Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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.


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.


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).


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.


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.

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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.


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.

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Equal-librium, by Ima

I think many of us have had the experience of being on one side or another in a conversation where someone’s trying to communicate an experience that was incredibly profound and meaningful to them, but can’t articulate it in a way that really lands. It’s a frustrating experience – more so for the teller than the listener, I think – because even while it’s clear there’s something important on the table, the palpable lack of understanding becomes alienating. That’s very much how I felt about Equal-librium, a game desperate to share something life-changing, but which at best is only able to talk around the space where that something should go.

It’s hard to go into what I mean without spoiling the whole game – it’s very short, and there’s really only one central dilemma. So I’m going to assume you’ve finished it in the paragraphs that follow.
Right, so to sum up the story as I understand it: you play the CEO of an investment bank that seems to primarily deal with the resource-extraction industry. You’ve just cut a deal with a nonprofit to exploit some land they had obtained for conservation purposes, and as part of the negotiations you’d demanded (and received) a bribe. However, a hacker has accessed your email and found out about this, and is blackmailing you. Depending on whether you’ve managed to reconnect with an old friend from college when he accidentally spilled coffee on you earlier in the day, you either are able to identify the culprit, or have a last smoke and kill yourself.

This story doesn’t really make much sense – most notably, shouldn’t the bank be bribing the conservation nonprofit, and not the other way around? But stuff like that is relatively easy to ignore if the character work is up to snuff. Sadly, where Equal-librium really goes astray is in its depiction of the relationship with the old college friend. Shu/Will seems nice enough, and it’s clear there was some important connection between the two almost twenty years ago. But the game talks around that connection – it has something to do with the main character helping Shu quit smoking? – but it feels like there must have been something more important, and more reciprocal, going on.

The thematics of the ending also don’t feel like they quite click. In the “bad” ending, the CEO, facing the ruin of his reputation and bereft of human connection, decides to end it all. You then get some moralizing final text talking about the importance of balance: “Every system, whether the economy or the ecosystem, has an equilibrium. When we keep extracting the resources, exploiting human moral bottom-lines, consuming carelessly, and ignoring small but essential part of the system chain, the system sends a feedback loop to break in most unexpected ways… Perhaps you need to restart the system to really experience how good it is to be in Equal-librium.” But in the “good” ending, the main character is just able to strike back at their rival, and does reconnect with their friend, but doesn’t seem to change their ways at all, making the ultimate meaning very unclear.

The technical implementation is fine – the color and font choices are attractive, and there’s an undo button always available, so it’s simple to explore the different possibilities, which is good because I think the game only works if you can see the different paths. I did encounter an odd error having to do with a non-existent macro, but it didn’t seem to affect progress. I did find the prose a bit of a stumbling block; there aren’t many out-and-out typos or grammatical errors, but there’s a lot of awkward syntax and run-together clauses that made the writing a bit unclear at times. That’s Equal-librium in a nutshell, I think – there’s intentionality and heart to it, but in its current form, it’s not quite able to bring the player fully in to the experience it’s working to evoke.

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Quest for the Sword of Justice, by Damon L. Wakes

Your enjoyment of QftSoJ will come down to two things: 1) how forgiving are you of RPG Maker games in IFComp (I’m fine either way, though it doesn’t seem like the engine’s strengths are well-suited for the competition); and 2) are you in the market for a solidly-done but not especially groundbreaking JRPG satire (in space-year 2020, I gotta say – eh, not really?)

As with Equal-librium, this is a short game with only one real gag, so it’s impossible to discuss without blowing the punch-line. So you might as well go play it, it’ll take five minutes. I’ll keep busy here thinking about CRPG tropes that have and haven’t been sent up. Let’s see, there’s the slay-foozle plot, the companions who’ll defend you to the death five minutes after your first meeting, the economy-ruining hoards of magical items and gold you obtain after a couple hours of low-danger grinding, the way the world levels up alongside your character until you hit the town where every random guard is 60th level, the endless fetch-quests with either disproportionately meager or disproportionately lavish rewards… all that’s pretty well-plowed ground, I think. It’s pretty hard to think of something that hasn’t been the butt of lots and lots of jokes!

