Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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.

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Move On, by Serhii Mozhaiskyi

Move On has an interesting gimmick, which is that, playing as a political advocacy organization direction you must choose where best to direct hundreds of thousands of emails – OK, apologies for the dumb joke. Move On does have an interesting gimmick, but it doesn’t have much going on besides the gimmick so I’m straining to pad out the word count (apparently I have for some reason decided to act like I’m getting paid by the column inch for these things).

Anyway talking about said gimmick is a mechanical spoiler, but it’s pretty impossible to talk about the game without revealing it, so probably best to nip over and give it a play – it’s short – before returning here.

To give some space for the spoiler-averse to flee, let’s lead off by talking about the story and writing parts of Move On, which are things that certainly exist. To be clear, there’s nothing at all wrong with them. The premise is a familiar jumping-off point for video games, though more so in more action-oriented formats than IF: you’re a motorcycle courier racing to get some (unspecified) data package past some (unspecified) baddies to your (unspecified) patrons. There are little bits of color thrown in around the edges, but nothing that gets you beyond Prefab Cyberpunk Game – in fact one detail, which is that some of the baddies work for someone or something called Belltower, I think is a hat-tip to the Deus Ed prequels (like, yer Human Revolutions and Mankind Divideds. Though I suppose I can’t rule out that this is a very indirect precursor to Deus Ex Ceviche). The prose is action-oriented, typo-free, and does what it has to do, though honestly I found it hard to really engage with due to the mechanical gimmick, which we are now due to address.

The trick here is a clever one, which is that Move On is a choice-based game that presents itself as not having any choices. You only ever see one button to click – labelled Move on, duh – but depending on whether you click it while the little motorcycle icon on top of the window is moving or after it’s come to a stop, you’ll get a different outcome. This isn’t stated straight out, but there’s pretty clear hinting (the opening blurb says “keep your eyes on the road”, and explicitly states that those playing without sound aren’t missing anything, which I found helpful as I typically play with music off). Anyway I twigged to it pretty quickly and I think most players will too, though I did struggle for a couple minutes unsure whether the only differentiation was moving vs. stopped, or if some choices had three options, like moving in first half of segment vs. moving in second half of segment vs. stopped.

There’s a little bit of a guess-the-coin-flip vibe to the game, though on repeat plays, it’s clear that some segments have some signposting: if the most recent passage of text says something like “hurry up!” you should probably click while moving, whereas if it mentions a red light, you should probably wait. I noticed such hints in like half the passages, though, so there’s still a bit of trial and error, and of course there’s no save (the game only takes ten minutes tops, with a winning playthrough being maybe two minutes, so this isn’t that big a deal). Once I figured out what was going on, though, I took to scanning each passage as it came up looking for key words, then immediately either clicking, or being a bit disengaged by knowing I had to wait, so I think this undercut the impact of the writing since it just became a source of clues for stressful, timing-dependent puzzle. I can pretty clearly remember what happens in the first half of the game, as I was working things out, but the second half is a bit of a blur as a result.

Move On is a lagniappe of a piece – I would have loved for it to come between Tangled Tales and Return to Castle Corlis, to be honest. There’s not a lot there, but it shows off its fun trick and knows to get out of the way before it risks wearing out its welcome.


The Place, by Ima

The Place is existentialist Mad-Libs, and says so before you ever get into the game – the blurb endorses the credo that existence is absurdity, and makes clear that all the game’s choices lead to the outcome and their primary impact is on how you think about the journey. This isn’t an uncommon model for choice-based works, and it can definitely work when done well, with care given to how different choices might allow the player to experience different themes or aspects of a mostly-static story.

The Place changes up the standard approach here by making the choices literal Mad Libs – at several choices, you’re prompted to put in a word or phrase, usually something rather concrete or literal, and that fills in a blank in the story that’s being told. At one point there’s a small layer of obfuscation, as you’re prompted to type in a series of numbers, which are then translated into the names of a few cities, but for the most part these are pretty direct: if you’re asked what the main character’s favorite song is, the text you type will be inserted into a sentence mentioning what she’s listening to on the radio, for example. Occasionally there are small callbacks to a choice you made a few passages before, and there are some additional choices where you can decide to skip over a few of the text vignettes – though in a game this short, I’m not sure those are a good idea, frankly.

