Lucian's IFComp 2023 Reviews (latest: Tricks of Light in the Forest)

Yes, while I haven’t had a chance to take on any of the longer games of the comp yet, I would like to emphasize that “your writing doesn’t quite match up to one of the most beloved comedy writers of our era, who is known for being inimitable and who the reviewer has a special fondness for” is pretty significant praise! Adams has a very distinctive style that I’ve never seen anyone truly match.


Impressive. When I was 13, it was still ten years before I would write my first interactive fiction!


When I was 13, I had been playing IF for a few years, but my maturity level was not even remotely robust enough to contemplate writing a game and putting it in a serious adult competition. Honestly, even at age 52 my maturity level is still in question. All the teens I know these days are way more capable people than I was, and I’m particularly impressed with @SomeOne2 .

That review was honest and informative. Nobody except Emily Short writes perfect games, and we all have to suck it up and engage with our critics, because engaging with constructive criticism is one of the most important life skills there is. I’ve seen grown folks who seem to have missed this lesson and who pitch an absolute hissy fit at a slightly negative review. Max is already doing it better than they are.


Wow @SomeOne2! That’s quite something. Keep writing, in whatever form you like, cos you’ve great talent :slight_smile:


Have Orb, Will Travel (Older Timer)

Last year, I thought the same author’s game ‘The Alchemist’ (also written with the same system) was a perfectly fine puzzle-fest. I thought the premise was a little weak, and that the system had a few flaws, but overall I enjoyed my time with the game.

This year’s entry started off the same: I explored a bit, solved the puzzle of getting the lamp and felt clever, solved the puzzle of the tree branch and felt clever (and liked that sound effect that went with it). I found a book, which I felt had the most awkward interface ever invented, but, OK, tried out a spell, and discovered that I had to re-learn the spell every time I wanted to use it, using the dreadful book interface. That was annoying, but I figured, “Enh, I’ll just UNDO after trying out spells that don’t work.” (This was before I discovered that UNDO is not implemented.)

Then I got stuck, found the walkthrough, and discovered I was supposed to PUSH something, which, fine.


I found.

The maze.

And not just any maze, mind you. No, no. A maze where discovering the exits takes four moves. A maze where if you use those four moves in the wrong order, will open the wrong route. A maze where you cannot simply type ‘[spoiler] N’ but must type ‘[spoiler] N WALL’.

I cannot express to you how deeply, existentially annoyed this made me.

Eventually I worked out that a thing I had seen earlier was an in-game clue, which at least let me work out that order was important when [spoiler]ing, and made it through to the other end. But, OK, I made it through, let’s put it behind me, shall we?

The next bit was a bit confusing, and I turned to the walkthrough again, mucked about a little, and then with no warning whatsoever, ended up going through a one-way door.

To the other side of the maze.

This was also the point at which I learned there was no UNDO.

Reader, I confess that at this point, though not having kept strict time, I declared that my two hours were almost certainly up, and that I was done. A sad tale, untimely cut short by a single unfortunate design decision, but, come on. Mazes had their heyday in the 80’s and everyone was done by them by the 90’s if not before. You can subvert them if you are dreadfully, dreadfully clever (‘Hunt The Wumpus’, anyone?) but this did not, it seemed to me, attempt to subvert anything, but rather to just make them even more annoying than they were back in the day.

Did the author have something to say? Nope, just gave me puzzles to solve.

Did I have something to do? I felt clever while solving puzzles for a bit! That was nice. Alas, those days came to an abrupt end.

Transcript: orb1.txt - Google Drive


Barcarolle in Yellow (Víctor Ojuel)

I think that my #1 favorite type of IF game is the game that knows exactly what it is, and sets about doing exactly that. Barcarolle in Yellow knows exactly what it is, heads confidently in that direction, gets waylaid by coding bandits partway there, picks itself up while under continuous attack by wolves, and stumbles across the finish line. To be fair, this is basically my #2 favorite type of IF game, because I still love games that know exactly what they are, even when they have trouble getting there.

Barcarolle in Yellow (…is that a ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ joke?) follows our hero Eva Chantry, actress, from the middle of filming one movie, to being hired for a different movie in Venice, where the bulk of the game happens. The whole intro is snappy, enmeshes you in your role immediately, and swoops you along the plot. Then you have the first real puzzle of the game, where you try to avoid being killed when you arrive in Venice. I read some other reviews that had trouble with this puzzle, but I ended up liking it! It was definitely marred by a bug where an earlier cut scene incorrectly pops up again, but eventually I figured out that if I ignored that, I could do an additional action that got me to the hotel safely.

