Well there is the whole “longest unzipping of my life” bit with Gdańsk Man’s girlfriend, which later got turned into an incredibly awkward sexy music video by Poe (awkwardly so because she’s the author’s sister - I actually came to HoL via her album about the same themes, Haunted, rather than vice versa).
Thanatophobia, by Robert Goodwin
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
There are various origin points for what we’ve come to call IF – Adventure, most obviously, but you can also trace choice-based games back to the print Choose Your Own Adventure series and its own early-20th-Century antecedents, and Aaron Reed defensibly started his 50 Years of Text Games series with the initial, purely-text versions of Oregon Trail. There is an eccentric uncle in the attic nobody really likes to talk about, though – or rather, aunt, since I’m speaking of the chatbot ELIZA. Viewed now as little more than a parlor trick – though how could it have been anything else, given the hardware constraints at its 1960s inception? – AI tech is finally catching up to the possibility of having a computer that can engage in a dialogue with you, even if the Turing Test is in no danger of falling anytime soon. So it makes sense that authors are now attempting to re-cross the streams and make a chatbot into a game, rather than something for pre-teen boys to feed dirty jokes into.
Of the runs at this idea that I’ve seen, Thanatophobia seems the strongest. I’m not equipped to evaluate the back-end of what makes it feel reasonably responsive, but there are some design parameters that are cannily set up to paper over the inevitable infelicities that will come up when trying to speak English to a robot. For one thing, the interlocuter character is set up as someone disoriented and not in their right mind, so the occasional odd interjection doesn’t seem too mimesis breaking. For another, the game’s built around a mystery with several pieces, so it’s less likely the player will spend so much time on one topic or area that they start trying increasingly-odd questions or statements. The author’s also done a good job of fleshing out various non-essential bits of backstory so that there’s room for the player to explore without quickly seeing the difference between the hand-tuned, critical path content and generic chatbot oatmeal.
The story being told here isn’t especially novel – there’s a little bit of a twist, but plumbing an allegory to discover someone’s hidden trauma is well-trod territory in IF by this point, albeit it does act as a clever homage to the psychoanalyst-aping roots of the chatbot conceit. And the characters inhabit well-worn archetypes without doing much to distinguish themselves. But for a formal experiment, keeping the narrative tame is probably the right call. Similarly, while the expected chatbot-friction is reduced, it’s definitely still there – but I do wonder how much of that would be smoothed if there were more uniform player expectations about how to interact with such things, much as there are by now for traditional parser games.
All told I found Thanataphobia a success, perhaps more intriguing for the directions it points to than for what it accomplishes in itself, but an entertaining way to spend an hour nonetheless.
Interesting. I agree with what you say about Fallen London (which I was never able to get into), but I didn’t have the same experience with the William Dooling games (Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines). For me, the problem with getting ‘a hidden secret’ in Fallen London is that the game’s prose consistently hints at some meaning that will soon be revealed to you… and then doesn’t deliver. It’s always being mysterious and coy and full of the promise of revelation, and then it doesn’t follow through. Being given a ‘hidden secret’ item then feels like they added insult to injury.
With Skybreak! and Lost Coastlines, on the other hand, the items are in a sense just the treasures at the end of the pirate adventure. Nobody cares about the treasures. (No readers; only the characters do.) We care about the adventure itself. Dooling’s games unapologetically bill themselves as pure adventure, and they never hint at a narrative pay-off that then fails to materialise.
(Sunless Sea and Sunless Skies fall somewhere between these two groups, I think, but I can enjoy them because of the relaxing sailing that breaks up the narrative parts.)
The Princess of Vestria, by KPO
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
It’s been many years since I’ve read any fantasy fiction, but my sense is that slightly-generic medievalish fantasy is rather passe, with post-Game of Thrones grimdarkery and settings drawing from a broader set of cultural touchpoints being where the current action is at. This seems a healthy progression, all told (albeit I personally prefer my ruthless political maneuvering to not be accompanied by too much torture and rape, thanks), but I have to confess that having read reams of Tolkein knockoffs and callow Arthuriana in my younger years, I still have a soft spot for the earnest sort of fantasy offered up by the Princess of Vestria.
This Twine game sticks to the archetypes: you play the eponymous royal, traveling incognito on a quest to a fractious province to track down the dark magician who’s put a curse on your brother. You get the expected farrago of proper nouns setting this all up, with some early infodumps that are perhaps a little overlong given that everything here is played decidedly straight, but it doesn’t take long to suss out the important facts and characters, and the very familiarity of the setup enabled me to get into the action pretty quickly.
There’s an impressive amount of responsiveness across this fairly-long game – while the overall shape of the journey appears to be roughly constant, there’s a lot of scope to make different choices that will impact what the trip is like and how prepared you’ll be for the endgame. For example, in my playthrough, I accreted a frenemy-style sidekick who played a central role through the whole middle third of the game, but you can decide not to bring him along, which would substantially change the feel of this section. You can also determine whether, and to what extent, to delve into a tome of forbidden lore that can teach you some magic abilities, and while there’s a somewhat complex backstory that explains what’s happening, much of it appears to be missable. The most fun element like this for me, though, was the opening, where you’ve only got time to make a few preparations before embarking on your secret quest – I’m not sure how much the specific choices of how much money to bring or whether to risk carrying your signet ring branch the story that significantly, but they feel satisfyingly weighty.