Anyway, the fill-in-the-blank mechanic is a risky one, I think: the author is putting themselves at the mercy of a player who’ll type in stupid or silly stuff because they don’t yet know, or aren’t clicking with, the mood of the game. The Place also misses some opportunities to use its default answers to guide the player or at least provide a baseline experience for someone who’s just clicking through: the default name for the protagonist is “name”, and if you just click accept on the default question for her favorite pastime, you get passages like “she gets bored easily so she finds her ways to keep herself busy. Only eg: eating ice cream simply doesn’t do it.”

The story here is fairly sketched-in, but does I think hang together – the narrator is reminiscing about a friend of his who’s struggling with some weighty themes, and who fantasizes about travel as an escape from her miserable environment before, it’s implied in the ending, having a moment of satori and realizing that internal transformation, rather than external escape, is the only path forward. There’s a clear connection between this thematic arc and gameplay that’s just about typing in signifiers for music, travel destinations, and career aspirations that are empty both in narrative and mechanical terms.

I didn’t ultimately find The Place engaging, though, despite the fact that I think the structure holds together. First, just because a marriage of gameplay and theme holds together doesn’t necessarily mean it will be satisfying. Second, the writing isn’t strong enough to carry what’s primarily a work of static fiction. On a technical level, it has numerous typos, grammatical errors, and awkward phrases – though I should say that while I always feel trepidation around speculating that an author’s first language isn’t English, I got that sense here, which helps explain if not excuse these issues (authors: hit folks up on these forums if you need people to read over your text and help tighten it up!)

But leaving those problems aside, the story is often fairly vague – we don’t get a great sense of the main character’s personality beyond a couple of very broad strokes, and the story is described more in vague feelings and overall impressions of what’s happening, rather than being embodied in concrete scenes with specific details or emotions to latch on to. The narrator states that the protagonist is an abusive environment, for example, and while I’m definitely not saying we need to see episodes of abuse graphically depicted, as it is this is just one or two sentences stating a fact that are never followed up on or illustrated in any immediate way, severely undercutting its impact. And this is true for the catharsis at the end, which feels more described than evoked. In the end I can see what The Place is going for, and it has pieces in place to get there, but I didn’t find the details of how it’s put together strong enough to feel the intended impact.

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Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl, by Bitter Karella

Despite the name prompting me to think this might be an anime-inspired game, LA:MG puts some zany stage-magic theming on a zippy explore-the-crazy-mansion-and-solve-puzzles parser game. There are lots of typos, one or two wonky puzzles, and some tonal issues that I found a little offputting, but in the main, this is a pleasant diversion, with plenty to do, solid pacing, and some laughs along the way.

The premise makes it clear from the off that the operative vibe is going to be zany: the player character is a magician’s assistant (named, inevitably, Trixie), who works for a stage magician who moonlights as a superhero, or possibly vice versa. After he’s captured by a member of his rogue’s gallery, you step up to rescue your boss by exploring his wacky mansion to find the various taunting clues the villain has left hidden about, Riddler-style. Oh, and also you’re on a deadline (notional, rather than one imposing a turn limit) to get all this done before you have to leave to do a magic show for the President’s kid’s birthday party.

It took me a little bit to get a handle on the conceit here, since it’s mashing up a couple of different kinds of tropes. I eventually landed on “Sixties superhero parody” as the dominant note (even though there are newpaper clippings indicating it’s meant to be the present day), though partially that’s because it helped me make peace with an unpleasant undercurrent of sexism that runs through some of the text. I think this is meant to set up jokes about how everyone underestimates Trixie due to how attractive she is and her stereotyped job, but there aren’t the kind of internal eye-rolls that would undercut this and clearly mark it as dumb. Trixie is certainly presented as brave and resourceful as she solves the villain’s various challenges, but there are also lines saying that she found history class “SO BORING”, and upon typing X ME, she posits this as the reason she’s so good at her job: “with your golden blonde hair cascading over your shoulders like a shimmering waterfall, your full red lips so often coyly pursed into a tantalizing pout, and your ample bosom encased in a sheer sequined gown, distracting audiences is no challenge for you” (not a lot of straight ladies or gay men in these audiences, I’m guessing). It’s not omnipresent by any means, but every once in a while a bit like this would hit a sour note.

