Mary's IFComp 2022 reviews

I was a first-time author last year, and deeply appreciated everyone’s incredibly thoughtful reviews.

I’m going in pretty much blind, so am basing my choices on blurbs that appeal to my sensibilities (sf/romance/mystery/horror/FEELINGS). At the time of writing this intro, I suspect I will focus on shorter, choice-based games, but will branch out if I have time.

Thank you everyone for all your hard work, I’m really looking forward to playing :sparkles:


Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, by Geoffrey Golden

“Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s” has an excellent title that tells you exactly what you will be doing, and the game itself is similarly precise. It takes place entirely in one setting (Applebee’s, which I had to google because I’m in the UK), and you do indeed spend pretty much the entire time seeing inside other people’s brains courtesy of your psychic powers.

Crucially, you’re not at Applebee’s for fun, but to use your supernatural gifts to sell beer for your corporate overlords. The idea is to read people’s minds until you can tell they’re susceptible to suggestion, then implant a thought into their head about how they might like to drink some refreshing Schtupmeister beer. If you picked the right moment, they’ll buy a beer, and your employer will be pleased. It’s a straightforward objective, and on my first playthrough the desire to sell lots of beer guided all my decisions. However, “Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s” goes further, and I quickly realised that there is more going on with the people of Applebee’s than I initially realised, and selling beer might not be the most interesting thing I could do with my powers.

Structurally, “Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s” reminded me a lot of inkle’s “Overboard”, a puzzle-box in which a small cast of characters in a similarly contained environment go about their business on (I’m guessing) timers. The player can interfere with their loops in interesting ways, and at the end of the game, I immediately wanted to start again to see what would happen if I did things differently. The characters interact with each other as well, and you can influence how these interactions turn out. For example, you can use your powers to see that a waitress is about to pickpocket a customer, and you can choose to help. Some actions will reveal your psychic powers, and you have to weigh up whether doing so is worth whatever you’re trying to achieve.

I played through the whole loop several times, trying to optimise selling the most beer with manipulating the outcomes I wanted (a major one involves Applebee’s being burned to the ground). This meant that I eventually started clicking through passages I’d seen multiple times, instead viewing them only as steps on a timer. I knew exactly when to sell beer, and exactly when to stop bothering that person so I could avert a crisis for another. That’s unavoidable with this type of game though, and the passages are short and snappy enough that reading through them multiple times isn’t a bore - they don’t outstay their welcome.

Tonally, the game reminded me a bit of Office Space, in which people with soulless corporate jobs (one of whom works at a restaurant a bit like Applebee’s) are screaming out for something real. Office Space, of course, was made in 1999, a simpler time in which its white-collar protagonists face not destitution, but vague dissatisfaction and malaise. Nowadays, a lot of gig-workers would LOVE Peter and Joanna’s problems… and “Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s” explores corporate hell for the time we’re in now. One character is deep into a crypto scam while facing huge medical bills, and their (hilarious) cult-like zeal masks desperation that only you, a psychic, are privy to.

Despite these dark themes, the game has a light touch, is tightly written, and very funny. I full on lolled at multiple points, including:

‘Everyone is running and screaming out of Applebee’s, and not for the usual reasons!’

‘“Excuse me, sir,” you stop to ask the customer. “Sorry to bug you, but this is driving me crazy. Did we go to magician school together?”’

Overall, I loved. :beer:


Blood Island, by Billy Krolick

I love slasher films, I love dating sims, and I’m a reality TV scholar, so “Blood Island” is highly relevant to my interests. The player is a contestant on the reality dating show “Passion in Paradise” who has their good vibes harshed by a killer who stabs the contestants to death. Overall, it’s an intelligent, funny and well-researched take on the subject matter which I found entertaining, thought-provoking, and mostly satisfying.

Mashing up three genres is a risky choice, but reality tv, dating sims and slasher films actually share a huge number of tropes, so “Blood Island” is actually very sharp and streamlined. (In fact, it works so well that I wondered why I hadn’t seem/played/read a story along these lines before, but anyway.) Its central theme is the similarity between reality dating shows and slasher films, and how reality producers manipulate real people in order to create stories similar to scripted slasher films. While most of the imaginary characters in a slasher film end up dead, most of the real cast of a reality show end up harmed too - put through the emotional wringer only to have their worst moments broadcast on TV. The game frequently (and correctly) makes the point that women are treated worse than men in these situations.

I spent a fair amount of time having pretty cerebral conversations with the other contestants in which they deconstruct both reality and slasher tropes. It might seem strange that everyone on this island has apparently taken at least one undergraduate class in feminist theory in horror (or read “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers”), but it actually makes sense that they’re so literate in the subject matter: the previous season of “Passion in Paradise” came to a halt after a slasher stabbed one of the contestants. If they all seem to know a surprising amount about slasher tropes, it might be because they’re hoping to stay alive.

(If you have played “Blood Island” and are wondering if the contestants are exaggerating about what happens to people who go on these shows, they’re really not. My favourite book on the topic is Amy Kaufman’s “Bachelor Nation”, which is about the making of “The Bachelor”, America’s favourite reality dating show.)

