I’ve just started playing through this year’s entries, and I’m having a blast! Let me start off with a big, warm, sincere thank you to everybody who contributed this year! I shall be treading on your toes soon, so I make a point of saying this upfront, before you learn to ignore me and my deranged opinions.
My reviews will include both positive and negative comments, and I won’t beat around the bush when I think something is bad. I could rationalise this stance, and argue that the practice of pointing out errors is the one crucial mechanism by which humanity descended from the trees and created civilisation. But in reality, it’s just me wallowing in grumpy spitefulness when I think it makes the review funnier. Sorry about that. Let me emphasise that I’m criticising the works, and not the people behind them. Again, I have the greatest respect for you all! If I cross the line at any time, please let me know (in private communication if you wish), and I’ll try to be more careful in the future.
Like last year, I’ll begin every review with a quote that is weird, buggy, clumsy or otherwise unintentionally hilarious. That is not meant to be representative of the work as a whole.
Last year, I was able to play through all of the (non-windows-only) games during the judging period. That’s probably not going to happen this year. Instead, I’ll just play the games in my personal shuffle order, and review them as I go, and we’ll see how far I get.
Not Another Hero
Not Another Hero is a science-fiction story that inverts the super-hero trope in a novel fashion. The idea is interesting, and the fictional world seems reasonably self-consistent, which I think is an important criterion when judging science fiction.
The plot is action-driven, with little attention paid to the inner lives of the characters. Indeed, the characters are archetypes, which is quite convenient for the player, but perhaps makes the story less immersive than it could have been.
For instance, there is a so called wham line at the end of a chapter. Normally I love those. But this one failed to make much of an impact on me, primarily because I was not emotionally invested in the characters.
Now, the best science fiction tells us something about the real world by showing us a fictional world that is slightly different. To me, it seems that this story falls into the common trap of teaching lessons that have little relevance outside of the fictional world that it describes. Unless perhaps one interprets the entire story as a parable of transhumanism, which I think is a bit of a stretch.
As for the interactivity, some choices are arbitrary: I’m asked to go left, right or straight ahead, but neither I nor the character knows the correct way. So it boils down to picking an option at random, which is about as exciting as clicking “ok” to proceed.
While the idea behind the story is intriguing, the actual writing is somewhat bland. At times, the story reads more like a synopsis, explaining and enumerating events as though from a distance. This is perhaps appropriate for the introduction, but it becomes unrealistic when the protagonist wakes up in the hospital, and their father reacts by delivering a comprehensive infodump.
The ending is also unsatisfying. It should be possible to write an open ending without breaking the fourth wall by explicitly mentioning the possibility of a sequel.
Overall, I would describe this as an interesting science-fiction experiment that emphasises world-building but suffers from rather dull narration.[/spoiler]
Slicker City is a sequel to The Problems Compound from last year’s comp, in which the central wordplay mechanism has become interactive. At least from the point of view of a seasoned parser-game player, this is quite ingenious in several ways. Presumably the author had this idea too late to be able to include it in the earlier game, and under those circumstances, it certainly merits its own story.
Here’s what I think is so good about the central gimmick: Technically, it’s guess-the-verb, something that is normally regarded as an epitome of bad design in a parser game. But in this game, it has all the hallmarks of good puzzle design: There is a thematic element, in this case a kind of wordplay, that is prevalent in the output of the game, i.e. in the descriptions of the problems that the protagonist is facing. The player needs to figure out that this same thematic element will be part of the solutions to those problems. There is only vague, general hinting towards this pivotal idea. Once the general mechanism has been guessed, each verb to be deduced (there are two) is strongly hinted at in two different ways by the corresponding object: Both by meaning and by wordplay, kind of like clues in a cryptic crossword. And, thanks to multiple solutions, the game isn’t too fussy about the details once you grasp this general idea.
