Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

Under They Thunder, by Andrew Schultz

Friends, I have a confession. I have now played two Andrew Schultz games (this one and Very Vile Fairy File from last year), and they both have the same effect on me: as I stare at the words on the screen to try to make sense of them and reply in kind, my vision starts to swim, I start to babble, language dissolves as words themselves decay into meaningless nonsense-sounds, and I feel the cold immensity of a vast, amoral universe that cares nothing for humanity and our feeble attempts to apprehend it through logic, mathematics, and language. Great Cthulhu can do his worst and Yog-Sothoth can get in line: I have played Under They Thunder, so all your threats are empty.

If the title doesn’t give it away, the central gimmick of Under They Thunder is pig Latin: the player character embarks on an epic adventure to help a big-box retailer defeat an angry monster-fae army (I think? See above, my sanity as I took my notes was questionable), all through the power of inverting a word and adding a friendly “ay!” syllable. There are relatively-simple fill-in-the-blank puzzles where you need to take the prompting of the name of an object or location and de-piggify it, guess-the-noun puzzles where given a certain pattern of phonemes, you need to run through all the options you can think of, and a set of more traditional puzzles where you need to read a particular book (or, I think, hum a particular tune) to teach you the lessons, or put you in the mood, to see off an overbearing interloper.

I should say, I can tell this is a very well-crafted game – both because it’s huge, with the central puzzle mechanic run through its paces and ramified in every way imaginable (each language puzzle seems to be worth a point, and there are 144 of them!) and because there are a thoughtful set of helper gadgets, hint features, and speedrun options that try to meet every player where they are at. This is a game for a very specific audience, but the author also provides every possible on-ramp to help you figure out whether you might be part of that audience and just don’t know it yet.

This is commendable, and I totally can intellectually see the appeal, but it just doesn’t work for me. My mind doesn’t bend the right way to make the puzzles comprehensible, and privileging wordplay over the merest sop to mimesis (do we still talk about mimesis?) takes me out of the world because the whole thing feels like chaos. I got maybe five percent of the way in under my own steam, looked to the walkthrough to eke out a couple of additional points, then used the fast-forward options to zoom to the end, though unsurprisingly didn’t find the finale especially edifying given all I missed.

By all means, give this one a try – Under They Thunder wants you to like it, it’ll invite you right in – just don’t be surprised if your brains are running out your ears before too long.

UTT - MR.txt (135.2 KB)

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(s)wordsmyth, by Tristan Jacobs

Conversations are the central part of (s)wordsmyth – hang up, we’re not doing this.

Conversations are the central part of wordsmyth (the s is in parentheses so it’s silent, and besides “word” is a better fit for the themes of the game than “sword”). Where other games might have set-piece battles or a fiendish puzzle, this one is paced around a series of one-on-one or two-on-one (and even a single one-and-a-half-on-one) dialogues between the main character – a swordsman-in-training seeking vengeance, or at least closure, after the death of their mentor – and those who lie in the path of the journey. Each one requires a different approach, and to pick out the correct course to a successful resolution of the encounter from the thicket of sequential options requires empathy and attention to detail. It also requires a large dollop of luck, so you’ll be replaying some of these sequences a lot.

The world is only thinly sketched-in, but it’s clearly a mystical take on an Asian milieu (I’m not familiar enough with the tropes to be able to resolve it with much more specificity than that). These tropes, as well as the nature of the character’s quest, set you up to expect the main character to be a warrior-monk, or dedicated swordsman. Refreshingly, though, the focus is on confrontations that must be resolved with social skills, rather than resorting to violence. The backstory here, and the big bad at the end of the path too, don’t stick to the typical notes, and seeing my presuppositions shift as the game went kept me engaged in the fairly standard hero’s-journey narrative. The writing doesn’t try for anything fancy, but is largely solid and typo-free, while succeeding at differentiating the voices of the various characters.

There are two aspects of the way the story is told that undercut my enjoyment of wordsmyth, though. The first is the presentation: the game is set up in visual-novel style, with dialogue delivered sentence by sentence, necessitating a click to advance after each. This is not my favorite format for a game, but in a visual novel the tradeoff is that you get a lot of screen real estate given to the art, which hopefully helps evoke the scene or communicate the mood of a character or what have you. Here, though, there’s no art, so most of the time three quarters of the screen is completely black, and you spend most of the game starting at a small text box at the bottom (when choices come up, they fill the screen). There’s also no skip-text option that I could find, which made replaying sequences to make different choices a slog.

This is no minor issue because of the second thing: the author says they tried to make a choose-your-own-adventure game, and they certainly succeeded to the extent that there are a LOT of ways to die. You can die by picking the wrong one of two dialogue choices that seem indistinguishable (when confronting a hungry monster, you can ask what it wants to eat, or tell it you can get it anything it desires. One of this allows progress, the other puts you on the menu). You can die by saying you want to go back, when you should say you want to go home. You can die by asking to take your turn hiding after a round of hide and seek. You can even die by going the wrong way a crossroads.

