Mike Russo's Autumnal Jumble 2022 Reviews

It’s another record-breaking IF festival, so I think y’all know the drill by now – I’m going to do my best to review my way through what looks like a really exciting field of entries. The pace and level of detail might be a bit less than I’m typically able to hit, due to parenting a seven-month-old and moving in a couple of weeks, but even if I don’t get through everything before the formal end of the festival, I’m definitely planning on reviewing all the games. I’ll start with the main entries (in random order), then move on to the Back Garden – this is partially a motivational exercise for me since there’s a bunch of Back Garden games that I’m very very excited to check out!

(And re the thread title, yes, I’m a northern-hemispherer, but Fall is my favorite season and I’m excited about the new name so I want to help normalize it!)

Abate: Hide Behind the Curtains, by Rohan
Another Cabin In The Woods, by Quain Holtey
Baby on Board, by Eric Zinda
Beneath the Stones, by Kieran Green
Bigfoot Bluff, by P.B. Parjeter
The Bones of Rosalinda, by Agnieszka Trzaska
The Box, by Paul Michael Winters
The Bright Blue Ball, by Clary C.
Computerfriend, by Kit Riemer
Crow Quest, by rookerie
Custard & Mustard’s Big Adventure, by Christopher Merriner
Digit, by Joey Acrimonious
externoon, by nune
Fairest, by Amanda Walker
The Fall of Asemia, by B.J. Best
Filthy Aunt Mildred, by Guðni Líndal Benediktsson
fix it, by Lily Boughton
George and the Dragon, by Pete Chown
Good Grub!, by Damon L. Wakes
Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, by Seb Pines
Half-Alive, by Bellamy Briks
Hinterlands: Marooned, by Cody Gaisser
The Hole Man, by E.Z. Poschman
Hypercubic Time-Warp All-go-rhythmic Synchrony, by Ben Kidwell and Maevele Straw
Lady Thalia and the Rose of Rocroi, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier
The Legend of Horse Girl, by Bitter Karella
Let’s Talk Alex, by Stephanie Smith
The Light in the Forest, by Emily Worm
Ma Tiger’s Terrible Trip, by Travis Moy
New Year’s Eve, 2019, by Autumn Chen
Orbital Decay, by Kayvan Sarikhani
The Prairie House, by Chris Hay and Kelsen Hadder
Roger’s Day Off, by Sia See and Jkj Yuio
A Single Ouroboros Scale, by Naomi Norbez
Super Mega Tournament Arc!, by groggydog
Sweetpea, by Sophia de Augustine
Thief of the Thousand Suns, by Dom Kaye
Thin Walls, by Wynter
Tours Roust Torus, by Andrew Schultz
Wry, by Olaf Nowacki
You, Me and Coffee, by Florencia Minuzzi

Back Garden

5e Arena, by Seth Jones
A D R I F T, by Pinkunz
Confessing to a Witch, by HeckinRobin
Manifest No, by Kaemi Velatet
Phenomena, by Dawn Sueoka
The Wolf and Wheel, by Jason Ebblewhite, Angus Barker, and Milo von Mesdag

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The Light in the Forest, by Emily worm

It’s always nice when the first game you play in a festival or comp gets things off on the right foot, so I count myself lucky that The Light in the Forest was the lead-off game in my randomized shuffle. Admittedly, it didn’t make the best first impression on me, with default-Twine formatting and a wall-of-profanity opening that situates the player in a deeply unpleasant situation – the protagonist is a trans woman with some mental health issues about to flee a Dickensian psychiatric facility. But the game quickly reveals that it’s anything but miserabilist, as she’s soon able to make a charming, supportive reconnection with an old friend, and some creepy-yet-compelling fantasy elements start to come into the narrative (the formatting also gets more creative). While there are definitely still some intense challenges to face, the game’s grounded, low-key writing and fundamentally decent characters made my experience of playing the game a really positive one.

Most of the story is focused on the protagonist’s relationship with two women – Mandragora, an acquaintance from school who happens to be working as a barista at the coffee shop where the protagonist takes shelter after the opening and who quickly gives her a place to stay, and Nightshade, who’s a sort of half-demon witch from another dimension with a mystic connection to her (everyone is named after plans, including the protagonist who’s called Solanine). Things with Mandy primarily focus on Solanine working through her social anxiety and ADHD in a series of well-realized set-pieces – there’s a complex bit about making a grilled cheese sandwich that’s almost-but-not-quite a puzzle – while choosing how flirty to get with someone who’s clearly into her. As to Nightshade, it’s a matter of deciding what to make of a series of strange happenings and whether or not to maintain their connection or separate it. This makes the character interactions engaging on a gameplay level, beyond the often-charming dialogue itself.

I also really enjoyed the fantasy elements, which isn’t always a given for me. They aren’t overemphasized, but it’s mentioned in passing that there’s been a magical apocalypse that’s seen demons hopping into our reality. It’s nonstandard, but I liked the fact that the world has ended but life still goes on – and isn’t even all bad, making it a nice metaphor for the identity struggles the game’s focused on, as well as a nice idea on its own. Again, this isn’t a central part of the story, and there isn’t like Tolkien-style WORLDBUILDING by any means, but there are some compelling details in this part of the game, like the way Solanine performs a regular ritual to ward off negative spirits:

You left your candlebone pen on the dresser. Ideally you would light a candle as you do this, but with only their bones and nothing for fire you are forced to make do without as you trace over the sigils on your arm.

Sure, there are some niggles here. For example, while the writing is generally strong, beyond the odd typo there’s the occasional line of clunky dialogue (at one point Mandy says “Like I said, you’re important and I don’t want to let anyone be abandoned. Especially not when everything is likely to be much worse for them because they’re being constantly misgendered.” Nice idea, but a little on-the-nose). And sometimes the low-key vibe can undercut the intensity of events – I hadn’t realized how close to panic Solanine was meant to be as she was rattling around the cabinets trying to rustle up her sandwich. Similarly, the ending I got was also more understated than I might have preferred. But none of this did much to impact how much I enjoyed my first dip into Spring Thing!

