Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

I’m doing reviews this year! I used to do these back when Star Wars movies were still coming out (no, the other ones) so it’s a pleasure to get back into it again. Some introductory notes/caveats (NB these have been updated since I finished my reviews!):

• I added transcripts for many of the parser games, including notes I made while playing (marked off with an asterisk).

• I marked spoilers, but I’m not always the most fastidious about such things, and my goal with writing reviews is to be interesting to folks who played the game rather than as a guide to which ones to play. So maybe be careful about reading reviews for games you haven’t yet played if you’re sensitive to such things!

• It’s easier to write criticism when referring to a notional construct of “the author”, as opposed to “Fred, who’s sitting right over there”. So despite the fact that we’re all right here, I tended to use the depersonalized “author” – it’s nothing personal, just helping me get past my hangups!

• I don’t use numerical scores, because I am not a monster.

• There isn’t really a name for my approach to reviewing. I don’t do the traditional buyers-guide thing, nor the “travel writing for imaginary places” of the New Games Journalism. What I like to do is to bang on about a game at length while looking for opportunities to talk about myself. We could call it “logorrhetic narcissism,” maybe? Has a ring.

I managed to review all the games in the comp, which is a lot, so I thoughtfully I stole this formatting for a table of contents from Mathbrush’s thread if you’re looking for one in particular. If you’re just browsing, I’d say there are a couple of my reviews that are maybe more interesting and/or funny than the rest (note these were not necessarily my favorite games), which include Accelerate, Fight Forever, A Catalan Summer, For a Place by the Putrid Sea, Chorus, Electric word, “life”, A Rope of Chalk, Saint Simon’s Saw, and Vampire Ltd.

"Adventures in the Tomb of Ilfane”
“Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!”
“Terror in the Immortal’s Atelier”
#VanLife
(s)wordsmyth
Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits)
Accelerate
Alone (I beta tested this game)
Amazing Quest
The Arkhill Darkness
Ascension of Limbs
At Night
Babyface
Big Trouble in Little Dino Park
The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee
BYOD
The Call of Innsmouth
A Calling of Dogs
Captain Graybeard’s Plunder
Captivity
A Catalan Summer
The Cave
Chorus
Congee
The Copyright of Silence
Creatures
The Cursed Pickle of Shireton
Deelzebub
Desolation
Deus Ex Ceviche
Doppeljobs
Dr Ego and the egg of Man-Toomba
The Eidolon’s Escape
Electric word, “life”
The Eleusinian Miseries (I wrote this game)
Elsegar I
Entangled
Equal-librium
Ferryman’s Gate
Fight Forever
Flattened London
For a Place by the Putrid Sea
Ghostfinder: Shift
Happyland (I beta tested this game)
High Jinnks
How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings
The Impossible Bottle (I beta tested this game)
The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle
INFINITUBE
Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos
Just another Fairy Tale
The Land Down Under
Last House on the Block
Limerick Quest
Little Girl In Monsterland
Lore Distance Relationship
Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl
The Magpie Takes the Train (I beta tested this game)
Minor Arcana
The Moon wed Saturn
Mother Tongue
Move on
A Murder In Fairyland
Passages
Phantom
The Pinecone
The Place
Popstar Idol Survival Game
Quest for the Sword of Justice
Quintessence
Radicofani.
Red Radish Robotics
Return to Castle Coris
A Rope of Chalk
Sage Sanctum Scramble
Saint Simon’s Saw
Savor
Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder
Sense of Harmony
The Shadow In The Snow
Shadow Operative (I beta tested this game)
Sheep Crossing
Sonder Snippets
SOUND
Stand Up / Stay Silent
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants
Stoned Ape Hypothesis
Stuff of Legend
Tangled Tales
Tavern Crawler
Tombs & Mummies
Tragic
Trusting My Mortal Enemy?! What a Disaster!
Turbo Chest Hair Massacre
The Turnip
Ulterior Spirits
Under They Thunder
Vain Empires
Vampire Ltd (I beta tested this game)
The Wayward Story (I beta tested this game)
What the Bus?
Where the Wind Once Blew Free
You Couldn’t Have Done That
You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf

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For a Place By the Putrid Sea, by Arno von Borries

The randomizer gave me an interesting, meaty game to start out with. FoPPSA, as I’m going to call it because I can’t resist a silly acronym, is apparently a sequel to a previous game, though it doesn’t advert to this and I haven’t played it, which may account for some of the feeling of confusion I felt for much of the playing time, though certainly not all.

