Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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.

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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.

3 Likes

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.

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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.

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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.

3 Likes

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.

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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!

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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]

Sprinkle

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”.

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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.

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This is the only IFComp 2020 entry that I’ve actually played for what I’d consider a substantial amount of time; the randomizer put it right beneath my game when I was scrolling down that entry list for the first time to look for it, and the hilarious/brutal minimalism of the title and the blurb successfully enticed me. It certainly gets points for its blunt honesty: The game is titled “FIGHT FOREVER” and that is, in fact, what you do. You fight. Forever.

I don’t really have anything to add here about “FIGHT FOREVER” that you and the other reviewers haven’t already said. Last time I commented on this thread, it was to make a drive-by snipe at Paul Auster, so this time I’ll balance things out and do a drive-by compliment instead: I think Kieron Gillen is a fantastic writer, and had no idea that he did video game reviews. That’s a fantastic line, and it’s one I’ll probably be repeating for a while.

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Yup – he cofounded Rock Paper Shotgun, and wrote a manifesto for the New Games Journalism… in 2004. So you know, super new.

(I am old).

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High Jinnks, by M. Nite Chamberlain

There are certain stories that only really snap into shape once you’ve reached the end. Obviously there’s your Memento-type puzzle box stories, or your last-minute-revelation-recontextualizes-everything-that’s-come-before ones (given the author’s pseudonym The Sixth Sense is the obvious name-check). Storytelling like this can be really compelling, even more so in IF where the player winds up not just stepping through the puzzles or individual plot points, but is engaged in fiddling with the overall story like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. But it’s also a risky approach, because withholding information on how the world works or a character’s backstory or motivation means that the work might not hold together as well when experienced as it does in retrospect. Despite the authorial name-check, I’m not convinced High Jinnks is actually trying to be a high-stakes twist sort of story. But unfortunately I think the comparison is apt because I found the game does play things a bit too close to the vest, and as a result, doesn’t land as effectively as it should given the general strength of most of its elements.

It’s a little tricky to share the setup, since that shifts a fair bit over the course of the 45-minute or so playtime. You’re playing a jinn who’s able to take human form, but from the off you don’t have much in the way of motivation: you’re just emerging from a casino where you’ve fleeced a hapless mortal, at which point you’re free to wander without being pointed towards or away from anything in particular. There’s not much worldbuilding initially, which left me with a large number of basic questions about the main character’s wishes and desires (like, do all-powerful wish-granting jinn actually need money?), and therefore what I should be trying to do. A motivation does eventually emerge – the aforementioned fleeced mortal stole back the money you won off them, so you want to find them and get it back (though again, is this just a pride thing?) – and from that point out it’s usually clear what your next, immediate goal should be. But until the very end, the broader question of your characters goals and situation, as well as more nuts-and-bolts questions about what’s actually happening, weigh down what ultimately should be a heart-warming supernatural buddy comedy.

Some of this is due to unclear writing. I often found myself mouthing “huh?” at a passage where befuddlement was not, I think, the intended response. I still don’t really understand the whole sequence where Ali traps the main character, and then releases him – and the whole sequence where Hakeem comes home was really off-kilter. But more often, it’s due to the choice to have the main character know far more than the player, without revealing that knowledge. Sometimes this is OK when it’s clear that it’s setting something up – I’m thinking of the gag with the coffee maker, or decorative mirror, or… – but more often, the player character is making plans, or heading places, based not just on clever plans that will be sprung at the right moment, but on critical, character-driven goals that the player just isn’t let in on. The whole sequence after killing Malik is like this – trying to get revenge on the sorcerer out to get the main character makes sense, but then you’re led through a series of plot points involving summoning another jinn, and then trying to break a curse they’ve put on you, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that the whole premise of the game is that the main character has been cursed to not be able to kill (by the by, being hell-bent on lifting this curse does not make for the most sympathetic protagonist) and exiled from the society of other jinns (which by the by is incredibly hide-bound in a parody of government bureaucracy that also feels like it comes out of nowhere). This is really relevant information to understanding who this character is! As a result, while there are a good amount of choices and some reactivity, I found they typically didn’t feel meaningful because I lacked context for what I was trying to do.

