Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

OMG that was amazing! I knew it wasn’t real but when it happened I stared at it convinced a fly had landed on my screen. It was fast, realistic and well done, like those tricks where it looks like a fruit fly is crawling onscreen. I wish they’d repeated it (or maybe covered the screen with flies!) during the finale. I’d forgotten to mention how effective that was in my impressions.

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I’m so glad to hear the jump-scare was effective! I had considered doing what you suggested (covering the screen with flies at the end) but thought that might be overplaying my hand. And the coding involved! :rofl:

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I expected something like that to happen at the end and totally believe the story earns it. Even if you didn’t cover the screen with flies, maybe have the fly come back in the outro to haunt you forever! Or even perhaps the one fly comes back…and it’s joined by another…smash to credits.

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What the Bus?, by E. Joyce

Weird confession: I’ve been a public-transit user all my life, and now that I haven’t had a commute in over six months – I kind of miss it? Despite the fact that What the Bus? presents public transit commuting (accurately, at least by my experience living in LA!) as a surrealistic nightmare of mysterious delays, interminable transfers, and subterranean disorientation, I sank into it like a warm blanket, partially because it was scratching an itch I didn’t know I had. Again and again I smiled in fond recognition at things that are, objectively, awful:

“You follow signs for the Blue Line through a long tunnel, up a flight of stairs, down a shorter flight of stairs, up another flight of stairs, through some sort of central lobby with an insane number of passages branching off of it, and then down a hallway that you feel like has one too many right turns.”

Yup, I’ve transferred from the 1 to the A-C-E in New York by going through that awful Times Square to Port Authority tunnel, this is exactly right.

“The train is packed, other than one conspicuously empty seat, which you avoid.”

This is obviously correct behavior.

After complaining to a friend about delays:

“Yeah, I hate that, Chris replies. Especially when it’s due to an unspecified emergency or the existence of seasons. Those are the worst.”

Indeed, who at a transit agency could have ever predicted seasons!

Admittedly, there’s not much to the game besides navigating the Kafkaesque labyrinth in search of the ten endings, which are helpfully tracked for you – though I like to think the fact that I got to my office successfully on my second try indicates that real-life skill with public transit translates. But there’s plenty to enjoy along each of the branches, and the “Back” button at the bottom of each passage makes it easy to check out other paths. And now that I’ve played What the Bus?, I think I miss my commute a little less!

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Oooh, I like both those ideas! The ending was creepy enough as it was (I considered citing some of the ending text as an example of how good the prose is, but decided to hold off so as not to undermine the impact for any new players) but that would really put it over the top!

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Quintessence, by Andrea P. Pawley

There’s a fun mix of the whimsical and the scientific in Quintessence. The player character is one of a group of multiply-incarnating quantum intelligences, who goes on a cosmic romp aiming to foil the plots of an-powerful cat to contact a broader multiverse. On the whimsical side, the cursor shapeshifts as the player’s circumstances change, from cat to dinosaur to dog; on the scientific side, I caught lightly-allegorized references to straightforward stuff like the Big Bang and the expansion of the universe, but also choices that bear on whether this particular universe is closed or open in the cosmological sense.

I sometimes found it a bit challenging to reconcile the two sides of the piece – possibly this is because I, a pedant who studied astrophysics in undergrad, kept trying to figure out what was “really” going on in the various options about how the dog-civilization should try to make contact with parallel realities, rather than simply going with the flow of things. But I think the structure of the piece also maybe pushes play in this direction, since there are clearly “right” and “wrong” answers and branches.

There are five “real” endings (I found two of them, including what seems to be the best one), but many other choices will lead to the cat foiling your explorations, sending you back to the start. Without a way to undo or save, this means that the choices feel fairly weighty, since an incorrect one can require a fair bit of repetition to get back to the place where you made an incorrect choice.

