Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

It’s Comp time again, and of course that means it’s time for me to do some reviews! I typically try to write one for each game in the competition, ideally before the deadline – I know when I’ve entered the Comp, the reviews and attention from players have been the best part, so hopefully this comprehensive approach is at least somewhat gratifying for authors as well as interesting for players. In 2020 I managed this handily, as despite the 103 games in the competition I was working remotely due to COVID and didn’t have too many obligations. In 2021, I had a new baby but was still on parental leave so also got through all the games.

This year, I have a much less nap-happy one year old and have to be a contributing member of society, so not going to lie, while I’m excited to see the host of genres and concepts included in the 71 games entered into this year’s Comp – not to mention the host of new authors – there’s also a fair bit of trepidation about whether I’ll be able to keep the streak alive. On the plus side, I have the advantage of having tested a fair number of games, including a couple of the longer ones, and I have two super-powers: 1) I write fast, and 2) I have a congenital inability to make good life choices when it comes to how much of my free time to devote to IF vs. fripperies such as sleeping.

I’ll be saving the games I tested for last (and depending on whether or not the time left allows for full replays and adequate writing time, might include those as short impressions posts rather than full reviews), and will occasionally bump up shorter choice-based games in the queue since sometimes my IF playing happens while I’ve got a baby sleeping on my shoulder, which is not ideal conditions for 1000-move parser puzzlefests, but otherwise I try to stick to playing and reviewing games in the order the randomizer gives me.

Fair warning – I try to spoiler-block puzzle solutions, and specific plot points if they seem especially climactic or surprising, but typically my reviews go into full detail on questions of theme, mechanics, and overall narrative, so the spoiler-averse might want to wait until they’ve played the game in question before reading my review.

4 Edith + 2 Niki
The Absence of Miriam Lane
According to Cain (BETA TESTED)
Admiration Point
The Alchemist
An Alien’s Mistaken Impressions of Humanity’s Pockets
Am I My Brother’s Keeper?
Approaching Horde!
Arborea (BETA TESTED)
The Archivist and the Revolution
Blood Island
Campus Invaders
Cannelé & Nomnom - Defective Agency
CHASE THE SUN
A Chinese Room
The Counsel in The Cave
Crash (BETA TESTED)
Death by Lightning
Elvish for Goodbye
Esther’s
Glimmer
Graveyard Strolls
The Grown-Up Detective Agency
Hanging by threads
Headlights (BETA TESTED)
The Hidden King’s Tomb
HOURS
i wish you were dead.
INK
Inside
Into The Sun
January
Jungle adventure
The Last Christmas Present
Lazy Wizard’s Guide (BETA TESTED)
Let Them Eat Cake
A Long Way to the Nearest Star
Lost at the market
Lost Coastlines
The Lottery Ticket (BETA TESTED)
Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey
Lucid
A Matter of Heist Urgency
No One Else Is Doing This
Nose Bleed
One Final Pitbull Song (at the End of the World)
One Way Ticket
The Only Possible Prom Dress (BETA TESTED)
The Pool
The Princess of Vestria (BETA TESTED)
Prism
Star Tripper
The Staycation
Thanatophobia (BETA TESTED)
The Thick Table Tavern
The Thirty Nine Steps
Through the Forest with the Beast
The Tin Mug
To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1
Tower of Plargh
Traveller’s Log
Trouble in Sector 471
U.S. Route 160
Under the Bridge
Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s
A Walk Around the Neighborhood
Who Shot Gum E. Bear?
Witchfinders
You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book
You May Not Escape!
Zero Chance of Recovery

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One Way Ticket by Vitalii Blinov

There’s just something about trains, perhaps because they’re the very archetype of the liminal space: in a train car you’re halfway between where you were and where you’re going, not tied to your past and not yet able to make progress on your future. So it is for the protagonist of One Way Ticket, who’s bought the eponymous unidirectional fare in hopes of finding a new life, but who can do little but speculate as to what that life will be about so long as they’re riding the train – all the more so when the train tracks are blocked by a mountain of freshly-harvested corn, and they have to descend and solve the quotidian-yet-cryptic problems of the magical-realistic town where they’ve fetched up.

