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
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!
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)
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.
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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.
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…
Thank you for the exceptionally deep and thorough review, and congrats on finishing your lineup!
hi mike! thanks so much for reviewing “quintessence” about a month ago. i really appreciate your thoughtful look at it. i’m a writer first (for a long time) and a twine programmer / IF creator only as of about a year ago. i had a lot of fun turning this piece (originally a 392-word flash) into IF. it’s been a weird journey!
i’m intrigued by how the IF community pulls toward a thing like a back button (i’ve seen this in a few reviews). the writer in me resists doing the thing that undermines the concept of a general lack of choice where the universe is concerned that is central to the story. : ) but i also want to make the piece good for the community that plays it. dilemma! i made a series of not insubstantial changes to the piece after playtesters looked at it to make the collapses easier to navigate / avoid and the milestones clearer. thank goodness for playtesters! i tremble to think how this piece would have been received otherwise even by the extremely nice people in the author’s forum! i’m mulling what to do in post-release, so it’s really helpful to be able to look at reviews like yours with a good framework to think about it.
i know you looked at this piece a month ago, but i’ll go ahead and say that there is a framework in each of the six character storylines related to community, hope, and adversity. i never explicitly stated that in any of the storylines, though it’s clearest in the poetry-like section where the different stars sing. i didn’t expect anyone to see that in this format, but it was a good framework for me to have as i was writing.
thank you also for all the great reviews you write for all the games! your reviews and others have been instrumental in my navigating, understanding and thinking about the games we are all playing.
After a brief hiatus (…one or two things have happened since last I posted) I’m picking these up again! Per my previous post, the reviews from here on out are ones I’ve beta-tested, so I would take what I say with an even bigger grain of salt than usual.
One the one hand I know who these authors are, so they’re not faceless abstractions whose feelings I don’t think about; on the other, while I’m replaying all the games these are like fourth or five playthroughs for most of them, and I’ll be over-inclined to notice stuff that’s changed from earlier versions and/or not notice if stuff that frustrated me in my first playthroughs got changed. So besides allowing me to scratch my completionist’s itch and fill out the reviewing spreadsheet, I’m not sure there’s much point to these – but that’s never stopped me before!
Anyway, we lead off with…
Happyland, by Rob Fitzel
A confession, dear reader: I am awful at IF mysteries. I like them in theory, and I’m pretty good at figuring things out when watching a murder mystery on TV. But put one in front of me in parser form and it’s a bad scene – maybe it’s because they’re timer-dependent and I don’t have the patience to take good notes, or that I usually have a hard time getting a handle on how NPC interaction is supposed to work, but every once in a while I decide to try one of the Infocom mysteries and get like five moves in before quailing away in terror. I did once manage to hack my way through like a third of Make It Good before getting stuck and, upon checking the hints, discovered that actually all I’d done was fallen for red herrings and I’d actually been making negative progress.
Given all this, I was flat-out astonished that I was able to solve Happyland without any hints. I don’t think it’s because it’s too simple or easy – nabbing the right culprit isn’t excessively hard, true, but there are some sub-plots and side-areas of investigation that are pleasantly twisty, and I was able to unravel those after some careful experimentation too. Rather, it’s because the game generally plays fair, uses a timer but has a generous hand both with the overall limit and the windows for specific events, and does a good job of providing clues and enabling you to work backward through an intimidatingly-large possibility space to suss out all the whys and wherefors.
Speaking of working backwards, I should probably back up and mention the setup. At first blush, it’s a pretty standard cop-show premise, with your detective protagonist called in to investigate a death that may or may not be accidental (spoiler: it is not). I did experience a little bit of tonal disorientation on why a hotel is called “Happyland”, and the idea of a regular hotel in the middle of a rural area developing an amusement-park add-on seemed a little odd to me, but it doesn’t take long for the premise to be fully explained and it’s easy enough to roll with: really, you’ve got a body, half a dozen suspects, and a forensics kit, so it’s all about diving into the details to try to solve the mystery.
That forensics kit does a lot of the heavy lifting – pretty much all the puzzles require using it to analyze fingerprints, assess trace chemicals, and magnify small discrepancies in evidence. The other half of the mystery-solving equation is interacting with the robust cast of characters, interrogating them and confronting them with various pieces of evidence. This is more complex business than the typical adventure-game TIE ROPE TO ROCK sort of thing, but the parser takes care of it quite well, with the only niggle a bit of wonkiness around disambiguation – especially notable given that this is a custom parser, which often have a bit of a negative reputation! But I didn’t run into any guess-the-verb issues, and NPCs were usually smart enough to draw the appropriate conclusions based on what I was showing or telling them.
