Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

We need reviews on all the games from the Ferryman’s Gate protagonist where the review has a singular focus on comma usage throughout each game.

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I am ashamed not to have thought of this gimmick!

Sonder Snippets, by Sana

Another short choice-based game that didn’t quite land for me, Sonder Snippets offers a few densely-written fables, with a slight frame story of a grandmother telling stories to a child. There are a few passages with lots of words to click, but how these relate to the text or whether they impact the stories you hear wasn’t obvious to me, and the frame story is very minimally suggested (I only fully twigged to what was happening after a story concluded and I was given a choice to hear another one or “make new memories” by having the grand-daughter go outside and playing with other children). So the meat is really in the fables, which are – basically fine?

They seem to be creation-myths or just-so stories, which are hard to write because it’s challenging to reconcile the abstract, iconic nature of such storytelling with the specificity and detail that gives a tale its punch. I thought How the Elephant’s Child…, from much earlier in my list, nailed this balance, admittedly by aping Kipling and eschewing the cosmological for the more practical. Sonder Snippets I think sticks too close to the abstraction side of things: all the stories seem to involve a Thief (capital the author’s) who’s a sort of demiurge or at least trickster-figure, who addresses the moon, or a lover, and does – stuff. That’s an awful word, I know, but it’s pretty hard to decode the meaning beneath language that’s often intentionally obfuscated. This sort of technique can create a dreamlike sense of allusion, but I confess it more usually felt muddled to me, especially because the tone seemed less folkloric and more undergraduate po-mo. Consider:

I think this is about oceans or the tide or something? It just leaves me a bit cold – it’s too high-level, there’s nothing I was able to grab on to.

The stories are also fairly short (maybe 4-500 words?) and there aren’t that many of them: the first time I played, after getting my first story, I clicked the link to hear another, which brought me to a second, but then I got that same second story four times in a row. I dipped back in for a quick replay as I wrote this review, and looks like there are a few more, so perhaps I just got unlucky that first time, but it’s still a fairly limited pool, with no customization or responsiveness to other choices within the stories as far as I can tell. And by design, you just keep clicking through to generate a new story until you get bored and decide to send the grand-daughter outside to make snow-forts.

Sonder Snippets isn’t bad by any means, with technically-solid writing and bug-free implementation, and stories that clearly have significance to the author. And I liked the few hints I got of the relationship between the grandmother and grand-daughter. But it doesn’t feel like a game that’s considered what impact it wants to have on its audience, and tailored itself accordingly.

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The Incredibly Mild Misadventures of Tom Trundle, by B F Lindsay

OK, I’m going to assign several Pinocchios to the “incredibly mild” tag, because while there are a lot of things you could say about this game, “mild” sure doesn’t seem like one of them. I mean that positively: TIMMoTT has a strong and appealing narrative voice, a distinctive setting, and some fiendish (in a good way) puzzles. But I also mean it negatively: the protagonist’s well-meaning but still an often-annoying horndog, the overall plot oscillates between ridiculous and insane, and there are some fiendish (in a bad way) puzzles. And unlike the title, the “more than two hours” warning in the blurb is completely accurate – this is a big one that took me about four hours to work through, including recourse to the hints and walkthrough on more than one occasion. For all this, I did enjoy my time with the game, but it was a complicated, spiky sort of enjoyment.

With something as overwhelming as this, it’s tricky to figure out where to start but I guess we can default to the plot. For over an hour (that is, over halfway through the judging window), I thought TIMMoTT was doing a sort of Risky Business thing, with its 1980s setting, focus on adolescents desperate to get laid, and late-first-act reveal that the main character has a friends-with-benefits arrangement with a significantly-older prostitute named Anne (buckle up, it’s gonna get weirder). But then the story shifts in a radically different direction: after his girlfriend breaks up with him so she can move to California and start a new life, the protagonist goes to visit her for one last heart to heart, only to find out she’s been kidnapped. Her house’s phone starts ringing, and when he answers it, it’s the kidnapper, who says he wants the main character to bring Anne’s book of clients to the school as a hostage swap. Thus is the meat of the game revealed: a long puzzle-fest gradually unlocking different parts of the very large school map, following a breadcrumb trail of taunting notes from the kidnapper. Along the way you’ll interact with a bunch of teachers and janitors (in the middle of doing a Spring Break deep-cleaning), discover at least five secret passages, and juggle more sets of keys than Inform’s default disambiguation systems can really keep up with (I’d hoped that the keyring you start with would automate some of this, but no such luck).

There are a couple things to say about this story. The first and most obvious one is that it makes no damn sense – feel free to come up with your own plot hole, but the main piece I got stuck on is that the kidnapper’s whole plot makes no sense: they clearly were in Anne’s house so if they wanted to find the notebook, searching her very few unpacked possessions would obviously be far less work than the weird mindgame he pulls on Tom. And even assuming he couldn’t find the notebook and actually wanted it, why create so many hoops to jump through that would almost certainly mean Tom would never find the hand-off point? There’s bonus craziness around the whole cult/ritual thing that swerves into Satanic panic, but let’s leave that aside for now. Second, though, it also creates a tonal mismatch with the first part of the game – the relatively grounded teen romance stuff falls by the wayside as the genre shifts from Risky Business to I dunno, like Mazes and Monsters?

