Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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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The Moon Wed Saturn, by Pseudavid

Points for best title in the Comp to The Moon Wed Saturn, which is a clever pun as well as, I believe, an astrology reference. That same ethos of packing a lot of meaning into comparatively little text carries over into the game itself, which runs through a formative romantic relationship that unfolds over just a few days but reveals a lot about the main character and changes her life to boot. It’s a classic two-hander – it’s 95% dialogue between two characters, 5% flash-forward reflection – with a unique storytelling gimmick, and while I wasn’t as fully invested in the central relationship as probably would have been ideal, there’s a powerfully arresting moment of grace at the end that had as much impact on me as anything else I’ve played so far.

You play as Verónica, who I think is about 19 – she’s got a dead-end job somewhere on the outskirts of a city I think somewhere in Latin America (there are a few well-chosen setting details sprinkled through the story, but no clunky exposition, somewhere), and feels weighed down by expectations, other people, and the general difficulty of figuring out how to be in the world. Into her life sweeps Araceli, a freer spirit a few years older, who doesn’t seem to worry much about consequences and seems to take a kind of glee in prodding Verónica out of her comfortable rut. Described like this, these are stereotypes, but the writing is good enough to really conjure these characters up, and dive into exchanges and snatches of dialogue where the characters are sparking off of each other in lust or conflict, so even though the overall dynamic of the relationship is certainly familiar the player is always embodied in the particular.

Part of what makes this so effective is how the story is told – I’ll spoiler-block this, since figuring out what was going on led to an “aha” moment I wouldn’t want to ruin. You start out clicking your choices in a part of the screen labeled “Monday”, but at a certain point suddenly your focus jumps to the side to a new paragraph labeled “Wednesday”, where one of the characters recalls a bit of the conversation they had a couple of days ago. Later the same thing happens with Saturday, until you’re following a thread of memory and resonance forward and backward through three separate conversations on three separate days that together constitute the relationship between the two characters. It’s all really well paced, too, jumping into exchanges just as they’re getting interesting, and jumping out when they’ve done what they need to do. The visual design backs this up too – when the days go inactive, they fade and go on a slight tilt, making clear where the action is by easy to refer to if you want to make sure you understand the connection points.

There are a lot of choices – at pretty much every pause in the dialogue, you’re picking what Verónica should do or say – but mostly they’re centered on whether she’s going along with Araceli’s attempts to shake up her status quo, or resisting them. For the most part they feel like impactful choices, though you can’t shift her characterization too far, which I think is appropriate, though there were a couple of times when I felt like the game’s interpretation of a choice was pretty different from how I’d intended it (at one point Araceli said something about how she liked places that are weird, and I had Vero ask if she was strange enough for her – I’d meant it playfully, but the blue text that carries Verónica’s inner monologue said it was because she wasn’t spontaneous and always wanted to know things in advance).

It feels like the choices shift the tone of the dialogue, though I didn’t do a ton of replaying to confirm that. They do build to a final, climactic choice, though I even though I’d played as something of a stick-in-the-mud even I had to go for the cathartic option there, and I can’t imagine other players doing anything differently. Spoilers again for what was an amazing moment: so throughout the game, Araceli has been pushing Verónica to leave her awful job, which is being a security guard for an abandoned, half-completed housing estate that’s basically a boondoggle for a corrupt developer. At the end of Saturday, she brings some spray paint and prods Vero to deface the place, and if you do, there’s a sudden splash of red against the heretofore pure white background of the game. The red paint is amazingly well animated – it’s sensuous and beautiful in a way that I, who’s typically way more attuned to text than images, usually don’t appreciate. It’s climactic and cathartic and a perfect moment of satori that ties the whole game together.

For all the things Moon Wed Saturn does right, I have to acknowledge that as I implied above, there were parts of the central relationship that didn’t work for me – specifically, I kind of couldn’t stand Araceli and thought she was just the fucking worst. Don’t get me wrong, I can get why someone like Verónica would be taken with her, but Araceli often came off to me as an aggressive manic pixie dream bully, like in the early segment where she tries to pressure Vero to smoke a cigarette precisely because Vero’s quit and doesn’t like smoking – people should be willing to do things they hate for those they love, you see. And later on, when Verónica explains the necessity of having this job given the challenges in her life, Araceli – who’s implied to come from a more privileged background – cheerfully bats it all away, because she thinks everything people do is just an expression of their character, and refuses to acknowledge how external reality can straiten one’s choices. I kept wanting to tell Verónica, get out of this relationship, this lady is toxic!

