Mike Russo's IF Comp 2020 Reviews

Yup – he cofounded Rock Paper Shotgun, and wrote a manifesto for the New Games Journalism… in 2004. So you know, super new.

(I am old).


High Jinnks, by M. Nite Chamberlain

There are certain stories that only really snap into shape once you’ve reached the end. Obviously there’s your Memento-type puzzle box stories, or your last-minute-revelation-recontextualizes-everything-that’s-come-before ones (given the author’s pseudonym The Sixth Sense is the obvious name-check). Storytelling like this can be really compelling, even more so in IF where the player winds up not just stepping through the puzzles or individual plot points, but is engaged in fiddling with the overall story like it’s a Rubik’s Cube. But it’s also a risky approach, because withholding information on how the world works or a character’s backstory or motivation means that the work might not hold together as well when experienced as it does in retrospect. Despite the authorial name-check, I’m not convinced High Jinnks is actually trying to be a high-stakes twist sort of story. But unfortunately I think the comparison is apt because I found the game does play things a bit too close to the vest, and as a result, doesn’t land as effectively as it should given the general strength of most of its elements.

It’s a little tricky to share the setup, since that shifts a fair bit over the course of the 45-minute or so playtime. You’re playing a jinn who’s able to take human form, but from the off you don’t have much in the way of motivation: you’re just emerging from a casino where you’ve fleeced a hapless mortal, at which point you’re free to wander without being pointed towards or away from anything in particular. There’s not much worldbuilding initially, which left me with a large number of basic questions about the main character’s wishes and desires (like, do all-powerful wish-granting jinn actually need money?), and therefore what I should be trying to do. A motivation does eventually emerge – the aforementioned fleeced mortal stole back the money you won off them, so you want to find them and get it back (though again, is this just a pride thing?) – and from that point out it’s usually clear what your next, immediate goal should be. But until the very end, the broader question of your characters goals and situation, as well as more nuts-and-bolts questions about what’s actually happening, weigh down what ultimately should be a heart-warming supernatural buddy comedy.

Some of this is due to unclear writing. I often found myself mouthing “huh?” at a passage where befuddlement was not, I think, the intended response. I still don’t really understand the whole sequence where Ali traps the main character, and then releases him – and the whole sequence where Hakeem comes home was really off-kilter. But more often, it’s due to the choice to have the main character know far more than the player, without revealing that knowledge. Sometimes this is OK when it’s clear that it’s setting something up – I’m thinking of the gag with the coffee maker, or decorative mirror, or… – but more often, the player character is making plans, or heading places, based not just on clever plans that will be sprung at the right moment, but on critical, character-driven goals that the player just isn’t let in on. The whole sequence after killing Malik is like this – trying to get revenge on the sorcerer out to get the main character makes sense, but then you’re led through a series of plot points involving summoning another jinn, and then trying to break a curse they’ve put on you, and it’s only towards the end that you realize that the whole premise of the game is that the main character has been cursed to not be able to kill (by the by, being hell-bent on lifting this curse does not make for the most sympathetic protagonist) and exiled from the society of other jinns (which by the by is incredibly hide-bound in a parody of government bureaucracy that also feels like it comes out of nowhere). This is really relevant information to understanding who this character is! As a result, while there are a good amount of choices and some reactivity, I found they typically didn’t feel meaningful because I lacked context for what I was trying to do.

The other questionable storytelling technique is to interrupt the main thread of the plot with vignettes and flashbacks, mostly drawn from or inspired by the actual stories in the Thousand and One Nights, as best I could tell. These are all right as far as they go, but I found they didn’t do much besides interrupt the plot and make it a bit shaggier, as they weren’t very related to the main story either narratively or thematically – the jinn in the flashbacks seems to behave differently than the contemporary one, and while the main character’s backstory is actually very important, those pieces are entirely separate from what’s in the flashbacks – including the vignette involving the death of the protagonist’s child, which felt like it should have some impact!

This is all a shame, because when you know what’s going on in High Jinnks, I think there’s a solid story under there, and while the prose can sometimes be unclear, there’s also some good writing – I liked the way the relationship between the jinn and Ali (the hapless mortal from the casino, who winds up playing a significant role) evolved over time. There are also some really good jokes along the way. But these storytelling missteps, plus a few technical niggles – I hit a dead link early on when trying to hit on a random I think drug-dealer, and later one I wound up at a park despite having opted to visit a library instead – undermined my enjoyment, to the extent that I went through the first chunk of the game half-convinced that the title hid a second pun and everybody, myself included, was just baked out of their damned minds, for all the sense anything was making. There’s a lot that’s promising here, though, so unlike with M. Night Shyamalan, I look forward to the author’s future work.


The Shadow in the Snow, by Andrew Brown

A short, sharp horror game, Shadow in the Snow doesn’t have much in its quiver besides some effective description of a frozen wood and a single kinda-wonky puzzle, but given its focused ambitions I’m not sure it needs much else. The backstory is wholly elided – the main character has run their car into a snow-ditch in the middle of nowhere, but we get no details on who they are, where they were going, or the state of the world (I could by wrong on this, but felt like the characters didn’t seem especially surprised about the existence of giant bloodthirsty werewolf-monsters). Since the focus is on short-term survival, this isn’t a fatal misstep and in fact helps establish a feeling of woozy confusion that winds up being a little effective at drawing the player in.

There’s not a lot to do here – it becomes clear early on that there’s something stalking the main character, and they need to explore a limited set of locations in order to obtain the clues and knowledge to fight back. I’m not sure how fair the puzzle was – I think you need to explore the locations in a specific and nonintuitive order (stumbling around in the snowy forest instead of going up the road to a motel seems less than obvious!) and involved a situation I found quite contrived (there are just gold, silver, and arsenic shotgun cartridges available off the shelf, labelled only by their elemental symbols? This is why I wonder about whether the supernatural is a known quantity in this world) plus there are a fair number of deaths possible and no save option, meaning you’re in for a full replay if you guess something wrong. Still, there are some clues to most of the key pieces of the puzzle, and I got to a good ending first time through, so I think it works well enough.

The prose generally fits this spare premise. It doesn’t go into a ton of noodly detail, but it does effectively communicate the isolation of being alone in a snowy forest. There’s also an abandoned motel, and some gore, which are described in similar style and which works well enough, but winter landscapes are my favorite backdrop for horror so the woodsy bits were my favorites. The signs the monster is stalking you are also effectively spooky, though I thought the eventual confrontation was maybe a bit anticlimactic – certainly the ending felt a bit more abrupt than I was expecting.

