Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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.

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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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)

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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).

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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!

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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.

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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.

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

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Thank you for a detailed review! It’s so nice of you to spend so much of your time reviewing all the games and providing valuable feedback! :slight_smile:
Now, to address feedback on Doppeljobs:

Honestly, I tried for “funny but a bit off” language style, but can’t deny I am not a native English speaker. So I’m afraid that some of the things are intentional, some are not. I think I could have avoided some of the problems if I made my game smaller - then, at least, I would have more time to proofread. Oh well, next time :slight_smile:

Weird, I guess I should check that out…

I am very glad you liked it despite all the issues!

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Hi Lei – thanks for dropping by! Hopefully it was clear from the review that while there were a few small niggles, I had a really good time with your game. The language does scan as intentionally off-kilter, there are just a few places where it edges over into being a bit too awkward. And the size and reactivity is part of what made it so fun to explore the different scenarios, so I think you struck a good balance between large and buggy and small but tighter.

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Thanks, that’s very sweet of you to say :slight_smile: I guess I focused on the feedback because it’s what interests me the most. I like nice and constructive criticism :slight_smile: And I am happy that you enjoyed the game and had a bit of a laugh here and there :slight_smile:

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The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton, by Hanon Ondricek

Finally, someone dares to tell the truth about pickles – we need to get this game into the hands of Congress because it’s time for action!

This one’s pretty hard to discuss without blowing a lot of what makes it so charming – Cursèd Pickle is a candy box of surprises, both narrative and mechanical, and I’m wary of stomping all over said charm by discussing anything other than the graphics on the loading screen (it’s a lovely picture, reminded me of Loom!) And I can’t just put the whole thing in spoiler-text, because there are like double-secret spoilers that I want to conceal even if you have dipped in for a bit but haven’t plumbed all the depths. So do yourself a favor and make sure you’ve played the game at least until you understand the title before you read the rest of this.

It occurs to me that you – my beloved (I mean belovèd) as-yet-unspoiled reader – might need some buffer text after the above admonition so you don’t accidentally seccade your eyes over something unsuited for their gaze. Let’s see, I can point out that there’s a location that features a peristyle, which is a sort of obscure column-filled courtyard that I also worked into my game, and showed up in Vain Empires as well. That’s just the sort of vaguely interesting coincidence one likes to bring up when one’s marking time.

All right, so here we are. Cursèd Pickle continues the MMORPG parody of the author’s previous game, the Baker of Shireton, except this time you start out as a player as your game is undergoing a big version upgrade, and the resultant crash bugs and corrupted data eventually shifts you into reinhabiting the said Baker, except this time in a much more manageable choice-based interface as opposed to the parser chaos that overtook me, at least, when I tried to play its prequel.

Cursèd Pickle commits to its conceit, down to the IRQ port options when attempting to configure your nonexistent 3D hardware (before dumping you into the fall-back text mode). And it commits hard: even before you get to the baking bit, there are a good number of fetch quests, dozens of hair and beard options, a raid dungeon and mansion-looting mini-module, four different classes, each with their own combat minigame… there’s even a “legacy” server that presents an interactive vignette from the main game in Inform 7 form! (I couldn’t win this one, as I couldn’t figure out how to get ahead of the server wipe – if anyone’s found a secret here, please drop a line!).

I think like 90% of this is technically optional, but it’s all crafted with incredible care, with tiny jokes and novel features everywhere you look. I’m listing a couple of my favorites here, but they’re pretty major spoilers, so proceed with caution: you can ask the pickle about its plans for world domination, which spits out a list of the fifty-odd zones it’s going to conquer, with four or five laugh-out-loud gags buried among them; and you can turn into a freakish man-bee hybrid by accepting the Hive Queen’s offer at the end of the dungeon, which lets you grow wings and skip what I think is an arduous desert trek that makes up the final section of the game. Though this makes your henchman flip out and book it for home, understandably. And all these systems aren’t there just as a joke-delivery mechanism: the core RPG loop is well fleshed-out, and compelling enough that I spent an hour and a half just doing side-quests and grinding up my character’s stats instead of engaging with the main quest.

