Mike Russo's IF Comp 2021 Reviews

Over the past year, I’ve done reviews of the entries in the various competitions and festivals, distinguished primarily their comprehensiveness and secondarily by their prolixity. This time out my approach is going to be slightly different, however, since my wife and I had a baby (our first) three weeks before this year’s Comp went live. While Henry is awesome, very unfussy and a champion eater and sleeper (review: A+ baby) my time and brain-power are not what they were.

The course of wisdom would just be to sit out this year, but as an author, I know how desperate I always am for any feedback, regardless of quality, so in that spirit I’m bulling ahead. I’m adding a bit more structure to my usual freeform, write-until-I’m-out-of-stuff-to-say quote-unquote method, in hopes of making the reviews a bit more concise so I can get through more of them. After a short summary of my take, I’ll call out one highlight, one lowlight, and then explain how new fatherhood has led me to betray the hard work the author put into their piece. Sorry!

4x4 Archipelago, by Agnieszka Trzaska
After-Words, by fireisnormal
An Aside About Everything, by Sasha
The Belinsky Conundrum, by Sam Ursu
Beneath Fenwick, by Pete Gardner
The Best Man, by Stephen Bond
BLK MTN, by Laura Paul
Brave Bear, by John Evans
Closure, by Sarah Willson
Codex Sadistica, by grave snail games
The Corsham Witch Trial, by JC Blair
Cyborg Arena, by John Ayliff
Cygnet Committee, by P.B. Parjeter
D’ARKUN, by Michael Baltes
The daughter, Giovanni Rubino
The Dead Account, by Naomi Norbez
Dr Horror’s House of Terror, by Ade
Enveloping Darkness, by John Muhlhauser, Helen Pluta, and Othniel Aryee
extraordinary_fandoms.exe, by Storysinger Presents
Finding Light, by Abigail Jazwiec
Fine Felines, by Felicity Banks
Fourbyfourian Quarryin’, by Andrew Schultz
Funicular Simulator 2021, by Mary Godden and Tom Leather
Ghosts Within, by Kyriakos Athanasopolous
Goat Game, by Kathryn Li
The Golden Heist, by George Lockett and Rob Thorman
Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg, by Arthur DiBianca
Hercules!, by Leo Weinreb
How it was then and how it is now, by Pseudavid
How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland, by V Dobranov
I Contain Multitudes, by Wonaglot
Infinite Adventure, by A. Scotts
Kidney Kwest, by Eric Zinda, Luka Marceta, Art by Kirstina Nes
The Last Doctor, by Quirky Bones
The Last Night of Alexisgrad, by Milo van Mesdag
The Library, by Leonardo Boselli
Mermaids of Ganymede, by Paxton
The Miller’s Garden, by Damon L. Wakes
My Gender is a Fish, by Carter Gwertzman
Off-Season at the Dream Factory, by Carroll Lewis
A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat, by Bitter Karella
A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen
Plane Walker, by Jack Comfort
Recon, by Carlos Pamies
RetroCON 2021, by Sir Slice
Second Wind, by Matthew Warner
Silicon and Cells, by Nic Barkdull and Matthew Borgard
Smart Theory, by AKheon
The Song of the Mockingbird, by Mike Carletta
The Spirit Within Us, by Alessandro Ielo
Starbreakers, by E. Joyce and N. Cormier
Taste of Fingers, by V Dobranov
This Won’t Make You Happy, by Mike Gillis
The TURING Test, by Justin Fanzo
Unfortunate, by Jess Elizabeth Reed
Universal Hologram, by Kit Riemer
The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte
Wabewalker, by Ben Sisk
we, the remainder, by Charm Cochram
Weird Grief, by Naomi Norbez
What remains of me, by Jovial Ron
The Waiting Room, by Billy Krolick
You are SpamZapper 3.1, by Leon Arnott

Highlights for games I beta tested:

AardVarK Versus the Hype, by Truthcraze
And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One, by B.J. Best
At King Arthur’s Christmas Feast, by Travis Moy
The House on Highfield Lane, by Andy Joel
The Libonotus Cup, by Nils Fagerburg
Walking Into It, by Andrew Schultz
What Heart Heard of, Ghost Guessed, by Amanda Walker

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Hercules!, by Leo Weinreb

I have to confess to finding the initial presentation of Hercules! off-putting. Sure, the twelve labors provide a sturdy framework for a puzzley parser adventure, and I’m hardly in a position to object to injecting comedy into old Greek stuff after my IF Comp game from last year, but the blurb, from the sophomoric premise (Hercules is a puny asthmatic) and use of profanity to the content warnings’ promise of scatology to come, seemed to promise a game pitched at a middle-school sensibility.