But I’ve definitely known people who’ve been in relationships like this – I’m sure you have, too – and I can’t deny that they can be meaningful and important. So the fact that this isn’t an idealized picture of two soul-mates who should be together forever doesn’t undercut the strength of the piece – but it did make the game’s finale perhaps a bit less bittersweet than intended. At any rate, this is a small, subjective response to a work that definitely merits a playthrough.

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Hi Mike—sorry for the delayed response!

Thank you so much for the in-depth review!! Your feedback touched on just about everything – usability, prose, pacing, and bugs. This will be invaluable as we are planning a couple more edit passes before a second release after IFComp.

Glad you enjoyed the story!

-Erica

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@DeusIrae your review is sharp and amazingly in-depth! Thank you for taking so much time to think and write your impressions, it’s wonderful and encouraging to read.

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Thanks for the in-depth review, Mike.

The inspiration for VFS came from a command-line FSP client I had used when studying CompSci in the mid 90s (this is why the service appears in the feelies).

The game’s toy size is the result of different factors. The original Spanish version being my first Inform piece is one, and the need for a proofreader to correct my self-translation is another (he did a great job, judging from the reviews!).

For my first ever IFComp entry, I thought I’d better make something small and tight, rather than risking overreach. So I kept the core of the English version close to the original piece (it contains more stuff, but the structure is unchanged).

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I think small and polished is definitely better than flabby and buggy, so that was a good decision. And I’ll say, I’m usually a stickler for typos and grammar and awkward phrasing, and had no idea this was originally written in a language other than English, which is very impressive! Anyway, congrats on your first IFComp entry, I hope there are more to come :slight_smile:

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Limerick Quest, by Pace Smith

Like everyone who played last year’s Limerick Heist, when I saw there was a sequel in this year’s Comp I was straining at the bit to play it – and therefore wasn’t best pleased when the randomizer decided to save it for sixth-to-last out of 104. I wound up getting to it on Halloween, which is perhaps fitting, because in addition to the predictable linguistic legerdemain and some surprisingly robust puzzling, Limerick Quest also offered me an object lesson in being careful what I wished for, albeit a much more cheerful one than the seasonally-appropriate monkey’s-paw type approach.

To my mind the thing that was brilliant about Limerick Heist wasn’t so much the concept – although it was amazing – but rather the execution. When I read the blurb, I thought to myself “this sounds super fun, but stretched out to game length inevitably like 30% of the limericks are going to suck.” But then, miraculously, they didn’t, with not a single dud in the bunch! I don’t mean to damn with faint praise in the slightest; a prudent person contemplating the challenges of writing narrative with a demanding rhyme and meter scheme would give up before they got out of the starting gate because of the inevitable clash between fitting the framework and allowing the reader to understand what’s happening.

Limerick Quest, though, does this one or two better, both by keeping the quality of the limericks absurdly high, but also by frankly just showing off. Not only are the accessibility options limericks – and inevitably, good ones – so is the complex, dynamically-updated inventory! Unlike the more traditional choice-based approach of Heist, here you can navigate around a map, with the movement options predictably also limericked, and again, not just with a single rote one listing north south east etc. but with a unique one in each area listing available and unavailable exits and what you can expect in each direction. Possibly best of all, there was one early limerick that I thought was a bid fudged (it rhymes “door” with “square”) except then I dusted off that one semester of Russian I took in college and realized it works perfectly if you can read Cyrillic characters.

I don’t to risk this review devolving into just a list of all the ones I thought were great – and it’s not just gags, I thought the relationship and banter between the two adventurers was also really well-depicted – but I can’t go without citing two, just to show how the author uses different approaches to the limericks to keep things fresh. Here’s an example of using baroque vocabulary to make the limerick work and the joke land:

You insert the egg in its station.
The clockwork maintains its rotation
as part of the Earth,
for what it is worth,
in orbital circumgyration.

