Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

Vain Empires, by Thomas Mack and Xavid

This is a hard review to write – both because my transcript didn’t wind up getting saved so I’m bereft of notes, and because my take on the game shifted a fair bit over the course of my time with it, and I’m having a hard time reconciling my views. If you’d asked me an hour in, I’d have said Vain Empires was a commanding front-runner, with clever puzzles that lead to lots of self-satisfied “aha” moments, an archly funny tone, and a diamond-bright polish on its implementation. By the time I finished – which was about two hours later, after I’d locked in my score – though, some of the bloom had come off each of those roses. The first half is legitimately great, and it was compelling enough to keep me playing after the two-hour cutoff despite 70-odd more games still waiting for me, so I don’t mean to undercut what’s a significant achievement, but I think some of the late-game missteps are worth drawing out too.

We did Radifocani bad-stuff first, so let’s lead with the good this time, of which there’s rather a smorgasbord. The conceit – the player is an incorporeal demon, a lawyer-spy on the front lines of a supernatural cold war who’s been tasked with cleaning up some codebooks from a spy-post that’s been compromised by their angelic opposite-numbers. Said codebooks are all hidden in spiritually-inviolable containers, requiring the demon to enlist various humans to its cause, by judicious use of an intention-planting mechanic that’s inspired (with attribution) by Andrew Plotkin’s Delightful Wallpaper.
To give a (made-up so as not to spoil any puzzles) example: say you’d discovered that one of the codebooks was hidden in a closed piano, but the piano player has the DRINK intent and is just pounding down cocktails instead of doing their job. You might nip out to the sidewalk, see a child chalking hopscotch squares in the sidewalk, and take the PLAY intent from them. One GIVE PLAY TO PIANIST later, you’d have solved the puzzle.

This is just a simple example, but the puzzles even from the off are significantly more complex than this. Most involve manipulating the intentions of two or more characters, out of a list that starts around half a dozen and soon grows even larger. The second major segment adds an additional complexity (mechanical spoiler: adverbs), and timing and sequencing are critical, and so while the concept is simple, there’s a lot of satisfaction in looking through your tool-belt and figuring out how to best manipulate the sheep, er, humans, around you. The game also does a good job of keeping each codebook puzzle relatively self-contained – while there are ultimately a fair number to find (one I think is optional), they’re segmented into three major sections, and within each section you can generally solve in any order you like, with the humans you need for a particular puzzle clearly grouped around the codebook you’re going for.

The puzzles are definitely the main draw here, but the writing and implementation are highlights too. The protagonist has a devilishly sly voice (go figure), intent on its mission while taking time to comment on the incomprehensible foibles of the humans it observes. The metaphysical Cold War idea is not fully novel, but it’s a spry premise that makes good sense of the gameplay, and the authors offer some clever repurposings of supernatural tropes into the new spy-thriller idiom (using the bell, book, and candle as a direct line to a hellish Q knock-off was an especially fun touch). The mundane setting – a glamorous hotel and casino – is described with just the right amount of detail, and the implementation is as smooth as butter. You can be sure just about everything mentioned in a room description will be available to examine, without drowning the scene in detail; and there are some nice implementation touches, like the way the game limits the combinatorial explosion inherent in the mechanics by saying that some intents only impact a human “vaguely”, implying that this isn’t a fruitful avenue to pursue. There’s also a gorgeous blueprint map always visible on the top of the screen, which helps make sense of the fairly large world.

If I’d stopped after the hour and a half that’s listed on the tin – I think about the time I finished the second of the main segments – that would be all she wrote, and I’d have stamped “MODERN CLASSIC” upon its brow and we’d be done. Sad to say, there’s a lot of game after that second segment – a full third area, then a transitional escalation sequence, before a multi-part finale. And here, things don’t feel quite as polished. On a prosaic level, that’s because I suddenly started seeing some typos and missing scenery, which earlier had been notable by their absence (for the typos; for the scenery I suppose notable for the absence of their absence?)

But the plot also takes a turn for the more earnest and raises the stakes, in a way that didn’t feel particularly well-aligned with what had come before (if there was a major arms agreement happening in the hotel, wouldn’t there have been some sign of that in the hotel and casino areas, or some mention made before arriving there – or even some relationship to the boring trade deal that you actually wind up engaging with in the third segment, which seems a weird thing to be doing on the sidelines of something like this? And isn’t it awfully coincidental that the compromised demonic spy-den also just happens to be the site of said conference?). Plausibility is one thing, but this also shifts the tone: instead of a cynical, omnicompetent operative, the protagonist becomes a self-righteous hero trying to preserve a delicate détente against Heavenly adventurism. Again, this feels like a left (or rather, right) turn from what’s come before, and is less fun and funny to boot.

All of this would be forgivable but for the way the puzzles tip over into overcomplexity. Whereas most of the puzzles in the previous section have clear, physical goals that you can achieve by manipulating two or at most three characters, the puzzles in this next section were an order of magnitude more challenging. Partially this is just the accretion of intents – these aren’t used up as you go, so by the end you’ve got a huge inventory to juggle. While in the early going, punny or non-obvious interpretations of intents led to some fun moments of lateral thinking, in the late stage they become de rigueur, which made me resort to rote trial and error (for a flavor of this, giving OPEN to a diplomat leads them to want to start negotiations, while EXPLORE makes them want to simplify the language of a potential trade deal by looking at different wording options). Combined with the added system I mentioned above, this means the player is often staring at a giant toolbox and not sure what any of it will do.

The situations themselves also become less concrete (such as concluding a three-party trade deal or sabotaging a diplomat’s speech), and the descriptive text setting up what’s happening in each also starts to get less useful (I still don’t really know how the briefcase made it onto the chandelier, or why OPEN and FOLD are used to start and stop the speechwriter’s radio feed). By the end, I was using the hints copiously – and even then got stuck on one of the finale puzzles for half an hour because I wasn’t sure exactly how to do what it was saying (there’s no walkthrough, just the hints). It doesn’t help that the finale also feels like it goes on too long: twice, I solved what I was sure was the final puzzle, only to groan when it only opened up another, even bigger, puzzle.