There’s no manual saving, so each death means rewinding to the beginning of the encounter and trying again. Many of these conversations go at least ten options deep, so this can be a long, slow process of trial and error that becomes an exercise in exhausting all the choices rather than trying to engage with what’s happening and weigh the right move. It could be that I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but too often I felt like my ability to progress was arbitrary, and by the time I got to the second half of the game, at least 80% of the choices felt like they had one right option and one or more that led to an instant game over.

This is a shame because there was some fun to be had along the way – I liked meeting the ghost child, and some of the fencing with the cat spirit, and there are a few neat twists around the final encounter that are clever and sit nicely with the quiet theme of nonviolence that runs throughout. I’m glad I suffered through the punishing gauntlet of choices to get there, but really wish I hadn’t had to.

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Ahhh, someone else who finds Auster overrated. A man after my own heart.

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Thanks so much for the review, and taking the time to work through what looks like everything in the game! As you can probably tell, I share your feelings on pickles!


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Oh I thought it was just me too :slight_smile: I read the New York trilogy a few years and got literally nothing out of it, and while I believe I read Moon Palace I am recognizing literally nothing from the Wikipedia summary.


Stuff of Legend, by Lance Campbell

Stuff of Legend is just the kind of palate-cleanser I love to come across deep in the throes of working through my Comp queue. It isn’t trying to do anything revolutionary with a thought-provoking setting or intensive characterization or teeth-grinding puzzling or pomo narrative trickery; it just delivers a charming, funny, well-designed and well-implemented puzzlefest that doesn’t wear out its welcome, and sometimes that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

The setup here doesn’t go much beyond what’s in the blurb: as a village idiot who’s had his fill of idioting after being bullied by a drunken lout (idiots > louts), you limp your way home to the farm where you live. After commiserating with the farm family, you strike upon the idea of become a knight instead of an idiot, and engage in some light puzzling across a medium-sized map, getting outfitted with a knight’s equipment and then embarking on a quest or two (though most of these might be more appropriate to an animal-control officer than a paragon of chivalric valor).

The humor really helps this all land – the writing is full of malapropisms, and there’s lots of scenery and incidental detail that throw off good jokes when examined, though I think my favorite joke was the response to X ME (” You have a face like a pile of mashed potatoes and a body like a much taller pile of mashed potatoes”). The player character is a fool, so many of the jokes are formally at your expense, but crucially, neither the narrative voice nor the other characters are ever cruel: they might sigh at your occasional foibles, but it’s all fairly indulgent and supportive, and after getting through the puzzles you’re rewarded with some clear victories. Games with this kind of humor can sometimes come off mean, like they’re not on the player’s side, but SoL never even comes close to hitting this flaw.

The puzzles also strike just the right note. They’re all cleanly set up through conversation with the different members of the family – each has a distinct puzzle chain, and offers some clues as to how to accomplish it. There’s usually a few different tasks to be working on at any given time, though they intersect and progress neatly enough so that things are rarely overwhelming. Most are of fairly gentle difficulty (especially if you take a few notes as you go), and it’s fun to poke and prod your way through some of the more involved ones (I’m thinking especially of the pattern-recognition puzzles to get the horse’s blanket, where even once you figure out what’s entailed, there’s still a bit of pleasant business required to accomplish it – the cat-based navigation puzzle is like this too).

I did have to have recourse to the (well-done) hint menu to resolve one guess-the-verb issue (breaking the coconut open using the sharp boulder: I tried CUT COCONUT WITH BOULDER, OPEN COCONUT WITH BOULDER, THROW COCONUT AT BOULDER, PUT COCONUT ON BOULDER… only CRACK COCONUT WITH BOULDER worked). But other than that, the parser is forgiving, the world is detailed and well-implemented, the menu-driven conversations are easy to navigate; Stuff of Legend goes down smooth, even as it manages to lightly tickle your gray matter on its way to a heart-warming resolution.

stuff - mr.txt (186.7 KB)


Yeah, I was thinking primarily about the New York Trilogy here. It’s like, you get to the end of one and realize that he hasn’t figured out how to stick the landing, and then he does the same thing two more times!

I was not expecting my drive-by Auster diss to generate multiple replies, but that’s one of the surprises that makes this community so much fun.


Thanks for making it! I don’t think I explored everything (I noped right out of screwing around in the desert, because wings) but it’s on my list to come back and cross that off after I’m done working my way through the comp.


Oh no, I think we’ve all just been waiting for someone to speak up about it. I think it’s a particular shame because my edition of the Trilogy was very nice – good paper, a lovely cover, an edition that had more thought and love put into its production than any of the content did.

