Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

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!


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!


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.


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:


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)


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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Thanks so much for the review, and taking the time to work through what looks like everything in the game! As you can probably tell, I share your feelings on pickles!


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Oh I thought it was just me too :slight_smile: I read the New York trilogy a few years and got literally nothing out of it, and while I believe I read Moon Palace I am recognizing literally nothing from the Wikipedia summary.


Stuff of Legend, by Lance Campbell

Stuff of Legend is just the kind of palate-cleanser I love to come across deep in the throes of working through my Comp queue. It isn’t trying to do anything revolutionary with a thought-provoking setting or intensive characterization or teeth-grinding puzzling or pomo narrative trickery; it just delivers a charming, funny, well-designed and well-implemented puzzlefest that doesn’t wear out its welcome, and sometimes that’s exactly what you’re looking for.

The setup here doesn’t go much beyond what’s in the blurb: as a village idiot who’s had his fill of idioting after being bullied by a drunken lout (idiots > louts), you limp your way home to the farm where you live. After commiserating with the farm family, you strike upon the idea of become a knight instead of an idiot, and engage in some light puzzling across a medium-sized map, getting outfitted with a knight’s equipment and then embarking on a quest or two (though most of these might be more appropriate to an animal-control officer than a paragon of chivalric valor).

The humor really helps this all land – the writing is full of malapropisms, and there’s lots of scenery and incidental detail that throw off good jokes when examined, though I think my favorite joke was the response to X ME (” You have a face like a pile of mashed potatoes and a body like a much taller pile of mashed potatoes”). The player character is a fool, so many of the jokes are formally at your expense, but crucially, neither the narrative voice nor the other characters are ever cruel: they might sigh at your occasional foibles, but it’s all fairly indulgent and supportive, and after getting through the puzzles you’re rewarded with some clear victories. Games with this kind of humor can sometimes come off mean, like they’re not on the player’s side, but SoL never even comes close to hitting this flaw.

The puzzles also strike just the right note. They’re all cleanly set up through conversation with the different members of the family – each has a distinct puzzle chain, and offers some clues as to how to accomplish it. There’s usually a few different tasks to be working on at any given time, though they intersect and progress neatly enough so that things are rarely overwhelming. Most are of fairly gentle difficulty (especially if you take a few notes as you go), and it’s fun to poke and prod your way through some of the more involved ones (I’m thinking especially of the pattern-recognition puzzles to get the horse’s blanket, where even once you figure out what’s entailed, there’s still a bit of pleasant business required to accomplish it – the cat-based navigation puzzle is like this too).

I did have to have recourse to the (well-done) hint menu to resolve one guess-the-verb issue (breaking the coconut open using the sharp boulder: I tried CUT COCONUT WITH BOULDER, OPEN COCONUT WITH BOULDER, THROW COCONUT AT BOULDER, PUT COCONUT ON BOULDER… only CRACK COCONUT WITH BOULDER worked). But other than that, the parser is forgiving, the world is detailed and well-implemented, the menu-driven conversations are easy to navigate; Stuff of Legend goes down smooth, even as it manages to lightly tickle your gray matter on its way to a heart-warming resolution.

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Yeah, I was thinking primarily about the New York Trilogy here. It’s like, you get to the end of one and realize that he hasn’t figured out how to stick the landing, and then he does the same thing two more times!

I was not expecting my drive-by Auster diss to generate multiple replies, but that’s one of the surprises that makes this community so much fun.


Thanks for making it! I don’t think I explored everything (I noped right out of screwing around in the desert, because wings) but it’s on my list to come back and cross that off after I’m done working my way through the comp.


Oh no, I think we’ve all just been waiting for someone to speak up about it. I think it’s a particular shame because my edition of the Trilogy was very nice – good paper, a lovely cover, an edition that had more thought and love put into its production than any of the content did.

I also read a few by Jonathan Lethem around the same time and man did that time sour literary explorations of Genre for me. I’ve always had a lot better of a time with Genre authors applying heavy literary techniques to write Good Sci Fi And Fantasy (i.e. Delaney, Wolfe, Vonnegut, Butler, Le Guin who I have to admit I like the idea of better than actually reading her) than when a Literary author adds in a vague element or two of Genre in order to be Kooky and Approachable because, well, the results are often really stuffy. It just felt like Auster doesn’t quite understand why people actually like spy and detective stories.


Ulterior Sprits, by E.J. Holcomb

Ulterior Spirits has a lot going for it. There’s a well-realized setting that certainly takes inspiration from things we’ve seen before (Mass Effect is name-checked in the blurb), but has some nice bits of world-building all its own. The protagonist is immediately engaging, a middle-aged bureaucrat and mother who’s haunted by her actions in the past, and her prejudices in the present. And there’s an unexpected framing around Christmas, foregrounding family, forgiveness, and generosity, which are not typical themes for something with these sorts of genre trappings. On the other side of the ledger, there are some UI and pacing issues that make this feel longer and slower than would be ideal, and before the ending sequence, the choices on offer aren’t very interesting either in terms of revealing character or impacting the plot. This is still one to play, but unfortunately I did feel like I was ready for it to end a good fifteen or so minutes before it finally wrapped up.