I’m having a hard time figuring out how to organize this review, so let’s go with a good old tripartite structure, plus a summing-up.

  1. Plodding literalism

Viewed strictly as a parser puzzle game, FoPPSA has some early high points. I found the opening enticingly odd, and the first set of tasks, while sometimes feeling arbitrary and lacking conventional logic, were motivated and fairly clued (the first significant puzzle, a minotaur-and-maze jobby, prompted a fun “aha” moment once I figured out the trick).

Once the second set of tasks opens up, however, I often found myself flailing, both to identify what I should be working on, and how to accomplish my goals. There were some guess-the-verb issues (making the Molotov cocktail was probably the worst offender here), incomprehensible dialogue referencing events for which I had no context, and puzzles that didn’t seem like they’d have any connections to my goals (I’m thinking most immediately of the bit where you have to skin-dive into a shipwreck at the bottom of Tokyo Bay in order to obtain some plane tickets). I mostly typed in the walkthrough for the second half of the game. Beta testers aren’t listed in the ABOUT text, so in this frame I’m tempted to think the author ran out of time and didn’t have outside eyes helping to figure out where to focus their work.

  1. Anime club in the basement

After I finished playing and I was making my first attempt to figure out how I felt about FoPPSA, I thought first of all about anime club.

See, when I was in college, I had a girlfriend who was big into anime (I was not). This was in the late 90’s, so rather than that meaning she had a subscription to a bunch of specialty streaming services, this meant that once a week she liked to go to the school’s anime club, which met in a basement to watch inconsistently-subtitled (or, God help us, over-earnestly overdubbed) episodes of two or three series which they ran through concurrently. Every once in a while I would go along with her, but without seeing most of the shows from the beginning, to this day I unfairly associate anime with the experience of squinting nearsightedly at blurry text (again, this was the 90s, we had CRTs) while attempting to figure out why Japanese teenagers were yelling at each other while obliquely referencing grievances and events that I’d missed by coming in late.

You see where I’m going with this.

And I don’t say that intending to be unkind! Just that in that first assessment, I thought part of what FoPPSA was doing was genre emulation of a genre with which I don’t easily get along, and which often can be intentionally alienating! Some of the tropes were fun – the indications the PC is some kind of supernatural, ageless being; the way everything ends in a climactic knife-fight – but the overall structure isn’t one that’s trying to provide easy answers.

  1. Bertolt Brecht

OK, here’s why I used the past tense in the paragraph above. As I was going to sleep after playing FoPPSA, one detail suddenly jumped out at me – oh, and I can’t really say what it was without a spoiler. Actually:

So the detail is that the floating casino that hosts the game’s climax is called the “Mahagonny”. One might be forgiven for thinking that’s a misspelling of a type of wood, but I think it’s actually a reference to a Bertolt Brecht opera (I haven’t seen it, but that same ex-girlfriend was also interested in opera and once described the plot to me). And once I realized that, I thought to myself, hang on, the author isn’t (just) doing anime, they’re doing Brecht.

I am not anything resembling a theater scholar by any means, so most of what I say here is probably wrong. But my understanding of Brecht is that he was a devout Communist and critic of capitalist society who developed a theater focused on an ethic of estrangement that interrogates the role and complicity of the audience with what they’re watching. And it sure seems like there’s a lot in FoPPSA to support a Brechtian reading!

The slow ascent up the apartment-tower of privilege, for example, with the player becoming further compromised with each step they take, is a relatively straightforward critique of capitalism (I found the dialogue options here a little wonky, but I believe it’s possible to end the game after getting each apartment if you say you’re content with it – it’s just that you get a “bad ending” so you’re pushed to try for the next). And speaking of allegories of capitalism, the horrifying fish-canning factory is if anything a bit too on the nose. Plus the dialogue with and about the trio of dudebros has a lot of references to revolutionary theory and practice.