Speaking of the jokes, the writing is dead on throughout, sending up MMORPG global chat, fetch-quest tropes, and marketing patter with equal aplomb (OK, I do have one note: some of the pickle jokes over-rely on “briny,” and subbing in “vinegary” in two or three places might be worth considering. This is my only critique of the prose, and it is more than counterbalanced by the use of the accent in “Cursèd”). I heartily approved of the disgusting descriptions of how the filthy townspeople gave vent to their pickle addictions, and approved even more heartily of the harbourmaster’s disapproving opinion of same. And the best joke in the entire game is the song my bard sang at the end – it’s a nice, confident trick to save your strongest material for the very end!

Implementation-wise the player is in very good hands here too. The timing aspects of the combat mechanics were sometimes a little stressful for me to keep up with on a trackpad, but not so much so that I felt the need to use the optional slow-down plugin (if you’re in the market for such a thing, you can find it in the message board linked off the stats page). I noticed a couple of very small implementation issues – amazingly few, considering the “more is more” approach to different subsystems and interfaces: as the baker, at one point I had -1 customers queueing for bread, and dough left in the oven when quitting for the day would still be in the oven, yet unburnt, in the morning, just the same as I’d left it ten hours before.

I’m only about halfway through the Comp list (counting the half-dozen or so games I beta tested and the one I wrote), but it’s hard to imagine there’ll be another game as positively crammed full of delight as Cursèd Pickle. An ill-wisher could cavil at the premise, arguing that for such a Brobdingnagian game, it’s ultimately rather slight in thematic terms – at this late date, does the world really need another MMORPG satire? But after giving it a play, they’d change their tune right quick.

(The tune is the Melody of Malcontent, and while they’re singing it you’ve been sliced to ribbons. Ow!)

(Also I wasn’t joking in my opener, pickles are gross)

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Under They Thunder, by Andrew Schultz

Friends, I have a confession. I have now played two Andrew Schultz games (this one and Very Vile Fairy File from last year), and they both have the same effect on me: as I stare at the words on the screen to try to make sense of them and reply in kind, my vision starts to swim, I start to babble, language dissolves as words themselves decay into meaningless nonsense-sounds, and I feel the cold immensity of a vast, amoral universe that cares nothing for humanity and our feeble attempts to apprehend it through logic, mathematics, and language. Great Cthulhu can do his worst and Yog-Sothoth can get in line: I have played Under They Thunder, so all your threats are empty.

If the title doesn’t give it away, the central gimmick of Under They Thunder is pig Latin: the player character embarks on an epic adventure to help a big-box retailer defeat an angry monster-fae army (I think? See above, my sanity as I took my notes was questionable), all through the power of inverting a word and adding a friendly “ay!” syllable. There are relatively-simple fill-in-the-blank puzzles where you need to take the prompting of the name of an object or location and de-piggify it, guess-the-noun puzzles where given a certain pattern of phonemes, you need to run through all the options you can think of, and a set of more traditional puzzles where you need to read a particular book (or, I think, hum a particular tune) to teach you the lessons, or put you in the mood, to see off an overbearing interloper.

I should say, I can tell this is a very well-crafted game – both because it’s huge, with the central puzzle mechanic run through its paces and ramified in every way imaginable (each language puzzle seems to be worth a point, and there are 144 of them!) and because there are a thoughtful set of helper gadgets, hint features, and speedrun options that try to meet every player where they are at. This is a game for a very specific audience, but the author also provides every possible on-ramp to help you figure out whether you might be part of that audience and just don’t know it yet.

