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

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


GameCeption (Ruo)

This game is entirely dependent on its plot twists. I can totally imagine someone playing the game and thinking “ZOMG!!1!” when they happen and being delighted. I, alas, was not that player.

The other game I’ve played so far that is foundationally hinged on its plot twist was ‘Please Sign Here’, and like that game, I felt the rest of the game didn’t support that twist enough, so you end up instead thinking, “Wait, but what about…” and realize that nothing really makes sense. I do think that in general, the ‘but wait…’ instinct tends to only kick in when the rest of the work has already failed on some other level, and your brain is floundering around for something logical to wrap its dislike around. That said, there’s a lot that doesn’t make sense in this game, and I’m going to ruin everything by what-abouting for the rest of this review, so I’m wrapping it in spoiler tags. It’s not particularly necessary to read, it’s mostly just ‘this game didn’t work for me’ in more explicit terms. It didn’t make sense, but I’m not convinced it was supposed to make sense, either; it’s more of a ZOMG-delivery mechanism that either works for you or it doesn’t. That said: spoilers ahoy!

So, the game centers around three plot twists: the first is that Ziyan (the nominal PC) isn’t playing a game with a game avatar based on his partner Airen…he’s actually controlling the REAL Airen! For me, this was somehow obvious even before we got to the ‘playing the game’ part, but also isn’t ever followed up on, or made ‘real’ in the rest of the game:

  • Nobody controls Ziyan with a controller when he leaves the building later
  • Nobody controls Airen when Ziyan finds him later,
  • There’s another duo that’s wandering around outside later together, and neither is controlling the other.

There’s also the more prosaic questions of ‘how on earth did a game company manage to make something that literally controls a real person?’ or even ‘How is killing people for fun tolerated in this society?’ (There’s a throwaway line at the end of the game that nods at an answer for this that I didn’t really believe.)

The next twist is that the answer to ‘who is the player’ isn’t Ziyan nor Airen… it’s YOU! And, I mean, OK? Yes, I’m playing the game? It’s a Twine game in ifComp. Ziyan and Airen don’t exist in my world; they’re in the universe that the author created. LASH and other games have had nods in this direction in the past, but usually there’s some sort of framing story? Which this game didn’t have? Not only that, but it’s Twine, for goodness sake; you don’t really ‘control’ anyone like you would in a parser game or a controller-based game. I picked options off a menu. Who came up with those options? There’s no sense that Ziyan is coming up with options and you’re compelling him to go with one over another. Heck, in the end, the game design is just a classic maze, where if you hit a dead end, you’re sent back to earlier until you successfully navigate it. There is no way that I have a single shred of influence on Ziyan’s life; I’m just here to observe.

The final twist is that a year later, Ziyan unleashes a new game on the world that’s his revenge, and suddenly I AM THE HUNTED. And of all the twists, I liked this the best! Not as Ziyan unleashing the game on me, but on his universe. But again… I’m still playing a Twine game. It’s literally the same Twine game I’ve been playing the whole time. If Ziyan is mad about me controlling him earlier (I guess?) I’m still controlling him, because I’m the one still clicking on links and closing the browser, consigning his entire universe once again to not exist. Even if we consider the idea that Ziyan has somehow enmeshed his whole (city? Country? Civilization?) in his new game, it’s not like there’s anyone out there forcing people to play. Countries still have laws, and it’s still just as illegal to kill people as it was before? And people generally don’t kill each other, because it’s obviously a bad idea? And still, fundamentally, I don’t exist in Ziyan’s universe.

The problem with the game entirely existing as a ZOMG-dispenser is that it misses out on the potentially interesting ramifications of the universe it posits. What would it mean to society if you could pick up a controller and literally pilot your friend around? What would it mean to society if everyone collectively decided that killing other people was fine if it was for the purpose of ‘sport’? What would it mean if the actions I was taking playing a videogame had real-life repercussions in a different universe? None of these questions are asked in the game, much less answered. I kind of feel like they didn’t even seem interesting to the author in the first place. But for me, I can’t really enjoy a game that’s all twist, no filler.

Did the author have something to say? Yes, they had some surprises in a box that they pulled out and threw at me.