At least the narrative voice is consistent throughout, even if the plot elements and tropes shift substantially. An initial warning about the writing: there is a lot of it, and while it’s generally error-free and pretty fun to read, it’s not uncommon for the description of an ordinary room to be preceded with two or three paragraphs of introductory material and then have the room itself take up the rest of the screen. There are also a lot of noninteractive dialogue sequences and cutscenes that are easily a thousand words or more. I didn’t mind this so much, as a matter of personal preference, but I’m not sure this approach is best suited for an interactive medium.

The game is in first person (past tense, with a few small errors), and Tom is generally good company as he explains what the deal is with all his classmates, muses about how he’ll spend his Spring Break, and (eventually) puzzles out how to make progress through the labyrinth the school becomes. He’s a laid-back guy who curses a lot, but he’s overall a good sort who tries to look for those who are having a harder time of adolescence than he is. The fly in the ointment is that he can’t look at anything lacking a Y chromosome without drooling. There are I think just four female characters in the game (not counting Tom’s never-seen mom), each of whom is a total babe with awesome breasts. This is kept PG-13, and is certainly a plausible bit of characterization, but when he’s contemplating how much he feels like he’s connecting a woman he’s just met and who’s currently caged in an underground prison, it’s a bit much. The fact that pretty much all the teenagers are secretly banging people one or two decades older than they are is also a bit off-putting.

Again, though, after the opening the focus is really on the puzzles rather than the plot and characterization. These are primarily about navigating from one end of the school to the other, surmounting more locked doors than I can easily count. Most of them are fairly well clued and fun to solve – putting pieces together from the intermittent flashbacks to discover secrets in the present was a reliable highlight – but I definitely felt a note of exhaustion when I realized I was going to have to get a set of keys off yet another character, or discover yet another secret passage (the architects for this place must have a lucrative sideline in Transylvanian castles and ancient Egyptian tombs) – cutting the map size and puzzle count by 30% would have still made for a big game while reducing the occasional feeling of repetitiveness.

There are also some puzzles that are less well-clued and do seem like they require some mind-reading, unfortunately. The most egregious example for me was a puzzle that required me to get some salt. Fortunately, I was carrying a salted pretzel, so you’d think this would be a one-step puzzle, no? I never would have hit on the actual solution but for the walkthrough: you need to leave the pretzel out on a cafeteria counter that’s glancingly described as having a few ants occasionally wandering through; duck out and come back, and in the intervening thirty seconds they carry away all the bread and leave nothing but the salt. But there were many puzzles with similar issues, including a TV remote that has what are basically magic powers and some rigmarole with an A/V room return slot that I still can’t figure out.

The implementation throughout is solid enough, but in a game this big and complex, “solid enough” can actually get frustrating. As mentioned above, locking and unlocking doors is a big part of what you’ll be doing, but it’s not automatic, and given how many different sets of keys you’ll have, and that both keys, doors, and parts of the scenery might all be described as “rusty” or “steel”, the can be a lot of annoyance to doing something that should be simple. There’s a holdall item, thankfully, but the inventory is quite large and moving things in and out of the holdall can be a pain. And exacerbating some of the harder puzzles, there are some guess-the-verb issues (at one point you find a clue directly telling you there’s something hidden behind the soda machine, but PUSH MACHINE, MOVE MACHINE, and LOOK BEHIND MACHINE, all fail with default behavior since only PULL MACHINE is accepted).

I also got a crash bug late in the game (an out-of-bounds memory access error; see transcript for details). And while I’m not sure these are bugs, strictly speaking, I found I think three ways to put the game in an unwinnable state, which I’m not sure is an intentional piece of the design: if you put on the robe too early, you can’t change back into the janitor’s uniform to finish up your remaining tasks in the school; similarly if you wander off school grounds after you hand over the notebook, Tom says he doesn’t want to return to campus without it; and lastly I made it to the final confrontation without carrying the burnt pizza, which necessitated reloading an earlier save.

I’m complaining a bunch because honestly, there kind of is a lot to complain about. But with that said, I still had a lot of fun sinking my teeth into this big hunk of game, and while I’m not sure I’d trust Tom around any of my female family members, being inside his head was enjoyable in a retrograde, throw-back sort of way.

Two transcripts this time due to the crash bug I mentioned:

trundle - mr.txt (868.8 KB)
trundle2 - mr.txt (336.1 KB)

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Tombs & Mummies, by Matthew Warner

After one fairly old-school game, the randomizer served up another of a distinct, even older, type. Tombs and Mummies is a cheerfully deadly escape-the-deathtrap affair; with nine rooms and really only a single puzzle, it falls well short of the two-hour advertised game length but that seems about right for what’s on offer here. It doesn’t look like there’s a play-offline option and unfortunately server woes made this an occasionally-frustrating experience, but viewed on its own merits this is a fun little game that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Right, the setup: you’re an archaeologist, your rival has kidnapped your girlfriend and locked you in a tomb to die, and you need to escape to make him pay – and, er, loot some priceless pieces of Egypt’s cultural heritage along the way if you’re so inclined. This is all in Quest, and has a bunch of niceties like a map and clickable ways of interacting with objects and scenery, though I mostly eschewed them in favor of just using the parser like a Neanderthal. The tomb boasts some nice authentic touches, including a sistrum and a senet set among the treasures in the mummy’s hoard, but also includes magic words such as “open sesame” and descriptions that reference the Who and Blade Runner.
There are very light RPG and resource management elements – you have a limited amount of light, and hit points that can be depleted by traps, snakes, and other hazards, but given how short the game is, if either run low or run out restarting isn’t much of a penalty (I think a winning playthrough would take two or three minutes at most once you know what to do).

