I haven’t done reviews for the comp for a couple years, the simple reason being that I am extremely short on spare time. But this year, I thought I’d do something, at least: if I can’t review the works in the comp themselves (which I can’t), I can at least review the art and blurbs.
A lot of authors leave these to the last minute, which is tempting but a mistake. With 50–100 games in an average comp these days, they are your way of standing out from the proverbial slush pile. If people aren’t using a randomized play order (many don’t), they can determine whether you’re played at all. If you have any plans to re-release your game, host it on itch.io or other services, submit it to festivals, showcases, or award committees, or basically do anything at all with it beyond the comp, they will heavily influence how successful that will be. Collectively, they influence how the Comp is viewed by an increasing outside audience. For your sake and everyone else’s, you want them to be great.
For these writeups, I’m using a rubric slightly modified from Sam Kabo Ashwell’s: 5 points for the art, 5 points for the blurb—if there’s no art, that category is dropped, i.e., the total score is out of 5 points rather than 10—and up to 1 point more or fewer based on intangibles: subjective things, personal preferences, small comments. I do not claim or promise these intangibles will be fair. Feel free to mentally drop them from your score.
Disclaimer: I’m basically happy with every piece of cover art I’ve done myself (I’m happy with the art on Broken Legs and Human Errors too, but one was a commission and one was in-house at Sub-Q) but am not a professional graphic designer. (Technically, I have a degree that’s part graphic design; it is very much a technicality.) I am not happy with my blurbs and am bad at writing them. I would give every blurb I’ve written a 2.5/5 at most. Do as I say, not as I do, etc.
Other disclaimer: These are scores for the effectiveness and presentation of the blurb and cover art; they are first impressions, which may turn out wrong. They are not scores for the entire piece, nor are they the scores I’m going to put on the ballot. Please do not confuse one for the other. I’ve tried to indicate scores where I suspect the packaging may be seriously underselling the work, but by nature that’s hard to predict.
(Conversely, it’s possible for excellent artwork and blurbs to go with a mediocre or bad game. That’s less common in my experience—good art and blurb-writing is heavily correlated with thinking deliberately about and putting effort into the final product, which is heavily correlated with the final product indeed being good. But it’s not impossible.)
Final disclaimer: Night Guard / Morning Star is not rated, since I tested it and specifically helped out with the blurb. That said, if you want a benchmark for what I consider excellent art and blurbiage, that is one.
Art: Has a slapdash feel—the uneven sizes of the borders and shapes on the side elements, the general pixellation and weird artifacts (noticeable around the M, and in the “Start” box). Also, this seems like a screenshot, to its detriment; there’s no reason for there to be a “Start” button on a non-interactive cover image.
Less nitpicky: The theme the art seems to be going for is “nostalgic retro medieval pastiche,” a theme that is thoroughly represented, some might say overrepresented, in games in general and the comp specifically. But that doesn’t seem to be the genre of the game! This is a “Hansel and Gretel” story, played as drama. You want dark woods, enticing-yet-sinister architecture, over-luscious fruits and candies—or perhaps something not quite that literal, but still evocative, and not this. 1/5
Blurb: (Note: All this applies to the original blurb, not the newly appended disclaimer: unfortunate situation, but you do what you gotta do.)
Disneyfication aside, fairy tales are already heavily psychological, and often already allegories about things like starvation and abandonment. There’s also, again, a thoroughly populated subgenre of deconstructed, gritty and/or subversive fairy tales, so it’s no longer striking (arguably hasn’t been for centuries) just to say “this is a subversive fairy tale.” I do get the sense, from the writing, that this will be basically competent; I also get the sense it will present its concept as more novel than it actually is.