Beyond the focus on class, there are also parts of the game that might be intentionally estranging. The host of Japanese words, likely unfamiliar to most Western players, put a layer of effort between the player and the game. There are interspersed quotations, I think mostly from the Brothers Grimm, that unsettle the narrative. There are several random sections where you just need to keep trying the same things over and over until you happen to get lucky. One might even view some of the fiddliness of the parser and puzzles as attempts by the author to engage the player-as-audience in a Brechtian sort of way!

  1. Summing up.

I mean, if you read the giant spoiler-block above you know that I can’t really pretend to sum this up. There’s a lot going on in this one, with some real intelligence behind the game, but also some messiness, bugs and flaws. I’ll need to go back once the comp ends, including playing the prequel, and seeing if I can get any further. I also hope there’s a post-comp release, because I think some clean-up would help delineate which bits of oddness are intentional, and which are bugs. In any event, FoPPSA was an intriguing start to the Comp for me!

(I’ll wrap up with a small bit of service-reviewing: there were two significant bugs I ran into that even the most devout Brechtian wouldn’t include on purpose: while trying to solve a disambiguation issue, I tried to drop one of the items and got a “fatal error: Out-of-bounds memory access” crash (this terminates the transcript, since I didn’t remember to start a new one when I re-opened the game); the game also didn’t end for me after I performed what I’m pretty sure (from the walkthrough) should have been the last few moves. This means that my antagonist/rival/romantic interest was left forever bleeding out, gasping out the same final bit of dialogue, no matter how many turns I waited or tried to keep talking to her.)

putrid sea - mr.txt (315.4 KB)

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How the Elephant’s Child Who Walked by Himself Got His Wings, by Peter Eastman

This is a delightful set of fables, done in what sounds to my ear at least a note-perfect ventriloquizing of Kipling’s Just So Stories voice. There are real opportunities for interactivity – the player inhabits the role of the child to whom the stories are being told, and gets to interject an excited choice when the narrator prompts them for input in the story. It’s a very natural, elegant device, and in fact while some options are merely cosmetic, there are a couple that determine which of the five stories on offer (I think – I replayed a second time and didn’t see anything obvious I missed) you wind up seeing. Of course, each ends up just-so-ing into the appropriate place, but that’s sort of the nature of just so stories.

But while the use of choice is canny, it’s really the prose that’s the main draw here, and I felt like every page had something that made me smile. There’s a call-and-response bit between the whale and the tiger that’s got a great rhythm to it, an understated bit of dialogue as the capybara and anaconda come to grips with the natural order of predation, and a crocodile offering help who turns out to be a reptile of his word!

There are a few scattered typos – “infinte” for “infinite” once when describing the sagacity of the whale, and there’s an errant capitalized “he” in the middle of a sentence about everything the tiger ate. But very few as such things go – this is a smoothly put-together thing, in design and in writing. The author even gracefully takes on the less-savory aspects of Kipling’s legacy in a non-didactic, but very much appreciated, coda. Very much worth playing!

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Deus Ex Ceviche, by Tom Lento and Chandler Groover

I keep wanting the title here to be a pun but can’t figure out how to make “ceviche” fit to “machina”. That feeling of not-quite-rightness is perhaps representative of how I felt about the game. I’m not quite sure what words to describe the setting – it’s like a Jorodowsky comic book about a sentient virus attacking a capitalistic R’lyeh, maybe? But I’m unsure that gives the right flavor, or if I’ve even got the sense of who’s trying to do what to whom (or to what). All this to say the game is enticing and disorienting (in a good way!) off the bat, and the odd interface, atmospheric pixel-art, and punchy text vignettes are grabby and drew me in.

Ultimately, though, that grabbiness wore off for me, I think partially a casualty of the age-old crossword vs. narrative war, and partially because of how the instructions are presented. There’s some in-game help, with a helpful goldfish offering tool-tips when you mouse over bits of the interface. But there’s also a file that comes with the game – the Holy User Manual – that goes into some detail, in out-of-world voice, about the mechanics, goals, and a bit of the strategy of the game.