I also read a few by Jonathan Lethem around the same time and man did that time sour literary explorations of Genre for me. I’ve always had a lot better of a time with Genre authors applying heavy literary techniques to write Good Sci Fi And Fantasy (i.e. Delaney, Wolfe, Vonnegut, Butler, Le Guin who I have to admit I like the idea of better than actually reading her) than when a Literary author adds in a vague element or two of Genre in order to be Kooky and Approachable because, well, the results are often really stuffy. It just felt like Auster doesn’t quite understand why people actually like spy and detective stories.


Ulterior Sprits, by E.J. Holcomb

Ulterior Spirits has a lot going for it. There’s a well-realized setting that certainly takes inspiration from things we’ve seen before (Mass Effect is name-checked in the blurb), but has some nice bits of world-building all its own. The protagonist is immediately engaging, a middle-aged bureaucrat and mother who’s haunted by her actions in the past, and her prejudices in the present. And there’s an unexpected framing around Christmas, foregrounding family, forgiveness, and generosity, which are not typical themes for something with these sorts of genre trappings. On the other side of the ledger, there are some UI and pacing issues that make this feel longer and slower than would be ideal, and before the ending sequence, the choices on offer aren’t very interesting either in terms of revealing character or impacting the plot. This is still one to play, but unfortunately I did feel like I was ready for it to end a good fifteen or so minutes before it finally wrapped up.

My favorite thing about US was getting to play as Renee Bennion. A high-ranking functionary in a multi-species coalition government, she’s dedicated to her job, quick on her feet, and is a loving though occasionally exasperated mother to a twenty-something son. She also has a fun rapport with her old commanding officer, friendly but still with a note of deference, who’s also an officer on the space station where the story takes place. As the plot kicks into gear and she realizes she’s the target of a plot by an old enemy, you get a sense of who she used to be when she was her son’s age, and how hard to rattle she is in the present. She’s drawn with real flaws, too – notably, some ugly prejudices about other species – making her a nicely-realized protagonist.

The world she inhabits again isn’t the world’s most original, but it does have some clever touches. Though this is a bit underdeveloped, one of the primary alien races in the setting appears to archive entire dynasties’ worth of identities and memories in each individual, and the details about how human traditions like the holiday season have been translated into a post-alien-contact context are well thought through. There are hover-over hyperlinks that demystify some of the technobabble, though I found myself wishing they’d have focused on different pieces of the setting – I feel like there were a whole lot that went into detail on the timekeeping systems used on-station, but comparatively few on the culture and background of the various alien races.

The central plot, once it kicks in, is solid enough, but my main complaint, as mentioned above, is the pacing. Renee is being pursued by agents of a long-dead adversary, with mysterious, threatening messages and recordings of her past being sent to her, and unsavory characters skulking around the dark corners of the station. To determine what’s going on, she consults with station security and old friends, while still trying to go about her day job of setting trade policy for the coalition. This is a strong structure, but it takes a while to get going, and most of the sequences go about how you’d expect but with maybe 20% more words than would be ideal, with few surprises in store for the middle part of the game. Exacerbating this, few of the choices here seem like they have much of an impact.

The interface is partly to blame too – while it’s very pretty, it was slow on my machine, and each paragraph of text fades in one at a time, meaning I was often impatiently waiting to click my way through to the next bit. I also ran into a couple of small niggles that might be bugs, though they’re from late in the game (after I finished the climactic conversation with my old enemy, a security team burst into my room, as though I’d been locked in and they were worried for my safety, though nothing like this had previously been mentioned as far as I could tell. And after making the heartwarming war-orphan donation, the text makes a note that my extra supply-points are now zero, but the interface display still showed me as having 700-odd. Since these are never otherwise used in the game, it’s odd to include that detail on every screen, then not update it the one time it’s relevant, so I assume that’s a bug).

All told I think Ulterior Spirits is one editing pass away from being something really special – with some tighter prose, a speedier interface, and tweaks to one or two aspects of the storytelling (I thought the decision to never show the actual conflict with Ruuaghri in any of the copious flashbacks was a misstep – we never get a visceral sense of Renee’s hatred and fear of her, which undermines the intensity of the final conversation, and means there isn’t a contrast to draw with the old, decrepit person she’s become). As it is, it’s still a really strong comp entry, which delivers some real sentiment and an internally-focused, character-driven story in a genre that doesn’t typically prioritize those things.


Mike, this is an absolutely fantastic review. Thanks so much for playing my game, and providing such a well-written and detailed chronicle of your playthrough. I am very pleased that your game experience was pretty much what I envisioned. It feels good to make that author-player connection through the game and the story.