This leads me into something I really liked about “Blood Island”: I am of the opinion that choices in IF are often most effective when they’re asking the player to consider how they think/feel about something. Sometimes this choices can lead to a branch, but in a lot of cases, the consequence is less important than having the player sit and think about what they’re doing. This makes them more emotionally/intellectually invested. “Blood Island” features a lot of discussion about the real-life consequences of popcorn entertainment, and the choices require players to actively engage with its points.

On the flipside, the choices that actually affect the plot/story were slightly less satisfying. Aside from the player character, there are six contestants on “Passion in Paradise”, and there were only two points in which I could choose to spend alone time with someone. That meant that at the end of the game, there were a lot of them I didn’t know well at all, and the impact of their fates didn’t mean much to me. The game was the perfect length (it takes about the same amount of time to play as a slasher film takes to watch), but at the expense of “screentime” for half its cast. I’d have loved the game even more if there were more, much shorter dates that gave me a chance to get to know everyone a bit. (The excellent first two seasons of the “Love Island” mobile game are a good example of linear/authored storytelling and flexible dating sim). That said, the pacing of the game was just right, and leaning more heavily into a dating sim structure might have detracted from that.

This being a slasher, there were a few points where my life was in danger, and sometimes I would just do the stupidest possible things to see if I would get killed, but I survived every time. Either I got lucky, or it doesn’t matter what you do in these situations. I’ve thought a lot about this, and I’m pretty sure this was the right design choice. The player is explicitly a “final girl” who survives no matter what, and it would be pointlessly frustrating to kill them before the end. The alternative (as I felt with Until Dawn) can actually reduce the tension - if everyone is expendable, then it doesn’t matter what happens to them.

Finally, I loved the ending. The discussions about reality TV producers made one particular suspect highly likely, and the final reveal will satisfy anyone who has seen Scream. The game truly ends with ghoulish interview by the reality TV production company. This final scene a) lets the player decide how they felt about everything and b) makes a final chilling point about how these shows use human suffering for entertainment.

“Blood Island” is so relevant to my interests that I’d probably have enjoyed it regardless, but it’s smart and funny enough that I’d recommend it to a much wider audience.

Also it’s October! Horror movie season! Play it! :hocho: :palm_tree: :scream:


Nose Bleed, by Stanley W. Baxton

“Nose Bleed” is a deeply unsettling short horror story. The premise – you get a nose bleed at work – is straightforward, but things escalate.

It’s very hard to talk about this game without spoilers, but it’s only 15 minutes long so as long as you’re ok with the content (“Excessive bleeding, mild gore, social anxiety”), I recommend playing before reading this.

The game consists of short, well-edited screens of text. You advance either by clicking an arrow at the bottom of the screen, or by choosing one of a few verbs to interact with a noun in the text. The verbs range from innocuous (“leave”) to gross (“lick”), and they pretty much all involve dealing with your advancing nose bleed before it gets out of control.

Regardless of what you do, it does get out of control, and pretty soon red splotches are dripping and splattering all over your browser window, running over the text and following your cursor around the screen. This is a brilliantly effective piece of visual design, and your powerlessness to stop it is panic-inducing. Things get worse, and the ending is nightmarish.

If “Nose Bleed” was just body horror, it would be highly effective, but like all the best horror, it’s about more than that. You play as a white collar office worker, trying desperately to concentrate on a spreadsheet while your body is literally disintegrating. There are several instances where the flow of blood stops briefly, and instead of leaving to get help (or just go home), you try desperately to refocus on your work, terrified not that you’re dying, but that your colleagues will notice and conclude you’re doing a bad job. This is absurd… but it’s also just an exaggerated version situation that all too many players will have encountered: Being at work, being in some kind of physical or mental distress, but being primarily concerned with not making a scene.

The blurb for “Nose Bleed” reads, very simply, “Please, stop embarrassing us.” Your character’s primary concern is not survival, but how their coworkers view them. At the end, after a horrific incident that should have killed you – and possibly did, there’s some ambiguity in how time and memory works – your contemptuous coworker accosts you and asks “Why can’t you just deal with this like the rest of us?” Is she angry that you allowed yourself to bleed, or that you allowed it to affect your work? Both are, it seems, equally egregious.

“Nose Bleed” captures exactly how a bad work situation feels, but more than that, it captures a particular kind of social anxiety. Are you the only person in distress, or is everyone else just able to conceal it? Which would be worse? And why does that feel more important than the damage you’re suffering?

This isn’t a comfortable game, but it’s a very good one that makes smart use of the medium to convey something very real, and very troubling.

:nose: :drop_of_blood: :office_worker:


Thank you for pointing me to this! Very interesting.


Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard

I chose to play “Prism” because it describes itself as “Contemplative Industrial Fantasy”, and I’m drawn to fantasy and sci-fi that foregrounds emotion and introspection. (I often find it easier to process certain feelings within the context of imaginary worlds.) It’s also written in ink, a language that lends itself to “contemplative” design and writing, especially in browser-based IF, so I was pretty sure that at the very least I was going to play something highly Relevant To My Interests. “Prism” did not disappoint: it is a beautifully-written game that delivers the exact experience that it promised.

