Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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!

1 Like

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.

4 Likes

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.

4 Likes

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.

1 Like

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.

1 Like

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!

4 Likes

Hello. THANK YOU for the time you dedicated to Radicofani and I apologize for all its negative aspects (especially my basic English ;-)). Soon I will post the solution. A curiosity of mine: Did you find the Pin of the mobile phone? I would like to understand if that puzzle is too complicated. At what point in the game did you have trouble finding the right verb? This information could help me make Radicofani a better game. Tank you.

3 Likes

Oh, glad to hear you’ll be posting the solution, since I’d love to get past that puzzle and see the rest of your game. For the guess-the-verb issues, I’m afraid I don’t remember all of them, but one that stood out for me was that getting a drink in the bar was a little challenging – I started out trying to write ORDER or ORDER DRINK but don’t believe those worked (ORDER COFFEE and ORDER BEER I think do). Since I went to the bar first and didn’t know I needed coffee yet, after I visited the hostel and realized I needed coffee, I thought order wasn’t the right verb, which made things trickier. There might have been a couple more, but that was the only one I kept notes on, sorry!

As for the PIN puzzle, I also didn’t get that one without looking at the Italian walkthrough. I did find the phone, and the agenda with the anniversary date, but I found the agenda under the bed in the hostel, not in the apartment, so I didn’t really associate it with the phone since I’d gotten that so long before. There’s a lot of info in that agenda, so without some prompting that the phone’s PIN is likely to be a significant date, I think this is a pretty hard puzzle to solve as it currently stands.

2 Likes

Thanks for your valuable comments. I hope you can reach Amelia before the gate closes. :wink:

1 Like

Thank you for playing Minor Arcana! I’m glad there were things in it that you enjoyed. It was a bit of an experiment for me, and time constraints meant I wasn’t able to implement as much variety as I would have liked, as you mention. I hope to do more post-comp. There is some state tracking that happens if you start again by choosing the ‘beginning’ choice at the end of your first run, though I think I could make that clearer. It’s more obvious if you decide to go with the collector, though there is some if you stay as well. Interesting that you mention Traveler, as I was definitely inspired by the solo tabletop RPG Artefact when developing the idea.

2 Likes

Ah, re your spoiler, I did things the other way round so didn’t notice that much – I’ll definitely check out a post-comp release and check it out again, though! Congrats on the game, it very much left me wanting more.

2 Likes

Electric word, “life”, by Lance Nathan

I’m worried that this one might get overlooked (as of this writing, there are only two reviews in the spreadsheet) and I’m guessing it’s because of the title which – and I say this as someone who has a game called “The Eleusinian Miseries” in the Comp, which I’m happy about since it’s the best name for anything I’ve ever come up with – is awful. Between the lack of capitalization, the weird quotation marks, and the difficulty of resolving how these three words fit together to form any sort of meaning (after having played the game I’m still struggling with making sense of it), I think people might be giving this one a pass, despite the evocative cover art and a solid blurb. That’d be a real shame – EWL is good and folks should play it.

The setup here is low-key but drawn in nicely: you’re the reluctant co-host of a Halloween party in 1999 (the opening maybe goes a little too far making winking references to LiveJournal and WinAmp, but things on that front thankfully calm down pretty quickly), and at first it seems like the business of the game will be awkwardly bumbling about with all the strangers flooding your apartment, with intermittent flashbacks to the player character’s childhood. There aren’t too many choices that have much of an impact on the overall plot, but there’s some light interactivity that switches up the order you see things, and gives you a chance to get more detail and bring a bit of characterization to the main character. Then you find some of your actual friends have shown up, and it becomes a slice of life hangout game, until the main thrust of the story kicks in.

Before I duck behind the curtain to talk that through – if you haven’t played the game yet, I’d hold off on reading the spoiler-text until you do – let me just emphasize once again that this is worth your time. There are good jokes! Here are a couple of my favorites:

The prose is super clean, with no typos or even any noticeable infelicities. The characters aren’t given incredible depth, but they’re sketched in cleanly and effectively, and once the story really kicks in, it’s heartfelt and well done. Play EWL – just don’t think about the title, jump in, it’ll be fine!