The other questionable storytelling technique is to interrupt the main thread of the plot with vignettes and flashbacks, mostly drawn from or inspired by the actual stories in the Thousand and One Nights, as best I could tell. These are all right as far as they go, but I found they didn’t do much besides interrupt the plot and make it a bit shaggier, as they weren’t very related to the main story either narratively or thematically – the jinn in the flashbacks seems to behave differently than the contemporary one, and while the main character’s backstory is actually very important, those pieces are entirely separate from what’s in the flashbacks – including the vignette involving the death of the protagonist’s child, which felt like it should have some impact!

This is all a shame, because when you know what’s going on in High Jinnks, I think there’s a solid story under there, and while the prose can sometimes be unclear, there’s also some good writing – I liked the way the relationship between the jinn and Ali (the hapless mortal from the casino, who winds up playing a significant role) evolved over time. There are also some really good jokes along the way. But these storytelling missteps, plus a few technical niggles – I hit a dead link early on when trying to hit on a random I think drug-dealer, and later one I wound up at a park despite having opted to visit a library instead – undermined my enjoyment, to the extent that I went through the first chunk of the game half-convinced that the title hid a second pun and everybody, myself included, was just baked out of their damned minds, for all the sense anything was making. There’s a lot that’s promising here, though, so unlike with M. Night Shyamalan, I look forward to the author’s future work.

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The Shadow in the Snow, by Andrew Brown

A short, sharp horror game, Shadow in the Snow doesn’t have much in its quiver besides some effective description of a frozen wood and a single kinda-wonky puzzle, but given its focused ambitions I’m not sure it needs much else. The backstory is wholly elided – the main character has run their car into a snow-ditch in the middle of nowhere, but we get no details on who they are, where they were going, or the state of the world (I could by wrong on this, but felt like the characters didn’t seem especially surprised about the existence of giant bloodthirsty werewolf-monsters). Since the focus is on short-term survival, this isn’t a fatal misstep and in fact helps establish a feeling of woozy confusion that winds up being a little effective at drawing the player in.

There’s not a lot to do here – it becomes clear early on that there’s something stalking the main character, and they need to explore a limited set of locations in order to obtain the clues and knowledge to fight back. I’m not sure how fair the puzzle was – I think you need to explore the locations in a specific and nonintuitive order (stumbling around in the snowy forest instead of going up the road to a motel seems less than obvious!) and involved a situation I found quite contrived (there are just gold, silver, and arsenic shotgun cartridges available off the shelf, labelled only by their elemental symbols? This is why I wonder about whether the supernatural is a known quantity in this world) plus there are a fair number of deaths possible and no save option, meaning you’re in for a full replay if you guess something wrong. Still, there are some clues to most of the key pieces of the puzzle, and I got to a good ending first time through, so I think it works well enough.

The prose generally fits this spare premise. It doesn’t go into a ton of noodly detail, but it does effectively communicate the isolation of being alone in a snowy forest. There’s also an abandoned motel, and some gore, which are described in similar style and which works well enough, but winter landscapes are my favorite backdrop for horror so the woodsy bits were my favorites. The signs the monster is stalking you are also effectively spooky, though I thought the eventual confrontation was maybe a bit anticlimactic – certainly the ending felt a bit more abrupt than I was expecting.

On clicking restart to replay, I found what might be some small bugs related to variables not being cleared (if I went to the motel before the cabin, I was able to pick up cartridges and load them into a shotgun I hadn’t yet obtained, and the description for the motel reception area said it was “the same as before” even on my first visit) but otherwise the implementation seemed fine, and I didn’t notice any typos. SitS didn’t knock my socks off, but it’s a pleasant enough ten minutes of being stalked through the woods which is sometimes all that one wants, especially this close to Halloween.

The Eidolon’s Escape, by Mark Clarke

A workman-like piece of choice-based IF, Eidolon’s Escape hits its marks while dangling hints of a deeper mystery, and if it lacks any particular standout feature, I nonetheless enjoyed my time with it. As in some of the games I played immediately preceding it, you don’t know your character’s full backstory in EE, but here there’s a reason for it: you’re playing a disembodied spirit whose memories have eroded over years imprisoned in a magical crystal. One of the tricks up your sleeve is possession, though, and since two hapless youths have picked your gaol as the site for their romantic rendezvous, you finally have a chance to escape the tower of the mage who’s caged you by riding one of them to freedom.