Despite what the premise might make you think, you’re just worrying about the escape – tracking down the rival and making him pay takes place post-victory – which involves a multi-step puzzle to allow you to get up to the ceiling-hatch leading out of the tomb. The steps are pretty simple to work through, though I’m not sure they’re exactly intuitive. Tombs and Mummies offers two magic spells to its players; one a simple door-opener, the other one of the most esoteric enchantments I’ve ever come across, since it makes heavy objects light while also causing mummies to awaken and try to kill you – that’s good only for a very specific set of use cases! I solved the major element of the puzzle pretty much by accident, succeeding because I was able to just input a command describing what I wanted to do without having to describe how I’d do it (I don’t think I’d have guessed that I could jam the sarcophagus lid closed with the flail of Anubis, but so long as you’re carrying the right object LOCK LID appears to work). And I didn’t really understand how the “indirect light” thing worked, but it is spelled out for you in the notebook so I suppose that doesn’t really matter. At any rate, the limited map, verbs, and number of objects means trial-and-error will get you through.

I’d have enjoyed the game far more if I hadn’t had to play it online, though. I experienced a lot of lag – maybe 3 or 4 seconds after each command – as well as two or three crashes in the course of my half hour with the game. There are also some real-time elements, like snakes that will repeatedly nibble on you if you take too long to take an action. Plus some common activities, like making sure your torch stays lit, are rather fiddly and take more commands than you’d think. So these elements combined with the lag and crashes make for a bit of aggravation. Hopefully the server was just having a bad day, but still, a downloadable option would make the game much more accessible.

The Copyright of Silence, by Ola Hansson

The Copyright of Silence has what’s probably the most genius premise of all 104 games in the Comp (I’m not quite at the end so there’s room for an upset but it’d be pretty shocking). It’s an optimization puzzle where you need to manage pet allergies, kitchen mishaps, and social dynamics in order to maximize the amount of time you can stay quiet while sitting opposite mid-20th-century avant-garde composer John Cage. This works as an amazingly silly joke about Cage’s most famous piece, 4’33”, which is popularly though inaccurately summarized as “four minutes and thirty-three seconds of silence”, but it also helps prove one of the deeper themes of the piece: turns out there’s a lot going on beneath the surface of silence!

The presentation is also top-notch, with one niggle: the game is presented as a view of Cage’s four-room apartment, with always-on text blurbs listing which characters are in each room, and then longer text with dialogue, actions, and options in the location where your character is. The floor-plan art is clean and fits the mid-century aesthetic, and it’s helpful to always be able to monitor what’s happening everywhere in the apartment at a glance. The fly in the ointment is that to fit the whole apartment on one screen, each room’s sub-window is fairly small, meaning I had to do a little more squinting than I liked.

Gameplay-wise, TCoS appears to all be one big, heavily timing-based puzzle hinging on managing your conversation with Cage – there are various intervening events that might interrupt your silence, and being quiet too long in the wrong circumstances will anger him and dock your score. There are several more discrete puzzles to solve, like what to do about an irritating dog-and-parrot pair (shades of Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos!), and tasks to accomplish, but they all require specific steps to be taken at specific times, so they’re incorporated into the overall structure. And here’s where the game started to break down for me, as the steps required to make progress can feel pretty tedious.

Quick autobiographical side-note that will come back to TCoS, I promise: when I was doing math and physics problem sets in my college days, there was a particular point in many problems where you’d have figured out the overall approach to take, sussed out how to set up the relevant equations, determined the angle of attack by identifying any needed substitutions or assumptions, and now just needed to spend half an hour wrestling some god-awful, notebook-wide integral or 7 by 7 matrix multiplication into submission through theoretically simple, but fiddly and irritating, application of basic math. We called this “grunge”, and unfortunately once I got over the initial hump of figuring out the basics, I found TCoS pretty grungy.

This takes several forms. First off, a major gameplay element is a piano which somehow conceals helpful objects on particular notes, but you have to select the right octave and note to get what you’re looking for, rather than being able to see everything at once. In each playthrough, a postcard arrives during a brief window that might point you towards one of the useful notes to search, but it would require a lot of repetition to find them all, and I think intercepting the mail is fatal to your progress – or I suppose you could just try looking at each piano-note one by one, but either way you’re in for a lot of grunge.

Second, the conversation with Cage proceeds in a very scripted fashion, with some critical dialogue options available only at certain blink-and-you-missed-it opportunities (before searching the piano, for example, you need to ask him about it, which as far as I can tell is only possible quite early in the conversation). The conversation pauses when you’re not in the same room, but the game has a hard deadline at 7 pm, meaning that any fiddling around you do reduces your ability to experiment with the later stages of the conversation.