But sometimes, all you really need is to rhyme “it” with “it” three times and it’s just as effective:

Sacrifice. Aztecs were known for it.
This altar was carefully honed for it.
By what weird criteria
is this near Siberia?
You don’t know - just don’t end up prone for it.

As that first excerpt suggests, to go with the free navigation, this time there are also inventory puzzles – I realize I haven’t mentioned the setup, which is that following on from Heist, the Faberge egg you stole leads two of the crew on an adventure to a hidden temple in search of treasure. Some of these are traditional red-key-goes-in-red-door type inventory puzzles, but very quickly, they invite the player to participate in the fun of making a limerick, as you’ll need to do things like choose an option that fits the rhyme scheme or meter of the limerick representing the outcome you’re trying to achieve. I don’t want to give these away, since they’re really decidedly clever, but I will include my favorite in a spoiler block: the mine cart puzzle, with the words you need to rhyme slowly fading in, was a blast, though I did have the accessibility option that means you can’t lose turned on.

Here’s where the monkey’s-paw bit comes in, though: I think there were one or two gentle puzzles like this in Limerick Heist, and I remember wanting more and thinking there was a lot more fun to be had exploring variations on this kind of challenge. The author has more than delivered on the brief, but now that I’ve got what I wanted I think I was wrong? The puzzles are all nicely constructed – they build on each other so you’re always doing something new, there are neither too many or too few so the pacing is good, with the hardest, fiddliest one coming right before an easier lightning round and then you win, and there’s an easily-accessible, well-integrated hint system to keep you moving.

But for all that, I found several of them quite hard, and while the game is generous in not letting you die, there are some puzzles you only get one try for (there’s no save game option) and wasn’t sure why I failed until I replayed and accessed the hints. Eventually it all makes sense, but the later puzzles do require you to spent a lot of time assessing rhymes and counting syllables and word length, which I think felt a bit too much like constructing a limerick and not enough like reading one – it was harder to appreciate the end result when I’d spent so much time at the brick-and-mortar level, and I often found myself clicking from room to room and grabbing different objects to try as I worked to get myself unstuck, without paying much attention to the delightful writing, which felt like a real shame.

Again, I’m not sure any of the puzzles are too hard or inadequately clued or anything. And there’s an amazing number of options and hidden depth on offer here (there’s a whole achievement system you can use to help find some fun unexpected interactions and easter eggs, though I didn’t get very far with it). It’s just that Limerick Quest made me realize that maybe what I actually want out of this franchise is a worry-free romp rather than than well-designed adventuring. With the ending teasing a possible third, pirate-themed outing, though, I’m definitely on board for any voyages to come!

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Saint Simon’s Saw, by Samuel Thomson

This isn’t a game, but rather a simulated divination device using a deck of cards – think a Tarot deck but with more topical cards and a simplified reading layout. It’s got lush production values, with the table wood-grain a strong point and the cards animated with a pleasant tactility. These aren’t really elements that I’m comfortable evaluating in a work of interactive fiction, though, and as such it’s hard to figure out how to review it since it’s not a game, and there’s no narrative or progression. I suppose I can just describe the reading I did with it? Given the tenor of the times, I predictably asked the deck what I should do if the election gets weird. Here’s what I got:

  • In the “Paradigm” slot, which I think describes the overall situation, I got the Slacker, which indicates a “surfeit of possibility.” Awesome, thanks cards, that’s super helpful. Though the more in-depth explanation of the card closes with a quote reminding us that “washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and powerless means to side with the powerful, not to remain neutral.” So perhaps that’s on point after all.

  • Next we have the “Punctum,” which I think indicates an approach to consider taking? The card here is the Other, reflecting “relocating blame” and “categorization.” Apparently it’s meant to remind us of the folly of “constructing an Other out of your ignorances and unknowns, then attacking it.” Some reasonable applicability to how folks tend to characterize the supporters of the other side here…

  • Now the “Vehicle,” signifying a tool that may be of use. I got Weird, top-line summary being “abjection.” Digging deeper, “weird is the process of being and becoming, that predominantly lies outside the observers [sic] power.” This is above my head, except to say that yeah, things are likely to get weird (that was even how I phrased the question!) – not sure that’s a useful tool to help accomplish anything though!

  • For “Outcome” – self-explanatory enough, I think – I got Synthesis, “alignment of activity,” “resolution of conflict through shared submission to an overarching goal.” That’s… surprisingly positive?

