The game is unfinished, and it ends pretty soon after this, asking players to submit suggestions on how it should end.
A Chinese Room, by Milo van Mesdag
There have been a lot of war novels written, and most of them communicate the same simple message: war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force no matter how just one’s cause may or may not be (you’d think this message is in fact so simple that after people had written two or three books like this, there wouldn’t be a need for any more, but [gestures impotently] look around). Catch-22, though, stands out on the list – in large part because it’s funny, but also because it asserts the eternal war-novel truism in the context of a “good” war (WWII), and applies the critique beyond combat, to the mere experience of being in the military (again, even a “good” one, like the American army). The novel has several leitmotifs, but I’d say the most critical is “every victim is a culprit”; it’s a motto that seems, and is, harsh, but it I think accurately conveys how everyone who’s broken down by a brutal, absurd system and goes along with it reinforces the system, and makes it harder for anyone else to resist. Because Heller is an optimist, and primarily writing about characters who live in a democracy, however flawed, the novel’s ending still offers the hope of transcendence, of leaping straight out of the totalitarian negative-sum game and winning individual, and maybe even eventually societal, freedom.
I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Russian war novels that end like that.
A Chinese Room is a hard beast to sum up. The temptation is to start with the gameplay, since that’s probably what’s most distinctive about it. An asymmetric two-handed multiplayer game, it’s designed so that two people pass keywords back and forth maybe half a dozen times over the course of the two or so hour playtime, which encode the decisions each one is making. It’s an elaboration of the system the author used in last Comp’s Last Night of Alexisgrad, though it’s more smoothly implemented here – the passwords are just words, rather than random-seeming gobbledygook, and it’s better-paced for asynchronous play, since there are fewer keyword-exchange points with longer chunks of gameplay in between. Even though I was afraid it’d be difficult to play this one as intended since I’ve got a teething one-year-old holding my game-playing schedule hostage, I was still able to get through it without much difficulty over the course of a day or so (shoutout to @aschultz for being my partner).
With that said, the game can be played single-player too. And to assess whether I think that’d work just as well as playing it as intended, I need to delve into the plot – or at least the half of the plot that I experienced, since the two players guide entirely different protagonists in entirely different circumstances who don’t, I believe, ever directly encounter one another, and I think this ignorance of what exactly is going on in the other player’s story is an important part of the game.
As a result, discussing the narrative even in very broad strokes could constitute a significant spoiler to half of potential players – and actually, I find I want to talk about it in considerably more detail than that. So I’m going to spoiler-block the rest of this review. For those leaving us here, I’ll just say that A Chinese Room is a very grown-up, very intense work that’s sufficiently strong that I’m not overly bothered that the last ten percent kind of falls apart. Definitely read the content warnings first, but if you think you can handle it, it’s very much worth a play.
So, the plot(s). Each player picks a protagonist – a woman named Caroline or a man named Leon, with the content warnings flagging that Leon’s story is more descriptive about the game’s shared, dark themes. I opted for Caroline, though after finishing my multiplayer play-through I dipped into the single-player version of Leon’s story to confirm that I understood the basic setup. It rapidly becomes clear that, despite the Western names, the story’s set in a slightly-alternate version of Russia that’s successfully achieved its war aims in Ukraine and is now demobilizing and toggling back to “peace” in order to escape sanctions (in fairness, since this long game must have been started at least several months ago, when Ukraine’s current battlefield successes would have seemed unlikely, it’s unclear how intentional the alternate-reality angle). We’ll get back to Leon later, but Caroline is a civilian on the home front. Indeed, her life at first appears little touched by the war: her husband is an “opposition” politician (he has a government contact who tells him exactly what level of dissent is allowed), her children are students, and she herself is a housewife with a brain and an economics degree but no socially-permitted way of using either.
The inciting incident is deceptively low-key. Her husband’s fixer asks her to serve as a guide for a visiting functionary – a mid-level IMF bureaucrat named Matteo – and show him around. So you do, with a bunch of choices for whether you want to take him to e.g. a European-style restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall local joint for lunch, which reveals different aspects of your society to him, and by extension, the player. In the early stages, things seem corrupt – the opening scene sees Caroline figuring out how to bribe her husband out of a speeding ticket – and ramshackle:
>Now you’re here, the Office of Regional Development looming over you, bright concrete all in sharp lines and steeples, like an uninspired Lego Notre Dame all in white. No choice but to push the doors open, the inside clean and orderly but less impressive than the facade would have implied.
But nothing’s too bad – indeed, while your life isn’t pleasant it’s still fundamentally livable and has its joys as well as its pains. And indeed, this assignment, strange as its genesis seems, is one of those high points for Caroline; again, you can decide how to approach him, but he’s an interested and sympathetic figure who’s curious about your take on everything you see, and his own thoughts without being a stereotypical economist-guy. Depending on how you play your cards, this can lead into a bit of a flirtation, and even possibly an affair, but the player is very much in the driver’s seat.
But – of course there’s a but – as you play the game, you start to get the sneaking suspicion that none of this matters very much, because for all the different options about how to manage your relationship with Matteo, the password you send to the other player doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any of that. Instead, as one portion of your duties, each day you’re ordered into a room where there’s a machine with a blinking colored light, a chart relating different colors to numbers, and a keypad for entering in the number. When you reach one of these sequences, the game pauses while you wait for your partner to send you a color; then you pick a number and send that along in return.