My favorite thing about US was getting to play as Renee Bennion. A high-ranking functionary in a multi-species coalition government, she’s dedicated to her job, quick on her feet, and is a loving though occasionally exasperated mother to a twenty-something son. She also has a fun rapport with her old commanding officer, friendly but still with a note of deference, who’s also an officer on the space station where the story takes place. As the plot kicks into gear and she realizes she’s the target of a plot by an old enemy, you get a sense of who she used to be when she was her son’s age, and how hard to rattle she is in the present. She’s drawn with real flaws, too – notably, some ugly prejudices about other species – making her a nicely-realized protagonist.

The world she inhabits again isn’t the world’s most original, but it does have some clever touches. Though this is a bit underdeveloped, one of the primary alien races in the setting appears to archive entire dynasties’ worth of identities and memories in each individual, and the details about how human traditions like the holiday season have been translated into a post-alien-contact context are well thought through. There are hover-over hyperlinks that demystify some of the technobabble, though I found myself wishing they’d have focused on different pieces of the setting – I feel like there were a whole lot that went into detail on the timekeeping systems used on-station, but comparatively few on the culture and background of the various alien races.

The central plot, once it kicks in, is solid enough, but my main complaint, as mentioned above, is the pacing. Renee is being pursued by agents of a long-dead adversary, with mysterious, threatening messages and recordings of her past being sent to her, and unsavory characters skulking around the dark corners of the station. To determine what’s going on, she consults with station security and old friends, while still trying to go about her day job of setting trade policy for the coalition. This is a strong structure, but it takes a while to get going, and most of the sequences go about how you’d expect but with maybe 20% more words than would be ideal, with few surprises in store for the middle part of the game. Exacerbating this, few of the choices here seem like they have much of an impact.

The interface is partly to blame too – while it’s very pretty, it was slow on my machine, and each paragraph of text fades in one at a time, meaning I was often impatiently waiting to click my way through to the next bit. I also ran into a couple of small niggles that might be bugs, though they’re from late in the game (after I finished the climactic conversation with my old enemy, a security team burst into my room, as though I’d been locked in and they were worried for my safety, though nothing like this had previously been mentioned as far as I could tell. And after making the heartwarming war-orphan donation, the text makes a note that my extra supply-points are now zero, but the interface display still showed me as having 700-odd. Since these are never otherwise used in the game, it’s odd to include that detail on every screen, then not update it the one time it’s relevant, so I assume that’s a bug).

All told I think Ulterior Spirits is one editing pass away from being something really special – with some tighter prose, a speedier interface, and tweaks to one or two aspects of the storytelling (I thought the decision to never show the actual conflict with Ruuaghri in any of the copious flashbacks was a misstep – we never get a visceral sense of Renee’s hatred and fear of her, which undermines the intensity of the final conversation, and means there isn’t a contrast to draw with the old, decrepit person she’s become). As it is, it’s still a really strong comp entry, which delivers some real sentiment and an internally-focused, character-driven story in a genre that doesn’t typically prioritize those things.


Mike, this is an absolutely fantastic review. Thanks so much for playing my game, and providing such a well-written and detailed chronicle of your playthrough. I am very pleased that your game experience was pretty much what I envisioned. It feels good to make that author-player connection through the game and the story.

I will definitely update the parser for the next release to address the “guess-the-verb” problem you experienced. That part of the game does have a number of possible actions but it appears that you found several more perfectly reasonable solutions as well. Just goes to show that authors are never as creative and clever at puzzle design as the players who put the game through its paces.


Passages, by Jared W Cooper

Despite the bad rap they sometimes get, to my mind there’s absolutely nothing wrong with a metaphor that’s too on-the-nose. Sure, the author might get an eye-roll or two at how obvious they’re being, but most of the time that’s outweighed by the pleasure the reader gets at figuring out what’s going on, or feeling like they’ve gotten one over on the author (they haven’t). If the emotion or idea that the metaphor is going for resonates, and it’s grounded in specific circumstances and well-drawn characters so it doesn’t just float away – and if it doesn’t wear out its welcome – this can be a solid approach for a work of fiction. I’m thinking of the novel Exit West, for example, which explores immigration by having magic portals appear in the middle of a war-torn country, allowing people to leave in an instant but with no say where they wind up – there’s the eye-roll – but because the two main characters and their relationship are written with enough subtlety and detail that they feel true and specific, Exit West really works.