OK, we’re back, and now that we know QftSoJ takes aim at the adventurer-who-takes-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down-because-an-old-man-told-him-he-was-the-chosen-one, perhaps you too can relate to the sense of ennui in the first paragraph, above. This is a pretty good take on the genre, but to say it’s hoary is an insult to octogenarians. The joke is well constructed: while the absence of any introductory text setting up your task I think is a misstep, it’s pretty clear that you’re supposed to think you need to gather equipment before getting out of town (and that you’ll specifically need a sword to clear some foliage for one of the villagers). The backstory the old man spouts is just the sort of generic JRPG guff that makes the player’s eyes roll without reading it closely enough to realize it’s loony. And there’s a bit of reactivity at the trial depending on your previous actions, as well as your legal strategy, making it worth a replay to see the different outcomes (of course you’re doomed no matter what).

But even the greatest amount of craft has a hard time making a five-minute joke game all that memorable. And I personally found the setup funnier than the actual writing and jokes (with one or two exceptions: the protagonist being named “Adonis Orcbane” is 80% of the way to being a great gag, and the guard arresting you with a “You’re nicked, Sonny Jim!” got a chortle out of me). If it’s your first time encountering this sort of thing, I could see QftSoJ being a hoot – but it’s hard for me to believe that’s true for many folks!

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Captain Graybeard’s Plunder, by Julian Mortimer Smith

Captain Graybeard’s Plunder neatly inverts the old adage that history is written by the victors; here, fiction is remixed by the losers. As a pirate captain whose career was ended by complacency (indirectly) and a royal galleon (rather more directly), you take solace in your retirement by dreaming up how things might have gone differently if your ship, crew, and, er, hand-replacing prosthetic had been up to snuff. The gag is that rather than inventing these upgrades whole cloth, instead you turn to your character’s amply library for inspiration, so that, for example, you might imagine a rematch where your crew are veterans straight out of Treasure Island, or where you boast Captain Hook’s eponymous pointy bit atop your stump.

That’s all there is to it, really: this isn’t a puzzle, as any combination of choices appears to lead to a satisfying bout of vengeance, plus there are only three choices for each of the three variables so you’ll run through all of them in only a couple of replats. A grounded character-study or bit of world-building this is not – the captain is your stereotypical pirate save for his love of literature (though pirates do love their arrs, so I suppose it’s not too surprising he got stuck on reading and writing), and the fact that you can plunder from Peter Pan makes the timeline quite suspect!

Fortunately, CGP has charm in spades and that’s what carries it through. The writing ably inhabits the pirate milieu, and effectively conveys both the joys of buccaneering and the transporting power of a good book. The presentation is splendid too, with each of the books you steal from rendered in its own slightly different cursive font, which carries through into the battle re-creation to make it clear how you’ve stitched everything together. There aren’t major variations depending on your choices, but though they’re small, the responsiveness is nonetheless satisfying, as you get to feel like your choice of Captain Nemo’s sub, for example, was an especially smart one. CGP knows what it’s about, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and made me realize it’s been too long since I’ve reread Moby Dick, which is a lot to accomplish in a ten-minute game!


A Murder in Fairyland, by Abigail Corfman

All through the Comp, I’ve been waiting for a specific kind of game to show up in my queue: a choice-based game that uses some elements typically found in parser games (compass navigation, an inventory and object-based puzzles, etc.) and focuses on puzzles. I like this sort of thing – Chuk and the Arena from last year’s Comp is a great example – so I was a bit disappointed that it looked like I was going to get through 2020 without seeing one. Lo and behold, A Murder in Fairyland showed up three quarters of the way through my queue, and now that itch is well and truly scratched.

It looks like AMiF is set in the same world as the author’s previous games, but I haven’t played them, and I have to confess I found one element the setting off-putting at first: with the blurb and cover art leading me up to expect a jaunt to a classical conception of Faerie, running into a joke about “Steam-powered engines” that riffs on the video-game platform drew me up short. There are also bits of code embedded in the spells you gather, which at first I thought were bugs, and everyone speaks with an @ before their name like they’re tweeting at you rather than having a normal conversation. I’m not sure why these things rubbed me the wrong way, since I wound up really enjoying some aspects of the fae-world-meets-modernity setting, like the bureaucracy and social justice organizing (more on those below) – it might have just been mis-set expectations, or just that Internet culture parodies don’t have much personal appeal for me. Folks who have played the previous games, or who are more drawn to this sort of comedic approach, probably wouldn’t face the same barrier to entry, and it’s a pretty modest one at any rate.