Maybe magical realism is the wrong comparison to invoke, though, since the vibe I get from the game is less South American literature and more European art film. This is one weird town – they use gold sand for currency, the local shop moves from place to place, the inn only serves food made from corn, people change names depending on what time you visit them, and there are omnipresent jackals who make travel a dangerous business. While you’re simply trying to unblock the tracks, the goals of the inhabitants are far stickier things: an inventor wants to raid the stopped train for part to build a machine of inscrutable purpose, while an unlucky gambler’s on the hunt for the aces missing from his deck. Everyone’s playing an angle – except the tavern hostess, who seems perhaps a little too interested in you, and the train driver and conductor, who’d rather drink and gamble than do their jobs and help you get the train moving again.

It’s not just the existentialist substance of the narrative and characters, though: for that authentic foreign-movie vibe, the text seems translated into English, with the occasional ungainliness, but also occasional uniquely-turned phrase, that entails. Here’s an encounter with a woman trying to enlist the player’s help in finding love, in a dialogue taking place over a shell game:

“The problem with our city is that people have stopped listening to each other. And topics for conversation are another story!”

“Have stopped listening?”

“Well, yes,” she continued the chaotic round dance of cups, “once, probably, people listened to each other, but now everyone is on their own wave — and, to be honest, these waves have already overgrown with mud.”

“What do you mean?”

She abruptly stopped the run of the cups:

“I mean that people discuss the same thing all the time, but everything is so everyday, mundane, boring, trivial… I could list a few more synonyms.”

“Perhaps I understand you.”

“Well I hope.”

“And you need to talk about the sublime?”

“Everyone needs to talk about something sublime from time to time. Especially me.”

(The shell game, like everything else in this town, isn’t on the level, natch).

Similarly, sometimes you come across a simile that makes the prose come to a lurching stop – as the protagonist makes their way through the dining car, they note that it’s “long and empty, like my intestines” – but there are some great images too, like the train station being described as “a low building with a platform, long as a bayonet, cutting the cornfield in two.”

Mechanically, this kind of story seems like it’d be a good fit for a choice-based system, making it easy to read long passages of sometimes-opaque text and present options allowing the player to progress without requiring them to completely understand everything that’s going on. Subverting expectations, though, One Way Ticket uses a very adventure-gamey approach, with quite granular actions, rather than the broader strokes allowed for by less systemic choice-based interfaces. A location typically boasts three or four links for the important objects or people there, and clicking each will usually change the final paragraph of the passage to provide for detail on whatever you selected. Often this paragraph will have additional options for interaction – moving or talking or taking something or what have you – meaning the rhythm of gameplay proceeds sort of like it does in a parser game, where you examine each item in turn and then decide what to do. You also have a modestly-sized inventory, as well as a much larger list of facts or questions you’ve accumulated in your notebook. At certain times, the graphics for these will highlight, indicating that you can choose an item or topic to try to apply to your current circumstances: when talking to the hostess, for example, you can go to the notebook to mention that the Mayor told you there’d be free lodging at the tavern.

It’s a solid system, similar to ones I’ve liked in games by Abigail Corfman or Agnieszka Trzaska. I’m not sure it’s a great fit for One Way Ticket, though, since it serves to slow down the pacing quite a lot: while the inventory is relatively compact, the topic list quickly reaches a dozen or more entries, and sometimes the proper choices to pick are relatively obscure due to the often-confusing nature of the situation and the prose. Exploration is also challenging because sometimes clicking on the name of an object will lock you into choosing an action and progressing, meaning you need to leave and then come back, hopefully remembering which choice was the booby-trap, to fully plumb the depths of each location. Relatedly, the map is big, and often you need to click through several links to get to the travel options in a location – plus, several puzzles have a fair bit of busywork, requiring you to go from one end of the town to the other, sometimes going to the tavern to wait for nightfall too, before you can make much progress. And while this is a big game with lots of stuff to do, the first portion of it seemed fairly linear, with only one puzzle that’s possible to solve at a time even though you’ll quickly unlock a dozen locations (with different night and day locations) and twice as many items and notebook topics.

