Thank you so, so much for such a generous and thought through review. It really means a lot, thank you.
A Walk Around the Neighborhood
A light-hearted, fun little one-room game. It’s goofy; it’s charming; it knows exactly what it is and what it wants to be, and sets out to be exactly that. The edges of the simulation are well crafted, with plenty of give for player mistakes or misconceptions, with clear guides to get you back on track.
One of the things it did very well was accept more general verbs to do things that didn’t require performing all the steps by hand, and did that in way that I naturally tried out the verb anyway (despite that sort of glossing-over stuff not often working in parser IF), and it was always pleasant when it happened. It meant that I could focus on figuring out the correct approach to solving a puzzle, without getting bogged down in the details. (This stymied me in the post-game extra puzzle scene, where a simple ‘make’ verb suddenly didn’t work for the extra thing I wanted to do, and I couldn’t figure out the syntax to do it the step-by-step way! But I’ll forgive it that, because it’s a bonus puzzle anyway; I didn’t feel too bad about not being able to solve it.)
If I’m going to nitpick anything, it’s that there’s an in-game hint system, of sorts, where you can talk to your spouse about the puzzles you haven’t solved yet, and they’ll give you clues. However, they also will talk to you about other things, and talking to them is actually required to solve one of the puzzles! At least as far as I could tell. This meant that when I was treating ‘chatting with your spouse’ as a hint system, I would avoid it until I was stuck, at which point I’m already mildly frustrated. And then I discovered that talking to them was the actual solution! It was a weird code-switching thing—if I had known that ‘using the hint system’ wasn’t actually always ‘using the hint system’, I might have thought to use it to solve the puzzle. And who knows; maybe there was another non-spouse method of solving that puzzle. But it was weird.
At any rate, a very solid game that was a delight to play.
Did the author have something to say? : Not particularly, but there were also no pretentions of wanting to do so and failing: it was very clear from the opening text what sort of game this was, and ‘the author has something profound to convey’ was never going to be part of that.
Did I have something to do? : Yes! And the game made it particularly easy for me to do it, which was even nicer.
This was a pretty slight choice game, but was reasonable enough. Some fairly glaring spelling errors, revealed in the post-game ‘about’ to be because English isn’t the author’s first language. Fair enough, but beta testers? Also, Twine needs a spellcheck.
The author also revealed in the ‘about’ that they had done some research into what life was like in 19th century Edinburgh, which is nice, but somehow it didn’t feel very real–the place descriptions were sparse and functional, but not terribly evocative. The premise itself was oddly teased in the intro: it tells you about witchfinders, whose job it is to, well, find witches, and then tells you, “I bet you thought you’d be a witchfinder, didn’t you? But no, you’re a witch!” And… the exact reverse is true: I assumed I’d play a witch, because come on. Playing a witch is interesting, while playing a witchfinder would be deeply uncomfortable.
I played through once and got a score of 60/100, replayed and happened to solve a puzzle I didn’t know existed by accident (I bought something on a whim which turned out to be critical), and ended up with a score of 110/100, so yay me. (I think I got the extra 10 points from buying something twice, he said vaguely.) The puzzles weren’t difficult at all, but it was kind of nice going through and solving them, so hey.
Did the author have something to say? : Not much! Not everything has to be profound, but even the slice-of-life-with-vague-danger scene the author tried to set up left me a little cold.
Did I have something to do? : A few things. The accidentally-solved puzzle was not good design, but everything else was competent.
Thanks for taking the time to write up your feedback!
On the engine side: I’ve been working on beefing up the “classic IF” commands that Perplexity understands and it has come a long way since the last IFComp, but you’ve given a good summary of what I’ve got left there. I’m curious what you felt like it was missing for getting a transcript? The upper section allows copy and paste, is there something more you wanted?
I agree that for garden variety examining of things, plain old IF commands work fine. And I am definitely exploring what is the best game form to exploit what it can do. You can see some examples of game play that I think exploits it more in the spoiler section of what I wrote here.
On the game side: thanks for writing up your thoughts, always appreciate unvarnished feedback.
I could be wrong, but I thought I remembered times where some command would clear the page, like when you got to a new section. Am I wrong? If I am, then yes, you could just copy the whole page and get the whole transcript. Even this seems a little clunky, though, as I have to remember to do this by hand when I’m done with the game, instead of just typing ‘script’ at the beginning and forgetting about it. (The latter also is good for debugging when there’s the possibility of the game crashing–if you’ve saved things as you go, you have a better record of what caused things to go wrong.)