Did I have something to do? React to the surprises, with basically no agency.


The Gift of What You Notice More (Xavid)

This game is a haunting mood piece about analyzing a failed relationship interspersed with puzzles where you scare a miniature elephant with a mouse. I mean, it’s not impossible for games or other art to wed different tones successfully. But for me, the two never quite clicked.

This may have also had something to do with the fact that I found the puzzles dreadfully obscure. Notwithstanding that it’s Twine, you end up with an inventory of Random Stuff, and the whole goal of every single puzzle is to get a new item from somewhere, then figure out exactly which room to be in to click on that item to advance the story. Every so often, I had an inkling of what I was supposed to do next, but more often than not, I was reduced to lawnmowering everything: click on new place, click through everything in my inventory, click on new place, click through everything in my inventory, click on new place, click through everything in my inventory, oh, hey, there’s a new option here, lather rinse repeat. The puzzle design depressed me more than the failed relationship did.

It was unfortunate, because the overall game design was on point: you’re trying to figure out a failed relationship, and through the power of Magical Realism, you get to go back to three different points in your relationship, first to discover What Went Wrong. Then you go back to those same locations armed with a New Item, which lets you solve new puzzles, to discover What Could Have Been, get another New item, and finally revisit everywhere once more to discover What You Need. Then you wrap things up and end the game. Put like that, it’s a tight design! I like it! And I liked that part of it while I played, but lawnmowering puzzles is never a good time. As a thought experiment, I wondered if converting it to a parser game would have made it better, and I’m not entirely sure. The main problem was that many many times, the puzzle solution made at least a certain amount of sense in retrospect, but was completely opaque beforehand. That’s a hard problem to overcome in any medium, and the frustration I felt here constantly clicking on dead links would probably have been just as annoying as endless ‘you can’t do that here’ messages. The only saving grace of the parser could have been that a parser game at least has a lot of opportunities to gently guide you towards the correct answer, in a way that ‘here is a list of links’ typically does not. But, I dunno, maybe making the links actually do something that hinted at the solution instead of doing literally nothing would have helped? Or just giving things away by greying out non-functional inventory links where they wouldn’t work?

As far as the story goes, the point of the game kind of eluded me at the end, and I suppose I should spoiler-shroud the following: You go through all this rigamarole to finally decide ‘what you need’, and I would have thought this would be something where you go talk to your partner about that and see if they’re receptive to the idea. But no, you just… leave anyway? And never talk to them about the stuff you’ve figured out? You do have the options as to whether to rip up the photos or take them with you (or leave them), but that’s window-dressing to the main issue of whether you’ve decided to apply your new insight to the old relationship or just vaguely hope your next relationship conveniently has the exact same issues as the old one, which you are now equipped to solve?

Sigh, another issue here is that my angst-aversion is kicking in, and I wanted to tell the protagonist, “For heaven’s sake, don’t just wallow in sadness; take the insight you’ve gained and fucking do something with it! Oy!” And, OK, the end I suppose is ambiguous enough to allow that possibility. But I wanted to know the author’s opinion on this, dangit, and not just be told ‘oh, yes, sadness is sad.’ grumble.

Did the author have something to say? There were some pretty good and interesting insights into why a relationship might fail!

Did I have something to do? ENDLESSLY CLICK ON DEAD LINKS LOOKING FOR A LIVE ONE ARRRGH. Okay fine I also solved some puzzles normally. Not that I can give my transcript to the author so they can see where I got stuck so they can improve the game! It’s Twine! It doesn’t have helpful features like that.


LUNIUM (Ben Jackson)

This was a very solid game! It’s a tightly-designed escape room with an attached Victorian story with a satisfying conclusion. In a particularly interesting twist on the genre, there was even a reasonable explanation for the existence of the escape room in the first place! I only used the hint system once, which turned out to hinge on a UK-ism I had forgotten about.

There are two goals of the game: discover how to escape the room, and discover the identity of a murderer (the details of the case form the substance of the clues you have to peruse to escape). Discovering how to escape the room was methodical and satisfying for me. Discovering the identity of the murderer came in a flash on insight, and as far as recommending the game to others, I’m at a bit of a loss, because I can easily see people not figuring that bit out. But for judging the game, I can only report my own experience, and solving a puzzle in a flash of insight is always delightful.