All this means that after spending an initial hour enjoyably but bewilderedly exploring my way around town and solving a few puzzles, I began to worry and checked the helpfully-provided walkthrough, which indicated I’d barely gotten a quarter of the way in. I started consulting the walkthrough more regularly after that, but still, I’d only gotten maybe 2/3 of the way through when the two-hour judging deadline hit. Usually I’m not shy about scribbling down a rating then pressing on to the finish line for longer games, but here, I found myself anxious to move on. Partially that’s because it’s only the first game in my queue and I’m very aware of the distance to go to play all of them by November 15th, but partially it’s because while I like the ingredients here, the sheer quantity of options and obstacles feels overwhelming – going back to the movie metaphor, what would be a cryptically compelling 85-minute film can get quite exhausting once it rounds the two hour mark, in my experience.

If I wrap up my Comp before the deadline, I’ll definitely try to get back to One Way Ticket, since there is a lot here I’m enjoying – if I do, I’ll go back and update this review accordingly. Part of me, though, almost hopes I don’t; there’d be something apt about leaving the protagonist mid-quest, with one of the gambler’s aces found and halfway through a flirtatious dinner with the tavern hostess, eternally poised on the threshold of resolution, forever stuck between stations.

13 Likes

Approaching Horde!, by Craig Ruddell

After a game that wore its art-house pretentions proudly, the Comp randomizer has given me something far more populist – an old-fashioned zombie B-movie, with desperate survivors of an undead uprising scrambling to survive a surprisingly math-heavy apocalypse. It took me a minute to get a bead on Approaching Horde, I confess. There’s a linear introductory section that’s jokey, but wordy and repetitive (“As you relaxingly try to watch your favorite TV channel from the comfort of your couch, you notice more gunshots than normal ring out in the neighborhood this evening for some reason,” is one of the first sentences, followed quickly by “At first the gunshots don’t even bother you as it’s fairly normal for this neighborhood”) – it also glosses way, way too quickly over the fact that you start your undead-fighting career by punching your never-named spouse to a second death.

The dodgy writing quickly falls by the wayside, though, since once you’re in the meat of the game there’s very little of it. The intro concludes with you assuming command of a group of 10 people, and as the game proper begins, you’re confronted with a table interface allowing you to assign them to one of a half-dozen tasks, from farming to scavenging to researching, all of which work basically as you’d think – you need to balance feeding your survivors with recruiting new members of the group and building new fortifications. Complicating things, though, everything plays out in real time – there are sliders in the left sidebar that tick up to show your progress in each job, moving more rapidly as you assign more people to each task. The cherry on top is that this isn’t a sandbox, because there’s a giant undead horde approaching – er, spoiler warning for those who didn’t read the title – and in twenty minutes, they’ll steamroll your group no matter what preparations you’ve made, unless you’ve managed to dig an escape hole, or research a cure for the zombie plague, in time.

As a demonstration of how a tower defense slash idle game can work in Twine, I’d rate the game as pretty successful. As an overall experience, though, I’m more mixed. Partially this is because despite the cleverness of the gameplay hacking, for a game using an IF authoring system and entered into an IF competition, the writing is fairly minimal – once you’re in the game proper you mostly just get functional one-line updates as your survivors complete each piece of work, and it’s hard to get too excited about reading “your farmers just harvested 6 food from farms!” even once, let alone the thirtieth time (there are ending vignettes, of course, but they don’t meaningfully improve on the opening).

Partially, though, this is because I didn’t find the gameplay itself all that compelling. Ideally managing this paltry remnant of humanity would feel like a desperate exercise in plate-spinning, trying to balance short-term needs like food and the immediate threat of zombie patrols with the need to make long-term investments in research and infrastructure, with the horde serving as a final test of your decision-making prowess. In practice, though, the game was both too hard and too easy: too hard, because the twenty-minute deadline means that faffing about exploring your options will almost certainly mean you’ll run out of time with your victory conditions only half-completed, and too easy, because at least on normal, many of the tasks you can do, like attacking zombie patrols and finding new guns, seem mostly unnecessary and a simple strategy of booming your economy for the first ten minutes (getting to the survivor cap of 50 as quickly as possible, and researching farm tech to minimize the workers you need to maintain that population) then pivoting to cure research for the last ten (which also requires you to capture some zombies for study, admittedly) allowed me to win handily, barely touching the survivor assignment buttons for the last seven minutes, on my second try.