(One final bonus cool thing that occurred to me is that having recently come across this depressing supercut of all the scenes in the Lord of the Rings trilogy that pass the Bechdel Test, it was gratifying to realize that I think 100% of the wordcount in this reasonably-lengthy game qualifies!)

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fix it, by Lily Boughton

“Abstract Twine game about mental health issue” is a cliché, but if it produces games as engaging and dare-I-say educational as fix it, that’s no bad thing. I’m a little wary of my response here because I have a fair bit of personal experience of OCD – one of my loved ones has it – and I’m curious what others who don’t come to the game with that context would think of it. Still, I can say that for me it very much works in depicting OCD’s hellish destructive-ritual-and-self-loathing cycle, as well the potential way out.

The game deliberately chooses to leave the inciting incident that sets off the OCD spiral abstract – you’re just told that there’s something making you (who you are is left vague) uncomfortable and standing in the way of the things (also not specified) you want to do. This means there’s not much of a narrative framework for the gameplay loop to hook into, but I think that’s ultimately a good choice. It universalizes the experience and creates the opportunity for more direct player investment, and also avoids the challenge that the stuff that sets off OCD can be so minor – touching a particular part of an article of clothing, fretting about ultra-rare side effects of common medications like Tylenol – or so over-the-top – worrying that somehow you’re secretly a serial killer or child molester, or that you’ll harm others for no reason – that it can seem completely ridiculous from the outside.

The rituals and behaviors you engage in to compensate for the feelings of unease are also left unspecified (though there is an intimation that hand-washing to the point that they bleed is included – this is I think a good example of a detail that’s 100% true to life but I worry could feel unrealistic), with the focus instead put on how you feel after performing each one: it doesn’t work to relieve the feeling of discomfort, but now there’s a healthy dose of self-directed criticism for being weak enough to engage in the ritual, or feeling like it’s made things worse, or that you’re just doing it for attention, so now more talismanic behavior is required to desperately try to set things to right. The writing in these bits of self-reproach is queasily compelling, and I thought did a good job of communicating what I understand is among the worst parts of OCD.

Thankfully, fix it doesn’t trap the player in a forever-static loop, but does eventually provide the possibility of a way out. In contrast to the way the rituals are played, this piece is very specific, and from my understanding lines up pretty exactly with the tools folks suffering from OCD often find successful in managing their intrusive thoughts and behaviors. Getting to this off-ramp definitely felt like a relief, with calm blue coloring on the fonts replacing the angry red of the rest of the game. Again, this is very much not a narrative-driven experience, but it definitely has an arc, and catharsis at the end. It’s a focused experience, but the gameplay elements, visual design and layout, and writing all work well together to provide a compelling and accurate view of OCD from the inside, which I can see being impactful and even useful for all sorts of players.

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The Prairie House, by Chris Hay and Kelsen Hadder

The Prairie House is an aesthetically pleasing Adventuron game with slightly wonky implementation – but I repeat myself! Most Adventuron games have lovely visual design but have a parser that doesn’t provide the most helpful failure responses (it can be pretty fuzzy on whether you’ve referred to an item incorrectly, or it just isn’t there) and sometimes struggles with actions that are more than two words. Still, these foibles aren’t too hard to come to grips with, and the effort is usually well worth it, which is certainly the case with this moody horror vignette set on the Canadian prairie. While the game’s various elements didn’t fully cohere for me, this is still an enjoyable way to spend half an hour.

The plot here is fairly straightforward – you’re an academic who spends the night at an old field house, and spooky shenanigans ensue – but there are three well-researched bits of flavor that enrich the basic narrative. First, there’s a well-chosen amount of detail on the research; while you don’t need to actively do anything, it’s rewarding to explore the prairie, examine the various plants, and read about the standard practices and approaches to this kind of work. Second, the house you’re staying in was built and originally inhabited by Ukrainian immigrants, and there are some documents in the house that flesh out some of this history. Finally, many of the supernatural occurrences are drawn from the stories of some First Nations peoples – the author’s note cites the Anishinaabe and Ojibwe.

Since there aren’t really puzzles to speak of, beyond finding a couple of keys and going through a well-prompted pre-bed ritual, the game does rely on this research to enliven what would otherwise be a fairly direct case of things going bump in the night. It mostly works, and I was definitely engaged as I wandered around the house looking at stuff – it’s fun to learn about things I previously knew quite little about! Once the supernatural elements started kicking into higher gear, though, I wound up wanting a little more of a direct link between the research-y bits and what was happening in the game. There are definitely some allusions, but the game plays things pretty coy and ambiguous as to what’s actually going on. That’s often a fine authorial choice, but in this case it left me feeling like the ending was a little anticlimactic, with the game’s disparate elements never being fully knit together in my mind.

I did mention some implementation niggles, and while some of them do seem like features of the Adventuron engine, there were a couple of oversights that could be worth correcting in a future release. X ME doesn’t include a description of the PC, for example, which is a missed opportunity. X [document] and READ [document] are separately-implemented commands – it’s usually not an issue because upon examining one you’re often asked whether you want to read it as well, but this isn’t invariably the case. In my first playthrough, I missed an achievement, and some important flavor, because X BOOKS told me “you notice nothing unusual,” whereas READ BOOKS would have let me browse one of three different volumes. And when I tried to sit down in the armchair in the morning, the response indicated the game still thought it was night.

Still, I don’t want to end on a negative note – and I should admit that I played the game without music, which is apparently an original soundtrack, so I suspect I would have entered even more fully into the mood with that playing in the background. The Prairie House is an accomplished game that offers a unique, compelling experience that goes beyond the standard haunted-house experience.