So, the deal here is that after your friends show up to the party and you start hanging out with them, it turns out that one of them, named Andy, died on their drive over, and is spending their last night with you all as a ghost. This is presented in a very understated way, and reasonably well telegraphed with the player character’s memories in the first sequence all revolving around Andy, as well as the cover photo and blurb. The presentation isn’t that this is some shocking twist – what the game is clearly after is creating space for the main character and Andy to enjoy some last time together, and say goodbye.

It’s all very restrained – there are no teary jags of emotion, but I think that fits these characters as they’re presented to us, and Andy says he doesn’t want a fuss made over him. If anything the ghost aspect is a bit underplayed, as the main character and Andy himself both seem to adjust to this insane thing happening without spending too much time grappling with it. There’s a bit of an indication that Andy might have romantic feelings for the main character, but it’s not spelled out (or at least, it wasn’t spelled out given the choices I made, though I don’t really see any places where things might have gone differently). Again, it’s low key, even down to the final goodbye.

Does this work, and is it emotionally effective? It’s presenting a universal experience and yearning – someone very close to me died earlier this year, and while it wasn’t a bolt from the blue, I still very much fantasize about the things I wish we’d been able to talk about before the end – but presents it very specifically, with characters whose relationship and emotional makeup feel specific to them. The last conversation they have does come off a bit unsatisfying as it doesn’t lead to any sort of revelation or catharsis, but I’m also aware that even if I did have that last conversation I’m wishing for, the results would be much the same. You can’t sum up and say goodbye to a whole human in a night, much less a few exchanges of words. EWL recognizes that, and captures it effectively – it’s not trying to leave you in tears or fundamentally change how you think about death. It just offers its characters a few moments of grace, and invites you to share those moments with them. And I think that’s enough.

3 Likes

Doppeljobs by Lei

The “fantasy monster gets a job” genre is a fun one – the first example that comes to mind is Dungeon Detective and it’s sequel (you’re a gnoll, and you fight crime!) but I know there are many others – because there’s a lot of comedy baked into the premise that an otherworldly being, sometimes with magical powers, grinds up against the quotidian reality of working for a paycheck. Dopplejobs very much delivers on this piece of the premise, but also offers a setting with some intriguing mysteries. It also strikes a nice balance with its choices – there are a lot of them, and they feel (and are) very impactful to the success or failure of your various contracts, but the game isn’t overly punitive so most sets of choices will still get you to a satisfying ending.

Let’s get the downsides out of the way early: there are some typos and the writing is a little bit awkward in places, though it’s not 100% clear to me that these are unintentional – there are many places where articles are dropped, for example, as well as some ungainly use of prepositions and syntax, which could reflect an author whose primary language isn’t English, but could also be an attempt to reflect the overenthusiastic, off-kilter (at least by human standards) character of the eponymous doppelganger. There also appear to be some bugs in the code related to your finances – the framing challenge of the game is earning enough “quartz” to pay back your business’s startup loan, and you get varying amounts of it depending on how well you perform in each of your jobs, as well as having the opportunity to plow some of the proceeds into more advertising, a swankier office, or just going on a spree. However, the math often didn’t add up: I’d have 350 quartz, earn 300 more, and be left with 550, or spend 50 when I have 1050 accumulated, after which I still had 1050.

These niggles don’t undermine the experience all that much, though. As mentioned, the infelicities in the prose ultimately have a kind of addle-pated charm that seems very much in keeping with who the doppelganger is. And despite the loan-centric framing, it didn’t seem like the amount of money you have at the end really has that much impact on where the story ends.

So there’s not much holding back the considerable upsides, which are that this is a fun world to inhabit with lots and lots of reactivity. Each of the jobs you take on – your business is to impersonate humans who want to duck out of some embarrassing or enjoying experience you’ll go through in their stead – is quite varied, and offers ample opportunities to stick to the remit, try to cause chaos, or poke around into the secrets of the city where you work (this isn’t the real world, and its snake-centric superstitions and bizarre infrastructure make it a pleasure to explore). Your choices not only impact client satisfaction – and therefore how much you get paid – but also help define your character. Since doppelgangers take on some of the traits of those they impersonate, if you behave in an especially curious, or introverted, or patient manner, you’ll inherit some of that in the remaining go-rounds.