I don’t mean to be too harsh here – getting this system up and running was surely a challenging bit of programming, and the kind of difficulty-tuning it’d take to make the gameplay sing is typically the end result of repeated stages of testing and refinement, which is a lot to ask of a solo developer making a free game and facing a hard deadline. It’s mostly just a shame, because it seems like it’d be fun to explore some of the deeper mechanics here on offer, like searching for unique items, reactivating the radio tower, and training guards’ marksmanship, but the game as implemented seems to punish you for messing about with that stuff rather than mechanically zeroing in on a victory condition. Hopefully there’ll be a post-comp version that takes advantage of seeing how a bunch of players navigate the challenge to make some tweaks – and maybe revises the intro and ending vignettes to be punchier (er) and hit a more consistent tone.

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4 Edith + 2 Niki, by fishandbeer

I sometimes worry that I give short games short shrift – I mean I guess in a way that would be appropriate, as often there’s just less to say about a game that says less and in the attention-economy it’s easy to equate length with value. But still, there’s a lot to admire in a game that knows how long it should be, knows that the 90-second punk-rock version of a song is often strictly better than the 12-minute prog-rock version. In last year’s Comp, I adored some shorter games, like Funicular Simulator 2021, Closure, and My Gender is a Fish (I only just now realized that sometime in the last year my memory had invisibly renamed this game to I am a Fish, which of course would be the title of the inevitable genderqueer Faulkner mashup) – they didn’t need to maunder on endlessly to make an impression.

Sometimes, though, short games are too short to adequately develop their ideas, and sadly, such is the case with 4 Edith + 2 Niki. Per the blurb, this is a dating sim, implemented in basic-Twine style, though it takes a couple minutes to reveal itself as such. You start outside a shanty, given a choice of whether to enter or stay outside. If you choose the latter, you’re treated to a series of increasingly random vignettes, before being railroaded into going outside. Here’s the last, so you get a flavor:

You decide to stay longer. A horrible young man appears and names him a coffee-mouthed boy. Marvel starts entertaining with stories, especially the X-Men, Iron Man, and Dr. Strange sequels. After a while, though, it’s just Enter

Once inside, it turns out the shanty is a spacious office, with six different sub-locations to explore; two have people named Niki inside them, and four have people named Edit (not Edith), each with a different number to distinguish them. The various Edits will ask you on dates or mention an event they’re going to, and after visiting all the rooms you decide which of the four to pursue, at which point the game ends with a different, but identically-cynical, ending involving you getting coupled-up with that iteration of Edit. Like, here’s the one where you go get Slovak food with Edit 1 (I’m like a quarter Slovak, and since that’s an especially random ethnicity even by the low-stakes standards of Eastern Europe you’d better believe I picked that first when I saw it was an option):

You decide to go to the Museum Village, where you will meet Edit 1. At first you fuck like rabbits, but less and less often, and you can listen to his head-voiced laughter at his shitty jokes. Plus, by the end, you’re completely silly.

Lest you think this is an outlier, punishing those who foolishly think Slovak food sounds like a good time – lots of love to my grandmother, but so far as I could tell from her cooking, flour dumplings, sausages, and doughy pastries were the highlights of the cuisine – here’s the one where you go to a concert:

You went to the Anne and the Barbies concert and then you became a couple. Over the years, you realize that she’s a little hysterical, but which woman isn’t. That’s all there is to it.

Maybe that’s a pun, you know like hysterical → hystera → uterus? This is awfully abbreviated to try to draw conclusions from, though, and indeed, that’s how I feel about the game as a whole. Is this meant as a satire of dating sims, making fun of the idea that you make a few low-context choices and you wind up mated for life? Is it trying to say something about the banality of identity in modern society by having all the romantic options have the same name? Is the juxtaposition of dateable Edits and standoffish Nikis (one’s implied to be an ex) getting at the sometimes-arbitrary way people present themselves or don’t present themselves as potential partners? Is the fact that the only option you have is which of these people to date, with remaining self-assuredly single not even a fail state or but-thou-must false choice like the one in the opening, trying to critique the normativity of coupledom, a la Lanthimos’s The Lobster?

I dunno, man, nor do I know what that any of that has to do with Iron Man or TARDIS-like shanties that contain office buildings. It just feels like stuff, and while individual vignettes have some disorienting zip, there’s just not enough here – not enough characters or plot or engagement – for them to cohere into anything with impact.

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LEVITATE BABY has worked wonders for me in the past.

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Just be mindful of the THUD that comes after.

