Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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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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.


You Couldn’t Have Done That, by Ann Hugo

There are a fair few pieces of IF that explore feelings of constraint or paralysis by seeming to offer choices but then negating the player’s attempts at agency – Rameses, most famously, or I was partial to Constraints from a couple years after. There’s also lots of IF involving neuroatypical protagonists, from your garden-variety aliens or disembodied consciousnesses to, as here, more grounded examples like autistic folks. I don’t recall seeing the two of these elements combined in the way YCHDT does, which makes for a nice marriage of theme and form that elevates this short story about a traumatic event.

We know going in that the player character is autistic, and the opening does a good job of laying out what that means for the protagonist: challenges with eye contact, comfort in repetitive activities, difficulty speaking when triggered. There are small, well-drawn incidents or choices that establish each of these pieces before the main story kicks off, which helped me better orient towards how to portray the character. Indeed, they did such a good job that I don’t think I realized how the choices work until I did a replay: while you do occasionally get choices to do things that would push against Theo’s boundaries, when you try to select these you get told You Couldn’t Have Done that and sent back down the other path. While this means I missed out on some of how YCHDT works on my initial foray, I don’t think that undermines the intended experience since I’d basically internalized the constraints.

The story is really about setting up, then relating, a single traumatic encounter, so it’s very focused throughout its short length. This does mean that there are some elements in the first half or so of the game that seem odd, as there are specific details and characters’ actions that seem to get disproportionate attention. The actions of the antagonistic character also slowly escalate overtime, and grow increasingly pushy and bizarre. Again, there’s a good synthesis of tone and theme here, since this gives an off-kilter, horror-movie vibe to proceedings.

When the traumatic event comes, it similarly has a lot of terrible immediacy, and again a few strange, specific details keep the engagement high (I think I saw another review mention that this is based on an actual experience of the author, which is awful). YCHDT doesn’t wallow in awfulness, though, and after this crisis she does get some support, which I was glad of as otherwise I was worried the game might feel pretty bleak. I will say I was a bit surprised there wasn’t more of the aftermath portrayed, though – I wanted to know a bit more about Theo wound up processing the event, and how, if at all, it impacted her moving forward. But I think the game is quite effective as it stands, and was stable and almost entirely typo-free – I feel a bit dumb because I often say “this game does exactly what it’s trying to do”, but since there are so many different ways of writing good IF it’s worth acknowledging when one, like YCHDT, is exemplary for its type.


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants, by Ilmur Eggert

Unlike You Couldn’t Have Done That, where I could easily figure out exactly what the author was aiming for, I have a hard time getting a handle on SSG. I went into it thinking it would be a sort of edu-tainment game about physics, maybe with puzzles involving classical mechanics – it isn’t that. Then after I played for a bit and it tipped its hand by involving an actual witch (in the first real scene, so I don’t think this is a spoiler), I thought it was shaping up to be a fish-out-of-water setup with a scientist trying to make sense of magic – it isn’t that. Once the time travel and alternate history kicked in I thought we might be swerving back to being educational, but nope, not that either. But even after having finished it, I have a much easier time laying out what it isn’t than what it is.

Part of this is the tone of the writing, which is generally clean but very matter-of-fact throughout. At first, this scans as jokey: in the opening sequence, your buddy greets you with a hearty “Hey, Newt!”, which is a funny way to think of someone greeting Isaac Newton. But this same sort of low-key prose style persists throughout the game and doesn’t escalate or respond to situations that are increasingly silly – which means that what starts out as jokey eventually winds up feeling understated or flat. Tone is one of the key ways an author can guide the player’s reactions to the story, but without that to rely on, I often felt a bit at sea and unsure how to feel about what was happening, or if something is or isn’t a joke or is meant to be incongruous (X ME, for example, reveals that Isaac is “wearing the most expensive and fashionable clothes from 1673,” which is initially a bit funny because what about, say, the king? And once you time-travel to 2020 I thought this was going to set up a gag, but nobody remarks on it at all, so just add that to the list of things that happen without evoking much response).