The setting is the mysterious city of Conduin, a magical/industrial metropolis brought to life with gorgeous, thoughtful prose that combines environmental descriptions with social/psychological details about its citizens:

As the city grows, its residents become accustomed to wonders beyond understanding. Endless water pouring from its heart, geologicians pulling clastic stone structure from the sand in mere days, the sky itself tamed in the name of invented light and sound. Citizens carry lightning in their pockets, humming battery-wands sheathed in stone to transfer payment. You can hear the zap-buzz of commerce now, whirring contraptions winding up to fill sitting halls with constant novelty, if not harmony.

You heard once from a retired geologician - half trance-addled and bleeding sand from a barfight bottle-wound - that these buildings’ angular fractal patterns were a magnification of some existing structure in the stone itself, too small for the eye to see.

Without purpose, many reach for pleasure. The intoxicants that are entitled to citizens after work become all-consuming. Fermented beverages are common, but more addictive and more freeing is Saccharine, a distilled residue from the canals dissolved under the tongue.

Swoon. That last detail is very specific and yet suggests so much! Immediately, my imagination is like… but what is in the residue? How did it end up in the canal? Is it organic? Is it residue from the canal boats’ fuel, for example, and if so why is it psychoactive? All things that make the world feel huge, complex and strange. This game is full of details like that.

In fact, Conduin is so detailed and meticulously described that it’s almost too big, conceptually, for the size of the game. At the end, I felt that I not only could have spent much longer in it, but also that I had barely scratched the surface of this vast and complex place. It’s a feeling I’m not used to in IF - the sense of being a tiny part of something truly vast. On one hand I felt that the world could have supported a much larger and longer story… but on the other hand, the sense that I had only seen a tiny piece of the world was very powerful. At the end I felt small and almost adrift - a tiny, almost inconsequential person in a huge and ancient place.

Aside from the writing, I think part of the reason for this feeling was the way the “contemplative” aspect of the game is delivered: your character spends a lot of time looking out at the city and considering its inhabitants and history. The protagonist is a “courier”, a delivery person (and gig worker) who runs around the city, often having to choose between food and other necessities, to scrape together a living. This makes them the perfect perspective character for “contemplative” fantasy: they’ve spent their whole life in the city and know it intimately from a physical/environmental perspective. They’re also acutely aware of its social and economic systems in a way that it’s only possible to be you’re at the bottom of the hierarchy (of which more in a moment). Structurally, moments of rest and contemplation are built into this character’s routine: they spend a lot of time resting and gazing out at the city between deliveries.

Impressively, despite its thoughtful political and social commentary, and vivid portrayal of a life lived close to the edge, “Prism” is never preachy. Instead, it retains a sense of wonder because the protagonist (I felt) still retains their sense of wonder for this strange and often beautiful city. My ending (there are several) left me with a sense of quiet optimism, or at least a sense that connections between people are what give life meaning… and how important it is to act as if our actions are not futile, despite evidence to the contrary. This is a real tightrope to walk, and “Prism” pulls it off. There is absolutely a place for political fantasy that makes a rhetorical case for social justice, but Prism gently made me feel that it was worth acting through hope, not despair.

(It’s not lost on me that all the IFComp games I’ve reviewed so far have been some form of commentary about how people are manipulated for capitalistic ends. I didn’t go out of my way to choose games that explored this topic, but, well, I guess we’re all acutely aware of it at the moment.)

I mentioned in my review of “Blood Island” that I really enjoy when IF choices prompt me to reflect on how I feel about something, rather than just to make a choice about how to progress. While “Prism” foregrounds the former (it’s contemplative!), there are a few significant choices that affect how the story unfolds. Because most of the choices made me think about how I felt, when I came to one that asked me what I wanted to do, my decision felt instinctive and emotional.

Some players might find “Prism” a little slow, or that the worldbuilding and story are out of balance. I hope I’ve explained why I did not feel that, and why I think it was very clear in its artistic choices, and very effective in how it delivered the exact experience it set out to. I guess my one criticism (I’m really trying hard to think of anything) is that some of the possible choices/dialogue options were a little flippant and therefore slightly off-tone, but like I said, I’m really reaching here.

“Prism” is a gorgeous, thoughtful game that I recommend if you enjoy contemplative IF and beautifully-written fantasy.

:zap: :city_sunset: :robot:


Exactly! I loved this about Prism, but it also made me feel lost.

More room for a sequel eh?

1 Like

More room for a sequel eh?

Yes please. I’m going through a phase of reading a lot of city-based fantasy/sf at the moment, and Prism was striking to me in how huge the world felt despite the size of the project. In a good way. (But yes, definitely room for more stories in this world, I felt?)

(Also thanks for the thanks r.e. Dead Blondes… I think some of the arguments are a little tenuous, but it also illuminates certain horror tropes to me in an extremely entertaining way.)


I loved the enthusiasm of this review and the connections you explored between the game and your own interests. Thanks for sharing!