This is definitely something that most browser-based games do not do, but I complain about those systems for the same reasons, too, because transcripts are useful, darn it!
Your example of what your engine could potentially do is interesting, though by itself it isn’t quite compelling yet. For one, the particular abilities seem like they could be implemented as an I7 extension, and for another, it’s hard to imagine someone thinking to interact with the game that way, or, if they did, what they would be hoping for. Would you reveal characteristics of items in locations not seen? Would there be adjective synonyms? I feel like it could be pointing to something useful and interesting (and I applaud you forging out in that direction); I just can’t make out where you’re going yet.
Lazy Wizard’s Guide
This was a reasonable puzzle game, marred a bit by missed implementations (‘hit’ not working but ‘break’ working, for example), but mostly marred (for me) by not having anything in particular to say, and not having strong enough puzzles to make up for it. I’d compare this to the first puzzle-fest I played in this comp, Into the Sun. Both have a spartan aesthetic, a bit of atmosphere, and rely on puzzles. But while Into the Sun had a focused, whole-map-one-puzzle play experience, this game had a more standard fetch quest design. Which is fine, but does mean that you need to bring a bit more to the table: particularly clever and/or intricate puzzles, great and/or funny writing, an interesting place to explore, or something.
I did like a lot of the puzzles! There was a lot of excellent item re-use, and even foreshadowing (the paintings scattered around the school; another student revealing what happened in their own exam). I felt clever many times while playing the game, which is exactly the sort of feeling you want your puzzles to inspire. I also only rarely felt like I was performing actions for the sake of performing actions–instead, I usually knew what I wanted to do, and after a bit of wandering, often was able to formulate a plan to do it. All that was great! I guess I just still wanted more.
Part of the problem was that I didn’t quite buy the premise: you’ve been in school for years, but haven’t learned any spells… but to graduate, you only need to learn a handful of them that are easily obtainable by reading the right books. The implications are that literally everyone else going to the school are chumps, and our protagonist is correct to put in two hours’ worth of work at the very end to obtain what everyone else worked on for years. One thing that could have made things more enjoyable for me would have been to imbue the game (in writing and design) with a sense of desperation from Our Hero, being insanely clever/lucky at the end in order to make up for a long series of bad decisions. Or if not that, then some sort of stronger engagement with the premise. Instead, the premise felt a bit tacked-on to a pre-existing set of puzzles, and it wasn’t a great fit, or at least it wasn’t a very interesting fit.
Did the author have something to say? : Not really! Any sort of sparkly writing or characterization would have gone a long way to making the game more enjoyable.
Did I have something to do? : Yes, and the puzzles were competent. As mentioned, a few missing synonyms that unfortunately had me turn to the walkthrough, since the in-game hint system wasn’t very helpful.
The Thirty Nine Steps
This was a rollicking adventure! There were puzzles, but none that bogged down the pace of the story at all, by dint of having every branch reconverge at the beginning of the next section, but with different states, each of which the player could have an opinion about, but none of which impeded further progress entirely (merely cutting off some options in some cases). This design, combined with the option at the end of each chapter to replay it from scratch, puts the player completely in control of the pacing of the story: they can barrel ahead with whatever they’ve achieved so far, or they can try multiple times, tweaking things as they go.
Overall, I’m a huge fan of this design: it gave me full control of the story and the puzzles, and (critically) made all of my possibilities fun to experience! At times, I was directing the protagonist, and at times I was directing the flow of the story itself, and was given just enough leeway to discover interesting nooks and crannies of the story, but not so much that I could ruin the experience for myself.
I think I would have appreciated the addition of a few status markers here and there that make a difference in what your choices are, and/or what the results of your choices are: your current outfit, perhaps, or the current status of how much you’ve deciphered a particular code. I also think I might have appreciated being told if I was correct or not after my opportunity to say my piece on what I thought was going on. But those are guesses; I know I felt a little lost when my guesses weren’t commented on, but I don’t know if being told ‘you were [wrong|right]’ would have actually helped that feeling, or if tracking my clothing would have made me feel more confident in my choices, or annoyed at the hand-holding. Or both!