There are a few small things that could be cleaned-up for a post-Comp release – notably, in one playthrough, I was able to nab the suspect before a particular event happened, but the post-game newspaper story still referenced that event (I’m talking about Cooper’s death – I know the timing of his poisoning can shift depending on the player’s actions, but if you’ve never seen him collapse it’s odd to see it mentioned). But generally there’s a high degree of attention to detail, including probably my favorite Easter Egg of the Comp (ANALYZE POEM). My only real complaint is that Happyland is lulling me into thinking I’m getting better at IF mysteries – so it’ll be at fault when I take another run at Deadline, am promptly smacked back down, and once again write off the subgenre.
Glad the review was useful! I definitely picked up on some of themes you mention, but don’t think I got through enough storylines to get a sense of the overall framework (the stars signing doesn’t ring a bell) so that would be fun to go back to and check out, since I really did enjoy the world and your writing. On the back button, I think can be a tough tradeoff that the Comp makes tougher – the plus side of releasing in the Comp is you get a bunch of players, which is awesome, but at the same time those players can’t fully engage with your game without being aware of the 103 others also waiting, which means that a game that requires a bit of replaying might feel perfectly well-paced in other circumstances can face a tough time of it.
Anyway, looking forward to exploring the rest of Quintessence if you do an update, and congrats on the game – I wouldn’t have guessed you were so new to IF given all the cool stuff you do with Twine (I loved the cursors)!
Alone, by Paul Michael Winters
(I beta tested this game)
There are a few games in this year’s Comp that gain resonance from having been written in 2020 – Babyface, for example, where the way COVID limits the main character’s ability to interact with their father is an important part of the overall discombobulation the game is imparting. Alone also falls into this category: despite the fact that it doesn’t specifically mention the current pandemic and draws on common postapocalyptic and zombie fiction tropes, the game’s aura of isolation and fear of infection would not land with nearly so much impact in a different year. That’s not to say that it’s only because of current events that the game works, to be clear – the prose is admirably sparse and the I found the sequence where you’re at risk from one of the infected fairly tense – but there is a little extra frisson from playing Alone now.
The game itself is relatively straightforward in premise – after running out of gas in a lonely stretch of highway, your post-apocalyptic survivor hikes to an abandoned gas station only to find more than they bargained for. There’s some secret backstory to uncover, but it’s nothing too fancy (though I did find one aspect – the rationale behind a collapsing government concealing a secret research facility under a gas station – a bit odd and underexplained). Really the focus here is on puzzle solving, so good thing that they’re solid and fairly well-clued. Most involve using machinery or tools in a fairly reasonable way, with most relatively straightforward though there are a couple that involve some more complex mechanisms (the control panel is fun to play around with, though it can also lock you into a sub-optimal ending if you play around too much!). There were a few that sparked aha moments for me, which is always satisfying (the cinder block puzzle, and figuring out how to use the control panel to get the best ending). The structure is maybe a little more linear than would be ideal – though the map is relatively open, there’s usually only one puzzle you can work on at a time. But since the puzzles are fair and not too challenging, this doesn’t present too much of a problem.
Technically, Alone is well put-together: I didn’t run into guess the verb or disambiguation issues in the release version, and the only typo I noticed this time out was a missing line break that make the paragraph spacing look odd in the dumbwaiter sequence. And it has a deceptive amount of choice built into it as you come close to the end of the game, with several different possible endings. While I found these more compelling as a goad to solve the last puzzles correctly than in narrative terms, I think that’s fine – characterization and plot aren’t Alone’s area of focus, and it succeeds admirably in presenting a series of fun puzzles in a foreboding atmosphere.
The Wayward Story, by Cristmo Ibarra
(I beta tested this game)
The Wayward Story lives up to its title – this is a narrative-driven piece of IF that wends through a bunch of different characters, settings, times, and even genres. There is an overall structure that unifies the whole, but ultimately I think it plays its cards a little too close to the vest. Players who do the work to make the puzzle pieces fit will experience a satisfying click, but I can’t help wishing TWS did a little more to invite the needed effort.
It’s tough to talk about the game without going into a little bit of detail on at least the structure of the game, so expect some light spoilers from here on out (I’ll still spoiler-block anything major). Briefly, there are three major types of scenes: first, there’s the core thread of the game, which follows an isolated loner who falls asleep while watching TV and then finds themselves in a strange, dark castle. Then while exploring, he’s drawn into three scenes, each set in a different genre of escapist fiction (post-apocalyptic, fantasy, Indiana Jones-style adventure) – these are the gamiest parts of the piece. And finally there are a series of vignettes set in the real world, at varying points in time and with different viewpoint characters.
