Linus' ramblings

Comp-tide greetings!

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


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]

Second (and last) bunch:

To the Wolves


As the story begins, Ella, the protagonist, is being chased by an angry mob of superstitious villagers, who believe that she is cursed and should be sacrificed to the forest. The narrative evolves into an interactive wilderness survival story, until the plot suddenly takes a turn for the supernatural, with talking jewelry and such.

Each individual bit of the story is well written, but I’m not quite convinced by the overarching structure. In particular, since it was clear from the beginning that I was supposed to sympathise with Ella, it was natural for me to categorise the villagers as irrational, superstitious thugs. But later, it turned out that the fictional world actually did have supernatural elements in it (supernatural in terms of our world; in the fictional world, they are of course natural). So then I had to revise my view of the villagers; they might actually be right about the existence of curses, and the death of Ella could very well, in that fictional world, be causally related to a better harvest next year. And the villagers could very well have come to know about this through scientific inquiry. So by now, the story seemed to have significantly more depth to it. But unfortunately, that depth wasn’t explored any further, and I’m not sure that it was intended.

In a later plot point, Ella strikes a deal in which her life is saved, but she is no longer human. Fair enough, but then Ella is lured into effecting some kind of revenge on the village elders, and this was definitely not part of the agreement. But it is presented as an unequivocally good thing, and there is no way for the player to make Ella refuse this act of destruction, or at least question the motive behind it. This leads to “Ending 1—Victorious”, although perhaps a better name would have been “Corrupted” or “Exploited”.

On the technical side, I came across a few bugs. There’s the quote at the top of my review. There was also a bug where I was exploring the window of the hut, but then decided to enter through the door after all. It seems that I then went in through the window anyway. These are minor things, perhaps. But in a choose-your-own-adventure, the game logic is generally very simple, so in my view it’s not unreasonable to expect a flawless implementation of it.

Overall, though, there’s some quite suggestive world-building at work here, and the general quality of the writing is good.[/spoiler]



To me, interacting with Ash is reminiscent of studying a large-scale painting, the kind that might cover an entire wall in a museum. I can direct my gaze at the various details, to observe and savour them, but I can’t really affect anything. Which is, of course, one of the points that the story is making.

Sometimes, this lack of agency crosses the line between thematically justified and merely annoying. The choice between “I feel nothing” and “I feel empty” is, well, vacuous, but probably no less important than the later quandary over whether to describe my work as “trivial”, “meaningless” or “pointless”.

And so, in one sense, the author is using some of the ubiquitous trappings of twineoid games, namely opaque choices arranged in a branch-and-bottleneck structure, to convey the sense of despair and meaninglessness that one confronts when dealing with the death of a loved one. But conversely, whether this is the author’s intention or not, the game can be seen as a commentary on those very trappings: Here is a work in which what would normally be the hallmark of a badly designed choose-your-own-adventure—having to fumble one’s way through a series of ostensibly important but indecipherable choices that are nevertheless meaningless in the grand scheme of things—is strongly linked to themes of death, despair and suffering. In this way, what would otherwise be a tired cliché has, by resonating well with the subject matter, been turned into highly effective meta-commentary.

The writing is very good and to the point. Structural bonus points for the title drop at the very end. Overall, this is a highly polished piece that makes a strong emotional impact. I will remember it.[/spoiler]

Cactus Blue Motel


This game did not make a favourable first impression. From the unrealistic flashing letters in the title (cheap signs have two or three fluorescent tubes maximum, not one for each individual letter), via the questionable use of “me” instead of “I” in the opening text, culminating in a first choice that isn’t really a choice: I get to select who is driving the car. What do I care? Who are Lex and Becky? What could I possible know, at this point in the story, that allows me to make an informed choice here? And if my choice isn’t informed, I might as well roll a die, which I consider no more interactive than having the author make the choice for me. Next, I have to pick who changed the music, without having any idea of what music they’re going to pick.

However! After playing for a while, Cactus Blue Motel started to grow on me. I found the story and atmosphere to be increasingly captivating, and I enjoyed exploring the hotel and its surroundings. The transformation that takes place partway through the plot is well done, and the philosophical aspects of the work are intriguing. By virtue of its ambience and the way it explores complacency in a world where time stands still, this game captures some of the unique vibe of last year’s entry Koustrea’s Contentment, which is no small feat.

There are some rough edges. While Becky’s relationship troubles are an important ingredient in the story, the romantic aspirations of the protagonist felt a bit tacked on. Also, I found it out-of-character for the neat, organised type-A student Lex to be sitting in the back seat of a moving car with her legs tucked up under her. And the cleaner’s cart is a perhaps-too-obvious instance of the Broken Bridge trope.

Furthermore—and this is a common problem in Twine games—I got the impression that none of my choices had any impact. The branch-and-bottleneck structure shows through: Given a choice between A and B, I go for A. The following page of text is initially A-specific, but then veers into something that’s obviously compatible with both A and B.

But overall, disregarding just the first few pages, this is a great, well-written story with strong world-building, humour and an entrancing atmosphere.[/spoiler]

Snake’s Game


Snake’s Game is an interactive story that is mostly on rails, albeit with a few important branch points. Upon reaching an ending, the author addresses the reader directly, and suggests trying a different plot line, and there is indeed some replay value in going back to explore different choices.

The writing is occasionally good, occasionally slightly off, in a gawkish sort of way. There are sudden changes in tense, missing plural s’s, and a/an errors. Those are superficial blemishes, of course, but they distract. The game can only be played online, with ads for other games visible at all times, and those also distract.

As for the narrative itself, there are some puzzling twists and turns, such as when the protagonist suddenly remarks “I wish I had my wand.” My main concern, though, is that the text seems to hint at some deep symbolism, but if that is so, then it is rather opaque. I get the feeling that I’m missing the relevant background information that would unlock the true meaning of the story and allow me to appreciate it on another level.

