Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

@HanonOm surely you are being overmodest.

But, if you ever want a tour of Undum – or at least our version of Undum – I’d be more than happy to show you its ins and outs. And all the delicious design work (other than a few adjustments) goes to Ian Millington, of course. And obviously, the Marino family agree with you 100%.

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Thank you for this thoughtful review – and the bug catch! I look forward to sharing this with my kids. As the narrator indicates, this story was mostly my daughter’s concoction. I did my best to render the details she had dreamed up in that paper world originally when she was in 4th grade. (She’s a senior in high school now!) You review makes me think we need to go back and look at those character intros. Yes, there are previous stories, but Lin is the only character who shows up in a previous one and only very briefly.

And thank you for taking the story on its terms. Most of the reviews of the other Wobbles stories begin, “I am not a child, so I cannot appreciate works written for children.” I’m not a child, and I LOVE children’s lit. By contrast, your review is full of so much affect and genuine joy. We’re going to treasure it and use it to fuel our work on future stories!


I should mention that although the progres bars are part of Undum, we hand-made the percentage completed system. As you can imagine, it’s not perfect – since it is using milestones rather than actual counts. Hopefully it works well enough to get people through without that feeling that they could be reading forever or are missing lots of content.


Glad you liked the review, and thank you for the game! I’m looking forward to checking out the earlier installments once the firehose of content that is IFComp is over.


Deelzebub, by Morgan Elrod-Erickson, Skyler Grandel, and Jan Kim

Deelzebub is a lightly-puzzly comedy game that nails the comedy and got my first out-loud laughs of the Comp.

The scenario – the player character is part of a cult that may be harboring a dark secret – is immediately familiar, but the tone of the presentation quickly subverts expectations, as the player character is presented as earnest, friendly, and a little bit suspicious of many different things and people, but willing to go along to get along. This easygoing vibe fits well with a rather ridiculous, but appealing, supporting cast, and some engagingly silly situations.

I don’t want to get too much into detail on the comedy, both not to ruin it and because what worked for me might not work for you. But I think it’s really, really well done. The best gags, I thought, have to do with the main character trying to bluff his way through a demon summoning, and this bit alone is worth the price of admission. I can’t help spoiler-blocking my favorite single joke:

Dave (the aforementioned demon) looks around the chamber. “So this is the human world, huh? It’s a lot smaller than I imagined.”

“This isn’t all of it. We’re in a basement.”

Deelzebub stacks up well pacing-wise, too. The player character is given a series of tasks, which are generally pretty clear in pointing you in the right direction and none of which overstay their welcome. The structure then opens up during the endgame, with four different endings to pursue (I found two).
The puzzles generally have good clueing, though some niggles in implementation and a little bit of guess-the-noun/verb-ing occasionally undercut the momentum. I also was a little disappointed that Dave, the demon you summon early on, can sort of drop out of the story midway through, since he was the clearest throughline for the first half of the game.

There’s a good amount of scenery implemented, though occasionally objects that seem to be mentioned aren’t actually there (there’s reference to a pamphlet that explains the group’s beliefs in the opening scene, but I couldn’t find or read it), or objects that are important but aren’t mentioned despite being present (Chris was listed as being in the crop field area, but not Ruth, even though you can, and should, interact with her! And I had the same issue with the ear in the worm bin). The map felt a bit too big, but maybe that’s just because I had a hard time holding it in my brain due to there being some non-cardinal directions thrown in to confuse things.

There were also a few niggles that might have just been part of the way TADS works, but which stood out as strange to me since it’s been a while since I’ve played a game written in it – in particular, there are a fair number of multi-passage scenes (including the opening) where you need to hit enter to continue, but without specific prompting and the ability to write text before one hits enter, I wound up being a bit confused because I thought I was playing the game and just getting unhelpful/strange responses before twigging to what was going on.

All of which to say there are a few small rough patches that can hopefully be smoothed over for a post-comp release, because what’s here is really solid and really funny, just tremendously appealing.

Deelzebub - mr.txt (305.6 KB)


Accelerate, by the TAV Institute

So there was this book that circulated amongst the, shall we say, less-popular kids when I was in high school and college (the mid to late 90s, for reference) – the Illuminatus! Trilogy, by two dudes named Robert. It’s this frothy, over-the-top, drug-fueled mélange of Philip K. Dick sci-fi tropes, secret-society paranoia, revisionist history, anarchist theory and praxis, Tantric sex, gnostic apocalyptica, and like twenty other things all cut together in high-Sixties style. I don’t know whether people still read it these days, or if it would have the same impact in a world with Wikipedia, but I remember it as a big deal because it connected basically everything a certain kind of person might be into – any individual sorta-weirdo probably was big into, and familiar with, a portion of what was on offer, but certainly not all. And in fact I think of there being two main channels into it – first, you could be a dork coming to it from the sci-fi, history, and religion side of things (it me), or alternately it was also big with the folks who took a bunch of drugs and were excited about blowing up authority.