Side note: I really liked the fact that in Chapter 3, what seems like a sub-optimal path on one hand can actually be beneficial in the end, as it gives you time to do a particular action you can’t do otherwise. Replaying that chapter, I figured out how to avoid the ‘bad’ path, only to realize that it meant I couldn’t do the other thing, and it was a fun moment of mental frission
Oh, and I loved the music. It was wonderful.
Did the author have something to say? : Yes: the author had a story to tell, and was bound and determined to make you a willing participant in it.
Did I have something to do? : Yes, in several different ways: the choices of the protagonist (both material and philosophical (the three ‘approaches’)), the pacing of the story, and the final stage (if desired) of piecing everything together and working out the deeper mysteries of the plot.
The Thick Table Tavern
This game has three basic parts: the framing story, the mixing-drinks minigame, and the main story and storylets. So, I’ll talk about all three!
I didn’t particularly care for the framing story. I found the ultimate (hinted-at) identity of the ‘Watcher’ and of the creator to be a bit cliché, but more importantly, it didn’t feel like anything was done with that premise. The Watcher just showed up and was mysterious. The final choice was a bit weird: normally, I’d be happy to replay a game to explore alternatives, but in this case the offer to replay was given to the protagonist, not the player. And as such, I strongly felt that the protagonist had no business replaying his own life and giving himself a potentially worse outcome and even a different backstory; that would have betrayed, in some way, his whole life. So I just said ‘no thanks’ and quit. And now I feel I can’t replay the game separately, either
The mixing-drinks minigame was also not particularly my style. There’s a list of things to click and you find and click on them, and then you get a new list. And…that’s it. I did discover that grenadine is a syrup, I guess. I feel like there are aspects of actually mixing drinks that could be interesting to explore in a minigame, but those would be things like mixing things in a particular way, in particular ratios, or making clever substitutions, all based on the patron you’re serving, or based on your knowledge of how drinks mix. But none of that was in the game; it was just ‘click this recipe’. You could set the difficulty level so that instead of just ‘click this recipe’ you could instead ‘click this recipe with added stress’, which did not sound like it would add anything to the experience, so I stuck with Easy mode. There was a time or two when the game didn’t recognize that I had clicked something, which on the harder modes would have made me angrier, so I didn’t get to experience that, I suppose.
But that brings us to the heart of the game; the ‘fiction’ part of the ‘interactive fiction’. And this I liked! Having the setting be ‘a place where interesting people stop by’ was great; it made what was essentially a one-room game feel like a normal full world. Sort of a B5/DS9 experience instead of a TNG game, if you will. The waitress character was fun (if somewhat objectified), and the owner character was also interesting, though I felt that characterization kind of abruptly flipped after his introduction, and I never did really figure out his backstory. And the parade of storylets of people coming through the bar were generally fun and well-written, though the obvious highlight was the older couple. I also liked the ritual of getting everything ready in the morning. Clicking on each of the bottles in turn when restocking the bar made me identify with the protagonist in a way I hadn’t expected: he was an excellent bartender, and always methodical in ensuring he had every tool he needed to do his job.
Did the author have something to say? : Not a ton; mostly simple NPC characterization with a touch of worldbuilding. The obvious place to have something novel to say would have been in the framing story, but I felt that was mostly a missed opportunity.
Did I have something to do? : Yes! Unfortunately, a lot of what I was given to do was the ‘click this list’ minigame, which wasn’t particularly engaging for me, but it was at least simple enough to get through without too much difficulty. The morning ritual was a lot more engaging for me, all told. Interestingly, however, these interactions made me not realize that my choices during the rest of the game were fairly limited. It wasn’t until I had to write this paragraph that I noticed, in fact! So that’s a pretty clever bit of game design; kudos!
This is where my low angst tolerance kicks in, because the game is pretty much nothing but angst, personified as a nose bleed. It was kind of effective, I suppose? But all I could think the entire game was basically, ‘You need help. Go get help. People will understand; it’ll be OK.’ But of course, the protagonist never gets help, and the one moment of hope at the end is where they realize that the imaginary person judging them also suffers from the same anxiety. And, you know, maybe? But there are people out there (ahem) who happen to not suffer from anxiety, whether by luck or genetics or coming from a loving home or something else or some combination of all of the above. Some of them will never understand, and some of them will understand immediately, and some of them can be made to understand (ahem). But for the love of all that’s holy, don’t just wallow in it and think you have to solve everything on your own! Find someone who will listen; who can help. Medicine works for some people; maybe it’ll work for you. Maybe as you get older, things will change. Something!