Happily, though, while that impression isn’t far off, Hercules! wears its relative immaturity well, exuberantly boasting jokes that mostly fall on the entertaining side of dumb (I appreciated being told that the shoals weren’t hard rocks, but classic rocks), mostly-simple puzzles that are usually pleasant to work through, polished implementation, and a plot that hits enough of the classical beats to show the author’s done the work while making some welcome tweaks to better accord with modern tastes (there’s no wife- or child-murder here, thankfully, but there is a climax calling back to all the friends you’ve made along the way).

Highlight : one of the most charming aspects of Hercules! is its map – you’re plopped down in a geographically-accurate but much-compressed version of Greece where a simple “GO SOUTHEAST” will take you from the shore of the Peloponnese to Crete. And while the available geography is large, if you go to a location too early, Hercules gets a bad feeling, which helps keep the scope manageable (all the labors must be done in order, understandably enough).

Lowlight : while the puzzles are mostly straightforward object-manipulation exercises, there are a few that feel underclued or fiddly (falling asleep so you can hunt the hind in a dream world, for example, which doesn’t seem to be an idea suggested anywhere, and having to do the pendant rigmarole four times with four different mares is annoying busywork), especially I think in in the second half of the game (though see below). Exacerbating this, you can pick up a large number of junk items during labor number seven (the Cretan Bull), which clogged up my inventory in the latter half of the game and made sussing out what to do more challenging – other labors get rid of unneeded items once they’re concluded, and it’d have been better if the same approach was taken here.

How I have failed the author : I was able to get through the first two thirds of the game in an hour, with baby napping next to me. He started to stir, though, about when I was trying to get the mares from Diomedes, and let me tell you, there is no video-game timer mechanic more stressful than trying to finish a parser game before a newborn wakes up! As a result I kind of panicked and wasn’t thinking very clearly for the last chunk of the game, and had recourse to the hints if I couldn’t solve a puzzle in like thirty seconds. On the plus side, I did get Hercules to his happy ending just before Henry needed a diaper change, so that’s doubly a win.

Hercules transcript - MR.txt (547.7 KB)

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What remains of me, by Jovial Ron

As I was writing my entry in this year’s comp, which is a memoir, I did a quick survey of IFDB to look for similar autobiographical parser games. They were very thin on the ground, so I was pleasantly surprised to find another entry that seemed to be doing something similar. Despite the initial premise, however, What remains of me very quickly enters an allegorical mode – there’s a giant talking frog, for starters, and specific details are eschewed in favor of stark archetypes like running into an NPC named “My Friends”. And the action is all about simple item-trading puzzles that aren’t inherently that interesting to solve.

So I wound up feeling disappointed, partially because of mismatched expectations, but also because autobiography stripped of its specificity is honestly kind of boring, I think? Most peoples’ struggles to find meaning in their life sound pretty trite when reduced to their barest outlines; it’s the lived experience of those struggles that’s compelling. From the blurb, it sounds like there might have been a bigger, weirder version of this game in the author’s head, but it was narrowed in scope in presumed deference to the IF Comp audience and a desire to reduce the amount of bugs and typos. Often that’s a good approach, but in this case I wished we’d gotten the wilder and woolier game instead.

Highlight: As many jokes whiff as land, but there were a couple that made me laugh, including “Give a man a ticket and he will travel for a day, teach a man to tick it and he will randomly answer his SAT questions."

Lowlight: The room descriptions often don’t seem to update based on your actions, meaning that objects you’ve removed are still mentioned as being present, which made it hard for me to feel like my actions were having an impact!

How I have failed the author: I played during two of Henry’s late-night feeding sessions, and was honestly pretty out of it – so the non-updating descriptions really threw me for a loop since I could barely remember what I’d already done or what was left to do when I picked up the game in the second session, and going back around the large map a second time meant I messed up the pacing.

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Cygnet Committee, by P.B. Parjeter

This is a stub memorializing my intent to come back to this one. A slickly-produced Twine game that from the credits and blurb seems to be mining Metal-Gear-Solid-adjacent territory, albeit with what might be a distinctive cult angle, Cygnet Committee requires sound to play. I’m weirdly resistant to listening to any audio when playing IF, and right now I’m still in that brand-new-parent mode where if I can’t hear the baby’s breathing for a couple of minutes, I get anxious, so I tried to see if I could bluff my way through the game with it muted, but the “sound required” tag does not lie. Hopefully my circumstances will change and I’ll be able to give Cygnet Committee a whirl before the end of the Comp, but for now I’m moving on.

How I have failed the author: I’m completely passing on what was clearly a very significant piece of work for reasons that are objectively quite dumb.