Moving on to the game itself, it is well-structured, with a just-large-enough mansion playing host to a series of challenges that must be solved one at a time, with the villain’s clues providing clear direction on which puzzle to be pursuing next. The puzzles themselves are generally fair, and you use your boss’s collection of magic tricks and wacky gizmos to good effect, without requiring too much outside-the-box thinking, which can be a flaw of this style of game. There’s a hint system integrated into the game – you consult a crystal ball – but I only found it necessary to consult it once.

That once was annoying, though: I had the right idea, but the situation wasn’t described well enough for me to clearly picture how the intended solution was meant to work, a key object wasn’t implemented, and near-miss solutions earn default failure responses. This was the puzzle to get the drill bit – it’s clear you need to pull or cut it free from the larger drill, but the bit itself isn’t implanted, SAW DRILL WITH doesn’t indicate that you’re on the right track, and the drill and guillotine were somewhat hazily described, I thought. Some of these issues are present in other parts of the game, but this was the one place where they all overlapped to make things challenging.

Finally, the game is lacking that final coat of polish. There are a large number of typos, including one in the opening text, and some of the verbs in the HELP text don’t appear to work as advertised (despite what’s stated, you want to TALK TO characters, not SPEAK TO them). It’s a shame, because the jokes are often quite funny – the god-bothering clown is a highlight, and he’s presented with sympathy despite being a ridiculous gag character – but the presentation issues mean they sometimes don’t land as well as they should. Regardless, LA:MG definitely scratches the itch for a quick, puzzle-y romp – but with a few small tweaks I would have enjoyed it a lot more.

lovely assistant - mr.txt (181.9 KB)

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The Pinecone, by Joseph Pentangelo

Hey, it’s another game about waiting for the bus! As I made clear in my What the Bus? review, I am here for this kind of content. While both games are more about the journey than the destination, the Pinecone isn’t an absurdist descent into a transit nightmare, but a short, surrealist vignette (it’s sufficiently short and surrealist that I don’t want to go into details – you’re waiting for a bus, and as the cover indicates there’s a pinecone and at least one goat who enter into the proceedings). The author notes that this was adapted from a piece of static flash-fiction, and that’s the source of the game’s greatest strength, as well perhaps of its limitations.

The strength is the writing, which isn’t just “good for IF,” but flat-out good. I don’t mean to undercut how hard it is to write well for IF – it’s just that when you’re doing a parser game you usually need to do things like describe very precise spatial relationships while keeping the amount of text under control so the player is able to pick out the key details. There’s usually more freedom in choice-based IF, but there’s similarly lots of weight on the text, say if the author is trying to provide enough information to help the player feel like they’re making decisions based on a full understanding on the situation and characterization of the protagonist and other folks in a scene. The Pinecone, though, barrels past those constraints and offers prose that wouldn’t be out of place in something by an Iowa Writers’ Workshop alum. Here’s how the eponymous seedcase is described:

There’s a good amount of detail provided, but they’re all well chosen to set a mood, and show off the author’s gift for memorable images and clever turns of phrase. And the presentation – clean white background, with an attractive font – adds an additional note of class.

The flip side of this is that I don’t think the game is trying very hard to be game-like. I felt a bit lost as I hit most of the choice points, as I didn’t feel like I had much context or even access to the information that the main character should have (there’s clearly some family lore about goats that’s only stated after you make a choice that relies on that knowledge). And if you’re interested in things beyond the very specific items and situations the author is focused on, you’re out of luck, as there’s no real scope for exploration.