This carries over into both the plot and gameplay side of things. Plot-wise – well, I can’t discuss this without spoilers, but my basic critique is that this really left me scratching my head, even leaving aside the presence of witches and magic and so on. So the conceit appears to be that by sending Newton forward in time before he’s written the Principia and introduced calculus, the witch has deprived future scientists of what they need to make progress so that instead of coming up with the theory of relativity and helping advance quantum mechanics, Einstein has to reinvent Newton’s discoveries over 200 years late, so things that rely on advanced solid-state physics and electrical engineering are breaking down. Even leaving aside the fact that Leibniz at worst developed the calculus contemporaneously to Newton so this wouldn’t have been so bad, this really is hard to wrap one’s head around – if history has changed, why are there still empty shelves in the library for relativity and quantum mechanics? And if Newton didn’t write the Principia, just plagiarized it from future-Einstein, even leaving aside the grandfather paradox wouldn’t sending him forward in time actually put the timeline on the “correct” course, since it’s only as a result of the time travel that we wind up getting the calculus in the late 17th century? If you clicked through that spoiler, you know I’m overthinking this, but again, without guardrails for how I should be thinking about what’s happening this is where my brain starts to go.

Matching the rest of the trifecta, the gameplay is also quite puzzling. Not, I hasten to add, because there are lots of puzzles – there’s maybe one and a half, quite easy – but because it leads to very odd pacing. The first half to two thirds of the game consists of typing in heavily cued movement commands and reaching very long noninteractive sequences after every half dozen or so. There are opportunities to do a bit of poking around in this section, but the map is very linear and there’s not much scenery of interest (though everything mentioned responds to being examined, as far I could tell). Then you get the aforementioned simple puzzle-and-a-half, and then the game ends. There’s one opportunity for some fun exploration (there are some easter eggs in the library, where you can type in a bunch of authors and see what the library has on offer – though there aren’t really jokes or anything interesting here, just the frisson of pleasure at guessing that you can get a response if you type in CERVANTES).

So yeah, here we are, 800 words into this writeup and I still don’t really know what to tell you. SSG is solidly implemented at least, and it’s pleasant enough to play through, which is a level of quality that’s hard to hit in a work of parser IF. And it’s got a fairly unique protagonist and setup. I’m just not sure what it all adds up to.

shoulders mr.txt (31.9 KB)

Big Trouble in Little Dino Park, by Seth Paxton and Rachel Aubertin

I’ve tried to note in these reviews where I think a post-Comp release or in-Comp update would help improve a game, but usually I do that as a late-in-the-day aside. For Big Trouble in Little Dino Park, let me shout it from the rooftops at the outset: I want to praise your game, but first please fix it! It seems very charming, with a funny premise, good prose, and what appear to be some interesting puzzles. But due to myriad crash and dead-end bugs, no save functionality, and a gauntlet-type structure that kills you a lot, I found it way too frustrating to make progress. Admittedly, I can see from other reviews that some folks have managed to power through, so maybe I’m just at a low ebb after running into similar issues in Savor, but still: help me help you.

Starting with the positive, BTLDP is immediately grabby – the summer-intern-at-Jurassic-Park setup lets you immediately know what you’re in for, so even as you’re going about your chores you’re just waiting for all hell to break loose (and despite that, it’s still a funny surprise exactly how that plays out). The prose has a lot of exclamation points and ensures you’re viewing things with the proper mix of terror and strangely giddy enthusiasm (I mean, dinosaurs are cool, even when they’re chewing your face off). Like, there’s this ejaculation when the beasts free themselves from their cages:

How can that not make you grin? It does occasionally try too hard (there’s a Mosasaurs -> Mosas -> Moses -> parting the Red Sea gag that just profoundly doesn’t work), and there are a few comma splices and misspellings – though it’s hard to fault anyone for not being able to quite come to terms with “archaeopteryx”. Still, if anything these flaws in the prose reinforce the general teenager-who’s-getting-carried-away vibe.

After the prologue, the game opens up to offer three different areas to explore in search of a way to escape, and here, unfortunately, my troubles began. It’s completely appropriate that trying to escape a park of rampaging dinosaurs involves dying A LOT, so I can’t knock BTLDP too much for this. Where I can knock it, though, is for confusing design – going to the docks kicks off what the game flags as a sort of Frogger sequence, as you need to hop between various boats to make it to the one that’s pulling away. But many of the descriptions of each potential hopping-place are unclear, much less the spatial relationships between them, and there’s an added note of difficulty because part of the trickiness of the puzzle is that you’re presented with false choices (specifically, the swamped hulks of boats you’ve already hopped on and were subsequently smashed by a dinosaur). And then once you get to the boat, I was even more confused by what happened after an additional choice (what to do after one of the crew falls off the escaping boat – I thought I could try to pull him onto the boat with me, but I think what’s actually happening if you’re decided not to get on the boat and pulling him onto the disintegrating dock?). So this leads to a large amount of trial and error gameplay.