This is commendable, and I totally can intellectually see the appeal, but it just doesn’t work for me. My mind doesn’t bend the right way to make the puzzles comprehensible, and privileging wordplay over the merest sop to mimesis (do we still talk about mimesis?) takes me out of the world because the whole thing feels like chaos. I got maybe five percent of the way in under my own steam, looked to the walkthrough to eke out a couple of additional points, then used the fast-forward options to zoom to the end, though unsurprisingly didn’t find the finale especially edifying given all I missed.

By all means, give this one a try – Under They Thunder wants you to like it, it’ll invite you right in – just don’t be surprised if your brains are running out your ears before too long.

UTT - MR.txt (135.2 KB)

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(s)wordsmyth, by Tristan Jacobs

Conversations are the central part of (s)wordsmyth – hang up, we’re not doing this.

Conversations are the central part of wordsmyth (the s is in parentheses so it’s silent, and besides “word” is a better fit for the themes of the game than “sword”). Where other games might have set-piece battles or a fiendish puzzle, this one is paced around a series of one-on-one or two-on-one (and even a single one-and-a-half-on-one) dialogues between the main character – a swordsman-in-training seeking vengeance, or at least closure, after the death of their mentor – and those who lie in the path of the journey. Each one requires a different approach, and to pick out the correct course to a successful resolution of the encounter from the thicket of sequential options requires empathy and attention to detail. It also requires a large dollop of luck, so you’ll be replaying some of these sequences a lot.

The world is only thinly sketched-in, but it’s clearly a mystical take on an Asian milieu (I’m not familiar enough with the tropes to be able to resolve it with much more specificity than that). These tropes, as well as the nature of the character’s quest, set you up to expect the main character to be a warrior-monk, or dedicated swordsman. Refreshingly, though, the focus is on confrontations that must be resolved with social skills, rather than resorting to violence. The backstory here, and the big bad at the end of the path too, don’t stick to the typical notes, and seeing my presuppositions shift as the game went kept me engaged in the fairly standard hero’s-journey narrative. The writing doesn’t try for anything fancy, but is largely solid and typo-free, while succeeding at differentiating the voices of the various characters.

There are two aspects of the way the story is told that undercut my enjoyment of wordsmyth, though. The first is the presentation: the game is set up in visual-novel style, with dialogue delivered sentence by sentence, necessitating a click to advance after each. This is not my favorite format for a game, but in a visual novel the tradeoff is that you get a lot of screen real estate given to the art, which hopefully helps evoke the scene or communicate the mood of a character or what have you. Here, though, there’s no art, so most of the time three quarters of the screen is completely black, and you spend most of the game starting at a small text box at the bottom (when choices come up, they fill the screen). There’s also no skip-text option that I could find, which made replaying sequences to make different choices a slog.

This is no minor issue because of the second thing: the author says they tried to make a choose-your-own-adventure game, and they certainly succeeded to the extent that there are a LOT of ways to die. You can die by picking the wrong one of two dialogue choices that seem indistinguishable (when confronting a hungry monster, you can ask what it wants to eat, or tell it you can get it anything it desires. One of this allows progress, the other puts you on the menu). You can die by saying you want to go back, when you should say you want to go home. You can die by asking to take your turn hiding after a round of hide and seek. You can even die by going the wrong way a crossroads.

There’s no manual saving, so each death means rewinding to the beginning of the encounter and trying again. Many of these conversations go at least ten options deep, so this can be a long, slow process of trial and error that becomes an exercise in exhausting all the choices rather than trying to engage with what’s happening and weigh the right move. It could be that I just wasn’t paying enough attention, but too often I felt like my ability to progress was arbitrary, and by the time I got to the second half of the game, at least 80% of the choices felt like they had one right option and one or more that led to an instant game over.

This is a shame because there was some fun to be had along the way – I liked meeting the ghost child, and some of the fencing with the cat spirit, and there are a few neat twists around the final encounter that are clever and sit nicely with the quiet theme of nonviolence that runs throughout. I’m glad I suffered through the punishing gauntlet of choices to get there, but really wish I hadn’t had to.

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Ahhh, someone else who finds Auster overrated. A man after my own heart.

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