On clicking restart to replay, I found what might be some small bugs related to variables not being cleared (if I went to the motel before the cabin, I was able to pick up cartridges and load them into a shotgun I hadn’t yet obtained, and the description for the motel reception area said it was “the same as before” even on my first visit) but otherwise the implementation seemed fine, and I didn’t notice any typos. SitS didn’t knock my socks off, but it’s a pleasant enough ten minutes of being stalked through the woods which is sometimes all that one wants, especially this close to Halloween.

The Eidolon’s Escape, by Mark Clarke

A workman-like piece of choice-based IF, Eidolon’s Escape hits its marks while dangling hints of a deeper mystery, and if it lacks any particular standout feature, I nonetheless enjoyed my time with it. As in some of the games I played immediately preceding it, you don’t know your character’s full backstory in EE, but here there’s a reason for it: you’re playing a disembodied spirit whose memories have eroded over years imprisoned in a magical crystal. One of the tricks up your sleeve is possession, though, and since two hapless youths have picked your gaol as the site for their romantic rendezvous, you finally have a chance to escape the tower of the mage who’s caged you by riding one of them to freedom.

This goal is clearly communicated, and it doesn’t take long before you’re able to learn the steps needed to carry it out – there are a couple, but they don’t feel needlessly convoluted. The main gameplay is more puzzle-focused than exploration-focused – you usually only have two choices at a time, and a large number of these are false choices that shunt you back to the main thread. There are challenges and wrong answers, though, most of which revolve around social interaction: you might need to fool the cook into telling you something she’s meant to keep secret, or bluff your way past a skeptical guard. While it’s not too hard to figure out the right approaches in these situations, the eponymous eidolon doesn’t really understand humans so you’re not given too much prompting, meaning it feels satisfying to succeed. Adding to the gravity of the challenge, there’s no save game option and incorrect choices can quickly lead to game over – replays go reasonably quick as there’s no timed text, so this isn’t too annoying, but it does provide an incentive to get things right the first time.

These puzzles and situations, while well-constructed, aren’t that interesting by themselves – it’s all stuff you’ll have seen before. The eidolon’s character and way of understanding the world are what give the game its flavor. I was struck by the way that the choices on offer really only allowed for two ways of playing it: either as an imperious figure commanding others to do its bidding, or a master manipulator disgusted at how easy it is to twist people around their finger. It’s not very good at social cues much of the time, though, and is usually stuck doing blunt imitations of behavior it’s seen people perform, with the aping only occasionally convincing. Guiding such a character, and engaging with whether its behavior and attitudes are just a reflection of how alien it is with humanity, or if there is something truly sinister about it, adds a welcome note of mystery the otherwise rather quotidian proceedings.

The writing is – I’m going to back to the well of “workmanlike.” I think I only caught one stray typo, and it usually focuses on the right things. But it describes more than it evokes. Take this passage when you possess one of the youths and are embodied for the first time in ages:

This is all solid enough, and touches on the right elements to highlight – you’d imagine this is what the experience would be like. But it’s a little vague, and it never sings. There are also some odd anachronisms (the eidolon can attempt to dress someone down by asking “did I stutter?”, and attempt to seduce another by praising their “symmetrically aligned features”) that undermine the immersion somewhat.

Eidolon’s Escape is smoothly put together – I enjoyed scheming my way to freedom and found the various obstacles on offer fair to work through. The first ending I got, while a victory, was a bit anticlimactic, so I went back and played to a second one that, while technically a failure, was more satisfying and hinted at a resolution to the questions about what exactly the deal is with the eidolon (as best I can tell, it’s actually a fragment – and probably not a very nice fragment – of the soul of the mage’s long-dead lover). I wish there was a little more of a spark here, but I can’t be sure that’s because something’s missing in the game, or just personal preference for writing with a bit more flair, and for weird-protagonist games that do more to lean into their odd conceit, rather than EE’s way of playing things fairly down-the-middle.

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Ferryman’s Gate, by Daniel Maycock

The curse strikes, as it inevitably must: in the opening text of Ferryman’s Gate, a game whose stated purpose is to inculcate good grammar, there’s a grammar error. Admittedly, it’s an omitted apostrophe (“in your mothers words” should be “in your mother’s words”) and FG is all about the commas, but the rule that you can’t talk about grammar without messing up your own claims another victim (though there’s an alternative explanation – the author, well aware of the curse, is prophylactically warding it off with an early sacrificial offering!)

This is pretty much the only clear misstep in a game that I’d been looking forward to ever since I saw it on the list (go back and check the Arkhill Darkness review if you don’t believe me). Among my many exciting and romantic-partner-attracting interests, grammar looms large, and if the humble comma doesn’t have quite as much to offer as the stately semicolon or the forceful em-dash, nonetheless has a lapidary charm all its own, as well as a host of teeth-gnashingly awful potential misuses. I think I was expecting something a bit more off-the-wall that went all-in on the concept, stuffed to the gills with comma gags and puzzles. For all its pedagogical premise, though, FG’s world is fairly grounded and dare I say plausible, with the comma obsession of the player-character’s great-uncle given a psychological basis. And the gameplay is familiar and solid for anyone who’s steeped in parser IF: you rove about the mansion of a dead relative, slowly unlocking new areas, interacting with family members who have reasonably deep conversation trees, solving swap puzzles, dealing with areas of darkness, performing a few secret rituals, and taking everything that isn’t nailed down.

The twist is that scattered among the more traditional adventure-game puzzles are a series of tests your deceased great-uncle has set, requiring you to demonstrate your knowledge of proper comma usage. There’s a book that ably spells out the rules, so I think this is fairly accessible even to folks who didn’t learn English grammar in school. You’re usually asked to pick out the one sentence that’s error free, or that demonstrates a specific kind of mistake, out of a number of options, which will guide a choice of actions: it’ll indicate which button to push or sign to dig at or way to go at an intersection or what have you. FG leans less on the commas than you might think, though – while the major puzzles gating progress do involve grammar, there’s also a collect-a-thon running in parallel where you need to obtain a dozen metal plates to solve the final puzzle of the game. These plates are hidden throughout the rest of the game and usually rely on exploration or light object-based puzzling to obtain, meaning you’re usually making some kind of progress as you go, and making sure you don’t get sick of the comma stuff (is it weird that if anything I wanted more?)