BTLDP appears to recognize that this is how most people will experience the story, and positions this as an intended part of the gameplay by listing a death count and a rewind option each time you snuff it.
Except “each time” is overstating it, due to the bugs – I’m not sufficiently familiar with Ink to diagnose exactly what’s going on, but there were a lot of times when I’d click on what looked like a perfectly valid link – even one I’d clicked on just fine in a previous playthrough – only to have the game hang, or print out some text while not offering any further links. There’s no save functionality so far as I could determine, so each time this happened I had to play through the introduction from scratch, which unfortunately loses most of its charm the 12th time through.

I’m holding this space open for hopefully revisiting an updated version of BTLDP, or perhaps coming back to it when I’m more mentally prepared for the whiplash between the whimsical, so-you-died-no-biggie presentation and the Dark-Souls-style grimly repetitive approach currently required, but for now I can’t say I got as much out of, or enjoyed, BTLDP as I’d hoped.

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A Calling of Dogs, by Arabella Collins, Grey Havens

So this is quite a good game that I really did not enjoy in the slightest. It starts in medias res, but the premise is immediately grabby: your character has been kidnapped by a serial killer with (thankfully) unknown predilections, and must try to manipulate him into creating an opening that would allow her to fight back and escape the murderdungeon. The prose makes this premise no idle backdrop: it’s sweaty, immediate, and immersive, planting you deep inside the main character’s head in the middle of a deeply, traumatic event – and it doesn’t let up over the course of the days you spend in the basement, until you reach the incredibly violent climax.

ACoD doesn’t wallow in awfulness, let me be clear: there are ways of doing this setup that would objectify the main character’s suffering, or that would linger on the awful things the killer has and will do to her, and the game steers clear of them. And I got to a “happy” ending that was quite grisly, per the prominent content warnings, but did allow the protagonist to get out. I wouldn’t say it’s a tasteful take on the in-the-den-of-a-killer genre, because what would that even mean, but it’s not out to purposefully alienate the player or push any buttons just for the sake of getting a response.
In fact, in my playthrough at least, the killer, while clearly plotting something awful, never made any overt moves towards violence, and stayed relatively polite throughout. The violence came from the protagonist, who in addition to envisioning the awful fate awaiting her, also vividly fantasizes about wreaking bloody revenge against her captor (and then, of course, actually does so). This is an interesting reversal because it puts the violence more under the control of the player, or at least the player character. It also highlights that while the killer presents a bit of a social puzzle to solve, as you try to figure out how to build his empathy and lull him into letting his guard down, so too is the protagonist something of a conundrum.

She’s by no means a blank slate, and there are hints of backstory for the main character sprinkled through the game. They’re appropriately vague and allusive – she’s hardly going to be putting her memoirs in mental order under the circumstances – but I found them the most intriguing bit of the game. There’s one that I think provides the title for the game, where she reflects on the way attractive women get cat-called, while unattractive ones (like her, the implication goes) are called dogs, which triggers her towards anger. She also seems very comfortable self-consciously playing a role and suppressing her actual feelings so that others will see her differently, so much so that for the first few minutes of the game I half-thought that this might be a really, really intense S&M roleplay session. And while being fixated on violent escape makes sense in the circumstances, my impression at least was that she was far more likely to dwell on inflicting (deserved!) harm on the killer than on the possibility of being able to get away and live. These hints of backstory weren’t paid off in the ending that I got, unfortunately, because while I obviously was invested in trying to help her escape, I was more interested in figuring out what was going on with the protagonist.

Implementation-wise, there are a few stray typos and possibly-intentional comma splices. I did find a few places where the choices went wonky or there appeared to be continuity errors (the options for what to eat for lunch sometimes repeated oddly, and in the first sequence, the main character starts referring to a cooking that I don’t think had been previously mentioned). But on the whole things were solid, and the choices really feel like they have weight, forcing you to sweat as you realize that one wrong move could have catastrophic consequences. So all told this is a well-put-together entry in the Comp, with more going on than it needed to have and strong writing that really puts you in the situation. As I mentioned in my opening, I very much did not enjoy it because this is not my preferred genre or style in the slightest, but that’s on me – and of the number of games in the Comp with somewhat adjacent themes, ACoD seems to me to be the strongest so far.