Illuminatus! isn’t mentioned in the Brobdingnagian acknowledgments page for Accelerate, so I suppose there’s no direct linkage, but I share that to give some partial flavor of what’s contained in this maximalist work, and also to acknowledge that while I think I get a lot of what’s going on here, I’m aware that I’m significantly too square to be the ideal audience for the piece – like, through my choices I think I made Accelerate’s transgender divine assassin sometimes feel a little normcore? So while I thought it was really good, I suspect there’s a chunk of folks to whom this will be amazing (and also a chunk of folks for whom this will really not be their thing, of course).

This is another one of those games that’s hard to figure out how to get one’s pick into, so I’ll once again fall back on some structure to make it seem like my thoughts all connect up. I don’t think it’s worth trying to write about this piece without getting fairly spoilery, so I haven’t bothered to blur things up, but fair warning that you should really play this for yourself, and only then come back to the remainder of what I’ve written).

  1. The saha world of birth-and-death

(By which I mean, what is going on within the fictional world of the game – there is probably a way to write about Accelerate that does not involve reaching for the most pretentious references available to one, but where’s the fun in that?)

Though the introduction to the game is intentionally jumbled up and disorienting, what’s going on here is relatively straightforward – the protagonist, an inhabitant of a repressive and despoiled future that is not different from today in any significant respect, feels a kind of internal brokenness. They check themselves into a sort of clinic, partially to score some drugs, but eventually enter into the spirit of the program, which involves transformation and transcendence of the self (the body, the mind, the soul – transgenderism is a strong element here but isn’t, I think, the whole of what’s going on). However, it turns out that the program doesn’t stop there, and is also focused on external change – soon the protagonist is going on high-stakes missions to disrupt capitalism, government, and religion, and in the climax hijacks a spaceship-chariot and storms the Garden of Eden to immanetize the eschaton by exploding the demiurge with a cancer-bomb.

So like I said, simple, straightforward stuff.

Though the overall arc here is I think fixed, there are nonetheless significant pieces of interactivity, through what I think are three primary types of choices. First, there are lots of opportunities to either get more detail, or speed through some of the denser parts of the narrative – I pretty much always opted to explore since I enjoyed the worldbuilding and the writing, but since I barely finished within two hours and others might be less into e.g. reading like 5,000 of a fictionalized interview transcript in between the main plot arc progressing, I think these were a nice convenience. The second set of choices are about giving the player an opportunity to characterize their, or the protagonist’s, responses to what’s going on – ones that I don’t think dramatically shift the story, but offer a welcome invitation to the player to engage with what’s being presented and own it through shaping a reaction.

The third set of choices are the most traditionally gamey, and allow what I think are whole scenes or sequences to be opted into or out of. There was a bit early on where the protagonist had the option of sneaking into the clinic’s basement to search out drugs, but I took a nap instead (told you I was normcore!) There’s also a big set-piece midway through where the player has a choice of different missions to disrupt society – I got a suicide-bombing at a punk show, but from reading other reviews it seems like there’s also an art gallery sequence on offer. So while the overall arc of the narrative appears pretty fixed, the choices do have a significant impact – in particular, the horrifying, civilian-directed violence of that punk-show chapter strongly colored how I experienced everything that came after, so I’m curious how the other branches would change things.

  1. Logos

But look, none of the above would be worth very much if it wasn’t written like getting the right words on the page was a matter of life and death. The whole thing is animated by a feral, demented energy that goes way, way over the top, and sure, sometimes stumbles on itself, but is grabby as fuck. I was copy-and-pasting passages that I wanted to remember as I was playing, and wound up with over 2,000 words accumulated by the end. I’m going to excerpt one early bit of world-building at length so you can see what it’s like:

This is the kind of thing that’s easy to do very very badly – and maybe you think this is bad, fair enough! It’s definitely unpleasant. But while I’m old and technocratic now, I remember being young and angry and thinking and writing things like this right after 9/11, when we started invading and bombing everybody in sight. This style works, it compels, and it doesn’t let up. I don’t want to just keep regurgitating bits of writing I liked, because again I’ve got 1,700 more words where that came from, but the language is intense, it’s smart, it’s playful and self-referential – it’s grim, so very grim, but leavened with joy and jokes as well. Two full hours of being in this world might not seem the most appealing prospect – and to be fair, it isn’t meant to be, and it isn’t – but it was the quality of prose that keeps one going.

All right, here’s one more, a description of a spaceship dogfight of all things: “Hamish sends flaming whips at our pursuers. One flashes to dust in the dark. Each spirals outwards in sine waves of decreasing frequency, whirling towards us.”

The visual design of the game itself is also quite smooth and pleasing. The fonts, colors, and animation all work to keep the focus on the text, while frequent chapter-breaks parcel out a story that would feel overwhelming if undifferentiated. My setup doesn’t lend itself to audio, unfortunately, so I wasn’t able to experience the music, though it appears a lot of thought and effort went into that.

  1. The realm of forms

As is hopefully clear from the above, there are a lot of ideas at play in Accelerate, and even more references. Again, the acknowledgments are comprehensive and worth a read, though many of them are catchable as you go (Accelerate confirms my theory that if you ever see someone use the word “preterite”, there is a 75% chance they are winking at Thomas Pynchon, and a 25% chance they are themselves Thomas Pynchon). You’ve got Jacob wrestling the angel, 1990s space-rock band Spiritualized, the Albigensian heresy, and way way more within the fictional conceit of the world – and in the authors notes and acknowledgments, a clear invocation and situation of the piece within (what is at least presented as) a personal history of trauma and reclamation, the Black Lives Matter movement, and more.