While we’re on the subject of potentially misleading stuff in the blurb: admitting that I’m not very good at puzzles sometimes, and I also tried to wait out a specific timing puzzle rather than expend resources to get around it, this is more like two hours to get to an unsatisfying ending and three to actually solve the mystery. I don’t think I learned about the eponymous murder until after the one-hour mark, in fact! AMiF has a relatively small map, but boasts lots of multi-part puzzles, an expandable roster of spells, minigames, and more. There are often ways to bypass challenges by expending a set of resources that seem finite but ultimately are renewable once you solve a specific puzzle, but that puzzle is a reasonably hard one, and buying your way through the plot probably isn’t the most fun way to engage with the game anyway. There’s a lot here to play around with, and I think it’s better to go in with that expectation.

Leading with these somewhat negative comments I think accurately conveys my initial impressions of the game, but to be clear, once I had a better sense of what was going on here I had a lot of fun with it, because the worldbuilding is ultimately quite fun and the puzzles are clever and very satisfying to work through. First, on the world, it really effectively recasts old-school fairy-tale tropes (a focus on seasonality and bargains, eating anything is dangerous) using a modern lens (there are voting rules and politicking around the seasonal courts, the bargains have turned into contracts that are part of a hidebound bureaucracy, and the faerie court’s indifference to issues of civil rights and social justice is a meaningful sub-theme – the player character is in a wheel chair, and while they’re quite capable, it’s also clear that this world does not take their needs into account).

This isn’t just a fresh coat of paint slapped on the same hoary skeleton – there’s clearly a lot of thought that went into how this society’s institutions would function. As someone who works in advocacy, I was impressed by the protest organized by gnomes and other smaller creatures to push for better accessibility – it’s a bit silly to hear a magical being talking about how they’re trying to ensure the optics of the event line up with the broader message of the campaign, or how they’re trying to open up opportunities for solidarity without risking the movement being co-opted, but actually this is smart, respectful stuff!

And this isn’t just idle worldbuilding, either, because there’s also a lot of care to link the setting with the gameplay, meaning the core puzzles feel well-integrated into this specific story. I’m using some wiggle words here because there are some puzzles that are functionally standalone minigames – there are word-searches which even in retrospect feel a little out-of-place, as well as a Fool’s-Errand-referencing card game that doesn’t feel especially connected to anything. But for the most part these are tied to the resource-management layer of the game, rather than the puzzles that gate progression or impact the plot.

Most of the latter have to do with the bureaucracy of Fairyland, and specifically finding and filling out forms, having to do with everything from lodging complaints to accessing records to requesting permission to do or know a particular thing. These puzzles are great! There’s a complicated instruction manual on how the various forms are indexed, which is really satisfying to work through, and then the filling-out process feels appropriately fiddly while usually offering sufficient opportunities to get help or in the worst case just brute-force your way through. And while the game’s structure is maybe a bit too linear during the opening act (there’s a three-part puzzle that can be worked on in any order, admittedly, but two of the steps were much easier than the third so it felt like there was really only one plausible sequence), it opens up quite a lot once the murder investigation proper begins, with many different strands of evidence and potential motives to track down.

The investigation itself boasts a couple of fun twists: one that’s revealed quite early (there are a bunch of suspects all claiming to have done the deed, since it improves their reputations for ruthlessness), and another that unfolds midway through (turns out the real puzzle isn’t so much solving the murder as it is engineering a specific political outcome). This is all really fun to work through, and while the broad strokes of what’s going on don’t take too long to figure out, putting together all the steps needed to get to a good result gives you the pleasant feeling of having a plan, then working to accomplish it by making a series of logical deductions and taking well-motivated actions. I wasn’t able to fully solve AMiF (debunking Nyx’s claim to be the murderer eluded me – I thought it might have something to do with photographing the stab wounds, or bribing him with the goblin-made horn, but neither of those worked) but you don’t need to check all the boxes to get a satisfying ending.

Ultimately, despite some initial incorrect assumptions about what AMiF was going to be about, I really had a fun time with what winds up being a satisfying game that checks just about all the boxes. Once the Comp wraps up, I’m definitely checking out some of the author’s other work!

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Sage Sanctum Scramble, by Arthur DiBianca

Reader, a confession: it’s only now, as I’m sitting down to write this review, that I have realized that Sage Sanctum Scramble and Under They Thunder were written by different people. I must have gotten that impression when I was first page-downing my way through the giant list of games, and my shortcut-loving brain must have thought “right, two word games by people whose names started with A, that’s all sorted then,” despite the fact that I’ve played other games by both authors before. Anyway, the conceit for this review was going to be a compare-and-contrast between the two games, which felt reasonable to do when I thought they were by the same person but churlish and weird now that I have at long last disassembled the DiBianca-Schultz gestalt entity living in my head. I guess we’ll just have to wing it!