Tavern Crawler, by Josh Labelle

I have a theory that the best genre stories are ones that take themselves seriously (I guess other stories too, but one generally doesn’t need to tell authors of literary fiction – we all had fun dogpiling Paul Auster before, let’s tag him in again – to be more self-important). Not, I hasten to add, in the sense that everything needs to be a grimdark reboot where every heroic pilot or mystic sorcerer needs a rapey backstory – gods no! But even the silliest premise is enlivened, and can actually become impressively affecting, with sufficient attention and craft for worldbuilding and characterization. I’m counting Tavern Crawler as a point in favor of this theory, because while it starts with a jokey setup, focusing on the bar-hopping aftermath of a fantasy quest as the heroes try to track down their patron and get paid, it accomplishes far more than I’d expected from the blurb, entirely because of the care the author took with every facet of the game.

It’s superficial to start with aesthetics, but they do make a first impression, and it’s quite a good one. I lack the vocabulary to really talk about issues of visual design, but some combination of the font, color scheme, and layout made the game look really attractive to me, while still being entirely functional. There are sidebar menus that ensure all the information you could possibly want about the game is available with a click, without needing to duck out of the main story or cluttering up the windows too much. The white borders around text you can click avoided the contrast issues that sometimes plagues games that use hypertext, while the simple use of color to denote dialogue from different characters helps the player cleanly parse some of the more involved passages.

This easy of play extends to the plot and setting, which snuggles around one’s shoulders like a warm blanket from the off. You’re in a tavern, some bloke wants to hire you to see off a dragon, there’s a possibly tavern brawl to avoid or lean into… and mechanically, the opening also provides an in-game character generation sequence where you can pick a backstory, as well as a mini-tutorial in the simple stat system used by the game. While this is all completely straight-ahead, the attention to detail is apparent even from the earliest, especially with your two companions who are drawn in nicely from the off. They’re stereotypes, certainly – one’s a veteran warrior, the other an otherworldy magician – but from the off they stand out as their own people. Ford, the warrior, has a flirty charm and some not-very-well-hidden softness of heart, while the sorceress Aurora is wise and responsible, but struggles with her sense of her own responsibilities. None of these characterizations are hugely novel when you type them out, and I doubt they’d hold up in a 50+ hour BioWare style game, but they’re perfect for this game, and sketched with a pleasing fleetness that makes sure you notice what’s up with your companions, but doesn’t wear out its welcome.

The positive early impressions bear out as the game goes on. There are lots of choices on offer when confronting any challenge, and Tavern Crawler rewards exploration while still trying to be nonjudgmental about what you do. For example, while the game clearly communicates that dragons are not evil creatures, and simply deciding to kill one is morally dubious at best, TC doesn’t set this up just as a dilemma between the altruism of a nonviolent resolution vs. greedily wanting the huge reward; there are reasons given for why that money might make a difference for the characters’ families, and that letting the dragon live might let an independent town, weakened by its depredations, fall under the sway of an evil empire. Still, I felt like the game clearly wanted to be played a certain way – while you have the choice to be a dashing rogue or a bit of a prig, as the spirit takes you, the world is generally set up to reward kindness (this extends to the generous content warnings, which offer the opportunity to click for spoilers on how to avoid anything that might be upsetting).

This isn’t to say the game is uptight – you can get, as they say, proper sloshed, hop on stage with burlesque dancers, creep through dank and horrible alleys, and romance one or both of your companions, with copious make-outs. It’s just that it’s got an overall gentleness to it that I really liked – especially so, coming after A Calling of Dogs! This gentleness extends to the game’s systems, too. There’s a single save slot that you can use as much as you like, and while there are a fair number of gated stat-checks, most problems can be solved as long as you’re sufficiently good at one of the three, and in most circumstances it’s pretty easy to come back later after having increased your stats or gotten more gold from resolving side-quests. And while your companions typically pull you in different directions whenever there’s a significant choice, it’s pretty easy to max out your relationship with both of them. The ending can be bittersweet – at least the one I got was – but I think that’s a nice touch too, as it prevents TC from getting too cloying.