Since there are consequences for the choices, what sometimes felt like a lack of full information about the context and implications of those choices undermined the joy of exploration for me – which is a shame, because there are definitely places where this combination of hard science and animal allegory is really fun (I mentioned the dog civilization!) Hopefully there’s a post-comp release with a back button or the ability to save, since I’d look forward to checking out the other paths through the game.

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Just Another Fairy Tale, by Finn Rosenløv

Much like Hansel and Gretel, this one needs a bit more time in the oven, I fear.

The overall setting and structure for JAFT are nothing close to original – the player character is a ten-year-old who’s contacted by a wizard and transported to a fantasy land to save it from a wicked queen – but some good old tropes are good and old for a reason. Entering the world is at first like entering a warm bath, as you pick clean a homely cottage in the woods and then enter a dark forest for some light adventuring. The writing is undistinguished, but fits this high-fantasy story with a pre-teen protagonist just fine.

There are a few things that distinguish JAFT from the countless other stories with similar premises. First, there’s a note of whimsy and humor – I’m thinking especially of the puzzle involving the trolls (they’re from Poland, so of course when they’re turned to stone by the sun, they transform into petrified wooden poles) and a punny bit of business involving a magic clock. Several puzzles also have alternate solutions or offer multiple paths through the game, which is very helpful given that I found the difficulty level of the game quite high.

On the negative side, there are two primary issues I had with JAFT that wind up reinforcing each other. Many puzzles rely on what I’d call pixel-hunting design in a graphic adventure – there are many progression-critical objects that can only be found by methodically examining every single word that’s mentioned in a description, and even some that aren’t (for the former issue, I’m thinking primarily of the sprig of thyme, where you need to examine one specific piece of the hedge despite there being no reason to think to look there; for the latter, all of the hidden spots on walls that don’t draw any attention to themselves).

The related issue is that “near-miss” solutions don’t wind up generating helpful nudges to the right track, but rather parser confusion. I had to go to the walkthrough to get through the aforementioned bit with the trolls, because something I was expecting to be there wasn’t, and the responses to trying to interact with it didn’t lead me in the right direction, even though what was going on should have been obvious to the player character (that is, I kept trying to X TROLLS or X STATUES to no real effect, even though apparently there were a bunch of giant troll-shaped wooden poles lying in the clearing). Dialogue with characters similarly felt very fiddly – there was one puzzle (talking then listening to the wind to get the dragon’s name) that I couldn’t get to work even when I was trying to just type in the walkthrough commands. And there were several guess the verb/guess the noun issues that stymied progress.

Combined, these two issues meant I felt like I was groping my way through JAFT, unclear on what I should be doing or how I should be doing it or if I was close to a solution or miles off. Again, I think the basic concept is solid, and some of the puzzles do have some promise, but there’s some significant polishing to be done to make the experience of playing the game fit the charming, winsome mood the story’s trying to create.

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the title “deus ex ceviche” is a pun – DEC!

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Chorus, by Skarn

I’m usually a story/writing-first, systems-later sort of player, but Chorus’s big puzzle grabbed me hard, and I spent more time replaying and fiddling with it than any other game in the Comp so far. On the down side, this is because I found the prose at times a bit flat, and certainly often overwhelming; on the positive side, it’s because the meta-puzzle provides lots of rewarding reveals and surprise interactions as the player pokes and prods with it.

Right, backing up: in Chorus, you’re tasked with helping what’s basically a community-based organization of (mostly mythical Greek and/or Lovecraftian) monsters do some public service: hunting down raw materials, sorting out paperwork in the library, that sort of thing. You don’t play a specific character, but get to eavesdrop on the thoughts and decisions of nine central characters in turn, deciding how to allocate them between the three main tasks and then doing an additional task-prioritization within each of the three. If you’ve matched the right character to the right task and sub-task, the job gets done; if not, not. Along the way, there are a fair number of potential character beats, both positive and negative, depending on which people you’ve grouped together.