(Also contributing to this sense: the “what sorts of choices will you make” bit. This is a choice-based game; choices are expected and intrinsic.) 3/5
Intangibles: (Again, this was written before the disclaimer, although its existence does sort of prove my point.) Windows executable only. I do think downloadables in the comp are experiencing a bit of a pendulum shift, from being the only things in the comp to being rare and rarely played outliers to being OK again, thanks to the existence of Itch, Electron, etc. But it’s still going to limit your audience. -0.5
Art: Basically good. The symbols at the top and bottom seem a bit haphazardly spaced, and the text could do with some light drop shadow, or if not that, something else to make it stand out. Nevertheless, competent. 4/5
Blurb: This, however, is not so good: the sort of vague koan that leans less profound than pseudo-profound and says very little about the story. My best guess is that there will be some sort of fictional character who gains sapience? 1.5/5
Intangibles: Very few people are going to be playing this on a Linux-based system. Maybe that’s why the Play Online link goes to the walkthrough instead. -1
Art: The drawings are fine: not great, but fine. The text is not fine: near-impossible to read, off-center, and awkwardly splayed over the axe. The background seems to be going for a foreboding Dark Soulsy tomb effect, which clashes tonally with the cartoonish drawings and, more importantly, kind of just looks like pilling fabric. 2/5
Blurb: Bland, often clunky, but at least gets across the idea. 2/5.
Intangibles: That said, there are thousands of games exactly like this, accumulated over decades. I’m not getting a sense of value over replacement D&D. -1
Art: This seems like it wants to be an app icon, not a cover image: transparent background, vector image, simple shape and color scheme. Which is fine! Let the icon be an icon! Don’t sacrifice kerning, letter heights, and whatever is going on with “An Interactive” to try to shoehorn in text. Or if you must have text, make the bottle wider—you have plenty of space to work with, just call it 2-liter bad water—and get rid of “An Interactive Puzzle Refresher” since that’s what the subtitle field is for. (Also, “Refresher” should be capitalized. Attention to detail suggests a polished piece, and vice versa.) 2/5
Blurb: First impression: “A surprising new spin on _____” and “a tribute to an obscure 2000s indie game” seem to be, if not antonyms, at odds with one another: one suggests novelty, one nostalgia.
Not having heard “wander-and-wonder” used to describe a genre and not a Christmas carol, I assumed the authors were trying to call this a walking simulator without saying the words “walking simulator,” but then I Googled harder and discovered it’s a phrase used fairly infrequently, usually to describe A) Myst, and B) the aforementioned obscure 2000s indie game, which I have not played, but apparently involves FMV puzzles and experimental mechanics and weird art—all of which would be really great selling points if one happened to be writing a blurb. I am now A) extremely sold on that game; B) when the blurb should make me extremely sold on this game. (Spoiler: It’s Bad Milk.) 2/5
Intangibles: I am also C) kind of wondering whether it’s going to be a thinly-veiled port like that Stanley Parable entry last year. Normally I would ding a half-point for that, but I am generally happy to see weird experimental obscurities in the comp. +0.5
TOTAL: 4.5/10, but the kind of 4.5/10 with a chance to be severely underselling the work.
Art: White text on a black background; specifically, the default Twine font. It’s certainly not a bad font, and not glaringly incompetent, but… it’s also white text on a black background. 1.5/5
Blurb: Does its job: establishes setting, establishes character, establishes conflict and a basic plot direction. I do think—and I’m going to say this a lot—that it could lean less on the generic tropey elements and lean more on its own distinctive elements. What is a line cook’s life like in this world? How exactly is the ritual “ominous-sounding”? What makes this cyberpunk world different than any other cyberpunk world? 3/5
A Blue Like No Other
Art: When you title your work A Blue Like No Other, you set high expectations for your blue. This blue is nice enough, and while dark blue in general has been run into cliche by web companies, Duke University, and many others, this one doesn’t obviously resemble any common logos, #0000CCs, etc. But: the bar set is “a blue like no other.” This blue—particularly as a solid block of color and nothing else—does not clear the bar. And even if it did, it’d still need a different text color against it. 1/5
Blurb: The kind of out-of-context sentence that’d perhaps work OK as a line from the work, but isn’t strong enough to stand alone. (Also, if someone were to hypothetically be in a snarky mood while reading it, it might prompt that hypothetical person to mutter “…I’m going to guess blue.”) 2/5
Intangibles: I am a bit biased, as the premise of the blurb veers a little close to Laid Off from the Synesthesia Factory, as in I have notes somewhere detailing colors and connotations. I never said these wouldn’t be subjective. -0.5
Art: The background is fine, though the perspective is less “mysterious imposing mansion” than “ok, back up a step, back up a step, get it all in the shot,” and the fog is less “spooky smoke” than “nice, misty 6 a.m. morning.” The graves recede into the background, generally not what you want from a mystery or horror game.