This is clearly ominous as hell, and you have the opportunity to push for answers – but none were easily forthcoming at least in my playthrough, and besides, it was clear that Caroline had a lot to lose from asking too many questions. Those fears also animated a tense late-game sequence, where a family lunch is interrupted by an anti-war protest that your son drifts to – by this point it’s clear that the war was illegitimate and involved atrocities, but it’s also clear that this is not a regime that tolerates dissent. You can choose to let him stand with the demonstrators, or try to pull him away (me? I thought of my son, and dragged the kid out). But again, none of these decisions get fed into the other half of the story.
This is all very effective, I found. The game elegantly gets you to go along with totalitarianism, convincingly demonstrating the consequences of resistance and the unlikelihood that it would even accomplish anything, since you’re just a humble housewife and who cares what you do? The sequences with the machine add an undercurrent of dread, while the pleasant time you spend with Matteo gives you something to focus on besides how fearful and incomplete everyone around you has become. It’s well-written, too; there’s a lot of dialogue here, and a lot of detail-work around how international institutions like the IMF functions – while I’m not an expert on that sort of thing, I do have a law degree and read a lot of policy papers, and almost everything rang true to me. And the game can wax lyrical sometimes too; here’s a description of taking a train to the capital:
> You sit in darkness for a time then you cross a border and the sky begins to brighten again. Then suddenly all sky is gone, all distance dissolved into a blur of buildings; an endless salute of identical concrete dwellings. The lit windows and the lives upon countless lives being lived out on the other side of them merge into straight lines of light.
It’s a little dehumanizing, but not too aggressively so. And in fact while the portrayal of Russian political society is appropriately dark, there are positive aspects of the culture too – Caroline derives meaning from her Orthodox faith and her love of cooking, and the regular people she and Matteo meet are mostly… well, regular people, with some assholes but many nice folks too (I think the deliberate use of Western names, the very sparing use of details that could feel exotic to the presumed Anglophone audience, are in service of making Caroline’s experiences feel less alien, so it’s easier to sympathize with her and find her society natural). It all feels very plausible, and while it’s clearly an unpleasant life compared to what a Western audience is used to, it seems to work well enough for Caroline – or at least, it’s clear that if you have her step too far out of line, it could suddenly start working much, much less well for her and her family.
It lures you in, in other words; the game pushes your buttons sometimes, but it opens up opportunities too. You’re a victim, you’re a culprit.
Then the shoe drops, and the game starts to lose its footing. I won’t spoil the ways Caroline’s story can end in terms of where she and her family (and Matteo) can wind up, since there appears to be a range of options and anyway these details are less important to the point the game is making, but I will spoil what the deal is with the room with the lights and the numbers – so don’t deblur the next paragraph if you want to experience the revelation for yourself.
What’s going on is that the powers that be have developed a new machine for committing war crimes in a way that displaces responsibility for atrocities. As best I can piece together, over in occupied Ukraine – in Leon’s share of the plot, I believe – there are a group of Russian soldiers and officers who decide, in a purely theoretical way, what should be done with POWs and civilian prisoners who have resisted the invaders in particular ways. These theoretical recommendations are fed into a secure room via a color-coding system, presumably indicating different kinds of tortures. Someone in that secure room then selects a number based on the color they’re seeing, which instructs a machine back in the prison camp to maim and/or murder the prisoners whose crimes align with whatever scenario the soldiers were “theoretically” discussing. Caroline, of course, was one such patsy, and when she unknowingly keyed in a 5 because she saw a light flashing red, she, I’m guessing, was telling the machine to kill innocents.
(This, at last, is the Chinese Room of the title – it refers to a philosophical thought experiment denying the “Strong AI” hypothesis that you could make a computer with the same kind of mind a human has. The idea is that you could train a person to respond to a certain set of inputs with a corresponding set of outputs, without actually understanding what they were doing, even though outside observers would impute conscious intentionally to the observed cycle of action and response).
As a metaphor, sure, this works – Caroline’s a cog in a totalitarian machine, unwittingly but also kinda wittingly participating in a sick society’s crimes. But as a diegetic element of the story, I had a hard time swallowing it. Why would the regime construct this complex mechanism? In the real world, Russia isn’t exactly fussed about covering up the crimes against humanity it’s been committing, and the alternate version in the game doesn’t seem significantly more squeamish; in neither case is it clear how consequences would be enforced. And while there’s a way in which this game casuistically could allow the regime to formally displace liability from respected military officers to disfavored civilians, it’s hard to imagine any Western governments taking this sophistry seriously. Perhaps intuiting the weakness of the arguments here, the game presents them skeletally, in broken excerpts overheard while Caroline is distracted or in distress – it almost holds together as it’s being presented, but it breaks apart as soon as you start thinking about it.
The thing is, the whole device rigmarole isn’t thematically necessary. Even without the metaphor, the game had managed to establish the awful dynamics of life in a totalitarian society! If anything, I found this sci-fi MacGuffin confused things, muddying up responsibility and making it easy to point the finger at the cartoon villains who’d constructed these torture devices instead of reflecting on the choices I’d made to have Caroline protect herself and her family at the expense of what we both knew was right.