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Filthy Aunt Mildred, by Guðni Líndal Benediktsson

Filthy Aunt Mildred is a nasty little thing, reveling in the physical and moral grotesqueness of the revolting, infighting family who make up its cast of characters and the baroque, decrepit mansion where it lays its scene – call it Knives Out by way of Gormenghast. Beyond the overall squalor, the narrative is the most drunken, meandering sort of shaggy dog story, overencrusted with the largely-irrelevant biographies of sundry louche and long-since departed aunts and uncles, and it doesn’t so much end as collapse in a heap, the few surviving characters having learned nothing and forgotten nothing.

I worry I am being too positive. Here is the second sentence of the piece:

The air was sticky and horrible and Old Uncle Thomas who lived in the attic was smearing his faeces on the dining hall window, which meant it was six o’clock, because Old Uncle Thomas always smeared his faeces on the dining hall window at six o’clock.”

This is not the kind of filth I had in mind when I eagerly clicked “begin” on what is sold as a wholesome story about poisoning an awful spinster.

As a right-minded person I can under no circumstances recommend, or even commend in the first place, such a disreputable game. But with that understood: reader, I had fun. Each character is more loathsome than the next – the protagonist, and I use that term loosely, very much included – but who cares when they toss off bon mots like this (from the inevitable iocane-powder-ish scene near the end):

“One of the cups contains lethal poison.", I explained. “The other contains the greatest tea you’ve ever had in your life.”

“What kind?”

“Arsenic.”

The narrator gets in on the action too, evoking the family’s halcyon, prelapsarian days:

Money was plentiful, nobody had been murdered yet and the general attitude of the Bladesmith family could be boiled down to a mixture of “why not?” and “do you know who I am?”

Sure, the accumulated vignettes lose some steam and effectiveness as you go on, and there’s the occasional typo. And the only choices are about how deep into this sewer you want to throw yourself. But this is one entertaining cabinet of horrors, and for readers who are able to swallow their revulsion and the potty humor and moral bankruptcy here on display, the sharp writing and darkly-inventive imagination are ample rewards for slumming it – you might just need a cold shower afterwards.

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You, Me and Coffee, by Florencia Minuzzi

A short visual novel filtered through a Game Boy aesthetic, You, Me and Coffee (God, it’s hard to omit the Oxford comma) wears its gameplay on its sleeve: as a post-college twentysomething who’s just moved back home and bumped into an old acquaintance at a coffee shop, interactivity consists of choosing in which order to introduce these seemingly banal but deceptively deep topics of conversation.

This one is all about the dialogue, then, so let’s start out by talking about everything else. The retro graphics are definitely one of YM+C’s selling points, and at least to this child of the 80s, they impress; in particular the pinkish monochrome image of the friend is expressive enough to convey relatively subtle shifts in facial expression without getting overly-detailed and distracting. The game’s structure is also clever: a full playthrough is expected to exhaust each of the six possible orders for the topics, at which point a new final dialogue unlocks. It’s not clear how diegetic this is supposed to be – there’s no indication the characters know they’re experiencing a time loop – but it does succeed in making the player keep track of what they’ve already asked and when, making the game more involved than the choice-lawnmowing visual novels can sometimes promote. On the flip side, though, I found the interface a little annoying – as with most visual novels, by default you only get a line or two of slowly-displaying text at a time, so I kept banging keys to hurry things up and then inadvertently skipping bits of dialogue. Using more of the screen’s real estate would have obscured the graphics, I suppose, but could have increased the readability.

As for the conversations themselves, while each of the six variations hits on distinct subject areas, with one or two exceptions they all share a common tone of warm nostalgia hitting a wall of barely-concealed hostility (this awkwardness is mostly avoided in the timeline where the conversation winds up turning to books – yes, this seems right to me). As it eventuates, you remember this acquaintance as a fun person to hang out with, and with whom you shared some low-stakes stabs at romance; on the other hand, she (I think those are the right pronouns) recalls things differently, and as a result most of the time she’s kind of a jerk.

There’s an explanation for this unpleasantness in the bonus dialogue that’s unlocked after exhausting the others, and it rings true so far as it goes – without going into spoilery details, it turns out that main character was a self-centered jerk who didn’t really notice what was going on with the people around them when they were 17. But to me, what this revelation gains in plausibility it loses in pathos. Perhaps I’m telling on myself here, but my memory of those long-ago teenaged years was that pretty much everyone was completely wrapped up in self-absorption, with only a minimal set of tools for perceiving, much less responding appropriately to, the subjective emotional experience of others. The fact that the friend has apparently held a grudge for what after all are quite venial sins for years, into their mid-twenties, came off as absurdly small-minded, and made the ending feel unduly prosecutorial: instead of an embarrassed but deserved flush of catharsis, I was left blinking in confusion.

If the ending didn’t sit quite right with me, though, I did enjoy the well-observed brittleness of the main dialogues – so much so that I replayed a second time, based on what I thought were hints towards how to get an alternate ending (turns out there isn’t one, or at least I wasn’t smart enough to find it). As befits its early-video-game aesthetic, You, Me and Coffee’s characters are perhaps more callow than they think they are, but there’s pleasure in following along with them all the same.

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Good Grub!, by Damon L. Wakes

I’ve said in other reviews that I think it’s really hard to make a successful “message game”, where the game’s main goal is to make some kind of political or cultural point – in my experience they too quickly devolve into humorless, didactic gameplay where the obvious right answers are rewarded and the obvious bad ones are punished, with no real authentic engagement with the nuances of an issue and the important questions of design, plot, and character left almost completely neglected, making even those who agree with the politics on offer resentful and unhappy.