Putting this all together, I think what the deck is telling me is to think more broadly about what might happen tomorrow, to by mindful of what we all have in common, and that something strange and beyond our powers of understanding might usher in a harmonious future where we’re reconciled together and working towards a new common cause. So basically, if the world goes full Watchmen tomorrow and we wind up forgetting about Democrats and Republicans as we all band together to fight alien squid-monsters, you heard it here first.

POST-ELECTION UPDATE: This did not happen.

Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder, by Zan and Xavid

One of SAD’s co-authors also co-authored Vain Empires, and so is almost single-handedly the supernatural spy-thriller IF subgenre. There, it was angels and demons; here it’s time-traveling druids which is an even fresher premise. Some solid puzzling makes this a pleasant enough entry, but I found SAD a bit underdeveloped, both in terms of the worldbuilding and especially in terms of the characters, so doesn’t quite add up to be more than the sum of its parts.

Starting with the worldbuilding part of that, the introduction does a good job of creating urgency – apparently a cult of fire-worshippers managed to destroy the world, hate it when that happens, but the “Federal Bureau of Druids” is able to send a single operative (guess who) a couple days back in time to stop things. You don’t have a Q-style array of gadgets, but almost as good, you have a magic cocoon whose threads can take you to different time periods, along with some additional powers, with the only caveat being that you need to feed various mystical plants into the thing to unlock its abilities. While the playing area is relatively small – a dozen or so locations in and around the cult’s lakeside compound – you can ultimately access four timelines (one for each season) so there’s a lot of ground to cover.

This is more than enough to get the player up and running, but I felt like I wanted a bit more to chew on. The whole “Federal Bureau of Druids” thing set me up to expect a fantasy/modern mash-up, but as far as I could tell things are pretty much pure fantasy save for the incongruous appearance of an orange traffic cone. The cult seems to have some odd beliefs – they’re very into hand tattoos – but the narrative voice doesn’t comment on whether any of this is familiar to the player character, or how they should understand it. Late in the game, there are intimations of a third faction at play, but despite the ending text indicating that they’re a known quantity to the player character, there’s no in-game indication of what their agenda might be and how it intersects with the player’s – which is disappointing, since deciding whether or not to aid them is an important part of determining which ending you get.

Exacerbating this issue are the other characters. There are I think five other people running around between the various time periods, all members of the cult. Oddly, none of them seemed especially upset to see someone in the uniform of their enemy wandering around their base, beyond barring access to a few especially high-security areas. And in fact you spend a bunch of the game doing small favors for them, fetching them snacks and so on, which they reciprocate like they’re happy to be good chums with you (the cult’s ringleader will even make an attractive commemorative plaque to memorialize how you helped him out this one time). Curiously, you don’t share a language with any of them, though, so you can’t communicate with them at all – even more curiously, though, you’re still able to read the documents they write. This comes off as a game-y contrivance to minimize the difficulty of implementing too many NPCs, which is fair enough, but it also means that the world felt underbaked and I was often unsure of my mission – like, these people all seem nice enough, maybe this apocalypse is just a big misunderstanding?

Really what it all comes down to, then, is the puzzles, and here SAD is on surer footing. Steadily increasing the power of the cocoon and opening up all the timelines, and then new powers, makes for a very satisfying progression. And most of the puzzles are reasonably clued; a few leaned a bit more heavily into comedy than I was expecting (pulling a hat off somebody’s head with a fishing rod, interrupting a why-did-the-chicken-cross-the-road joke in progress), another sign of some of the tonal issues here, but the hints and walkthrough do a fine job of keeping you on track. I did feel like the time-travel aspect of things wasn’t used to its fullest – there are only a couple of classic “do something in the past to change the future” puzzles, which are usually the draw of this kind of thing – but again, what’s here is solid enough. I did think there was some misleading clueing around one puzzle (unlocking the rainbow lockbox, where finding the orange pentagon drawing made me think I’d need to find clues to the combination one by one) but stumbling onto the real solution wasn’t too tricky.