I don’t like wrapping up my review with grousing, since Vain Empires at its best is very very good indeed, and it stays at its best for a long time. And even when it hits the weaker final part, I’d still say it’s quite good! But it’s hard to avoid feeling like there was a missed opportunity here, and that with some judicious cuts and tightening this’d be one for the record books. My advice? Walk away after finishing the hotel segment, vanishing into the air like all good spies should (and await, perhaps, a post-Comp release that brings the latter sections to the same high polish as the first).


Popstar Idol Survival Game, by CrunchMasterGowon

There’ve been a number of folks who’ve written reviews of PISG already, all of whom noted running into the same issue I did – after setting up the premise (win a 99-contestant singing-and-dancing reality show), introducing a small set of characters (the plucky sidekick, the arrogant rival, etc.), and giving a first introduction to the basic mechanics of the contest (via a series of choices during the prep and performance, leverage a set of four skills to determine how the player did, then give opportunities to improve relationships, sabotage others, and grind up skills in the downtime between challenges), the thing just ends, maybe ten minutes in.

This is well-short of the advertised hour and a half playtime, so it’s unclear whether this is a bug, the wrong file was uploaded, an incomplete game was intentionally entered, or the whole thing is an exercise in Brechtian audience-expectation-undermining (the joke is that this is probably a single word in German) that puts For a Place by the Putrid Sea to Shame. None of those options present an easy jumping-off point for a review, sadly (well, except maybe the last one), so this will be a series of notes in place of what might turn into something robust if the game gets updated.

There are definitely a lot of typos and grammar errors, possibly the result of translation? Despite this, or maybe partially because of this, the game has a demented charm that arises from the confluence of the heightened artificiality of the game-show setup and a puppyishly overenthusiastic narrative voice. Like, after being introduced to the competition, we get this:

I have no idea what to do with any of that, but it’s actually amazing.

It also has the coldest burn of any game so far. As the player character is saying goodbye to her family:

I’m a millenni-old, not a Boomer, but still: ice cold.

(I have been trying to make millenni-old a thing, by the by, to refer to folks born roughly between 1980 and 1984, who are technically millennials per the demographers but who didn’t have the same ab-ovo familiarity with computers and the internet as the rest of the generation, while still being too young to be invested in GenX touchstones like (shudder) Reality Bites or fully experience the impact of the end of the Cold War. Millenni-old – let’s all make it a thing!)

While it’s easy to focus on the style, there do appear to be some solid systems undergirding the thing, with stats tracked for your singing, your dancing, your “visuals”, and pretty much everything else (like, you have a fourth stat called “variety” that reflects miscellaneous talents, personality, sense of humor…), as well as numerical values for you relationships with other contestants. It’s easy to see how this would support the game-y side of proceedings, as you customize a character who’ll romp through some challenges while struggling with others, and figure out how best to engage in social maneuvering to come out on top.

None of this is in the game in any real way yet, but the bones are there. Hopefully we’ll see a mid-comp update/fix, or at least PISG Phase Two in next year’s Comp – Long Xiaofan, I’m coming for you!

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Trusting My Mortal Enemy?! What a Disaster!

This one was not what I expected. Based on the overenthusiastic title punctuation, the bright, pop-art cover, and the listed genre, I went into TMMEWaD ready for over-the-top zaniness. That’s not at all what’s on offer here, though – the game is actually very grounded, basically a relationship-driven slice of life story both in terms of its main concerns and its pacing. Even leaving aside my mismatched expectations, I’m not convinced it fully works, but I found it very pleasant to play through, and really liked the way it delved into some concerns rather far afield from the typical meat-and-potatoes of interactive fiction.

So we’re dealing here with two protagonists (or maybe a protagonist and her antagonist)? You alternate between playing Lightbearer, a duly-licensed heroine protecting Garden City, and Promethium, her mad-scientist archnemesis. Things start out with an effective in medias res superhero operation, as Lightbearer flies to the rescue of a kidnapped ballet troupe. And at the end of the grabby, kinetic introductory fight, she manages to beat Promethium and get her in handcuffs.

So far so normal, except that a few curveballs get thrown (these are signposted pretty clearly in the blurb, so I’m not marking them as spoilers): Promethium has an anxiety attack at the prospect of being subjected to the death penalty, and then Lightbearer releases her on condition that Promethium throws all her fights moving forward. The meat of the game consists of the two characters meeting up to plan out how they’ll pretend to clash, while choreographing the results so no one get hurts; meanwhile, you have the option to have them slowly open up to each other (in choices clearly marked with a TRUST TIME graphic sting).

These deviations from genre expectations work to arouse interest, but I think they also feel underexplained in a way that took me out of the story. In general, the worldbuilding is vague, in favor of emphasizing the characters. That’s a fine choice, but some of the questions the game raises but doesn’t clearly resolve – do villains routinely get executed? How exactly does Lightbearer’s superhero job work? – are pretty integral to making sense of the characters’ motivations and decision-making. Some small spoilers: Promethium’s fear of death seems like it’s tied to an anxiety disorder, but not knowing that makes the introduction of that note jarring, and I wondered whether this was going to be more of a dystopian take on supers. Similarly, Promethium’s accusation that the Hero Agency is all about money goes unanswered, and it’s unclear how realistic Lightbearer is when she worries that if she succeeds in beating her nemesis, her employers will heartlessly transfer her away without giving her two months to let her daughter graduation from high school! Most problematically, Promethium’s big speech about how villains are people trying to change the world and make it a better place completely fails to connect her ostensible social-justice goals to her actual actions of poisoning ballet dancers! As a result of the occasionally sketchy worldbuilding, there were times when the characters’ thought processes or decision-making didn’t really come together.

The pacing also slows down quite a lot in this main section of the game. The structure never really changes – you get brief interludes of the two protagonists living their lives, their biweekly coffee-shop meetings, and then their planned-out fights, a sequence that’s repeated five or six times. There’s not much of a sense of escalation, or any real narrative avenues besides the central question of whether or not they’re growing to trust each other (I opted for all the trust options – I was rooting for the two of them, they seemed nice! – so maybe this is different if you intentionally seed more dissent). And the prose can get a little stodgy at times, with repeated exposition (Lightbearer says some version of “so, you’re graduating from high school in two months!” to her daughter like three or four times) and a lack of real, lived-in detail to fully flesh out the characters’ lives (as a minor example, at one point the protagonists talk about TV shows they like – this could have been an opportunity to flesh out what art resonates with each character and how that relates to their personalities, but they basically just say “I like Adventure Time”/”I think the Big Bang Theory”).

