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

Hey, it’s the second year in a row that I’m doing this! A brief recap of my perspective/biases:

I mostly played IF ‘back in the day’, which turned out to have two phases: when I was a kid with Infocom, and when I was in grad school in the late 90’s. I wrote ‘The Edifice’ back in '97, and had a blast, but haven’t written anything solo since. I got roped back into things more recently via ‘Cragne Manor’ and then again with Mike Russo’s Let’s play of it, and then I played and reviewed comp games! Overall, this has left me with a fairly old school/parser bias, but certainly not exclusively. Beyond that, I’m kind of biased against angst (which seems to come up a lot in these things) though it can be overcome if done well enough.

I’ll try to mention any other more specific-to-a-game biases in my review of that game. I’ll try to be kind and fair, and if I you feel I fail at either, I would appreciate you mentioning this.

The things I will be particularly watching for in my reviews are the two basic things I’m looking for in IF, namely:

  • It’s nice when the author has something to say.
  • It’s nice when I have something to do.

If either one is satisfied, I’m probably going to enjoy the game, and if both are satisfied, it’s likely to be one of my favorites. If neither is true, I’m going to be confused as to why the game exists, but generally don’t get upset about that; these things happen.

I’ll try to keep up with links to the particular reviews in this top post. Thanks to all the authors for the work you put into your games! It truly is appreciated.

(The order of reviews is as I played them, which is from the personal randomizer on the ifcomp site, with exceptions made here and there for what platform I had available at times.)


The Long Kill (James Blair)

Well, this was a sad story to start off the comp. Whee! At first I thought, “This is competently written, but it seems like it’s glorifying war and guns, which meh.” Then by the end I was thinking, “This is competently written, but it seems like it’s decrying war and guns, which meh.” At that point I realized that just talking about war and guns at all was obviously not my favorite thing in the world, regardless of what side it came down on. So, enh. It was competently written! And definitely had something to say about war and guns!

I feel like I should describe the story. It’s mostly non-interactive, giving you snippets of a mopey British guy’s life who ends up as a sniper in the Iraq war. He’s very good at his job, except when the player is asked (on the ‘Sniper’ route) to ‘calculate’ something that was completely opaque to me. Do yourself a favor and don’t select the ‘Sniper’ route; it asks you to do stuff you can’t without out-of-game knowledge. I think. And digress. At any rate, war happens, and in the end he’s even more mopey than he was in the beginning, but this time with a good reason. You get the story in haphazard chunks though the guy’s life.

I’m being more flippant than this game deserves, but lord, it was a hard slog for me though an unpleasant story punctuated by occasional bouts of frustration.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! It wasn’t pleasant, but it was competently conveyed.

Did I have something to do? Only occasionally, and when it would make an immediate difference to the story that I could predict, I was asked to solve a puzzle without adequate training beforehand. Otherwise, it was 95% ‘click to continue’ and 5% ‘I don’t know what difference this is going to make, even conceptually’ followed by ‘I’m not sure anything different resulted at all’.

One bug: I chose to not carry my rifle at one point, and two clicks later I was carrying my rifle.


Fix Your Mother’s Printer (Geoffrey Golden)

So: I am 50, my mother lives alone with a dog, and she asks me for tech advice. This is to say, a game where you do tech support for your mom is very familiar to me :wink: The only issue is that it’s about 20 years out of date or so; you can be calling your mom for dating advice, which is a bit weird at 50, and she can tell you she wants grandkids, which is also a bit weird at 50. And it doesn’t quite work to swap things back a generation, either: moms in their 50’s today don’t actually need tech advice; they’re Gen X, and learned this crap ages ago. So, transpose the game to the past, and it mostly works out, in my experience, at least.

The ‘puzzle’, so to speak, of the game seems to be ‘can you actually help your mom without getting snippy or mean’, which is kind of an adorable premise, except that the game sort of wears it on its sleeve: your mom expressly tells you “But sarcasm, negativity, and sending me “bad vibes?” You do so at your own risk today, sprout.” This is a little too on-the-nose for me; I think I would have preferred a system where the conversation just took its own turns with good feedback instead of expressly-defined stakes? But I’m not sure; I might have missed that there was a puzzle at all without the explicit signposts.