I will definitely update the parser for the next release to address the “guess-the-verb” problem you experienced. That part of the game does have a number of possible actions but it appears that you found several more perfectly reasonable solutions as well. Just goes to show that authors are never as creative and clever at puzzle design as the players who put the game through its paces.


Passages, by Jared W Cooper

Despite the bad rap they sometimes get, to my mind there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a metaphor that’s too on-the-nose. Sure, the author might get an eye-roll or two at how obvious they’re being, but most of the time that’s outweighed by the pleasure the reader gets at figuring out what’s going on, or feeling like they’ve gotten one over on the author (they haven’t). If the emotion or idea that the metaphor is going for resonates, and it’s grounded in specific circumstances and well-drawn characters so it doesn’t just float away – and if it doesn’t wear out its welcome – this can be a solid approach for a work of fiction. I’m thinking of the novel Exit West, for example, which explores immigration by having magic portals appear in the middle of a war-torn country, allowing people to leave in an instant but with no say where they wind up – there’s the eye-roll – but because the two main characters and their relationship are written with enough subtlety and detail that they feel true and specific, Exit West really works.

So, Passages then. Our narrator lives in another one of those worlds where magic portals are cropping up hither and yon, though these appear able to move one through time instead of space. Their partner, it quickly eventuates, has gone missing, either accidentally or on purpose entering one of the portals, or maybe their unhappiness summoned the portal or somehow they turned into one? It’s unclear, which is fine (what’s less fine is this awkwardness around pronouns, which is hard to write around since neither character has a name or gender assigned as far as I could tell – based on the relationship dynamics, I thought the narrator was male-coded and the partner female-coded, so I’m going to go with that while acknowledging it’s arbitrary). We read occasional journal entries from the narrator as he dives into the portals, turning over his faults and recalling memories of happier times he searches for her in the nooks and crannies of the past (eye-roll).

This is fine so far as it goes – the writing isn’t lyrical or anything, but it’s well-considered and typo-free, and the narrator has a strong voice. And the experience Passages explores is quite universal so I’m sure it will strike home for most readers. There are two issues holding it back, though, one minor and one major. The minor issue is that Passages is barely interactive, beyond clicking to move to the next passage. There are I think two places where you can click a bit of text to change a word, but not in a way that really impacts the valence of the passage (one of them is something like “I look for her in March/July/February/December”). This makes it potentially an awkward fit in an interactive fiction competition, but isn’t really a problem except to the extent that it’s presentation might lead the reader to expect a form of engagement that’s not on offer.

The bigger issue is I didn’t find sufficient specificity in the characters and their relationship for them to transcend the metaphor and animate the piece with something of interest beyond the dry metaphor. The narrator is given a few details and bits of personality – he’d always wanted to be a carpenter, and he makes a number of nerdy references in the course of his writing – but it’s pretty thin. And the partner is given almost no characteristics whatsoever. Partially I think this is because the narrator is idealizing her, now that he’s lost her. But if anything this makes him seem even more self-regarding and navel-gazing.

And while we get the subject matter of some of the issues in the relationship, the dynamics are left frustratingly vague: at one point the narrator talks about a big fight they got into about the utility bills, and acknowledges that that’s a dumb thing to have a fight about, but there’s no remembered dialogue or other indication of the content of the fight. My brain can fill in some blanks (and here’s where gendered presuppositions are probably having an impact on my experience of the game): maybe he thought the water bill was too high because she was taking too long in the shower, and got mad about that? That’s not very creative, but at least it’s something, and seeing her do something that pisses off the narrator would help the piece land and provide fuel for his eventual catharsis.

Passages is zippy, and establishes a solid premise and character arc in the ten minutes or so to work through it, so it definitely speaks of an author to keep an eye on – but without a little more work done to make these characters breathe, I’m not sure how much of an impact it’ll have on most readers.

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At Night, by Oscar

After an entry that leaned almost entirely in the story direction, here’s one that takes the opposite tack. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a bit of a plot and some internal conflict in At Night – the main character is being plagued by nightmares, you see – but what’s distinctive about it is the combat system, which you need to master in order to reach a successful ending (reaching other endings, where you die horrible, is much simpler!)

The initial impression At Night makes is charming – there’s some cute pixel art, and good use of sound with raindrops outside the main character’s window as they play games late into the night. After finally going to sleep, though, they’re hurled (in their dreams?) into a hellish realm and meet a demon who’ll swallow their soul unless they fight for his amusement against a group of his servitors. This section was really frustrating, I found. When you first confront this head demon, you have a number of choices on how to proceed, including attacking flat-out or deciding what to offer him to get him to release you.