This goal is clearly communicated, and it doesn’t take long before you’re able to learn the steps needed to carry it out – there are a couple, but they don’t feel needlessly convoluted. The main gameplay is more puzzle-focused than exploration-focused – you usually only have two choices at a time, and a large number of these are false choices that shunt you back to the main thread. There are challenges and wrong answers, though, most of which revolve around social interaction: you might need to fool the cook into telling you something she’s meant to keep secret, or bluff your way past a skeptical guard. While it’s not too hard to figure out the right approaches in these situations, the eponymous eidolon doesn’t really understand humans so you’re not given too much prompting, meaning it feels satisfying to succeed. Adding to the gravity of the challenge, there’s no save game option and incorrect choices can quickly lead to game over – replays go reasonably quick as there’s no timed text, so this isn’t too annoying, but it does provide an incentive to get things right the first time.

These puzzles and situations, while well-constructed, aren’t that interesting by themselves – it’s all stuff you’ll have seen before. The eidolon’s character and way of understanding the world are what give the game its flavor. I was struck by the way that the choices on offer really only allowed for two ways of playing it: either as an imperious figure commanding others to do its bidding, or a master manipulator disgusted at how easy it is to twist people around their finger. It’s not very good at social cues much of the time, though, and is usually stuck doing blunt imitations of behavior it’s seen people perform, with the aping only occasionally convincing. Guiding such a character, and engaging with whether its behavior and attitudes are just a reflection of how alien it is with humanity, or if there is something truly sinister about it, adds a welcome note of mystery the otherwise rather quotidian proceedings.

The writing is – I’m going to back to the well of “workmanlike.” I think I only caught one stray typo, and it usually focuses on the right things. But it describes more than it evokes. Take this passage when you possess one of the youths and are embodied for the first time in ages:

This is all solid enough, and touches on the right elements to highlight – you’d imagine this is what the experience would be like. But it’s a little vague, and it never sings. There are also some odd anachronisms (the eidolon can attempt to dress someone down by asking “did I stutter?”, and attempt to seduce another by praising their “symmetrically aligned features”) that undermine the immersion somewhat.

Eidolon’s Escape is smoothly put together – I enjoyed scheming my way to freedom and found the various obstacles on offer fair to work through. The first ending I got, while a victory, was a bit anticlimactic, so I went back and played to a second one that, while technically a failure, was more satisfying and hinted at a resolution to the questions about what exactly the deal is with the eidolon (as best I can tell, it’s actually a fragment – and probably not a very nice fragment – of the soul of the mage’s long-dead lover). I wish there was a little more of a spark here, but I can’t be sure that’s because something’s missing in the game, or just personal preference for writing with a bit more flair, and for weird-protagonist games that do more to lean into their odd conceit, rather than EE’s way of playing things fairly down-the-middle.

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Ferryman’s Gate, by Daniel Maycock

The curse strikes, as it inevitably must: in the opening text of Ferryman’s Gate, a game whose stated purpose is to inculcate good grammar, there’s a grammar error. Admittedly, it’s an omitted apostrophe (“in your mothers words” should be “in your mother’s words”) and FG is all about the commas, but the rule that you can’t talk about grammar without messing up your own claims another victim (though there’s an alternative explanation – the author, well aware of the curse, is prophylactically warding it off with an early sacrificial offering!)

This is pretty much the only clear misstep in a game that I’d been looking forward to ever since I saw it on the list (go back and check the Arkhill Darkness review if you don’t believe me). Among my many exciting and romantic-partner-attracting interests, grammar looms large, and if the humble comma doesn’t have quite as much to offer as the stately semicolon or the forceful em-dash, nonetheless has a lapidary charm all its own, as well as a host of teeth-gnashingly awful potential misuses. I think I was expecting something a bit more off-the-wall that went all-in on the concept, stuffed to the gills with comma gags and puzzles. For all its pedagogical premise, though, FG’s world is fairly grounded and dare I say plausible, with the comma obsession of the player-character’s great-uncle given a psychological basis. And the gameplay is familiar and solid for anyone who’s steeped in parser IF: you rove about the mansion of a dead relative, slowly unlocking new areas, interacting with family members who have reasonably deep conversation trees, solving swap puzzles, dealing with areas of darkness, performing a few secret rituals, and taking everything that isn’t nailed down.