If I were to try to sum up the ideological action as compactly as possible (which, to be clear, is probably not a particularly useful or interesting thing to do), it’s the Gnosticism that rises to the top. Accelerate, it seems to me, is about how the material world we inhabit is broken, fallen, and incomplete – and it makes this case convincingly! It posits that this is the result of a betrayal by an evil Archon, and that through personal and societal transcendence we can reclaim our birthright of immanence. And it portrays that redemption happening through often-horrifying violence visited upon often-anonymous people who are complicit in evil through their silence and acquiescence.

This is fair, as far as it goes – within the fictional world, the baddies certainly give better than they get, and épater la bourgeoisie is a hallowed strategy. And it also echoes some of the alleged deeds of the worst of the gnostics, whose revulsion at the fallen nature of the material world led some to commit enormities (at least in the unreliable narration of their orthodox enemies). Still, at a time when catharsis through violence animates so much of our art and, more to the point, our politics… it made me feel bad (the pathetic, mewling cry of the too-subjective critic). To be clear, Accelerate isn’t positing an ethic of brutality – the authors note in particular offers (again, apparently real-world) forgiveness for an awful crime – but I did feel like I sensed some quiet sorting of wheat and tares, of who is given the chance to be redeemed and who is not.

Wrapping up here feels like ending on a sour note, but I hope the author(s) will forgive that. Accelerate certainly wasn’t written for everyone; a large chunk of it worked very well for me, and it’s not too hard for me to imagine the person for whom it fires on all cylinders. It’s a wonderful, well-conceived and well-executed experience, and one I won’t forget anytime soon.


thank you for the fantastic review, mike. we’re all exceptionally happy to see people are finding a lot to think about in it. i’d meant to get the transcripting system done before the launch, but it’s hard to make it especially readable. also should be adding some abilities to more easily save and jump around, just in case people want to step back in for a few minutes, in particular places, without going through a whole journey of foolishness all over again :slight_smile:

(iirc, you’re almost entirely correct as for the shape of the story, but the art gallery scene is actually the other choice for 10. there are stubs for a third subbranch for 10, perhaps also leading to three primary content choices or selections on the general theme of detrick/LANL-style weapons manufacture, but we ran out of time. there’s a couple more major subbranches for 12 than the punk show, and one of them leads to three or four subbranches. i wouldn’t necessarily say the others are less violent or disturbing, but the one you got is certainly the most broadly and consequentially violent.)


and one last collective thought, sorry to double-post: one complication of this is that when we started working on the design of this game, back in late-ish 2019, it felt more like a warning about the consequences of a fallen world. back then our editor felt “ARID” was just too obvious a metaphor for GRID. now, of course, it feels necessarily cynical – we were right about the fall, the ashes, the sackcloth, the destroyer, we just got the deadline wrong by 6 months. the moral import of the story has become more complicated now that it’s half-prophecy, half-warning. but one intended difference between this and other games which suborn you towards terrible violence – quite common, as you fairly say – then act like you’re bad for it, is the question of trust. there’s not really a lot of games which show the image of an attractive, younger white woman misusing people this way, and certainly not many where there’s never much excuse given beyond the fallen world. shodan won’t give you a hug, naturally. in context, one of many intents of that was to point towards who loses, who wins, and who wears the mitre in that arrangement. i feel comfortable saying anyone reading this, myself included, probably ends up a fool, not a demiurge, adversary, or leader. just wanted to specify further, given that, bluntly, this game hurts a lot more than it did 12 months ago.


Thanks for the insight! A quicker way of zooming around the game would definitely be welcome – I’d love to poke at some of the other branches you mentioned, but as you say it’s currently a little intimidating to contemplate.

And wow, crazy how your planning was overtaken by events, but at the same time utterly unsurprising. One of the notes I jotted for myself as I was playing, but didn’t make it into the review, was “This is all very 2020, except of course we’ve been living in 2020 for a long time and many of us just didn’t have to be aware of it.”

Your point about trust is a solid one – it’s definitely put into question, though as a player I think I’d largely put it aside by the end, once the adrenaline was pumping (which is in some ways very on point I suppose). Definitely something to have in mind when I revisit the piece.