The jokes are often quite funny – if you underinvest in advertising, a client might say that the reason they sought you out is that they “appreciated the fact that the slogan was small and the office hard to find. It proves you’re discreet.” Or, when contemplating doing something about that: “when it comes to advertisement, you feel like you are a pretty good singer. You could compose a catchy song advertising your business. Something like: ‘Doppel doppel it’s all proper fa la la la la!’” Again: slightly demented, but very fun.

DJ is well-paced, too – each job has some meat to it, but is fairly zippy, and the post-job opportunity to spend some money offers a nice punctuation of each phase. This, combined with the 20ish minute playtime made me eager to jump back in and replay after I’d finished first time – and sure enough, while you appear to always get the same jobs in the same order, there are a lot of variations possible depending on what you decide to do, and the game is fairly forgiving such that even choices that seem suboptimal don’t take that much of a toll.

This is especially nice because I think on my first play-through, I was overly cautious – I was very fixated in paying back my loan, and the way the job payoffs work you always feel like you’re on the knife-edge to be able to do that by the end. So I passed up a lot of choices that seemed riskier, including opting out of the final bonus job since I was just over the 1000 quartz threshold and didn’t want to mess things up. I had much more fun on subsequent go-throughs, when I didn’t feel so much tension: DJ is at its best when it’s letting you try new things, look under rocks for what might be there, and role-play a well-meaning monster whose instincts for human behavior are not all there.

1 Like

Last House on the Block, by Jason Olson

Despite a little bit of ethical wonkiness (and the title cueing me to expect a horror game), the setup here really drew me in – the neighborhood weird old man has just died, and the player character, who seems to be a kid of 10 or so, decides to pair up with their best friend and search the house for treasure. Again, leaving aside that this is a bit ghoulish, there’s a pleasant, Goonies or Stranger Things sort of vibe to the premise, and you get to choose which of three possible characters is your best friend – they accompany you on your adventure, reacting in different ways to everything you find and each even providing a shortcut to solving a different puzzle.

Where things go off the rails is in the implementation. Beyond a lot of typos, which unfortunately sometimes seems like it’s running through a checklist of common complaints about parser IF. Default X ME description? Huge numbers of under-described red-herring objects? Puzzles that are mostly either guess-the-verb or hunt-the-pixel? Items not listed in room descriptions? A light source that can permanently run out of charge? An inventory limit? They’re all here, and make the experience of playing the game highly frustrating.

A typical sequence involves entering a new room which might have a sentence or two of description, seeing 8 or 10 items (all of which are listed in Inform-default style, e.g. “Here in the living room you can see LiYuan, a comfy couch, an easy chair, a mantel, on top of which are a silver picture frame, a gold picture frame, a brass picture frame, a blue picture frame and a photobook and a nearly-empty bookshelf, on top of which are a white picture frame and a plain picture frame”) examining each in turn to see that only a few have real descriptions implemented, but all can be picked up, then hoping that you’ve guessed the right verb for finding anything hidden (at one point, you can open a dresser, which reveals some clothing; SEARCH CLOTHING gives you a default failure message, but if you SEARCH DRESSER – you get a custom failure message the first time, though if you repeat the action twice more you’ll find a key you need to progress).

The puzzles are nothing you haven’t seen before, but they’re reasonably well-conceived and fit the story and setup. Solving them, though, often feels like it requires reading the author’s mind. About midway through, you find a trap door leading to the attic, but the pullchain’s been detached and there’s no ladder to help you get up there to reattach it. I hit on the idea of pushing furniture into the room and standing on it to get the height I needed, and when that didn’t work, stacking a chair on top of a bed, none of which worked – when I checked the walkthrough, I had the right idea, but to solve the puzzle I had to move in a different piece of furniture (a chest from all the way in the basement), and instead of climbing or standing on it (those commands lead to failure messages), just try to attach the pullchain to the trap door, which automatically clambers up and accomplishes the task.