The author – I think a first-timer, given some self-deprecating notes in the ABOUT text – takes a canny approach to implementation. Most scenery is implemented, and objects that you can interact with are for the most part clearly set out from the main text, though several objects, including the player character, do have default descriptions. The map is large, but navigation is easy due to the mini-map in the corner (I didn’t see any extensions listed, so this might be custom-coded, in which case nicely done!) and there are very few guess-the-verb issues or other struggles with the parser. Partially this is because most of the puzzle solving happens in the player’s head, as you identify grammar errors; the actual commands you type in once you’d identified the solution are usually simple applications of Inform’s default systems, like moving around, pushing buttons, or opening containers and putting things in them. This is a really smart choice that minimizes parser frustrations and the risks of bugs creeping in from complex logic, without having to trade off the novelty or complexity of the puzzles. I did run into one small niggle – I think the plates were each supposed to be marked with an alchemical symbol, but only the one for Mars displayed correctly in my interpreter – but the relevant association is helpful spelled out in the text description too, so this doesn’t impact progress.

Sometimes I say a game is solid and feel like I’m damning it with faint praise, but not so here. FG takes a somewhat off-the-wall premise but grounds it in well-considered design and a surprisingly serious though never grim storyline. While part of me can’t help but wonder what the maximalist version would have looked like, there’s a power in restraint that Ferryman’s Gate amply demonstrates.

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The Cave, by Neil Aitken

It’s a funny coincidence that I mentioned the Traveler “lifepath” idea in my Minor Arcana review (quick recap: the old tabletop RPG Traveler has a enjoyable character creation system where you make various decisions on careers and such and have little bottom-lined adventures which shape your states before spitting out a ready-to-play character, and Minor Arcana reminded me of that because it had a lot of fun, flavorful choices that seemed to shape the protagonist in the early going, but which didn’t fully pay off in the game proper), as I had the same response to The Cave – defining my character through choices is fun, wish there was more to do with it. Things clicked when I finished a playthrough and saw a set of Dungeons and Dragons stats spit out, and read the included help file after wrapping up my playthrough: The Cave is self-consciously a character-generation aid for tabletop roleplaying. It’s not, perhaps, all that it is, but knowing that up front I think helps set good expectations, which is why I’m not obscuring it behind spoiler text.

So if that’s the function of the piece, what’s the form? It’s a well-implemented choice-based dungeon-crawler, with an appropriately tabula rasa protagonist. You run through a series of chambers, each usually containing something interesting to poke at and a choice of egress. Everything you do seems like a challenge – you might choose to fight a tiger, or shimmy your way through a narrow crevice, or decide whether to swap one of your books to an old woman who might be a hag – but there’s no way to die or even temporarily fail, as far as I could tell. Instead your choice of how to resolve the challenge impacts your blank-slate hero’s stats. Talking to the various characters you find makes you charismatic; praying over the corpse of a dead enemy makes you wise; reading books makes you smart (and in the game!) This isn’t fully transparent as you go, but you do get a callout of your top one or two stats as they increase (past a certain point, you’ll get a message telling you that you’re especially agile, for example).

Spelled out mechanically like this, there’s not much here, but the little vignettes are fun to engage with. The writing is quite evocative, and the implied setting adheres to a lot of classic dungeon-y tropes – yer bottomless shafts, yer golden treasure, yer mystical crones – but there are some fun twists, like a much higher prevalence of romance novels than in bog-standard Dungeons and Dragons, and some surprising interactions possible with a few of the dungeon features that I definitely don’t want to spoil (one involves a chest, is all I’ll say). And while in retrospect the association of choices to stats is clear, it’s not too thuddingly obvious as you play, and rarely seems crowbarred in. The downside to that, though, is that some of the stats that aren’t used as actively – I’m thinking mostly here of constitution – don’t come up as frequently.

Still, while I think it does what it’s trying to do, I wish there were maybe like 10-15% more here. I mean that both in terms of the content, since in each of two full playthroughs I saw rooms and challenges repeated (I don’t think I was backtracking), and also in incentivizing exploration. There’s a bit of inventory-tracking as you play through the game – I found a remarkably handy stick in my first go-round – including treasure you can carry out, and certain actions taken in-dungeon lead to the ending text calling out specific achievements as well as your base stats. With a persistent tracking system encouraging you to find the unexpected interactions, or some elements in the ending beyond the base stats that add consequences to the decisions, I think I’d have been more excited to re-engage with the game. This could be an idiosyncratic response – I’m a weirdo who will happily sink a hundred hours into an Assassins Creed game or roguelike but completely lose interest once I’m out of specified quests or goals even though I really like the systems! But especially in a Comp with so many other games on offer, a bit more of a prod to go back for more would have been welcome.


Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos, by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa

If you’ve played other games by these authors, you probably have a reasonable sense of what you’re in for in JSEC: an off-kilter comedy with some surprisingly serious character work, clever implementation, and puzzles that are mostly there to shunt you to the next bit of story. You might rarely know exactly what’s happening at any point in time, or what you’re meant to be doing, but that sense of dislocation is integral to the game’s deadpan, absurdist delivery.

Attempting to sum up the plot here is a rather daunting prospect; yes, it’s a sort of private-detective missing-persons case, and you do track down suspects using internet searches, interrogate suspects, and look for hidden doors in the villain’s lair. But you’ll also fend off a snake attack while sleeping rough in a garage, get into buddy-comedy antics with two deeply unexpected sidekicks, and stop a pervert from creeping out other patrons at the library. There are a lot of animals involved – the game opens in a petting zoo that doubles as a bar, or perhaps it’s the other way around – for reasons that aren’t entirely clear (but sort of reminded me of Blade Runner?) There is a narrative through-line of sorts, but it’s really all about the ride – you could almost shift the order of the four or five main scenes that make up the plot and with only a few tweaks it’d probably still work.

JSEC is all about the texture, in other words. If you’re hyper-focused on tracking down leads and getting through the case, you won’t get nearly as much out of the game as if you poke and prod your way through at a more leisurely pace. The narrative voice guides you towards this approach, I think – the game is in first person, which allows Jay’s understated, anxious but somehow languid vibe to come to the fore. He’s the butt of some jokes, but cracks some good ones himself (I was a fan of his response to the cell-phone mishap that, given the claims in the blurb, of course occurs almost immediately after game start). He’s not exactly a relatable character, and his behavior can sometimes be pretty off-putting, but he means well, and, crucially, gets along well with the generally-really-pleasant supporting case.