There’s only one correct answer here – the others get you killed – but I think I exhausted every wrong answer on the way to finding it, both because I wanted to run through the full dialogue tree before moving to the next bit, but also because the main character kept attacking the demon-lord when I was trying to agree to fight his minions. Part of the fault here is that I found some of the dialogue and options unclear: the game appears translated from Spanish (in one maze sequence, I saw the word “izquierda” substitute for “left”) and there are some puzzling phrases and awkward grammar at times (I was told that my “bladder has lost its youth”, and that “it is very good playing [video games] when it is a dog day”). Making things worse, there’s no save option, and there’s lots of timed text, making replaying fairly excruciating.

Once I did figure out how to agree to the deal, things got better, thankfully. There’s a clever combat system that relies on using positional audio to track down and beat up the minions (who it turns out are ghosts, not demons). I did die once more because I thought you were supposed to elude the monsters – the main character is completely unarmed – but that just gives them a free hit. But the combat minigame works well enough, and even got a laugh out of me because of how the interface is set up: you need to click “left” or “right” depending on where you hear the audio cue, except the screen lists “right” on the left, and “left” on the right, which lent my attempts a slapstick air as I tried to get my stupid, stupid brain to click in the correct place despite this confusing layout. After killing enough demons you win the game and wake up from your nightmare – though there’s the inevitable horror movie sting to suggest you haven’t (this is done in an entertainingly cheesy fashion that also got a laugh out of me).

There’s some clever technical design here, and I really did like the art, so this is a good foundation to build on. In a post-Comp release that tightens up the writing, and irons out some of the more frustrating aspects of the design, this would be a fun distraction, though At Night isn’t quite there yet.

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Tangled Tales, by JimJams Games

There’s a cold shiver of fear that runs down my spine whenever I see the words “parser-based” and “Windows executable” in a Comp blurb – the tell-tale sign of the custom parser. I think I formed this prejudice – and prejudice it is – fifteen or so years ago, and it’s even more unfair now, since I think many custom-parser games show up quite solidly these days (I helped beta test Happyland, for example, and it’s got quite the robust parser). Tangled Tales, sadly, undoes some of the progress I’ve been making on getting over my hang-ups, turning what should be an easy-going fairytale romp into a grim twilight struggle against an obtuse parser and a too-large map.

The first impression TT makes is a pretty good one. The engine does allow for art, and the opening scene features a pleasant, pastoral view of a green woodland. There are menu-option shortcuts to out-of-world actions, and you get a choice of genders for your protagonist (either Cinderella or Prince Charming, from the blurb, though this wasn’t clear to me from the game itself – at first I wondered whether I was someone from the real world who’d been sucked into the realm of fairy tales). Common abbreviations mostly work, and there are some conveniences like EXITS to show exits, and WHAT IS HERE to show what objects can be interacted with (this is all spelled out in the included manual, which confusingly is tucked in a walkthrough folder in the download – the walkthrough link on the entries page includes the manual as well as the actual walkthrough, if you’re stuck and need a hint). And the setup is effective enough – your head hurts and you’re lost in the forest after overdoing it at a pre-wedding party, and now you and your best buddy Rumpelstiltskin (blessedly, he also answers to “Rumpy”) need to make your way back to the castle in time for the ceremony.

Sadly, the wheels start to come off pretty quickly. Some of this is just the lack of a last editing pass: despite choosing to play as the female main character, people kept calling my “Henri”, and there are a lot of typos and grammar errors. Then there are design issues, like guess-the-verb puzzles that make it hard to make porridge when you’ve got all the needed items and the steps are obvious, or that told me when I tried to dig a hole to plant some beans that “a spade isn’t suitable for digging,” or that completely prevented me from reading a signpost despite this not seeming like it was meant to be a challenge.

But some of the problems appear to be embedded in the parser and engine. I had a perennial issue where some commands simply wouldn’t work the first time I tried them, but would be accepted the second time. For example, the opening screen has a glass container (I guess a bottle) lying in a wheelbarrow. Typing TAKE CONTAINER got me this error: “An empty glass container isn’t here. if[sic] the object is in, under or behind another, you’ll need to be more specific.” After unsuccessfully trying a number of other options, I tried TAKE CONTAINER again and it worked. Ditto for DRINK WATER, and several other attempts to get items out of containers. And many puzzles involve interacting with other characters and getting them to do things, and the syntax here is really painful. Neither TALK TO nor ASK X ABOUT Y nor CHARACTER, ACTION are supported as far as I could tell; instead you need to type variants of SAY TO RUMPY, “UNLOCK CHEST WITH KEY”, which are quite a mouthful. And the game is inconsistent – to get into her tower, you need to type RAPUNZEL “LET DOWN YOUR HAIR”.

The engine also works in pseudo real-time, forcing you to pass a turn if you wait too long to type anything and occasionally having other characters wander in and out in between your actions. There are no timing puzzles so this doesn’t have much impact, but it did add an additional layer of intimidation since I was constantly worrying I was letting the clock run down, or that the movements of the bee and unicorn were important (they’re not). Oh, and of course there’s an inventory limit.