Now, I must confess that I failed to solve this central puzzle on my own. I had to resort to the included InvisiClues. Thus, while I applaud this puzzle design in principle, I don’t know how well it actually works in practice. It may be that there ought to be progressively more obvious in-game hints. I did figure out the two related puzzles (how to work the terminal, and the final thing with the buttons), but by then I knew what to expect.
As fiction, I’m afraid this work leaves a lot to be desired. The narrative keeps you at arm’s distance; these aren’t real people, they are more like sprites in a video game. The preamble is really confusing, and doesn’t really hook the reader on the story. On the whole, the writing is whimsy to the extent that there doesn’t seem to be much substance in it. Perhaps I failed to see some deeper meaning, or perhaps one was never intended.
I also have some gripes about the implementation and the design of the game world. There are too many locations for my taste, and several of them mostly serve as placeholders or scenery. There are areas that get locked off because of what is essentially a poorly justified inventory management puzzle. Sometimes there are multiple exits towards a single destination, and sometimes there aren’t: At one point, the game told me that “there’s something inside to the east”, but “in” did something different from “e”. And at the Purposes Cross, “up” leaks a hint about “in” being valid, which then leaks about a Secrets Keep (that I couldn’t find).
So there are annoying details like that, but then there are other aspects of the work that are highly polished. In particular, I appreciated the complete list of puns that was accessible from the post-win menu.
In the preamble, you can apparently walk in any direction you like, and this will take you through the same sequence of rooms each time. Based on your chosen path, however, the antagonist selects one of 16 different taunts, for flavour. This seems like a really complicated implementation detail that very few people will even notice. I certainly would not have found out about it if it hadn’t been pointed out explicitly in the InvisiClues. Perhaps it could have been made into a puzzle instead?
All in all, while I found the literary aspects of this piece rather weak, I would recommend it to puzzle enthusiasts because of the clever lateral-thinking riddle that is at the heart of it.[/spoiler]
Thaxted Havershill And the Golden Wombat
This is a multiple-choice macho adventure romp featuring randomised fighting and a few puzzles. The strongest point of this game is the narrative voice, which is sometimes hilariously over-the-top. At first, it wasn’t clear whether this was intentional. The line quoted above, for instance, could have been an earnest attempt at a hard-boiled writing style. But then, there’s this:
Here it’s obvious that the author is joking around. The hard-boiled façade is likewise punctured by the delightful digressions about how the Fertingals made their fortune, and about “Gorrodan Splavek, a retired pastry chef, who, unfeasibly, managed to raise a small army.”
On the other hand, I can’t be sure that the quirky writing-style is entirely intentional. The following just looks unpolished, not just because of the dubious practice of drinking from a room, but chiefly because it appears that “you” and “Thaxted” are two people:
But my main gripe is with the gameplay. While playing this game, one must routinely pick among a handful of options, most of which are lethal. But in several of those situations, it is impossible to anticipate what the various options will do. Case in point: I get to choose whether to do something with the bed sheets, the lamp or the window, but there is no way of knowing what Thaxted will end up doing with them. If I pick the lamp, he does something unexpected with the lamp and dies, but if I pick the bed sheets, he does something unexpected with the bed sheets and the lamp and survives. So that’s an entirely unfair puzzle, in my book.
At one point, I was sure that I had explored every path through the game, without finding a way to proceed. That was a good sign! Normally, it would mean that I had overlooked some significant aspect of the game world, that would reveal itself as an epiphany if I just spent some more time thinking about it. Alas, it turned out that I just needed to be lucky during one of the randomised fight scenes. The game had warned about this upfront, but it was still a disappointing experience.
The ending was also somewhat unsatisfying, but for a different reason: I was presented with four options, and told that only one of them would win the game. I picked one and won the game. Now, based on certain fourth-wall-breaking dialogue, it was conceivable that what I had been told was wrong, and that every option would in fact lead to a winning state. If so, then that fact would have been a significant part of the story. Could it be…?
In order to learn whether this was the case, or whether I had just been lucky, I had to replay the entire game, although this time I turned off the randomised fights. And in the end it turned out that I had just been lucky.