The other bit that didn’t work as well for me as it might have is that you have a visual of your mom the whole game, and her expression changes as she says stuff. But that’s not where you’re looking when you’re reading what she says, and more often than not, you’re just clicking the ‘continue’ button, whatever it happens to be in the moment. So I would vaguely see the mom’s face changing in my peripheral vision, but rarely would actually look at it. The exception was when she had an unexpected visitor (which was adorable) and when I had to actually think about which option to pick, and I would see the expression associated with the last thing she had said.

But once the game got going and I kind of figured out the author’s definition of ‘sarcasm and bad vibes’, I got into the spirit of things and had a successful conversation and tech solution for my mom! And it was adorable, which meets the one-adorable-per-paragraph contract I had to sign. I kind of felt ‘seen’, as it were, too, in a way I didn’t expect.

One side note: ink will give you a transcript! Yay ink!

Did the author have something to say? Yup! Nothing extra profound, but there were characters and a gentle push towards being nice.

Did I have something to do? Yeah, be nice and patient with my mom.


Put Your Hand Inside The Puppet Head (The Hungry Reader)

The worldbuilding in this game kind of blew me away; I absolutely loved it. I guess you could call it a sort of Roger Rabbit world with puppets instead of cartoons? There’s a very clear ‘early Disney’ vibe to the backstory, and despite the quite large cast, I ended up with genuine affection for all of them.

I did feel (especially at the beginning of the game) that at its heart it was a parser game mocked up in a Choice setting, and I’ve mulled over whether I would have enjoyed it more in that form over the one presented. Certainly the introduction of ‘Undo’ would have been nice, as the insta-deaths were frequent and unpredictable. (I eventually settled into a save/load cycle that mostly worked for me after my initial floundering and re-playing more than I wanted.) [EDIT: there was an undo that I missed! Perhaps because I played it on my phone, but perhaps because I just missed it.] But beyond that, it was mostly a game about exploring a bunch of rooms, and you had to put together a map in your head for it, and it mostly worked, but there were definitely times the choice-based ‘go north’ and ‘go east’ felt more awkward to me personally than a parser game would have. But, you know, perhaps tightening the game’s interface did more good than harm overall, if it let people interact with and master the game’s basic puzzle loop more easily?

Because the basic puzzle loop was, if not flashy, at least satisfying. You go around and encounter obstacles, which are overcome by timing and/or by having the correct puppet with you. The ‘go back to the van and swap out puppets’ cycle was (for me) just awkward enough to ensure that I didn’t accidentally solve puzzles, but not so awkward that it put me off the game entirely. I mean, it was definitely annoying. But I felt the game did a reasonable job of annoyance management, further ameliorated by dropping additional interesting backstory depending on which puppet you had with you, and by giving you some puppets which would completely block out certain annoyances. I also felt most puzzles were good examples of the exploration->understanding->mastery progression that’s always so satisfying in these games. The only exception to this was figuring out how to avoid the guards, which I mostly accomplished while still in the ‘exploration’ phase, namely, ‘stumble about and hope you don’t see a guard; if you do, reload’. Only near the very end of the game did I gain a vague semblance of partial understanding. The biggest problem for me here was that I genuinely thought the Hallway was simply unvisitable for a very long time, and I only discovered it wasn’t when I looked at the hints.

The epilogue felt a little long to me, and it felt sort of like the author had a lot more story to tell, and had finally given up on giving it to you organically, and instead was just letting you read it straight through (since you had no more tasks to accomplish). I liked the story; I just wished I had had something to do as well, giving the amount of time spent there. There was also the problem that I didn’t know if I had actually gotten the recording or not (he said, vaguely, avoiding spoilers). It turned out I had, but this was very unclear to me before the very very very end, and I had been increasingly dreading having to go back, solve some ‘get the recording’ puzzle, and replay the whole ending again. But I didn’t have to! Whew.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! Lots of interesting and compelling worldbuilding and character building.

Did I have something to do? Yes! Not only did I enjoy the ‘master the puzzles’ bits, but I also enjoyed the ‘figure out how to get more story’ bits by taking puppets different places and in different combinations.