Good Grub! is a message game, and if I’m honest it fits the above description pretty much to a tee – plus it’s got only the basic Twine visual design –but with one key difference: it throws that “humorless” bit way out the window, meaning that I was more than happy to laugh my way through three different playthroughs. Maybe that makes me shallow, but I was having so much fun none of the other things I’ve previously harped on as flaws mattered at all.

It helps that the message here isn’t one that I’ve seen argued to death in online flamewars: it’s that eating insects can be an environmentally sustainable element in a healthy diet. I suppose some folks could find the idea gross, and I have to confess I do too to – but that’s just because I’m vegetarian and eating anything alive kinda freaks me out; meeting protein needs through bugs doesn’t seem inherently weirder than doing it through curdled soy milk, after all.

Anyway, the way the game makes its point is by having you choose the main features of an insect-only restaurant you’re launching, then go on a radio interview to promote it. Success and failure are definitely possible, but the game is short enough, and funny enough, that you’ll probably want to play through a bunch of times to see many of the options. Some have definite right and wrong answers – warming my heart as a life-long user of public transit, the clear worst choice in the game is to drive to the interview when you have other options – but for the most part it’s forgiving, with successful possible even if you decide e.g. to name your restaurant “La Cucaracha”, like an asshole (I named my restaurant La Cucaracha first time out).

It’s a short but well-considered design, with the initial set of choices leading to payoff as you try to sell the place in the interview, and the ultimate reveal of whether your business succeeds or fails. Gameplay-wise, the only critique I have is that I wish there was a “replay” button at the end it make it easier to try out different branches. It’s solid enough, but again, what makes it sing is the humor. I don’t want to quote too many of the other things that made me laugh, because most of the joy of Good Grub! is seeing how the playful narrative voice responds to your choices, but I can’t resist one pointer: whatever you do, make sure you try naming your restaurant “Big Bill’s Big ol’ Bug Emporium while ensuring the game knows you are not yourself named Bill.

Is Good Grub! good enough to make me rethink my generally downbeat outlook on message games? I suppose not – if I take a step back, it really does share many of the limitations I outlined at the top – but it does apply demonstrate that with enough charm, you can get away with anything.

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George and the Dragon, by Pete Chown

I have a dilemma when it comes to reviewing visual novels: on the one hand, I’m firmly on board with a broad definition of IF, and against artificially excluding a clearly text-driven – and very popular! – genre. On the other hand, I often personally have a hard time getting to grips with them: I find the interfaces fiddly, as I have a hard time advancing the tiny, slowly-scrolling text window without missing stuff, and their design often presupposes multiple playthroughs, which is increasingly challenging for me as I have decreasing time for IF. Plus I usually ignore the graphics and find them a distraction from the text, which is what I come to IF for in the first place. So while I want to be ecumenical and give George and the Dragon the same level of engagement I’m giving to the other Spring Thing entries, I’m also acutely aware that I might not be the best person to assess how successful it is at doing what it sets out to do – so the reader might want to adjust their salt-grain intake accordingly as they proceed through this review.

George and the Dragon has an orthodox fantasy setting – according to the blurb, this is a story about how St. George became the patron saint of England, but while he does slay a dragon if you play your cards right, England never had a king named Dennis so far as I know, nor were gems of fire resistance thick on the ground, and the general vibe is pretty Ren Faire-y. Despite the familiarity of the setting, though, I had difficulty getting to grips with the story. It starts in medias res, with your character stumbling on an argument between characters you don’t know, without providing much context for who you are and what’s going on. Most of this got clearer as I played – the opening incident isn’t that important, and again befitting the game’s classic-fantasy approach, there’s a festival/lottery going on in the village, with the “winner” being offered up as a sacrifice to appease the dragon – but the exposition didn’t feel especially smooth to me, and I ran into a bug where the blacksmith told me something had happened before it actually did, which confused things further.

As I understand the gameplay tropes of the VN genre, it’s also pretty orthodox on that front – you get regular choices of options as you progress through dialogue-driven scenes, with an additional map interface that lets you choose where to go in a little village. It’s very likely you’ll hit a game-over in your first playthrough, because this dragon is not messing around, but there’s easy saving-and-loading and skip-read-text option to make replays more bearable (though I found that the option fussy, both skipping when it shouldn’t and not skipping when it should).
Your choices do have significant consequences, but in a way that occasionally felt obscure – for example, getting on a winning path seems to require visiting the princess when you go to the king’s camp to deliver a sword, but whether or not I was able to do that seemed to hinge on choices I made in the opening argument sequence, with no narrative threads explaining what had changed so far as I could tell (though this might be because I’d inadvertently skipped changed text in a replay, per the issue I mentioned above). It also doesn’t help that the game is tough, with a lot more ways to fail than there are to win.

One of the significant upsides of a VN is that with the real estate given over to graphics allows for visual storytelling, and the foregrounding of characters opening up the ability to display their emotions without needing to spell things out in text. As mentioned earlier, I’m probably not the best critic to assess art design choices, but I have to say I mostly didn’t like the graphics. The characters design was odd to me, with the kind sporting an unflattering 1970’s mustache and the princess wearing what look like day-glo Bermuda shorts, and scenes are often staged with the characters standing too far away from the game’s camera. There are some effective sequences – the climactic fight with the dragon has some visual pop – but for me, they came after a bad first impression.

I’ve said a lot of negative things about George and the Dragon, but as I review them, many of these critiques boil down to “I would have liked this better if it was a text-only Twine game” – without the distracting graphics and slow pace of text display, and with more focus on the written word to carry the weight of storytelling, I would probably find the game unpretentious but solid enough. So I could certainly see a player who’s more simpatico with visual novels having a much better time than I did, and I look forward to more VNs being entered into IF festivals and competitions if only so that I can get more comfortable with their way of doing things.