However, around this time, the customized error messages started to get under my skin. Any time a game berates me for making a good faith effort to figure things out, my hackles get raised a lot even though I know intellectually, “It’s just a themed error message.” One problem was that the new error message was less informative than the original, so it didn’t tell me what was wrong, only that it was wrong. The other problem is the subtle difference between the game telling you “I don’t know that word.” vs. “You are using the wrong word.” Either technically could be the truth if I use a word the game doesn’t recognize! If the game is really good at understanding the entirety of the English language, it would be justified in using the latter when I typed “scraf” instead of “scarf”. But if it somehow isn’t perfect (gasp) it is fairly probable that the problem lies in the game, and not in the player. And, come on, it’s just SO MUCH MORE POLITE to say “It’s not you, it’s me” even if you do suspect it’s not actually your fault.

A couple “You are doing the wrong thing” error messages I can live with; when I try phrasing after phrasing and get yelled at time and time again, I am going to get defensive, especially when I know that the problem is in the coding, not in what I’m typing. When the game is apologetic, I’m happy to try other things to try to accommodate it. When the game is rude, and insists that it’s my fault it only understands “GET” and not “PICK UP”, I get disconnected from the game. The trust between myself and the author erodes, and that’s a precious, precious commodity, not easily won back.

After that was a scene in the hotel that went pretty smoothly for me (and also served again to establish and extend the mood of the piece and the character of the PC). And then for the rest of the game, I alternated between being swept up in the mood and setting and plot, and being dashed against the rocks of underimplementation and bugs. The mood and setting were so strong that I didn’t mind the bugs nearly as much as I would have otherwise. They can be fixed! There’s a really cool game hiding behind it all.

As the game swept towards its conclusion, it got more abstract and less coherent, which was part of the point, but which became a little hard to follow. Then there was a great moment at the very end, where a new option appeared in a list that I didn’t expect to see (he said vaguely, hopefully avoiding spoilers), and I got the very satisfying ‘Ending C’.

I am somewhat curious about the other endings. I don’t really have any ideas for the sorts of things I could do to end the story differently. Given that I already got a good ending, I am more daunted by the idea of going back and having to fight the bugs and yell-y error messages again, so I’m going to leave it at that. As a note to the author, I would be happy to beta-test a post-comp release, if that would be helpful.

Did the author have something to say? Absolutely! The sense of genre and character was very strong.

Did I have something to do? Yes! And if one of those things hadn’t been ‘struggle with bugs and underimplementations’ it would have been nice, but those can all be fixed, and playing with and interacting with the joy and heart of the game was great.

Transcript: Barcarolle.txt - Google Drive


I think I had a better time with the offhand vibe of the thing, but that’s not why I’m chiming in. I am so very gratified that I am not the only one that sasses games in flight! It feels like a really kind of insane thing to do, in isolation, but I see now it is PERFECTLY NORMAL. :]


I usually have the vague idea that I’ll send the transcript to the author (which is much more likely when I’m beta-testing the game :wink: ) but honestly I’d probably do it anyway; it’s fun, and the prompt is RIGHT THERE asking for my feedback.


From my transcript:

>ask carter about worm
You ask him.
He frowns and looks at you skeptically, “What worm do you mean, Captain?”

>* && Uhmmm… *points at giant worm*

>talk to worm
You try to make contact with the worm and shout a polite greeting to its wriggling tip. But you can take neither agreement nor rejection nor consideration from his reaction. You only see him constantly wiggling his tip back and forth. Just like before.

>* && Oh, it’s a “Him” now? And I deduced this from its dangling little appendage?

I love the dry (Noted.)


Tangentially related: Suzanne Britton’s ‘Worlds Apart’ had a feature that let you talk to other characters however you wanted. (“>TELL MAN ‘THAT’S A RIDICULOUS THING TO SAY AND YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF’.”). The response was on the level of ‘(Noted)’ or maybe something like “You talk to the man.”, and you knew the game didn’t actually understand what you were typing, but there were times when it was just nice to roleplay as the PC for a bit with a little bit of unscripted dialogue. It felt similar to this sort of talking-back to the game on display here. It feels like a phenomenon that could be utilized more by game authors.


I’ve played through Worlds Apart three times and I didn’t know about this. It will be fun to try this during the long conversation in the willowisp tree.