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Thanks for the review Mike!

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I don’t think I’ve ever adequately thanked you for the reviews you’ve written on at least two of my games in the past. Therefore: Thank you very much belatedly!

But really, this is just an occasion to say something about your reviews in general. Not only are they very well written and fun to read. Your benevolence and dedication have made me look at some games a second time (and then with a different and better view). And for that I am very grateful and look forward to it!

(How you manage to do all this is beyond me anyway…)

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Whenever I start to enjoy a bout of overconfidence, I look over the prodigious output of @DeusIrae and @aschultz, and then I start to feel like myself again.

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The Thick Table Tavern, by manonamora

Rarely have I encountered as felicitous a coincidence between a game’s theme and my ultimate feelings on it as I have with The Thick Table Tavern, a high-production-value fantasy bartending sim. It comes on strong and heady, with a cool spinning logo upon startup and an enticing bear-foam animation behind the main menu, and the complex-seeming but ultimately straightforward bartending interface put me in mind of the sense of mastery that comes once you’re a few drinks in. The welcome I got from the companionable cast of characters, meanwhile, mirrored the warm, friendly flush you feel once you’re proper tipsy.

From there, though, things started to go awry. Bugs led to story events repeating themselves, making me feel like I was blacking out and losing my memory. Bartending started to become tedious, like when you’re drinking because that’s what you do, not because it’s much fun anymore. And ultimately, while I thought I’d saved enough money to realize my dream, somehow I must have pissed it all away without realizing it, ending the night broke and embarrassed.

Let’s circle back to the good stuff, though, because there’s a lot of it. This Twine game is one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen, with well-chosen colors and icons and an attractive but functional bartending system that makes it easy to pick out the host of alcohols, mixers, and garnishes you’ll use to construct cocktails for the inhabitants of the generic fantasy town you inhabit. Your co-workers are stereotypes – the gruff boss with a not-at-all-hidden heart of gold, the gossipy barmaid, the sensitive artiste of a chef – but they’re appealing stereotypes who are fun to hang out with, and they seem to care about the protagonist with a low-key affection that creates a pleasant, chill-out game vibe (it helps that the author has a good ear for dialogue). In general the prose feels like it’s translated from another language – there are some homophone errors, like “faint” for “feint” – and pretty much every passage could be edited down by 20 or 30 percent, but the writing is enthusiastic without going over the top. Here’s an early description of a hangover, by way of example:

Still, you do not yet despair from your condition. Instead, you rouse yourself into acting on your behalf, even if blinded and quite alone. Waving your free hand around, you hope to find some sort of light switch to flick or some candle to extinguish, as a way to relieve your fragile glossy organs from this hellish torture.

The structure is a plus too. Each day, you come to work, and get ready for the shift to come – cleaning the bar, restocking it, and bantering with your coworkers. Then you need to fill three or four rounds of orders, with a special event of some kind usually coming around each day’s lunch rush. At closing time, you tot up your tips and measure your progress towards the goal you picked at the beginning – earning enough to pay for membership fees at the adventurers’ guild, buy the bar, or purchase a robot bartender (I think? I’m just judging by the dialogue option for that one so it might play out differently). You’ve typically got a few choices in how you interact with your colleagues and deepen your relationships with them – oddly for a bartending sim, the customers are nameless, faceless abstractions outside of the unique events where you’ll meet a fortune teller, or old married couple doing one last trip, or fourth-wall-breaking spirit dispensing endearingly self-deprecating commentary on the author’s shortcomings.

Most of what you do, though, is mix drinks. The barmaid will give you a set of orders, which you work through one by one using the aforementioned graphical interface. Everything has a whimsical fantasy name, but you can always toggle on a recipe card to learn that Wyrm’s Piss is just a fancy name for beer, or that the ingredients for Sailor’s Demise live up to their billing – gin, absinthe, grenadine, and orange juice, ugh, that’s a headache in a glass. There are three difficulty settings, and playing on Normal, it was always clear what I needed to do, modulo having to decode the icons to realize that cherries actually came under the “berries” category (though they’re actually stone fruit) and relying on some out-of-game knowledge to realize that I could get grenadine by clicking the syrup icon. On hard, apparently there are timers, but overall bartending feels like a pacing mechanism to help immerse yourself in your character’s job.