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Crow Quest, by rookerie

I’m a sucker for smart-animal content – stories about the social intelligence of elephants, books on how the distributed nature of octopuses’ nervous systems might impact their consciousness, rats problem-solving their way through lab experiments, I’m here for all of it. So even though I first came across it in the early days of YouTube, even the better part of two decades later I can still clearly remember how exciting it was to see this video of a crow trying to fish some food out of a bottle, failing, then realizing it could bend a bit of wire into a hook and get to its snack that way. Crows – they’re just like us!

(Due to the deathless nature of the internet, I realized after writing the above paragraph that this video is probably still findable – I think this is it, in fact! Rewatching it, my description wasn’t too far off, thankfully).

Anyway all this to say that when I saw there was a game coming up whose aim, according to the blurb, was to “celebrate the intelligence, eloquence, and sophistication of urban crows”, per the above I was pretty excited, all the more so since I don’t think crows really get their due. As a result of these expectations, though, I was deflated when I saw the opening text:

OMG you’re a crow.

One day, you could be king of this shitty suburb.

But for now, it’s just you and your ATTITUDE.

Crows – they’re just like us.

This irreverent tone is actually a good fit for the game, though – if you look past the internet-poisoned dialogue, the birds on offer here, as promised, are smart and socially adept, and given how crows behave I can totally imagine that their internal lives are based on an obsessive focus on getting more stuff and maintaining their position in the pecking-order (sorry).

The silliness, and the striking drawings, also liven up a game that’s pretty solid but could have been a bit dry if played straight. Your success in becoming the baddest bird on the block is measured through increases in your numerical attitude score, and after a preparatory phase where you decide whether you want to have a wingman (er) join your quest and choose from an assortment of inventory items to bring with you, the main section of the game has you encounter a series of randomized events. If you hit the right events – and get lucky or have the right gear – your attitude will go up, say by befriending a little girl. But there are negative, attitude-draining events too that can for example see you captured by a geezer with a net. The trend is always up, though, and after maybe a dozen or two events your attitude rises sufficiently to open up the endgame, which sometimes involves a climactic rock-paper-scissors duel with another crow.

This all works well enough, though I think one more iteration on the design would have made it more compelling. There’s a slight mismatch between the attitude threshold and the number of random events on offer, meaning that even in a single playthrough you’ll see a lot of repeats. I thought the fight at the end went on a little too long, even once you realize that there’s a trick to it. And while I’m listing niggles, while I understand that the gag where the game prompts you to enter your name and then says that’s a stupid name, and your real name is e.g. Bingley Polligan (the exact choice is randomly generated) can’t admit of exceptions, I was still annoyed that “The Incrowdible Hulk” got rejected. C’mon, game, I’m working with you here!

Still, even despite these small shortcomings this is a fleet, fun game that doesn’t outstay its welcome. And while it’s not the high-minded ode to corvid smarts I was after, it does make a strong case that crows are punk-rock badasses. What more could anyone want?

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Beneath the Stones, by Kieran Green

I’m less than ten games into Spring Thing, and somehow I’ve already hit two whose opening screen is just repeated f-bombs (the other was Light in the Forest) – man, the 2022 zeitgeist is pretty grim. Here, the profanity reflects the dire situation the protagonist has found herself in, as she’s fallen into some caves below a tourist site in the wilderness, and after an ill-timed bout of unconsciousness, she realizes she’s alone and trapped. Fortunately, there’s some strange machinery that might hold out the promise of escape…

If you were to picture a game in your head based on that description, I’m guessing that you’d come up with a parser game, because this is a classic setup. But no – it’s Twine (complete with overuse of various blurring and moving text effects, alas)! There are some reasonably fun puzzles here, and the mystery of what’s going on in the caverns is intriguing enough, but for me the novelty of navigating such a hoary scenario in a choice-based game was the most interesting element of Beneath the Stones. Now that the parser/choice wars that roiled the IF community a decade ago are firmly in the rear-view mirror, it seems to me that both the audience and authors are increasingly ignoring the stereotypes of what kinds of games belong on each side of the theoretical divide. And while there is some narrative here – the main character has a name, and a little bit of dialogue with her boyfriend in the immediate aftermath of the fall – the game really is about a lonely exploring poking at stuff in the dark.

So how well does the said poking work? I’d say reasonably so. The nice thing about this being a choice-based game is that there’s no fumbling with darkness puzzles or navigating a dreary maze: everyplace you can go and all the options are clearly laid out, and it’s easy to toggle from one sub-area to another. There’s also an inventory system that works quite well and even allows you to use one item on a second, albeit only in specific, scripted instances.

On a more equivocal note, since the puzzles mostly just involve manipulating stuff you find in the environment that only have one effect, the game is pretty easy to solve since you’ll typically be able to progress by just clicking through all of your options even if you don’t understand what you’re doing. I’d actually rate this a positive, partially because I found the environment a little confusing. The game’s chatty style meant that I was sometimes unsure about what I was seeing, and how the area I was in related to the place I’d just been. Descriptions are also a bit loose sometimes, meaning that for example I wasn’t always clear on whether something described as “gunk” was the same as the previously-mentioned “goo” – in a parser game, it’d be easy to disambiguate, but of course that option wasn’t available here. Further adding to my discombobulation, I ran into a bug that had me see a passage comparing what I was seeing to a podium that it implied I’d already encountered well before I’d actually come across the thing.

While I think Beneath the Stones could have benefitted from another testing pass (there are some typos, too) these are still minor complaints, though. Even if I wasn’t always sure about what I was doing or why it was working, it was fun to work through the puzzles and escape the caverns. The game does also succeed in setting a creepy mood at times, especially when I went back to find a bad ending that sent a little shiver down my spine. Would I have liked this better as a parser game? Probably, but I suspect that just reflects my pre-existing experience, and the fact that a Twine author can create a gameplay experience like this and make it accessible to folks who don’t play parser games is pretty cool in my book.