MUCH LATER UPDATE:

All right, having gone back and played Cygnet Committee through, with the sound on this time, I can confirm my initial impression that this was going to be a high-production-value game with a lot of work behind it. It’s also got a novel puzzle mechanic that’s played out in a bunch of creative ways, a pomo plot that interrogates the uses and misuses of the historical memory of Joan of Arc, and a sprawling, metroidvania-y map. I’m still not sold on the use of sound in IF – and I wished there was a stronger connection between the puzzles and the plot – but Cygnet Committee is a confident, poised piece of work that makes a strong case for it.

Starting with that puzzle mechanic, it manages to be both brand new (at least to me), but also really intuitive. As your operative infiltrates an island-based military installation, you’ll come across navigation challenges, patrolling robots, locked keypads, and spying drones. Each presents you with four different audio samples, and you need to pick out the right one to progress. Usually this just means choosing the one that’s different from the other three, though what this means diegetically shifts with context – the lock tumbler that clicks twice, the bit of the minefield that’s not beeping, and so on.

There are a few curve-balls that get thrown in, including some timed sequences, and a few more traditional find-the-keycode puzzles, but most of the hour and a half I took on the game was spent in these sequences, and I found the variation wasn’t enough to keep them from getting a little stale by the end. There’s a lot of going back and forth through the sprawling map – again, it’s got a kind of metroidvania structure, where you’ll get a new keycard or send power to a previously-visited area – and unless you use a slowly-accumulating currency to unlock shortcuts, you generally need to solve the puzzles all over again even when going back over already-trodden ground. There are also some design choices in the back half of the game that exacerbated the drag, since you’ll repeatedly come across a device – a dam outflow wheel, a first-aid kit – a few locations before you reach the place it impacts, meaning that even though I figured out these puzzles pretty much immediately, there was still five minutes of tedious back-and-forth to implement the solution. This kind of thing is par for course in a metroidvania, of course, but much of this felt more like it was about padding the game length than offering cool new secrets to unlock.

My real hesitance with the puzzles, though, is that the gameplay didn’t feel all that deeply integrated with the interesting plot. There’s a complex backstory, involving the creation and deployment of a military AI based on Joan of Arc’s personality that’s gone mad and is now threatening the globe with nuclear war, which is related through stylish cutscenes that juxtapose text read aloud by a French text-to-speech program (like, it speaks the English words as if they were French, which is a neatly alienating effect) with clips from The Passion of Joan of Arc, a silent movie beloved by cineastes (I’ve never seen it but can confirm the images are very compelling). Befitting the Metal Gear Solid inspiration cited in the credits, this narrative has some bonkers ups and downs, involving cyborgs, the intersection of warmongering and commerce, and an extended shaggy dog story about canned beans (there’s a note of humor here, though it’s played bone-dry). Careful attention also suggests that there’s more going on than meets the eye – in particular, the ending I got pretty strongly implied that the nuclear apocalypse threat isn’t real, the protagonist is just an aspect of the AI’s personality, and the game’s action is a pageant of persecution and immolation Joan has constructed for herself to satisfy the imperatives of history.

This is cool stuff, but again, it’s mostly fed to the player in cutscenes. There’s some thematic resonance between the audio-based puzzles and the fact that Joan of Arc was said to hear voices – plus the construction of the AI featured some gross stuff involving auditory nerves – but the separation between the gameplay layer and the narrative one feels pretty wide. With a deserted base and no other characters to speak to, and no clarity on how the various features of the island – there’s a chapel, a forest, a lighthouse – relate to the AI’s plans, I sometimes felt like I was solving abstract puzzles to unlock plot coupons. I did enjoy both sides of the equation, but stronger integration of these pieces would have made the experience more compelling.

Highlight: there are some cool secrets to find along the critical path – I turned up two, and am pretty sure I missed a bunch more – finding these was really rewarding.

Lowlight: winning the game gives you the option of unlocking a new “hard mode”, which I’m guessing fleshes out the plot a bit further, but to access it you need to have accumulated 500 of the game’s chip currency, and I only had like 100 left over at the end. Better secret-finding would have helped, but I think you’d also need to pass up the various options to spend chips to make navigation easier, so I doubt even the most thorough player would finish with the requisite chips, and requiring two full playthroughs to open up the option to play a third time feels like inaccessible design.

How I failed the author: as I mentioned in the stub I wrote before I played, my current setup is not conducive to playing games with sound – I was constantly pulling off my headphones to listen for Henry’s noises, or talk to my wife, and these constant interruptions probably undermined my immersion in the game.

Thanks Mike for your fair and considerate review! I do think perhaps I overdid it with the content warnings, but I hope you had fun with it despite the childishness. Speaking of children, give my best to Henry! Sounds like you’re a great and attentive dad. Maybe we can get some cute baby pics in the forum? :slight_smile:

As far as the puzzles go, just wanted to note briefly that I clued the hind by continuing to say that it was “as uncatchable as a DREAM,” dream being the operative word, implying that you could catch it if you were dreaming of it. I take your point though, and perhaps that was a little under-clued. The repetition of the mares and the large number of junk items in the maze should probably be fixed. Those are very good notes, though they are a little tricky to figure out how to code smoothly. Do you think I should update the game with these changes even though it’s released? Thanks so much again for your feedback and have an enjoyable rest of the comp!