On the flip side, some of the conversations between Promethium and Lightbearer do go to interesting places. Promethium is dealing with some mental-health traumas, partially stemming from a cleverly-realized side-effect of how her powers first manifested. Lightbearer, even more atypically, is a somewhat older character, dealing with incipient empty-nest syndrome and the onset of menopause. It’s nice to see topics like this drawn out, and I was invested in seeing how the two of them, both very alone in their own ways, could become friends. As a result, all the superhero business often felt like a low-stakes distraction, and as I played I was eager to get back to their civilian-world meetings, because that’s where the heart of the thing really lies. So what’s good here is good, and while the full impact is held back by some pacing issues and fuzzy worldbuilding that compromises the generally-strong character work, and I’m still glad I got a chance to play it.

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Sense of Harmony, by Scenario World (Brook Jensen, Liam Gallagher [no, not that one], Sarah Green Fisher)

Oh, more of this, please. Sense of Harmony is clearly stated to be a “prelude to further mysteries”, and its one-hour gameplay time is also marked on the tin, so I have no one to blame but myself for the disappointed groan I emitted when I hit the “demo’s done, stay tuned for more!” message just when things were getting exciting. I hope the authors don’t spend too long basking in deserved praise and get back to the salt mines right quick, because I want to play the rest, damn it!

Backing up slightly: Sense of Harmony is a cyberpunk adventure that takes advantage of players’ likely familiarity with the genre while layering a smart twist on top: while the player character has a full suite of cybernetic enhancements, enabling her to jack into electronics, have full recall of her memories, and, most notably, be the mistress of any social situation through a full suite of enhanced senses that allow her to read subtle cues in intonation, body language, and even sweat-sheen differentials, these are not common technologies, and as far as she knows she’s the only one of her kind.

Because these abilities are presented as unique, and not just a quotidian part of the setting, the game really foregrounds them, through a clever melding of writing and interface. In most every passage, you have several color-coded links allowing you to access your enhanced sight, or hearing, or touch, many of which open up additional actions or choices. This is really effectively done, making you feel like an omniscient Sherlock Holmes while ensuring that the player still needs to synthesize the tidal wave of information and make decisions based on it, rather than it being a matter of picking one right option after using the correct magic power. As an early example, there’s a sequence where the player character can tell that one of her client’s is upset about something, and after asking some probing questions, can get a clear sense of their emotional disposition, whether they might be hiding something, and the presence of some underlying tensions related to some of the topics they bring up. But the player still needs to make a (hard!) choice about what to do with all of that knowledge.

It really is an amazing power fantasy, and the writing helps sell it, too. This description of remote-hacking a lock is one of the best of its ilk I’ve ever read:

This tells me what it feels like to have these abilities, in a way that really drew me into the world.

The cavalcade of information also helps put the player in the same mindset as the character. Every interaction becomes slowed-down, hyperreal – even noticing a coworker with an interesting tattoo can spiral into multiple avenues of investigation, but it’s not clear whether that’s because there’s anything significant going on, or because of the player character’s abilities, everything feels significant (I mean, it’s a game, I’m guessing the former, but still, the slightly-paranoid, slightly-overwhelming vibe really works).

I haven’t said much about the plot yet – largely because there isn’t that much to it at present beyond a slice-of-life vignette and a mysterious encounter that doesn’t yet resolve. This is all well done, especially the first bit – the player character moonlights doing sex work, which, as far as I can tell, is portrayed in a sensitive, non-prurient way that underscores the emotional labor required. The few characters are well-drawn, with the player character’s extraordinary senses providing a great channel for adding shading and depths to people like the brothel’s new boss, who initially comes across as a bit of an awkward meathead but also has an appealing kindness to him.

Again, everything here just works, and I’m eager to see where things go from here. I’m unsure exactly what that will look like – and I’m a bit worried about the amount of work required, since to do the senses justice requires so much detail that I’m guessing this could easily be a ten or twenty hour game! So please, don’t kill yourselves but definitely get cracking.


I had the same reaction - I loved this and was disappointed it was just a demo. And I understand the amount of work involved. This was the type of thing I really wanted and wished I could have explored more in robotsexpartymurder (machine interaction with environmental clues) but ultimately ended up scoping out because the game was already enormous.


The Arkhill Darkness, Jason Barrett

There are two kinds of fantasy RPGs: the bad ones, where the wizard is named something dumb like Firganzallum or Thoranor or what have you, and the good ones, where the wizard is named Wizard. Ipso facto, this is one of the good ones.

All right, I’m being (slightly) tongue in cheek, but the Arkhill Darkness is not faffing about. You’re a fledgling adventurer who needs to free a town from an unearthly curse of darkness, so you hit the tavern to get quests from your mentor and chat with half a dozen people who have job titles where their names should be. There’s a faint tongue-in-cheekness about this, though proceedings mostly proceed in a po-faced way with a slight flavor of horror , and the writing sports some typos and comma errors, so altogether TAD conveys a distinctive (and to me at least, oddly appealing) author’s-first-game jankiness.

[Sidenote: I was just scrolling through the upcoming games and noticed that there’s one entirely about proper comma usage . The 40-odd games between me and Ferryman’s Gate better bring their A-game if they want me to do anything except tear through them on my way to sweet, sweet grammar pedantry. Unless it disavows the Oxford comma, in which case depart from me, I never knew ye.]

Ahem. Back to Arkhill. This is a pretty clean adventure/RPG hybrid, with a clearly-delimited area to go to grind encounters for cash and ingredients, but most exploration playing out in a choice-based fashion with the occasional puzzle and less interspersal of combat than I expected (maybe it’s just the choices I made, but there were only three set-piece encounters involving combat: the werewolf, where fighting is a losing game regardless of one’s stats, the landwurm, which is much more about minigame mechanics as far as I could tell, and then the dragon fight at the end).