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I played this and enjoyed it a lot, with its creepy, Quatermass-esque vibe (NB other, more recent cultural reference points are, no doubt, also available), as well as the text effects which I thought were very effective. Animated /timed text seems to be a thing that many players find annoying but I didn’t find it so here. Maybe I haven’t played enough Twine games for it to have started to grate yet. Also, the ‘bad’ ending (that I headed straight for, being of that disposition, before winding back to the ‘happy’ ending) is marvellously creepy and well done, I thought. It just lacked a spooky soundtrack to top it off.

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Let’s Talk Alex, by Stephanie Smith

Let’s Talk Alex is a Twine game about some very heavy subjects – gaslighting and emotional abuse in romantic relationships – that matches its emotionally-engaging premise with solid prose and an ultimately positive, actionable message of empowerment. I think it’s a very fine game, though I didn’t find myself as involved in it as I expected I’d be, partially because, per the game’s blurb, it’s not just a story but aims at being a simulation of how to get out of this kind of toxic relationship.

LTA realizes this ambition by structuring itself as a series of conversation puzzles: in any playthrough, the confrontation with the partner, Alex, plays out as a collection of four different mini-conversations (out of a pool of six), each focusing on a different aspect of their controlling behavior, and with clearly-laid out different strategies to try, some of which are always going to be successful in helping you get out of the relationship, and others (so far as I could tell) always unsuccessful. The choice of which topics you see depends on what you do during a pre-fight preparation phase, as you reminisce about different bad moments in the relationship. You get a short memory, which is mixed with the protagonist’s usually-positive thoughts about Alex even as they’re exhibiting a different strain of really negative behavior.

Then Alex comes home and there’s a transition into the fight:

I’ve been feeling concerned that you’ve been showing some unhealthy behaviors. I feel like you’re unaccepting, controlling, take things too personally, and don’t trust me.

This definitely allows the player to take stock and understand how the stuff Alex has been doing falls into specific categories of emotional abuse, which helps with the educational or simulation side of things. But I found this bit of dialogue jarring, since it feels rather clinical, and I wondered how someone capable of saying this sentence about their partner hasn’t already realized that the relationship needs to end!

Once you zero in on one topic – say, the lack of trust – you get a few dialogue options, and here’s where the different strategies come in. Again, there are better answers and worse answers here, and while it’s usually pretty easy to suss out what’s likely to work (there are also some strong hints in the game’s introductory material), the choices set out a bunch of plausible responses. But I found myself wishing the conversations had a little more depth, since usually there’s only one or two choices before you’re back to the hub menu and on to the next topic – the focus is on providing feedback on whether the choices have been effective, rather than portraying all the back-and-forth of a big argument.

Ultimately, it’s a positive that there’s a good amount of signposting and that the writing is precise throughout, since that communicates why things are happening the way they are and makes the puzzles legible to the player. But at the same time, I found this approach sometimes too cut-and-dried given the emotional dynamics at issue, with the clarity sometimes undermining the verisimilitude and messy immediacy of what a relationship-ending fight can feel like. I don’t want to ding LTA too harshly for this slight dryness, though; if it makes it a better tool for exploring different ways a controlling relationship can be escaped, and a less-compelling story about one single way that plays out, that’s certainly a reasonable choice. On the Spring Thing festival page, it’s also got an “autobiographical” tag, and god knows that know that when I made my own autobiographical game last year, there were a whole bunch of topics and storytelling approaches that I dialed down or avoided, because I wouldn’t have been emotionally capable of writing the thing otherwise. Regardless, LTA tackles a tough set of topics with grace and clarity and is a worthy entry in the festival.

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Thief of the Thousand Suns, by Dom Kaye

Appropriately enough for a game structured like a five-act play, my reaction to Thief of the Thousand Suns had a whole narrative arc to it. Based on the blurb and opening material, like the Dramatis Personae page complete with period font and interspersed footnotes, I went into it with high expectations since a Shakespearean IF very much appeals to me. These hopes suffered a u-turn as I was disappointed to realize the game wasn’t in verse, and had a plot drawn more from the swords-and-sorcery pulps than Elizabethan drama. After getting over those dashed expectations, though, I found there’s a lots that’s enjoyable here, as the game offers a fleet, fun adventure with a winning pair of protagonists – and if they’re more Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser than Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, so what?

(Yes, this would be a three-act structure, not five – perhaps proving my point that fitting a piece of writing to Shakespearean conventions is hard!)

So the setup here is that a two adventurers, roguish Billy Bard and big-hearted muscle Grimm, are on the lookout for a particular ruined temple, hoping to find the treasure it contains. After bargaining for directions from old man in a bar (see what I mean about the fantasy tropes?) they make their way through various forest hazards before finding more than they bargained for at the temple.

For the most part the story is on rails, though there are three more interactive bits – there’s a minigame where you dicker with the old man over how much to pay for his guidance to the temple, an involved series of choices to work through when dealing with a group of banditti, and then some light puzzling to make sense of the temple’s curious, magical properties. It’s a fun romp, with new obstacles and situations thrown at you at a rapid clip, and the banter between the two protagonists is well-written and enlivens proceedings, helping the more dramatic moments land.

This all works well on its terms, but again, it does feel a little more generic-fantasy than I would have liked – the story’s presented solely through dialogue and stage directions, but the directions often go into detail far beyond what a 16th-century stage could plausibly depict, and while there’s one song (which I enjoyed!) the dialogue is in prose rather than any sort of meter, much less strict iambic pentameter. Going in with appropriate expectations, though, it’s hard to see these as real minuses, especially given the dramatically increased authorial effort that would have been required (one of my games has a short poem in more-or-less dactylic hexameter, and it took probably three or four hours of writing to firm up – iambic pentameter is easier, but still!)