I’m going to spoiler-block this, even though it’s part of the instructions, for reasons I’ll explain at the end. In effect, the game is played in rounds – in each, you’re shuffled a hand of five cards, three of which you must play into three different slots, and then allocate two (differentiated) worker-units to the played cards. Each card gives, or takes, or exchanges resources based on the slot to which it’s played and whether, and which, worker it gets. When you accumulate enough of one of the resource types, you get a special ceremony card – do that three times and you finish the game.

Now, there’s definitely narrative flavor on top of this dry recital – the workers are members of a robotic clergy, each card pops up a unique vignette when it’s played, and the resource names and types paint an interesting picture that fits nicely into this strange, skewed world. But when playing, I found that I mostly focused on the board-game aspect of making the numbers go up, and skimmed the text. Partially this is because the narrative vignettes don’t seem to have much continuity, or impact – they’re really just flavor for the numbers. Partially I think the interface is to blame – you click “submit” on the right side of the screen, then just to the right of that is where the mechanical results are stated, then just to the right of that is the next turn button, so it’s sort of against the flow to move your eyes left to read the text. And partially I think it’s because I had read the instructions so I knew exactly what to do, and was therefore more in goal-seeking than exploration mode.

It does appear that there is some exploration to do – it seems like there may be multiple endings depending on how well you play the board game, and I think there was some interplay of the card and slot mechanics that I didn’t fully suss out. But it’s possible to reach a perfectly satisfying ending without getting into any of that. I wound up wondering whether I might have enjoyed the piece more without that instruction file – and interestingly, I noticed that it’s located both in the main game folder, but also in a separate Walkthrough folder, perhaps indicating that it was meant as a walkthrough but at some point migrated over into more of a read-first piece. If that’s the case, I think it might have been a misstep, since I probably would have engaged more with DEC and its fiction without having seen the mechanics laid quite so bare – so if you’ve got this one on your list, perhaps try playing it without reading the file first, and see how that works?

Lastly, I can’t leave this one without flagging two great jokes: ”Davy Jones Industrial Average” and the fact that the last line of the game is “FIN”.

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Oooh yeah, that “User Manual” is definitely meant as a walkthrough! The game is supposed to dole out instructions in a more measured way during play itself. I’m gonna go and change the files to hopefully clear that up! Thanks!

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Infinitube, by Charles Bair III

Oof, this one just didn’t work for me. There’s obviously a lot that went into Infinitube – a lot of work, a lot of writing, and a lot of targets for an omnishambles social satire. But perhaps playing it on a day that was already a lot (October 2, I mean), in a season that’s already a lot, and in a year that’s a lot more than a lot, was just too much.

To back up a bit – the conceit is that the player gets a free trial to the eponymous product, which is some sort of reincarnation or simulation or mind-hopping service that allows one to vicariously experience various, well, experiences. Through each vignette, you make choices which give you different traits, which are worth different amounts of points (some can be worth negative points) and may have an “attribute” which modifies the scoring of other traits. You cash out your traits at the end of each round, and then need to pay a point toll, which ratchets up each cycle, to have another go-round. If you can’t pay the tax, it appears you get booted back to the beginning to try it all again. There may be a way to end the cycle and come out the other side, but I was unable to do so – see below.

The game layer is pretty thin, though – the meat is really in the experiences, with the accumulation of traits primarily serving as sharp jabs of satire or polemic to underscore the narrative. And the experiences are – unpleasant, I guess was my main reaction? I’m not sure if the sequence is truly random, and if so, whether I got dealt a bum hand, but the ones I pulled included being:

• An orca stuck in Sea World
• A 7-month-old inducted into the Marines to re-enact a new civil war
• A conniving sitcom star working on an abusive set
• A frustrated sculptor pinning all their hopes on finagling a rent-controlled lease