There are a variety of linkages between all these different parts, some of which are clearer than others, and working through them is where the real meat of the game lies, since there aren’t really challenges or puzzles in the traditional sense. In each of the three genre-y scenes, you’re given a single clear task or direction, but it’s simple enough to follow directions to reach the end. However, each of them also has an optional alternate path. In retrospect it’s clear these are moral choices, and the game responds accordingly, but one of my quibbles with TWS is that some of them are very easy to overlook (the one in the post-apocalyptic scenario is straightforward enough, but the desert one requires what may be a tricky leak of logic, and whether or not you even notice that there’s a choice at all in the fantasy vignette turns on whether you explore off the beaten path when there’s reason not to do so).
There’s nothing wrong with hiding some pieces of a story, but here I think there are a few design decisions that compound the risks that some players will miss out on what’s really going on. First, depending on what choices you make in the three game-y scenes, you appear to either get different real-world vignettes, or none at all. Second, there’s a fake-out that I think is too effective (after you reach the end, the game appears to restart – you need to keep playing and see what’s changed to get to the real ending, but there aren’t immediate indications that this is intended and not a bug so it’d be easy to assume you’ve reached the end and it’s time to quit). If a player starts out poking around and get to some of the harder-to-find bits, I think they’re more likely to be hooked and keep exploring to try to fully understand what’s happening – but if they don’t, I’m not sure they’d even notice that there’s stuff they’re missing.
This is a shame because there’s a lot to like here. The writing isn’t overwrought, but it conveys the main character’s isolation effectively through some simple but smart tricks: for example, the apartment where the game begins has its furniture described with each piece broken out on its own line, and called out as being empty, or standing alone. Effort is made to make sure the narrative voice is distinct for each of the various characters, and while this sometimes leads to overcorrection – I found the tone in the first vignette, where you play as Jack, a bit over-the-top – in general it works. Different scenes also use color to create or shift the mood, which I found worked well for me, as well as helping make the structure clearer. The text is close to typo-free, and the parser is implemented well as far as I can tell, though again, as a beta tester, that’s hard for me to really assess. Overall TWS is very much worth playing – it just takes a little bit of work to get to what’s good about it.
The Impossible Bottle, by Linus Åkesson
(I beta tested this game)
As modern video games get more and more complex, and the hardware gets more and more powerful, AAA games are capable of overwhelming feats – I gasped in wonder the first time I saw the crowded streets of Assassin’s Creed Unity’s revolutionary Paris, for example, and that’s more than five years old! But for whatever reason, when I run through the times when a game has just bowled me over with amazement, a disproportionate number are things like the power-fantasy of Hadean Lands, where I cackled with glee at the way I could type “W” and see the visibly pause before spitting out the results of the twelve different sub-puzzles I’d automatically solved with that single key press. Perhaps it’s that the flexibility of text means it’s always capable of surprising you, whereas once you understand the systems at play in something like an Assassin’s Creed game, you’ve pretty much got the whole thing figured out. Or maybe there’s something to the old saw about imagination, and picturing what the text is describing, being more evocative than just seeing.
Anyway, add the Impossible Bottle to the list. I’ve seen a number of reviews that bounced out of this one early, before getting to what makes the game so amazing, so while I’ll be putting the rest of this under a spoiler block to preserve the surprise, I do want to clearly say for those who haven’t played yet that there is something amazing here and it’s not just a game about a six-year old picking up a mess, so stick with it through those first ten minutes.
Okay, with that out of the way, let’s get fuzzy: when I first realized what the gimmick here was, it made me smile – the idea of a magic dollhouse that lets you change what’s happening in the real house is a clever one, and the initial puzzle where you figure that out leads to a lovely aha moment that made me feel smart. But oh man I had no idea how deep the rabbit hole goes. You can move things around, sure, makes sense. Putting a small thing in the dollhouse turns it into a normal-sized, real thing in the real house, OK. Putting a big thing into the dollhouse to shrink it, now we’re starting to get more complicated. Then add on that you can sometimes blow things up twice, or shrink them twice, and that changing their size might make them come to life or otherwise slightly shift? It stops feeling like a gimmick and starts feeling like magic, especially once your dad makes a fateful decision, and you figure out how to get into the titular bottle…
The dollhouse opens up a huge possibility space, but TIB does a masterful job of helping you stay on top of what you’re doing. There’s a handy GOALS command that lists what you could be working on at any given time, and a progressive hint system to keep you on track. More than these external crutches, the game also provides solid direction via suggested verbs and cueing from other characters, and while the magic of the dollhouse is very versatile, you generally have a good understanding of what kinds of things you can accomplish so you’re rarely left floundering at sea. And it’s all implemented incredibly smoothly, so that it’s easy to do anything you can think of. I’ve only played a few Dialog games, but it really shows its strength and versatility here – I mostly played by typing in commands, but a few times when I ran into disambiguation issues (primarily when I was trying to mess around stacking furniture to see if I could break the game), the ability to click links made it incredibly robust to mischief and player screwing-around.