I think a more legitimate critique is that the moments of reactivity sometimes don’t feel fully baked. The bargaining minigame is done pretty much blind, and since you can redo it at any time the optimal course of action is to just inch up your offer until you hit something the other party will accept. And I found the encounter with the bandits hard to navigate until I realized that clicking the earlier set of links on the page would change them and shift my strategy for dealing with them, while the last one would commit to that approach and move the story ahead. Again, there are free redos available, but that lowered the stakes, all the more so when I realized that a key event that may or may not happen here – Grimm’s killing of the bandit Aileen – doesn’t actually impact where the story ultimately goes, though it’s presented as though it would. Lastly, the exploration in the temple is entertaining but feels underdeveloped, with multiple different scenarios for the most part resolved as quickly as they’re spun off. None of this reduced my enjoyment that much, but it did leave me wishing that either these mechanics had been fleshed out more thoroughly, or just streamlined in favor of a cleaner story.

On the flip side, I found that implementation was quite clean. There are only a few typos, and those that are there are the high-class, artisanal sort – wain for wane, that sort of thing. At first blush I thought I’d come across a bug where some of Act IV was accessible before Act III, but now that I’ve reflected on the plot that might actually be a clever meta touch (the temple does allow for time travel, after all).

All told this is a fleet, confident game with winning characters and a romping, fast-paced plot, and if it’s not one that William Shakespeare would have written, well, there are other authors out there just as good.

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The Hole Man, by E.Z. Poschman

In my head, I sometimes like to anthropomorphize the different kinds of IF.

(I don’t really, but the conceit’s our entry point into the review and the alternative was a comparison to Waking Life, so I think we’re all agreed this is the less-bad option).

As I was saying before that rude interruption, I like to picture all the different kinds of IF like they’re people: you’ve got your nerdy, spreadsheet-loving puzzlefest; your overearnest theater-kid narrative-driven game; your emo, edgy autobiographical choice-based game about trauma and mental health; your trying-too-hard-to-be-funny class-clown comedy. Then there’s the figure that’s loitering around at the edge of the crowd, smoking something that definitely isn’t tobacco and flipping through an old worn-out Pynchon paperback: our old friend the druggy, philosophically surrealist art game.

The Hole Man is very much part of this proud tradition, and acquits itself well, though falling prey to the Achilles heel that tends to plague this kind of game. The conceit of this long choice-based game is that you’re on your way to jury duty (side note: I would 100% play an IF game about jury duty) when someone trips you, and you… sort off… have your body fall out of yourself, so it walks away while you’re stuck as an empty outline where a person used to be. Cue peregrinations as you wander a fantastic landscape that mashes up the quotidian with the outre, seeking an identity to take on to replace the one you’ve lost.

Whether this kind of thing works or not is almost entirely down to the execution: how good are the ideas, and how good is the writing? Hole Man is good on both scores, with a funhouse of cleverly-philosophical situations presented in an appealing, wry narrative voice. Like, here’s what happens after you meet the king of a castle that’s also the insides of a dragon, and who’s himself a weird congeries of other serpents:

You’re not sure if you just met royalty, or a just a bunch of snakes that enjoy living in a basket and pretending to be a king. They were quite cordial in any event, though.

It’s a bit what-even-is-identity-comma-man, sure, but it made me laugh. Or there’s a song I found when pulling another thread:

I need a glass-bottomed boat
I need an able seaman
I need the kind of attraction
That you can’t find anywhere but the Amazon River!

(Please do not stand up until
The boat has docked at the pier)

Help me.
Electric eel!

I want a giant snakehead!
I want an arapaima!
I want to prove the existence, of an ahuitzotl, with a hand on its tail!

(That Pynchon reference I made above didn’t come out of nowhere).

There’s definitely a lot to explore, and it’s both superficially fun to turn over rocks to see what’s below – Castlevania 2 references! Tiny dragons who work like fairies – as well as to encounter the somewhat-deeper mediations on offer. Each path you take through the game puts you in front of a different archetypal figure, leading to a dialogue or disquisition that engages with topics that – well, honestly felt a bit random and not narrowly confined to the overall theme about identity, but I found them enjoyable just the same. There’s a neat conversation about flipping Clarke’s law of magic vs. technology on its head, some surprisingly-poignant existentialist ruminations on how to go on given the inevitable death and ending of all things, and an examination of the difference between toys and games that isn’t too on the nose (though it’s a bit on the nose).

When I say it’s a lot, though, it’s definitely a lot. The blurb says that there are 12 endings, and it’s a bit of work to wander around and find each of them – I found five of them, and while each only took five or ten minutes to reach, contemplating doing that seven more times felt exhausting. This is what I meant when I mentioned an Achilles heel above: when everything works on an arbitrary logic, traditional narrative stakes are hard to establish, and that anything-can-happen vibe means there’s not a lot of connective tissue binding the different paths, and potential identities, together.

Again, the blurb indicates that there’s a “special surprise” waiting for those who run down all the different avenues, but that alone wasn’t enough to keep me motivated through seven more replays. I also ran into a few small bugs – a dead-end passage in the basement of the parking structure, the description of a bookstore that presupposed I’d been there before even though it was my first visit – that, while not anything big in of themselves, threw up just enough friction that the idea of systematically charting out all the different ways to navigate my choices felt like too much work. I console myself with the thought that Gradgrindian assiduity is at odds with the philosophy of a game like this – better to go with the flow, dip in and dip out as the spirit moves, and not worry about wringing it dry of every drop of content. Approached like that, it’s hard not to recommend The Hole Man – I can’t tell you what you’re likely to get out of it, but you’ll probably get something.

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Hey, thanks a lot for your kind words! (I actually learned two from this review: quotidian and gradgrindian.)

It does surprise and interest me that you saw the game as so intellectual and trippy. The game itself is a big homage to an old Mac game called The Manhole; hence the name. I’ve never done drugs and I’ve never read Pynchon; the song you quoted is a “serious” rewrite of ‘Mr. Popeil’ by Weird Al Yankovic. The more obscure your references are, the smarter you come across!