Adding insult to injury, this all takes place in a darkened room that can only be lit by your quickly-depleting iPhone, and if you run out of charge, you appear to be in a dead man walking scenario. And OK, just one more example: later on, I was stymied for how to progress because I needed to MOVE COUCH in the rec room to find a (totally unhinted-at, so far as I can tell) panel leading to a secret tunnel. The only difficulty is, I’d already moved the couch out of the room via PUSH COUCH EAST, which didn’t mention that I’d revealed the panel (and in fact when I went into the neighboring room and typed MOVE COUCH, I was told that I’d found the panel there!)

It’s a repetitive bit of conventional wisdom that IF needs testing, and parser IF needs it more than any other variant, but it’s conventional wisdom because it’s true. No testers are listed for Last House on the Block, and it really seems like the author, without an outside perspective, spent most of their time on adding cool stuff like the varying-BFF system and lots and lots of scenery, but didn’t make sure the puzzles made sense to anyone coming to them fresh. It’s a shame, because the concept here would make for a charming game, and you can occasionally see flashes of that game poking out from underneath the one we got. Hopefully the author sticks with it, but gets some good testers for their next piece of IF.

LHoTB - MR.txt (130.8 KB)

2 Likes

The Call of Innsmouth, by Tripper McCarthy

When I was on an airplane many years ago, I had the idea of writing a Lovecraft pastiche in a noir voice suddenly pop into my head. After I landed and got home, I fired up my computer and had enormous fun writing a page and a half of my hard-boiled private dick sharing how he usually deals with ghoul infestations and that if you’ve seen one Hound of Tindalos, you haven’t seen a Hound of Tindalos – but then the juice suddenly ran out because I couldn’t figure out where the story would go. If I kept up the world-weary noir thing throughout, the Cthulhu elements wouldn’t land because the cosmic horror doesn’t find a purchase. And if you lean into the Cthulhu bits and have even the noir hero shaken by the burden of things man was not meant to know, well, you’ve just written a Lovecraft pastiche with some weird similes, clipped phrasing, and hopefully less racism than the originals. It’s a mashup that ultimately needs to collapse into just being one thing or the other, at the expense of the one not chosen, and therefore can’t really be satisfying (this is also why every attempt I’ve seen to do a pomo detective story doesn’t work – yes, I’m calling you out, Paul Auster) (and before I wrap up this ridiculously self-indulgent introduction, let me shout out the one completely effective Lovecraft genre remix, which is the Cthulhu-meets-Wodehouse of A Scream For Jeeves).

Anyway, given this tediously-explained context, I was interested to see how Call of Innsmouth followed through on its blurb, which seemed to presage going hard on the noir tropes, and avoided this dilemma. The answer is that mostly it sidesteps the tension by presenting a completely straight-ahead take, with prose that doesn’t commit hard either way – the smoky, jazzy tones of noir and the adjective-mad enthusiasm of Lovecraft get a few hat-tips, but the style is overall quite normcore. The same is true for the plot, which seems like it follows the plot of the mid-aughts Call of Cthulhu video game reasonably closely – and even if you haven’t, will still feel pretty familiar to anyone who’s read the Shadow Over Innsmouth. I think the biggest story-related surprise I experienced was that at one point, after I made a bad decision, I was expecting to get eaten by Dagon, but instead I got eaten by a shoggoth.

None of this is necessarily bad – if you are in the mood for a Lovecraft game, Call of Innsmouth has you covered in spades! It’s a big game, with lots to do that gives you that old Cthulhu charge – you prep for the investigation by visiting an Arkham boarding house and consulting Miskatonic’s Professor Armitage, and you get to raid Devil’s Reef and meet Zadok Allen (though oddly, his name is misspelled and he’s given a weird dialect different from what he’s got in the book, maybe coding him as Native American? Zadok is a biblical name so I always assumed he’s a Quaker or something like that). There are a number of action sequences, and while it’s (appropriately) easy to die, the correct choices aren’t too obfuscated, and unlimited rewinds are offered if your guts do wind up decorating a Deep One’s claws.