I mean, okay, the game was effective in conveying an emotion, as evidenced by that emotion completely annoying me. The metaphor seemed reasonably apt. I’m sure people feel like this. But why put your protagonist through this entirely on their own? With literally no actual NPCs anywhere, just figments of their imagination? Argh.
This is my second ‘drag the verb’ game, and it has served to let me know that I am officially Not A Fan of the mechanic, though it had a good five minutes of novelty before vague annoyance took its place and settled in.
Did the author have something to say? : Yes, they wanted me to know they were angsty.
Did I have something to do? : Other than ‘edit the HTML on the fly to solve a puzzle’, no.
CHASE THE SUN
My third drag-the-verb game! Still not a fan of that mechanic, and I was not a huge fan of the angst on display at the beginning, but then! Other people! And, gosh, after writing my ‘Nose Bleed’ review immediately before playing this game, it feels like vindication: if you’re going to get out of your angst, you need to find others and connect with them.
There are a couple principle NPCs in the game that you can reach from different playthroughs, and they’re both delightful in their own ways. My first playthrough, I met a Quaker woman, and happily the author of this game apparently shares my belief that Quakers are awesome. Our hero’s crisis of angst happens to coincide with a global extinction-level event (as always) and the Quakers are here to help people and enjoy their last days while they have 'em. And you can join! Another playthrough revealed a fellow traveler-from-the-apocalypse sheltering at the Quaker place, and after some flirtatious backstory-revealing dialogue, she joins the Quakers too, and invites you. Or, make some slightly different choices, and she’s decided to go into the apocalypse, and again invites you along.
The nice thing about all of these options (and even of the ignore-everyone-and-continue option) is that Our Hero is making a choice. They’re actively deciding to Do A Thing, and thank goodness they do.
Also, this is a great game for IF Comp 2022 Bingo, because you get to fill in the ‘apocalpyse’ square and the ‘escape your wedding’ square.
Did the author have something to say? : Yes! About running from your problems; about chaos; about making decisions; about people you meet along the way.
Did I have something to do? : Yup! I could guide my protagonist along a track that felt redemptive, and the game had pretty good replayability too, with different bits of the story coming out in different branches, making the whole better than the sum of its parts.
This game did a really good job of making me uncomfortable. Which was its goal, I believe, so kudos to the game! I’m going to talk a lot about details, so consider the rest of this review to contain tons of spoilers. Which probably won’t spoil the game, I think! The game is a lot more about an experience than it is about surprise.
So: it’s the near-ish future, and you play a married Mormon woman who has the potential, in-game, to become obsessed with an older Mormon man. The Mormonism is played as background; there’s not a lot of in-game specifics that talk about Mormonism, so it’s more to set the stage that both of you have foundational principles in your life that tell you that you shouldn’t have an affair with the guy. Then the game happens and you see how close you can get!
My first playthrough my thought was, “OK, it can’t be that hard to nip this in the bud,” and the game agreed! I got to ‘ending 5’, which I think was labeled something like ‘not obsessed’. (You can’t collect transcripts in Twine! It sucks! Ahem.) It didn’t even take that long. And, interestingly, the FAQ it shows you tells you right at the top that there is no path in which you have an affair.
So, OK, it’s possible to not be obsessed with the guy; I’ll go all-in the other way and see what happens. I restarted, picked opposite choices from my first playthrough, and not only did I not hit the ‘not-obsessed’ ending, but the game continued far beyond where I got the first time. I played a bit longer, decided to take a job at another company where I wouldn’t see the dude any more, and hit ‘ending 4’: ‘avoidance’. OK! Undo, don’t take the job, and the game continues even longer. I work closely with the guy, do a joint project that involves late-night working together and, ultimately, a trip out of state together. I get a lot of menus where the options are things like ‘kiss him’ ‘hold his hand’ ‘do none of those things’, and invariably I pick the ‘do none of those things’, and the game keeps going and going. And finally, I emerge unscathed at the other end of the story at ‘ending 1’: ‘friends’! Or, again, something like that, no transcript, complain complain.
And the reason I told you all this is that my claim is that, perhaps unwittingly, the very structure of the game is saying that ending 1 is the ‘best’ ending, because that’s the ending with the most content. Do normal stuff, early exit. Take a new job, early exit. My guess is that if you choose the ‘kiss him’ options, again, you get an early exit. The only way to get the most content out of the game is if you keep up a balance between being kind of obsessed with this guy, but never do anything untoward about it: only then does your obsession ‘fade with time’, and relaxes into a more healthy working relationship.