Exacerbating the previous two problems, there’s no quick way to reset or restart the loop that I could find, and since each playthrough steps through 7 minutes in 7 second intervals, that’s a lot of clicking to have to go through once you realize you’ve fluffed something up, or have an idea you want to try. As a result, while I was able to solve several of the puzzles and get a bit over halfway to the goal, after about 45 minutes of play my enthusiasm wore out. With that said, I’ll probably try to pick this one up again when there’s less time pressure, since there are fun hints of hidden bonus puzzles and alternate endings, and I do really love the setup – and I suppose it’s in keeping with the theme that TCoS isn’t over-concerned with player friendliness.

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Thanks for a very thorough review which cheered me up though it also confirms some of my long-standing qualms about the game. I see what you mean by “grungy” (as an aside I felt the same way about a John Conway puzzle that a mathematician friend sent me a few days ago – it started as a fun logic puzzle but ended with mind-numbing trial and error additions).

You don’t really need the objects in the piano (though they can help - as well as add some understanding to the story and some points to your score). I actually added the piano objects in the final stretch of development just as a bonus and because I thought a game about John Cage really needed a prepared piano!

It is true that you need to ask about the piano to know that it is prepared and searchable, but that question should be available all the time (once you have been to the lounge and seen the piano), regardless of how far you are into the flow of the main conversation. It is what I call an “extra topic” and is marked purple to show that it is distinct from the other dialogue options. It might, however, be hidden by another “extra topic” as just one extra topic at a time is allowed. But the “extra topics” (all purple) are queued up, so asking the later ones will eventually make the piano topic available again.

I can see how it might be confusing though… Before beta-testing I didn’t even use different colors, making players miss them completely. But it is obvious now that I should have made more of an effort to make it clearer. I really don’t know how though – I have to ponder on it.

Thanks for making me aware of the restart issue. It confirms that I should add a reset/restart button for the post comp update. I just press F5 to refresh the browser and egocentrically assumed everyone would do the same. But I have noticed that most other games here give you an explicit button for restarting. If I can figure out how to save game sessions in Harlowe I should maybe add that option too.

Really appreciate all the great feedback and glad you enjoyed it before “the grunge”!

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A Catalan Summer, by Neibucrion

Usually when I play a piece of IF – or read a book or watch a movie, for that matter – my brain immediately tries to classify it, slotting it into a genre or identifying the key themes or thinking about its antecedents or otherwise fitting it into some sort of broader framework. This is just the way human beings process information, I suppose, and don’t get me wrong, it’s often helpful for understanding the intentions behind a piece and engaging with broader movements and trends. At the same time, it’s rather exhilarating to come across something like A Catalan Summer which had me constantly second-guessing my assumptions of what it was trying to do, not because of self-conscious zaniness or surrealism (those are hoary subgenres all their own) but because its goals, approach, and setting are just so content to do their own thing. The blurb promises “historical gay melodrama,” which is already not an uh especially common IF Comp vibe, but even that fails to truly communicate everything that’s going on here.

I worry that opening paragraph makes it sound like A Catalan Summer is bonkers. It’s not bonkers! It’s actually quite grounded, focusing on an upper-class Catalonian family and their personal and political travails in the aftermath of World War I, with subplots about repressed sexuality, yes, but also some around labor unrest, and separatist politics, as well as lots of very well-described but frankly superfluous detail about the architectural flourishes of the family mansion. True, pretty much everybody (you wind up guiding all four members of the family) can wind up making Telenovela-style decisions – and there’s a supernatural element that pretty much comes out of nowhere – but I think the game would still work well if you opted out of all the smoldering-glances stuff, and if anything, I feel like the writing errs too much towards understatement rather than reveling in passion and intensity (this is all quite PG-13 rated). Though then again, there’s also the gay brothel you can visit and choose, for your night’s companion, a panto Viking complete with horned helmet. So maybe it’s a little bonkers.

Gameplay-wise, you navigate through the family house looking for people to talk to, and then make choices. The house is bigger and more open than it needs to be – possibly to create space for the aforementioned architecture-porn, like let me tell you, if you like festoons, this game has you covered – since all you can do is talk to people, and most locations are empty most of the time. But I liked the ability to wander about, including a few extramural excursions that allow for some sightseeing and local color, even if I’m used to this kind of interface be deployed for puzzlefests like A Murder in Fairyland.
The pacing is quite brisk – every ten minutes or so, you’re whisked into the next vignette with a different viewpoint character, and the choices are well-considered, providing enough granularity to give a sense for the voices of each character and allow the player to make significant choices, while not belaboring every bit of dialogue. Sometimes it’s too quick: you can go from flirtation to scthupping to post-coital bliss in one line of dialogue, and I had one sequence where a character survived some attempted violence, went to a hospital, and recovered, all in the space of two short paragraphs. But better too quick than too slow, I think. It also builds to a nice climax, with a final party scene where you can choose which family members to inhabit: you can orchestrate a passionate tryst with one character, then have another stumble upon them in flagrante delicto for maximum shock effect.