The text is… itself. It also—this is another thing I’ll say a lot—tonally clashes with the art: the bloody-pulpy, saturated red makes the mansion seem, by comparison, soft-focus and quite pleasant actually. If I had to choose, I’d make the text more like the photo, then make both more ominous, as above. 2.5/5
Blurb: Yet another thing I’ll mention frequently: The first paragraph should be cut. “Investigation/mystery” is covered in the genre tags, and “what could ever go wrong in an old mansion?” is pat. Similarly, the last paragraph can be cut, as it is all covered by the format tags. (The system requirements technically aren’t, but they’re not picky enough to need special mention.) The remaining text isn’t great—there’s a lot of repeated information, it’s fairly generic trope, the !? is too wacky—but on their own, they’d be stronger. 2/5
Intangibles: I’ve probably been reading too much McMansion Hell, but the building here sort of looks more like a newish suburban house, or maybe like a shopping center, than an old mansion where things go eerily wrong. -0.5
Art: I am in favor of photography as cover images. (Although in my case, it’s because I can’t draw worth a damn.) This particular photo, I’m not sure about: It doesn’t suggest smashing things so much as “I found this really weird rusted-out antique by the side of the road, check it out.” I also think I’d prefer it either without text, or (more difficult, riskier) with some kind of torn/broken canvas styling to it (see Night Guard for an example of what I mean). Nevertheless, this suggests an author who has deliberately thought about the message they want their art to convey, which already puts them in the top third. 3.5/5
Blurb: Nothing wrong, per se. It’s actually a rather succinct blurb, if a bit unclear on tone. My primary concern—colored a bit by having played part of it—is that the short, slightly upbeat blurb, paired with a lengthy (and warranted, it turns out) content warning and suicide hotline number—leave me a little unsure of how heavy an experience this will be. For a lot of people who use content warnings, level of heaviness/specificity is as important as individual topics, if not more. 3.5/5
The Call of the Shaman
Blurb: Generic fantasy stuff with some awkward phrasing (“a far land,” “the poison is a very rare one”). The names “Alaric” and “Bronwynn,” while not as obviously wrong as 2017’s “Princess Grardobeth,” nevertheless have just different enough origins that they come off as “OK, just pick some fantasy-sounding names.” That part, though, isn’t really fixable, as this is a game in a pre-existing series. I imagine if one were familiar with it, that would fill in some of the details, but I’m not, so it doesn’t. 2/5
Intangibles: I’m not happy about this, but we’re at a point where it looks really conspicuous not to have cover art. -0.5
Total: 1.5/5 (scaled: 3/10)
Art: Decent-enough weapons, not quite photorealistic but close enough (if I’m quibbling, the blades blend into the background); then a huge wad of MS Paint text and background. Even just getting rid of the black inset would improve matters, though you’d need to darken the text, and it still wouldn’t be particularly exciting. 2/5
Blurb: A whole lot of words to say “this is a resource management game,” with some departures for “this is how you play one” (your target audience probably knows or can figure it out). All this could be cut by just putting “a resource management game” (or something more interesting) in the subtitle. The text is fairly long and unbroken, with some awkward phrasing (“luxurious good that has its unique characteristic” and “chieftain of a village you created”). 1/5
Intangibles: Another well-populated genre, and again, I don’t get a sense of value over replacement Civ, Dwarf Fortress, Rimworld, etc. -0.5
Chuk and the Arena
Art: Basically competent, though the arena is so crowded the fight gets lost, and the bare gray background feels like a lost opportunity when our source material involves something called a Grand Galactic Tournament. The art’s busy as it is, but there could be some outlines of an audience, or surrounding spacescape, or something. 3/5
Blurb: Gets across the basic idea, both space opera and Space Opera. A lot of blurbs could be cut down, but this is one where I want a little more; I suspect this game is worldbuilding-heavy, but little of that is surfaced in the blurb. 3/5
Intangibles: I really like Space Opera and anything that even slightly hints at perhaps reminding me of it. +0.5
Citizen of Nowhere