I don’t think any of that matters very much – there are distinct endings (I got three out of the four) but all of them seemed like a fitting capper for the experience, so the stakes for your decisions are generally low, and as the situation as a whole is fairly incomprehensible for the character as well as the player, a bit of confusion might be fitting. There’s some gentle humor in the writing and the absurdity of the situation, but really, the star here is the literary prose.


Lore Distance Relationship, by Naomi “Bez” Norbez

I am I think of the last generation to grow up without deep social relationships in online spaces being a thing, so there’s something a bit strange to me about seeing a game like Lore Distance Relationship offer an affectionate overview of a decade’s worth of living, as mediated through an online game, complete with the slow improvement of graphics and eventual introduction of a phone client (the something that is a bit strange is realizing that I am old). All of this is to say that while I don’t have any experience of the specific nostalgic notes LDR hits, I can certainly recognize how resonant its touchstones will be for lots of folks, and there’s more than enough craft here to make it accessible and enjoyable even for folks outside that audience.

This is a relatively long game that plays out almost entirely within the chat function of an online game about magic dogs that fight monsters – I gather it’s meant to riff off of Neo Pets – and it’s almost entirely in dialogue, since 99% of the time you’re choosing different options for the main character to use to reply to Bee, their best friend in the game. As the blurb says, the game takes you through ten years in its hour-long playtime, and while there are some fun grace-notes around how the game updates in that time, the overwhelming focus is on how the central relationship shifts as the two main characters go from age 8 to 18.

There are heavy themes discussed – there’s prominent trigger warning about domestic abuse – but not, thankfully, depicted: you engage with the aftermath, as the main character and Bee grapple with how to understand what’s happening and hopefully chart a path free. Similarly, I was a bit wary since the blurb flags that there’s some sexual exploration – a tricky thing to manage in any circumstance, but especially so when everyone’s underage for most of the play time – but the game strikes a nice balance of making clear what the characters are up to without getting at all explicit or too uncomfortable.

Indeed, if anything, despite all the traumatic themes and plot points on offer, LDR felt pleasant, and ultimately comforting to me. Bee is a supportive friend (and if you go that direction, romantic partner), and his dad, who gets called in occasionally to offer advice, is invariably respectful and helps set good boundaries; the main character likewise has a loving sister who’s there when things get tough. Don’t get me wrong, there are definitely painful and sad moments (reflecting on why the main character chose “StaircaseHaven14” as their username was one of those for me – and both characters suffer some bullying and abuse for their marginalized identities, since the main character is trans and Bee has a disability), but the sweetness of the central relationship ultimately won out.

Partially this may be due to the choices I took – there are a lot of these on offer, as you’re prompted for input after every couple lines of chat, across ten different vignettes separated by a year each. And while most of them are more about emphasizing different aspects of the main character’s personality – especially around self-esteem and ability to open up to Bee – I get the sense that your choices can add up in significant ways (most obviously in how and whether you pursue romance with Bee). I mostly made choices that had the main character trusting Bee and trying to engage with their feelings, rather than bottling them up, which wound up working out really well – possibly the vibe is different if other choices are made.

I think either way, LDR would be effective, though. A good part of the credit here goes to the writing, which treats the situation, and the tender-age characters, with the nuance they require. The dialogue sounds exactly like I’d expect these characters to sound, with shifts over the time and clear differentiation between the two primary voices (the maybe-a-bit-uptight main character uses proper capitalization and punctuation pretty much from the start, but under Bee’s influence eventually loosens up). There’s the very occasional false note – at one point, the eight-year-old protagonist replies to a question with a diffident “Maybe. We’ll see.” – and maybe a few small anachronisms, but LDR overwhelming succeeds in creating a plausible milieu.