It is necessary for the two-player mechanic to work, though – there needs to be some gameplay connection between the two strands of the story in order to make it a multiplayer game, and not simply a single-player story you play through in two halves. It’s true that knowing there was another player making decisions out there stoked my paranoia about what was going on, and decisions in the room with the device do have an uncanny Milgram-Experiment vibe that might not work as well without knowing someone else was going to be doing something based on what I sent them. So this isn’t a case where it’s easy to see how the game would work if you excised the piece that I don’t think works as well – still, I can’t help but wonder whether the game evolved past its initial conception, and perhaps could have benefitted from a more radical late-in-the-day rethinking.
As I said way (way, way) back at the beginning of this review, though, I still found A Chinese Room very compelling – I tore through it, nervous and engaged the whole time – and it left me with a good amount to think about even without playing the Leon portion of the story, which I’m sure has even more queasy scenes of moral compromise (I’m not tempted to check it out, I have to confess; while I’m sure it’s well done, I don’t get on with depictions of torture). Even without its technical elements, the game’s a highlight of the Comp, taking on real issues in a grounded, sophisticated way and leaving the player without easy answers – besides, yes, that war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force and totalitarian regimes make it even worse.
Oh wow Mike you’ve given me so, so much to think about. Thank you so, so much! I won’t talk to any of my intentions here or now (whether I do a post mortem or not I’ll definitely talk to some of your points and questions in the discussion thread once the comp closes), but I will say that the other half does not dwell on the torture, although it is there even if the ‘camera’ does not show the vast majority of it (the worst bit is actually a character describing something that happened to them in the past) (also as a side, side note, don’t read my petit mort ectocomp submission, it’s very graphic) and anything that mentions something I wrote and Catch 22 (my favourite novel) together makes me incredibly, incredibly happy.
Oh, great, looking forward to your follow-up thoughts! And I’m feeling very happy that the Catch-22 namecheck wound up being on point – sometimes I make these associations and the author is like “what are you even talking about?” which doesn’t make me feel like a very perceptive player But I definitely felt the kinship in what you were doing and what Heller was doing. I love that book too, definitely in my top ten.
A Walk Around the Neighborhood, by Leo Weinreb
A Walk Around the Neighborhood has a somewhat deceptive title. Like, close your eyes, picture what you do in the game based just on those five words and knowing it’s a parser game: I mean it’s right there, isn’t it? You take a stroll around some streets, maybe meet some neighbors who have some small problems, carry out some light fetch-questing to the corner shop; possibly there’s a park or bit of woods you can poke your head into, and there’s a little maze or something. But no, there’s a bait-and-switch – instead, what we’ve got here is a one-room puzzler, because while you’d like to go for the eponymous walk with your partner Alex, first you need to find your wallet, and charge your cell phone, and get your keys, and put on a mask… and since you’re working off a days-long hangover, none of this is as easy as you’d think.
There’s another layer of deceptiveness, though, because again, close your eyes and picture what the game is like based on that description: it’s a tough-as-nails pixelbitchfest, with tons of scenery (a few pieces of which will turn out to be important) and implausible puzzles that take what should be a grounded premise and make it absurd. However – twist upon twist! – A Walk Around the Neighborhood also manages to escape this escape-the-room stereotype. It’s a charming, laid-back game that’s smartly designed so that you can tackle its reasonable challenges in a bunch of different ways, and reach a satisfying, plausible ending even if you don’t feel like following the scavenger hunt to its bitter end.
It takes a little while to realize this, admittedly; I let out a groan when the intro stopped and I realized how long the list of stuff I’d need to collect was, and how concomitantly long the list of living-room furniture to poke at was, too. But that list of objects is pretty much it – there aren’t like sub-items and sub-parts fractally expanding the game space to ludicrous levels. And while many one-room games are dense but “steep”, with a host of puzzles that all depend on each other in a mostly linear sequence, this one is quite flat; there are one or two that need to be solved in order, but for the most part, there’s nothing that’s useless or out of bounds from the off, and wherever you start your efforts, you’re likely to make some satisfying progress.
The individual puzzles are well-designed, too. There are no secret messages or color-coded signals or anything like that, just a jumble of missing keys that have largely wound up where you would expect, and a couple of logical object-interaction puzzles. Sure, you’ll need to LOOK BEHIND and LOOK UNDER stuff, but that’s de rigueur for a game like this, and it specifically prompts you with those verbs so I think it plays fair on that score. A few are a bit more creative, including some that require watching TV for inspiration, but even these are quite grounded, helping maintain the integrity of the pleasant, low-key premise. And if you run into trouble, you can always check in with your partner, who can give you some light, in-world hints while proving a pleasant look what the relationship is like (there are regular hints, plus a walkthrough too).
Despite the simple building-blocks and the relatively short running time – I got one of the two “complete” endings in about 45 minutes – it’s surprisingly deep, too. You see, you’re not stuck on this train until you’ve managed to retrieve all your possessions – there are over a dozen additional off-ramps, where you get sucked into some other activity instead of going on that much-delayed walk. These are all easy enough to back out of with an UNDO, and crucially, they’re not treated as bad ends – sure, your partner might lightly chide you for not getting some exercise, but typically they involve doing something else that’s fun or useful, so it’s enjoyable to try stuff that’s not on the scavenger-hunt list to see if you can discover one of these premature endings.
Tying everything together, the tone is light without getting silly. As the presence of a mask on the list indicates, the game’s set during COVID times, but not in an intrusive or depressing way. And the protagonist has an affable voice that made me want to help them out – as befits the rest of the game, they’re not like aggressively characterized and the prose is by no means show-offy, but it’s technically quite clean and does a good job efficiently putting a little bit of personality into the straightforward descriptions of quotidian things:
The key ring currently holds a backdoor key, although it usually also holds a car key, a house key, a work key and a bike key.