Without this deeper understanding (if one exists), I must admit that this work feels a bit offhand, or at the very least incomplete.[/spoiler]

The Little Lifeform That Could


That memorable slogan is printed on every single page, underlined in blue, so it is clearly intended to be a very important and central aspect of the work. Allow me to dwell on a lesser detail, however, namely the game itself:

Some works of interactive fiction explore important philosophical questions. Some tell great stories. Some invite the reader to explore fascinating fictional worlds, while others yet focus on offering tricky but rewarding puzzles. But, surely, in this multifaceted world there must also be room for a little bit of light entertainment; diversions, if you will. And in that room is The Little Lifeform That Could.

This is one of several games this year in which we start out as a squid-like creature. In later chapters, we then progress through a series of increasingly complex lifeforms. However, the various stages of the story are mostly independent vignettes, resulting in a somewhat haphazard overall impression.

The gameplay centers around lists of achievements. Alas, I never felt a strong urge to attempt to complete them. This is in contrast with some other games with lists of achievements, e.g. Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder from two years ago, in which I spent an unhealty amount of time trying to maximise my score. So it’s interesting to ask oneself why this particular story fails to rouse the same aspirations. One important difference, I think, is that Verdeterre had a structure that encouraged replay. The optimisation problem was made explicit, and each round was very short. In contrast, The Little Lifeform presents a sequence of optimisation problems that are unrelated in the sense that mistakes in earlier chapters do not translate into greater proficiency in subsequent chapters. This encourages a more passive playing style in which one is enjoying the ride, but doesn’t feel all that invested in the fate of the protagonist.

That being said, I think this story is a nice little feel-good rollick. The writing is light-hearted, and there’s a funny back-and-forth between player and narrator, which is enjoyable even if it hampers immersion.[/spoiler]



This is an interactive farce with many trappings of a Hollywood sitcom. There’s the overstatement humour, the awkward situations, the rapid exchanges of funny lines, and even the spliced-in serious heart-to-heart talks.

In the beginning, it reads like a children’s book. It’s funny to read, but the story is mostly on rails with very few choices. The introduction in particular consists of a long string of non-interactive nodes, involving such trendy Twine tragedies as timed text and one-word-at-a-time click marathons. And then it all appears to culminate in a pun.

But it becomes clear that this is no simple shaggy-dog story. In a style reminiscent of last year’s “SPY INTRIGUE!”, this work explores the interplay between weird, funny and sad, between serious and jocular.


And I think it works. I had fun at the superficial level while simultaneously appreciating the melancholy lurking beneath. The writing is polished, and the length of the piece is just right.

Also, for those who didn’t already try it: Right after falling through the skylight, insist on just contemplating how lucky you were instead of investigating the squishy thing.[/spoiler]

Pogoman Go!


The first thing I did after loading up this game, as part of standard procedure, was to type ‘about’. Expecting the usual dull stuff, I was pleasantly surprised when the game responded by awarding me the Typing A Meta-Command medal and ten experience points. Of course, it soon became clear that this game offers medals for just about every conceivable action (except xyzzy!). And that, in itself, is a pretty good way of satirising a current trend in game design where massive bursts of audiovisual rewards are handed out for the simplest of token efforts.

So this is a game that parodies Pokémon GO!. One general danger with parody is that you might end up becoming what you try to mock. In the first part of this game, I got the impression that this was just a more or less faithful reimplementation of the original game, albeit in text, and possibly with sillier names for the creatures. I did enjoy the melodramatic descriptions of the capturing of innocent pogomen, and of the battles, but apart from that it felt a bit lackluster.

But I was pleasantly surprised again, because this game gradually transforms into something else. There is progression from the initial wide open sandbox, into a more traditional breaking-and-entering parser puzzle extravaganza. The writing takes a turn for the fantastic when we get to explore the innards of the NyanTech cat, and even more so after we get through the red door.

There are gems like: “Each seems absorbed in the words and text flashing by on their data monocles.” We also get to drink the kool-aid and visit “Prissy’s Little Sausages”, and I’m happy to report that “scrub deck” actually works.

I have some gripes too. In many locations, the exits aren’t mentioned when the room description is first printed. Instead, the player needs to type ‘look’, and then skim through the same room description again in order to get to the list of exits.

Turning to the puzzle design, I repeatedly found the badge updates to be whimsy and unexpected. Plot-wise, it’s also quite strange that we’re taking steps involving extreme personal danger, as well as breaking things in the tower, all as part of the official beta-tester recruitment procedure. Did every single beta-tester go through that ordeal? Wouldn’t a company want their beta-testers to be more representative of the average user?

So I think it would have been better if the gameplay had involved actually breaking free from the officially mandated path. Maybe that does happen later in the plot. In fact, I was a bit disappointed when my two hours of judging time ran out before I got a chance to test my hypothesis that “reboot” would return as the solution to one of the final puzzles.

But overall, once I got past the somewhat stale first part of the game, I found this to be a competently written, solidly implemented parser game with wit, variety and fair puzzles.[/spoiler]

Thanks for these reviews! I found them insightful and even thought-provoking.

Ouch on the failed synonym. That was one of the last items I wrote in stone, and a tester pointed out I should call it a computer. But I didn’t give myself enough testing cycles to avoid these bugs. They’re the sort that happen 2% of the time, but if you procrastinate, you give yourself 50 “opportunities” to miss something obvious. You see where the math is going.

I have a lot of writing to clean up and a point of frustration for me is not cutting down stuff I know I should. So, yes. Thanks for the review and the motivation. It took a while to read because I had real life stuff but I wish I’d read it earlier.