Also, the game is visually gorgeous, and this from a person who usually doesn’t notice visual anythings.

Did the author have something to say? They had an interesting scenario to deploy, with some nice world-building.

Did I have something to do? Solve Puzzles and Have Insights.


Hey, thanks for the review!

Yeah, that’s one of those extra puzzles that’s harder if you’re not European! If you enter the dates in the wrong order it does hint that you’re ‘on the right track’.

So far, over 60% of people answered the final question with no hints required, but the hints for that one are designed to gradually ease the player into realising for themselves. I’m really pleased to hear that you got that flash of insight right at the end, that’s probably the best way to experience the ending!

I’ll take that as a huge compliment - thank you for noticing! :slight_smile:


To Sea in a Sieve (J. J. Guest)

I have mentioned in other reviews that I always like games that know exactly what they are, and set about doing exactly that. ‘To Sea in a Sieve’ fits that to a tee: it’s a one room/boat game where you have to get rid of everything, and the other inhabitant of the boat doesn’t want you to. Some stuff you can just pitch. Other stuff requires more complicated maneuvers. Getting rid of some stuff opens up the ability to get rid of other stuff. Some stuff you need to use to get rid of other stuff, and afterwards you can pitch the whole lot overboard. It’s all tightly designed and delightful.

The other fun bit of the game is the way it never breaks character: every error message, every description, and every bit of dialogue is written in amusing pirate-speak, and helps ground the world and the puzzles in its own reality. And the end of the game takes that reality in an interesting kind of bittersweet direction that sets up the written-earlier-but-takes-place-later-and-unplayed-by-me ‘To Hell in a Hamper’ as well as the not-yet-written-but-I-suspect-will-be-entered-in-a-future-comp-though-if-its-next-year-I-will-be-impressed-because-these-things-always-take-longer-than-you-expect ‘To the Moon in a Microbus’. I enjoyed this enough that I’m going to try to play ‘Hamper’ soonish, and look forward to ‘Moon’. So hey!

I definitely had some hiccups with the game: I didn’t always realize the breadth of actions available to me, didn’t realize the game was as forgiving as it turned out to be (it turns out you can’t permanently get rid of stuff you’ll need). There was at least one puzzle where I got zero responses from reasonable-to-me actions and it instead required highly specific actions I would never have guessed. Happily, there was indeed a walkthrough (written in-character, which was a hoot), though this would have been a great game for invisiclue-style hints, which unfortunately do not (yet) exist.

Did the author have something to say? Not… particularly? Though there was some worldbuilding (of sorts) and a nice bit at the end.

Did I have something to do? Definitely! Some fun puzzles with clear goals.

Transcript: seive.txt - Google Drive


My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition (Naomi Norbez)

I’m supposed to rate this. On a scale of 1 to 10.

I’m supposed to write a review of this. It’s someone’s life. I’m supposed to review their life. To tell people 'Hey, here are the reasons this person [is/is not] worthy of your time." “This person would make a [good/bad] friend.” “They took the [right/wrong] message from the things that happened to them.”

Like, come on.

Here, I can talk about the interface, as a piece of programming design. The music was nice, but I couldn’t mute/pause it when I needed to switch windows to do something else. Navigating the map was cute and intimate, but the direction links weren’t consistent so I was constantly wanting to go east twice (say) and unconsciously clicking the ‘east’ link twice in a row, only the second time it would be ‘south’ or something else. There are links to text files with HTML tags in them, which just… show up as HTML tags.

I suppose the other thing to do is talk about my reaction. I was touched by Bez’s commitment to improved mental health and forging a better life for themselves out of what they could. I was amused when ‘nerdy’ things showed up that he loved that I, too, appreciate. I was horrified by the trauma inflicted on them by too many people who should have had his best interests at heart, and clearly did not. I was comforted by the presence of people in their life who helped him forge better paths. And I was inspired by one moment in particular: their appropriation of the ‘mustard seed’ metaphor for their faith in their own life.

That’ll have to do. It was an intensely personal work, and I’m amazed that he decided to put himself out there in this way, but am grateful that they did.