Unfortunately, this is a common occurrence. Your key ring doesn’t quite make a full loop, so if you’re not careful with them (as happens from time to time, especially when you’re drinking or out with friends), they fall off without you realizing it.
Admittedly, there are a few items that have a default “you see nothing special about the XX” description, which really shouldn’t be the case in a small albeit jam-packed game like this, but at least it’s for stuff like AA batteries, where the lack of description isn’t holding the player back any. Other than that, I didn’t run into any bugs or implementation oversights. Really, this is a smooth, low-friction game; it’s cheerful and pleasant and rewarding to play. It’s not an angsty, story-heavy game that’s going to tax your brain and challenge your ability to put together a complex narrative, sure, so I suppose you could level the criticism that in some respects it’s a bit lightweight. But with a title like A Walk Around the Neighborhood, is that really what you’d be expecting? No, it does what it sets out to do, and very satisfyingly at that; it’s a quiet but clear highlight of the Comp.
neighborhood mr.txt (62.2 KB)
Lost Coastlines, by William Dooling
I generally find people who like to bang on about their unpopular opinions kind of irritating; typically they’re either casting a perfectly normal opinion as “unpopular”, or taking a perverse, trollish glee in pushing what’s often thoughtless contrarianism. In both cases it’s unpleasantly attention-seeking – like, just say what you’re going to say and let it stand on its own.
But – of course there was a but coming – I am going to fail to take my own advice here, because I think before you read this review, you should know that I don’t like Fallen London. I know that this is a minority view, especially around here, and I can appreciate the appeal. The weird-Gothic setting is creative, and the writing is very good at prodding the player’s imagination with a whisper of a suggestion here and an unexplained proper-noun there. And the idea of a role-playing game where the highest-stake conflicts aren’t about shoving your +18 Flaming Zweihander of Golgothan Fury into someone else’s entrails 17-24 times, but decocting the rarest vintage to impress jaded partygoers or gambling your soul in a high-stakes poker-game – yes, very cool. But despite the quality of the fiction, I can’t look past the mechanics. Everything you do gets commodified – if you have a flirtatious encounter, the game informs you that you’ve gained 13 Memories of Kisses, and if you get betrayed by a co-conspirator, you gain the Vow of Revenge quality. And on and on and on, until your character is toting around dozens of different abstractions and enough personality tags to populate a madhouse.
For some players, I can see how that leads to greater engagement by tying the narrative and mechanical sides of the game together more tightly, but for me, it just makes everything feel arbitrary. The sprinkling of flavor across the top isn’t enough to distinguish the various sub-currencies that begin to feel interchangeable, and the transparency about how your stats translate to a probability of succeeding in any particular course of action reduces choice to just trying whatever’s most likely to succeed. After a very short time playing, I even found myself skimming the lovely prose, since all that mattered was the number. This is a very self-defeating way to play Fallen London, obviously – and I’m aware that most people engage with it in a much more rewarding way – but I can’t figure out how to turn off the part of my brain that jumps straight to the mechanics; I’m like the guy in the Matrix who just sees the code behind the simulation.
I’ve allowed myself to go off on this digression at length because, for all that it has notable differences, my experience of playing Lost Coastlines is 90% similar to how it felt to try Fallen London. This is a big game, taking the protagonist into a randomly-generated dreamworld that’s home to dastardly pirates, sentient frogs, diamonds that hold magic in their hearts, and a whole city of clowns (admittedly I noped the hell out of that one rather than explore it). There’s an RPG-style character generator where you can focus on your fighting or sneakiness or seacraft – oceangoing is a key part of the world, with settlements scattered across a series of islands – and choose a few additional advantages, then you can opt into a nicely-done (albeit occasionally infodumpy) tutorial that walks you through the basics, or skip it in favor of reading the high-production-value manual that comes with the download, and then you’re unleashed on this world of adventure to make a name for yourself. You can explore randomly – sometimes coming across blank spots on the map, where you’re given the opportunity to name them – or take on quests for various factions, or trade commodities from one village to another. And at most locations, you’ll encounter a little storylet where you’ll have a choice of bespoke options, like whether to STUDY or PLUNDER a set of ruins, and get some money – here called “pleasance” – or Fragments of Knowledge or some other reward, if you succeed at a stat test.
It’s a lot to dig into, and there’s even a good balance between randomly-generated content and hand-crafted locations that seem to offer deeper, less randomized storylets with unique mechanics and dependencies on stuff you do, or people you meet, in the rest of the world. And there’s a medium-length sea battle system. All of this is stuff I should dig, but unfortunately, despite all the craft that went into Lost Coastlines, it still left me kind of cold. It just gave me that same old vibe that it didn’t matter where I was exploring, mostly the events were being pulled out of the same hat, with just a different probability distribution depending on where I was sailing. And for all that there are many kinds of rewards and things to collect, they all seem to work similarly, either directly increasing your stats or pleasance or providing abstract coupons that could be redeemed for these benefits in the appropriate circumstances.