The twist is that scattered among the more traditional adventure-game puzzles are a series of tests your deceased great-uncle has set, requiring you to demonstrate your knowledge of proper comma usage. There’s a book that ably spells out the rules, so I think this is fairly accessible even to folks who didn’t learn English grammar in school. You’re usually asked to pick out the one sentence that’s error free, or that demonstrates a specific kind of mistake, out of a number of options, which will guide a choice of actions: it’ll indicate which button to push or sign to dig at or way to go at an intersection or what have you. FG leans less on the commas than you might think, though – while the major puzzles gating progress do involve grammar, there’s also a collect-a-thon running in parallel where you need to obtain a dozen metal plates to solve the final puzzle of the game. These plates are hidden throughout the rest of the game and usually rely on exploration or light object-based puzzling to obtain, meaning you’re usually making some kind of progress as you go, and making sure you don’t get sick of the comma stuff (is it weird that if anything I wanted more?)

The author – I think a first-timer, given some self-deprecating notes in the ABOUT text – takes a canny approach to implementation. Most scenery is implemented, and objects that you can interact with are for the most part clearly set out from the main text, though several objects, including the player character, do have default descriptions. The map is large, but navigation is easy due to the mini-map in the corner (I didn’t see any extensions listed, so this might be custom-coded, in which case nicely done!) and there are very few guess-the-verb issues or other struggles with the parser. Partially this is because most of the puzzle solving happens in the player’s head, as you identify grammar errors; the actual commands you type in once you’d identified the solution are usually simple applications of Inform’s default systems, like moving around, pushing buttons, or opening containers and putting things in them. This is a really smart choice that minimizes parser frustrations and the risks of bugs creeping in from complex logic, without having to trade off the novelty or complexity of the puzzles. I did run into one small niggle – I think the plates were each supposed to be marked with an alchemical symbol, but only the one for Mars displayed correctly in my interpreter – but the relevant association is helpful spelled out in the text description too, so this doesn’t impact progress.

Sometimes I say a game is solid and feel like I’m damning it with faint praise, but not so here. FG takes a somewhat off-the-wall premise but grounds it in well-considered design and a surprisingly serious though never grim storyline. While part of me can’t help but wonder what the maximalist version would have looked like, there’s a power in restraint that Ferryman’s Gate amply demonstrates.

ferrymans gate - mr.txt (128.4 KB)

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The Cave, by Neil Aitken

It’s a funny coincidence that I mentioned the Traveler “lifepath” idea in my Minor Arcana review (quick recap: the old tabletop RPG Traveler has a enjoyable character creation system where you make various decisions on careers and such and have little bottom-lined adventures which shape your states before spitting out a ready-to-play character, and Minor Arcana reminded me of that because it had a lot of fun, flavorful choices that seemed to shape the protagonist in the early going, but which didn’t fully pay off in the game proper), as I had the same response to The Cave – defining my character through choices is fun, wish there was more to do with it. Things clicked when I finished a playthrough and saw a set of Dungeons and Dragons stats spit out, and read the included help file after wrapping up my playthrough: The Cave is self-consciously a character-generation aid for tabletop roleplaying. It’s not, perhaps, all that it is, but knowing that up front I think helps set good expectations, which is why I’m not obscuring it behind spoiler text.

So if that’s the function of the piece, what’s the form? It’s a well-implemented choice-based dungeon-crawler, with an appropriately tabula rasa protagonist. You run through a series of chambers, each usually containing something interesting to poke at and a choice of egress. Everything you do seems like a challenge – you might choose to fight a tiger, or shimmy your way through a narrow crevice, or decide whether to swap one of your books to an old woman who might be a hag – but there’s no way to die or even temporarily fail, as far as I could tell. Instead your choice of how to resolve the challenge impacts your blank-slate hero’s stats. Talking to the various characters you find makes you charismatic; praying over the corpse of a dead enemy makes you wise; reading books makes you smart (and in the game!) This isn’t fully transparent as you go, but you do get a callout of your top one or two stats as they increase (past a certain point, you’ll get a message telling you that you’re especially agile, for example).

Spelled out mechanically like this, there’s not much here, but the little vignettes are fun to engage with. The writing is quite evocative, and the implied setting adheres to a lot of classic dungeon-y tropes – yer bottomless shafts, yer golden treasure, yer mystical crones – but there are some fun twists, like a much higher prevalence of romance novels than in bog-standard Dungeons and Dragons, and some surprising interactions possible with a few of the dungeon features that I definitely don’t want to spoil (one involves a chest, is all I’ll say). And while in retrospect the association of choices to stats is clear, it’s not too thuddingly obvious as you play, and rarely seems crowbarred in. The downside to that, though, is that some of the stats that aren’t used as actively – I’m thinking mostly here of constitution – don’t come up as frequently.