While the puzzles, and the size-changing mechanics, are the real start of the show here, there’s plenty to like about the narrative side of things too. The other members of your family don’t rise much about stereotypes, but they’re lovingly drawn and appealing nonetheless. TIB is another game that references the pandemic, but instead of using it as a tool of horror or isolation, instead it focuses on the way people and families can come together and support each other through a tough time, which is always a lovely message but is especially so right now.
Is TIB a perfect game? No, probably not – the solution to the dinosaur puzzle feels a little too unintuitive to me, for one – but it is a delightful one (you can play through to the end and never realize that you can play the-floor-is-lava!), and, as I keep repeating, really just magic.
Thanks so much for the thoughtful review of Limerick Quest, Mike! I’ve taken it to heart and it will influence my design decisions for Limerick Pirates (:
Mike, many thanks for your review of Happyland.
As someone who’s never written an IF game (nor played many) before, your initial feedback during beta testing was extremely helpful for upgrading parts of the story and making the forensic kit simpler to use. It’s very satisfying to hear that players found the game entertaining.
I’m glad you found some (all???) of the Easter eggs (were you able to guess the TV shows or the commercials from their description or get a kiss from Ally?).
I’m adding your comments to my list of fixes for a post-Comp update.
Maybe you are indeed getting better at solving mysteries. Practice makes perfect.
Hey Rob! I think I figured out most of the TV shows and all the commercials, yeah (having the TV shows on an actual schedule is a neat touch!) I kept things strictly professional with Ally, though Congrats again on the game!
Vampire Ltd, by Alex Harby
(I beta tested this game)
It’s an iron law of comedy that nothing’s as funny the second time around (leaving aside things like the Simpsons rake gag where repetition is the point). It’s still fun to see the punch lines form up and get ready to arrive, and a solid joke is a solid joke no matter whether it’s your first time seeing it, but robbed of the surprise, it’s just never going to land the same way. Why, then, did I find myself giggling when I just replayed Vampire Ltd, despite having run through it two or three times while testing it? Partially I’m sure it’s my sieve-like brain – it has been a couple months since the testing – and there are definitely a few new gags since then, but mostly it’s that the writing has bite.
Pleasantly, this isn’t a matter of individual jokey bits coming at the expense of a consistent, well-realized world, nor is it a case of funny writing making up for wonky design or buggy implementation. The humor comes straight out of the premise and characters, so before I get to the fun part of highlighting some of the bits that made me laugh the hardest, let’s get the setup out of the way.
We’re in a revenge-cum-corporate-espionage caper, with the vampire main character hell-bent on getting back at their former mentor, who’s now running a green-energy company. Vampires, as it turns out, have set their sights higher than just sucking the blood out of humanity one at a time, and now scale the loftiest heights of capitalism (and in the game!) The player character, however, is a bit of a failure (“Just because of a handful of failed startups and lawsuits and bankruptcies?”, he asks himself incredulously, and looking at the state of American politics at least it’s hard to fault him), and so decides to infiltrate his rival’s corporate campus looking to wreck and/or steal the new energy breakthrough (it is not exactly a well-laid plan).
This kicks off a series of gentle puzzles, all of which are well-clued, with one great gag that’s also completely logical thrown in there (the bit with the grapes). A particularly clever touch is that as you go about the early stages of the game – acing your interview for a customer-service job, gaining access to all corners of the campus, guessing an idiot’s computer password – it teaches you about the weaknesses vampires have in this setting. They’re almost but not exactly the same as what’s in traditional vampire law, but it’s especially handy to have all of these reminders before the inevitable confrontation with your rival. And implementation is rock-solid throughout, with nary an unimplemented bit of scenery or overlooked synonym. My favorite example is what happens if you try to drink the blood-bag you’ve brought along as a snack in the first scene, where you’re amidst the crowd watching a press conference – after you write BITE BAG, the game spits out “(first turning discreetly away from the audience)” before describing your nosh. That’s an awesome bit of attention to detail, plus gains additional kudos for using the word “discreetly” correctly, which basically never happens in video games!