The premise is a fun, unique one, though I’m not sure the writing fully does it service. The monsters, as mentioned, are a sort of twee Lovecraft (there’s a slime-girl named Tekeli, e.g., plus Camilla who might be from the King in Yellow?), but the prose is actually fairly grounded. I suppose you could say this fits the entertainingly bureaucratic and grounded premise, but perhaps leaves some fun on the table (I believe the game may have been translated, given that French comes first in the FR-EN toggle, and I think there were some cases where the prose was adopting French sentence structure in a way that felt awkward, which also maybe sapped some of the fun from the writing).

Chorus also wears its worldbuilding rather heavily – the initial sequence feels very overwhelming, as it jumps in in medias res and then runs through the nine different characters without giving much chance to catch one’s breath or refer back to what and who came before (the fact that all the characters are female, and many have names starting with C or K, makes keeping track of things even more difficult). Despite all this exposition, there were parts of the setting I didn’t fully understand – there’s some broader organization or powers that seem to be over the community folks, and which they resent but nonetheless have to work for, but this never fully clicked for me even though interactions with these powers seemed to be ultimately what the game positioned as important, given how the different endings play out.

All right, so that’s the grousing out of the way. On the flip side, the tasks themselves are enormous fun, both because they’re very clever examples of what a monster-y community service organization would do, and because the sub-tasks are lots of fun to dig into. The library bit, for example, has you sorting through half a dozen books looking for supernatural secrets, and the different powers of the various characters can turn up very different results! Careful attention to the dossiers, prompts in the text, and lateral thinking all pay dividends, and it’s very compelling to tweak your solution to try to optimize it. And as mentioned, there are some unexpected and fun interactions that can happen when you pair up the right set of characters, which feel like fun easter-eggs and make it feel like you’re making progress even when you still have a ways to go. It would be nice if there were a way to speed up replays – primarily by making it easier to skip through the exposition, since I think Chorus really shines on repeat play and has big just-one-more-go energy.

I very much hope there’s a post-comp release, or even a sequel/expansion, both to continue a story which clearly has more room to grow, but also to clean up these few niggles – with writing that’s a bit sharper and more careful pacing-out of the worldbuilding, this could be a real classic.

Ha, there it is! The lack of pun was bothering me, thank you for pointing it out :slight_smile:

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i actually didn’t think of it until i saw the URL, so i also needed it spelled out in a sense :slight_smile:

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The Land Down Under, by the Marino Family

I dunno – on this one I’m slack-jawed, don’t have much to say.

…sorry.

Anyway, The Land Down Under, which I’m going to call LDU from here on out to avoid further temptation, is an appealing fantasy adventure with a moral and an entertainingly-realized world, plus some jokes that, unlike the one at the top of this review, actually work.

The fantastical bit of the premise is immediately grabby – the player character needs to explore a magic sort of paper-doll world to find other kids who’ve been sucked into it – but I have to admit I found the character introductions, and the emotional dynamics between them, a little more confusing in opening. I suspect this is because I haven’t played the earlier games in this series, though LDU does draw attention to their existence and even includes links to play them in-game, so that’s on me I suppose. Still, given that the heart of the game is the relationship between Lin, Wanda, and Peter, I felt like I had to fill in those details based on what I learned once in paperworld, rather than coming into it with a strong understanding of them from the real-world sections.

Once Lin is shrunk down and paperfied, though, I experienced charm overload. The mechanics of how this paper world work are clearly thought through and delightfully presented, both in a playful narrative voice and the occasional illustration that really fits the storybook vibe. I’ll spoiler-block two of my favorite bits so as not to ruin things: trying to surf the breeze as a paper-person was super fun, and the kitchen table that flips from breakfast to dinner back to breakfast was a great gag!

There are lots of choice along the way, and the game clearly signposts which are important by presenting them as an exclusive list at the end of a passage, with regular progression and exploration handled with inline links. There are some dead-ends, but there’s an undo mechanic that’s sufficiently generous to make them not feel punitive, as well as providing a further reward for poking beyond the critical path.

