: a somewhat older vision of the internet, less an arena for the world to screech at itself across and more an agglomeration of cosy habitats in which one may embed oneself. There’s even a MUD implemented within the game! And once the true nature of Jartekan is revealed, it really is immensely clarifying, and gives the quest to kill God (or, perhaps, do otherwise, but I went and killed God) a greater weight.

Besides quibbles like some places where information can be revealed in slightly the wrong order or a few character beats that don’t feel true, my big misgiving is the odd cramped-ness of the game. Even though the world had some good ideas in it, every part of the world felt like it was there specifically for me to find it. (This was especially obvious with the Elders: every Elder mentioned turned out to be important.) It’s not that I didn’t get a sense of the setting, so much that it felt like I was privileged to see were the only really important things going on in the setting… and I was led to them in some rather determined ways, following the signposted choices to get another infodump (but they’re well-presented and relevant infodumps) to guide me further along.

This could be seen as a part of the point: the world is claustrophobic, it’s a remnant of humanity kept shut away by an overbearing AI, and it can’t be truly expansive while the AI suppresses it. (I say, “AI”: the final twist about God feels wholly unnecessary.) In fact, it’s one of the reasons the reveal feels clarifying.

Even so, this feels like a game that wants to be even longer than it is, so some of its themes have more room to breathe and so it can spread out the investigative/plot structure more. (I stress that I’m reviewing on the basis of only one playthrough.) Even as it is it was impressive and satisfying - I just think it could have used more space.

Ranking

The Song of the Mockingbird
Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Silicon and Cells
Wabewalker
The Spirit Within Us
The Vaults
Unfortunate
What remains of me
Smart Theory

shrugs When given a limited choice, I’m going to spend some time thinking about the implications of what I am and am not allowed to do.

Second Wind by Matthew Warner

Spoilery Review

This is one of two Adventuron games released during the comp. During ParserComp I had a bit of a snit on these forums about Adventuron’s lack of scrollback function. In the light of day, this seems more tolerable. (Most choice systems don’t have easy scrollback, including Silicon and Cells, which I had to review from memory. Really the problem during Parsercomp was made worse by the fact that The Faeries of Haelstowne was apparently the most complex story ever attempted in the system.)

Adventuron is kind of an interesting development in the IF sphere: a parser system, but one outside the Infocom tradition. In some ways, this places it as a sister to the choice renaissance; in other ways it feels startlingly regressive. But that’s a bias I should put aside. Interesting things were happening in parser outside Infocom in the 80s, for all that Infocom’s games were second to none in terms of actual ease of play. I’ve recently felt someone should take a proper second shot at the sorts of things Synapse and Telarium were trying. Will Adventuron bring that? Probably not. It’s optimized for the Scott Adams style.

What this means, however, is that starting this game I felt the same sense of anticipation I feel when starting up homebrew parser games: To what extent will this be in conversation with the modern style of interactive fiction? Second Wind turns out to have a clearly defined protagonist and a sort of arc. It also has a bittersweet ending in which the PC can only save his wife at the cost of his humanity. (The game was more like a zombie movie than I expected.) These are both modern-feeling features. On the other hand, there’s a time limit, and even small actions advanced the clock.

I liked the writing; there are nice lines like “The corridor has as much personality as the interior of a pipe.” But this game is irreparably damaged by two features. One is that the puzzle design is largely based around looking for utterly tedious codes, which are often gated behind word/number/general knowledge questions set up by NPCs for arbitrary reasons. Apparently the post-apocalyptic future will involve doing a lot of gematric math. Obviously this completely kills the fiction (you can’t even remember the code to your own door, or ask Wendy for hers). These aren’t even challenging problems that are satisfying to work out: They’re just a case of following the instructions, or looking up the right fact.

The second problem is guess-the-verb. The author seems to recognize this is a problem, because he often tells you what to do in a tutorial-like voice. It’s not enough. I was constantly having to go to the walkthrough to work out what input the game would accept. A safe must be DIALed, even though we previously used INPUT for the same sort of thing; the only way to drive the hoverbike is START HOVERBIKE (also a case of insufficient synonyms). At one point the game just told me a wrench could solve a problem without telling me what the problem was (I had to USE WRENCH). It would seem that, in this case, the old-school system came with old-school problems. And they are problems.

Rankings

The Song of the Mockingbird
Walking Into It
Sting
What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed
Silicon and Cells
Wabewalker
The Spirit Within Us
Second Wind
The Vaults
Unfortunate
What remains of me
Smart Theory

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