Did the author have something to say? They had a life to share.

Did I have something to do? Be amazed.


One Does Not Simply Fry (Stewart C Baker and James Beamon)

This is another game that knows exactly what it is, does that, and makes an expeditious exit. ‘What exactly it is’ is ‘A LOTR parody via baking shows’, so it’s not exactly shooting for the moon here, but it makes its jokes, replaces its characters with mostly-amusing parodies thereof, and doesn’t really overstay its welcome.

It recommends that you replay the game, which I did (twice–the first time I lost, the second time I won, and the third time I won with the newly-unlocked character). Unfortunately, for me the game lost some of the appeal it had beforehand because it over-emphasized how little you actually do in the game, vs. how much of the game is just ‘click to see the next joke’. This made it easier to replay, mind you, but it also spoiled the (mild) illusion that there was much to do in the game. This is often true of many games, but choice games are particularly susceptible to it, and this game in particular kind of emphasized it, to its own detriment (for me). I suppose this means overall that ‘not overstaying its welcome’ was true the first time through the game, but not the repeats, meaning that it would have been better served (I think) if it had some sort of ‘undo’ system that let you make different choices faster than having to replay the whole thing.

It also did the Choicescript thing of giving you different characters with different stats, which mostly meant slightly differently-skinned success or failure choices a couple of times. I think it’s hard in general to make stats pay off in IF, but this game in particular fell prey to the ‘I am playing character X with good stat Y, so I’ll choose the obviously-Y button’ problem, making things kind of mechanical as opposed to interesting.

But, you know, jokes! Fair enough.

Did the author have something to say? They had jokes to tell me.

Did I have something to do? Not much; mostly ‘pick the obvious choice’.


A Thing of Wretchedness (AKheon)

Argh; I dunno, man. This game starts off really promisingly, with a strong and disturbing setup: you’re in your home and there’s a… thing. In there with you. It’s gross and destructive but not actively dangerous. You’ve just written a letter to ask if poison works on medium-sized animals.

And from there, spoilers!

So, the ‘standard’ ending of the game is that you poison the thing. As mentioned in the introductory text. And nothing else is learned at all, other than a tiny bit of backstory gleaned from some photographs. So that makes the entire game wholly pointless, other than as a slight expansion of the introductory text. Not only that, but it takes forever to actually happen, and the only thing that happens in the meantime is that the thing glorps about, sometimes randomly smashing things. Things are smashed relatively slowly in terms of turns, but rapidly in terms of ‘days on this farm with this thing around’, which is at odds with the idea that this thing seems has been here for quite some time.

A second ending (discovered by me from the walkthrough) happens in response to interacting with what I was 80% sure was just a bug. And it, too, takes forever to accomplish, even when you know what you’re trying to do. And then it doesn’t make any sense! I found it after the third ending, and some of the seemingly-nonsensical bits are given some context, but even then, I couldn’t actually figure out what was it was trying to describe.

The third ending (also discovered by me from the walkthrough, though I had the right idea beforehand, at least) can be reached, as noted explicitly in the walkthrough, only by waiting for a random event to happen. I actually went to the walkthrough wondering if I was on the right track, and I was; it was just that it took soooo loooooonnnggg for the random event to happen I assumed it would never happen at all. The resulting ending (which is also difficult to get to, even knowing what to do!) doesn’t particularly shed any light on the Mystery Of The Thing (other than ‘yup, something happened to your husband’), but explains a different mystery, namely, why the other two endings ended with ‘Here is where the vision ends’. Which wasn’t particularly a question I had? And which also didn’t make much sense to me?

To be fair, things might have seemed a bit more coherent to me had I been able to reach those endings before I had gotten annoyed by the game for nothing ever happening. All the endings involve a lot of mostly-unmotivated repetition and waiting around; so much so that I had assumed I had gotten something wrong, when the actual answer was ‘nope, you actually do just need to wait another 45 turns’. I didn’t actually count the number of turns. But it was too many. The horror and the ambiance was completely drained by then, and the reward was too slight for it to be worth it.

Which is too bad, because as noted, the initial ambiance and premise were pretty solid! But I did want something to happen that wasn’t telegraphed in the opening text with zero twists, and less waiting.