Despite the challenge of keeping track of all the different timelines, implementation is smooth throughout, and it’s fun to be able to just type WINTER or SUMMER and be whisked away to a whole new world – as in Vain Empires, there’s an attractive and helpful map always visible at the top of the window, and it changes to match the season which is really helpful for staying oriented. Location descriptions and scenery implementation are both a bit sparse, but that does help keep things streamlined.

Again, I had fun with SAD (irony!), and I know in the Comp it’s usually better to deliver a more modest and solid game than go too big and risk a fiasco. Still, I wish the authors had been a bit more ambitious throughout: they go big with the endings, with eight available, but that felt like too many given that the loose worldbuilding hadn’t given me sufficient stakes or grounds to decide which direction to go. With more love devoted to the setting and creating characters to invest the player in the world and establish the impact of their actions, this could have been a real standout – as it is, it was still a pleasant find as the Comp is winding to its close.

SAD-mr.txt (239.1 KB)

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Entangled, by Dark Star

The randomizer giving me a cluster of two solid but slightly underdeveloped parser games involving time travel must surely be as statistically unlikely as a mad scientist dragging an unsuspecting bystander along in their trip backwards through time, but here we – meaning both me, who had Entangled come up after Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder in the randomizer, and the player character of the said Entangled – are. There are a lot of differences in the settings, don’t get me wrong: no secret-agent-druids to be found here, and we’re wandering around a declining Rust Belt town rather than a cult’s forest base. And the locals are definitely a bit more chatty. But just as with SAD, I felt like I enjoyed Entangled a bit less than I wanted to because the worldbuilding and puzzles are just a little underbaked.

The game starts as it intends to carry on – you’re given a minimum of information about your character and the task at hand that was initially quite confusing to me, and set loose on a large, sparse map with lots of locations described but inaccessible. As you move through the streets of your hometown – which is clearly on the downswing, with a shrinking population and many folks living in a trailer park – you get a bit more context filled in, explaining that your buddy Sam, and his harridan of a wife, have moved in with you but now the landlord is cranky and you need to track down Sam at the one bar that’s still open for business in the town (it’s attached to the bowling alley). Then a funny thing happens on the way to the bowling alley and lo and behold, you’re stuck in 1980 and need to gather three weird-science materials in order to fix the time machine and make your way back.

There’s a little more to the setup than this, but not too much. Despite the fact that the player character seems like they’ve lived in this town of 350ish people their whole life, I didn’t feel like I got a great sense that the relationships with the other present-day characters ran especially deep, nor did the narrative voice convey much interest or enthusiasm when seeing the 40-year-old version of their home. While the writing is largely typo-free and communicates enough to understand what’s going on and how to solve the puzzles, there isn’t much affect to any of it.

If the backdrop isn’t the draw here, the supporting cast do much better. There are a wide variety of inhabitants to talk to – I found around ten, and the post-game text told me I missed another ten (this might have been because I didn’t spend too much time poking around 2020). They’re a fun bunch too, running the gamut from the disaffected bowling-shoe girl with dreams of making it big in New York, to a cut-rate fortune-teller, to a high-art gallerist with sharp elbows – not to mention the nerdy convenience-store clerk who’s stuck around all these years. Interaction is made simple through a TALK TO command that lists likely topics of conversation, though I found a lot more bonus options were implemented, and probably the most fun I had in the game was talking to these colorful folks about their histories and their dreams. They also serve as a light hint system – when I wasn’t sure where to start looking for one of the three widgets I needed to get back to 2020, asking around set me on the right track soon enough.

The flip side of this, though, is that most of the characters aren’t that integral to the action, and those that are tied to puzzles are among the least grounded, behaving in somewhat cartoonish fashion to make things work. The puzzles themselves are fine, though gathering three MacGuffins isn’t all that exciting – they do boast a whole lot of alternate solutions from what I was able to glean from the walkthrough, and seemed pretty well-clued to me (with that said, one early puzzle – giving something to the UFO-obsessed oddball outside the bowling alley – seemed very poorly motivated to me since I’d thought I was bent on finding Sam and didn’t really know who this guy was). But they don’t take advantage of the time-travel premise – there’s no betting on who’s going to win the World Series or anything fun like that – and most of the approaches I found involved swapping item X for object Y, or giving character A thing B so you can abscond with item C while their back is turned.