Surprisingly to me, LDU does touch on some relatively heavy themes – not just the expected look at escapism and conformity, but there are also hits of trauma, divorce, and depression around the edges. This is done with a light touch, though: they add weight and some added significance to the story without creating a tonal mismatch by dragging things into grimdarkness.

I did run into issue that I think is a bug, though I’ll blur it out since it involves a mechanical spoiler (after I found the second part of the poem right after getting to school, I was asked if I wanted to trade in my poetry power for extra jetpacks. When I said yes, the story put me back to where I was when I found the first half of the poem, just before entering the paper world. I was able to replay and then finish the game with no further issues, though). But overall the implementation was smooth, allowing me to focus on experiencing the heartfelt story.

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Ascension of Limbs, by AKheon

Huh, somehow the randomizer decided to cluster the Lovecraftian systems-driven games all together. AoL applies effective horror theming to what’s mechanically a sort of card game (I think if you squint at it, it might be doing something like Cultist Simulator in parser-IF, though I’m not really sure since I only played Cultist Simulator for like 20 minutes before bouncing off of it, thinking I’d get back to it, and then all the Alexis Kennedy #MeToo stuff came out and, nope). Much like with Chorus, the real fun is in replaying and optimizing, though here there are a lot of different outcomes, both positive and negative.

For all that it is a very mechanical game, there is a fair bit of writing, and most of it is I think quite good. Honestly I’m a bit burned out on straight Lovecraft at this point, but the author really hits the tone, including not just the expected tropes about sinister cults and dark inheritances, but also paying attention to the internal stresses on the player character in a way that doesn’t just hit lazy stereotypes about mental illness. And on subsequent plays, you can enter an “Arcade” mode that skims over some of the more lugubrious bits of writing. There are several characters with whom to interact, though I thought more could have been done to give them a personality – the various customers come and go quickly, and most conversations wind up being alternate ways to engage with the mechanics.

Good news then that the systems are solidly built, and just as importantly, the game is well-paced so that a playthrough doesn’t stretch beyond the amount of content. There are clear early, middle, and late-games, with distinct challenges and risk/reward calculations to play out, and with clear signposting of the different paths to try to follow. Most of what you do is match a limited (but expanding) set of verbs to a limited (but expanding) set of nouns, while running a cursed antique shop.

The basic loop is of finding goods, some mundane but some rather unique and eldritch, in the labyrinthine recesses of the shop, promoting your store to bring in customers and their cash, then using the cash to improve the store and pay upkeep, while dealing with the odd raving loon or incident of vandalism. Going after anything beyond mere material remuneration, like ancient artifacts and forbidden lore, requires juggling additional mechanics including sanity and infamy, and considering making a variety of deals with a variety of devils.

This is a solid structure, and there are a good number of different things to be pursuing, or worry about going wrong, at any moment – beyond the three core victory paths, there are four or five different ways to lose if things start going badly along the different tracks. But the player usually has a good number of options to forestall disaster, plus UNDO is permitted which helps obviate some of the randomness of a few of the events, so it’s usually possible to settle back and play things safe. It’s relatively simple to get into a stable position, and then getting to the more interesting endgames is primarily about when you want to start taking bigger risks for bigger rewards, which seems appropriately in-theme. Towards the latter end of a play-through, interest can start to wane, since there’s only a finite store of characters, unique items, and special events, but I found this was only an issue when I was going for the special mega-ending that combines all three of the primary ones – otherwise it goes down sharp and easy.

I also wanted to call out that the included walkthrough is quite good, and makes for interesting reading as basically a set of design notes. I had to consult it to get to the even more special bonus ending (I could not figure out how to avoid being on good terms with the seer, since even trying to kill her wasn’t doing the trick! I don’t think I would have hit on either of the options for doing so on my own) but would definitely recommend doing so, though only after you’ve decided you’re finished playing because it lays everything quite bare.