Anyway, congrats again to you and your collaborators!


an “unevenly distributed future” indeed :slight_smile:

one other interesting thing from my perspective, about the awful punk scene, is how it operates according to a cultic logic that’s almost video game-y.

shoko asahara, when he’d order the execution of someone, would argue in effect that this was an opportunity for the “victim,” not a crime against them. if they were virtuous, they ascend or reincarnate in a higher form; if they’re not, they get a replay at the akashic roulette. this is perhaps a suitable explanation for the uncanny fact, even more gruesome with the volume on, of the bands’ willingness to play out the apocalypse. one could charitably view it as the punk and scene kids having been ferried to the beyond earlier than the revelatory trumpets, by chapter 17 instead finding themselves enjoying “milk all the way.”

it’s perhaps tough to overstate how well that sort of language-loading works in a sealed milieu. “murder” is a mortal sin, we all know this, but “phowa” and “transformation” lack that sort of immediate revulsion, and that can be easily exploited when there’s more pain than remedy available. the historical context of that was the “lost generation,” who found themselves having sacrificed mightily for secure jobs at zaibatsus, the sarariman bargain of the prior generation, only to find no purpose in the meager offerings available.

this is all just the research, of course; if the game itself doesn’t manage to say it loud – and it may for some, may not for others – then an IJ-style set of endnotes likely won’t seal the deal either :slight_smile:

as for the zooming, there is actually a debug option. if you click that, you get a hamburger-style menu on the side, and there’s a drop-down in there that allows you to navigate to any top-level node in the game. i can’t promise it’ll work the same, or in some cases as expected, given it produces totally arbitrary paths through the game, but it at least does allow one to read any particular section (not including the chapter -1 branches) without having to reread anything.


Desolation, by Earth Traveler

Much like For a Place By the Putrid Sea, Desolation is a sequel to a game I haven’t played (and side-note, that bothers me way more than it should because I’m the kind of bloody-minded completionist who’ll be recommended a TV show that’s uneven at the beginning but gets really good in season four which is a perfect jumping-on points because they rebooted the premise and shifted the cast, and decide right, season one episode one it is). Interestingly, it appears to be written by a different author (much like Magpie Takes the Train, it occurs to me), so I’m a bit curious about the backstory.

Anyway, the lack of familiarity with the prequel isn’t too much handicap, as the opening immediately establishes 1) you’re fleeing into a desert with little but your wits, and 2) you’re being pursued by a sort of demonic Pippi Longstockings. I kid, but the horror bits here are probably the most effective part of the game—whenever the two braids girl shows up or is mentioned, the writing conveys how reality constricts around the player character, and their desperation to get somewhere, anywhere else. There’s not much specificity about who she is or what she wants, but for a plot as elemental as this, I don’t think that’s really a drawback (play the prequel if you want the lore, nerd! Or so I assume the rejoinder goes).

Structurally, Desolation is well set up into a series of self-contained puzzle areas, which generally keeps things zippy, and the puzzles themselves are fairly well clued. However, there’s no walkthrough or hints on offer, and there’s some unfortunate wonkiness in the implementation. I’ve flagged a lot of this in the transcript, but in general, there’s not much scenery that’s implemented (including some that seems like it would be needed/helpful, like the “softball-sized” rocks that one might try to throw at the dog), there’s wonkiness about trying to go directions that don’t lead anywhere (which the player is likely to do, since exits are sometimes described in a confusing fashion), and there are a fair number of bugs, including lots of scenery not being flagged as such (in the apartment sequence, I was able to pick up pretty much all the furniture, and start cramming the bathroom sink into the peanut jar). It’s possible to do some things before they should be allowed, and I ran into a guess-the-verb issue that stymied me for quite a while (to hit the dog with the pick axe, HIT DOG WITH PICK AXE doesn’t work but ATTACK DOG does – but the dog is very clearly scary, I don’t want to fight it without a weapon!).

One last thing that’s neither here nor there in terms of evaluation, but which was certainly interesting (very light spoilers for an early part of Desolation, then slightly deeper spoilers for a different, 20-year-old game): the first main sequence involves the player character hallucinating that they’re back in their apartment, going through a pre-trip checklist. But any time they open the fridge or turn on the taps, sand starts coming out, until everything starts dissolving into dunes. This is Shade! But it isn’t presented in an in-jokey way that makes it seem like an obvious tip of the hat, nor is it exactly the same because the player clearly knows what’s up (the choice of soundtrack creates some really funny moments here). I’m not sure if this is an homage played exactly straight, or what would be even more interesting, independent invention of the idea. If so, well done for having a brain that can simulate a Andrew Plotkin!

Hopefully the author can make a quick update to squash some of these bugs (and add a walkthrough file too!) because if you stick to the critical path and don’t poke around too much, this checks a lot of boxes for a short, scary, puzzley vignette.

Desolation.txt (161.7 KB)

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Ghostfinder: Shift by Han-Joo Kim

Ghostfinder offers a strong hook: modern urban horror crossed with procedural sexmurder. I can see a significant audience for this sort of thing, but let me confess up front that I felt like it leaned much harder on the sexmurder part, which is not something I particularly enjoy. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve watched enough Brits seen off to depopulate a small county – whimsically in a village, ecclesiastically in a church, intellectually in a college, snootily in a manor, &c. – but forensically-described sexual assault and murder, of which there’s a lot on offer here (six victims), is a pretty different vibe. On the one hand, this is a personal preference, twelve billion CSI fans clearly have different tastes, and kudos to the author for offering a clear content warning that communicates exactly what’s in store. On the other – oh, this is probably spoilery: part of what made Ghostfinder so squicky to me is that the serial killer’s modus operandi is very very closely based on the real-world Golden State Killer, who was responsible for at least 13 murders and dozens of rapes, and who was arrested last year and just sentenced a few weeks ago as of this writing. True, the crimes were several decades ago, but it feels maybe a little ghoulish to mine this for entertainment before a little more time has passed.