Gameplay-wise, this is a talky one. This is handled smoothly, with a TALK TO command spitting out some ideas for topics to explore in depth, often with ASK X ABOUT Y syntax though sometimes, pleasingly, prompting alternative phrasing that make conversation seem more natural. These conversations aren’t puzzles – you can just exhaust the topics and get through just fine – but I found they had a good rhythm to them, which is really hard to manage in IF! There are also some puzzles, most of which are pretty straightforward but a few which are quite clever (though there’s one that I think will only be intuitive to folks in a very specific age band). Some even pull the rug out from under the player without making them the butt of the joke (I’m thinking in particular of the darkness puzzle in the cabin basement).

I did hit one puzzle that I think was a bit unfair and/or buggy: I’d hit on the idea of trying to deter the snakes by lowering the temperature, but couldn’t get this to work until I followed the LOOK -> LISTEN -> LOOK -> USE REMOTE sequence listed in the walkthrough; after I’d finally managed to succeed, in the course of three turns I slept through the night, woke up and had breakfast, then got into a cab, only for the snake-murder event to somehow fire well after the threat made sense. But the included walkthrough got me past that without much fuss.

It’s hard to think what else to say here except recite the various things that made me laugh or grin in delight, which isn’t very useful as it just ruins the fun. I will say the ending was surprisingly affecting, though not necessarily in a wholly positive way (I can’t believe those jerks killed Raisin!), which is maybe a good synecdoche for how JSEC does way more than it the average zany private-dick adventure, and is well worth your time.

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Equal-librium, by Ima

I think many of us have had the experience of being on one side or another in a conversation where someone’s trying to communicate an experience that was incredibly profound and meaningful to them, but can’t articulate it in a way that really lands. It’s a frustrating experience – more so for the teller than the listener, I think – because even while it’s clear there’s something important on the table, the palpable lack of understanding becomes alienating. That’s very much how I felt about Equal-librium, a game desperate to share something life-changing, but which at best is only able to talk around the space where that something should go.

It’s hard to go into what I mean without spoiling the whole game – it’s very short, and there’s really only one central dilemma. So I’m going to assume you’ve finished it in the paragraphs that follow.
Right, so to sum up the story as I understand it: you play the CEO of an investment bank that seems to primarily deal with the resource-extraction industry. You’ve just cut a deal with a nonprofit to exploit some land they had obtained for conservation purposes, and as part of the negotiations you’d demanded (and received) a bribe. However, a hacker has accessed your email and found out about this, and is blackmailing you. Depending on whether you’ve managed to reconnect with an old friend from college when he accidentally spilled coffee on you earlier in the day, you either are able to identify the culprit, or have a last smoke and kill yourself.

This story doesn’t really make much sense – most notably, shouldn’t the bank be bribing the conservation nonprofit, and not the other way around? But stuff like that is relatively easy to ignore if the character work is up to snuff. Sadly, where Equal-librium really goes astray is in its depiction of the relationship with the old college friend. Shu/Will seems nice enough, and it’s clear there was some important connection between the two almost twenty years ago. But the game talks around that connection – it has something to do with the main character helping Shu quit smoking? – but it feels like there must have been something more important, and more reciprocal, going on.

The thematics of the ending also don’t feel like they quite click. In the “bad” ending, the CEO, facing the ruin of his reputation and bereft of human connection, decides to end it all. You then get some moralizing final text talking about the importance of balance: “Every system, whether the economy or the ecosystem, has an equilibrium. When we keep extracting the resources, exploiting human moral bottom-lines, consuming carelessly, and ignoring small but essential part of the system chain, the system sends a feedback loop to break in most unexpected ways… Perhaps you need to restart the system to really experience how good it is to be in Equal-librium.” But in the “good” ending, the main character is just able to strike back at their rival, and does reconnect with their friend, but doesn’t seem to change their ways at all, making the ultimate meaning very unclear.

The technical implementation is fine – the color and font choices are attractive, and there’s an undo button always available, so it’s simple to explore the different possibilities, which is good because I think the game only works if you can see the different paths. I did encounter an odd error having to do with a non-existent macro, but it didn’t seem to affect progress. I did find the prose a bit of a stumbling block; there aren’t many out-and-out typos or grammatical errors, but there’s a lot of awkward syntax and run-together clauses that made the writing a bit unclear at times. That’s Equal-librium in a nutshell, I think – there’s intentionality and heart to it, but in its current form, it’s not quite able to bring the player fully in to the experience it’s working to evoke.

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Quest for the Sword of Justice, by Damon L. Wakes

Your enjoyment of QftSoJ will come down to two things: 1) how forgiving are you of RPG Maker games in IFComp (I’m fine either way, though it doesn’t seem like the engine’s strengths are well-suited for the competition); and 2) are you in the market for a solidly-done but not especially groundbreaking JRPG satire (in space-year 2020, I gotta say – eh, not really?)

As with Equal-librium, this is a short game with only one real gag, so it’s impossible to discuss without blowing the punch-line. So you might as well go play it, it’ll take five minutes. I’ll keep busy here thinking about CRPG tropes that have and haven’t been sent up. Let’s see, there’s the slay-foozle plot, the companions who’ll defend you to the death five minutes after your first meeting, the economy-ruining hoards of magical items and gold you obtain after a couple hours of low-danger grinding, the way the world levels up alongside your character until you hit the town where every random guard is 60th level, the endless fetch-quests with either disproportionately meager or disproportionately lavish rewards… all that’s pretty well-plowed ground, I think. It’s pretty hard to think of something that hasn’t been the butt of lots and lots of jokes!

OK, we’re back, and now that we know QftSoJ takes aim at the adventurer-who-takes-everything-that-isn’t-nailed-down-because-an-old-man-told-him-he-was-the-chosen-one, perhaps you too can relate to the sense of ennui in the first paragraph, above. This is a pretty good take on the genre, but to say it’s hoary is an insult to octogenarians. The joke is well constructed: while the absence of any introductory text setting up your task I think is a misstep, it’s pretty clear that you’re supposed to think you need to gather equipment before getting out of town (and that you’ll specifically need a sword to clear some foliage for one of the villagers). The backstory the old man spouts is just the sort of generic JRPG guff that makes the player’s eyes roll without reading it closely enough to realize it’s loony. And there’s a bit of reactivity at the trial depending on your previous actions, as well as your legal strategy, making it worth a replay to see the different outcomes (of course you’re doomed no matter what).