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Thanks for the kind words! The download-only nature of the game means that it is getting a little less attention than the other entries, so every comment counts.

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Hi Leo – congrats on the game, and thanks for the good wishes for Henry :slight_smile: On the spoilers:

For the hind, I remember that line, but I didn’t really take it as a clue since it’s kind of a commonplace phrase – plus it implies that dreams are also untouchable, so why would chasing the hind in a dream go any differently? Given how few options the player has at this point in the game, having a subtle prompt when you try to catch the hind I think is a good approach, but probably a slightly different hint would be better here, I think. Anyway, on that point and on the mares and junk points, personally I feel like they you could make them as mid-comp updates if you want – I think folks generally think small smoothing tweaks are fine, in addition to bug fixes – but if you’re worried about the coding I’d probably hold off since it’s easy to break other stuff when making fixes!

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A Paradox Between Worlds, by Autumn Chen

This ChoiceScript game about a fictional online fandom is a lot . Before you start, there are two full pages of stats, eight or nine pages with background on the online personalities as well as in-universe info on the Nebulaverse, the tropey YA series the fandom focuses on, and a character-generation process for your blogger that comes complete with two “what Hogwarts House are you?”-style quizzes – and then gameplay itself involves going through five or six “rounds” of play, each of which involves first reading half a dozen different Tumblr-ish blogs and deciding whether to like or reblog (or possibly reply to) each of their 5-10 posts, then making choices about how to write your own fanfic set in the Nebulaverse, plus some optional additional engagement with other bloggers.

There’s a lot to be said for creating a detailed and consistent world, but there’s also a need to present the player with a compelling hook to bring them into said world – a resonant goal, some emotionally-engaging conflict, an interesting puzzle or strategic challenge, or even just a clever take on a familiar milieu – and here’s where I found APBW fell down. Notionally, you’re meant to be optimizing your follower count by reblogging good content and writing resonant fanfic, but this is presented in a pretty bloodless fashion and seems more a pretext than a motivating force for engagement. The breadth of the game also means there’s less time to go deep and make any particular character or mechanic stand out, plus the incredible tropiness of the Nebulaverse, while clearly intentional, made it really hard for me to care about shipping the blank-slate chosen one, the genius love-interest, the blue-blood frenemy, the white-bread sidekick, or… the other one who I don’t remember that clearly two days on from playing.

Eventually the game reveals that it is about something specific, and I found it got a lot more interesting (it ultimately hinges on a pretty much note-for-note riff on the Harry Potter fandom’s reactions to J.K. Rowling’s increasing transphobia). But it took too long to get there for my tastes, and didn’t integrate the fanfic stuff with this main thread tightly enough for me to stay invested. Works of IF are almost always in real need of a good editor, because all pieces of writing are in need of a good editor, and the beta testing process isn’t a substitute, and I think APBW suffers that lack – it puts in so much effort to create a plausible world, and has something to say, but needs some nips and tucks to help invite the player in.

Highlight: Despite the game making clear that I was making incredibly suboptimal choices in terms of follower count, it was perfectly happy to let me express myself as a normcore loser – I took a gleeful joy in choosing the most boring hero as my favorite one, eschewing shipping to focus on the setting’s lore in my blog posts, and even quitting writing the fanfic super early because of the transphobia incident.

Lowlight: As I alluded to above, I found the blogging sections offered way too much granularity of interaction – so the game’s bow to realism by having characters re-post stuff you’ve already seen on the pages of other bloggers made for extra drudgery.

How I have failed the author : Due to a general lack of brain-bandwidth, I wasn’t sufficiently motivated to read the multiple pages of background info on the Nebulaverse, which probably reduced my engagement with those sections – and that in turn meant I was eager to stop writing the fanfic so I could skip those bits and get to the end faster, missing out on most of the thematic resonance that I’m sure exists between the different strands of the story.

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Thank you so so much for the review! I agree that I did a poor job of leading the player along the most interesting story paths. The objective of liking and reblogging is more to build your relationships with the other bloggers than to increase your own follower count. The optional engagement with the other online people is probably the core of the story. The groupchats are the most interesting parts! Unfortunately, they’re gated behind the character relationship stats. Also, the most interesting (imo) routes are also the hardest routes to access in terms of stats (see walkthrough). Now I’m wondering which ending you got?