Oh, and I can’t help sharing the way I customized the super secret ending (which I didn’t include in the transcript since I neglected to start a new one after I quit out to read the walkthrough):

Let us begin a new spiritual task that will allow us to keep growing going forward. Let us ensure that even when our work is done, our work will continue. Let us show our initiative and make κλάδος proud. Let us believe in Puppies from now on. Let us cultivate puppies. Let us trust in puppies! After consulting the treatises of ανάβαση, I believe the best way to do this is by tail-wagging’.

Ascension of Limbs MR.txt (437.8 KB)

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Red Radish Robotics, by Gibbo

In some ways it’s apt that the randomizer gave me Red Radish Robots right after Ascension of Limbs (yes, I’ve gotten to the point in the Comp where I’m starting to think about the randomizer…), because while AoL’s secret sauce was that it was paced just the right length for its content, RRR suffers from stretching on too long for the interest its setting and puzzles can support.

The concept is a fine if unexceptional one – robot waking up after some kind of disaster and trying to reconstruct what’s happening while solving straightforward puzzles – but the trouble is, it isn’t too hard to suss out what’s happened, and the puzzles are all quite straightforward. The closest thing to a twist is that the robot has been deactivated without fingers, so you need to gather them one by one until you have a full complement of ten, which allows you to get to the end-game. But ten is too high a number to which to have to count, given that you mostly find them by unlocking doors (some with keys, some by oiling stuck ones), opening multiple safes, finding a note where someone’s written down their computer login and clues to their password… Again, there’s nothing wrong with the classics, but in too large portions it feels overly starchy.

There are ways to be destroyed or get to a dead end, but a limited number of respawns are possible (respawns also appear to somehow rewind time as to at least one object, which is helpful but confusing!) The writing is typo-free and does what it needs to to communicate the setting and what’s going on. And there are a couple of puzzles that have a bit more zip to them, like the final one (though requiring the player to lie to the “bad” robot, then sucker-punch him while shouting out that I’m fine being a slave was maybe not my favorite aspect of the game). But my interest started to flag on like the sixth spin through the same eight rooms to see what one new quotidian interaction my incremental progress had unlocked, before having to do the inevitable seventh. All this speaks well of what the author will do next – and there are indications there’s more work already in the oven – hopefully with a bit of trimming to cut away any unneeded filler!

What a long review! :eyes:

I’m glad to hear that you found the systems solid. The sandbox could always be larger with a few more mechanics and items, but it might be best to keep things relatively streamlined in a pure text-based format since at some point the sheer amount of information to relate to the player becomes too much. I’m still interested in continuing the development of AoL in some form in the future.

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If I can’t always offer keen analysis or surprising insight, at least I can throw together a lot of words, is my general theory of reviewing :slight_smile:

And yeah, I think your instincts on keeping things relatively streamlined are right, and helped AoL land in a sweet spot pacing-wise. Since you’re interested in more work on it (yay!), maybe it’s worth thinking about things that might change existing behavior or items, or swap in for them, instead of just being additive? I didn’t really explore whether choosing a different backstory for how you got the shop changes things, but that might be one approach. Or switching up or randomizing the nature of the cult and their artifacts, though that would probably be a lot of work!

But Undum… [wistful sigh]

In my opinion it produces the most beautiful games I’ve ever seen, and I wish I was smart enough to actually use it!

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Oh, I hadn’t realized there was a specific library behind LDU – I’m not at all versed in the technical details of Twine, so thanks for mentioning that! I did think the layout was really nice, since it integrated the graphics well, toggled cleanly between hyperlinks and listed choices, and had those flexible side-windows with the character stats and about the author blurbs. So it’s definitely effective – glad that the author mastered what’s apparently a really challenging system to make it!

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I WANT ALL THE PROGRESS BARS!

undum is actually an entirely separate system from twine. the games you might remember best for it were made with bruno dias’ extension of it, “raconteur.”

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