There’s not really anything wrong with Entangled – the implementation is good throughout – and I enjoyed wandering around its atypical setting and interacting with its pleasant residents. But I couldn’t help thinking that it could have taken its premise and characters more seriously. Like, I never managed to have a conversation with Sam, nor did the scientist who kicked this whole thing off because he wanted to explore 1980 ever pop up after his initial appearance. The time-travel stuff is fun, but again it only goes so far: I couldn’t help noticing that the local fortune-teller charges you a buck to get your palm read in 1980, and it still costs a dollar in 2020. Inflation was 13.5% in 1980! There’s clearly something about this place, these people, and this time that’s meaningful to the author – there’s a lot of loving attention lavished on its creation – and much of that comes through, but I was left wanting a little more.

entangled - mr.txt (157.5 KB)

Turbo Chest Hair Massacre, by Joey Acrimonious

As I was typing out the title of this game, I kept wanting to tag an Extreme onto the end. Try it: Turbo Chest Hair Massacre Extreme. Possibly with an exclamation point, though that’s a risky move. I don’t think this impulse stems from an actual shortcoming in the existing title – now that I think about it more, the Extreme sort of fluffs up the rhythm – but rather from feeling like what we’ve got, sublime and exciting as it is, doesn’t fully communicate how bonkers things get in this game. After taking the last couple entries to task for being underdeveloped, I am happy to report that TCHM uh does not suffer from that problem – it is a lot despite the one-hour playtime estimate being completely correct. While I can’t say I fully understand why everything that’s crammed into it is there, and there were a few implementation niggles that keep the game from being a perfectly smooth experience, the central puzzle of the game has the potential to spiral into incredible heights of farce, and the ending is just – I mean I want to say “sublime” though that doesn’t get across how incredibly filthy it is, too (in a good way!)

I thought I knew what TCHM was about after reading the blurb, but friends, I must confess that I was not at all prepared. Rest of the premise discussed in fuzzy-text: so yes, we need to perform a bit of depilatory self-maintenance before a hot date, but Theo, the player character, is not just a happy-go-lucky gal with a job in I dunno like publishing or something. Her apartment, which doubles as her place of employment, is also a sort of extradimensional listening post, and her roommate and partner in crime is a dirty-minded android named Marigold – and pretty quickly you get the ability to swap between the two characters at will, which dramatically changes how the apartment is described and what items are most obvious. Then – OK, spoilers are getting real here – after Theo leaves for her date, the listening post detects an extradimensional invader coming through a rift in the basement, and the finale (note: this is emphatically not the climax) involves desperately fighting off this invisible, seemingly-invulnerable entity.

We’ll return to that premise in a bit, but let’s dwell for a while on the mechanics of hair removal. The business of the main part of the game is to figure out how to get rid of that pesky bit of chest hair, and it satisfies this brief quite well. The apartment is a good size, with a pretty high density of objects but clear indications of what’s important and what’s probably a red herring, with some items occupying the fuzzy in-between and helping set up some of the more fun puzzles. There’s also a good balance in having a good number of potential ways to get rid of the hair (spoiler: most of them will not work), but not too many, by cutting off solutions that would be repetitive. There are a lot of sharp objects in the apartment, for example, but you only need to try the cutting/shaving option with one knife before moving on to other candidates. And there’s a good mix of straightforward ideas and increasingly-baroque ones that lend themselves nicely to farcical escalation – though if you’re a boring killjoy [raises hand], it’s also not that hard to hang back until you figure out the real solution.

There’s a lot to fiddle with in the apartment, including your roommate Marigold, who’s also sometimes a viewpoint character. The writing is sharp and has lots of little jokes and bits of worldbuilding embedded in descriptions, so it’s really rewarding to poke around and explore – critical in a game that’s, after all, set in a mostly-normal apartment. You can play dress-up with Theo’s big-but-not-too-big wardrobe, and the substantial differences between how she sees the world and Marigold’s view of thing means I was happy to poke through everything twice. And there are responses for senses beyond sight, which I always appreciate – some of the most rewarding results come from trying to SMELL stuff (and in the game!) Between the writing and the puzzles TCHM is a rich meal that doesn’t leave you overstuffed.