Ah well, too late to change the core mechanics of the story…

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That all makes sense! I definitely felt that the relationships with the other bloggers was the most interesting part, but the liking/reblogging felt like a more attenuated way to do that, vs. the (fewer) opportunities to write a comment or send a message – partially this could be generational, though, since I’m 40 and my formative experiences of engaging with folks in online spaces looked much different! For other folks I can see the core mechanic working much better than it did for me.

I got the Luna ending, and did get into the groupchat, which I agree was the most interesting and dynamic part!

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Off-Season at the Dream Factory, by Carroll Lewis

The ingredients in this Adventuron game aren’t especially novel by IF standards – a dungeon-crawling with a combat system, an Alice in Wonderland riff, inverting the typical adventurer-vs-monster moral framework, a pun-filled scavenger hunt – but there’s something about the way they’re stewed up in Off-Season at the Dream Factory that feels really fresh and coherent. The clean prose and fantastical yet grounded visuals help create a unified aesthetic that equally fits the orc protagonist’s dead-end job getting repeatedly slain by paying adventurers looking for a thrill, and his occasional visits to his fetch-quest setting uncle, who’s straight-up Lewis Carroll in orc drag. And the one element that’s thematically out of place – the occasional dungeon-delving segments where you’re a customer, not an employee, of the Dream Factory – is set off by bespoke vector graphics that make these sequences visually distinctive too.

(Side-note on my expectations on Adventuron games – by this point I’m unsurprised to find one with great visuals, but I also mentally prepare myself to struggle with the parser. But this time I didn’t, and that’s been true of other more recent games I’ve played too. I’m guessing this is some combination of authors gaining familiarity with the platform and the system maturing, but it’s awesome to see).

The other thing that makes the disparate pieces work well together is momentum. I tend to like IF Comp games with a good number of easy puzzles – they make me feel like I’m a clever person making good progress through the big competition (this is not a flattering observation about myself) – and it’s an effective choice here. There are a variety of different kinds of puzzles, from figuring out viable combat strategies for different opponents to some maze navigation, but none of them are especially difficult, and many even solve themselves, with inventory items being used automatically if your command is even in the right ballpark. Combined with the interesting worldbuilding, solid writing, and pretty pictures, this makes Off-Season at the Dream Factory go down easy.

Highlight: I figured out one somewhat outside the box puzzle straightaway (catching lightning in the bottle) which made me feel clever, though I also worried it was underclued. Then I kept playing and found it actually was well clued, I’d just gotten to the solution a little early.

Lowlight: The ending is generally satisfying, but I felt like one subplot (the fate of the protagonist’s father) was left a bit hanging – though I didn’t get the Last Lousy Point, which I suspect might bear on that.

How I have failed the author : not very much, I don’t think! Henry was sleeping and I pretty much banged through this one, despite my new-parent brain.

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Mermaids of Ganymede, by Paxton

Mermaids of Ganymede is a Twine game that packs a lot into its hourlong playtime, as you help the crew of a research ship escape from a disaster that strands them under the waters of the eponymous moon – over its five chapters, it ranges in genre from survival horror to planetary romance and back, establishes half a dozen characters and mechanics related to their morale and mental health, and includes a swap-quest chain and a devilishly timed maze, all wrapped up in a stylish visual design. None of these individual bits really have time to breathe or expand beyond their stereotypical aspects, but because the game is very well-paced, this doesn’t matter as much as you might think – there’s always a new twist to the plot, a new character to encounter, or a new challenge to navigate to keep the player glued to their seat.

The downside is that after reaching the end, I had the feeling that despite the plethora of choices and ways to engage with the characters, nothing I did mattered very much – the abbreviated ending text doesn’t help, nor do the couple small bugs I encountered (the beginning of Chapter 3 seemed to assume I knew who someone named Undine was, but I’d never heard of them, possibly because I escaped Chapter 2’s city at earliest opportunity, and Chapter 5 also seemed to think I’d asked the said Undine for weapons, not just a ship) – but there’s nothing wrong with a linear roller-coaster that’s got a robust illusion of depth (little ocean pun for you there).

Highlight: I found the opening sequence surprisingly tense, as I tried to juggle the crewmembers’ moods and sanity while getting to the bottom of what was stalking the ship.

Lowlight: Chapter 4 is an extended maze sequence that turns into an extended timed maze sequence partways through – that’s a tricky bit of design to manage without creating frustration, and unfortunately I think this maze errs too much on the side of frustration, as I can’t imagine anyone could get through it without at least one death and restart (three or four is probably more realistic).

How I have failed the author : I was playing this on my phone with my left hand while Henry napped on my right arm, so even though I figured out I should really make a map to get through the Chapter 4 puzzle, I just bashed my way through with multiple trial-and-error deaths.