So, Passages then. Our narrator lives in another one of those worlds where magic portals are cropping up hither and yon, though these appear able to move one through time instead of space. Their partner, it quickly eventuates, has gone missing, either accidentally or on purpose entering one of the portals, or maybe their unhappiness summoned the portal or somehow they turned into one? It’s unclear, which is fine (what’s less fine is this awkwardness around pronouns, which is hard to write around since neither character has a name or gender assigned as far as I could tell – based on the relationship dynamics, I thought the narrator was male-coded and the partner female-coded, so I’m going to go with that while acknowledging it’s arbitrary). We read occasional journal entries from the narrator as he dives into the portals, turning over his faults and recalling memories of happier times he searches for her in the nooks and crannies of the past (eye-roll).

This is fine so far as it goes – the writing isn’t lyrical or anything, but it’s well-considered and typo-free, and the narrator has a strong voice. And the experience Passages explores is quite universal so I’m sure it will strike home for most readers. There are two issues holding it back, though, one minor and one major. The minor issue is that Passages is barely interactive, beyond clicking to move to the next passage. There are I think two places where you can click a bit of text to change a word, but not in a way that really impacts the valence of the passage (one of them is something like “I look for her in March/July/February/December”). This makes it potentially an awkward fit in an interactive fiction competition, but isn’t really a problem except to the extent that it’s presentation might lead the reader to expect a form of engagement that’s not on offer.

The bigger issue is I didn’t find sufficient specificity in the characters and their relationship for them to transcend the metaphor and animate the piece with something of interest beyond the dry metaphor. The narrator is given a few details and bits of personality – he’d always wanted to be a carpenter, and he makes a number of nerdy references in the course of his writing – but it’s pretty thin. And the partner is given almost no characteristics whatsoever. Partially I think this is because the narrator is idealizing her, now that he’s lost her. But if anything this makes him seem even more self-regarding and navel-gazing.

And while we get the subject matter of some of the issues in the relationship, the dynamics are left frustratingly vague: at one point the narrator talks about a big fight they got into about the utility bills, and acknowledges that that’s a dumb thing to have a fight about, but there’s no remembered dialogue or other indication of the content of the fight. My brain can fill in some blanks (and here’s where gendered presuppositions are probably having an impact on my experience of the game): maybe he thought the water bill was too high because she was taking too long in the shower, and got mad about that? That’s not very creative, but at least it’s something, and seeing her do something that pisses off the narrator would help the piece land and provide fuel for his eventual catharsis.

Passages is zippy, and establishes a solid premise and character arc in the ten minutes or so to work through it, so it definitely speaks of an author to keep an eye on – but without a little more work done to make these characters breathe, I’m not sure how much of an impact it’ll have on most readers.

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At Night, by Oscar

After an entry that leaned almost entirely in the story direction, here’s one that takes the opposite tack. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a bit of a plot and some internal conflict in At Night – the main character is being plagued by nightmares, you see – but what’s distinctive about it is the combat system, which you need to master in order to reach a successful ending (reaching other endings, where you die horrible, is much simpler!)

The initial impression At Night makes is charming – there’s some cute pixel art, and good use of sound with raindrops outside the main character’s window as they play games late into the night. After finally going to sleep, though, they’re hurled (in their dreams?) into a hellish realm and meet a demon who’ll swallow their soul unless they fight for his amusement against a group of his servitors. This section was really frustrating, I found. When you first confront this head demon, you have a number of choices on how to proceed, including attacking flat-out or deciding what to offer him to get him to release you.

There’s only one correct answer here – the others get you killed – but I think I exhausted every wrong answer on the way to finding it, both because I wanted to run through the full dialogue tree before moving to the next bit, but also because the main character kept attacking the demon-lord when I was trying to agree to fight his minions. Part of the fault here is that I found some of the dialogue and options unclear: the game appears translated from Spanish (in one maze sequence, I saw the word “izquierda” substitute for “left”) and there are some puzzling phrases and awkward grammar at times (I was told that my “bladder has lost its youth”, and that “it is very good playing [video games] when it is a dog day”). Making things worse, there’s no save option, and there’s lots of timed text, making replaying fairly excruciating.

Once I did figure out how to agree to the deal, things got better, thankfully. There’s a clever combat system that relies on using positional audio to track down and beat up the minions (who it turns out are ghosts, not demons). I did die once more because I thought you were supposed to elude the monsters – the main character is completely unarmed – but that just gives them a free hit. But the combat minigame works well enough, and even got a laugh out of me because of how the interface is set up: you need to click “left” or “right” depending on where you hear the audio cue, except the screen lists “right” on the left, and “left” on the right, which lent my attempts a slapstick air as I tried to get my stupid, stupid brain to click in the correct place despite this confusing layout. After killing enough demons you win the game and wake up from your nightmare – though there’s the inevitable horror movie sting to suggest you haven’t (this is done in an entertainingly cheesy fashion that also got a laugh out of me).