I feel like this review is unbalanced since I haven’t included any real criticism. OK, three things: on my screen at least I wanted a bit more of a margin on the left side of the menu sidebar, the way you sometimes get money out of thin air after completing a quest is weird, and the first joke would have been funnier if there’d been one more level after “very drunk.” There, you see, I’m an unbiased reviewer who can see both sides of things, so trust me when I say Tavern Crawler is excellent!


Fight Forever, by Pako

I am not convinced this is not a joke.

Fight Forever is a maximalist MMA simulator, and it leans hard into every dudebro cliché you can imagine. You play an up-and-coming fighter, who gets to pick a name, a mentor, and a style, from a dozen or so options for each (I opted to name my – I think guy? – Frankie, hoping that I’d eventually be able to take a trip to Hollywood. No dice, but pre-fight my trainer did tell me to “Relax”, so I got my win after all). The heart of the gameplay is preparing for, then engaging in, a series of amateur and ultimately professional fights.

It is hard to overstate how authentically meatheaded this all feels. Your options in between fights include three different versions of training (“Train,” “Spar,” and “Fight Camp”), and one catch-all category labeled “Life”, with sub-menus for “Travel,” “Social,” “Sports,” “Stuff,” and “Master Class.” Master Class lets you get inspirational quotes from e.g. Margaret Thatcher. The others have like 15 grayed-out options and only one that works; for Social, predictably, it’s Booty Calls (Family, Philanthropy, Date, Read, Teach, and, endearingly, Tabletop Games, all either need to be unlocked or haven’t been implemented yet. You’ll also eventually be able to purchase Real State).

Training is the main focus of the game, as far as I could tell. It allows you to increase an incredible array of stats, both primary and derived. You can focus on “Boxing” or “TKD” or “Sambo” (erm) or for that matter “Awesomeness” or “Strategy” at Fight Camp, while Training lets you choose from a bunch of different exercises that seem to relate indirectly to this flurry of statistics. At one point I was told my “measurable takedown level” was 0 – seems bad! There’s no way I could see to actually access these all on one screen, though the Sparring option I think allows you to reveal a single one per mainline fight.

Speaking of those fights, there’s much less here than you might think. You click “fight”, you get some text, a mysterious gauge shows up, and you win or you lose, with no indication of why. There are sometimes previews of who you’ll be up against next, but these are beyond cryptic: the most clear one I got was a flag that the next opponent was very durable, but beats me whether that meant I should be focusing on endurance to be able to last in the ring with him, or power to break through his defenses (I tried endurance, and I lost. Or maybe my rockstar juice level wasn’t high enough? Yes, that’s a real stat). Heaven only knows what one’s meant to do to prepare to fight “well-educated boxers” (distract them with some Keats, perhaps?). And I thrilled to the mental image of going up against an “orthodox” fighter (I am picturing the hat, sideburns, and tallit).

Surprisingly, this is actually pretty fun! Kieron Gillen has some line, I think in a review of Diablo or one of its progeny, that a dirty secret of video games is that sometimes it’s enough to just watch a number go up. FF has a bunch of numbers and they go up – what more do you need? The bloom started to come off the rose once I got silver in the Olympics and then transitioned from amateur to pro, though. I found these bouts much harder, and suddenly training cost money. I also kept getting concussed and told I should see a doctor, but couldn’t find that option. Losing interest, I decided to explore the game’s legacy mechanic, where you can have a kid and shift to guiding their journey through martial arts. Once I clicked to confirm this is what I wanted to do (with the cheapest option, because apparently you’re paying for your sperm/egg donor?) I got this sequence of text:

Frankie is succesfully having sexual intercourse with Busting Beaver, and viceversa…

Name your gamebred:

[blank to fill in name]


I swear I’m not making any of that up.

Anyway the game restarted except now I’m 14 and unable to compete in fights (good?) but I’m still able to engage in booty calls (NOPE). My age is stuck at 14.203846153846153 and I’m not sure how to advance time to the point that I can get back in the game, so I’m calling it here: goodnight sweet prince, and may your days be filled with the wisdom of the Iron Lady and getting ready to fight an opponent “who throws punches and punches”.


Paul Auster? More like FAIL Auster!

Look, I don’t know what to tell you, that jerk’s name doesn’t even lend itself to any good puns.