I’m very pleased you got to talk to the Drake Man, Darin’ Man and Go Man, they’re some of the personalities I’m most proud of. I’m NOT pleased that those bugs are still there! I submitted a version that corrected those before the deadline even hit! Our host seems to have been having personal difficulties, though, so I can’t blame him.

I do hope you will return for more when you get a chance. I guess I should have marked this game as “full-length”, but I didn’t know how long these games are normally assumed to be. The Hole Man is 60k words, novel-length; there’s more waiting when you’re ready. I suppose I shouldn’t feel bad about all the stuff I wasn’t able to include, like how the jukebox has only three songs and I wanted to have seven!

(Thank you for not likening this to Waking Life, by the way. I hated Waking Life! Only movie I’ve ever walked out of!)

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Ha, so much for my ability to spot a reference! I’ve heard of but not played The Manhole, but I think a good number of Myst fans are also IF people (or rather, vice versa) so hopefully other reviewers will be able to pick up on how you’re riffing on it! Though now that you mention it, the visual design looks 100% like HyperCard - nicely done!

I did enjoy all those personalities quite a lot, but I have to say the Child Man was my favorite — I just had a kid last year, and lost my sister the year before, so I found his whole situation really poignant.

Anyway I will try to go back to play more once I get through the rest of the games - 60k words is impressive but a fair bit to read in a sitting which is how I tend to play!

(I also have never done drugs and didn’t get on especially well with Waking Life, albeit less because of the substance than because the rotoscoped animation wreaked havoc on my inner ear).

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I might just have to frame this review. Of the ones I’ve ever had the pleasure of receiving for projects, this is my absolute favourite. Genuinely made my day, so descriptive and alive. I’m pleased old Mildred and her horrible family left an impression. Thanks for playing my little game and sorry for the typos, I’m devastated they managed to sneak past me.

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If the game even lives up to one fifteenth of what that little sentence evokes in me, I’m gonna love it.

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This belongs in a FAQ, or an “introduction to authoring IF” guide. Or it could be a mandatory question one must answer when introducing yourself to the message board:

“Hi, my name’s Jim. I’m an overearnest theater-kid who wishes he was a Pychon-reader, and sometimes believes, but is not, a class-clowner.”

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Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel, by Seb Pines

It’s fitting that my randomization gave me Graveyard Shift at the Riverview Motel right after The Hole Man, since they’re alike in a lot of ways: they’re both choice-based games that work something like funhouses, letting the player wander an environment that’s densely packed with characters enacted their own stories, with the protagonist choosing which to get swept up in. And yet, what a difference a genre makes – this approach is charming when you’re ambling around a lightly-philosophical fantasyland, but can feel pretty silly when the operative tropes are those of horror fiction. The eponymous motel packs in more monsters per square inch than Call of Cthulhu’s worst Mythos Hoedown, leaving me wondering what goes on the other 364 nights of the year and questioning the protagonist’s grip on reality even before she starts running across any sanity-blasting horrors. Despite this, the various storylines boast some creativity, but less-compelling writing and some implementation awkwardness mean I probably won’t be coming back for a return stay.

The setup here as you as the late-night desk-clerk for an absolutely cursed motel; after clocking into your shift, gameplay consist of either sitting in the lobby waiting for guests to arrive or depart (in more than one sense of the term) or for the phone to ring, checking text messages from your friends, or poking around the motel, including making use of the voyeur-holes hidden behind paintings in six of the motel’s rooms. There’s something uncanny going on in each, from vampiric bloodsucking to Exorcist reenactors to whatever’s going on with the guy with the deer pelt. Add in something nasty lurking below the surface of the pool, and you’ve got more macabre happenings than you could possibly plumb in a single playthrough.

This is especially the case because the monsters will, unsurprisingly, kill you real dead. This is all fair enough – they’re monsters, duh – but I found the way these sequences played out hurt my engagement with the game, since they punish saying yes to stuff. Want to follow the obviously-bad-news femme fatale out into the parking lot? That’s not going to end well. Want to figure out why there’s all that slime by the swimming pool? Likewise (all the more so since doing this got me stuck in a loop where an object kept falling into the pool, leaning me to go check it out, at which point a strange noise or vibration made me retch, at which point something fell in the pool… finally after five go-rounds something with tentacles put me out of my misery). I did manage to survive the night on my third try, largely by sitting on my hands in the lobby, which counts as a win but wasn’t that satisfying.

Throughout, the writing is sometimes creepy but also ungainly. This could be a David Lynch style attempt to unnerve through awkwardness, but for me at least it doesn’t land:

The nervous guy who came in earlier walks with a strange swagger into the lobby yet he is tightly clutching a leather bag to his side. As he walks by me he gives me a wink and how quickly the smile from his face falls tells me I grimaced in response involuntarily.

Added to this, the implementation sometimes left me unsure where I stood – beyond the shenanigans at the pool, many other random events also seemed to repeat over and over again, but I’m not sure whether that’s because time also didn’t seem to advance every time I clicked to wait at the lobby desk. Were these bugs, the randomizer not being tuned to avoid repetitiveness, or was there some hidden mechanic about what actions moved the clock forward? I’m not sure, and while uncertainty is fine in a horror game, I like it to be deployed to clearer thematic ends.

I suspect there’s an intended way of engaging with the game where the player is more active, zipping around the motel’s locations, spying on each of its residents and dipping in and out of each of their storylines, with replays enlivened by different permutations of the ways each can play out. And as I mentioned there’s some fun creativity here, with even the fairly standard vampire vignette boasting one or two novel images – and my subconscious will be trying to figure out that deer guy for a few days to come. But the fiddly implementation and too-common deaths mean I wasn’t able to find that intended experience, which means I unfortunately didn’t get out of Graveyard Shift everything the author put into it.

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