The grinding didn’t seem to have much impact – I seemed to do as much damage, and if anything hit more frequently, when kicking as when using a weapon, and Wizard never followed through on his promise to brew me a potion with which to poison my axe – so the adventure side of things I think predominates over the RPG elements. The exploration sequences are fleet enough so as not to wear out their welcome, and use a variety of different approaches: there’s a traditional password-puzzle, a choose-the-right-option action sequence, and a climactic battle that involves some timing-based minigames (these were a fun idea, but very hard on my trackpad, for what it’s worth).

Throughout, the prose is functional, though typically a bit wordy and in need of an editing pass. There are some moments when things tip over into being more evocative, usually when the game is leaning into its horror vibe, as here when the player is battling a sort of monstrous congeries of five or six different sorcery-warped horses:

Grammar issues and typos aside, this is pretty metal.

TAD’s not exactly a diamond in the rough – I don’t think it’s sufficiently ambitious, and its highs are really just about evoking warm feelings of familiarity – but I had a fun old time with it: perhaps the quintessential “if you like this sort of thing, you’ll probably like this thing” game.

(Oh, and a quick warning: despite there being a Save Game option, I could never get it to work. Fortunately there’s back/forward functionality throughout the story, so it’s not a major concern).


Hahaha thanks! I intend to (once I get a few other small things out of the way). It’s interesting that you think they add a lot of complexity/dev time because I actually found once I kinda “got” how to use them they were the easiest part to add and tweak. I guess it’s more writing but most parser games have to write descriptions for every item in a scene already.

Maybe I’ll make a little post later with some screenshots of how the process works for those curious.


please do! we love mid-mortems and postmortems :slight_smile:




Flattened London, by Carter Gwertzman

I try not to bang on about my own entry in the Comp in these reviews, but for y’all who haven’t played it, it’s an Ancient Greek mystery-cult initiation as told by P.G. Woodehouse. I share this because I’m excited that I’m not the only one offering a bizarre British-literature mashup, and in sheer creativity, I’m quite sure “late-Victorian geometry satire meets steampunk browser game” beats me hands down.

For all the potential outlandishness of the setup, though, Flattened London goes down easy. I’m only dimly familiar with the inspirations (I read Flatland maybe 20 years ago, and have maybe played two or three hours apiece of Fallen London and Sunless Seas before bouncing off them), but the author doesn’t assume too much advance knowledge, providing enough context to make the player feel sure-footed, without overloading things with too much lore or too many exposition dumps. There are certainly lots of things that didn’t make a lot of sense to me, but I suspect most of those were places where ambiguity and mystery were intentional, and I generally had a solid enough understanding of how things behaved to be able to move forward.

The structure here is interesting. There’s a clear main plot – the player character (a triangle) is tasked by one of the eldritch overlords of the post-lapsarian city with tracking down a forbidden treatise adverting to the existence of a heretical third-dimension, and once obtained, there are a number of different things you can do to dispose of it. But if you just stick to that, you’d maybe see only a third of the game – perhaps I just got lucky with where I chose to start exploring the fairly-large game map, but I resolved the plot and got a perfectly satisfying ending in about 45 minutes.

Below (can we say “below”?) this more modern, story-driven structure, though, is a Zork-style treasure hunt. You have a 13-slot trophy case in your apartment, you see, and as you explore the world, poke into ancient mysteries, and solve various side-puzzles, you accumulate various valuables that can be deposited back home. It’s hopefully not a spoiler to share that something fun happens if you find all of them, and I found tracking them down sufficiently engaging that I kept playing until I’d caught them all (in a bit under two hours, for those who might be intimidated by the “longer than two hours” estimate on the blurb).

There are two reasons this way of doing things works well for Flattened London, I think. First, exploration is rewarding in its own right – there are lots of places to poke into, secret histories alluded to, endless libraries to get lost in, and even a whole parallel dimension to discover. The writing here is never as rich and allusive as what I’ve seen in the Failbetter games, sounding a bit more prosaic than the antediluvian ruins and dimension-hopping monsters on offer might seem to merit – and I’m not sure it does as much as it could with the Flatland part of the premise – but there are definitely moments that are enticingly weird (I’m thinking especially of the bit with the pail), and the clean prose keeps the focus on the puzzles, which are the other reason the structure worked for me: there are a lot of them, but I found all the puzzles pretty easy.

Most involve a pretty direct application of a single inventory item, with generous clueing, and even the slightly more involved ones don’t give much trouble (there is a maze, but it’s pretty easy to map using the old drop-your-inventory-mark-where-you’ve-been method, and you don’t even need to do that since there’s a clue found elsewhere that enables you to run straight through it). There’s a game of Mastermind, but I think you’ve got infinite time to solve it so that’s no big deal. There was one puzzle that I’m still not quite sure how I solved (getting the treasure on the shelf in the elevator shaft – after I made it through maze, suddenly this was accessible on the way back, but I’m not sure what I’d done to open that up. I also might have sort of broken it, though, since I’d realized that while you can’t take the object on the shelf as you’re whizzing by, you can take the shelf itself, which I’m pretty sure isn’t intended). But overall the game plays as a romp, as you wander around a large map plowing up treasures and secrets practically every five minutes.

I’m not sure how long Flattened London will stick with me – that’s the down side (argh, “down”, I did it again) of being so easygoing – but there’s a lot to be said for just rewarding the player! This is probably some of the purest fun I’ve had so far in the Comp.

Flattened London - mr.txt (234.7 KB)


#VanLife, by Victoria

This is one of only two games in the Comp with the “educational” genre tag (the other is the aforementioned comma-fest, which I still can’t stop thinking about) and credit where it’s due, it lives up to the billing. #VanLife is ship’s-biscuit dry, and while I can see the appeal of a rigorous, math-y renewable energy simulator, some implementation wonkiness and punishing difficulty spikes make the experience hard to enjoy.