Aside from these engine/parser issues, the design isn’t bad, with puzzles that fit the fairytale theme and generally make sense, at least once you internalize that Rumpy is there to help and is much stronger than you are. The fly in the ointment here is that the map is enormous, with four or five completely empty and pointless locations for every one that’s got something interesting to do. This culminates in an old-school maze that doesn’t appear to have an associated puzzle or shortcut, though I have to confess that by this point I was having quick recourse to the walkthrough.

While I can’t personally relate, I know for many folks part of pleasure of creating IF is making a new engine and parser, as much or more so than making the game. So it’s not really helpful as a critic to say “maybe you should have just made this in Inform or TADS?” – but nonetheless that’s what I kept thinking. The features of the engine that makes this one distinct don’t really play much role in the game (outside of the first couple screens and the last few, there’s really not much art), and with a tighter parser and a much-smaller game world, TT could have been a lot of fun, but as it stands I worry it’s too hard a nut to crack to get at the good stuff inside.


Good night Mike, here I am writing to you with my inseparable Google translator.

First of all, thank you very much for spending so much time playing the game, on the other hand, to tell you that grammatical discomforts arise from the translations of supposed funny phrases :grin:.

I had a couple of offers to translate, but time passed and I had no choice but to use the resources I had☺️. I take note of your tips to improve the game and make it more entertaining … I’ll get back to it soon.

I would have liked to give the story more depth, but getting a strong story with the help of a translator is difficult, I didn’t want to risk making a fool of myself too much :cold_sweat:. Maybe I carry a lot of responsibility in the game part, to avoid getting too complicated with the story :roll_eyes:. Thanks again and best regards


Hey Óscar! Congrats on the game – I can’t even imagine trying to make a game in another language, so kudos! I will say, this is a pretty friendly forum with lots of folks ready to help authors out, including on helping make a translation smoother, so don’t be shy of including more story, maybe just look for some testers to support!


I’ll keep it very, very much in mind. Thanks again


Return to Castle Coris, by Larry Horsfield

I swear, the randomizer has a sense of humor – after giving me Tangled Tales, prompting the above whining about a too-large map and guess-the-verb puzzles, it decided to serve up Return to Castle Coris to see how I liked a double-helping of those issues, plus extreme pixelbitching and copious opportunities to get straight-up killed or, worse, unwittingly get yourself into a walking dead situation. This one’s billed as longer than two hours, but I have to confess I gave up on it less than halfway into the judging period.

This is apparently a late entry in a long series of games, stretching back several decades, so it comes by its old-school approach honorably. The introductory text calls back to many of the protagonist’s previous adventures, including on in the eponymous castle which you’re now called to follow up on after the discovery of a new tunnel in the dungeons. There’s nothing really motivating the exploration – you’re just asked to go into the tunnels and check things out – except perhaps a hint, when examining the protagonist’s clothing and finding out that his wife made him through out all his old, comfy gear and get nice new stuff, that he feels slightly henpecked and is looking for a distraction.

So it’s really a straight-ahead dungeon crawl, which I can certainly be in the mood for, but the emphasis here is on the “crawl.” The puzzles rely on going through the dungeon like you’re being paid by the hour, poking at every single object like you’re a CSI technician analyzing a crime scene. Sometimes this is just a matter of tedium: there’s one area that’s made up of about ten wooden landings on a set of stairs, and you need to SEARCH the random detritus that’s glancingly included in the identical room descriptions to find a hidden key in one of them. But usually it’s much more involved, due to the profusion of verbs.

LOOK and LOOK AROUND are billed as different actions. SEARCHing an object won’t disclose if it’s on top of something; that takes MOVE. Your initial inventory includes a magic bottomless bag (handy!) but neither the inventory listing nor X BAG reveals that this open bag actually contains a rope and grapnel – you need to LOOK IN BAG for that.

This is where the guess-the-verb issues and the hunt-the-pixel ones combine into a cocktail of eye-stabbing frustration. To solve the first puzzle, you need to find a hammer and chisel. These are hidden in the space below a set of spiral stairs leading back up to the castle (why are they there? Who knows), four screens north of your starting area which clearly prompts you to explore the area to the south. If you X STAIRS you get told “They go Up to Castle Coris itself. Under the bottom of the stair you see a space.” OK, X SPACE: “A space under the spiral stairs about a foot or so high.” That’s right, you need to LOOK IN SPACE.