All this means that the writing is given the support it needs to shine. The humor is really all about how much capitalism, er, sucks, but it doesn’t rest on that perhaps too-easy premise and goes the extra mile with sharp, specific jokes. The entire job interview is a highlight – turns out answering that “what’s your greatest weakness?” question is more complex if you’re a vampire! – but even the throwaway gags are great. There are a set of construction workers early on, and if you try to talk to them, the main character rebuffs you, saying “you don’t like being outnumbered by labour.” The janitor on anti-vampire strike was another highlight, explaining her protest this way:
There are maybe one or two places where the prose could be pared down a little (the job interview scene is great, but the responses to the joke answers are maybe 20% longer than they need to be). But in general the writing’s just great. I mean, here’s the villain of the piece crowing about his great invention: “Oh, some of the staff carped at me about inefficiency, and how hard it is to safely contain a nuclear explosion, and how it shouldn’t have a window.”
All in all, Vampire Ltd has it where it counts – ulp, I’ve just been informed I’ve exceeded my vampire-joke quota and this review is now over. Sorry folks!
Shadow Operative, by Michael Lauenstein
(I beta tested this game)
In my unreliable memory, cyberpunk used to be a pretty common genre for IFComp entries, but it’s become a bit more rare these days – Sense of Harmony included many of the tropes, as did Move On in its implied setting, and I suppose BYOD is all about corporate hacking. Maybe the genre as a whole is less relevant as we’ve all gotten used to the fact that we’re basically swimming in cyberspace 24/7 and corporate-run authoritarian dystopias don’t really land as a scary unknown any more? Regardless of any of that, Shadow Operative is a cyberpunk adventure of the old school, as a rogue hacker with a cyberjack in, and a price on, their head infiltrates a megacorp to exfiltrate hidden data that could bring down the whole company. Story-wise it’s a bit by the numbers, but satisfying puzzles and a slick presentation mean this one definitely scratches the shadowrunning itch.
Starting with that presentation, since it’s the first thing you notice when starting the game, it’s anything but a throwback: while written in Inform and fully playable by the parser alone, there are also a lot of conveniences in various sidebars, including a usable map, hyperlinks for important objects, a clickable list of common verbs (with ENTER CYBERSPACE first on the list, because of course), and a title image and music throughout. I played via typing alone, but this one should be pretty accessible to those who prefer to click their way through or who are less familiar with parser-only games – and it all really reinforces the mood of the piece, placing you in the shoes of an enhanced operative who can quickly figure out everything that’s going on.
As mentioned, the setting and setup are classic cyberpunk – after a botched job, you’ve got hitmen after you, and while laying low you get sucked into doing one more job for an old friend. The emphasis is clearly on that one more job, though – the price on your head doesn’t really connect to what you’re doing after the first five minutes of the story (and is resolved rather summarily in the conclusion). This maybe reduces the drama somewhat, but does perhaps better fit the mood, which is more easygoing than the typical cyberpunk vibe – it definitely starts out all edgy, but pretty soon your badass operative has crashed into the back of a garbage truck, and it pretty much goes on from there. I don’t think there’s any way to die (though there is a way to make the game unwinnable: don’t drink your upgrade money!), and instead of a cold, geometric void, cyberspace is presented as rather cheerful medieval or feudal Japanese worlds with anthropomorphized programs. There are also rather a lot of jokes and in-jokes, which I thought mostly landed – I’m not sure the world needed another “the cake is a lie” gag, but I’m always down for an “I’m selling these fine leather jackets” callback.
The action is all about the central job, and it’s well put together and paced. There’s a bit of preliminary work to do to get ready for the heist, then the infiltration and cyberspace misadventure before having to make your escape. The puzzles are fairly simple but reasonable and satisfying to solve, with the trickiest ones coming in cyberspace. Again, this is presented in somewhat cartoony fashion – defeating the megacorp’s security primarily involves using musical instruments that I guess are really programs to overcome AI ICE that takes the shape of various guard-animals? – but it works well enough and doesn’t require the player to absorb a bunch of technobabble. There is one really good twist, which I mostly saw coming but still landed well.
It’s all solidly implemented, too (the only issue I found is that you can pick up the bamboo tree – bit of an oops but no big deal), and the interface removes any guess the verb issues. Overall Shadow Operative goes down smooth and easy, and provides a good argument for why this old genre has some life in it yet.