Getting back to the game, however! Ghostfinder has an interesting structure, where more conventional adventure-game sequences of going places, talking to people, playing cat-and-mouse with the killer, etc., bookend a large middle section that’s all about reviewing case files and Googling the secret database of your psychic investigation society. The adventure-y bits work but aren’t anything too out of the ordinary – you interview suspects, run down leads, and interact with fellow members of the Ghostfinders who are fairly well characterized. The database is a fun conceit, though – you get to dig through files on each of the serial killer’s previous murders, then search for particular names or places or things that you think warrant further investigation, which usually just gives you another document but sometimes opens up the possibility of visiting a new location or interviewing a new witness or suspect.

Investigation-via-Google is a fun structure – I quite dug Her Story from a couple years back, which took a related approach – and it does make one feel appropriately like a detective. There’s also a twist because beyond the case file, one of the detectives also has been having psychic visions that put her in the heads of various characters, one of whom is the killer, so in theory you can cross-reference her journal with the conventional investigation to rule out and rule in various suspects. In practice, however, I didn’t go too far down that path because I’d pretty much already solved the case by the time I worked through all of the case files, so was basically just nodding “yup, that fits” while reading through the journal.

Anyway the database is an effective central mechanic for the game, but I think it does throw off the pacing. There are a LOT of case files to go through – all very similarly bleak in describing horrible crimes of rape and murder – so that’s a lot to digest all at once, and after reading each, you’ll probably spend five or ten minutes inputting different options into the search bar. The writing style for these parts is fairly dense and procedural, which makes sense, but again sometimes made the game feel like a slog. All told it probably took me an hour to work through them all, during which time my engagement with the characters had pretty much fallen away, since they’re not very active in this segment except for a few short sequences where the detectives run out and interview some suspects. I experienced a bit of whiplash when I got to the ending sequence and I suddenly was reminded that these folks existed! There’s also a bit of wonkiness where sometimes, searching a name teleports you to an interview sequence, which was off-putting to me at first since I was worried that doing stuff in the “real world” would advance a clock (it doesn’t).

The writing is generally solid, with only a few typos or infelicities (though I have to share one good one – during the inevitable struggle with the killer, the protagonist “hit(s) him again with the hammer, breaking his other jaw”. Wow, he really is a monster!) I thought the fantasy worldbuilding was occasionally a bit clumsily-inserted or underexplained, but since the focus really was on the real-world procedural stuff, this wasn’t a major area of focus. Ghostfinder’s solidly put together, and fiddling about with the database does convey a fun frisson of really being a detective, and despite some subject-matter choices that put me off a bit, I think it’ll find an audience.


Hi, Mike. I appreciate the detailed review. This is my first attempt at IF and coding, so I’ve been hoping for some constructive criticism! RRR was really about experimenting with the tools available, making things up as I went along, without any thought of competition, but I later entered it into IFComp to test the water. I can understand that the 10 finger thing turned out a little repetitive - I envisaged the play-time being considerably shorter when I started. No testers flagged this issue, but maybe I should have edited the game down so the robot had fewer fingers! It’s actually good to hear you found the puzzles quite straightforward, as that means I can raise the level in future games. I was concerned about people quitting due to getting stuck and not seeing out the story (some beta testers actually had some trouble in places!). I didn’t expect such detailed feedback, so thanks for taking the time to write a full-length review.


Hi Gibbo – congrats on writing something so smooth and solid on your first go-round at IF! Honestly, I suspect the pacing issues were exacerbated by the knowledge that there were 103 more games waiting after this one, which is an impatience your testers, and the folks who’ll play RRR post-Comp, won’t feel. For all that I’m definitely glad you decided to take the plunge and enter into the competition, since I’m very interested in different ways to do more puzzle-y choice-based games and your implementation showed some interesting ways to do that!


Thanks, Mike. I appreciate your encouragement as I’ve put a lot of time into learning the ropes! Since writing RRR, I’ve been building code to allow roaming enemies in my future Twine games, so I hope to get your thoughts on that concept at a later date as well! :slight_smile:


Phantom, by Peter Eastman

Oh hey, another literary reimagining by the author who did How the Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings – I’m sensing a (very fun) theme! And it’s funny, just a few weeks ago I went down a Wikipedia rabbit-hole checking out all the different literary, cinematic, and theatrical depictions of the Phantom of the Opera and the various ways his psychology and disfigurement were portrayed, quite similar to the rundown the author provides in the opening (now it bothers me that I can’t for the life of me remember what set me off on this jaunt).

Offering options to the player of what kind of Phantom they want to have in their story, whether modern or archaic, and your choice of insane, vengeful, or romantic personalities, was a nice touch to acknowledge the diversity of different moods the story can have, though I think this is primarily a bit of sleight of hand to prime the player’s expectations rather than a significant branch point (I went for sexytrad my first go-round, then did a quick psychomod replay, and only saw major divergence in a few elements of the last scene of Act III). In fact while there are a lot of choices, almost all of them felt to me like the kind of choices that allow the player to reflect on how they understand the main character (you play Christine) and their circumstances, rather than slotting in different options for the narrative. As it happens, this is one of my favorite things choice games allow you to do, so that worked for me, but I can see other players perhaps being a bit frustrated by the perception of linearity.