The Vaults, by Daniel Duarte

It’s a rule of thumb that every Comp has at least one oddball entry that strains the bounds of what counts as IF. In the last couple years, Jared Jackson has taken care of this slot, with last year’s deckbuilder and a Zachlike programming puzzle the year before that (I really enjoyed both, for the record). Comes now The Vaults to try its luck: it’s a virtual CCG whose claim to IF-dom appears to rest entirely on the paragraphs of static text that play between bouts of the PvE campaign.

Sadly, I didn’t find much to enjoy here, either as a piece of IF or on its own merits. On the former side, the game’s story appears to be very generic high fantasy, and the paragraphs only stay on screen for a little while, so I missed some of the plot due to alt-tabbing to take notes. Without any choices or interactivity between the battles and the story so far as I could see, there’s not much here for a traditional IF audience to glom onto.

As to the CCG, this isn’t my genre of choice – give me a deckbuilder any day – but even so, I think it’s too slow and confusingly-presented to be much fun. I eventually grokked the gimmick, which is that you have a trio of persistent “keeper” creatures who generate your mana, but only if you don’t use them to attack. That’s a fair enough tradeoff I suppose, but it made me feel like I struggled to make progress, as I was either forgoing attacks, nerfing my mana progression, or unsatisfyingly trying to split the difference. The player’s starting deck is also oddly tuned, with few low-mana creatures, which added to the frustration. Finally, the visual design is muddy, with card watermarks making text hard to read, and colors rather than icons are used to convey too much information, meaning I couldn’t always remember what a creature’s purple number was supposed to mean. All told I won one round, lost the second four or five times, then decided The Vaults simply isn’t for me – though I’d be curious what someone better versed in CCGs thinks, and if future developments in the story make the game more satisfying for IF mavens.

Highlight : Your little keepers are kind of adorable, Jawa-like minions.

Lowlight : One tooltip mentioned that you can link any NFTs you own to the game, which is just the worst.

How I failed the author : I played this during a very late-night (or more optimistically, very early-morning) feeding for Henry, and my fuzzy brain was very much not up to retaining the info conveyed by the tutorial. I also played the opening cutscene but didn’t have the audio on, since Henry was drowsing awake, so the plot was pretty much lost on me (there were scrolls and a dude in armor?)

How the monsters appeared in the Wasteland, by V Dobranov

This short Twine game is basically just one extended chase sequence, but it’s a pacey, thrilling ride that keeps the excitement high without resorting to killing the player. The setup is classic postapocalyptic sci-fi – you and your trusty robot sidekick (actually, maybe you’re the sidekick?) are transporting a mystery cargo across the hostile wastes in your hovercraft when everything goes wrong. Dealing with ship repairs, fending off angry raiders, and surviving the consequences of your patrons’ decision to keep you in the dark keep the player busy, as there’s always a new crisis coming up.

What you’re meant to do next is usually clear, but figuring out the exact right places to look for the tools you need, or how best to shoot up the nomads, can require a bit of fumbling that ratchets up the tension. At first the interface was responsible for some of this clumsiness, since the inventory system is a little idiosyncratic, but once I figured out how it worked everything was very smooth. The story here goes exactly how you would expect, and all the characters remain stock types, but the high quality of the implementation still makes the game a worthwhile use of half an hour.

Highlight : The descriptions of the wasteland were surprisingly evocative, given that it could have easily just been a sketched-in backdrop for the action.

Lowlight : The ending is the one place where the pacing fails; after the clear climax of the story, there’s an extended but simple sequence where you secure transportation for your escape, and then the game ends a bit anticlimactically, without much of a denouement. It would have been more satisfying had the ending been either hard up against the action-packed climax, or pushed back a little to allow more room for the aftermath of the story to be established.

How I failed the author : I was once again playing this left-handed on my phone, so I didn’t copy-and-paste any of the wasteland descriptions to illustrate the highlight – you’ll just need to take my word for it.

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An Aside About Everything, by Sasha

Allegory is deceptively tricky business. At first blush it seems easy enough: take a situation, abstract it to its generalities to make it more universal, heighten the key elements and emotional dynamics, and maybe add a supernatural element or two that works as a slightly-too-on-the-nose metaphor, and there you are. But that second bit where the trap-door lies: pretty much any human predicament, no matter how poignant, can sound trite when you state it as a general proposition. Most of the time it’s the specifics that ground a story and allow others to empathize with it. This is where An Aside About Everything didn’t work for me: this choice-based investigation boasts some evocative atmosphere and satisfying interactivity, but the characters and emotional dynamics didn’t succeed in getting their hooks into me.