Each of them were evocatively written – the style is very David Foster Wallace in Infinite Jest, to give a rough flavor. But man, they’re all pretty dark, and at times I’d even say flirting with nihilism. To give some more detailed, spoilery analysis for the Marines bit:

the premise is obviously over the top, but the sequence condenses into having to choose a side in a conflict that’s based on current struggles for racial justice: either a “Waker”, who’s super-woke, or a “Dreamer” who’s blinded by the American Dream, per Ta-Nehisi Coates’ writing (which is explicitly cited). You are white – in fact you get a “white” trait which makes all the other traits worth more to you, which is a good illustration of how the mechanics underline the social satire. I chose the Waker side, which shunted me into a sequence where I had to prepare for battle by giving away some abstract inventory items to different members of my squad – my “ten year plan” to parley military service into personal success, and my “bouncy body” from being an infant. I found one combination that let me win the first battle, but that took a lot of trial and error. And then there’s a final sequence that reveals that you lost after all, because the buddy you joined up with – who’s now revealed to be Black, I guess? – chose the other side because he feels responsible to support his family. It feels like an out-of-nowhere gotcha, punishing the player for trying to believe in change with a “twist” that’s not exactly surprising to anyone who’s moderately informed about racial dynamics in the U.S.

There’s similar dark futility, if not unkindness, as well as tonal oddity, in the other scenarios – I’ll share a few light spoilers here. As the sitcom star, if you try to complain about the abuse, it’s revealed that actually this is the early 90s, no one cares, and now you’re unemployable. And if, as the sculptor, you succeed in getting the apartment, you get this list of outcomes:

“YOU NOW HAVE A RENT CONTROLLED LEASE IN THE EAST VILLAGE

YOU ARE NOW A THWOMP
YOU ARE NOW UNDEAD”

(I think “Thwomp” is those trap-things from Super Mario Brothers?)

In fairness, there are indications that we’re meant to find all of this hellish – you can come across a character who seems to be trying to escape. But for me, that didn’t change the fact that the experience of playing was really unpleasant! There are also some typos and I think real bugs, which led to some dead-end passages and sequences playing out of order. I also ran into one that stopped my progress by zeroing out my points, at which point I stopped, about an hour and a half in – details might be spoilery. The description on the “white” attribute flagged that if you get too many duplicates of it, you sort of overdose on whiteness and get a different trait that acts as a value-inverter – so positive traits give negative points and vice versa. This wound up happening to me, so I tried to do a shoot-the-moon run by seeking out negative outcomes in hopes of a big payday. But the point-inversion didn’t work when I got to the cash-out sequence, so all the negative points wiped out my total and I couldn’t continue).

Going back to Infinite Jest, that is a dark book at times, but what made it palatable to me was the vein of humanism and compassion threaded throughout each of the different narratives (leaving aside whether DFW embodied that in his personal life!) Infinitubes’ apparent approach of sequencing globs of awfulness one after the other, with a faint hope of reaching something positive at the end, doesn’t work as well for me, at least at this moment. This is clearly a big work, trying to speak to big things, and I suspect there are players for whom it will resonate very strongly, but sadly I’m not among them.

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That makes a lot of sense – hopefully that will help other players give your game the appreciation it deserves! It’s definitely on my list to revisit post-comp and explore in a more relaxed way.

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Sound, by CynthiaP

After the probably-annoying prolixity of the past several reviews, I don’t have a lot to say about Sound. It’s also a vignette-driven game with choices determining which bits of the story the player sees. The player appears to be some sort of doctor interviewing someone named “Orange” about her experiences and opinions on a course of treatment.

I found the presentation somewhat oblique, which I believe is often intentional, but is also sometimes down to some awkwardness of language that may not have been. Orange’s speech is often interrupted with dashes, which may be indicating a stutter or other nonstandard speech pattern (it appears that the treatment may be related to this). But there are also sentences like this, where she recalls being a barista: “I did not re-realize the complexity with the customization of the or-orders.” Or this line, after the player character asks about whether Orange plays a musical instrument: “You assumes she has the musical spirit in her as a maneuver.”