The parser is well-implemented and handles this all quite cleanly, with a few small exceptions: there’s a shower rack that’s described as being empty in one paragraph, then lists the half-dozen items resting on it. And I found that most plural-named objects had to be referred to as IT, rather than THEM. I did struggle a bit with verbs in places, but I think that’s down to me rather than the game – you see, TCHM uses, er, USE for most of its object interactions, which will just never feel natural to me in a parser game no matter how intuitive it probably is to most players. Alternate verbs do appear to work for most actions, but there were a few places where things felt like they broke down (I’m thinking especially of trying to jury-rig the vacuum, where I had the right idea but things like PUT FUNNEL ON HOSE didn’t work). I also found that there were a few places where USE didn’t seem to work (including a high-stakes moment, when USE YOGURT ON INTRUDER doesn’t work). So I dunno, I’m not well positioned to offer advice on how to use USE, but I wonder whether it might make sense to just commit to it and make it work for all actions rather than taking this hybrid approach, even though I think I wouldn’t like it as much.

I’m going back to the spoiler-text to discuss the ending – honestly this might have been the single highest point of the entire Comp for me, so you should definitely experience it for yourself! I’m not sure I really needed the segment where Marigold disposes of the alien intruder – it’s not really a tonal mismatch because it’s in keeping with the zaniness of the piece, and I definitely enjoyed an excuse to spend more time in Marigold’s head. But after spending an hour trying to figure out how to solve Theo’s follicular challenge, I wanted to see how the date was going to go, and shifting to Marigold felt a bit anticlimactic. I also think the delay before the listening post pings is probably a bit too long – I think examining doesn’t cause time to advance, which is generally a good idea, but that convenience means you can spend a long time looking at stuff in one of the object-rich rooms without any idea of what you’re supposed to be doing. The final puzzle itself led to an aha moment, so I liked that. But still, I was disappointed by this sequence – until it ended, Marigold broke down, and I experienced the most raunchy cooling-fan replacement in human history. Ye gods, this climax is a tour de force – the way the writing is both a completely straight explanation of how a machine functions, and an incredibly debauched piece of pornography, is a masterful trick that more than justifies the endgame sequence.

tchm-mr.txt (132.7 KB)

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The Turnip, by Joseph Pentangelo

This is the second game from this author in the Comp, after The Pinecone, and it shares a bunch of similarities: it’s written with a real literary flourish, it’s got a very appealing presentation, it’s adapted from a pre-existing piece of static fiction, the central action is surreal, and it’s more hypertext-based than choice-based. We’ll get back to all of that in a minute, but meantime what I’m really wondering is whether the author has just like a giant stack of flash-fiction about conical plant-matter. Will next year see The Bell Pepper, The Cyprus Tree, and The Top-Heavy Carrot? Inquiring minds want to know.

Anyway that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing, since I’ve enjoyed both contributions to this year’s Comp, though in a reverse of how nice they’d be to eat I liked Turnip much less than Pinecone. The strong points are pretty similar in both – the fonts and colors really are lovely to look at, and the writing continues to be really well-considered, with the short length allowing for a huge amount of craft per square inch of text.

The downsides are bigger here, though. While this one has a dog (point: Turnip), the protagonist’s world and job are odd and alienating, with the weird focus on deer-meat and the business with the holes – and the crazy description of your neighbor:

This is well-written, but is disconnected from the main thrust of the story and is I thought a bit too silly. Anyway, all this oddness means the turnip seems less strange when it invades this already-weird status quo – a shame because obscurely threatening vegetables are a good trope (did someone ask about a pickle?)

The game is also much less responsive than the Pinecone, I thought – were that game had two different places where you could make choices and see a slightly different result, the Turnip really only had like half a dozen opportunities to click some text and get more detail, before going back to the linear trunk of the story. All told this means I didn’t find the game all that engaging, though I enjoyed the O Henry-ish button at the end. Definitely include a dog in next year’s The Coconut But It’s Sort of Mashed Up All Weird So It’s Sort Of Like A Cone If You Squint At It, though.

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And that is 96 games played and reviewed, everything except the 7 I beta tested and the one I wrote! Since there’s still a lot of time left in the voting period I’ll probably do quick runs through the remainder just to scratch my completionist’s itch, and there are a couple games I want to revisit either because I didn’t finish them first time out or because they were updated. And eventually I should get around to putting an index in the first post like I promised I would…

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