This is not to undervalue the places where the way to solve the puzzle is obvious, but you can’t get the syntax right. In the above-mentioned stairway, at one point there’s a gap in the wooden stairs that you need to cross, described as follows: “You are on a platform in the spiral stairway in the vertical shaft on the west side. There is a gap in the stairs further down where the wood has rotted away and you can only go Up to the platform above this one.” The grapnel and rope is the obvious way to proceed, but THROW GRAPNEL ACROSS GAP, THROW GRAPNEL OVER GAP, THROW GRAPNEL AT STAIRS, TIE ROPE TO PLATFORM, THROW GRAPNEL AT PLATFORM, THROW GRAPNEL ACROSS SHAFT all fail with unhelpful errors. Maybe there’s a non-obvious solution? No, you just need to THROW GRAPNEL AT UNDERSIDE of the platform above – a word that shows up nowhere in the descriptions of the scant scenery here, at least when just using the standard EXAMINE.

The punch line here is that five minutes after using the walkthrough to get past that puzzle, I faced an almost-identical one where I had to climb down into a dark chasm, with a conspicuous wooden railing at the top providing a convenient anchor point. Again, I tried TIE ROPE TO RAILING, HOOK ROPE TO RAILING, HOOK GRAPNEL TO RAILING – nope, none of it works, just HOOK GRAPNEL TO WOOD. Then I found myself in a pit with a snake who seemed to autokill me in half a dozen turns no matter what I did, including climbing all the way back up the rope to safety, and who appears to have been magical in other ways too:

The snake hisses loudly and its forked tongue whips in and out of its mouth as it tastes the air to work out what you are.


You can’t see the tunnel snake!

The snake throws itself at you, knocking you to the ground. You try to scrabble away but the creature coils its muscular body around you and starts to squeeze.

The old-school tough-as-nails adventure game is part of an honorable tradition, and I’m sure there are players who slot into the mindset necessary to make progress in RtCC without too much difficulty. But I am just not a bad enough dude to rescue the president/mess around in the dark for hours until hopefully stumbling onto a plot. When I checked in the walkthrough and found that I was maybe 10 percent of the way through the game, and also saw there was no mention of the snake but a bunch of stuff I’d missed in the beginning (apparently by not shining my lamp at the walls for no prompted reason I could see) and I was once again walking dead, I just didn’t have the heart to spend any more time with this one.

coris - mr.txt (140.4 KB)

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I’m having a hard time talking about this one without spoilers even in the title, so I’m putting everything behind the curtain. If you’ve looked over the full list of Comp games, you probably have some suspicion that some entries are connected – this review is relevant to that.

The Knot, by the Water Supply (AKA “Adventures in the Tomb of Illfane” by Willershin Rill, “Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!” by Tarquin Segundo, and “Terror in the Immortal’s Atelier” by Gevelle Formicore)

So yeah, the three games with similar titles and cover art, and obviously pseudonymous authors, are in fact all the same game. I don’t think the author is trying very hard to hide this, and honestly given how big the field is this year, that’s probably a good decision – lots of people are just going to play the first five or ten games the randomizer hands them, so making these similarities clear, including a note in the blurb that “you may need to seek aid from an unusual place”, and requiring cross-referencing multiple games to solve every puzzle so that it’s impossible to spend more than five or ten minutes on any game before you figure out the trick are all helpful concessions that hopefully mean more people will be able to play this Voltronish game (the ending screen calls it The Knot, so that’s how I’m going to refer to it, rather than trying to juggle the three more unwieldy titles).

This trend of erring on the side of simplicity continues into the puzzles themselves. Once you’ve figured out the trick, they’re all extraordinarily straightforward. The first one involves finding the right order to insert colored orbs into a mural depicting a solar system – and there’s a reference item in one of the other games that runs through five planets in order, with relevant colors marked out in highlighted text, and at the end there’s a page headlined “TO SUM UP THIS IMPORTANT CLUE” that spells out the order again and tells you to keep it handy. Most of the puzzles are like this, with clear signposting of the steps needed to solve each of them. This makes juggling the three games a breeze, and it’s fun to jump between browser tabs decoding hieroglyphs and inserting combinations, but since there are only two puzzles per games, it makes the game-y part of the Knot feel rather slight.

The depth really comes in in the writing and story. Each of the three installments operates in a different genre – over-the-top action archeology, over-the-top pulp sci-fi, and over-the-top swords and sorcery. The same set of exotic words and names are used in each (look at the title for a sampling), but remixed and reconfigured – sometimes Chirlu is the name of the rival archaeologist working for the Nazis, sometimes he’s a sympathetic alien doing research on the extradimensional Knot that wends through all three titles. In each, the baddies are always described as fascist, but sometimes that’s the corrupt horde known as the Illfane, and sometimes it’s the monsters attacking the people whose priestly leader, the Illfane, is trying to protect.