The setup is a bit odd, but fine as far as things go: you’ve decided to live in a solar-powered van, so have to spend your days balancing power usage, purchasing upgrades for your power-generation system and your appliances, and occasionally posting inspirational quotes to Twitter, while hopefully making enough money from photography and freelance work to repay your #VanLoan. The gameplay is highly regimented: you start each day with social media, then you’re given two or three choices about how to carry out your daily tasks, usually involving some tradeoff between your mood and your batteries: you might need to decide whether the heat the water before doing the dishes, or see your mood decrease as your hands turn blue. Occasionally you get the chance to buy a new teakettle or oven. In between decisions, you’re often asked math and physics questions – it felt like 80 percent of them were simple variants on Ohm’s Law, though, so I didn’t find them very interesting, and it was unclear what effect, if any, getting the quiz questions right or wrong had on the game systems, though.

The implementation definitely feels wobbly. There are numerous typos, including one (“millage” for “mileage”) in the first game passage, followed quickly by a “you’re parents”. The interface is a bit obfuscated, too – I was confused by references in some of the pop-up hits to a side menu, which turns out is concealed under a pink arrow that’s only intermittently visible (it leads to a hideously complex series of menus and shopping options that’s pretty unfriendly, so maybe this is a mixed blessing). And while you can always see your mood and battery levels as a percentage, for the battery that’s not that helpful since you need to know the specific Watt-hours you’ve got in order to make good choices (in most of the decision points, you get told the current and voltage the appliance uses as well as a duration, rather than “running the water heater will use 10% of your battery’s capacity”). And there are flat-out bugs – after I restarted from my first failed run, the game started playing itself, automatically clicking options and shuffling through the choices faster than I could read them (a second reset fixed things, though). Plus the math on the loan repayment seemed off to me – I could only choose to repay a few cents per day, when actually I needed to pony up several orders of magnitude more to stay out of the red.

Compounding the unfriendliness of the game, some decision points are real widowmakers. Typically you’ll face choices that can impact your mood gauge by maybe 10-30%, but there are some that can drain you by almost half the gauge. These mood-killers require huge tradeoffs on the power-management side – having to run fans overnight to stay cool, or keep a laptop on for eight hours of work, seem to impose a ruinous toll on your batteries. And there doesn’t appear to be any rhyme or reason behind when you’ll get socked with one of these spikes, meaning that you can’t even prepare for them by prioritizing mood or power in the run-up. As a result, even playing at the easiest difficulty level, I never made it more than four or five days in.

This is very negative, unfortunately, but that’s an accurate reflection of my time with the game – more focus on making the game parts fun, and a bit more forgiving, would make #VanLife a better pedagogical tool.


Thanks for your review of Flattened London! I’m particularly proud of the Mastermind bit - it’s right up there with the chess game in terms of being hard to code. And thanks for letting me know about the shelf bug - I’ll be sure to fix that.

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@DeusIrae Hi Mike,

We’ve patched our game and fixed the game mechanic issues if you’re still interested in giving it another try. If not, no worries. The patched version has been uploaded to the contest. Only the online version has been patched (not sure whether you played it online or downloaded). We reduced the difficulty by about 25%, got rid of the game killing Lore Checks and Number Sequence minigame that were making it too difficult to progress in the game, and (we hope) improved on the puzzles by making them more fun. If you do try it again, we’d love to know what you think. At any rate, hope you’ve been enjoying the contest as much as we have!


Oh, awesome, thanks for flagging the update! I’ve got WtWOBF on my to-revisit list so I’ll be sure to check it out and update the review when I do.


Creatures, by Andreas Hagelin

The second RPG/IF hybrid I’ve hit in this year’s Comp, Creatures nails the dark, dour, and dank atmosphere of a grim-and-gritty dungeon crawl, but bugs and custom-engine wonkiness mean I didn’t appreciate the game as much as it perhaps deserves.

Let’s see, why don’t we go last part first. Creatures runs as a Windows executable with a fairly long startup time, and looks like it’s trying to shoot the moon in a beauty contest – I found the white text on black background a bit too high-contrast to be pleasant, the engine allows words to be broken up between two lines with nary a dash in sight, and there are a fair number of typos (including the first sentence of the walkthrough).

More damning than these superficial considerations, at least to me, the interface is very fiddly. It’s choice-based, though you type a number or letter to enter each command, which in theory should be fine. But the implementation is often aggravating: because the screen updates slowly, and if you mis-type an option you’re taken to a separate screen noting you didn’t select a valid choice and which in turn requires an additional keypress to exit, it’s easy to start typing a sequence of commands that starts throwing off a series of errors. Options are also often nestled several layers deep – each room is divided into four quadrants, for example – so doing anything feels like it takes at least twice as many keypresses as it ought to. Oh, and there’s an encumbrance system that I’d say is an especially irritating example of the type, except every encumbrance system is an especially irritating example of the type.

The bugs run the gamut from small bits of oddness (I was able to heal myself above my theoretical maximum hit points) to hard crashes (trying to equip leg armor when I was already wearing something in that slot reliably broke the game) to a progress-ender (there’s a lever puzzle – not very plausibly clued – that didn’t unlock the door it was meant to per the walkthrough, even after I restarted and tried again from scratch). So I think I only ultimately saw about half the game, or maybe even a bit less.

This is a shame because I was enjoying Creatures enough to want to see the rest, and thought the prose was actually not bad. It only comes in fits and starts, as you get a couple of paragraphs in between moving to a new room, while taking actions, fighting, or fiddling with puzzles usually doesn’t generate much in the way of description. And the premise – you’re in a dungeon, have amnesia, and probably there’s a baddie somewhere towards the end you need to stab – is barely even there. But these intermittent paragraphs did a reasonable job of creating an atmosphere of decay, age, and unpleasantness which felt like a good tone for a work like this. The puzzles are again nothing to write home about – they’re under-clued and, at least as far as I got, exclusively about opening different locked doors with various kinds of combinations – but fine enough to break up the combat, and it’s always fun to level up and get new gear.

From skimming the walkthrough, it looks like the remainder of the game involves more number puzzles, more combat – and possibly some light cannibalism? – again, nothing ground-breaking, but solid meat-and-potatoes stuff (so to speak). So I’m hoping there’s an update, either mid-Comp or post-Comp, that would let me check it out (like, because of the number puzzles and combat I mean, not the cannibalism).