I’m diverging a bit from the game itself at this point, but this is the sort of thing that black people complain about white people in horror movies: stuff is obviously going wrong, but the (invariably white) character hangs around investigating, where the sane black-culture thing to do would be to nope on out of there. And I think part of this is because of the stories we tell ourselves: like this one, the claim is that if you nope out at the beginning, there’s no story. Only if you made bad decisions and try to deal with the aftermath do you get the story. (Am I remembering correctly that the same thing is sort of true of ‘A Change In The Weather’? ISTR that yonks ago I posted something like “Arguably, going ‘south’ at the beginning of the game is the best ending,” and zarf replied something like, “Ha, you think?” (Going south ends the game and tells you that you have a fun afternoon with your friends.)) Or the ending of one of the Prince of Persia games: you accomplish your goal, a sad thing happens, the credits roll, but you can keep playing and undo the sad thing that happens in a way that totally repudiates the goal you accomplished. “Ha, ha” the designers say, “You didn’t have to keep playing, but you did anyway! And look at the mess you made.”
So I feel like that design is the same thing going on with this game, writ large: the game tempts you with content to make bad decisions at the beginning, and then tempts you with more content again to make slightly better decisions later, because that’s where the story is. And honestly, it’s kind of unfair! ‘More content’ is 100% the designer telling you ‘you made the right decision’, and to pretend otherwise is, I feel, morally questionable.
The upshot is that if you want the design of your game to not have opinions about what choice the player made, I feel you need to keep the amount of content (and interesting-ness) roughly equal in each branch. I don’t know what the author’s moral opinions of being in this situation are, but the design of the game says, “The best thing to do in this situation is go ahead and let yourself become obsessed, but don’t let it go too far: that’ll result in the best outcome.” And I appreciate a game with something to say, as my standard end-review questions indicate! I don’t know if I agree, necessarily, but it at least makes for an interesting discussion.
Another interesting thing I feel the author is saying through the design: that it’s possible to nope out of an obsession through decisions you make. Another interpretation is that you can make those choices because you’re not obsessed in the first place, but I think the first interpretation is more interesting, and more in line with the game. You’re making choices: you have power over your feelings though your actions. I kind of think this is true! And again, it’s an interesting discussion to have, which I appreciate.
I haven’t said anything about the worldbuilding yet, and this review is already super long, but I wanted to at least say that I felt the author did a good job of imagining a possible near future of social media and AI, and that future’s relationship with our own. I did find it a kind of ridiculous future and ridiculous relationship, but today is so ridiculous that it was definitely believable!
Did the author have something to say? : Yes! I’m not 100% convinced all the things the author said were intentional, but I feel like I should give them the benefit of the doubt. Definitely a lot of stuff going on, and a lot of opinions going on about why this was.
Did I have something to do? : Oddly, I kind of felt like my options were ‘find out what the author had to say’ rather than ‘guide this person through this situation’, precisely because most paths ended up with shorter stories, and therefore felt like ‘quick deaths’, or at least ‘exits’. So I didn’t feel like I was guiding what Our Hero did, but rather discovering what they could do. But this felt appropriate for the story the author was telling, overall.
It doesn’t ever clear the page, so copy and paste should work. Having a nice file on disk so you don’t have to remember to do it is a good idea too, though. I’ll add to the list.
Yes, this is the challenge I’ve been struggling with too. It is too easy to fall back into the “x rock” “east” mode with the games we’ve shipped so far. I’ve got an idea for the next one that may work better, stay tuned…
Lost at the Market
My encounter with this game is a sad tale of woe. My very first impression of just looking at it was that visually, I didn’t like it. And this is from someone who very very rarely notices styling at all—there’s a long thread on intfiction right now about how ‘unstyled’ Twine games annoy some people, and I honestly have no clue what they’re talking about, because unless you do something quite out of the ordinary, I’m not going to notice it at all. Heck, I didn’t even notice that the sidebar in Admiration Point existed.