In fact, the Knot is surprisingly political – at one point, a set of baddies are said to be trying to “make the galaxy great again”, though in another, a set of characters rebelling against unjust oppression are called “deplorables” – though, to editorialize for a moment, it’s a sad statement on current events that a game worrying about authoritarianism and fascism scans as topical (as you reach the ending, you encounter a character who’s unlocked the potential within the Knot and lists off the reality-bending now within their power, but who notes “but I can’t do anything about the Nazis”). Beyond these signifiers, the ending also seems to point to a vision of a sort of socialist utopia, as instead of exploiting the Knot as a mystical power source to be hoarded by those wishing power to defeat their enemies, it rather becomes distributed to all, granting a tiny bit of magic and hope to everyone. The Nazis are said not to understand what’s going on as the climax nears, and the ancient tomb they’re pursuing turns out to be made of papier-mâché. This doesn’t come off as leaden political allegory, though – the writing is fleet, and there’s lots of incidental text that’s very fun and funny (my favorite was the series of fairy tales that were all bent in a over-capitalist direction).

All this makes the Knot a fun distraction with a clever gimmick and enough hints of depth to enliven its relatively straightforward puzzles. I was left wanting a little more, though – and actually, wonder whether in fact there are secrets beyond those needed to get to the ending (the introduction to the fairy tales protests perhaps a bit overmuch that they’re not related to the puzzles, and there are intimations that sussing out the identity of the player character in the sci-fi section might be important). Even if this is all that’s on offer, though, it’s still worth a play.


Academic Pursuits (As Opposed to Regular Pursuits), by ruqiyah

Oh, I just got why the subtitle’s funny.

Academic Pursuits is a funny, focused game with an assured narrative voice, and while there are no puzzles to speak of, there’s plenty of entertainment to be had fiddling about its one-room setting. The player character has to unpack their boxes after an office move – they’ve just taken a new job at a university – and while the nuts and bolts of the gameplay is finding small, medium, and large spaces for the small, medium, and large items coming out of the boxes a few at a time, the real engagement comes from peeling back the player character’s backstory and characterization.

This is done in several layers: most prosaically by EXAMINING each item in turn, but there’s also a THINK ABOUT verb implemented which provides some additional context and hints at the player character’s history with the item. You also get additional information, and views into the protagonist’s character, depending on where you place the item: you could put the farewell card from your old colleagues in a prominent place on your desk or bookshelf, secreted away in a bottom drawer of your desk, or simply chuck it into the rubbish bin. In each case, you’ll get a response showing you more of the player character’s thought process, and also might make an impact on the mood of your room – there are a few objects that have a rather dour aspect, like a jar of soil where you’re unsuccessfully trying to grow some flowers, and putting too many of them out will lead to your office being described as having a gloomy mood.

There’s a story – or maybe it’s better to say a situation – that emerges from all of this, and it’s fun to piece together this tale of academic rivalry with a twist. It’s fairly simple to get the broad strokes of what’s going on (I figured out the protagonist’s deal as soon as I started messing around with the first object, a mug with suspicious dark stains – and yes, the jar of soil isn’t really for flowers), but the relationship between the main character and the Professor has clearly taken some twists and turns that are fun to try to trace through, even if they didn’t all clearly resolve for me. The writing is strong throughout, both in clean prose with nary a typo to be seen, and a wry, arch tone that’s full of small jokes and double-entendres.

The implementation is similarly solid – though the main action involves juggling multiple items into different containers, with size always being an important factor, objects can be dropped places and swapped fairly easily, with a minimum of parser annoyance, which is important since seeing the end will probably require rejiggering your solution once or twice, as a new object emerging from a late box will often upend your plans. The only niggle I ran into was that uncharacteristically for an Inform game, I couldn’t refer to the “wide shelf” or the “narrow shelf” as simply WIDE or NARROW, which was simple to work around.

My only real disappointment with the game is that I’d hoped for a bit more reactivity from the ending. As far as I can tell, there’s not an optimum solution to the unpacking puzzle that puts every object somewhere, and the tradeoffs you’re forced to make are implied to be reflective of how you’re playing the main character – at least some objects will need to be discarded, and as you put each one in the rubbish bin there’s a small judgment voiced about why the protagonist is doing that and what it says about their character, and the same is true of which objects you choose to display openly and which you hide in the bottom drawer. Based on that, I’d been expecting that there’d be some summing up of my choices at the end, with a statement about what they all said about my version of the protagonist. But I didn’t notice anything of the sort, just a quick reference to the objects I’d left easily visible that restricted itself to the concrete.

Working out the combinatorial possibilities here I’m sure would be exhausting – my game has a similar, but much simpler, setup in one of its puzzles, and implementing it nearly broke me – though I thought it would have provided a neat bow on the whole experience. But even without that, Academic Pursuits still makes for a lovely game – nothing wrong with focusing on the journey, not the destination, after all.

academic mr.txt (55.0 KB)

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