Did the author have something to say? They definitely had a horror premise to share! I wanted them to dig a little more and put more into it, but it was a good start.

Did I have something to do? Type ‘Z’ a lot.

Transcript: wretchedness.txt - Google Drive


Beat Witch (Robert Patten)

Note: it is late, and I just played this game and wrote the review in one sitting. I then read a few other reviews, and my reaction was… a bit idiosyncratic. I’m leaving it as-is because it’s also honest, but my emotions were also running a bit hot, so take this with at least a bit of a grain of salt.

This game contained a very interesting story. And it had zero regard for anyone wanting to interact with it in the slightest. It wanted nothing more than to shout its story at you.

In parser form, no less!

Like, if this was Twine, at least it could have been honest about it, and done the ‘click to continue’ thing the entire game, and it would have been weird (‘why was this IF?’) but at least you would have known what you were in for. Instead, I just fought. With. The. Game. At. Every. Turn. Every so often, you are given the illusion of freedom, where you can try to do things. If you don’t do the one thing the game wants you to do, it will berate you instead. Here is the moment when I finally lost it with the game.

Context: you can DRAIN and GIVE LIFE to things. You are falling off a building. A crow has decided to fly down with you for no discernable reason. ‘Well hey’, I think, ‘Maybe I can give everything to the crow and turn into the crow myself?’

>give life to crow
Your panic leads to insanity. Giving life to an animal is like fitting a key into the wrong lock.

[5000 lines of text]

>[When I try to do one single thing in this game that might work, can you at least do me the courtesy of not mocking me for it? Oy gevalt.]

[5000 more lines of text where the game continues to play itself at me, at one point actually taking over the keyboard, not willing that I should dare to type a single incorrect character]

>[good lord in heaven above]
Please rephrase that.

>[I will not.]
Please rephrase that.

>[You mock me at every turn to shout your freaking story at me and I am sick to death of it.]
Please rephrase that.

And the thing is, I wouldn’t have been nearly as upset if the story and the world hadn’t been so interesting! There’s a crazy world imagined here, with music and magic and life and death and horror and pain and loss, and YOU GAVE ME A COMMAND LINE INVITING ME INTO THIS WORLD AND KEEP YANKING IT AWAY FROM ME!

‘But tell me how you really feel, Lucian.’

I feel like I was betrayed by someone who should have been a friend. I feel like I met someone who seemed cool and was into the same things I was into, and I took the risk to go talk to them, and they ignored me completely and instead noticed a mirror behind me, walked up to it, past my outstretched arm, and started making out with it.

If there wasn’t so much to be lost, I wouldn’t be so upset.

Did the author have something to say? YES!

Did I have something to do? NO!!!

Transcript: beat_witch.txt - Google Drive


I felt similarly, and someone did comment in my review thread to say they agreed, so you’re not totally alone here. I’m glad what Beat Witch was doing seems to have worked for many people, but to me, letting players muck around a bit and interact with their environment is pretty much the unique strength of parser games, and the “type the one specific thing I want you to type or else” approach was not my jam.


Well, it’s good to know I’m not alone :wink: I do suspect I may be an outlier in how angry the game made me, as opposed to ‘frustrated’ or even just ‘disengaged’, but hey.


Tricks of light in the forest (Pseudavid)

This was a delightful game! I started off thinking it would be cute but too slight, but as the game progressed, it layered on extra depth without betraying its central premise.

That premise: you are 12, and you are exploring the forest on your own, and without express permission, hoping to gather samples and photographs to show your class. Nice, but slightly cloying, no? And indeed you start off and see a cool stick and cool flowers and cool animals, and touch them all and take pictures and samples. And it’s genuinely cute! And deliberately clicking on each ‘touch’, ‘photograph’ and ‘sample’ button made my own actions meld with the deliberateness of the PC, helping to increase our synchronicity.