Still, while I think it does what it’s trying to do, I wish there were maybe like 10-15% more here. I mean that both in terms of the content, since in each of two full playthroughs I saw rooms and challenges repeated (I don’t think I was backtracking), and also in incentivizing exploration. There’s a bit of inventory-tracking as you play through the game – I found a remarkably handy stick in my first go-round – including treasure you can carry out, and certain actions taken in-dungeon lead to the ending text calling out specific achievements as well as your base stats. With a persistent tracking system encouraging you to find the unexpected interactions, or some elements in the ending beyond the base stats that add consequences to the decisions, I think I’d have been more excited to re-engage with the game. This could be an idiosyncratic response – I’m a weirdo who will happily sink a hundred hours into an Assassins Creed game or roguelike but completely lose interest once I’m out of specified quests or goals even though I really like the systems! But especially in a Comp with so many other games on offer, a bit more of a prod to go back for more would have been welcome.

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Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos, by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa

If you’ve played other games by these authors, you probably have a reasonable sense of what you’re in for in JSEC: an off-kilter comedy with some surprisingly serious character work, clever implementation, and puzzles that are mostly there to shunt you to the next bit of story. You might rarely know exactly what’s happening at any point in time, or what you’re meant to be doing, but that sense of dislocation is integral to the game’s deadpan, absurdist delivery.

Attempting to sum up the plot here is a rather daunting prospect; yes, it’s a sort of private-detective missing-persons case, and you do track down suspects using internet searches, interrogate suspects, and look for hidden doors in the villain’s lair. But you’ll also fend off a snake attack while sleeping rough in a garage, get into buddy-comedy antics with two deeply unexpected sidekicks, and stop a pervert from creeping out other patrons at the library. There are a lot of animals involved – the game opens in a petting zoo that doubles as a bar, or perhaps it’s the other way around – for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (but sort of reminded me of Blade Runner?) There is a narrative through-line of sorts, but it’s really all about the ride – you could almost shift the order of the four or five main scenes that make up the plot and with only a few tweaks it’d probably still work.

JSEC is all about the texture, in other words. If you’re hyper-focused on tracking down leads and getting through the case, you won’t get nearly as much out of the game as if you poke and prod your way through at a more leisurely pace. The narrative voice guides you towards this approach, I think – the game is in first person, which allows Jay’s understated, anxious but somehow languid vibe to come to the fore. He’s the butt of some jokes, but cracks some good ones himself (I was a fan of his response to the cell-phone mishap that, given the claims in the blurb, of course occurs almost immediately after game start). He’s not exactly a relatable character, and his behavior can sometimes be pretty off-putting, but he means well, and, crucially, gets along well with the generally-really-pleasant supporting case.

Gameplay-wise, this is a talky one. This is handled smoothly, with a TALK TO command spitting out some ideas for topics to explore in depth, often with ASK X ABOUT Y syntax though sometimes, pleasingly, prompting alternative phrasing that make conversation seem more natural. These conversations aren’t puzzles – you can just exhaust the topics and get through just fine – but I found they had a good rhythm to them, which is really hard to manage in IF! There are also some puzzles, most of which are pretty straightforward but a few which are quite clever (though there’s one that I think will only be intuitive to folks in a very specific age band). Some even pull the rug out from under the player without making them the butt of the joke (I’m thinking in particular of the darkness puzzle in the cabin basement).

I did hit one puzzle that I think was a bit unfair and/or buggy: I’d hit on the idea of trying to deter the snakes by lowering the temperature, but couldn’t get this to work until I followed the LOOK -> LISTEN -> LOOK -> USE REMOTE sequence listed in the walkthrough; after I’d finally managed to succeed, in the course of three turns I slept through the night, woke up and had breakfast, then got into a cab, only for the snake-murder event to somehow fire well after the threat made sense. But the included walkthrough got me past that without much fuss.

It’s hard to think what else to say here except recite the various things that made me laugh or grin in delight, which isn’t very useful as it just ruins the fun. I will say the ending was surprisingly affecting, though not necessarily in a wholly positive way (I can’t believe those jerks killed Raisin!), which is maybe a good synecdoche for how JSEC does way more than it the average zany private-dick adventure, and is well worth your time.

edge of chaos - mr.txt (169.6 KB)

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