But the style of this game jumped out at me immediately, and I hated it. To me, it looks like an ungodly mashup of conflicting colors. And then you click a couple buttons and some (but not all) of the text is repeated, in different colors, in different windows, so I don’t even know where to read the story. And then the game itself confused me, and I stumble to some sort of ending by accident, with no clear idea of what I did nor why. It vaguely hinted at a better ending, but I was so lost and disengaged with the game that when I left it running overnight, thinking I’d perhaps try an undo or two in the morning, and then my computer decided to reboot itself with updates overnight, and all my progress was lost… reader, I confess I gave up.
I definitely feel like I’m on the lower end of the bell curve here, and I feel bad about that, but, well, bell curves exist, and sometimes you hit the lower end. Sorry, Lost at the Market! I hope you find a more receptive audience in another reviewer.
Did the author have something to say? : Possibly, but if so the message was entirely obscured by the format.
Did I have something to do? : I clicked around some, got lost, and randomly ended the game.
OK, it’s… uncanny, I guess, that there are now two games I’ve played (this and ‘Chase the Sun’) that completely agree with my Nose Bleed review that you need other people to get out of your angst/sadness. I mean, it’s a very slight game. It’s not much more than ‘you need other people to get out of your angst/sadness’. But it’s sweet, if a bit on the nose, and is obviously heartfelt, and I smiled when I played it.
The small bit of interactivity it has is pretty much 100% illusion, but I replayed the game ‘leaning the other way’, as it were, and it did actually feel like a slightly different story, which was interesting. So hey!
Did the author have something to say? : Yup! Not much, but it didn’t drag things out to say it, either. The whole game can be played twice in about five minutes.
Did I have something to do? : Kind of! I could choose the protagonist’s response to their surroundings, and the resulting story felt different, depending.
Who Shot Gum E. Bear?
This was a totally reasonable and amusing game, and then I got stuck, and there weren’t hints or a walkthrough. It seemed like it had a reasonably tight design, too! I guess I’ll… wait for someone with a hint? I hate to mark a game down for having no walkthrough, but gluing the second half of your book closed is not ultimately a great strategy. It seemed fun; I’d recommend it once there are hints out there. For myself as well as any hypothetical reader [Redacted: see below]
UPDATE: I got a hint. And it was not the second half of the book that had been glued shut, but simply the last paragraph. It felt like there was a lot more to the game, but there just wasn’t.
The failure here is really quite interesting to me: the game knew exactly what it was and set about being exactly that: a small vehicle for jokes about personified candies in a murder mystery setting. Usually, I love this to bits. Here, one bit was, crucially, missing: the author forgot to tell me what kind of a game it was and how it was going about being that game.
The problem is that this game could have had all the same jokes, but still have an actual murder mystery underneath; a bedrock over which to slather goofiness. I’ve seen this sort of approach before, and the serious/goofy contrast can really work sometimes.
So, somehow, the author managed to not convey that there was no serious side of this story: it was entirely a medium for jokes, and the mystery, such as it was, was not solvable in any of the standard murder-mystery ways (interviewing people, collecting clues, analyzing them, checking for alibi discrepancies, getting attacked by a goon and managing to escape, etc.), but instead you just skip to the end, and read more jokes.
That would be fine if I had known! Heaven knows there are slighter games in this comp. But the disconnect prevented me from finishing the game, and even with the hint, the whiplash of realizing what kind of game this actually was, was unsettling and disappointing.
Mind you, I have no solutions here: I’m as clueless as anyone as to how to fix this particular design issue. But it ended up being kind of a big deal, and I wish it hadn’t.
Did the author have something to say? : Yes: jokes and a funny premise.
Did I have something to do? : Simultaneously too much and too little: maybe with fewer things to do, I would have twigged to the game’s actual genre earlier? And with more things to do, it could have been the game I thought it was in the first place.
The Archivist and the Revolution
I enjoyed this work a lot, but I’m going to start this review with a digression.
I worry about apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic works of art. I feel like the genre can contain good works, but that there can be something seductively and dangerously reductive about them, that can bring out unhealthy ideas and mindsets. Those problems are on heightened display in works like the ‘Left Behind’ series, but it’s a problem that can transcend conservative/liberal biases. Zombie apocalypse works are particularly susceptible to the thin veneer they pull over the fantasy of ‘shooting other people is good actually’. There’s just something oddly seductive to the human psyche of being able to start over from scratch where you can deal with The Incorrect by blunt measures instead of the messy difficult hard work of convincing Incorrect people over time to be better. Even post-apocalyptic works where The Incorrect won can be seductively reductive: you also don’t have to worry about fixing anything, because everything is irreconcilably broken.