Where LDR maybe errs in going too far in creating plausibility is the jankiness of the presentation. Obviously the messy-but-improving-over-time graphics are both a gag in themselves, and a way to mark the passage of time, but I found some of the art actively off-putting (one of those dog-aliens will haunt my nightmares). You primarily move the story forward by clicking a large reload icon, and it’s occasionally replaced by a large picture of a keyboard or a blown-up mouse cursor. But the game window is usually at the top, so need to do a bunch of scrolling, and it took me a while to realize that the graphics are completely static and none of the displayed interface elements actually do anything. There’s also some timed text that I found sometimes went too slow, and sometimes too fast. After I played for 15 minutes, I figured out how the game wanted me to play it, and again, it’s clear that much of this is an intentional throwback to how much the early-mid internet kind of sucked, but it was still a bit annoying.

Anyway, though, this one is all about the relationship between these two characters, which it charts very well. There are lots of touches that I think a very specific target audience will enjoy, but LDR’s resonance goes well beyond just those folks by offering a sympathetic, well-written depiction of a challenging but ultimately hopeful adolescence.


Savor, by Ed Nobody

Oh, lordy. Savor is a generally well-written horror game with intriguing mysteries, mostly-solid prose, and some beautiful presentation elements, but painful design choices and egregious bugs made this perhaps my most unpleasant experience in the Comp so far.

Right, let’s start with the good. The setting is a unique one that made me eager to learn more – the protagonist is an amnesiac suffering from a poorly-understood but crippling disease, who wakes up in a sun-blasted corn field and eventually strikes an uneasy détente with the farmer who lives there and also has the same disease. There are occasional flashbacks that hint at what’s going on, and an alternation of laconic dialogue with lush landscape description that’s a little Faulknerian. Usually this is effective – here’s an early bit:

Occasionally it tips over and feels overwritten (soon after that passage, there’s this: “The door finally frees itself from the constricting embrace of its jamb and tiredly swings inward, granting you access”), but for the most part the prose is one of the main draws here. And there are nicely-curated, blanched-out photographs that serve as the background for the text and help underline the alienation, pain, and flatness that define the protagonist’s existence.

Sadly, now we’re on to the litany of complaints. All that well-written text is presented in timed fashion, and while it displays quickly, it still makes replays really frustrating. You get occasional, signposted choices that are the most significant ones, but there are also many smaller ones along the way – most of which are about physically navigating a space, but the environment is usually described in a confused way so that I wasn’t sure why ENTER HOUSE and OPEN GATE were meaningfully different when I was (I think) standing at a house’s outside gate. Progression seems very arbitrary – at one point, the protagonist committed suicide without any clear prompting for what I could have done differently – and when I tried to rewind by clicking the big “replay” button that popped up on the achievements page, the game crashed. And when I started poking around to try to figure out where I got stuck, I found the myriad bugs lurking below the surface.

So, in the course of playing the game, you’ll occasionally accumulate books or journal entries, sometimes for unclear reasons (you’ll just get an out-of-world notification like “You acquired Book: Book1”). On first play, I was confused about how to read these, but it turns out that if you type ESC (there’s no button or on-screen menu icon), you’ll hit a screen that shows a bunch of collectibles including journal pages, books, “fragments,” and “rewind tokens.” If you click on one of the books, you’ll get a bit of (I thought badly-written) poetry, a notification that you’ve unlocked one of those rewind tokens, and an error message. If you click on anything else, you’ll get taken to a page not found error that permanently halts progress since there’s no undo (hopefully you figured out that when the menu says you can type L to load, actually that takes you to a screen where you can save too). And while from looking at the walkthrough the intended path through the game involves using those rewind tokens to explore every possible choice – it’s really not clear how this works in-universe – I found their implementation was pretty spotty and they didn’t always work.

I struggled with Savor for another half hour or so to see if I could get to some reasonable ending, and even dove into the source code to see if I could read where things were headed, but the frustration won out in the end. The story, at least as far as I got, really only has one note (slow physical decline in a depressing landscape, with a monotonous existence broken up only by even more monotonous chores), so that combined with the technical issues made for a really unfun time. There are indications that there might be a more hopeful ending possible (much as in another game in the Comp, you’re a secret vampire, and immersion in holy water might be a cure) but I lack the fortitude to push through any more of this punishing experience to get there.