I quite enjoyed the characters. Patriarch Josep is the one you spend the most time with, and I think is the best drawn – he’s got rather conservative leanings, but also seems unashamed about his homosexuality. These tensions aren’t played up in the writing – there’s no internal monologue as he wrestles with his understanding of himself – which I think is effective in creating space for the player to feel like they can make a wide variety of choices without being untrue to the character. The others are more one-note, though you can decide whether son Jordi’s habit of slumming it with the hoi polloi reflects sincere belief or is simple dilettantism, and I enjoyed figuring out ways for Josep’s jaded wife, Maria, to amuse herself (spoiler alert: it involved boning the staff). Only Clara, the sheltered daughter, doesn’t find herself with as much to do.

The writing is a significant part of the draw throughout. There are some typos and odd grammar throughout, potentially due to translation? But I liked how it simultaneously created a sort of dreamlike aura while being quite grounded in a sense of history and place, with solid dialogue throughout. Here’s a bit from an early scene, where Josep is giving a tour to the family of a business partner:

“This house, you explain, was an old presbytery built next to this chapel. I had the house renovated while leaving the chapel in its original state. Around the 13th century, the Counts of Barcelona dominated Corsica, Sardinia, Sicily and even the south of Italy, which explains the number and beauty of the monuments of that time in the region…”

“A kind of golden age…” Auguste says ironically, “Isn’t it from the memory of this blessed time that the Catalans forged their desire for independence?”

You can see there are some punctuation issues and the locution is a bit awkward, but for whatever reason this style really worked for me, and the history nerd in me appreciated all the detail the author offers (I didn’t know Barcelona is named after Hannibal Barca!) Or there’s this, relating an assignation:

That second sentence is too long and uses imagery that’s not quite right to my ear, but somehow that makes it even more compelling.

I did run into one technical niggle, which is that at one point Maria showed up somewhere she shouldn’t have, though I couldn’t interact with her, and the admirable openness of the plot made my ending feel a bit ridiculous, as in one paragraph of dialogue, Jordi, clearly full of love for his father, told Josep that he should be unafraid of pursuing happiness with his lover, but then in the next paragraph blew up at him and renounced his inheritance because Josep set an American detective to pursue Jordi’s anarchist friends – melodrama is all well and good, but emotional whiplash is something else altogether.

Still, that couldn’t undercut what was a deeply enjoyable experience. Like, that American detective is actually Dashiell Hammett. There’s a Marcel Proust cameo too. And I haven’t elaborated on the whole ghost thing (my head says, you don’t need this and the author should have dropped it; my heart says, yes, why not this too?) Point being, A Catalan Summer marches to the beat of its own drum, takes direct inspiration from nobody and I’m sure will not be directly inspiring any copycats either, cares not for your petty distinctions of genre, much less the Aristotelian unities, not due to any sophomoric and self-congratulatory iconoclasm but just because it’s content to do its own thing, and it’s all the more worth playing for it.

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Hi Ola – glad the review cheered you up! It’s a fun game and the cover art is still making me chortle when I think of it. Your explanation on the piano topic is really helpful – I think it must have been overwritten by another one of the special topics and I didn’t realize I could just click through that one and get back to it (I did figure out that purple text meant the option existed outside of the main dialogue with Cage). Though your note that the items in the piano are superfluous makes me question how much progress I really was able to make! I’ll definitely see if I can make more progress later, especially now I know the secret to a quick restart. Cheers and thanks again for the game!

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I updated the walkthrough/hint-file extensively after some negative (and very valuable) early feedback here on the forum. Don’t hesitate to consult it if you yearn for an easy solution to the parrot!

I’ll go ahead and add both a restart button and a a save button. The idealistic part of me says it will taint the intended experience, but so many people have expressed frustration that I just can’t justify hanging on to my elitist notions…

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You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf, by B.J. Best

So YWTMaFAYTaW – I feel like I need an acronym for the acronym, why don’t we just go with Thank a Werewolf – so Thank a Werewolf’s About text says that this is a “collaboration” with the GPT-2 text generation algorithm, which involved feeding the program bits of the author’s (static, I assume) fiction, then curating and arranging the output to form the game. I went into the experience deeply skeptical that I’d find anything interesting in it, and I have to confess that nothing in the game wound up changing my mind.

I can’t really talk about the story or the premise since this is all algorithm-driven gobbledygook – the blurb’s claim that it’s about “a lifelong romantic relationship” I think must be a joke about the relationship between the author and their work, rather than about anything depicted in the text. Format-wise, you get a couple paragraphs of prose then one or two hyperlinked lines at the end that lead to the next bit of the story; I assume there’s branching but given the lack of narrative coherence, much less cause-and-effect, I’m not sure what difference or impact this would have. Most passages have one or two footnotes, which expand when clicked: I think these might be the prompts used to generate the text, since they often used the same words as showed up in the main text, but were uniformly more coherent and interesting than what was above.

If there’s not a consistent narrative, there’s perhaps a somewhat more consistent tone, beyond of course the omnipresent surrealism – most of the generated text feels like it’s about younger people, late teenagers to twentysomethings, sad about stuff and unsure about what they’re doing (I mean, fair enough). And there were a few scattered bits that had some zing to them. This was probably my favorite:

But that’s almost immediately followed by:

And

For a tone poem, one or two high points might be enough, but this thing is also at least two or three times longer than it should be – once my brain twigged to the fact that it was just watching a slot machine, I found it really hard to push on.