Meritocracy (Ronynn)

This was a deeply sincere game that felt, hmm, sort of like a Mary Sue story written by a high school sophomore who had just discovered philosophy? I’m struggling a bit here writing this because it’s so sincere, and so much of the author themselves is dripping off of each sentence that any criticism of the game feels like a direct criticism of the author as a person. So I suppose I shall simply say that I greatly admire the author for putting themselves out there like this, and for caring so deeply about the subject matter. I feel this will serve them well as they continue to develop over time.

That said, the game was hard for me to read, because every philosophical idea put forth here is presented in very very black and white terms, and both sides of every argument seemed hollow to me. An argument was either an ad hominem attack, or it was completely justified. Living in the Meritocracy of the title is either a utopia or a hellscape. While I felt like nuance was attempted, I also felt like it almost never actually materialized. (To be fair, I also feel this is true about the vast majority of social media arguments, so the author is at least not alone in this.)

The setting is also, unfortunately, completely ludicrous. The ‘Mary Sue’ aspect of the writing comes out here in full force: the PC is the only person who actually attends a professor’s lecture, because they’re the only one who cares enough! They even have to coax the professor to share philosophy with them, overcoming their old and jaded nature! And yet, somehow, these philosophy-adverse fellow students arrange spontaneous debates with each other in the courtyard, skipping classes where they would have debated ad hominem arguments in favor of debating the nature of a Meritocracy in the quad.

It was a little hard to get through. Happily, though, people grow up, and with time and experience, I’m sure the same will be true here.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! I didn’t quite enjoy it, per se, but the earnestness of the whole game did win me over, at least to some extent.

Did I have something to do? Nope! Even beyond the literal fact that most text blocks are followed by single ‘click to continue’ links, the choices I did get were never compelling. And interestingly but frustratingly, I also felt that they didn’t fairly represent the actual philosophical issue at the heart of what was, ostensibly, the subject of the choice.


Yay, glad to have contributed to getting you back into the Comp! I’m enjoying your reviews so far, too. I did have one comment on Put Your Hand…, though:

There actually is an undo - those back and forward arrows in the sidebar about the save and load buttons are undo/redo. And I was very glad they were because I enjoyed this game too but shamelessly undo-scummed my way through it (that third building with the hallway was also the toughest for me - the others I mostly figured out, but that one kept wrong-footing me).


There’s even an exploit with those if you’re really being sneaky: when you’re fumbling with the keyring and you don’t get it the first time, you can just flick back/forward and it rerolls, which can save you a scary encounter. I thought about hiding the save bar, but left it in because cheats and warp zones are fun!

Very glad you enjoyed the game, @lpsmith! If it felt like the ending ran long, you must have gotten the really good ending. The good and okay-ish endings are a lot shorter; I wanted players to really feel rewarded for going the extra mile. Which you did! Thanks for spending so much time with my puppet pals.


Thanks very much for your time on this Lucian, and apologies that this was your first comp experience this year!

I’ll definitely be taking at look at the job interview and father passages where the minute of angle stuff is explained. There’s probably more I can do to make the “clicks” clear there.

Ditto where you swap rifles at the end of the mission, I could probably use the word swap in the choice rather than just in the text and clarify for the reader.

Having played a few games in the comp so far I’ve no doubt that you’ll have a much better time going forward, there’s some cracking stuff in there this year!


There actually is an undo - those back and forward arrows in the sidebar about the save and load buttons are undo/redo.

There’s even an exploit with those if you’re really being sneaky

Aha! I actually played this one while travelling, and was on my phone, so maybe those arrows were hiding. And if not, I’m an inveterate not-noticer-of-GUIs, too; my default assumption tends to be that anything non-text is fluff, to the point where its existence won’t even register in my head. Which is definitely more a me thing than a game thing :wink:

I did indeed get the you-did-everything ending. For me, there was never any doubt that I would rescue everyone, though I did worry that there would be two human-sized puppets I’d have to decide between, which sounded like it would be sad.

Thanks for writing the game! Again, I just loved your imagination and worldbuilding.


Thanks very much for your time on this Lucian, and apologies that this was your first comp experience this year!

No apologies necessary! These things happen. You had a story you wanted to share, and you shared it!