MUCH LATER UPDATE: So I went back to this after the author posted a revised version that fixed the bug that had stopped my progress, and was able to win. It definitely goes on as it began, with the pattern of obscure number puzzles alternated with narrowly-tuned combat continued. The puzzles continued to be very challenging, though from looking at the walkthrough it looks like one of them didn’t fire in my playthrough (the text indicated that I was locked into Wilfred’s quarters, but I was able to walk right out without inputting anything). And while I was able to get a few critical hits towards the end, which opened up a bit more wiggle room in the combat, in still feels like you need to tackle the enemies in a very specific order to get the right armor, weapons, and healing items you need to win (like, the cannibalism does in fact seem mandatory). The writing is still pretty fun, albeit quite bleak, and I found the ending a bit of an anticlimax. I did start to get more used to the interface, though this might be Stockholm Syndrome talking. The author’s got talent but a little more attention to making the game more player-friendly, both in interface and puzzle terms, would go a long way in whatever they do next!

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Mother Tongue, by Nell Raban

Mother Tongue is a small thing, but oh, it does a lot with its fleeting play-time, boasting a grounded take on issues of identity, family, and assimilation, a surprisingly effective incorporation of puzzles, and great attention to detail. The blurb tells the whole story: you play a young Filipina/o (if the gender of the protagonist is fixed, I didn’t catch it) who’s exchanging some quotidian texts with their mom, when the conversation turns into an impromptu Tagalog lesson.

For all that this is a very short game, there’s a lot going on here. I haven’t directly experienced the issues Mother Tongue depicts, but my wife is Iranian-American and we’ve had lots of conversations about what Farsi means to her, how she’s treated differently from her folks because she doesn’t have an accent, and what we’d do about languages when and if we have kids. And while I’m a white guy, both my sets of great-grandparents came to the U.S. speaking something other than English but, bowing to the contemporary models for immigrant assimilation, didn’t want their kids to retain those languages, which is something I’ve spent a fair bit of time thinking about.

So hopefully I’m not completely off-base when I say that pretty much everything the protagonist and their mom say to each other (or, for the options I didn’t take, consider saying to each other) rings really true – the challenges of holding on to a home language, the push and pull between being in touch with one’s cultural identity and getting the advantages American culture bestows on those who “assimilate”, the feeling that food is maybe the only connection one has with one’s ancestors… it’s all really well sketched out, with only a few sentences here and there and without any heavy-handed didacticism.
The attention to detail is impressive, too – it was only towards the end that I realized that the protagonist speaks all in lower-case, whereas the mother uses capitalization, emoji, and proper punctuation (including putting periods at the ends of her texts!)

Critically, the characters get to be characters, rather than just functioning as mouthpieces for exploring these issues. The protagonist, at least as I played them, is a rather overenthusiastic person who can’t help but explain the plot of the CRPG Morrowind to their indulgent mom (reading this bit made me cringe a little as I remembered similarly babbling to my mother about how cool it was going to be when you could play nonhuman paladins in 3rd Edition D&D). And the mom is cheerful, unpushy, and clearly relishes the chance to play teacher.

I also found the language-quiz segments really fun, surprisingly so if I’m honest. Four or five times, the mother will ask you “how do you think you say X in Tagalog?” and offer you two choices; after the first one or two, these require thinking inductively about what you’ve learned to date, and seeing how she structures her sentences. This kind of inductive learning mirrors how we actually learn language, and made me feel like I was actually learning a little about Tagalog as I went (I’m actually pretty proud that I got a perfect rating without any do-overs!) Mother Tongue isn’t the kind of thing I go into looking for an especially game-y or puzzle-y experience, but it wound up scratching that itch nonetheless.

If I were to cast about for critiques, I suppose I could list two or three bits of dialogue that are a little on the nose (there’s an exchange where the protagonist can tell their mom “it’s clear you care a lot and I appreciate that!”). But given how easy it’d be to write a version of this game that’s all Hallmark-channel schmaltz, those very few infelicities are more than forgivable, and don’t do anything to undermine a really satisfying, well-observed vignette.


Minor Arcana, by Jack Sanderson Thwaite

For all that Minor Arcana is very clearly a fantasy game – you “play” a half-sapient deck of Tarot cards changing the fates of all who come into contact with you – what it most puts me in mind of is a bit of design from the classic sci-fi RPG Traveler. OK, I’m fronting a bit, because I’ve never actually played Traveler, but I have played the (Godawful) MegaTraveller CRPGs that were based on it, as well as System Shock 2, which uses that same piece of design: the lifepath character creation system. The idea here is that instead of dryly assigning points to all your stats and running through a shopping list to get your equipment, instead you come up with your character by making a series of choices: join the Marines or the Navy? Volunteer for a diplomatic mission, or become an undercover spy? Each choice changes your character along the way, improving their attributes, teaching them new skills, giving them equipment – or even, if you roll poorly enough, killing you before you even get out of chargen. Once you finish the choices, you have a full character, and the real game can begin.

Possibly this association came out of nowhere because playing so many games is turning my brain to porridge. But I think it’s because Minor Arcana felt to me like a really involved prelude to a more involved experience that’s yet to come – which is an unfair expectation, to be sure, but perhaps speaks to the way that the game does a really good job offering exciting choices but maybe doesn’t go far enough in paying them off.

To return to what the game is actually about: there’s an initial stage of the game where you set some basics about what your deck is like, including visual motifs, what suits it contains, if any cards are missing, and what supernatural patron inspired your creation (these have fun, slightly-obfuscated titles and include not-Cthulhu, not-Mithra, and even for those of you who didn’t get enough Gnosticism from Accelerate, not-Ialdabaoth). Then you get a chance to do readings for a couple of petitioners, and find out how you’ve impacted their lives (spoiler: usually it’s not super positive!) before finally facing the option of whether to forsake your owner for a new patron, at which point you can either accept this as the end or start the story again.

I really dug the choices in the first part of the game: deciding what flavor of Tarot deck you are, and whether you have suits like the traditional cups and staves, or instead thorns and spikes, spirals and mirrors, or crows and gears, feels like it’s opening up intriguing realms of possibility. The author does a great job of world-building, letting a few evocative phrases and some ominously capitalized words hint at much deeper mysteries. These decisions are hard to make, because the choices all seem so fun, and seem like they’ll create fiendishly enjoyable scenarios down the line.