I do get the appeal, if not fascination, this sort of thing can have for a writer: the prospect of looking at your work through a glass, darkly, so you can apprehend it in a new way. I wrote a (very bad) novel in my younger days, about high-school wrestlers who I must confess were far more foul-mouthed even than Tom Trundle, and when I finished the first draft I excitedly ran it through Word’s (I think now deprecated) autosummarize feature, only to see my 300-page novel turned into three paragraphs of this:

I died laughing – this is actually my ghost writing this – and resolved to tone down the profanity somewhat. As a way to change perspective, or add a bit of surprising flavor to the hand-crafted sauce (this metaphor has gotten away from me), I can see the value of procedurally-generated text – and I’m sure in twenty or thirty years Skynet will have come for the writers the same way it’ll have come for everybody else – but in the meantime, the werewolf’s getting no thank-yous from me.

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For what it’s worth, I know a couple of erotica sites that would publish that summary as-is.

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Elsegar I, by silicon14

There’s some Hemingway quote that I’m not going to bother to look up (look, hopefully it’s clear by now that with these reviews you get what you pay for), but the gist is that a writer needs to write a million words to figure out how to write and get them out of their system, and starting with the millionth and first, possibly they’ll be worth a damn, and be pure, and good, and clean, and true (you’re also not paying enough to get anything other than the world’s laziest Hemingway impression). The principle extends to IF, where I think just about everybody has had the experience of making a starter game before getting their feet under them to try something more ambitious (mine’s a half-completed House of Leaves – er, why don’t we call it a “homage” – moldering away on a hard drive that hasn’t been plugged into anything since 2003 or thereabouts).

Elsegar I is a pretty exemplary illustration of the type: there’s only a bit of backstory, about being sucked into a strange new dimension by some sort of singularity, and a found-object approach to worldbuilding that’s largely there to provide scaffolding for the variety of puzzles and programming tasks. There’s a holdall, a darkness puzzle, NPCs who respond to being asked about a couple of keywords, randomized combat, a put-X-in-Y-to-make-Z puzzle, a (big, old-school) maze – classics all, and what’s rare for a first game, all solidly implemented, albeit with a large number of typos. There’s nothing especially fancy about the design, though there are some fun jokes and easter eggs involving a radio, and an actually quite neat text effects for a bit of graffiti. It’d be more interesting if it stuck with a specific kind of puzzle and tried to elaborate it with a few variations, or leaned more heavily into its setting or characters, but again, for this kind of game it makes sense to try out a bunch of different things.

After I’d played the game I saw from the author’s posts on the forums that it’d been disqualified from the Comp since it’d been posted as part of a call for beta testers (though there hasn’t been an official notice as of this writing). That’s a shame – it’s an easy rule to run afoul of – but hopefully part II will make it into next year’s Comp or otherwise see release. Now that the author has the basics down, their next release could be one to watch out for.

Thank you for the review. I am still improving elsegar I and will release sometime on itch.io. Also I was thinking of doing a set of puzzles in the sequel where you have a robot that can only do certain actions that the player character cannot do but I’m worried that this will be too similar to joey from beanth a steel sky, though I don’t have plans on the robot changing bodies

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That’s great to hear! I’ll say for me personally, having a robot companion who helps solve puzzles doesn’t feel like it would be too directly inspired by Beneath a Steel Sky – admittedly I haven’t played that one so I’d be more likely to think of Planetfall, but that just goes to show there are a lot of different ways to approach that general idea and put your own spin on it, whether that’s about how your characterize the robot or how the puzzles are set up and solved. And anyway most of the time execution is more important than raw originality – ideas are a dime a dozen, but turning them into something solid is much more rare.

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Sheep Crossing, by Andrew Geng

Sheep Crossing is a one-puzzle game, with no plot to speak of, and the puzzle is one that pretty much everybody has heard of and solved by the time they’re seven. But wait, come back! Another way to recite the same facts is that it’s a cute and charming take on a classic puzzle, and since neither the author nor the player need to pretend that figuring out the solution is the point, it’s all about riffing on that premise and finding as many gags, and ways to fail at this beyond-simple task, as possible.

The clever touches begin with some canny substation – the prototypical version of this puzzle involves some grain, a chicken, and a fox, I believe (it’s the one where each will eat one of the others, and you need to take them across a river one at a time). But clearly, the bear on offer here is funnier than a fox, and a cabbage is likewise funnier than a sack of grain (the sheep vs. chicken matchup is closer, but let’s give it to the sheep by decision). If you want to just get them across the river to grandmother’s house in the prescribed order, you face a slight barrier inasmuch as the sheep starts out too hangry to be manhandled into the boat, but this is easily remedied, and then it’s off to grandma’s, well done, gold star for you.

The fun comes in when you try to mess things up. Obviously if you leave the wrong pair behind on a trip, game-ending acts of ingestion will occur in your absence. And there are myriad ways to mess up beyond this, from tangling with the bear to chowing down on something yourself to deciding sod this for a game of soldiers and wandering off. There are lots, lots more, with many nonstandard verbs implemented with surprising detail. I don’t want to spoil any more of the fun, but I found that the author had thought of the most of the ideas that popped into my head, often with different outcomes depending on which of the trio I was attempting to mess with.