To be more specific about the puzzle design: my main problem was that as far as I could recall, the word ‘clockwise’ was never used in the ‘minute of angle’ explanations, and then suddenly showed up in the choices. I thought I understood that there were two things you had to adjust: angle and distance, and I thought distance was measured in ‘clicks’, but then the choice came up and it seemed to conflate the two, like, ‘two clicks clockwise’. What did that mean? ‘clockwise’ is not a measurable angle by itself, and if ‘two clicks clockwise’ means ‘an angle of about 10 minutes’ or something, then there wasn’t anything for the distance.

Regardless of the explanation, though, the other thing that could have helped is a scene where I-the-player could learn what I-the-PC knew; where I could test out what I thought the explanations meant in a ‘safe’ environment. (I mean, there were those scenes, but nothing where I could try things and get feedback in the same ‘x angle, y distance’ context that came up later.) Maybe this would have messed with the pacing of the story you wanted to tell? But I think something like this where you teach the player how to solve the puzzle is necessary in the puzzle-track through the game.


That’s really well explained and something I can take forward. You’re absolutely right that I never mentioned clockwise or anticlockwise in the tutorial sections. To my knowledge none of the options in the shoots ask you to choose between the two, I’d deliberately avoided asking players to choose direction, only to calculate the number of clicks.

I’d also ensured that, outside of some dialogue options, calculating wind and range never played into it. Id felt that asking for more than the clicks might be too deep off the bat.

It seems in this regard we’re absolutely aligned, and I’d imagine at least one person reading this now will appreciate the clarification if they come to try it later. And I’ll certainly be keeping it in mind when I make revisions, so thank you again.


For Eternity, Again and Again (TheChosenGiraffe)

I played through this game. I backed up and made all the other choices. I started over from the beginning and made a different initial choice, which started me down a completely different path, and visited all the nodes in that branch. I think I probably saw all the writing in this game.

I still don’t know what’s going on.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I understood the plot, such as it was. There are two entities who get reincarnated into pre-existing lives, somehow, but this is now ending because of ‘the universe’ during the game. It seems like you could make that premise into an interesting story, but all I got out of this was the premise. So maybe it’s not that I didn’t know what was going on so much as I didn’t know why it was going on. Why these two? Why now? Why do I care?

I’ve played games before that felt more like an interactive sculpture more than an interactive story, and maybe that’s what’s going on here? If so, though, it wasn’t nearly as well signposted this time 'round than in those other games I’ve played.

Did the author have something to say? Not… really? There was a premise to convey, I guess.

Did I have something to do? No, none of my choices meant anything; I could just decide to read more or stop.


I love this so much. :slight_smile: Man what a great way to put it.


Death on the Stormrider (Daniel M. Stelzer)

This was a very clever puzzly game that I wasn’t quite clever enough to match. The worldbuilding was fun, the characters were distinct, and the mystery had a satisfying conclusion.

The game is definitely weighted on the ‘solve puzzles’ side of things, and it rewards careful and lateral thinking. All of the puzzles are seamlessly integrated into the setting and story, and solving them was always satisfying… when I could manage to actually solve the puzzle. I often could! But there were several I floundered about.

And nigh-disastrously, I came this close -><- to thinking I was done with the game when I was not. There’s an unfortunate but understandable pattern that comes with hints, where every time you turn to get a hint, your bond with the author goes down–you believe more and more that the two of you are simply on a different wavelength, and you will not be able to solve the next puzzle, either. Every time you do solve a new puzzle, that bond gets rebuilt. I ended up going pretty far with a reasonable bond with the author, but it kept getting chipped away as I got stuck several times, and by the end, the bond was almost shot. This was the point where I had unanswered questions, but had reached an ending, and I thought that was all there was! You can see my thought processes at the end of my transcript (stormrider2.txt - Google Drive) though of course there are huge spoilers at that point.

I think the hint system itself may be partly to blame here–the hint topics didn’t match the ‘tasks’ list you have in-game, so figuring out what to reveal was somewhat a matter of guessing. But more importantly, if one of the topics had been ‘How can I tell who the killer is?’ and another had been ‘How can I tell what the killer’s motivation was?’ (or something similar) I would have known there was an answer in-game about the killer’s motivation, and could have at least attempted to follow up accordingly.