So, on the whole, while this work was occasionally entertaining, it was also kind of shallow and disappointing.[/spoiler]
I like to start my reviews by quoting some amusing bug, weird response or clumsy turn of phrase that I’ve run into while playing the game. For Tentaculon, that turned out to be hard. The above is a so called garden path sentence: If you happen to parse “stop” as a verb, you’ll have a hard time trying to decipher the rest of the sentence. But that’s the worst I could find. The author of this work clearly has a good grasp of the English language.
Besides being well written, the story has a fascinating premise, and is immersive and quite engaging. It does slow down a bit, just after the in medias res, but then it recovers and works up quite a sense of urgency. The text veers into technobabble at times, but without becoming too awkward. Sometimes an elaborate description of scenery is interrupted by a jarring “OK” link; perhaps it would have been better if the link were part of the text, or at least written in the same general style. But that is a nitpick.
But while the writing is more or less impeccable, there are some flaws from a technical point of view. Perhaps most importantly, I ran into some continuity errors. For instance, when I explored the storage area, there was mention of an earlier crashing sound, but I couldn’t recall such a sound having been reported before that. At another point, “through the sprinkler mist” appeared in a description from out of nowhere. When did the sprinklers turn on?
And then there’s the whole business with multiple back buttons. In this story, some nodes (not all) have an explicit “Back” link, which is then interpreted as forward navigation in relation to the twine back button which is sometimes needed, while the actual back button in the browser doesn’t work at all except for external link(s) embedded in the story, in which case one has to use it.
This is all pretty confusing on its own, but then it recombines with continuity errors in strange ways. For instance, after visiting the node that elaborates on what a “thunk reabstractor unit” is, there’s a forward link, which acts as a backwards link, which causes the last few events to be re-narrated as though they occurred a second time.
But overall, as I said, this is a well-written, immersive story, well worth experiencing.[/spoiler]
Fallen Unicode Leaves
Fallen Unicode Leaves is a highly experimental work of interactive poetry. The author deserves praise for having an original idea, going through with it, creating a solid, quite polished implementation, and finally having the guts to release it as a comp entry. It is conceptually quite refreshing.
That being said, I have some issues with the general setup. At the heart of this work is a poem generator based on an “inner geometry” (stats-tracking system) that is so opaque as to be essentially random. If I interpret the intructions correctly, the idea is that the reader should generate about a hundred random poems, and savour the occasional good ones. Surely that’s just a fancy way of saying that we should expect most of the output from the poetry generator to be, well, forgettable. And I suspect that any perceieved quality might in fact chiefly be attributable to the Eliza effect.
But it’s not just that we have to wade through a lot of random gibberish to find the gems. The gibberish is repetitive too. Already in my second sonnet, I ran into stanzas that I had seen before, verbatim.
And so, desperate for some reading material that was meaningful, or at least comprehensible, I turned to the Author’s Notes. Alas,
Let me communicate the following criticism in the form of an entertaining parlour game. As many of you know, this year’s IgNobel Peace Prize went to Pennycook et al., for their scholarly study called “On the Reception and Detection of Pseudo-Profound Bullshit”. I will proceed to juxtapose some of the examples from this award-winning article with quotes from the Author’s Note of Fallen Unicode Leaves. See if you can tell them apart!
- “attention and intention are the mechanics of manifestation.”
- “the gradual coalescing into the whole, the absolute veiling of number, the wonder of spontaneous communication.”
- “a self-aware blossoming of being that will align us with the nexus itself”
- “a new stream of consciousness where the soul is synonymous with the many.”
- “the value of the art, the measures of its variables, becomes its literal, physical content and therefore its ethical worth.”
- “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.”
All right, that was harsh. But necessary.
And yet, Fallen Unicode Leaves did make an impression on me, as evidenced by my strong desire to criticise it. And while I found little meaning in the exploration of random permutations of pseudo-profound building-blocks, I will concede that some of the individual stanzas did end up quite charming.
With that, I subtly smile and depart in a little paddle-boat.[/spoiler]