Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

Shadow Operative, by Michael Lauenstein

(I beta tested this game)

In my unreliable memory, cyberpunk used to be a pretty common genre for IFComp entries, but it’s become a bit more rare these days – Sense of Harmony included many of the tropes, as did Move On in its implied setting, and I suppose BYOD is all about corporate hacking. Maybe the genre as a whole is less relevant as we’ve all gotten used to the fact that we’re basically swimming in cyberspace 24/7 and corporate-run authoritarian dystopias don’t really land as a scary unknown any more? Regardless of any of that, Shadow Operative is a cyberpunk adventure of the old school, as a rogue hacker with a cyberjack in, and a price on, their head infiltrates a megacorp to exfiltrate hidden data that could bring down the whole company. Story-wise it’s a bit by the numbers, but satisfying puzzles and a slick presentation mean this one definitely scratches the shadowrunning itch.

Starting with that presentation, since it’s the first thing you notice when starting the game, it’s anything but a throwback: while written in Inform and fully playable by the parser alone, there are also a lot of conveniences in various sidebars, including a usable map, hyperlinks for important objects, a clickable list of common verbs (with ENTER CYBERSPACE first on the list, because of course), and a title image and music throughout. I played via typing alone, but this one should be pretty accessible to those who prefer to click their way through or who are less familiar with parser-only games – and it all really reinforces the mood of the piece, placing you in the shoes of an enhanced operative who can quickly figure out everything that’s going on.

As mentioned, the setting and setup are classic cyberpunk – after a botched job, you’ve got hitmen after you, and while laying low you get sucked into doing one more job for an old friend. The emphasis is clearly on that one more job, though – the price on your head doesn’t really connect to what you’re doing after the first five minutes of the story (and is resolved rather summarily in the conclusion). This maybe reduces the drama somewhat, but does perhaps better fit the mood, which is more easygoing than the typical cyberpunk vibe – it definitely starts out all edgy, but pretty soon your badass operative has crashed into the back of a garbage truck, and it pretty much goes on from there. I don’t think there’s any way to die (though there is a way to make the game unwinnable: don’t drink your upgrade money!), and instead of a cold, geometric void, cyberspace is presented as rather cheerful medieval or feudal Japanese worlds with anthropomorphized programs. There are also rather a lot of jokes and in-jokes, which I thought mostly landed – I’m not sure the world needed another “the cake is a lie” gag, but I’m always down for an “I’m selling these fine leather jackets” callback.

The action is all about the central job, and it’s well put together and paced. There’s a bit of preliminary work to do to get ready for the heist, then the infiltration and cyberspace misadventure before having to make your escape. The puzzles are fairly simple but reasonable and satisfying to solve, with the trickiest ones coming in cyberspace. Again, this is presented in somewhat cartoony fashion – defeating the megacorp’s security primarily involves using musical instruments that I guess are really programs to overcome AI ICE that takes the shape of various guard-animals? – but it works well enough and doesn’t require the player to absorb a bunch of technobabble. There is one really good twist, which I mostly saw coming but still landed well.

It’s all solidly implemented, too (the only issue I found is that you can pick up the bamboo tree – bit of an oops but no big deal), and the interface removes any guess the verb issues. Overall Shadow Operative goes down smooth and easy, and provides a good argument for why this old genre has some life in it yet.


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

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The Magpie Takes the Train, by Brian Rushton

(I beta tested this game)

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

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

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

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


And just to round things off…

The Eleusinian Miseries, by Mike Russo

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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


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


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


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

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

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

Thanks again!

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

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

I had to Google it myself!

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