In Eat the Eldritch:

When you ask Carter about something he doesn’t have a response to, he defaults to the reply in my first example. You can also put questions in the form of orders: Carter, [topic].

I messed around with this a bit:

He frowns and looks at you skeptically, “What in the name of all that is good and holy do you mean, Captain?”


If I’m honest, part of the charge for me is doing it BECAUSE the game doesn’t want me to!

Now THAT is some top-tier game trolling! I need to up my game.


All Hands (Natasha Ramoutar)

This was a nice little haunting game. I loved the world building a lot; I thought the character development was pretty strong; and as I was assembling my inventory, I smiled, because the main thing you collect (songs) was evocative and charming. It also had an underlying theme of loss and acceptance that I found touching.

Despite this being written in Texture (aka ‘the system where you drag verbs around the screen for no reason’), it was still enjoyable, so bonus points right out of the gate for that. And to be fair, this game is the first I’ve played in that system to make some use of the system to have a slightly positive effect on the gameplay: after you select a verb, only then do the nouns it can connect to end up bolded. This added a bit of an exploratory feel to the interface, which connected to the exploratory feel of the game itself. However, using Texture also gave the game its biggest flaw, namely the lack of undo or save. It’s another one of those games where everything comes down to a final choice, and what I would have loved to do would have been to see all the endings. However, without a way to checkpoint your progress, you have to re-play the entire game just to make a single different choice at the end. I went ahead and did that to get one new ending (taking as many shortcuts as I thought I could get away with), but ended up stopping there. It doesn’t really help that it is utterly impossible to predict what might happen if you choose one thing over another: you can guess what it’ll be themed around, but nothing more.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! Not only did it have a sumptuous world and sharply-defined characters, it was also a little reflection on grief, loss, and acceptance.

Did I have something to do? Yup! I was engaged in exploration throughout.


The Ship (Sotiris Niarchos)

This game… had a lot. For me, the total was less than the sum of its parts, but I did admire its ambition, and still enjoyed aspects of it. Mild spoilers follow…

So, you start off as the captain of a pirate ship that’s not doing any pirating, but instead going to some coordinates from an old note from your dad. You are otherwise profoundly incurious, not talking to anyone on the ship for a month, and not trying to open the drawers of your own desk, either. The game kicks off with your first mate (Ben) deciding to start off the plot by telling you to go talk to people. So, off you go.

The people’s stories were interesting, but somehow only when they didn’t involve me at all. I never truly believed anything I was told about myself or about my own backstory. I’ve played games before that didn’t resonate with me in a ‘oh, yeah, that’s an emotion I’ve had’ way, but in a ‘this is a good depiction of this unfamiliar-to-me emotion’. For this one, I found myself unable to not only recognize the emotions that were supposed to be there, but I also didn’t even understand them in an academic sense. Every so often, I’d get a monologue that clearly was intended to convey something, and it was obvious to me that the author had a very clear sense of what was being expressed, but every time it just sailed past me completely. I wish I knew why!

At any rate, you talk to people, do some stuff, play a minigame, and then you get whisked off to chapter 2, where you play a different captain… in space! And the year is ‘the same’, it’s just that the reference year 0 is different. This time, you have no crew, so there’s nothing around but an AI and more minigames. This is the point at which the minigames started to be less believable as in-game Things To Do and became more Soup Cans In the Kitchen, but, enh, they were fine. Again, you are searching for A Location, and something poorly-explained happens so that somehow the coordinates our two PCs have are merged into and actually-pinpointable place, both in space and in the ocean. Somehow.

There were some fun moments between here and the end, including:

  • I actually did enjoy some of the navigation minigames, even as unrealistic as I found them.
  • The moment when the ‘Switch’ button appears.
  • The moment when I was all ‘No, that’s ridiculous,’ and didn’t click anything.

But, sadly, the plot became less and less believable for me, and the characters’ emotions similarly drifted into being not super believable nor even (at times) particularly comprehensible. This was extra disappointing, because I could 100% tell that emotions were supposed to be there, and that the author felt very passionately about them. I just couldn’t tell why! I genuinely hope this game found Its People, because that kind of passion deserves to connect to people. And hopefully with time, the author will figure out how to cast a wider net and maybe catch me next time.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! I was not able to understand what it was, but at least I could tell it was there.