But even the greatest amount of craft has a hard time making a five-minute joke game all that memorable. And I personally found the setup funnier than the actual writing and jokes (with one or two exceptions: the protagonist being named “Adonis Orcbane” is 80% of the way to being a great gag, and the guard arresting you with a “You’re nicked, Sonny Jim!” got a chortle out of me). If it’s your first time encountering this sort of thing, I could see QftSoJ being a hoot – but it’s hard for me to believe that’s true for many folks!

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Captain Graybeard’s Plunder, by Julian Mortimer Smith

Captain Graybeard’s Plunder neatly inverts the old adage that history is written by the victors; here, fiction is remixed by the losers. As a pirate captain whose career was ended by complacency (indirectly) and a royal galleon (rather more directly), you take solace in your retirement by dreaming up how things might have gone differently if your ship, crew, and, er, hand-replacing prosthetic had been up to snuff. The gag is that rather than inventing these upgrades whole cloth, instead you turn to your character’s amply library for inspiration, so that, for example, you might imagine a rematch where your crew are veterans straight out of Treasure Island, or where you boast Captain Hook’s eponymous pointy bit atop your stump.

That’s all there is to it, really: this isn’t a puzzle, as any combination of choices appears to lead to a satisfying bout of vengeance, plus there are only three choices for each of the three variables so you’ll run through all of them in only a couple of replats. A grounded character-study or bit of world-building this is not – the captain is your stereotypical pirate save for his love of literature (though pirates do love their arrs, so I suppose it’s not too surprising he got stuck on reading and writing), and the fact that you can plunder from Peter Pan makes the timeline quite suspect!

Fortunately, CGP has charm in spades and that’s what carries it through. The writing ably inhabits the pirate milieu, and effectively conveys both the joys of buccaneering and the transporting power of a good book. The presentation is splendid too, with each of the books you steal from rendered in its own slightly different cursive font, which carries through into the battle re-creation to make it clear how you’ve stitched everything together. There aren’t major variations depending on your choices, but though they’re small, the responsiveness is nonetheless satisfying, as you get to feel like your choice of Captain Nemo’s sub, for example, was an especially smart one. CGP knows what it’s about, doesn’t overstay its welcome, and made me realize it’s been too long since I’ve reread Moby Dick, which is a lot to accomplish in a ten-minute game!


A Murder in Fairyland, by Abigail Corfman

All through the Comp, I’ve been waiting for a specific kind of game to show up in my queue: a choice-based game that uses some elements typically found in parser games (compass navigation, an inventory and object-based puzzles, etc.) and focuses on puzzles. I like this sort of thing – Chuk and the Arena from last year’s Comp is a great example – so I was a bit disappointed that it looked like I was going to get through 2020 without seeing one. Lo and behold, A Murder in Fairyland showed up three quarters of the way through my queue, and now that itch is well and truly scratched.

It looks like AMiF is set in the same world as the author’s previous games, but I haven’t played them, and I have to confess I found one element the setting off-putting at first: with the blurb and cover art leading me up to expect a jaunt to a classical conception of Faerie, running into a joke about “Steam-powered engines” that riffs on the video-game platform drew me up short. There are also bits of code embedded in the spells you gather, which at first I thought were bugs, and everyone speaks with an @ before their name like they’re tweeting at you rather than having a normal conversation. I’m not sure why these things rubbed me the wrong way, since I wound up really enjoying some aspects of the fae-world-meets-modernity setting, like the bureaucracy and social justice organizing (more on those below) – it might have just been mis-set expectations, or just that Internet culture parodies don’t have much personal appeal for me. Folks who have played the previous games, or who are more drawn to this sort of comedic approach, probably wouldn’t face the same barrier to entry, and it’s a pretty modest one at any rate.

While we’re on the subject of potentially misleading stuff in the blurb: admitting that I’m not very good at puzzles sometimes, and I also tried to wait out a specific timing puzzle rather than expend resources to get around it, this is more like two hours to get to an unsatisfying ending and three to actually solve the mystery. I don’t think I learned about the eponymous murder until after the one-hour mark, in fact! AMiF has a relatively small map, but boasts lots of multi-part puzzles, an expandable roster of spells, minigames, and more. There are often ways to bypass challenges by expending a set of resources that seem finite but ultimately are renewable once you solve a specific puzzle, but that puzzle is a reasonably hard one, and buying your way through the plot probably isn’t the most fun way to engage with the game anyway. There’s a lot here to play around with, and I think it’s better to go in with that expectation.

Leading with these somewhat negative comments I think accurately conveys my initial impressions of the game, but to be clear, once I had a better sense of what was going on here I had a lot of fun with it, because the worldbuilding is ultimately quite fun and the puzzles are clever and very satisfying to work through. First, on the world, it really effectively recasts old-school fairy-tale tropes (a focus on seasonality and bargains, eating anything is dangerous) using a modern lens (there are voting rules and politicking around the seasonal courts, the bargains have turned into contracts that are part of a hidebound bureaucracy, and the faerie court’s indifference to issues of civil rights and social justice is a meaningful sub-theme – the player character is in a wheel chair, and while they’re quite capable, it’s also clear that this world does not take their needs into account).

This isn’t just a fresh coat of paint slapped on the same hoary skeleton – there’s clearly a lot of thought that went into how this society’s institutions would function. As someone who works in advocacy, I was impressed by the protest organized by gnomes and other smaller creatures to push for better accessibility – it’s a bit silly to hear a magical being talking about how they’re trying to ensure the optics of the event line up with the broader message of the campaign, or how they’re trying to open up opportunities for solidarity without risking the movement being co-opted, but actually this is smart, respectful stuff!

And this isn’t just idle worldbuilding, either, because there’s also a lot of care to link the setting with the gameplay, meaning the core puzzles feel well-integrated into this specific story. I’m using some wiggle words here because there are some puzzles that are functionally standalone minigames – there are word-searches which even in retrospect feel a little out-of-place, as well as a Fool’s-Errand-referencing card game that doesn’t feel especially connected to anything. But for the most part these are tied to the resource-management layer of the game, rather than the puzzles that gate progression or impact the plot.