All this to say that I can’t actually point at ‘The Archivist’ and say anything specific about any traps the author may or may not have fallen into, here. But to have the themes so overwhelmingly tied to the trans experience… just makes me nervous, in somewhat ineffable ways. I worry about the author, and I worry about the authors of other surprisingly-prevalent works of Queer Apocalyptica I’ve seen out there, particularly in the gaming world.
I would be very happy to discover that my worries are unfounded, and that this niche actually fulfills a vital and positive role for the community, and for its outreach. But I do worry. End of digression.
The Archivist and the Revolution presents a deeply imagined world and a deeply sad protagonist. The story has a well-balanced design where you’re given an immediate goal (get enough money for next week’s rent), and then draws you into longer stories and themes as you try to accomplish that goal. There’s a lot you discover over the course of this game: about the world, about your job, and about your relationships.
The world is a post-apocalyptic setting (essentially), with the most fascinating aspect of this being your job: you pull out messages encoded in bacterial DNA by past generations. This is a real idea (though not, so far as I know, actually implemented yet), and it’s fascinating to imagine a world with hidden knowledge literally living with you, awaiting your ability to unencode the information once more. The game posits several cycles of use, loss, and regaining of the technology, meaning that any given message/information you may receive may be from a wide variety of sources, both in terms of subject matter and in terms of era. It’s a very interesting take on the ‘wisdom of the ancients’ motif you see a lot in both sci-fi and fantasy, and I loved the egalitarian spin on things: the idea that with the right bit of knowledge/technical expertise, anyone could call up a random entry in a vast encyclopedia. This was particularly relevant to the world Our Hero lives in, too: it’s an oppressive regime, where some facts are simply considered heretical. But they have no way of stopping the truth from existing, living in the very bacteria all around them.
There are two relationships to explore, both former co-spouses, both doing better than you, and both radically different from each other. I had my protagonist still be in love with both, but personally favored K, the one more on Our Hero’s level, with a kid we learned to be a parent to over the course of the story. I also chose this person as the centerpiece of the end-game, which was quite satisfying, enough that I didn’t really mind not seeing the other endings. Though I did lament the lack of ‘undo’, because I could have seen several endings quite easily with it, and it would have taken a half-hour slog otherwise. Hey, I’m digressing again.
The other former co-spouse, A, had a very interesting relationship with the protagonist, which I don’t think I’ve seen before, and which rang true for me: someone who was in the same oppressed subgroup as you, who chose to deliberately leave that subgroup, and is now doing quite well for themselves. Still cares for you, and still dabbles in your subgroup, but without real fear of reprisal or consequences. Nothing is explicitly said about this, but geez, that’s got to be inherently galling, even for someone you do care about. You want to feel happy for them. And you kind of don’t. And you kind of resent yourself for feeling that way, and kind of resent them for ‘making’ you feel that way. And again, I got all that without anything explicit in the text! It was a deft bit of relationship characterization.
[Edit: reversed K and A. Woops!]
Did the author have something to say? : Yes, quite a bit. An imaginative world with interesting speculative fiction chops, well-realized characters, and a presentation of what it’s like to be understatedly but overwhelmingly oppressed.
Did I have something to do? : Yes! There was a resource-management game, of sorts, that was deftly woven into the stories the world had ready for me.
I have a hint though it might be somewhat unsatisfying:
I think the game is designed such that you should start randomly accusing people at this point; there’s no moment where the player character figures things out and the clue to who the culprit is is both quite oblique and entirely obvious once you’ve gone everywhere and talked to everyone, so there’s no advantage to drawing things out.
Ha ha, wow, I was one move away from the end, having accused literally everyone else and having even thought to accuse the actual culprit, before I forgot again. OK, then! Guess I’ll update the review Thanks!
But it is! The most basic of all detective skills is keen observation. Careful reading of the descriptions of all the characters gleans the information that only one of them has fingers ! So only this character is anatomically capable of squeezing the trigger!
Well, right, I mean, I read the end, too. But it’s another joke, not really a deduction, and it doesn’t quite hold up under the rules of a different game that had a serious side to it. Namely, why do we think those are the only suspects? What was the killer’s motivation? Might the killer have been working for someone else? I’ll grant you it’s possible (though, I believe, unlikely) that someone could have noticed the clue on their own. But I do think that in order to do so, you had to be looking for another joke, and not a clue, per se.