There’s some clever technical design here, and I really did like the art, so this is a good foundation to build on. In a post-Comp release that tightens up the writing, and irons out some of the more frustrating aspects of the design, this would be a fun distraction, though At Night isn’t quite there yet.

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Tangled Tales, by JimJams Games

There’s a cold shiver of fear that runs down my spine whenever I see the words “parser-based” and “Windows executable” in a Comp blurb – the tell-tale sign of the custom parser. I think I formed this prejudice – and prejudice it is – fifteen or so years ago, and it’s even more unfair now, since I think many custom-parser games show up quite solidly these days (I helped beta test Happyland, for example, and it’s got quite the robust parser). Tangled Tales, sadly, undoes some of the progress I’ve been making on getting over my hang-ups, turning what should be an easy-going fairytale romp into a grim twilight struggle against an obtuse parser and a too-large map.

The first impression TT makes is a pretty good one. The engine does allow for art, and the opening scene features a pleasant, pastoral view of a green woodland. There are menu-option shortcuts to out-of-world actions, and you get a choice of genders for your protagonist (either Cinderella or Prince Charming, from the blurb, though this wasn’t clear to me from the game itself – at first I wondered whether I was someone from the real world who’d been sucked into the realm of fairy tales). Common abbreviations mostly work, and there are some conveniences like EXITS to show exits, and WHAT IS HERE to show what objects can be interacted with (this is all spelled out in the included manual, which confusingly is tucked in a walkthrough folder in the download – the walkthrough link on the entries page includes the manual as well as the actual walkthrough, if you’re stuck and need a hint). And the setup is effective enough – your head hurts and you’re lost in the forest after overdoing it at a pre-wedding party, and now you and your best buddy Rumpelstiltskin (blessedly, he also answers to “Rumpy”) need to make your way back to the castle in time for the ceremony.

Sadly, the wheels start to come off pretty quickly. Some of this is just the lack of a last editing pass: despite choosing to play as the female main character, people kept calling my “Henri”, and there are a lot of typos and grammar errors. Then there are design issues, like guess-the-verb puzzles that make it hard to make porridge when you’ve got all the needed items and the steps are obvious, or that told me when I tried to dig a hole to plant some beans that “a spade isn’t suitable for digging,” or that completely prevented me from reading a signpost despite this not seeming like it was meant to be a challenge.

But some of the problems appear to be embedded in the parser and engine. I had a perennial issue where some commands simply wouldn’t work the first time I tried them, but would be accepted the second time. For example, the opening screen has a glass container (I guess a bottle) lying in a wheelbarrow. Typing TAKE CONTAINER got me this error: “An empty glass container isn’t here. if[sic] the object is in, under or behind another, you’ll need to be more specific.” After unsuccessfully trying a number of other options, I tried TAKE CONTAINER again and it worked. Ditto for DRINK WATER, and several other attempts to get items out of containers. And many puzzles involve interacting with other characters and getting them to do things, and the syntax here is really painful. Neither TALK TO nor ASK X ABOUT Y nor CHARACTER, ACTION are supported as far as I could tell; instead you need to type variants of SAY TO RUMPY, “UNLOCK CHEST WITH KEY”, which are quite a mouthful. And the game is inconsistent – to get into her tower, you need to type RAPUNZEL “LET DOWN YOUR HAIR”.

The engine also works in pseudo real-time, forcing you to pass a turn if you wait too long to type anything and occasionally having other characters wander in and out in between your actions. There are no timing puzzles so this doesn’t have much impact, but it did add an additional layer of intimidation since I was constantly worrying I was letting the clock run down, or that the movements of the bee and unicorn were important (they’re not). Oh, and of course there’s an inventory limit.

Aside from these engine/parser issues, the design isn’t bad, with puzzles that fit the fairytale theme and generally make sense, at least once you internalize that Rumpy is there to help and is much stronger than you are. The fly in the ointment here is that the map is enormous, with four or five completely empty and pointless locations for every one that’s got something interesting to do. This culminates in an old-school maze that doesn’t appear to have an associated puzzle or shortcut, though I have to confess that by this point I was having quick recourse to the walkthrough.

While I can’t personally relate, I know for many folks part of pleasure of creating IF is making a new engine and parser, as much or more so than making the game. So it’s not really helpful as a critic to say “maybe you should have just made this in Inform or TADS?” – but nonetheless that’s what I kept thinking. The features of the engine that makes this one distinct don’t really play much role in the game (outside of the first couple screens and the last few, there’s really not much art), and with a tighter parser and a much-smaller game world, TT could have been a lot of fun, but as it stands I worry it’s too hard a nut to crack to get at the good stuff inside.