But! As you go, the PC starts to reveal information about herself and her world in reminiscences triggered by stuff we see. And everything feels natural, like we’re just listening in to the actual monologue going on in her head, and not some sort of ‘As you know, Bob’ information-dump. But our view of the world she inhabits is quite different from her own! To her, everything is just ‘the way it is’, but stuff in her past turns out to be in our future, and of course she’s 12 and we’re (presumably) slightly older than that. So while we build up a picture of the world in her mind, we simultaneously build up a picture of the world in our own minds, and from our own perspectives. It’s a nice bit of world-building! I have to emphasize that this isn’t the ‘main’ thing that’s going on during the game, but it’s one of the two main ‘overlays’ the game gives us over the core ‘a 12-year-old looks at cool stuff’ experience.

The second ‘overlay’ is that our hero is herself blocked from doing stuff by the world, often embodied as ‘large animals’. This is where the light puzzles come in, where you have to overcome the obstacles. Nothing is ever too difficult, and the somewhat-limited choice-based interaction suite you have available helps here, because there’s only so many things you can do at any particular junction, and one of them is bound to be the correct one. And again, these actions often serve as fodder for more reminiscences, nicely layering the whole experience.

I suppose the rest of what I have to say is about the game as a whole including my reconstruction of the world and of the ending, and therefore is going to be spoiler-y. Blurs up!

One of the things I particularly liked about the worldbuilding was how believable-to-me the post-climate-crisis world was. It seems like things got worse before they got better, with climate change deniers initially having the upper hand, then people who wanted to fix it getting the upper hand, but with the deniers still holding out in places for some time. And the resulting world is kind of broken, but the main problem is being dealt with, and cleaning things up is going to be a long slog. This is a pretty hopeful view of the future, all things considered! And one of the ways I found it hopeful is that I believed it–a rosy ‘oh, yeah, we fixed climate change’ wouldn’t have given me hope, because I would have just rejected it out of hand as unrealistic. But a world where it was difficult and things broke a lot before they started getting fixed? I can get behind that.

I think the hut nicely embodied a lot of that: on one level, Our Hero has never seen that much plastic in one item before (a bog-standard bowl), nor has she seen leather before but once. So clearly, we’ve stopped using as much fossil fuels and cows as we do today. At the same time, the chair is sinister to us on a level that Our Hero can’t really contemplate, in one way because she’s only 12, but in another because the Time of Troubles is largely in the past. Overall, that whole scene hit me with just the right level of frisson of several things going on at once, with none of them being too ‘on the nose’, and everything feeling quite natural.

The only hiccup for me was the final line of the game, where it tells you:

I have the feeling that I’m missing something. That there is something to be understood in the middle of all this, which I can’t understand, I can’t even guess.

There are two possible interpretations of this line. One is that there were secrets in the game I didn’t uncover. I don’t think I missed anything, though, so that interpretation is misleading. The other interpretation is simply that Our Hero, as a 12-year-old, didn’t understand everything she was seeing, but that we-the-player should be able to piece things together. And I think that’s probably the correct interpretation, but I don’t like the choice to put it in the game. On one hand, it’s a little on the nose; surely most people playing the game are going to understand things from their own perspective that Our Hero does not. And on the other hand, it seems a bit out of character for a 12-year-old to literally muse to themselves, “Gee, the world is a complicated place; I bet I’ll understand more when I’m older.” I didn’t get the sense that she was much like that. There were times when she was all ‘That’s weird, what’s the deal with this thing?’ but I feel like those moments don’t haunt you unless you actually do understand what’s going on at some subconscious level, or at least have encountered that sort of thing in other contexts where you did know the ‘deeper meaning’ of The Thing, so you recognize the shape of A Thing That Would Make Sense If You Knew More.

I’m taking a lot of time talking about two whole sentences of the entire game, but they were the last two sentences, and they did strike me as a little incongruous.

But overall, it was a very minor issue, and I heartily recommend the game.

Did the author have something to say? Yes! On several levels!

Did I have something to do? Again, yes on several levels! I had literal puzzles to solve, and a world to explore, but also a backstory to piece together from what I suppose would have to be described as a mildly unreliable narrator.

Transcript (note: it looks like a parser transcript, but it’s all choice; it’s just that your choices are then incorporated into the text of the game as if they were entered into a parser): tricks_of_light.txt - Google Drive


Thanks for this detailed writeup! Player-PC synchronicity is for sure a consideration I never had in mind during writing!