Most of the latter have to do with the bureaucracy of Fairyland, and specifically finding and filling out forms, having to do with everything from lodging complaints to accessing records to requesting permission to do or know a particular thing. These puzzles are great! There’s a complicated instruction manual on how the various forms are indexed, which is really satisfying to work through, and then the filling-out process feels appropriately fiddly while usually offering sufficient opportunities to get help or in the worst case just brute-force your way through. And while the game’s structure is maybe a bit too linear during the opening act (there’s a three-part puzzle that can be worked on in any order, admittedly, but two of the steps were much easier than the third so it felt like there was really only one plausible sequence), it opens up quite a lot once the murder investigation proper begins, with many different strands of evidence and potential motives to track down.

The investigation itself boasts a couple of fun twists: one that’s revealed quite early (there are a bunch of suspects all claiming to have done the deed, since it improves their reputations for ruthlessness), and another that unfolds midway through (turns out the real puzzle isn’t so much solving the murder as it is engineering a specific political outcome). This is all really fun to work through, and while the broad strokes of what’s going on don’t take too long to figure out, putting together all the steps needed to get to a good result gives you the pleasant feeling of having a plan, then working to accomplish it by making a series of logical deductions and taking well-motivated actions. I wasn’t able to fully solve AMiF (debunking Nyx’s claim to be the murderer eluded me – I thought it might have something to do with photographing the stab wounds, or bribing him with the goblin-made horn, but neither of those worked) but you don’t need to check all the boxes to get a satisfying ending.

Ultimately, despite some initial incorrect assumptions about what AMiF was going to be about, I really had a fun time with what winds up being a satisfying game that checks just about all the boxes. Once the Comp wraps up, I’m definitely checking out some of the author’s other work!

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Sage Sanctum Scramble, by Arthur DiBianca

Reader, a confession: it’s only now, as I’m sitting down to write this review, that I have realized that Sage Sanctum Scramble and Under They Thunder were written by different people. I must have gotten that impression when I was first page-downing my way through the giant list of games, and my shortcut-loving brain must have thought “right, two word games by people whose names started with A, that’s all sorted then,” despite the fact that I’ve played other games by both authors before. Anyway, the conceit for this review was going to be a compare-and-contrast between the two games, which felt reasonable to do when I thought they were by the same person but churlish and weird now that I have at long last disassembled the DiBianca-Schultz gestalt entity living in my head. I guess we’ll just have to wing it!

Typically I like to start with the premise, but, um, that feels challenging here. I’m going to attempt to describe the plot without going back to my notes: you (I don’t think who you are is explained) are magically whisked to an other-worldly word-sanctum, where the head of the titular sages tells you they need your help: an evil four-armed monster is using magic to tear up the place and you need to solve a bunch of word puzzles to build out the vocabulary you’ll need to fight him. OK, let’s see how I did… huh, turns out my brain is playing tricks again, because the game actually sets things up with you solve word puzzles in medias res, and you only get one sentence’s worth of backstory/motivation after you’ve figured out ten of them. This is sub-Bookworm Adventures in terms of character-centricity and narrative cohesion, with the main defining feature being lots and lots of silly names that seem like they should be anagram-jokes but aren’t.

Anyway who cares because I loved this. The premise is there to get you solving word puzzles; there are several dozen on offer, and though you can get a solid enough ending after getting as few as thirty, I banged my way through all of them (sixty, plus the bonus ones too!) because I was having so much fun. There’s nothing too novel here, though there is an impressive variety: there are word-substitution puzzles, mastermind-style word-guessing games, word-bridge puzzles where you’re transforming a word one letter at a time, and of course lots and lots of anagrams. Each puzzle is self-contained and fairly quick to solve once you get the trick, and while I don’t think there are any repeats, the later, much harder puzzles build off of what came before, so even the trickiest of them feel like they’re playing by a consistent, fair set of rules that have been introduced to the player.

The puzzles unlock as you solve them, and you typically have the choice of half a dozen or so, which means it’s easy enough to hop around and feel like you’re making progress – it was only when I was closing in on the last ten or so that progress began to slow, at which point I was sufficiently in the head-space of the game (like, I was starting to look for anagrams in work emails) that I appreciated the challenge. They’re almost all impeccably constructed in terms of puzzle design: there are definitely several that would be hard for folks who don’t have a mastery of English idiom (the one where you need to figure out what two words have in “uncommon”, or a few that rely on knowing a common phrase based on one word in it, come to mind), and a few that rely as much on grunt work as a moment of inspiration, but almost always when I got a solution (or, for some of the last few, was prompted to the solution by some considerately-provided hints on the forum), I was smacking my head and muttering “that makes sense.”

The technical implementation is also incredibly impressive – everything just works, which at first I didn’t really pay attention to because these are just word puzzles, how complex can it be? But when I thought about the amount of work that would need to go into each and every one of the over fifty on offer, in terms of coding custom responses and making what’s basically a different limited-parser game for each (you access a puzzle index by typing PUZZLES and then using numbers to jump around the list, BOOK shows you the keywords you’ve accumulated, and other than that it’s basically just typing in guesses), while having to parse not just whole words and recognize the entire dictionary, but also for many registering and responding to the individual letters and lengths… it’s very impressive, I repeat, and almost completely smooth (I think there were like two times when I got an incorrect result – one was when it wouldn’t accept “anoint” as a verb starting with a, to give you a flavor of what these edge cases are like).

There’s a smart layer of meta-progression over the puzzles that makes it even more compelling than it would be as a strict grab-bag, too. To beat the boss (you remember there was a monster, right? In the rich and compelling backstory?) you need to engage him in a word-fight, and while merely winning just requires you to accumulate enough keywords, he also throws out spells that can only be defended against if you’ve got a matching keyword: one that’s a palindrome, or only made up of letters from the second half of the alphabet. If you don’t have one, it’s not game over, but the eponymous sanctum takes some damage, which makes the ending feel a little less happy. Fortunately, you can always REWIND and try again after padding out your arsenal some more. There’s also a small set of bonus puzzles that unlock some alternate options around the ending, and which were quite fun to find and work through, with the caveat that it took me much longer to figure out how to access them than it should have because I failed at counting.