Did I have something to do? A bit on the shallow end here, but just enough, I’d say. It definitely helped that I found the minigames interesting; had I not, it would have been a much more frustrating experience.


The Witch (Charles Moore)

It took me a bit to figure out what kind of game this was, namely: cruel on the Zarfian scale, lightly-implemented stuff, lots of puzzles, and a timing system. After I got into it, I kind of liked it! And then I hit a puzzle, and the hints just said ‘get the beaver to follow you’ and I had never seen such a beast. I thought for a while I had missed an exit (which is very common in games I’ve played), but when I went to the transcript, it had the thing show up at a place I had definitely been. So, I think I just took too long getting there? And while I do enjoy a good puzzle-fest, the prospect of a timed puzzle-fest was a bit much for me. I’m always terrible at keeping track of exactly how long I’ve played (because I constantly switch back and forth between tasks), but since I’m pretty sure I was near two hours, I declared myself finished.

The world was kind of cute, the puzzles I solved were satisfying, the hint system was pretty robust (if not complete), and the maps were useful. (I’m not sure what the point was of the tree map? Was it the solution to a puzzle? A normal ‘feelie’ for the game? I just used it as the solution.) The implementation was very sparse, and for anything involved with puzzles, could have used some work to make the game more enjoyable to play (Several times near-solutions got no feedback at all, only exact solutions worked). This was most noticeable for me for the bird seed puzzle, which was noticeably lacking in feedback all over the place. There were a lot of unimplemented scenery objects, though I’m not 100% sure the game would be better with them there; it might make the game have a bit too many red herrings? At least when the game says ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about’, you can be pretty sure it’s not used in a puzzle.

Did the author have something to say? There was a very small bit of humor, and a token push towards a bit of worldbuilding.

Did I have something to do? Solve lots of puzzles! Some of which were satisfying, some of which were too sparsely implemented, and some of which were timed. It was the last that defeated me in the end.

Transcript: the_witch.log - Google Drive


We All Fall Together (Tassneen Bashir)

This was a wild story! Very imaginative, and bonkers worldbuilding. (The world being built is: you are falling. Other people are also falling. It builds a bit more from there.) As I played, it seemed like there were other paths I could be taking, but replaying the game, I discovered this was totally an illusion, and that I was on rails from the get-go. In a short game like this, you have to assume that people will try replaying it, so the illusion was nice, but very likely to be spoiled… but I dunno; maybe it’s worth it anyway? I still did get to experience the illusion of choice once, and it felt at least somewhat meaningful?

The entire game is a conversation with a person you start off near, who’s been falling longer than you have, and therefore can give you some backstory. You talk, become friends, and, uh, the story comes to a conclusion of sorts, he said vaguely to avoid spoilers. There’s hints towards a message of sorts, and if the game was any longer, the message would have been entirely too shallow, but for a ten-minute game, it was fine.

Did the author have something to say? Bonkers worldbuilding and a little nod towards the fact that it’s nice to have others with you when you’re doing something difficult.

Did I have something to do? Not really, though there was the illusion that there was on my first playthrough.


Hand Me Down (Brett Witty)

This game came with some built-in advantages, choosing two themes (a parent with a terminal illness and Making Something For Your Kid) that are already resonant with me, so it wasn’t going to have to work that hard to pull at my heartstrings. And it did!

The game does an interesting thing where the game ‘Hand Me Down’ is comprised of three other games: a Twine prologue and finale, and a TADS3 in-universe artifact you play in the middle (the Thing Your Dad Made For You). The framing story did a great job of exploring the themes competently and evocatively. The setup was just varied enough to not be completely cliché, and the follow-through was solid.

The middle T3 game had a bit of an advantage in that since it was created in-universe, any bugs or poor design could be blamed on its fictional authors, instead of the actual author. And I indeed thought better of the game because of this! There weren’t really any bugs, but there were indeed a handful of times when the game seemed a little, I dunno, iffy in some way, but I was predisposed to forgive it because it was a gift from a dad to his now-grown kid. You can’t get mad at that!

However, there were a few times when even with that extra scaffolding in place, it fell down for me a bit. In the game, there’s a very personal document in the drawer of the bedside table, and I found myself very confused that the in-game dad would code that there for his in-game daughter to find, as me, when playing the game. It told me-the-player something that I hadn’t known before, so I assume the deal was that this was Mr. Witty’s way of telling me-the-player about the fictional family, but as read, I was mostly just kind of shocked that ‘my dad’ had chosen to include it. (Right next to ‘sunnies’ (aka sunglasses) that could be used for a ‘cool surfer dude’ costume. Tonal shift alert!)