It wasn’t long before I was mindlessly sailing the seas, looking for whatever options seemed most likely to succeed and skimming the resulting text to see which numbers were increasing. Again, this is maybe just something broken about how I’m able to relate to games like this, though I do think there are a couple factors that maybe exacerbated the problem. The most superficial is that I find the default ADRIFT presentation ugly and a bit hard to read, and though there are a variety of view options I haven’t been able to find a combination that’s any better. The most significant, though, is that the overall game structure isn’t very compelling. While there do appear to be hard-coded stories, there isn’t an overarching plot to follow; at any point you can choose to wake up from the dream, and you’ll get a score that’s just your pleasance minus the sum of negative characteristics you’ve accumulated. I ended the game twice, once with a couple hundred pleasance and once with about 1,500, but I got the same perfunctory ending each time, with no narrative reward or even context for what’s a good score and what’s a pathetic one – as a result, I didn’t feel myself especially motivated to try again to cover more ground or get a bigger number just for the sake of it.
My enjoyment was also reduced by the suspicion that the game could use a little more tuning – that’s a little churlish to suggest given the scale of what one amateur author has created here, but still, it reinformed my mechanical mindset when I realized that the penalty from failing to feed my crew was significantly lower than the cost to buy food, so I might as well let ‘em starve. I also felt like I succeeded much less frequently than the odds cited by the game would imply; I lost like four Chancey tests in a row, for example, when I should have had like a 55-75% likelihood of succeeding at each. Sure, could be that’s just the luck of the draw, but it grates, especially since UNDO doesn’t change random results and at least in my playthrough, I found it pretty hard to get much of a toehold in the early going. Plus I think I ran into a significant bug when I visited the aforementioned City of Frogs – my options were either to hire one using a resource I hadn’t yet found, or attempt to gain their trust, but nothing I typed would allow me to have a go at the latter choice, so I had to UNDO my way out of there.
I’m curious to read other reviews here, because as with Fallen London, I’m guessing that my reaction is pretty idiosyncratic – I can recognize the passion and effort the author put into the game, so I’m hoping that once again my opinion is an unpopular one, and there are other players who can give it the praise I think it deserves.
Exactly. I started ignoring my notification e-mails less than two weeks after I signed up.
I think they’ve forgotten about me. Shhh…
But then I do like Lost Coastlines. The human brain…
INK, by Sangita V Nuli
In one or another of my reviews, I think I’ve said that what I’m generally trying to do here is look at what a game seems to be saying, then engage with that somehow; depending on the work, that might mean analyzing whether or how the game meets that goal, or talking about my personal response to the questions it raises, or whatever seems most interesting or productive to talk about. But that’s the starting point: what is the author and/or game getting at?
Where things get difficult for me is when I finish a game and I’m not sure how to answer that question. Sometimes the general gist is clear, but there’s something about the implementation that muddies things up, so that’s a reasonable jumping off point. And sometimes what’s being communicated is mostly just: this is a game, have fun with it. That’s fine too! But INK represents the most challenging category; I get the themes the author is working with, and some of how the game folds, spindles, and mutilates them through its interactivity makes sense to me. But the different pieces are stubbornly failing to come into focus for me, and I’m honestly not sure whether that’s a reflection on the work, or on the reviewer (who, having just had a flu shot, is maybe having a hard time getting anything to come into focus right now). I suppose there’s nothing for it but to jump in and describe how I experienced the game, but apologies if this review winds up even less edifying than is typical.
Starting with the basics, INK is the author’s second entry in the Comp, after U.S. Route 160 – props for industriousness! – but the focus on loss (EDIT: I previously also said they both used Texture, but my memory was playing tricks and U.S. Route 160 is actually a Twine game. Thanks @mathbrush!), the two strike me as fairly different. For one think, INK invokes poetry more than prose in how it presents its words. For the most part there are complete sentences, and only a few rhymes, but line breaks make the reader pause and engage with the writing in a slower way:
Everyone talks about starting over
but it’s all fluff and no detail
nothing about the process of
rewiring your brain
As this excerpt indicates, the story is all about a protagonist coming to grips with the death of a loved one – I believe it’s a romantic partner, but I could be misremembering whether the possibility of a family member or friend is left open. In fact the game is short on specifics – who the protagonist is, where the action is taking place, even what happened to the dead woman – which usually I dislike, but wasn’t as much of a barrier as usual for me here. That’s because while the narrative may be vague, the mental and emotional contours of the protagonist’s grief are drawn with firm assurance. The above-quoted bit rings extremely true to me, and there’s a later scene where you attend a support group that also hits hard:
You don’t look anyone in the eyes
It’s easier to pretend there’s no one listening
But the words are scraped out
And suddenly you can’t stop
You’re telling every anecdote you can find
About the wildflowers she’d find
The little flecks of green in her eyes
How she was the purest kind of kind
She lives again in the pauses between breath
The game’s inciting incident is also strong, and similarly seems to me to say something true about the experience of losing someone. The protagonist is haunted by a letter that she thinks her dead loved one wrote to her before she died; she catches glimpses of it, finally finds it at a park bench that was special to the two of them, then brings it back to her home and gives it pride of place on the mantle while deciding whether or not to read it. It’s a potent image for what we carry of those who’ve passed on before us – in the author’s notes for my last game, I talked about the joys and sorrows of having a mental model of one’s predecessors still rattling around one’s brain – and also resonates with the more concrete hope that there’s something, anything left of your dead loved one that can still speak to you, share a new word, so that the relationship isn’t completely and eternally finished.