So the main draw really is the writing and the story, and you’re in good hands here. The author does a great job of moving the story around in time and place, and concisely sketching in characters and situations, so elegantly you’re never quite aware of how the trick’s being done. I am not an opera buff at all, but the prose effectively conveys both the behind-the-scenes mechanics of how it is produced and performed, as well as the aesthetic impact it has when done well. There are also some good jokes: in discussing the legend of the phantom, one character says “Some people say he was a famous tenor who died onstage. But other people say that’s just romantic nonsense, and he was really a baritone.” (I think that’s an opera-diss).

The two main characters very much come through. The author conveys a mix of tyranny, wistfulness, and threat in the Phantom, which is as it should be. And this Christine is definitely not the ingenue of the musical – one of my favorite bits is that when the Phantom first brings her back to his subterranean lair, she fans out her keys into impromptu brass knuckles just in case! I found that to be a bit of a double-edged sword, though – I have an extended series of thoughts on that with which I’ll wrap up, so those who haven’t played yet, feel free to hop off at this point secure in knowing that Phantom is worth the time!

All right, those of y’all left, please join me behind the curtain as we explore what I mean about Christine:

The major surprise of Phantom has nothing to do with the titular cape-afficionado: it’s that Christine is one hardcore motherfucker. After her rival tries to put itching powder in her wig, Christine escalates – in one step! – to straight-up murder. In fact when reflecting on said rival, she shares this observation: “Unfortunately, you have never been very good at making friends with other women. In your own mind, you mostly categorize them into two groups: those who are potentially useful to you, and those who are potential rivals.” And this is after choosing the option to try to be friendly! Or again, here’s her thought process when being introduced to Raoul: “This is a man who could make your career, if only you can win his support. But how? If you were to sleep with him, would that help to secure him? Or is it just what everyone does?” Lady, if that’s what everyone does, he is going to give you chlamydia.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with making Christine an antihero rather than a naif, but I’m not sure it really works. For one thing, this characterization flirts with some misogynistic tropes, which I don’t think is intended at all, but since the game is so short we don’t really get a sense of her as a more rounded character or if there’s anything behind her sociopathy, putting her at risk of being a comic-opera villain. But more saliently, it feels odd to cram this Christine into the exact same plot structure of the traditional Phantom – with the murder only described obliquely and retrospectively, she’s still more acted-upon than acting, and often feels passive (the fact that the choices don’t generally change the narrative but are only internal is maybe a factor here). I think there were some missed opportunities here to break the mold and do something unexpected to give our new Christine the opportunity to come into her own.

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Hey Mike! Ghostfinder was actually my first attempt at a work of interactive fiction that I’ve submitted for any kind of public review, so this is probably the longest and most detailed piece of feedback I’ve ever gotten. Thank you so much for graciously taking the time to play the game, and offer your honest thoughts!


Congrats, it’s a really impressive first piece of IF! While as I said (maybe at too much length) the overall vibe was a bit dark for me, the interplay being the choice-based sections and the more parser-y database sections was a fun gameplay switch-up, and I’d look forward to seeing you play around more in this world and with these systems – just, next time maybe on a case to stop a serial litterer :slight_smile:

(Also, your forum handle is amazing!)


Tragic, by Jared Jackson

This is something new: an IF/roguelite-deckbuilder mashup. In the very unlikely event that that word salad failed to effectively communicate what’s going on here, the author has cleverly hybridized a Slay the Spire/Dream Quest sort of card game – where you crawl through a dungeon fighting monsters using a deck of cards that represent your attacks, defenses, and special moves, while occasionally adding to, upgrading, or deleting cards from your deck – with a more traditional, choice-based IF approach as part of the interstitial tissue between fights as well as a framing story (well, actually two if you get right down to it). (For sub-genre fans: the ability to see what the enemies are going to do, as well as the need to balance attack and defense, puts this closest to Slay the Spire).

The framing story is actually one of the highlights – there’s an option to skip past all the story to focus on the more game-y bits, but that would be a shame. The top-level frame story is sweet, and there are some good jokes (my favorite: when the player character is trying to get into the game convention and is asked for his qualifications, he can bellow out “There is none more qualified!”, which just makes me giggle). There are also lots of choices embedded in the different non-combat encounters the player character runs into. Much of the time these mirror the options that would be presented in a menu in a more typical deck-builder, but it also opens up opportunities for new types of gameplay that I haven’t seen before in this sub-genre, like an extended maze sequence or the chance for some more robust interaction with NPCs.

When it comes to the card game itself, my main takeaways are that it’s big, hard, and unfortunately still a big buggy. Big is easy – there are three different classes to play with distinct decks, three different (large) dungeons to work through, dozens of encounters and artifacts to discover… there’s a lot here, and I know I only saw a portion in my two hours with the game.