I’m not sure whether or not I reached the real ending. I hit a certain point where a passage kept generating new words, and new links, which in turn generated more new words. It was kind of lovely, almost a polyphonic catharsis or collapse – there’s an implication in the text that Orange is rejecting the course of treatment, which is trying to turn her voice into something it’s not – but I wasn’t sure whether I was missing something and it should have been possible to progress past there.

All in all a memorable, if somewhat mystifying, game, though I really enjoyed the ending if ending it was.

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Babyface, by Mark Sample

There is nothing creepier than a creepy dream. Conversely, there is often nothing less creepy than that same dream when you’re trying to explain it to others. Plaudits to the author, then, for taking inspiration from one such creepy dream and transforming it into a very unsettling and compelling piece of IF!

The great use of multimedia is part of what makes Babyface so effective. There are judiciously-chosen polaroid photos, the links are highlighted in an ominous red aura, and there’s an amazingly effective jump-scare that’s not at all cheap and that I don’t want to spoil. It’s the flies!

But in addition to those (great!) bells and whistles, Babyface has great prose, and – even more importantly for horror – great pacing. The narrative is very canny about revealing some tantalizing hints, and then deferring exploration as the player’s dad calls it a night, or the player wakes up from a dream, or they’re interrupted by a passing police officer. This helps wind up the tension, but also makes the player lean forward in their seat, eager to see what comes next. It’s also set in the here and now, during the COVID pandemic (it’s not stated openly, but it’s possible the main character’s mother has just died of the disease), which as it turns out is a great setting for horror, since it alienates us from the everyday. I suspect we’ll be seeing a lot of horror fiction set in 2020 in years to come.

There isn’t much interactivity in the sense of meaningful choices or puzzles. I did have fun attempting to translate the mysterious Latin on the photos (fair warning that there’s one bit that isn’t really Latin…) but this is mostly a roller coaster where you’re along for the ride. With that said, there’s definitely some elegance in how links are deployed – there’s one particular sequence where the mechanics of choice effectively communicate a sense of being compelled (I mean the bit where the player is entering the house, with “I find myself” the link at the beginning of a sentence that repeatedly changes when you click it. Your cursor isn’t moving, but the character is as the sentence shifts, making it feel like you’re moving forward while remaining inert).

Babyface is definitely worth a play – though I might recommend holding off for a few weeks to give it a spin closer to Halloween!

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OMG that was amazing! I knew it wasn’t real but when it happened I stared at it convinced a fly had landed on my screen. It was fast, realistic and well done, like those tricks where it looks like a fruit fly is crawling onscreen. I wish they’d repeated it (or maybe covered the screen with flies!) during the finale. I’d forgotten to mention how effective that was in my impressions.

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I’m so glad to hear the jump-scare was effective! I had considered doing what you suggested (covering the screen with flies at the end) but thought that might be overplaying my hand. And the coding involved! :rofl:

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I expected something like that to happen at the end and totally believe the story earns it. Even if you didn’t cover the screen with flies, maybe have the fly come back in the outro to haunt you forever! Or even perhaps the one fly comes back…and it’s joined by another…smash to credits.

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What the Bus?, by E. Joyce

Weird confession: I’ve been a public-transit user all my life, and now that I haven’t had a commute in over six months – I kind of miss it? Despite the fact that What the Bus? presents public transit commuting (accurately, at least by my experience living in LA!) as a surrealistic nightmare of mysterious delays, interminable transfers, and subterranean disorientation, I sank into it like a warm blanket, partially because it was scratching an itch I didn’t know I had. Again and again I smiled in fond recognition at things that are, objectively, awful:

“You follow signs for the Blue Line through a long tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a shorter flight of stairs, up another flight of stairs, through some sort of central lobby with an insane number of passages branching off of it, and then down a hallway that you feel like has one too many right turns.”

Yup, I’ve transferred from the 1 to the A-C-E in New York by going through that awful Times Square to Port Authority tunnel, this is exactly right.

“The train is packed, other than one conspicuously empty seat, which you avoid.”

This is obviously correct behavior.

After complaining to a friend about delays:

“Yeah, I hate that, Chris replies. Especially when it’s due to an unspecified emergency or the existence of seasons. Those are the worst.”

Indeed, who at a transit agency could have ever predicted seasons!