Art: Three out of four panels are very good; the coasters are a nice bit of quirk and detail. The top right panel isn’t bad on its own, but the haziness and gradient background clashes with what’s otherwise a very cohesive, restrained design and color scheme. (Something also seems off about the text styling—I think it’s that, by necessity but still, it introduces more transparent, hazy elements onto what’s otherwise a stark, high-contrast design. But I suspect editing the top-right panel will mitigate that effect a lot, and I can’t really think of an obvious improvement.) 3.5/5
Blurb: This is not so good. The land of “Nowhere,” forces from “Somewhere,” a detail about the newly formed republic of Nowhere that comes off as a non-sequitur, a throwaway sentence about this being a puzzle parser game, and little of the personality of the artwork. 1.5/5
Intangibles: A “dry sense of humour” is both something that’s very easy to get wrong, and something ideally shown, not told. -0.5
Art: Not hugely ambitious, but OK enough: a simple, uncluttered picture that, while it has a bit of a stock photo feel, does benefit from stock photos’ inherent minimum professionalism. The text could use some work; it doesn’t glaringly get in the way or clash, but it’s also hard to take in text and image at once. 2.5/5
Blurb: Again, nothing glaringly wrong with it, but the tone is both internally inconsistent (mysteriously disappearing housemates, but also a talking mongoose) and inconsistent with the art (a staid, portentous image, and also a talking mongoose). This is particularly an issue when, as here, there’s nothing but tone. 2.5/5
Intangibles: The phrase “it happens to be” is one of those “this needs a redraft” tells; 90% of the time, it can be cut. -0.5
Art: Basically a well-designed interface: good color scheme, stock but readily parsed symbol, basically looks like a professional mobile-friendly indie interface. I have nitpicks—the bottom panel is kind of awkwardly situated a few pixels away from the edges of the image, the dark font doesn’t work at all, and the whole bottom fourth would be better as a bottom third—but all of these improve at large size. (Except the edges, definitely fix that.) The larger issue, though, is that this makes a much better interface than cover. 3/5
Blurb: Does its job and gets out: stylistic inspiration, setting, mechanic, done. That mechanic does seem, at least based on the blurb, that it might turn out to be either too thin or too obviously Papers, Please; but at least it’s clear. 4/5
Intangibles: Capital punishment… is still in practice today. In some places, like parts of the US, it is extremely still in practice today. The designers are Canadians, so this might be a cultural difference—the US is the only Western country to still have the death penalty—but as an American, it’s noteworthy to say the least. -0.5
Art: A lot of IF cover art could be improved by removing the title; this is a perfect example. The image wouldn’t be hurt by text, depending on the text, but it also doesn’t need any. On its own, it’s already a striking image: a color scheme with just enough tint, a definite mood it wants to convey. My one quibble is that at full size the trolley cars in the middle right seem just a tad stark and undersketched, but that’s so incredibly minor it hardly is worth mention, let alone penalty. 5/5
Blurb: Basically fine, with a lot of subtle worldbuilding, though not nearly as striking as the art, and vague on the major plot points. I might just not be familiar enough with the Soviet fiction cited, but what choice are they making? What is the dilemma? What are they trying to use? 3.5/5
Intangibles: It is very hard, and also a good sign, to pull off futuristic worldbuilding that doesn’t loudly announce I AM BUILDING A FUTURISTIC WORLD. This does. +0.5
Dungeon Detective 2: Devils and Details
Art: Like the last Dungeon Detective game, it extremely knows its niche—paranormal furry detectives—and extremely commits to it. The whole image could be made just slightly brighter – preserving the contrast, but making the stuff around the perimeter a bit easier to see – but I would still believe this as professional work. 5/5
Blurb: I would also believe this as professional work. To its credit, the blurb doesn’t assume the reader’s played the previous game; but maybe as a consequence, it also doesn’t depart much from the previous blurb. The sudden appearance of the devil would seem to be an obvious point of departure. 4/5
Intangibles: Paranormal furry detectives = two out of three tropes I tend to bounce off hard. The last game was no exception. (I told you the intangibles were subjective and not always fair.) -0.5