Partially, though, that’s because I didn’t wind up getting as far with Tragic as I’d hoped, getting stuck midway through the second dungeon with two different characters. Reader, this one’s tough! And while I am not exactly the Hard Man of American Deckbuilders, this is a sub-genre where I’m fairly well-versed – I’ve slain the spire several times now, got all but a handful of the achievements in Dream Quest, tore through Monster Slayer like a comet punching through atmosphere (that one’s easy)… I’m guessing I’ve put several hundred more hours into these kinds of games than most Comp players, so if I’m crying uncle, I think the difficulty here doesn’t feel well judged for the contest. There are training wheels – copious autosaves and a slowly-increasing health bar every time you die and respawn – but those don’t so much reduce the difficulty as offer the hope that by punching your face repeatedly against a brick wall, your blood might slowly erode it. I can’t even imagine what the harder modes are like!

Upon reading the included strategy guide, partially this may be down to choosing the berserker class first go round – I’m used to that being the easiest archetype to at least see the late-game, even if they’re overtaken in power by fiddlier classes later on, but here it’s apparently the most challenging? Still, when I started over as a mage, even with an “easier” class and a better understanding of the mechanics, I didn’t fare much better. I won’t go into a full disquisition on why I think the balance is a bit too unforgiving, but will mention that I think randomness plays probably too big of a role, unlike most other deckbuilders which tend to be a bit more deterministic. There are enemies that summon other enemies in potentially never-ending waves, but rather than reinforcements coming in on a timer, sometimes this appears to happen at least somewhat at random. Opportunities to upgrade your deck – or even more importantly, delete or upgrade old cards – feel less reliable than in comparable games. And some of the more IF-y encounters are far harder than others: there’s a maze, for example, that I never managed to get out of despite having probably four to five combats, in a dungeon that otherwise I think should have around six to eight before the boss.

Finally, there are still some bugs to be worked out. While the overall interface is quite nice and smoothly transitions between fights and exploration, there’s some occasional wonkiness and I ran into a few game-breakers. When wandering around the aforementioned maze, I’d often see messages like “there in the middle of the cavern floor lays a {0}{1}” (these were actually Fiery Boots), and there were occasional typos and places where different pieces of text were smashed together without a space in between, I think from some errors in the randomization code. Worse, I ran into three or four different game-ending bugs, two of which I could recover from using autosaves, but one of which I couldn’t: once after dying, I wasn’t able to click on any of the respawn/restart options being presented; another time after I won a hard encounter against dragon whelps, I selected a choice that didn’t lead to any further options; another time after restarting to try again with a new class, when I got to the tutorial fight the combat interface didn’t come up; and then the biggest crash was where loading the autosave post-defeat (on the second boss) put me in the middle of the combat, with elements of the interface blacked out.

I liked the story a lot and was eager to see where it went, and the ideas here are really fun, so I’m very much hoping that there’s a post-comp release to smooth out some bugs, re-tune the difficulty curve, and maybe add some quality of life options (allowing the player to skip the tutorial but not miss out on the rest of the story would be really nice!), since I’d love to see this one through to the end.

MUCH LATER UPDATE: So I went back and played some more, including winning as a mage (ending up at about 180 health) and then having a pretty good run as a rogue before getting brutally smacked down by the Chapter 2 boss. Updates since I first played have smoothed out some of the bugs I noted, so the experience is a bit smoother now too. I don’t think my take on the game has shifted that much from the additional time, though I will note that I found Chapter 3 substantially easier than 2 with my mage, and I suspect I would have felt the same way if I’d gotten there with my rogue character. There are some cards that are very powerful and lead to some fun synergies with upgraded equipment, which meant I felt able to keep up with the escalating difficulty in Chapter 3. But even with what felt like it should have been a viable build, I felt like progress past the mini-bosses and boss in Chapter 2 generally required getting lucky with one of the “get a random attack or effect” cards to obtain something more powerful than I was able to find through ordinary gameplay, and/or getting a particular right card at the right moment a couple times in a row (like a parry that cancels an attack right before you’re about be targeted for a single big strike). I did enjoy getting to see the ending of the game, which wound up going in an unexpectedly serious direction, and having some effective call-backs to some dialogue choices I’d made earlier. I’m interested to see some different variations, but not sure I have the gumption to tackle that widowmaker of a Hydra again, sadly…

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Where the Wind Once Blew Free, by No Sell Out Productions

I’m not sure what I ever did to it, but the Comp randomizer apparently has decided to punish me by stacking rock-hard games one after the other. WtWOBF (that’s an awful acronym, but I’m stymied for alternatives) is a Twine game with extraordinarily lavish production values – there are lovely paintings, some video, a fancy interface with plenty of neat flourishes – set in a compelling world that features hard-edged examinations of trauma and moral compromise in a fantasy version of the American Southwest. Unfortunately for me, I also found that the copious RPG-style mechanics layered on top of the story tended to take me out of it, and even when playing in “God mode” I hit dead ends, meaning I couldn’t finish the game in two hours.