Admittedly, there’s not much to the game besides navigating the Kafkaesque labyrinth in search of the ten endings, which are helpfully tracked for you – though I like to think the fact that I got to my office successfully on my second try indicates that real-life skill with public transit translates. But there’s plenty to enjoy along each of the branches, and the “Back” button at the bottom of each passage makes it easy to check out other paths. And now that I’ve played What the Bus?, I think I miss my commute a little less!

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Oooh, I like both those ideas! The ending was creepy enough as it was (I considered citing some of the ending text as an example of how good the prose is, but decided to hold off so as not to undermine the impact for any new players) but that would really put it over the top!

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Quintessence, by Andrea P. Pawley

There’s a fun mix of the whimsical and the scientific in Quintessence. The player character is one of a group of multiply-incarnating quantum intelligences, who goes on a cosmic romp aiming to foil the plots of an-powerful cat to contact a broader multiverse. On the whimsical side, the cursor shapeshifts as the player’s circumstances change, from cat to dinosaur to dog; on the scientific side, I caught lightly-allegorized references to straightforward stuff like the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, but also choices that bear on whether this particular universe is closed or open in the cosmological sense.

I sometimes found it a bit challenging to reconcile the two sides of the piece – possibly this is because I, a pedant who studied astrophysics in undergrad, kept trying to figure out what was “really” going on in the various options about how the dog-civilization should try to make contact with parallel realities, rather than simply going with the flow of things. But I think the structure of the piece also maybe pushes play in this direction, since there are clearly “right” and “wrong” answers and branches.

There are five “real” endings (I found two of them, including what seems to be the best one), but many other choices will lead to the cat foiling your explorations, sending you back to the start. Without a way to undo or save, this means that the choices feel fairly weighty, since an incorrect one can require a fair bit of repetition to get back to the place where you made an incorrect choice.

Since there are consequences for the choices, what sometimes felt like a lack of full information about the context and implications of those choices undermined the joy of exploration for me – which is a shame, because there are definitely places where this combination of hard science and animal allegory is really fun (I mentioned the dog civilization!) Hopefully there’s a post-comp release with a back button or the ability to save, since I’d look forward to checking out the other paths through the game.

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Just Another Fairy Tale, by Finn Rosenløv

Much like Hansel and Gretel, this one needs a bit more time in the oven, I fear.

The overall setting and structure for JAFT are nothing close to original – the player character is a ten-year-old who’s contacted by a wizard and transported to a fantasy land to save it from a wicked queen – but some good old tropes are good and old for a reason. Entering the world is at first like entering a warm bath, as you pick clean a homely cottage in the woods and then enter a dark forest for some light adventuring. The writing is undistinguished, but fits this high-fantasy story with a pre-teen protagonist just fine.

There are a few things that distinguish JAFT from the countless other stories with similar premises. First, there’s a note of whimsy and humor – I’m thinking especially of the puzzle involving the trolls (they’re from Poland, so of course when they’re turned to stone by the sun, they transform into petrified wooden poles) and a punny bit of business involving a magic clock. Several puzzles also have alternate solutions or offer multiple paths through the game, which is very helpful given that I found the difficulty level of the game quite high.

On the negative side, there are two primary issues I had with JAFT that wind up reinforcing each other. Many puzzles rely on what I’d call pixel-hunting design in a graphic adventure – there are many progression-critical objects that can only be found by methodically examining every single word that’s mentioned in a description, and even some that aren’t (for the former issue, I’m thinking primarily of the sprig of thyme, where you need to examine one specific piece of the hedge despite there being no reason to think to look there; for the latter, all of the hidden spots on walls that don’t draw any attention to themselves).

The related issue is that “near-miss” solutions don’t wind up generating helpful nudges to the right track, but rather parser confusion. I had to go to the walkthrough to get through the aforementioned bit with the trolls, because something I was expecting to be there wasn’t, and the responses to trying to interact with it didn’t lead me in the right direction, even though what was going on should have been obvious to the player character (that is, I kept trying to X TROLLS or X STATUES to no real effect, even though apparently there were a bunch of giant troll-shaped wooden poles lying in the clearing). Dialogue with characters similarly felt very fiddly – there was one puzzle (talking then listening to the wind to get the dragon’s name) that I couldn’t get to work even when I was trying to just type in the walkthrough commands. And there were several guess the verb/guess the noun issues that stymied progress.