Unfortunately, I do think the pacing is a bit off. The game runs over 14 days, and it took me about 40 minutes to play through the first of them, which included mixing about 16 drinks, which felt like a lot. Subsequent days went quicker as I realized which bits of text were repetitive, and got more used to the interface, but still, I often wound up having to make 15 or 20 drinks to advance through each day, which feels like too much given the essentially repetitive and unchallenging nature of the bartending minigame. Despite this slight grindiness, though, I was enjoying myself as I wrapped up day seven, which involved the bar owner running a special promotion that saw seemingly the whole village come in for a drink (I mixed 31 of them) – especially since at the close of that day I’d managed to accumulate 321 coins, just over the 300 I needed to achieve my goal (I’d run into a strange bug that meant I only earned 3 coins apiece for the first few days, despite the end-of-day-wrapup screens indicating I should have been getting more like 60-70 each night, but fortunately it wound up correcting itself).

Relieved of the burden of focusing on filthy lucre, I was excited to see what the next day’s special event – so imagine my surprise when on the afternoon of day eight, the bar owner decided to run that same promotion, leading to the same ridiculous rush of patrons. And then imagine my frustration when the same thing happened on days 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, and 14. On the plus side, that meant I finished the game with over 1,200 coins burning a hole in my pocket – but returning once more to the negative, perhaps that meant a counter looped over or something, since on day 15 I got a depressing ending indicating that I hadn’t earned enough for my guild dues after all, and would have to try again.

While it’d taken about three hours to get to this point, I could probably finish a replay in much less time, but I think I’ll hold off on that until I get through the rest of the games, when hopefully some additional mid-Comp updates will squash some bugs – as of this writing, there have already been over a dozen so clearly the author’s admirably dedicated to polishing this one up. It well deserves the effort – I’m bummed that bugs cut short my enjoyment this time out, but once it gets a few more renovations, the Thick Table Tavern would be a rewarding place to be a regular.

9 Likes

The Thirty Nine Steps, by Graham Walmsley

Or maybe I should style the title as The Thirty Nine Steps by John Buchan, by Graham Walmsley? You see, this is a Twine reimagining of the early-Twentieth-Century novel that kicked off the spy thriller genre, albeit with all-new text rather than interpolating the original’s prose. I haven’t read the book, though going in was dimly aware of the plot – a resourceful hero forced to flee an omnipresent conspiracy, sort of a last-century Three Days of the Condor, with the mysterious title referring to some sort of cipher that needed to be unraveled to foil the plot of the baddies – which seemed well-suited to an IF rendering, what with the focus on action and puzzles.

(I also vaguely remember hearing some critiques of the novel as anti-Semitic – there are definitely some wrong ways to depict an international conspiracy – but whatever the faults of the original text, happily there’s nothing like that in the game).

Overall I’d rate this as a successful adaptation. The game has a breathless pace that makes it the interactive equivalent of a page-turner – at every stage, you’re having to live by your wits, eluding your pursuers, trying to make progress on a dead man’s coded notebook, or having to decide whether a seemingly-friendly stranger is a potential ally or a disguised hunter. Throughout, there’s a simple but robust system that sorts most of your choices into clever, bold, or open options – unlike in a ChoiceScript game where these would probably be skills that you would develop through repetitive use, here they’re simply different choices of tactics (in fact sometimes a single decision-point could have multiple clever choices, or none), with the caveat that the best ending is reserved for players who take enough of the trustingly-naïve open choices to maintain their faith in humanity through to the end.

Some of these choices are definitely better than others, mind, and it’s certainly possible to end a chapter with a suboptimal result, or even fail the story entirely. But while there isn’t a save or undo system – they’d probably reduce the tension of the game significantly – in a nice compromise, you can go back and replay each chapter when you hit its conclusion; the few times I tried it, I found it only took a few minutes to retrace my steps and get a more positive outcome.
The game’s prose helps with this overall zippiness. It’s unadorned, but the locution is formal enough to suggest the milieu it’s trying to evoke, and it gets right to the point. Here’s the inciting incident that sets the plot in motion – there’s a lot packed into these two sentences:

The man on the floor was quite dead, a knife through his heart skewering him to the floorboards. He was an upstairs neighbor, a trim man with gimlet eyes, who had looked at me searchingly whenever we passed on the stairs.