Writing-wise, as mentioned the style is pretty straightforward and there are some typos, but also a few nice bits of characterization – when the player character’s client breaks down in worry over her missing son, he just shifts uncomfortably rather than comforting her, for example. And while you appropriately freak out at some of the revelations, and start out a bit skeptical about this whole dark-god-and-fish-men business, it isn’t overly belabored so there’s no tedious tension between the genre-savvy player and the notionally new-to-all-this player character. Call of Innsmouth delivers what it sets out to, and if it’s not the most novel take on these tropes, and the prose plays it down the middle, you still get a meaty adventure to satisfy any Mythos cravings (like, for a game I mean, not forbidden knowledge or human flesh or anything gross like that).

2 Likes

Hi Mike. Thanks so much for the wonderful review of my entry, The Call of Innsmouth. Oddly enough, I have never played the Call of Cthulhu video game and am now eager to play it. Were you referring to the one I think was made about 10+ years ago, or the more recent one which I think was released last year?

My inspiration for this story comes from the ending of Lovecraft’s The Shadow Over Innsmouth. Specifically where the protagonist, who has discovered he is a Deep One hybrid, rescues his cousin from Arkham Asylum. I wanted to write a story about who that cousin was, and how he came to be committed. And that turned into the character Lawrence Murphy (Williamson). I also drew heavily from the places and names from the original story, but also took some creative liberties as well (trying not to break canon too much)

You make a good point about the writing style. I didn’t really commit to hard-boiled detective or Lovecraftian. Honestly this was probably do to my inexperience as a writer. I think I wrote in my “default” style, although I guess subconsciously I took a stab at both styles, with mixed success.

On the subject of Zadock, oh boy. I really wanted him in the story, but knew there was no way I was going to write him like Lovecraft did. His characterization just doesn’t sit right with me. What I did model him on was a similar character in the movie Dagon, who was Spanish and spoke broken English with a very thick accent. Without conveying any of that to the reader, it probably was confusing. I think even I was a bit confused on what I was going for.

It’s been great getting feedback from the reviews. Thank you again for playing my game and sharing your insights. Much appreciated.

Hi Tripper – congrats on the game! I hear you on Zadock – trying to sand off some of the rough bits of Lovecraft’s characterizations can be a tough job…

Re the video game, I was indeed thinking of the one from 2005, Dark Corners of the Earth. In that one, you play a private detective who’s asked to investigate the disappearance of the First National Grocery clerk, and after riding the coach to Innsmouth, you poke around the First National store, and then get ambushed in a lodging house, where while the hybrids try to break down the door you need to flee out the window. There’s a lot of additional stuff – there’s a whole Great Race subplot, and of course lots of action and stealth sequences – but I thought those might have been tips of the hat. I also thought I remembered that part of the setup was that you were on thin ice with the agency you work for because you haven’t worked many cases lately, along the lines of the detail you included, but on reflection I think that was from the game that came out a year or two ago. Anyway, I think that’s another indication of how well you stuck to the source while extending the story!

2 Likes

I’m fairly sure that game has only like two levels, the one where you explore the town and the one where the entire town swarms the inn where you’re staying and it’s impossible and you die.

2 Likes

Having lost much sanity to the game (like, my own, not the character’s – my roommate had never heard me curse like that), I can confirm that there’s also a BS sewer “stealth” level that’s impossible and you die, a bit where you fight a shoggoth and it’s impossible and you die, an ill-advised FPS bit through the temple of Dagon that’s impossible and you die, a rail-shooter sequence on a boat that’s impossible and you die, an underwater tunnel filled with flying polyps where you for some reason have a lightning gun but it’s still impossible and you die, a final read-the-designer’s-mind puzzle that’s impossible and you die and die and die and die, and then, blessedly, you go crazy and you canonically die.

1 Like

Oh man, that sounds like a lot of fun. I’m gonna go reinstall it right now!

2 Likes