The envelope isn’t just an envelope, though. It’s printed with a dark, menacing ink that bleeds through the paper and infects the protagonist’s thoughts, before eventually becoming concrete in a distorted image of the dead woman who takes up residence with the protagonist. This fantastical twist provides the spur for interactivity, as there are quite a lot of choices and quite a lot of branching. You can accept help or wallow in self-pity, you can resign yourself to your new living situation or try to reject the inky double.
And I confess, here’s where the game lost me, because I started to lose track of the metaphor. Is this about having one’s life taken over by the memory of your loved one, so you can’t move forward and engage with those who are still living? If that’s the case, wouldn’t the double have positive qualities that lure you away from the present, instead of the twisted parody that’s actually presented? And the endings also diverge, from resigning yourself to the horrible situation, to trying but failing to escape it, to become an ink creature yourself; again, I had trouble unpacking how to relate the incidents of the plot to the emotional core that gave the first half of the game its power.
I repeat, this could just be me being dull and suffering from flu-shot side effects – so I’m underconfident offering an assessment or any feedback on how the game could have worked better for me. I will tentatively say that I think there might have been a bit too much choice, and a bit too much openness to the narrative. There’s a thin line between an allegory that’s too obvious and one that’s too diffuse, but when you’re tapping into something as elemental as INK is I think there’s more upside to marshalling one’s powers and pushing for the catharsis or resolution that seems most fitting, rather than frittering away momentum on too many different dendrites of story. Again, though, this could be wrong and if I’d played the game in other circumstances I might have thought it held together beautifully. At any rate, while it didn’t completely land for me, the well-observed depiction of mourning and evocative central image mean that I still found INK a rewarding experience.
Route 160 uses the Twine engine, making these two games even more different. I wouldn’t have thought they were by the same author, so I’m glad you pointed that out!
Oh, for the love of – thanks for the correction. I can’t even blame this on the flu shot, I had in my head that Route 160 was Texture due to the similarities between it and Chase the Sun, and @StJohnLimbo’s comment above about all the Texture games coming from the same workshop and that maybe being an explanation for the overlap in themes; my brain elided that the connection was based on INK being in Texture, not Route 160. I’ll make an edit!
Hey! Thanks so much for this review, I really appreciate it. I loved reading it, very useful, and some great lines in there. Loved the line about ‘who does have that in their comfort zone?’, haha! You raised some great points throughout it for me to address. And thanks for adding the EDIT, where you mentioned it had some zip in its step! Thank you again!
Your mention of the “Brechtian” review pointed me to Arno von Borries. That in turn reminded me that I still have Gotomomi on my ever more leaning to-play stack.
Thanks for the reminder. I enjoyed your story about your Brechtian flash of insight and your experience of watching anime out-of-context.
Traveller’s Log, by Isaac (or possibly Null Sandez)?
The ur-philosophy of video games was surely Existentialism. Regardless of whatever thin veneer of plot was spangled across the decals of early arcade cabinets – Space Invaders, Asteroids, what have you – in practice the player found themselves in an endlessly repeating world, set to some cryptic task that would finish only when their patience, or quarters, ran out, the myth of Sisyphus transformed by the alchemy of late capitalism from a punishment to an amusement. True, the ever-increasing score in the top corner provided some indication that progress was possible, but assigning meaning to an arbitrary number surely takes an act of will – and while, as overclocked apes, we’re wired to be susceptible to the draw of competition, even Camus couldn’t have come up with a vision of conflict more absurd than vying over a Pac-Man high score table. And even video games’ nerdier cousins weren’t especially different: the early treasure hunts of Adventure and Zork are just more score chases, albeit with gestures towards genre tropes to provide a bit of texture. The player is nothing but the sum of their choices, starting with the choice to assign a value to success at all.
We’ve gotten better at evading this dynamic over the years – with strategies ranging from leaning into the competition angle, drawing meaning from imagined dominance, to cloaking fundamentally empty, endlessly-abnegating gameplay in ever-more-elaborate narrative disguises, and maybe every once in a while creating something that can stand alongside the best music and novels and films in claiming to get as close as possible to inherent significance as anything can in this fallen world. But ninety-nine times out of a hundred, scratch the surface, and we are confronted with absurdity.
To bring this around to the point: one must imagine Sisyphus happy, sure, but after playing fifteen minutes of Traveller’s Log I’m definitely not.
What we’ve got here is an RNG-heavy RPG, implemented in Python, with as far as I can tell no goals, plot, or characterization beyond a randomly-generated backstory that wins points for silliness but has no bearing on the game itself:
You are impulsive, precise and mysterious.
You are a dragon
Your name is Zureom.
You were born and grew up in a fairly rich family in a normal village, and lived happily until you were about 4 years old. But, at that point, your life changed drastically.
You lost your parents when they left after a government takeover and are now alone, miserable and abandoned.
You now have to survive in a rough world, filled with magic and mystery.
Hopefully dragons age in like dog’s years, or Zureom’s enemies could bring their adventures to an untimely end with one call to Child Protective Services.
You’re set loose into one of half a dozen different regions, with the options to “walk” – which basically means trawling for encounters – trade with some invisible, omnipresent merchants, or try your luck in a randomly-picked different region. Random encounters can be with foxes, who just provide a bit of atmosphere, handleless doors that can’t be opened, treasure chests that alternately provide a couple coins or kill you without explanation, inns that don’t do anything, and two different kinds of fights: against bandits, that never give any reward, or against the game’s one monster, a “snadwick”, which I kept misreading as sandwich maybe because I was hungry. Death has little sting, since you instantly respawn, though this sometimes will zero out your accumulated riches – that’s what brought my most successful run to an end, with 49 coins vanishing into the ether because I typed “s;ash” instead of “slash” when I attempted to attack a monster (you need to type full commands, as far as I could tell).