I do have a few critiques, mind. One is that while the game generally lets you fail forward, the difficulty of getting an ending where you figure out the plot and foil it completely seems quite high. For instance, several times in your journey, you’ll have a brief respite where you can try to improve your disguise, find some useful items, get some food or sleep, or work on decoding the dead man’s notebook. Obviously, the latter of these is quite important, but as far as I can make out, to suss out the baddies’ plans you need to choose the code-cracking option every single time. Meanwhile, the game flat-out tells you that the final chapter is meant to be played multiple times in order to gather the information needed for a winning run, without a metafictional conceit to justify the need for such outside knowledge.

The second flaw in the story – and given the genre I’m sincerely not sure how heavily to weight this – is that none of it makes the slightest lick of sense. Like, go back to that opening: you wake up with a dead man in your flat, and with all your belongings searched, because the evil conspirators know that the guy they murdered had written down many of their secrets in a notebook. Of course, you find said notebook almost immediately, at which point you have to elude the agents who are keeping your dwelling under observation so they can jump you. This is all well and good in terms of setting up thrilling set pieces, but pause for a moment and it crumples into incoherence. If the bad guys were so worried about this notebook, and so attuned to the risk of the protagonist finding it, shouldn’t they have murdered him in his sleep, rather than obligingly letting him slumber on uninterrupted? Contrarily, if they’d written him off as a threat, why establish such tight surveillance and try to grab him as soon as he leaves his apartment?

The whole game is like this. You hop a train to Scotland, losing yourself in sparsely-populated Highland villages, only to discover that there are conspirators on the train with you or waiting ahead at the station in the smallest of hamlets – if there’s a justification for this other than that they’ve somehow read the script, I didn’t pick it up. Fortunately, coincidences don’t just break for the bad guys: at one point, I was captured but managed to escape the deserted farmhouse where they’d taken me, only to blunder into a river fisherman mid-angling – who immediately recognized me, as he was a high officer in the Foreign Service who already knew I was innocent of the murder the villains had tried to pin on me and cleared my name without the slightest fuss or bother. Meanwhile, the final confrontation with this octopus-like conspiracy, that’s managed to extrude its tentacles across the length and breadth of the British Isles and has dozens of agents everywhere you look, involves facing down two weedy chaps, an elderly gentleman, and their noncombatant maidservant.

I’m not sure whether these are inconsistencies that can be laid at the door of the original, or were introduced in the adaptation. And again, for the thriller genre I’m not sure implausibility is too great of an issue – I seem to recall that the opening chapter of The Da Vinci Code involves an albino self-flagellating Opus Dei assassin monk named Silas escaping from a Spanish prison when an earthquake knocks down the walls, which is a sentence I can’t type without sniggering, though joke’s on me since it sold eight gazillion copies. Indeed, I almost got more enjoyment rolling my eyes at the silliness of the plot, and then just rolling with it, than I would have if everything had fit together with a neat and boring logic. The Thirty Nine Steps doesn’t seem to mind whether you’re laughing with it or at it, meanwhile – it’s too busy rushing from one fun, ridiculous stunt to the next.

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Aww, thanks @OlafNowacki and @DorianPasser. Y’all are too kind, but definitely make me feel better about my objectively-dumb approach to time management!

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Brilliant! I’m glad I wasn’t sipping my coffee when I read these.

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Haven’t played the game yet, but I’ve simply got to speak up on behalf of the original author, John Buchan.

First of all, there’s nothing truly antisemitic in the book - one character does make an ugly statement, but he is discredited for this (by the other characters), and the author himself (in real life) was strongly anti-Nazi and stood up against the mistreatment of Jews.

In other words, please don’t smear Mr. Buchan - he was a really remarkable gentleman. Heck, he even was the leader of Canada at one point! :canada:

Secondly, in the book, the victim starts out alive and on the run. He’s later murdered in the protagonist’s apartment, and only after doing a thorough search does he find the all-important notebook with the encrypted information. In other words, it makes sense why the “bad guys” missed it.

Lastly, once the protagonist high-tails it out of London and into the lovely Scottish countryside (where the author was born and raised), there are some really clever bits on how he escapes his pursuers, including a pretty hilarious part where the bad guys are elitist snobs and thus blind to the realities of the “lower class” orders (the road repair scene).