The player character – a sort of metaphysical detective who goes by Him – sets out on a missing persons case looking for a woman with whom he’s got some sort of history, then proceeds through various descents and ascents before slipping to an other-worldly backstage, his steps followed all the way by a trio of cryptic women who help him surmount the otherworldly obstacles in his path. It’s all as existentialist-chic as you please (in the movie version, everyone’s always smoking) and there are some interesting choices on offer, as you can lean on different women to help you get through each barrier. But it’s all bloodless – I had a hard time keeping the three helper-ladies distinct, and none of them seemed to have much subjectivity or for that matter an agenda of their won, besides helping Him on His quest. The different areas of the setting are suggestive, but you rattle through them before any has much chance to make an impression. And when you crack the case, the ultimate revelations aren’t especially novel (my sense of the story is that it’s ultimately about not being able to let an ex go after a break up) – sure, there are stories there, but you need to tell them for them to have impact, not just gesture in their direction. Too often, An Aside About Everything feels like it’s holding itself back and contenting itself with allusion rather than committing to something specific.

Highlight : The second sequence, set on an airship, boasts some strong atmosphere and the game’s most resonant choices.

Lowlight : In my first playthrough, I got stuck in the mine area, unable either to proceed or go back to where I came from, and once I realized this wasn’t a statement about the main character’s emotional paralysis, I had to restart (I think I ran into the bug because I went to the mine, listed third in the navigation menu, before the first-listed bar. When I ran through the locations in order, I was able to progress).

How I failed the author : I played the game’s three main sequences in three separate sessions, each separated by several hours as I tended to Henry-related stuff, so that probably contributed to me not being able to keep the characters straight or identify too many clear thematic throughlines.

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The Miller’s Garden, by Damon L. Wakes

A short mood piece – if it were a painting, it’d be a landscape – The Miller’s Garden provides a tidy meditation on impermanence. There’s no backstory or characters, just a situation: the player comes to an abandoned garden by the side of a river, which is slowly being reclaimed by weeds and water, and each day can choose how to try to shore it up – cutting the reeds, mowing the grass, maintaining the rocky banks.

Of course there’s a catch, and the catch is – well, spoilers for a ten-minute game: entropy, because this isn’t a farming sim. No matter how much you shore up the riverbank, the water will eventually drown the garden. Pleasantly, this isn’t just a matter of nature swallowing the hubristic works of man, since my reading of the game is that the construction of the now-defunct mill changed the behavior of the river, and now the river is in turn changing the garden. There’s a nice sentiment that emerges here, as you tend the garden to create some transient beauty before the inevitable comes, without the game implying that this is a futile or useless task (besides the occasional prompt asking you if you’re sure you want to persist until the end – I detected no judgment when I said I wanted to do so.)

It’s a lovely idea and it works on its own terms, but I wished there’d been a little more descriptive zing to the prose. Since this is such a small thing, confined to the same few locations and the same few tasks over multiple days, I would have liked to see a little more detail on exactly what kind of flowers are growing, or having the river’s rise rendered with a bit more sensitivity. Still, there’s a power in restraint in a piece of this kind, so I can respect that.

Highlight : The game is pretty much of a piece, but I got a lot of enjoyment from the opening epigram, which quotes from a recent scientific paper on the game’s exact subject matter – I can’t help but wonder whether it was the impetus for the piece’s creation.

Lowlight : I’m not sure if this was a bug or not, but about midway through the game, the garden’s flowerbed location seemed to disappear, so I could only go from the lawn to the river-bank. I liked that flowerbed, so I missed it!

How I failed the author : it took me way longer to realize the flowerbed had gone away than it should have (blame sleep deprivation).

The Waiting Room, by Billy Krolick

It’s a testament to the state of visual design in IF that in this Comp, a Twine game that uses the default formatting (black background, white text, blue links, that recognizable font) really stands out. This isn’t a critique, though, both because I’ve got no leg to stand on (part of why I like making Inform games is because the idea of having to make aesthetic decisions leaves me in hives), but because when it comes to The Waiting Room, the unfriendly vibe of plain-vanilla Twine helps create a fittingly stark, oppressive mood for this ghost story set at the world’s worst nursing home (predictably, it’s in Florida).

The story hits pretty much the beats you’d expect given that setup, but again, that’s not necessarily a negative. The Waiting Room doesn’t waste much time establishing the protagonist (a newly-hired nurse) or their motivations, focusing more on creating a foreboding atmosphere from the jump, and while the scares start early and rarely stray beyond what’s expected, nonetheless they’re executed well. Some of the story strains credulity – the number of moldering corpses secreted around the place makes one wonder how much the last state inspector got bribed – and it’s hard to imagine many players being tempted by some of the alternate paths on offer, many of which come down to whether you want to cover up for a fellow nurse’s potentially fatal negligence or instead behave like a minimally moral human being. But for a quick horror piece like this, that’s very much secondary to the chills on offer. Since I definitely had hair standing up on the back of my neck at least once, I’m counting The Waiting Room a success.

Highlight : there’s one particular scare (the one hinging on Paulie’s echolalia) that I’ll definitely remember the next couple of times I’m trying to get to sleep.