The second section feels a bit more slight by comparison; there are only two chances to offer a reading, and instead of full set-pieces involving cross spreads and multiple card draws, instead you only pick a single card, and get one passage apiece laying out the enigmatic repercussions. The choice of switching owners likewise comes and goes fairly quickly. This at least facilitates replays, but when I went back to the beginning and picked what felt like radically different choices, I was disappointed because it felt like very little changed – the King of Staves and the King of Spikes don’t produce meaningfully different outcomes when the fire-breathing radical draws them, for example.

Ultimately it felt like instead of there being hundreds of variegated paths to create a Tarot deck that was distinctly my own, I was inevitably being crammed into a one-size-fits-all template. Of course it’s unreasonable to expect an author to write radically different results for all possible combinations, but the magic of a choice-based game is to balance the difficulties of implementation with the fantasy that each option has an impact on the experience. Minor Arcana left me feeling like I’d created a unique protagonist, but stopped just when I was expecting the real game, and real consquences, to begin.


Stoned Ape Hypothesis, by James Heaton

I’m actually a bit familiar with the theory behind SAH, by virtue of having some entheogen enthusiast friends in college – the idea, as I recall it at any rate, is that human cognitive evolution was occasionally bootstrapped by an adventurous Cro-Magnon snacking on psilocybin-containing mushrooms, with concomitant increases in creativity, perceptual acuity, social engagement, de-prioritization of self, and so on. I was and am skeptical, not least from observing the behavior of said friends while high (I kid, love to you all) but it’s a fun idea, right up there with “our corpus callosum used to be less effective so gods and miracles were just the two halves of our brain not being able to play nicely together.”

SAH doesn’t do too much with this setup, but it does provide a structure that lends a nice progression to a fairly standard series of puzzles. You play a (nameless, but I suppose that’s appropriate) early human who wanders around a small map, resolving such era-appropriate problems as cutting wood, making fire, and obtaining clothes. Intermittently you find and snack on a hallucinogenic mushroom which, in a neat touch, makes the prose of the game grow more sophisticated to represent your increasing mental acuity (though I only really noticed the first shift – there was an opportunity to expand this a bit more, I think).

Oddly, most of your attempts at mastering your environment are prompted by seeing other, more advanced humans wear clothes and make fire. The reason why they’re more advanced, and you’re still flailing around with the basics, wasn’t explained as far as I could tell, and I think this was a misstep – because you’re just playing catchup, and doing things that the player can grasp in an instant, this feels less like guiding a pioneer into a new age of cognitive development, and more like helping an utter thicko learn to take care of himself.

The puzzles themselves are fine so far as they go, though playing tic-tac-toe feels a bit silly, and I struggled with the implementation of mancala, with some confusing ASCII art and what might have been non-standard rules leaving me flailing (I still won, even though I thought I was trying to put my stones in the wrong bowl, which suggests the AI opponent is not trying to put up much of a fight). Overall, it’s the Stone Age environment, including reasonably well-detailed detailed depictions of tool use in an early society, that are the highlights here, providing a fairly unique backdrop to the otherwise quite standard adventuring.

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Congee, by Becci

It’s funny that the randomizer handed me Congee and Mother Tongue so close together, since they’re both short choice-based games dealing with immigration, alienation, and assimilation. Where Mother Tongue focuses more on the relationships between different generations and touches on some big issues, Congee is really about friends supporting each other, and the comforts of home.

The story here is very slight – the blurb says it all – so it’s really about the small details in how the thing is put together. Congee’s greatest strengths are the way it cleanly sets up the personalities and relationship between the main character and her friend, and the canny use of just a few simple visuals to set the mood on a cold, rainy British evening.

There’s good use of humor here – the protagonist bewailing her fever by noting that “the body is but a weak vessel” is a funny bit of self-pity, and the gag following her decision on what to name the regular get-togethers with her friend to eat congee also made me laugh. The writing in the exchanges between her and her best friend Allison is filled with nicely-judged details, in-jokes, and clever turns of phrase. Making the text messages look like text messages, and imposing delays that are long enough to make one believe in the conceit, but short enough that it doesn’t feel frustrating is a really nice touch too (and I hate it 99% of the time when games force you to wait for text to display).

Where I think the game falls down a tiny bit, and where I can’t help make a comparison to Mother Tongue, is in the short exchange between the protagonist and her mom. In fairness this isn’t the central relationship of the game – that’s clearly the one between the main character and her bestie – but the dialogue here felt a bit generic and vague, in a way that the conversation with Allison never did.

Again, though, that doesn’t do much to mar the appeal of this sweet story of how friends can make wherever you are feel a bit more like home.

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Little Girl in Monsterland, by Mike Stallone

As I’m only two hours into what’s advertised as a 15-hour experience, I’m a little underconfident in this review – I could see some of the things that worked for me wearing out their welcome 10 hours hence, and similarly, some of my critiques might vanish once the overall framework of the game becomes clearer. But if I let a lack of sound factual underpinnings keep me from mouthing off, these reviews would be a lot, lot shorter.

You know, it’s probably not worth interrogating that in depth – let’s just get on with it.

LGiML feels most of all like an old-school graphic adventure, albeit in text form (though there are graphics depicting the characters and a few key events, and I think I saw the author mention in another post that there’s a full graphic version in the works). You’ve got a sprawling map to explore, lots of different puzzle chains, a setting that draws equally from fiction, fairytales, and Python-esque satire, and an interface that requires chaining a specified list of verbs to a specified list of targets. There are some significant deviations from this well-worn template, though – some that I liked, and some that I was more mixed on.

The elephant in the room here is that the primary way of interacting with the game isn’t constructing commands like USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE – most commands also require you to add an intent, so you’d have to say USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE TO FRIGHTEN SOMEONE, or USE RUBBER DUCKY ON MISANTHROPE TO WIN ELECTION TO CONGRESS. Trying the correct action with the incorrect intent or rationale will fail just as surely as trying the wrong object with the right intent.