For all that, this is still a ten-minute diversion, tops. And I didn’t discover any unexpected interactions that led to alternate positive endings or revealed anything unexpected, which might have been nice – instead it’s all just different ways to flub things up. This means it’s easy to type undo and try again, but also somewhat reduces the novelty and potential surprise of trying new things. But the gag in its current form certainly works, and coming so late in the Comp for me, that was just what I was looking for.

Thank you for your thorough and thoughtful review of Tombs and Mummies! I’ve been frustrated by the laggy server there, too. Quest 5.8 does have a download option, but it requires you have their editor/interpreter installed on a desktop. I plan to program my next game in 6.0, which is entirely client-side JS.

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Captivity, by Jim Aikin

A puzzle-y fairytale with a twist, Captivity boasts a plucky protagonist, an engaging supporting cast, some pleasant challenges, and solid writing and implementation. It’s perhaps a bit too much on the linear side, and weakens a bit in the home stretch, but all in all it’s a pleasant way to while away an hour or two.

Right, setup: you’re a young lady of the minor nobility (or perhaps haute bourgeoisie) who’s been abducted by an evil Duke. While the Duke’s assorted family members, servants, and minions aren’t particularly fussed at preventing your escape, there’s still an array of locked doors, spike-topped walls, and magic necklaces that will strangle you if you leave the grounds standing in your way. There’s nothing especially novel in the low-key, slightly comedic fantasy setting – though there’s a bit of a PG-13 edge that sometimes works (there’s a god-bothered maid who’s a little more excited by lurid descriptions of the sins of the flesh than on the ways to save oneself from temptation) and sometimes can be a bit off-putting (the intro focuses a bit too much on the protagonist’s impending ravishment for my tastes, though of course nothing bad actually happens). While this isn’t always to my taste, it’s fine as far as it goes, though there’s one late-game incident that I think is a bit too tonally jarring to be successful (when the Duke comes home and catches you mid-escape, you stab him in the face with some scissors, drop a chandelier on him, and leave him “expired in a pool of his own blood”).

The puzzles are nothing too out-there, but are generally logical, well-clued, and satisfying to solve, with almost every one opening up a new area to explore or character to interact with. Captivity also does a good job of detecting if you’re flailing on some puzzles, and will add a gentle hint to get you on the right track if you try the same wrong action too many times, which is quite a nice feature. The puzzle chains are quite linear for the first two thirds or so of the game, with only one barrier at a time to work on surmounting, which helps keep the difficulty low but also can make proceedings sometimes feel a bit dull. The structure opens up once you reach a classic collect-em-all puzzle – you need to find three ingredients for a spell – but by that point I’d already found one and a half of them so the increased openness was mostly theoretical in my case.

Implementation is generally very solid, with most objects and scenery are nicely described and few synonym or guess-the-syntax issues. This starts to break down a bit in the last part of the game, though – I had to look up the walkthrough to solve the last major puzzle because I had the right idea but couldn’t figure out how to input the correct commands (I’m talking about burning the objects in the brazier – LIGHT BRAZIER doesn’t work, and in fact returns “The brass brazier isn’t something you can light,” with LIGHT BRAZIER WITH MATCH similarly failing. Per the walkthrough, STRIKE MATCH -> PUT MATCH IN BRAZIER is the intended solution, which feels too fiddly to me), and I noticed a few examples of undescribed objects in some of the final few rooms.

It is possible to put the game in an unwinnable state, though it’s kind enough to tell you so and a single UNDO was enough to fix things. I did one into one related issue – when I reached the endgame, I got a message saying I’d missed something at an early stage of the game and now my “maidenly virtue is but a treasured memory”, but the author “in his nearly infinite benevolence” will take pity and fix things. I’m not sure what this was referring to, since I had on hand everything I wound up needing to finish the game, and when I checked the walkthrough I didn’t see that I had missed anything. Regardless, the tone of this message was pretty off-putting and felt unnecessarily adversarial. None of these issues are that major, but I think would be worth cleaning up in a post-Comp release.

Anyway I don’t want to dwell too much on that sour note, because for the most part the writing is lots of fun. The supporting cast were the major standouts – although they’re notionally on the side of the Duke, they mostly view him with eye-rolling tolerance at best, and are quite content to shoot the breeze with you, force you to look at their embroidery collection, or flirt with each other as though you’re not standing there. Even the Duke’s dagger-happy henchman and lecherous wizard servant come off as entertainingly harmless – it’s fun to banter with, and then get one over on, them.

Captivity isn’t trying to do anything revolutionary, but its few missteps aren’t enough to douse the fun of wandering through its castle, outwitting a jerk of a Duke, and engaging in some light sorcery, all related in breezy, clever prose.

captivity - mr.txt (217.9 KB)

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Amazing Quest, by Nick Montfort

Hey, a Nick Montfort game! I loved Ad Verbum! But this is, uh, not that. I saw a couple of forum threads talking about this game before I’d played it, and let my curiosity get the better of me, which I think was to the good in terms of level-setting my expectations, but really did ruin the gag. So the spoiler-averse might want to flee away. Blur-mode, activate!