Lowlight : the protagonist so thinly sketched, I was pretty sure we were headed for a “you were a ghost all along” twist – but nope, it’s on the level.

How I failed the author : I played this one alone at midnight, with most of the lights off – I was keeping an eye on a napping Henry while my wife slept in the other room. For once, rather than failing the author, I think my circumstances meant I played the game exactly the way it should be!

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The Dead Account, by Naomi Norbez

I can’t really talk through my feelings about this one without spoiling not just it, but also my entry into this year’s Comp (Sting). I’m spoilerblocking the rest of the main review, but bottom line The Dead Account gets some real emotion out of a premise that’s simultaneously ridiculous and all-too-plausible (you play a social-network employee whose job is to identify the accounts of dead people and delete them), and is definitely worth the playthrough.

I had two conflicting reactions to the Dead Account: first, a feeling of unfamiliarity given that the social milieu of the dead character is pretty different from anything I’m directly familiar with, and even a bit of artificiality, because I didn’t see why a social network would pay money to proactively close accounts (like, wouldn’t they just wait for the next of kin to get into contact?) But then second, I also felt some incredibly sharp shocks of recognition. That’s because my twin sister passed away a year and a half ago – this is a chunk of what Sting is about, as it’s a memoir – and despite the superficial differences (we were not part of a friend group that played Apex Legends together, for one thing), The Dead Account still manages to hit on some real moments of universality, and I very much found the characters’ actions and emotional responses plausible and engaging. Like, I archived all my old texts with her, and I send her an email on our birthday, though I send it to myself, not to her old account since that forwards to my brother-in-law now. Oh, and our birthday is/was December 3rd, so the fact that the software update that created this new dead-account deletion policy was version 12.3.14 was a little spooky!

This game is a small thing – there’s only the one account to assess, and there’s only really one choice to be made: whether or not to delay deleting the account, at the family and friends’ request. But the choice has some layers to it – I opted to delay, but felt conflicted about it – and as one character says in their DMs to the dead person, life is made out of the small stuff.

Highlight : The game is so much of a piece that it’s hard to break off a single highlight, but I will say I did really enjoy the bee-hive themed title graphic (another point of overlap with Sting!)

Lowlight : This is very much an intended part of the experience, but reading the dead character’s messaging history felt really unpleasantly voyeuristic and I really considered fast-forwarding through (though of course I wound up reading everything anyway. Games make us complicit!)

How I failed the author : I think I did OK with this one – Henry was napping really well and my brain wasn’t too fuzzy, and I managed to bang through three shorter games without too many interruptions.

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Closure, by Sarah Willson

I’ve seen a number of games that ape the text-message format, but Closure manages something novel and very impressive by doing so in parser, rather than choice based, format. It’s a brilliant move, since text-adventure shorthand makes more sense if you’re texting someone in a time-sensitive situation, and Closure goes the extra mile by recasting all the parser error messages in the voice of your friend. Oh, and through some interpreter wizardry, the game actually looks like it’s playing out via text bubbles, complete with short delays but not irritating delays between messages.

Happily, Closure isn’t all style, no substance, because the gameplay itself is satisfying too. It’s a short, one-room game, as you guide your friend Kira through an ill-advised break-in as she searches her ex’s dorm room for an explanation of what happened to drive them apart. It does the usual one-room game trick of providing telescoping detail – there’s a closet, which when opened has another half-dozen objects, and so on – and since this is a character-focused piece, most of what you’re doing is just examining, with only one real puzzle worthy of the name (it’s a pretty clever one, though – it uses a trick that often seems a little unfair in a regular parser game, but makes total sense here). The voice is dead on, and it’s satisfying to peel back the layers of the ex’s plausibly-realized college life.

If I have a quibble, it’s that Kira’s moment of revelation felt a bit on-on-the-nose, and her sense of what counts as someone’s identity is pretty juvenile. Plus I’m pretty sure she could have read between the lines and figured out what was going on earlier than she did. But hey, these are teenaged characters, so maybe that’s fitting.

Highlight: there are a lot of neat touches here, but one of my favorites was the elegant way the game responds if you take the high road and refuse to read the ex’s personal notes.

Lowlight: There’s a mad-libs style opening where you can type in some things you do to relax, with the responses getting braided into the game later on. This works as well as mad-libs stuff usually does in IF, which is to say, awkwardly (both narratively and on a technical level, as I capitalized my entries, and the capitalization was retained even when the responses came in the middle of sentences).

How I failed the author: again, with Henry mid-nap I was able to play through in one sitting, and even took notes and everything! I did forget to save a transcript though, so my new-father brain did still manage to mess something up.

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Thanks for the detailed review! That December 3rd thing is a little spooky, I agree. . . Definitely unintentional. Wow.

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