Typically I like to start with the premise, but, um, that feels challenging here. I’m going to attempt to describe the plot without going back to my notes: you (I don’t think who you are is explained) are magically whisked to an other-worldly word-sanctum, where the head of the titular sages tells you they need your help: an evil four-armed monster is using magic to tear up the place and you need to solve a bunch of word puzzles to build out the vocabulary you’ll need to fight him. OK, let’s see how I did… huh, turns out my brain is playing tricks again, because the game actually sets things up with you solve word puzzles in medias res, and you only get one sentence’s worth of backstory/motivation after you’ve figured out ten of them. This is sub-Bookworm Adventures in terms of character-centricity and narrative cohesion, with the main defining feature being lots and lots of silly names that seem like they should be anagram-jokes but aren’t.

Anyway who cares because I loved this. The premise is there to get you solving word puzzles; there are several dozen on offer, and though you can get a solid enough ending after getting as few as thirty, I banged my way through all of them (sixty, plus the bonus ones too!) because I was having so much fun. There’s nothing too novel here, though there is an impressive variety: there are word-substitution puzzles, mastermind-style word-guessing games, word-bridge puzzles where you’re transforming a word one letter at a time, and of course lots and lots of anagrams. Each puzzle is self-contained and fairly quick to solve once you get the trick, and while I don’t think there are any repeats, the later, much harder puzzles build off of what came before, so even the trickiest of them feel like they’re playing by a consistent, fair set of rules that have been introduced to the player.

The puzzles unlock as you solve them, and you typically have the choice of half a dozen or so, which means it’s easy enough to hop around and feel like you’re making progress – it was only when I was closing in on the last ten or so that progress began to slow, at which point I was sufficiently in the head-space of the game (like, I was starting to look for anagrams in work emails) that I appreciated the challenge. They’re almost all impeccably constructed in terms of puzzle design: there are definitely several that would be hard for folks who don’t have a mastery of English idiom (the one where you need to figure out what two words have in “uncommon”, or a few that rely on knowing a common phrase based on one word in it, come to mind), and a few that rely as much on grunt work as a moment of inspiration, but almost always when I got a solution (or, for some of the last few, was prompted to the solution by some considerately-provided hints on the forum), I was smacking my head and muttering “that makes sense.”

The technical implementation is also incredibly impressive – everything just works, which at first I didn’t really pay attention to because these are just word puzzles, how complex can it be? But when I thought about the amount of work that would need to go into each and every one of the over fifty on offer, in terms of coding custom responses and making what’s basically a different limited-parser game for each (you access a puzzle index by typing PUZZLES and then using numbers to jump around the list, BOOK shows you the keywords you’ve accumulated, and other than that it’s basically just typing in guesses), while having to parse not just whole words and recognize the entire dictionary, but also for many registering and responding to the individual letters and lengths… it’s very impressive, I repeat, and almost completely smooth (I think there were like two times when I got an incorrect result – one was when it wouldn’t accept “anoint” as a verb starting with a, to give you a flavor of what these edge cases are like).

There’s a smart layer of meta-progression over the puzzles that makes it even more compelling than it would be as a strict grab-bag, too. To beat the boss (you remember there was a monster, right? In the rich and compelling backstory?) you need to engage him in a word-fight, and while merely winning just requires you to accumulate enough keywords, he also throws out spells that can only be defended against if you’ve got a matching keyword: one that’s a palindrome, or only made up of letters from the second half of the alphabet. If you don’t have one, it’s not game over, but the eponymous sanctum takes some damage, which makes the ending feel a little less happy. Fortunately, you can always REWIND and try again after padding out your arsenal some more. There’s also a small set of bonus puzzles that unlock some alternate options around the ending, and which were quite fun to find and work through, with the caveat that it took me much longer to figure out how to access them than it should have because I failed at counting.

As I have with many other reviews in the Comp, I’ll conclude by making the obvious point that this is a game with a specific target audience, and if you’re in it you’ll probably really enjoy it but if word puzzles aren’t your jam, you’ll probably appreciate its craft but not find it too compelling. The difference is, I’m actually in that target audience this time out, and hopefully it’s clear that despite my affectionate bagging on the story and premise, I loved it to death. Here’s hoping for a sequel in next year’s Comp!

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