On the one hand, this pretty much eliminates the too-frequent experience in old graphic adventures of clicking something on something else, just because you’re out of ideas, and seeing the main character embark on an extended bout of moon-logic that you in no wise had in mind when you clicked your finger. And it usually isn’t too hard to suss out the right option, since you choose the intents from a list and it’s pretty clear if there’s something that might match. There are places where this does lead to difficulty spikes, though, especially in the variant where instead of coming up with an intent tied to a concrete outcome (like, saying that you’re doing X in order to get the character in front of you to leave the room), you need to link what you’re doing to a vague high-level goal (like, saying you’re doing X in order to defeat Dracula). This can be challenging because you can’t do standard adventure-game things like examine a suitcase to see whose it is, or what’s in it, unless you have the correct goal in mind (what if I wanted to look at the suitcase to figure out what I can do with it?)

Compounding the difficulty, this is a big game, with a lot of text, and clues aren’t always as signposted as I think they could be. Here’s a spoilery discussion of one that stymied me for a long time: at one point, the player character decides she wants to meet a mermaid. There’s a book about mermaids in the library that describes some of their behavior, emphasizing that they’re mischievous creatures who like playing pranks. This didn’t really help me much, though, and all the obvious things I tried – making a sand castle that she could wreck, playing music to see if she wanted to join in – failed, so eventually I turned to the hints. According to them, what the book was meant to communicate was that mermaids like playing pranks specifically on ship’s captains. With that prompt in hand, I was able to use the intent system to dress up as the down-on-his luck captain down by the docks, at which point the puzzle solves itself, but due to the intent system, there was no way of blundering into the solution by having a new “hey, can I borrow your clothes?” dialogue option unlock after reading the book that was supposed to give me the idea.

The other structural consideration that sometimes makes the difficulty a bit harder is that there are always a lot of different goals available. The game provides a really helpful interface for tracking them, and allows you to rewind to key conversations or bits of observation so you can’t get too lost, but much of the time, you get the goal well before you can do anything significant to advance it – at the point above where I first had recourse to hints, I had five different goals, but the first hint for three of them was “go do something else, there’s nothing you can do to make progress on this yet.” Ultimately, for the second hour of play I typically consulted the first hint or two anytime I got a new goal to make sure I knew what to focus on and see if I was missing something that was meant to be obvious, which made for a more pleasant play experience, though I’m not sure that’s intended.

…just noticed we’re almost a thousand words in and I haven’t even mentioned what the game’s actually about. OK, speeding this up: the setting is a sort of skewed fairytale, featuring a brash and fearless six year old girl as a protagonist who’s bent on avoiding her chores by meeting some fun people, most of whom are monsters of some description. She’s a lot of fun, and when she hooks up with a princess her same age early on and you wind up playing dual characters, the banter between the two is one of the high points of the game. There’s a lot of humor, though much of it is scatological and wasn’t quite my taste (your protagonist barfs a lot, and if you find the idea of Dracula having diarrhea funny, you’re in luck because there’s an extended sequence that I thought ran the joke into the ground) – there’s also some errant profanity that might be less kid-appropriate. There’s some tonal oddity in the graphics, too: the main characters are depicted in a loose, cartoony style that I really dug, but many other characters look like they come from traced-over photos, and have a more realistic vibe that felt like it didn’t sit easily with the rest of the art.

The plot, at least as far as I got (solving Dracula’s castle, meeting the mermaid, and winning the horse race, along with some miscellaneous other progress) is a series of self-contained sequences that don’t interact with each other all that much. Each of them is entertaining – Dracula’s castle especially had a fun series of puzzles that played with the classic-monster gimmicks of the different characters (cutting off Frankenstein’s monster’s electricity made me chortle) – but there was nothing really to be gained from any of them. Meeting the mermaid leads to a ride through the ocean, but that doesn’t help you solve any other puzzles, or advance any overall plot that connects the vignettes; ditto winning the horse race, or even stealing an evil orb of necromantic power from Dracula. As a result, dropping the game part-way in felt a little easier than it maybe should have, since there’s no real indication of how the story would be any different if I put in an additional 10+ hours. I’m still looking forward to coming back to LGiML and checking out where things go, but some kind of overarching plot or structure in the earlier parts of the game would probably make players more likely to put in the extra time beyond the Comp threshold.

MUCH LATER ADDENDUM: I went back and won LGiML, and had quite a good time doing so. The first two hours do give a solid indication of what’s to come, so I think what’s in the existing review holds up – the plot, in particular, continues to be a bit of a shaggy-dog story, albeit with a good number of recurring characters and story-threads, which I wound up enjoying even though there wasn’t much of an overarching structure. Once I got deeper into the game, I think I clicked with its approach to puzzle solving a little better, and while the scatology-plus-parody humor does I think wear out its welcome, there are definitely some funny bits that made me laugh (the bits with the pope and the undead pirates were especially good, I thought – to be clear, those are two separate bits, not one bit involving both things!)

There’s a whole second town, with a whole new set of characters and, more importantly, puzzles, and while I’m not sure whether this was just a sign of increased familiarity with the interface, I found the challenges in this part of the game a little easier to engage with, with a few really clever ones mixed in (I especially liked the one where you need to find a cave…) The large size of the game does lead to some scope issues later on, however. Old areas are never blocked off – and in fact several late-game puzzles depend on going back to very early areas and noticing what’s changed, which sometimes stymied me due to my reliance on fast-travel – and inventory items tend to stick around after you’ve used them. This increased the complexity of the game while meaning that sometimes I felt like I’d figured out four or five potential solutions but only one would be accepted. Spoiler-y example: when trying to track the dragon’s servant through the caves, I considered putting manure on him so I could smell him, using the dog again to track him – or just using the time-travel potion to “catch up” anytime I started falling behind. In fact there are a lot of puzzles that potion should be able to bypass! Clearing out used inventory items, and maybe more clearly signposting when an area has changed (or doesn’t have anything else to offer) as a hint option, might be helpful quality-of-life features.

At any rate I’m glad I went back and finished the game, since it was a good time – the author’s apparently also working on a version with full graphics and gave me a sneak peek, and I have to say it’s really lovely, so for folks who didn’t get all the way through this one during the Comp, I’d definitely recommend a revisit once the updated version comes out!