So this is a Mad-Libs text generator in a lightly-implied science-fantasy setting. There’s an overwrought introduction and even “strategy guide” that orient you towards the game – more on those later – but the program just spits out a series of yes/no questions prompted by telling you that your fleet has come across an ADJECTIVE NOUN (“hexagonal outpost”, “dim land”, “luminous planet”, etc.) and allowing you to VERB (“seek out help”, “sneak up and raid”, “speak plainly”), or not. You get a result, which could be positive (“you win cattle”) or negative (“a ship lost!”), but this is based entirely on a die roll and the outcomes are completely disconnected from the choices, and even the situations (like, winning cattle seems a logical result of raiding an outpost, but refusing to speak plainly in a tiny capital will likewise sometimes net you a reward of kine). And there’s zero state-tracking.

So the game qua game can’t really hold one’s interest for more than a minute or two, and the prose, as you can tell from the examples above, is likewise workmanlike at best. What there is is the intro and strategy guide. The first lines of the game itself are “The gods grant victory. Now go home!”, but above the game window is the motto “I must decide as if it all depends on me, trust as if it all depends on the gods.” And throughout the page-and-a-half strategy guide, the reader is confronted with a series of questions and statements prompting them to second-guess whether any course of action is better than any other, given that anything could happen and your ideas of what’s safe or unsafe might not be right. There’s also a lot of verbiage about how the player’s “cultural world-view” might structure how they understand what you “might think of as” chance or chaos.

There’s a point being made here, or at least a question being asked, about agency and subjectivity and what if the real game isn’t being played on the screen but in our heads comma man. I’m not saying the point/question is necessarily a bad one to be raising, to be clear! There are different interpretations you can put on what Amazing Quest is offering up, and probably someone more attuned to the aesthetics of the Commodore-64 presentation experiences it differently than I, who never had one, relate to it.

But I don’t think that the way this reasonable question is being raised is very interesting or successful. Execution matters a lot! Like, think about how Rameses, or the unjustifiably-forgotten 19th-place-finisher-in-the-2002-IFComp Constraints, are all about a lack of agency and paralysis, but they give the player a lot to do and are rewarding to engage with. Now compare them to a notional game – let’s call it Bartleby – that presents a situation but responds to literally every player input with “I would prefer not to.” Same point, sure. But while Constraints left me dancing around the room making comparisons to Dubliners – oh yes, I was even more pretentious as a 21-year-old than I am today – I doubt I’d have anything like the same reaction to our imaginary Bartleby, and to my mind Amazing Quest is much closer to that, I’m going to say wrong, side of the spectrum. There’s something here, sure, and if you’re so inclined it can prompt you to think interesting thoughts – but I’m not so inclined so there you are, my thoughts about it are uninteresting.

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BYOD, by n-n

BYOD ain’t messing around with the “micro” label – I probably spent as much time playing guess-the-acronym as I did actually running through the game – but the five minutes here on offer are a lovely spike of cyberpunk power fantasy that makes me hope there’s a longer piece with similar mechanics somewhere in the future.

So this is a proper hacking game, doing in pure parser form what yer Uplinks and Hacknets have done with hybrid GUI interfaces. After reading the included e-zine feelie – I just noticed feelies have been rather thin on the ground this year, so it was nice to see a well-made one – I was primed for an intense gray-hat type of experience, but actually the plot and set-up are rather low key: you really are just a student starting a do-nothing internship at a tech company. It’s just that you happen to have a smartphone app that gives you all the power of the Internet gods, with the ability to remote-access any computer or device and read, write, or active it with no concern for security protocols.

The hacking is implemented really solidly, using a UNIX-like set of commands, and again contrary to my expectations, rather than the whole thing playing out at a terminal you actually play an embodied character and type commands in typical adventure-game fashion – you can just preface your commands with a prefix to direct them to the hacking app. Being able to merge the two levels of play seamlessly is a clever touch that heads off the challenges most hacking games have in depicting anything happening in meatspace.

All this to say that the foundations here are solid and even a bit exciting. The story and puzzle(s) are pretty underdeveloped, though – there’s no real detail about who you are, why you got this internship, or how you managed to wrangle the killer app. Played straight, there’s only one character and one challenge – you meet the secretary at the front desk and print a sign out for her. If you go poking around where you shouldn’t, there’s a little more flavor and a bonus objective (the company’s CEO is blackmailing the secretary with stolen nude photos, which you can delete), which feels good to find and accomplish but is also likewise quite slight.

There are alternate endings, the writing is clean and typo-free, and everything works the way it’s supposed to, so it’s all solidly built. But I can’t help feeling like the work it took to build this hacking system was wildly disproportionate to the work it took to build out the scenario. I’ve mentioned before how exhausting I find it to play games that are too long for the amount of content they actually have; BYOD has the opposite problem. Always good to leave them wanting more, I suppose, but still: I want more!

Oh, and “Device” and “Drama” are my two best guesses as to the title – the latter because the story isn’t going to find you, you need to manufacture the interesting bit yourself.

BYOD-mr.txt (13.2 KB)

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