Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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.


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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 :slight_smile: Congrats again on the game!

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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.


Thanks for the kind words, and thank you again for beta-testing :slight_smile:

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The Magpie Takes the Train, by Brian Rushton

(I beta tested this game)

I have given the randomizer a lot of grief over the course of our five weeks together, bemoaning its feast-or-famine tendencies and bewailing its (I’m assuming) perverse glee at stacking like five sexmurder games right at the top of the Comp. But it did me a solid in the end, since it’s hard to think of a better way to play off the comp than Magpie Takes the Train, which is about as pleasant a piece of IF as you’re ever likely to find. That word “pleasant” can be double-edged – sometimes it’s a way of sinking in the damning-with-faint-praise shiv – and sure, as one (and a half) room spinoff game, it’s not aiming to be a barnburner or an epic. But when that one room is so cozily realized, lushly implemented, and entertainingly peopled, that’s not much of a complaint. MTT is great fun, from the main event – a satisfying, multi-step jewel heist – to the smallest incidental detail.

As mentioned, this is a spin-off from 2018 Comp winner Alias the Magpie – that was by J.J. Guest, but the present author offered an authorized sequel game as one the prizes, so here we are. While if you know the respective authors, you can definitely tell the difference – MTT uses the conversation system employed in many of Brian Rushton’s other games – and there’s no specific plot continuity, the writing and overall vibe are definitely of a piece with the earlier game. Which is great, because Alias the Magpie was delightful! Just so here, where the eponymous master-of-disguise is bent on infiltrating the private railway of an American magnate and lifting an enormous jewel right off her lapel. Of course, it’s not as simple as all that – there are somewhere about half a dozen sub-puzzles that need to be solved before you’re able to successfully lift the rock and abscond. Almost all involve some quick-change artistry, as you’ve cleverly brought along a suitcase full of disguises and the occasional tunnels offer just enough lightless moments to change from your professor’s togs into, say, a waiter’s getup, or a maintenance man’s coverall. The various characters in the car react to you differently depending on your garb, and certain actions that would arouse suspicion if performed when incorrectly attired can be easily accomplished while wearing the proper uniform.

None of the steps involved in solving the puzzle are that challenging to work out – and in fact there’s no penalty to simply trying to take the jewel, which will prompt you with a hint towards the most immediate barrier to your larcenous designs. But nor are they too simple, either, or too wacky. I generally felt like I was half a step ahead of the puzzles, which is a very pleasant (…that word again) state to inhabit, as I usually had an idea of what I should be doing but hadn’t fully worked out every step such that implementing the plan was drudgery. And in fact you miss out on a lot of the fun if you just rush for the win – there’s lots of entertaining dialogue to be had with the other characters if you try talking to them in all your various outfits, there’s a whole drink-mixing system that leads to lots of entertaining combinations, and there’s tons of incidental detail that rewards poking about with some fun jokes.

Unsurprisingly given the legion of testers – I was among a nigh-numberless host – the implementation is as smooth as butter. There are lots of thoughtful conveniences, such as allowing the player to skip to the next moment of darkness if they’re too impatient to wait for the next chance to change outfits. The prose is typo-free, and just about every strange thing I tried was anticipated. It’s possible to make the game unwinnable, but it’s kind enough to tell you that and end, and I think a single UNDO will always retrieve the situation. Indeed, given its compact length, inviting setting, and robust implementation, MTT could be a nigh-perfect game for bringing new players into the IF fold – but it’s certainly got a lot to offer veterans of the form as well.


And just to round things off…

The Eleusinian Miseries, by Mike Russo

One doesn’t like to say that the fruit of another fellow’s toil is the merest tommyrot, or that all the sweat of some well-meaning oaf’s brow wouldn’t fill the smallest thimble – I should specify that I’m of course speaking here of one of those thimbles lacking the little holes, since otherwise even the most hyperhidrotic bravo would fall down at the task – at any rate as my Great Aunt always says, those lips are best that flap the least, and while my man’s explained to me that in her case, she deploys the phrase in my hearing more by way of a personal rebuke than a general maxim, nonetheless I find there’s something to the sentiment. And yet, balanced against these counsels of reason, one nonetheless finds oneself compelled to pass some sort of comment on a work that has all the vim, verve, and velocity of a balloon filled with pudding.

This Eleusinian Miseries wheeze – if wheeze one must label it – makes an unprepossessing impression, and hardly improves from there. Oh, it lures you in with promises of a delightful shindig, but where does the scene actually open but in some grubby little dungeon, bereft of any object of interest besides an over-variegated collation of pottery, described at such length that one suspects the author of harboring a strange sort of erotic mania. Things briefly improve after the protag. gathers an arbitrary array of items off one of your duller species of shopping lists, as the action departs the subterranean for a sublunary revel – but there’s only a desultory bit of feasting to be had before one is subjected to a series of ceremonies both soporific and ridiculous, like that time Great Uncle Eustace fell asleep in the baptismal font, save without his dignity and gravitas.