Also, not to spoil the book for anyone, but the protagonist DOES get captured by the bad guys at one point (so that, at least, mirrors the game play).

Frankly, the daring escapes in the book are fun and exciting (in a kind of MacGyver “regular guy uses his brains to outwit the bad guys” style), but the denouement at the end (which reveals the significance of the 39 Steps and what the conspiracy was all about) is actually kind of weak and anti-climactic.

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Hi Mike, thanks so much for this, I’m delighted! It’s the first IF I’ve written, so if you think it’s pacy and the choice system is robust, I’m more than happy.

Your criticisms are totally fair. On difficulty, I’d tried to make it easy to get a good ending, but hard to get a very good ending. I probably misjudged that, in parts, and I could definitely have made some better choices around the pocketbook (you’re right, you need to pick it up in order to figure out the plan).

On “None of it makes sense”, that’s partly the book’s fault and partly mine. The book does exist in a world of improbable coincidences and suspension of disbelief. That said, I truncated the start of the book, which means I’ve lost some of the explanation of why any of this was happening.

I’d probably differ from Sam a little: I do think there’s a fair criticism to be made of the original book in terms of anti-semitism, especially one particular speech that’s uncomfortable to read today. It’s good to hear what Sam says about Buchan himself, though, I didn’t know about that.

Thanks again, I really appreciate you taking the time to play it!

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The denouement in the book is so weird, isn’t it? He actually plays bridge with his enemies.

It’s such an odd moment that I kept it in the game, but I can’t work out whether I’m celebrating it or mocking it. I wrote some tension music to underscore it, so, honestly, I’m probably making gentle fun of it.

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My first long review :star_struck:

Thank you for trying out TTTT and leaving such a long and detailed review! Thank you as well for the compliment about dialogue, because it is something I really struggle with when I write.

I have found the bug regarding the coins not transferring properly. The fix will be up shortly. Definitely a bug not a feature. It’s also partly why you got stuck in a loop of not getting your coins and got a bad ending (sorry).
Regarding the repeat of the promotion, that should not be happening (also the first time this was raised). No “large” event should repeat itself aside from cleaning your station in the morning/evening and restocking the bar during lunch. I’ll go through my code again and find the issue :crossed_fingers: .

I did build the game by having the bartending mini-game and overall UI ready before the story. So it looks visually more polish than it reads (more show than substance). All the bottles took a while to get ready.

Some shorter answers to your questions/points:

  • The Bartending Box 3000 is just a fancy mixing kit (with some ~magic~ infused in the utensils).
  • Proofreading is often a hit/miss with me. I try to use multiple proofreading programs to help me out, but I think my French catches up with me and takes over the reins sometimes :confused:
  • I got a bunch of bug reports during the first morning and fixed it as they came through. The amount of bugs fixed is not that long, I just kept updating the file as soon as I got the report (or broke my code again trying to fix it).

The pacing comment is very fair. This entry was supposed to be muuuch longer and have many more named patrons (some even coming back), which would have probably made the introduction feel less off. But time constrains got the best of me (hence the Fourth-Wall patron appearing). In hindsight, my entry might even have been more suited for a ‘Spring Thing’ type of Comp.

I also tend to write A LOT ( look at this response… ) and put as much as I can (unconsciously) on paper. Writing concisely has always been a struggle (even back at school) and cutting stuff is hard.

Regarding the mixing becoming a bit of a chore, that’s understandable. Because I didn’t have time to essentially add more named NPCs, I chose instead to up the overall number of drinks you serve to the nameless patrons (it’s coded to pick a random one) so the player could still earn enough coins by the end of the game. I think the balancing of tips/serving is still a bit off. I’ll lower it down a tad. And I’ll need to test it again after the Comp (especially after I add more NPCs).

Thank you again for playing the game and taking the time to go through the whole thing before writing your review! Really appreciated.

on to fixing some bugs

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That’s tough! Proofreading your own work is hard enough without throwing an extra language into the mix.

The advice I usually see given to people in your situation is to reach out and see if you can get a native English speaker to help proofread. The community here is really friendly and willing to help!

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Yep. I proofread an English translation of a Russian game last year, and I’m currently proofreading a Postmortem for a Spanish speaker. I rather like doing it. You can always ask me, @manonamora .

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Thank you! I might DM you then :slight_smile:

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