As I have with many other reviews in the Comp, I’ll conclude by making the obvious point that this is a game with a specific target audience, and if you’re in it you’ll probably really enjoy it but if word puzzles aren’t your jam, you’ll probably appreciate its craft but not find it too compelling. The difference is, I’m actually in that target audience this time out, and hopefully it’s clear that despite my affectionate bagging on the story and premise, I loved it to death. Here’s hoping for a sequel in next year’s Comp!

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Are we sure that they’re not the same person, actually? I’m looking at the names and realizing that they’re anagrams of each other…

I mean that would be an amazing long con, as they both have gameographies stretching back through the last decade…

(I don’t think they’re actually anagrams though)

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No, what would be an amazing long con is if all of the games in that backlog each had a clue to a meta-meta puzzle that was being slowly dripped out, and when we find all of the clues it gives us coordinates to a treasure!

But you’re right, they’re not anagrams – I meant to say palindromes!


A Rope of Chalk, by Ryan Veeder

I think I mentioned somewhere in the interminable chain of reviews unspooling above this one that my knowledge of recent IF is rather patchy: I got into it in the early aughts, playing through all the Comp games from like ’02 through ’06 and catching up on most of the classics of the scene (I mean except Curses since it’s hard), but then got less obsessive about it over the next few years and only dipped in intermittently through the teens, before the bug came roaring back last year. All of which is to say I’ve managed to pretty much entirely miss the era of Ryan Veeder – I think Taco Fiction was in the last Comp I took a half-serious run at before 2019’s, and dimly remember that it was fun and funny but not much else. As I’ve been getting back into things, I have checked out a few of his other games – Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder and Ascent of Gothic Tower – but I’m still aware that “Ryan Veeder games” are a well-defined thing these days, though one that I’m a bit less up on.

All of which is by way of saying that I’m not going to be able to situate A Rope of Chalk in the author’s oeuvre and am not completely sure what to make of the metafictional post-script – but nevertheless, I still dug the hell out of this game. ARoC situates itself as an attempt to document a college art-contest from a decade in the past, while acknowledging in an introductory note that memory and the limitations of perspective being what they are, we’re in for a Rashomon-style confusion of narratives. You’re given the choice to opt in or out of the story given these caveats, and if you say “no” the game quits, so fair warning that subjectivity is the order of the day. The game lives up to this premise by rotating you among four or five different protagonists (depending on how you count), and while there’s not much divergence in the actual sequence of events, each has a distinct narrative voice, with modifications not just to descriptions and action responses, but also most parser responses to account for who the protagonist is in each sequence. There’s even different punctuation around dialogue options depending on who the main character is!

I started that paragraph out talking about the premise but quickly fell into the implementation, and that’s accurate to my experience of the game. The plot and characters are fun and everything’s well-written, but when I’m thinking back on what it was like to play ARoC, it’s really the attention to detail and depth of implementation that stand out – like, that’s a thing that reviewers, including me, say about many games, but here it’s almost spooky how the author sometimes seemed to be reading my mind. Like, there’s a point where your character’s perceptions get shifted (I realize this applies to several bits, but I’m thinking of the beginning of the Nathalie sequence), and all sorts of verbs are rewritten to respond to the situation, including some that aren’t ever useful to the story like JUMP and LAUGH. I don’t want to spoil too many more, but there were a bunch of times when I typed something into the parser just to be cute, and was amazed to find that the author had gotten there first. There are niggles, of course – I hit on the idea of using water to erase chalk art I didn’t like while in the first sequence, playing as Lane, but instead of being told that wasn’t something she would consider, there was a bunch of unpromising parser wrestling, so it was a bit surprising when that very thing wound up being suggested right out the gate in the second sequence. But many of these niggles are I think due to my own expectations, which had been inflated excessively high by the overall extreme level of responsiveness.

Plot-wise, ARoC is all about building up to one big event – you’re primed to know that something will go disastrously pear-shaped by the blurb and intro, and the opening sections have quite a lot to do and explore so it doesn’t feel like busywork even though from a certain point of view, you’re just marking time until things really kick off. There are a bunch of characters to engage with, and while they all present as stereotypes at first blush, there’s enough substance beneath the surface to have made me wish there were more than the 4 or 5 dialogue options on offer for each conversation (even though I don’t think the game would work as well if I got my wish – this is me noting smart design, not indicating an oversight). And since this is a sidewalk-chalk tournament, there’s a lot of fun, well-described art to look at, with each piece casting some light on the artist who made it (I was expecting Rachel’s to be bad from the lead up, but I had no idea how awful it would actually turn out to be).

Once the key event kicks in, the game gets a little more focused and there’s even what you might be able to call a puzzle if you squint at it. But even as there’s some additional urgency, and some real obstacles (well, they might not be real but close enough), you’re always rewarded for lingering and straying off the beaten path – and the steps you need to take to progress are always quite clear, keeping the momentum and the enjoyment up.

I have a couple of more spoiler-y thoughts on the ending, so I’ll wrap up with those, after repeating again that this is an excellent, funny game (I’ve barely talked about the jokes, I realize). Anyway: there’s a moment or two of catharsis at the end of the story, then an optional sequence where you can wander around what’s presented as the author’s office, finding various bits of correspondence and photos that purport to indicate the research that’s been done into the tournament, as well as providing some glimpses of what happened to these kids ten years out from college. I found this a bit enigmatic, since the ending didn’t really leave me with a strong takeaway that was then recast by the afterward – it all worked well enough on its own, but I think I was waiting for some kind of twist or emotional punch that never fully landed. But in the end I think this might be the point: there are big things that happen in our lives sometimes and loom large in our memories, but when you try to pin down exactly what happened, or what simple cause-and-effect impact it had, it all slips away because people don’t really work like that. I oscillate between thinking A Rope of Chalk is nostalgic and thinking it’s anti-nostalgic, because it makes the past loom so large and presents a memory with such immediacy and impact, but also refuses to tie a bow around it and spell out what it all means.

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Stand Up / Stay Silent, by Y Ceffl Gwyn

The randomizer giveth, with three games in a row I really enjoyed and some solid highlights immediately before that (Rope of Chalk was also bracketed by Magpie Takes the Train, which I beta-tested so I’m not reviewing it yet but is also quite good, and my own game which, whatever its intrinsic merits, I’m happy to see finally show up). But the randomizer also taketh away, and Stand Up / Stay Silent is where this world-beating run came to a close.