There’s a little more to the game than I’ve outlined – there’s a labyrinth region where you can unlock successively deeper levels, though they all seem to behave exactly the same, and there’s a map that allows you to choose which region to warp to. I also did a little bit of source-diving, and seems like some characters are born with the ability to wield magic (so much for existence preceding essence) which enables them to use spells to open those unopenable doors and occasionally zap baddies. But there’s nothing that changes up the basic mechanical gist of the gameplay – wander around, slash baddies (well, baddy), get a couple coins, repeat and repeat. As a demonstration of Sartre’s conceptualization of anguish, it’s gangbusters – and, to speak seriously for a moment, it’s competently programmed enough that the author does have the spine of what could turn into a solid RPG once more variety, story, and engagement points are added. But as is, it would take more nous than I’ve currently got handy to choose to push this particular boulder up this particular hill any longer.
Let Them Eat Cake, by Alicia Morote
Let Them Eat Cake lulls you in with a premise that echoes the cozycore vibe of games like Stardew Valley – you’re an apprentice baker tasked with gathering the not-at-all-exotic ingredients to make a cake for a village festival in your new home. The aesthetic is homey as well, with text that unfurls across a background that remind me of my grandma’s old recipe cards, and the portraits of your various neighbors depicted in an appealingly ugly-cute style.
It doesn’t take long for things to curdle, though, since this Twine game isn’t so much folksy as folk horror. The most benign of the villagers is the one who did in her daughter’s fiancé with rat poison; it’s best not to pry into what the farmer’s prizewinning pigs have been eating to make them grow so fat; and the vibes in the mill were so bad I just noped my way out of there before figuring out the exact flavor of wrong that was going on there. It sure seems like your master has got some secrets too, and who knows what really goes on at the festival…
Well, I don’t, I have to admit, since I ran into a bug that saw me stuck in a time loop after bringing the ingredients back to the baker; he told me to make some butter, I did that and poked around the bakery, then the link to gather the ingredients together reset me back to the beginning of the scene, locked into an endless repetition that was horrifying enough but not, I think, what the author intended. Indeed, while the game nails the vibe, it’s in need of some polish beyond just bug-fixing. The prose is evocative, but has lots of typos and is occasionally awkward:
The farm is run down, as you might begin to wonder that every part of this small, hidden town is. It’s hidden, tucked away so small that it doesn’t register on any of the local maps you’ve seen, but the merchants seem to know where it is.
With that coat of polish, I think this could be a fun, scary game – the contrast between the twee presentation and brutal reality is entertaining, and each of the little vignettes was engaging, with choices that invited me to push my luck (though admittedly the fact that I’d died and restarted a couple times by the time I hit the endless-butter bug, reducing my desire to try the whole thing yet again – since there are so many endings, many of them appearing to be bad ones, enabling undo would probably have been a good idea). So I’ll keep an eye out for a post-Comp release, as I don’t think I’ve yet had my fill.
To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1, by Anthony O
This is the last of the Texture games in the Comp, and I have to say, up until now part of me has been playing these games thinking to myself “wouldn’t this have worked better in Twine instead?” the whole time. I’m hopefully not too narrow-minded about platforms, but much of the time, I feel like the games haven’t done much with the unique aspects of Texture – like exploiting the built in “verb”/”noun” functionality the interface enables, instead of just allowing one or two choices per passage that would work better as simple Twine-style links – while suffering from the somewhat awkward way the drag-and-drop thing works on a touchscreen, or the way the lack of a scrolling feature means text shrinks as passages get longer. Finally, though, here’s one that takes advantages of the affordances!
The whole of To Persist/Exist/Endure, Press 1 is played via a telephone interface, as a depressed protagonist navigates an interminable, hostile phone tree in search of a flicker of hope. This is another of those short games that eschews plot or characters in order to focus on presenting an allegory for what it’s like to experience a mental health challenge – like Nose Bleed, which I reviewed earlier – and I think this one works. For one thing, the slight irritation of trying to drag the “press” button onto the small numbers representing the different options fits the mood of frustration to a T, and the juxtaposition of these “press” options with the constantly-available hang-up option reflects the omnipresent temptation to just stop trying in the face of so many barriers.
Your exploration of the various options turns up surprises, too, so while the game is basically one-note, it doesn’t feel monotonous. You have an option to switch languages to Polish, for example, which rewrites many of the possible choices into that consonant-heavy language; similarly, the organization you’re on hold with is the Agency of Neverending Happiness and Clearing Out Monsters From Under Your Bed, and fruitlessly attempting to chase down information related to the second part of that mandate was entertaining. You can try to speak with an operator – but of course no one ever answers, you’re just stuck listening to the same annoying musical-hold tune over and over, until it starts to drive you mad. Or you can leave a voicemail, but the system never seems to understand your message.
These are all about how hard it is to escape from depression, of course: you try to reach out, but it feels like there’s nobody there for you, or they’re talking a foreign language. And if you do get someone to listen, you can’t explain yourself in a way that will make them understand (plus, despite how it might sometimes feel, you can’t find a monster to blame; it’s just you, and your broken brain-chemistry). The allegory isn’t especially subtle, but each bit of the phone tree is fleet enough not to outstay its welcome, and none of them are trying too hard to be coy, so overall it worked for me.