Right, starting with the story side of things: the world is a major draw here, as there’s clearly a lot of thought that’s gone into the relationships between different sets of people, how to translate real-world events and situations like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or the meth epidemic into a fantasy context, and developing a big cast of distinct, appealing characters. Some of this world-building comes in a little clumsily (partially due to how it’s tied to the game mechanics, for which see below), and whenever it talks about guns the voice shifts into a hyper-detailed mode that I’m not sure serves the overall tone and worldbuilding well (like, was there a like were-badger engineer named Glock in this setting?) – but on the whole it’s compelling stuff, and the writing does a good job of anchoring these grounded themes and concerns in a world of magic and talking animals.

The situations presented by the plot are also pretty grabby. The opening frame story does a good job of evoking survivor’s guilt, and the other major segments I encountered, involving a teenager’s difficult relationship with her aunt, and a compromised man attempting to live a moral life in a world that doesn’t give people like him that choice, are also dealing with serious issues in a serious way. It definitely gets grim – pay attention to the content warning on this one, folks, and don’t discount it just because there are furries! – in a way that I sometimes found hard to take, but I think WtWOBF comes to those moments fairly.

The game side of things I thought didn’t work so well, and at times served to undermine the solid writing and intriguing dilemmas the narrative presents. There are several layers of mechanics at play here – the most obvious is an RPG system where you assign points to various skills or trails, like Brains or Swift Feet, during character creation. Then during play, occasionally these traits will be tested, and if you succeed you might see them increase while unlocking a bonus backstory, or if you fail they might decrease.

Beyond these traits, there’s also a “Lore” score that seems to gate progress, and similarly goes up or down with your choices – you can get a game over screen if your Lore number isn’t sufficiently high at the end of a chapter, and I saw a lot of these. Partially this may be because I was playing the RPG minigame wrong – I have to confess I wasn’t sure what rhyme or reason there was to when they went up or down, and since the viewpoint character changes several times, it was pretty unclear whether they represent anything in-game, or are just meant as a sort of out-of-world plot token. There also may be an element of (unexplained) random chance, because sometimes on replays I think the same choices I’d succeeded with earlier failed when tried again. I also found character creation challenging, since it doesn’t feel like you’re given a large pool of points, there’s no advice on whether specialization is better than going for a generalist approach, and feedback on whether e.g. a 5 in Brains is good, bad, or mediocre.

Beyond the RPG system that allows you to try different actions in the world, most pages also have a minigame of sorts embedded in them – there are numbered hyperlinks in many of the passages, some of which advance to the next passage, some of which expand the text on the page. The sidebar will usually have a “hint” listed – these start out easy, for example just as “2”, which indicates that if you click the link labeled 2 first, you’ll probably get a reward of stats gain or Lore increase or see your backstory codex filled in. These quickly get more complex, with wildcards thrown in and not all the options visible from the off.

Here’s an example from the mid-game - the hint here says “1, 2, ?”:

This means I’m supposed to click the first link, which expands the text to show a link numbered (2), which I click in turn to reveal link (3). Then I’ve got a 50-50 chance of guessing right and unlocking the reward (I clicked 3, and failed).

I found trying to engage with this minigame required me to go out of world, since success seems random rather than linked to the world or text in any concrete way. The interface also doesn’t help – I found the interface sidebar sometimes moved to the side, but sometimes was below the main text, so I had to do a lot of clicking and scrolling. Winning a test often unlocked a new bit of backstory or a mission in the sidebar, which involved more clicking and being out of the story. All told, it’s a lot of cruft that I found messed with the story’s pacing, creating a juddering start-and-stop rhythm.

It would be one thing if it were possible to opt out of this part of the game, but I don’t think that’s possible without activating the God Mode that maxes all your stats – I tried to replay the second chapter five times, but failed due to insufficient lore each time, which seemed disconnected from the actual choices I’d made (perhaps I’d just done too badly In the first chapter, so I was in a dead man walking scenario)? Even after I restarted in God Mode, I still reached a dead end, due to a choice that was probably risky, but which didn’t seem completely unwarranted by any means (as Diamondback, using magic to blast Bobcat).

By that time I’d used up the full two hours of the judging period, sadly. Not to be a broken record, but I would like to see more of this story and this world (the Book I subtitle is hopefully a good sign on that front), but retuning the difficulty and de-cluttering some of the gamier elements here would be helpful upgrades.

MUCH LATER ADDENDUM: So the game has seen a pretty substantial update since I wrote this review, so I went back to check it out. A bunch of the issues I mentioned in this review have definitely been addressed, but I’d say they’ve been reduced in salience rather than completely ironed out. The hints have definitely gotten better – they’re now cryptic little sentences incorporating words from the passages, and engaging with them is more immersive than the non-diegetic numbered hints in the previous versions. The progress-gating lore checks have been relaxed a bit, though not eliminated – in a non-God-mode playthrough, I was able to get into Chapter 3 before getting stuck when Pink Belly refused to reveal his secret. Seeing a little more of the game, I was able to discover that some things that seem like choices are actually a bit on rails – which I was actually impressed by, since it does a good job of creating an illusion of choice. I was also able to get close to the end of the story, as the different characters’ paths began to come together, but unfortunately ran into a bug that prevented me from seeing the end (I was told I unlocked “the gem of quickness” and got a bonus applied, but then couldn’t click anywhere). So still a little bit of technical stuff to clean up, but this version is definitely easier to get into, and the writing and worldbuilding remain strong throughout.