Look, I get that SU/SS has its heart in a good place and is trying to convey the urgency of fighting for social justice. There’s a list of Black Lives Matter-related resources displayed prominently if you check for the credits at the beginning or at the end, many of which I think are pretty good. But holy Jesus, the way the game communicates its convictions is via a hectoring, didactic “fable” that’s only slightly less off-putting and unsubtle than someone shouting “ARE YOU A GOOD PERSON? YES OR NO!” and then hugging or slapping you depending on what you answer. And I say this as someone who works for a civil rights organization in my day job – like, I’m one of those wild-eyed defund-the-police radicals (supply your own scare quotes as desired), albeit in the spreadsheets-and-regs division rather than the whose-streets-our-streets side of the cabal. If you’ve got someone like me mulishly clicking the fascist-hugging “stay silent” options, something’s gone deeply wrong.

I don’t want to go into a laundry list of faults here, but I think there are two design choices and one flaw that are just completely fatal to SU/SS’s aims. The first choice is the sci-fi frame, which is beyond under-baked outside of establishing that we’re on Mars and there’s been some terraforming. I suppose this is in the service of delivering the fable promised in the subtitle, but the problem is that the player has no concept of what’s actually going on and there are zero stakes. The opening suggests that there’s income inequality, but doesn’t really frame that in a way the player can understand or engage with (there is a note that an expensive cocktail costs about three hours’ wages for the main character. I was curious about whether I could deduce anything about the overall economy from this, and the fanciest cocktails I could find at Michelin-star restaurants are like 35 bucks – so even assuming a hefty markup to deal with the being-on-Mars thing, this suggests the main character is making a bit above the minimum wage where I live, and is able to save up to go to a fancy restaurant, which doesn’t seem that bad?) There are indications that mass protests are heavily regulated, but it’s not really established what the protests are actually about. Once the player starts making choices, jackbooted thugs do start showing up (including getting ready to tase someone in the middle of a fancy restaurant, which seems odd…) but this is all very bloodless and completely fails to establish the bone-deep sense of revulsion at injustice that powers much activism, much less the ways those injustices are embedded in social and public systems.

The second design issue is that the choices are completely binary, with no room for nuance or even delayed consequences. There are as few as two, or I think as many as four, choices in any given playthrough, with one of them offering a “Stand By” as a middle-ground between the always-there “Stand Up” and “Stay Silent”. There’s never any ambiguity as to what option the game wants you to take: stand up, and you get a charge of self-righteous energy and your partner thinks you’re sexy; do anything else, and the game tells you you’re a physical coward and you get dumped. And this all plays out immediately, so you don’t even get the (incredibly common in unjust societies!) experience of worrying that a decision will blow up on you later on. Again, this feels very didactic, and given the focus on your flatly-characterized partner, much of it feels like it reinforces a retrograde “protesting will get you laid” message.

The flaw is the writing. It’s technically fine (though there’s one early misstep where there’s a comma right after a dash, which I can only imagine the Ferryman’s Gate protagonist freaking out over), but it’s both vague and overly-conclusory. It’s hard to separate this out from the sketchy worldbuilding, but I was very frequently at a loss to understand what was happening. Like, the inciting incident is a member of the waitstaff at the fancy restaurant standing up on one of the tables and mumbling. If this happened in real life, my first thought would not be that the server is pissed about economic injustice! But the main character’s internal monologue leaps ahead and makes a bunch of assumptions about their motivations and what they’re up to that are just not supported by the described behavior. Similarly, later on when you hear your partner talking about their plans for direct action, the description is sufficiently muddy that it really wasn’t clear to me whether they were plotting terroristic violence – seems relevant!

There is good art to be made about the queasy compromises of living under authoritarian regimes – and the dangerous, giddy elation of taking action to try to win freedom. But getting that right requires enough context to give the player a stake in what’s going on, and enough sympathy for the fallible human beings who live in these systems (in all systems!) to portray the situation with nuance. Despite all the good intentions in the world, SS/SU falls well short of the mark.


We need reviews on all the games from the Ferryman’s Gate protagonist where the review has a singular focus on comma usage throughout each game.


I am ashamed not to have thought of this gimmick!

Sonder Snippets, by Sana

Another short choice-based game that didn’t quite land for me, Sonder Snippets offers a few densely-written fables, with a slight frame story of a grandmother telling stories to a child. There are a few passages with lots of words to click, but how these relate to the text or whether they impact the stories you hear wasn’t obvious to me, and the frame story is very minimally suggested (I only fully twigged to what was happening after a story concluded and I was given a choice to hear another one or “make new memories” by having the grand-daughter go outside and playing with other children). So the meat is really in the fables, which are – basically fine?

They seem to be creation-myths or just-so stories, which are hard to write because it’s challenging to reconcile the abstract, iconic nature of such storytelling with the specificity and detail that gives a tale its punch. I thought How the Elephant’s Child…, from much earlier in my list, nailed this balance, admittedly by aping Kipling and eschewing the cosmological for the more practical. Sonder Snippets I think sticks too close to the abstraction side of things: all the stories seem to involve a Thief (capital the author’s) who’s a sort of demiurge or at least trickster-figure, who addresses the moon, or a lover, and does – stuff. That’s an awful word, I know, but it’s pretty hard to decode the meaning beneath language that’s often intentionally obfuscated. This sort of technique can create a dreamlike sense of allusion, but I confess it more usually felt muddled to me, especially because the tone seemed less folkloric and more undergraduate po-mo. Consider:

I think this is about oceans or the tide or something? It just leaves me a bit cold – it’s too high-level, there’s nothing I was able to grab on to.

The stories are also fairly short (maybe 4-500 words?) and there aren’t that many of them: the first time I played, after getting my first story, I clicked the link to hear another, which brought me to a second, but then I got that same second story four times in a row. I dipped back in for a quick replay as I wrote this review, and looks like there are a few more, so perhaps I just got unlucky that first time, but it’s still a fairly limited pool, with no customization or responsiveness to other choices within the stories as far as I can tell. And by design, you just keep clicking through to generate a new story until you get bored and decide to send the grand-daughter outside to make snow-forts.

Sonder Snippets isn’t bad by any means, with technically-solid writing and bug-free implementation, and stories that clearly have significance to the author. And I liked the few hints I got of the relationship between the grandmother and grand-daughter. But it doesn’t feel like a game that’s considered what impact it wants to have on its audience, and tailored itself accordingly.

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