It all comes to a climax in a sordid scene suggesting that little as you might trust the author around your ceramics, you should trust him even less near your statuary. If you read the author’s self-regarding little notes, you’ll see he pleads that it’s all adapted – albeit rather freely – from that Thucydides chap. But it’s no use to say ‘oh, it’s all from history’! You’ll find, should you look into it, that history is full of the most bally awful things. Creating an entertainment based off history – the very idea!

Beyond being quite past the toleration of polite society, one also must note that the piece strains all credulity to boot. The fellow we’re following on these misadventures, it must be said, appears a well-bred sort, with the proper attitude towards the finer things in life and superannuated relatives of his own, who’ve imparted at least a few of the right ideas in his skull. How, then, are we to believe that he’s able to surmount the variety of challenges thrown his way, up to and including chariot repair? Everyone knows a fellow of such a class needs a man of some kind – ideally a valet – to cogitate and work through such puzzling circs. on their behalf. Are we such fools that we’re not meant to deduce that there must be some butler, or certainly at least a footman, lurking somewhere just off-stage whispering instructions to this fatuous dunderhead?

Whether the Eleusinian bit is authentic one can’t say without consulting an antiquarian, but as to the Miseries side of things, I speak ex cathedra when pronouncing it the most honest of advertisements: with 103 other diversions on offer, even the awfullest glutton for punishment should stay far, far away.

(Though speaking of gluttons, I suppose the pig is rather cute).


Just a final note to flag that I added some addenda to a few games after going back and playing them some more: Radicofani, Tragic, Little Girl in Monsterland, Creatures, and Where the Wind Once Blew Free (er, and Saint Simon’s Saw). I also updated the first post with a full index and tweaked some of statements of intent now that I’m done, and flagged a couple reviews that I’m especially proud of. And with that, I think that’s a wrap on my 2020 reviewing – thanks and congratulations again to all the authors!


Hello Mike.
Thanks again for your precious time and above all for your clarity of judgment.
I appreciated all your comments, especially the most negative ones that will allow me to improve Radicofani in future versions.
Certainly greater depth in the plot and in the descriptions of the environments and more coherent and credible puzzles could make the game better.
Regarding your reflection on the figure of Amelia At the end :
Obviously Amelia’s choice to suspend her work and to devote herself to the art of cooking is valid ONLY in that context and in that space-time jump (it was their anniversary) and, in any case , for her free choice.
It should therefore not be considered as a universal positive value.
However, even in this case, your observations are more “acute” and relevant than ever.
Thanks again.


Thanks for taking the time to review and feedback on Eidolon’s Escape, Mike. Some great points that will hopefully improve my future IF efforts! Cheers

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Just quickly bumping this since I’ve moved the thread from the author’s forum into the main one now that the Comp is over, so it’ll be more accessible moving forward. I’ll also work on getting these into IFDB one by one, hopefully over the next week or two!


Mike, these are fantastic! I’m so glad you moved your reviews over to the public forum.


FYI, “Electric word, ‘life’” is a lyric from “Let’s Go Crazy” by Prince.


Thanks Mike for a very detailed and thoughtful review! (Sorry for the late reply - just getting caught up this weekend).

I’m glad that you enjoyed The Cave and I agree completely about needing at least 10%-15% more content. In fact, in the rewrite I’m working on for 2021, I plan on doubling the number of rooms/chambers and addressing some of the other issues you raise. I still want to keep the stat building component to the game, but feel it really needs to have a clearer goal (not just “assign all my points and then magically find an exit”) – so plan on working in some other objectives, including a puzzle or challenge focused ending section to gain access to the exit.

I think adding more accomplishments is a great idea! I’ll definitely be doing that.

Thanks again!

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Yeah, I saw some other folks mention that – I am a lame person who doesn’t remember the intro to Let’s Go Crazy, as it turns out :slight_smile: Anyway I’m glad it looks like my worries that it wouldn’t find an audience were thankfully misplaced, as it’s got a solid number of ratings on IFDB!

Thank you for writing the game! I saw the post-mortem you just put up, which was really interesting to read. Excited that there’ll be a post-Comp version so I’m very much looking forward to checking that out – I think my one caveat is that I think a lot of the charm of the game is that you can approach it however you like. If the new puzzle-y/challenge-y ending pushes players to optimize and just look for the Strength or Intelligence option or whatever, that would be a shame. But I think there are lots of ways to thread the needle and provide payoff for choices without incentivizing min-maxing.

I had to Google it myself!

Hey! Just want to say, based on some of the ideas here, I punched up the ending of Babyface a bit for the post-competition release. Thanks to a newly implemented cheat code, you can jump directly to the final act of the game right away. Just press the 5 key at any time. Enjoy!