What worked less well was the endings – or basically ending, since in all of them the protagonist finally has to hang up, defeated, reflecting that despite all their efforts “everything is the same as it was. And everything is as sad as it’s always been.” Having there be no escape or positive solution is a valid, albeit downbeat choice, but since the game is entirely focused on the phone call and doesn’t set up the protagonist’s negative feelings outside of having to deal with the frustrating stuff they’re hearing on the line, I experienced a mismatch between their feelings and my own – hanging up felt like a relief to me since I didn’t have any context for the baseline unpleasant existence the protagonist must be living.
I think the game would have been stronger if it had laid more of this groundwork, but at the same time, it might have diluted the purity of the concept. Anyway if the worst thing I can say of a game that takes five or ten minutes to play is that while what it did was good, I wanted it to do some additional stuff too, well, that probably means it’s a success, even if there’s space for deeper explorations of the premise.
I signaled the butterbug (surely there must be a beetle with this name in nature?) in my review after I encountered a variation to what you describe on my playthrough.
In my case, the option to make butter (and the whole scene around it) kept coming up in the menu after I had already churned the butter. I was free to make other choices and progress though.
Maybe something went wrong in trying to squash this bug that made it worse?
Zero Chance of Recovery, by Andrew Schultz
It’s a funny coincidence that the Comp randomizer picked the alphabetically-last game as the final one in my queue (as mentioned in the first post of this thread, I’ve been skipping over the ones I’ve tested and will review those later). Zero Chance of Recovery is a nice bit of comfort-food to end on, too. I’ve played and enjoyed Andrew Schultz’s three previous IF chess puzzles, with his endgame-focused entry in this year’s ParserComp, You Won’t Get Her Back, being my favorite of the trio. The present game is quite similar to that one: again, there are only a few pieces on the board – in this case, white and black each have a king and pawn apiece – with the outcome hinging on pawn promotion. And again, the presentation and interface are very slick, with multiple options for how best to display the chessboard (there’s also a screen reader mode), intuitive syntax for how to direct your pieces, and a host of help screens to orient you to the challenge.
One point of difference from the earlier game is that You Won’t Get Her Back actually boasts three different scenarios, based on the different strategies the black side can adapt – roughly, whether it prioritizes moving its own pawn down the board, threatening your pawn, or striking a balance between the two. This initially wrong-footed me, as black’s freedom of movement meant I wasn’t sure why it was making some choices instead of others, but it only took a little bit of trial and error to work out a potentially viable approach; once I solved the first scenario, the others were significantly easier, which was satisfying since it felt like I’d figured something out!
There’s a final bonus challenge, too, which ties in with the conceit of the plot, because just as in Schultz’s earlier chess games, there is a story here. This time out it’s a rather slight thing, with an inciting incident where your king is waylaid by mercenaries hired by black, providing the justification for the whit king starting off on the far side of the board. It works well enough to set up the action, but I confess it wasn’t as engaging as the political satire of the Fivebyfivia and Fourbyfourian games, or the unexpected relationship pathos of You Won’t Get Her Back – these narrative riffs are fairly superfluous to the core mechanics of the puzzle, I suppose, but I missed the extra allegorical heft they provided to the initial trio. For all that, the writing here continues to be well-done and entertaining, hitting a breezy tone that provides some well-considered nudges in the right direction, and boasts a surprising level of detail (the descriptions of the different pieces shift depending on where you are and what they’re doing, which is delightful).
My only other complaint is that the aforementioned bonus challenge did stymie me – I’d made one assumption based on the hints the game was giving, but managed to get the wrong idea entirely (I understood that I needed to “cheat” by getting the black king in trouble with the mercenaries, who he was only going to pay once the black pawn promoted – but I thought that meant that I needed to prevent the pawn from promoting so that the angry mercenaries, cheated of their pay, would go after the opposing king. Instead, you’re supposed to let the pawn get promoted, but only then take the queen and force the draw; the idea is that only in those circumstances does the king need to pay up). It’s plausible enough once I knew the trick, and provides a fourth distinct way of getting to stalemate, but for whatever reason it just didn’t click, robbing this one of the “aha” moment I felt in some of the other games.
I’ve spent a lot of time comparing Zero Chance of Recovery to those previous three games in this review, because there really isn’t anything else like it and because it’s very much of a piece with those. But for all that I’d say it’s my least favorite of the now-quartet, I still enjoyed playing with it – the high production values and attention to detail make it fun to fiddle one’s way through the puzzle, and as I said at the top of the review, it very much felt like comfort IF, as though I were sinking into a warm bath at the end of the Comp.
zero chance mr.txt (78.0 KB)
And that is the lot, save for the nine games I tested! I’ll write those up too, with a level of detail somewhere between quick impressions and a full review – I find it hard to do in-depth critical analysis of games I’ve tested since my first experience of the game was a very self-conscious one where I was usually trying to break things, and it’s challenging to set that aside and re-engage with it in its new final form wearing the critic’s rather than tester’s hat. But I’ll do my best to tease out what’s interesting about this last set of games, especially since there are some great ones on this list.
After that I need to decide whether to go back to my Cragne Manor thread, or swap over to doing at least some EctoComp reviews – decisions, decisions…
Congratulations on reviewing and/or testing everything in the Comp!
Congratulations on such a Herculovean achievement!
no, this isn’t going away, not for a long while…