It’s also possible that the description of the packets led me astray, or at least could have provided a clue as to exactly what sort of thing I was dealing with here, too?

I’m spending too much time vaguely complaining. Instead, I should tell people that there is indeed a satisfying conclusion to the game, and it involves solving all of the tasks on your list, even the ones that don’t seem relevant to anything. You might need hints, but stick with it: the author will come through for you in the end.

Did the author have something to say? Yeah, more or less! Mostly interesting worldbuilding and a crime setup for you to discover.

Did I have something to do? Absolutely. Lots of puzzles to solve, well-integrated into the world and setting.


I had the same problem when I turned to the hints; I was worried I was going to accidentally spoil some of the puzzles for myself by clicking the wrong thing!

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Thank you so much for the review! I don’t want to say too much in public while the judging is going on, but suffice to say—you raise good points about the hints, and I’m going to look into reorganizing those a bit. My goal has been to conceal the fact that there are several separate crimes being concealed on this ship but I don’t want that to hurt the play experience.


Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest (Joey Acrimonious)

This game was a deeply sincere, deeply ridiculous sex farce, and I cannot emphasize enough how well the sincerity blended with the ridiculousness to create something truly beautiful. Our protagonist, Zorklang, is the ribald bat lady foretold in the title, and not once in the entire game does she act out of character. She knows exactly who she is, she knows exactly what she wants, and she is absolutely relentless in her pursuit of her objectives. She has a character arc! Not the character arc where you start off thinking one thing, then the universe conspires against you to teach you a lesson, you learn the lesson, and use your newfound knowledge to overcome the final challenge. It’s the character arc where you start off awesome, the universe conspires against you to beat you down, and you respond by doubling down on your own awesomeness to rise up and overcome the final challenge. The emotional climax of the story finds our heroine bedraggled in the water, and the resolution was beautiful and heartwarming.

Not that the protagonist isn’t flawed. Her commitment to being in control is more than a little obsessive, and I worried for most of the game that her intended present was not going to be appreciated, as it didn’t really seem to me to be the sort of thing he would like. But this served for me to make Zorklang more real; more vibrant. And when her present was appreciated anyway at the end because it was from her, it made me cheer the happy couple even more.

That all this takes place in an over-the-top, sex-obsessed world, with a protagonist who is herself over-the-top and sex-obsessed was hilarious, due in no small part to the game taking this world completely seriously. Nothing that we-the-player find funny is funny at all to the inhabitants of the world: that’s just how the world works. The world is inherently ridiculous, and nobody knows this but us. So with every new ridiculous situation, with every new overly dramatic sex scene, with every new overwrought way of phrasing a simple description, there’s the initial surprise of the ridiculous, followed immediately by the realization that of course it had to be that way, that’s just How Things Work Here. It’s entirely character-based comedy, where one of the main characters is ‘the very universe’.

The game is not perfect. It needed some more beta testing, to smooth out some of the rougher edges, particularly ‘phrases the player will try that really should work’. Totally fixable. I was totally befuddled by the lack of room exits being listed in the descriptions until I finally realized that the room exits were listed in the status bar instead. (This will make it difficult to play on status-bar-less platforms like Floyd on ifMUD. Maybe an ‘exits’ command?) The ‘follow someone around’ puzzle can go on too long. Most generally, the game needs more gentle pushes for people who are on the wrong track to get them righted again. I highly recommend asking someone for hints if you get stuck–the hint page provided with the game will often help, but sometimes is spoil-y and sometimes not spoil-y enough.

A few of my favorite moments:

  • The reason the assassin escapes the first time
  • The ‘reward’ for helping a libidinous couple
  • Any time modern slang crept into the faux-historical overwrought prose.
  • The phrase ‘[The children] were in their beds, as foretold.’
  • The subsequent story we tell
  • The scene in the cistern
  • The final scene. It was beautiful. (Also, ‘splint of sumptuous mahogany’.)

Did the author have something to say? Yes! A wonderfully constructed world, and a wonderfully constructed protagonist, with a plot where she stays true to herself to accomplish her goals.