Combined, these two issues meant I felt like I was groping my way through JAFT, unclear on what I should be doing or how I should be doing it or if I was close to a solution or miles off. Again, I think the basic concept is solid, and some of the puzzles do have some promise, but there’s some significant polishing to be done to make the experience of playing the game fit the charming, winsome mood the story’s trying to create.

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the title “deus ex ceviche” is a pun – DEC!

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Chorus, by Skarn

I’m usually a story/writing-first, systems-later sort of player, but Chorus’s big puzzle grabbed me hard, and I spent more time replaying and fiddling with it than any other game in the Comp so far. On the down side, this is because I found the prose at times a bit flat, and certainly often overwhelming; on the positive side, it’s because the meta-puzzle provides lots of rewarding reveals and surprise interactions as the player pokes and prods with it.

Right, backing up: in Chorus, you’re tasked with helping what’s basically a community-based organization of (mostly mythical Greek and/or Lovecraftian) monsters do some public service: hunting down raw materials, sorting out paperwork in the library, that sort of thing. You don’t play a specific character, but get to eavesdrop on the thoughts and decisions of nine central characters in turn, deciding how to allocate them between the three main tasks and then doing an additional task-prioritization within each of the three. If you’ve matched the right character to the right task and sub-task, the job gets done; if not, not. Along the way, there are a fair number of potential character beats, both positive and negative, depending on which people you’ve grouped together.

The premise is a fun, unique one, though I’m not sure the writing fully does it service. The monsters, as mentioned, are a sort of twee Lovecraft (there’s a slime-girl named Tekeli, e.g., plus Camilla who might be from the King in Yellow?), but the prose is actually fairly grounded. I suppose you could say this fits the entertainingly bureaucratic and grounded premise, but perhaps leaves some fun on the table (I believe the game may have been translated, given that French comes first in the FR-EN toggle, and I think there were some cases where the prose was adopting French sentence structure in a way that felt awkward, which also maybe sapped some of the fun from the writing).

Chorus also wears its worldbuilding rather heavily – the initial sequence feels very overwhelming, as it jumps in in medias res and then runs through the nine different characters without giving much chance to catch one’s breath or refer back to what and who came before (the fact that all the characters are female, and many have names starting with C or K, makes keeping track of things even more difficult). Despite all this exposition, there were parts of the setting I didn’t fully understand – there’s some broader organization or powers that seem to be over the community folks, and which they resent but nonetheless have to work for, but this never fully clicked for me even though interactions with these powers seemed to be ultimately what the game positioned as important, given how the different endings play out.

All right, so that’s the grousing out of the way. On the flip side, the tasks themselves are enormous fun, both because they’re very clever examples of what a monster-y community service organization would do, and because the sub-tasks are lots of fun to dig into. The library bit, for example, has you sorting through half a dozen books looking for supernatural secrets, and the different powers of the various characters can turn up very different results! Careful attention to the dossiers, prompts in the text, and lateral thinking all pay dividends, and it’s very compelling to tweak your solution to try to optimize it. And as mentioned, there are some unexpected and fun interactions that can happen when you pair up the right set of characters, which feel like fun easter-eggs and make it feel like you’re making progress even when you still have a ways to go. It would be nice if there were a way to speed up replays – primarily by making it easier to skip through the exposition, since I think Chorus really shines on repeat play and has big just-one-more-go energy.

I very much hope there’s a post-comp release, or even a sequel/expansion, both to continue a story which clearly has more room to grow, but also to clean up these few niggles – with writing that’s a bit sharper and more careful pacing-out of the worldbuilding, this could be a real classic.

Ha, there it is! The lack of pun was bothering me, thank you for pointing it out :slight_smile:

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i actually didn’t think of it until i saw the URL, so i also needed it spelled out in a sense :slight_smile:

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