There were also times when it seemed to me that the game had been designed by a kid instead of for a kid. I can’t even tell you why I thought that; it was a general impression I had. I was reminded of an analysis of ‘The Love Song Of J. Alfred Prufrock’, which said it was very much a young man’s vision of what it would be like to be old. The TADS game felt that way to me at times, too: a young person’s vision of a game an older man would write. I have no idea how old the author is, so I could be 100% wrong on this, of course. I also could be imposing my own design assumptions on the game, since I myself have an 18-year-old and a 22-year-old, so if I was writing this game, I would make different decisions… but that could just as easily stem from the fact that I am, in fact, a different person, and not from some inherent ‘games designed by middle-aged parents don’t look this way’ design flaw. Nonetheless, the game just left a twinge of disconnect in its choices that made me remember that it wasn’t actually an in-game artifact, but an ifComp entry in and of itself, which isn’t something you quite want in a game with this setup.

The game itself, looked at as ‘a game to play’ was fun! There were three main goals, and all three goals could be accomplished in (I think) five different ways each, which was amazing, because it meant that you could spend a lot of time figuring out everything, or a minimal amount of time figuring out enough. This was also something I thought worked as an in-game design, too: if you’re writing something for your kid, you want them to spend a good amount of time on it, and giving them several fast ways to get through means that you could have a meaningful conversation about the game in general, while still giving them time to go back and explore the whole world later. I personally ended up only completely solving my three goals in a single way each, but felt that Ruby (my in-universe persona playing the game) would go back and find more stuff her dad had left for her to find.

And hey, kudos to the telescope puzzle, which when I first saw it, made me think “What? No way this is an actual puzzle; it’s way too complicated,” but then after a bit made me think, “Wait, I bet if I…” and off I went. I used Excel a lot, and solved it almost in one go, with one in-game hint at the end that got me thinking along the right lines (literally) for the last stage of the puzzle. Go me!

Then I played the finale and got all emotional again, because I both have kids who I want to see succeed at life, and a father with a terminal illness who passed away a few years back, and it got me RIGHT HERE, which was unfair. And the game didn’t have to end like it did, but it did anyway, and it made me sad and hopeful all at once, so hey. Good job.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! A solid piece about legacies, regret, and running out of time, in the framing story, along with…

Did I have something to do? …puzzles to solve and a cute environment to explore in the in-game-artifact level. And, to be fair, back in the framing story in the finale, too.

Transcript (for the TADS part only, because TWINE continues to be incapable of saving transcripts): important_date.txt - Google Drive


Nice review! Just commenting on this bit:

I’d never heard that, but it’s funny, I was low-key obsessed with that poem when I was in my late 20s and cognizant of starting to get older, but now that I’m in my 40s I still think sometimes about other elements of the poem, but not so much the aging theme. So that’s one data point in favor of the theory, I suppose!


Thanks for the review and transcript! And bravo on getting the telescope puzzle!

Sorry about your father. While not a happy task to capture that sort of experience, I hope I did it justice.

I’m 42 years old, though maturity- and wisdom-wise? Who knows?

I’ll probably talk more about it in my post-mortem but the tone was intentionally a little wonky in the parser bit to suggest the length of time he’d been working on it. There’s also the hidden hand of James. Hopefully all wonkiness was intentional, but I can’t be sure. The bugs and rough edges, unfortunately, I’ll claim as all mine.

The dad jokes within… 50-50 mine vs Miles’.

Thanks for all the IF Comp reviews!


I’m 42 years old, though maturity- and wisdom-wise? Who knows?

I’ll probably talk more about it in my post-mortem but the tone was intentionally a little wonky in the parser bit to suggest the length of time he’d been working on it. There’s also the hidden hand of James. Hopefully all wonkiness was intentional, but I can’t be sure. The bugs and rough edges, unfortunately, I’ll claim as all mine.

Ha, well, maybe it was just the wonkiness confusing me instead of seeming illustrative of its purported creation process. I should stress again that everything mostly worked, it was just occasionally when I would get a bit confused and pulled out of the work again because something didn’t quite hit me as being ‘authentic’, whatever that meant.

Thanks for writing it! I appreciated it both from a story and a design perspective.

Just for grins, here’s my Excel file I used to solve the telescope puzzle (spoilers, obviously): - Google Drive