Did I have something to do? Yes! The puzzles were a bit weaker than the other parts of the game, for me, but when they worked, they worked well, and I feel like even the ones that didn’t work for me could be made to work better with a little more polish. Amusingly, the game this most closely reminded me of was last year’s ‘The Princess of Vestria’ where one of my favorite things to do was ‘behave in genre-appropriate ways’. The same was true here, in a very very different genre!

EDIT: a link to my transcript.


Thanks for playing and for taking the time to review my game! I’m glad you appreciated it. :slight_smile:

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Who Iced Mayor McFreeze? (Damon L. Wakes)

Hey, it’s a sequel to last year’s ‘Who Shot Gum E. Bear’! Last year, I thought the game was delightfully off-beat, but that it suffered a tonal shift in the final puzzle, from being a ridiculous setup that took itself seriously, to a ridiculous setup with a ridiculous conclusion. This year, to my delight, I felt it took itself seriously the whole way through! This game is, essentially, the game I had thought I was playing last year: a hard-boiled detective mystery where all the characters are anthropomorphized candies and sweets.

I am somewhat amused that this is the second game in a row for me (after ‘Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest’) where the setting is intentionally ridiculous, with inhabitants who don’t know they’re in a farce. Which makes it funnier!

My favorite example of the world taking itself seriously in a surprising-to-us way is that it’s a vital clue to the mystery is that a candy cigarette has a blueberry flavor on it from the last person who smoked it. One might assume that this is the titular blue Mayor McFreeze, a blue slushie, but if you >TASTE MAYOR (their dead corpse!) you discover that he’s blue raspberry! It’s a great situation where the rules of the world push you to do something unthinkable in a regular setting, because it makes sense to the protagonist.

On the other side of the coin, I was disappointed that you are told several times that “It’s always night in Sugar City”, which would mean logically that (somehow) the scheduled demolition of the taffy factory tomorrow ‘at 9:00 AM’ should never take place. But this never came up, which I felt was a missed opportunity.

Apart from the lovely setting, this is a pretty short puzzle adventure, with (for me) slightly uneven puzzles–several where I felt clever and solved them, others where I needed a hint. All of them made sense in retrospect, which means that a little extra nudging (and implementing actions like ‘untie’) would probably push more people like me into being able to solve everything.

Did the author have something to say? The shortness of the game made it a little lightweight, but I still have to go with a solid ‘yes’ to this question. The worldbuilding was the main gimmick, and was done well, with the mystery being reasonable within the rules of the world.

Did I have something to do? I did indeed have puzzles to solve, some that I appreciated more than others. But more than that, just being able to inhabit the world itself for a bit was delightful.

Transcript: iced.txt - Google Drive

EDIT: forgot to blur the spoiler! Ack! Sorry.


The Vambrace of Destiny (Arthur DiBianca)

This was a very satisfying puzzle game! It lies in the liminal space between a parser game and a choice game (and, I suppose, graphic adventures) that Mike Russo called ‘limited parser’: your interactions are restricted to directions, help, and spells that you gather as you traverse the dungeon. The whole map is displayed in the lower right corner of the screen. Each spell does one thing, like create a gust of wind, and you run into various obstacles, like (to make something up) a swarm of gnats that can be blown away by a gust of wind. As you go, the obstacles become more involved to solve, so you might need to (say) first blow the dust off a mirror, then shine a light in it (to make something up again).

It was a really satisfying series of puzzles! And happily, the hints are complete, and encoded in rot13, which is just awkward enough to decode that you spend a little time thinking about each one before zooming on to the next. In the middle of the game, I and the hints got out of sync a bit, and I started leaning on them a little too hard. Fortunately, I then took a bit of a break, figured out what the problem was, realized I was going to the hints too much, and managed to back off again (which is usually very hard!) From there, I got to the end, solved the final puzzle on my own, then went back through all the optional puzzles, and solved about half of them completely on my own, and the other half with some but not all the hints for each one. Highly recommended if you like puzzles!

Did the author have something to say? Not really, at least not in the way I usually define things in these reviews. There was no particular attempt at a deep narrative or character development or even much worldbuilding.

Did I have something to do? 100%! The game was super focused on making sure I was solving puzzles all the time, and I appreciated it.

Transcript: vambrace.txt - Google Drive