Art: Minimalist, but this is how you do minimalist while still demonstrating you know what you’re doing: photo and text that are both evocative in the same ways, that are deliberately styled and lit, and also both just a bit off, a bit suggestive that something may not be quite right about the horse and the situation**. 4.5/5**
Blurb: This is 80% of the way to a fantastic blurb, but the second sentence is a bit clunky and twice as long as it needs to be; it fumbles the landing. Change it to something like, say, “Sometimes adages lie.” and you’ll have an easy 5. As is: 3.5/5
Intangibles: I’m really happy to see a story by Jac Colvin (whom I know from her writing for Sub-Q and the Choice of Games site) in the comp. I suppose the fact that I’m not remotely sold on the title should go into intangibles, but the former outweighs that. +0.5
Eldritch Everyday: The Third Eye
Art: Not totally there yet—an very obviously comped-in car (the lighting and border are giveaways), a squid and a sinkhole/Eye of Sauron competing for attention (I think it’d be fine if there were 50% less squid)—but the color scheme and mood are both right, and it’s a clear improvement over what was there before; see below. 3/5
Blurb: The subtitle really should be the blurb, or at least moved into the blurb; the rest is more of a description, and can be condensed. (Having a content warning at all is sufficient to tell people they should read the content warning; “the first in a series” and “most experimental” are better suited to about text; entering it in the comp at all implies a request for people to say what they think of it. However, again, it is very much better than what was there before. 2/5
Intangibles: Originally this had no art and no blurb; the art and blurb were added later, presumably after someone pointed it out. This does replace the goose egg I had here before, and I suppose the whole point of writeups like these is to produce improved presentation and art. But still. -1
Art: Even if I weren’t familiar with Robb Sherwin I’d recognize this as the work of someone who clearly knows what they’re doing :good light/dark contrast, good composition, good vast engulfing of the spaceship (the full image has a red light on the ship; I assume it was removed because it’d look bad at small size). Not hugely unique, but no real flaws to speak of, besides the fact that… 4.5/5
Blurb: .…the blurb suggests wacky werewolf hijinks, which the art very much doesn’t. The blurb isn’t bad, if a bit terse, but it’s also like buying a ticket to 2001: A Space Odyssey and walking into Snakes on a Plane. 3/5
Intangibles: But authors whose voice is generally so strong and distinct to outweigh less compelling packaging = exactly what the Intangibles category is for. +1
Extreme Omnivore: Text Edition
Art: A cohesive color scheme, font, and image, if just a tiny bit unbalanced at the top. In part because of that, it does feel thrown together in 5 minutes, but at least by someone who has a general sense of what they’re doing. 2.5/5
Blurb: The blurb, as a piece of writing, is fine. But the premise, or at least the presentation, suggests one of those minor comp games from the late '90s: competent, cute, but unambitious. That said, I did bump this half a point because I cheated and looked at the walkthrough, which suggests it’s going to be My Apartment game. Leaving this out of your blurb may not be an accurate representation of the blurb, exactly, but definitely one more compelling. 2.5/5
Intangibles: It’s not really fair to fault this for Eat Me existing (though its existence also wasn’t a secret), but Eat Me so luridly, exhaustively commits to its concept (extreme omnivorousness) that any other take is doomed by comparison to be swallowed whole. -1
Art: Striking, and designed to be so: an extreme close-up, starkly lit, image far larger than the text, meant to be vaguely unsettling. But it’s another striking interface, and this one is particularly an issue because it introduces stray elements: a blue link in a black-and-white composition, or the back arrow partially cut off (more visible in full image). Because it’s a Twine, I can also see right away that it has default or close to default styling, a pet peeve of mine. 3/5
Blurb: Extremely short and terse, but you want terse here; it fits the genre (experimental/art games), and fits the concept of the photo, face/eyes deliberately overpowering everything else. This wouldn’t work at all if the photo weren’t as striking, and (IMO) wouldn’t work as well if the blurb fought for attention. 3.5/5
Intangibles: I am in favor of more experimental work in the comp; I really hope this delivers on the promise. +0.5
(continued in next post)