The game does have some woolier aspects – there’s a timed puzzle that feels a little too abstruse (though it’s possible to brute-force), there are two different risk-cushioning mechanics (extra lives and luck) that are a bit redundant, and the tone can be a bit inconsistent, with the protagonist sometimes presented with rather more cutthroat options than the genre and characterization would seem to support. I also found the final confrontation a bit unsatisfying; it definitely works well as a mechanically-complex, high-stakes climax that pays off your preparations, but given all that I’d learned about the antagonist over the course of the game, I would have preferred there to be more options to talk and at least try for a nonviolent solution rather than having it jump straight to a fight.
These flaws didn’t do too much to undermine my enjoyment of the game, though. Sure, it’s IF comfort food, but there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that when it’s as well-served as it is in the Princess of Vestria. A whole Comp of this stuff would be cloying, and I’m not regretting that I don’t read much of this stuff anymore, but it’s nostalgic fun to dip back into a game like this, like eating your mom’s old meatloaf.*
* I’m vegetarian, but when I was growing up my mom had a great meatloaf recipe, and the one time she tried to make tofu it was awful – it was the 80s – so I’m sticking with the metaphor.
'Cause I would definitely read that.
The Only Possible Prom Dress, by Jim Aikin
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
I am not much of a braggart by nature, and crowing over accomplishments in the IF realm is an inherently absurd proposition, so it’s saying something that I was tempted to open this review by not-so-humbly pointing out that I’m pretty sure I was the first person on the planet to win The Only Possible Prom Dress. Largely this was by dint of being one of the beta testers, of course, but still, there were other testers and this is a long game – I’m guessing I put in at least 15 or 20 hours, even after getting some hints, and I often had to put it down for a while to let the puzzles percolate so my subconscious could worry away at them and hand my conscious mind some new ideas. Getting to the winning screen after putting in a fair bit of sweat equity over two weeks felt like an accomplishment.
This is not, I hasten to add, because the game is formally cruel – it’s I believe Polite on the Zarfian scale, with any game-ending events only a simple UNDO away. Nor is it because the puzzles are unfairly diabolical. Don’t get me wrong, many are pretty tricky – and there are at least two, both involving codes, that I suspect most players will need a hint on – but save for that diabolical duo, they feel on the level. When I solved one fair and square, I felt satisfied; when I stumbled into an answer through trial and error, I immediately saw the logic; and when I needed a hint, I slapped my forehead because I realized I’d missed some solid clues that would have gotten me in the right direction.
Funnily enough, the puzzle-solving is also rendered more pleasant by the size. The game starts with many areas locked off, then twice opens up a new, large chunk of the map after surmounting a key obstacle – but even from the get-go, you can go a lot of places, pick up a lot of items, and make progress on a bunch of puzzles. At any given time you might have half a dozen different challenges in progress, and if you’re feeling stuck, often just taking a circuit of the mall and messing around with all the new stuff you’ve discovered will be enough to make progress on at least one – or give you an idea in the meantime. There’s also a good variety in the different things you wind up doing; the game’s ultimately a scavenger hunt, but between foiling security systems, decoding anagrams, navigating mazes (all of which I think have workarounds), messing around with devices, cheering up NPCs, and the good old-fashioned medium-dry-goods business of pushing things around and climbing through holes and inserting thing 1 into receptacle A, you’ll never be bored. The scale of the game also lends it a sort of logic-puzzle vibe, as I wound up keeping a running inventory of the different puzzles I’d encountered as well as a separate list of the different items or other possible puzzle-solving things to try, cross-referencing them and deducing which solution went with which barrier as I went.
Atypically, I’m fairly deep into the review here without mentioning the plot or the theme or the writing. That’s because this is definitely and defiantly a puzzle-focused adventure game, and the plot is honestly something of a shaggy-dog story – the blurb’s setup, that you need to find a dress for your daughter, isn’t exactly a lie, but the steps to retrieving it from the near-deserted mall wind up taking you to some wacky places, with weird technology and more than a bit of magic getting into the mix without the protagonist making much of a comment. But the prose is well done, and the cast of supporting characters, one-note stereotypes one and all, are written engagingly and enjoyably, so they’re fun to interact with even if their role as flywheels to set some of the cogs of the puzzles in motion can never be ignored.
All this is to say Only Possible Prom Dress is an old-school puzzlefest as advertised (albeit more late-90s than late-70s), but a good one, even I think for folks like me who aren’t inherently drawn to the form. It’s perhaps ill-served by being in the Comp, though – this is one to savor.
The Lazy Wizard’s Guide, by Lenard Gudna
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
The question of generic knock-offs is deceptively complex. Sure, some of it comes down to dollars and cents: you can save some money by getting store-brand Coke, and it all tastes like malted battery acid anyway, so might as well save a buck rather than pay for the label. But when it comes to an experience rather than a product the label, isn’t just an afterthought, but can be an inherent and important part of the texture – in some sense it shouldn’t matter whether or not we think Pericles, Prince of Tyre is an authentic Shakespeare play, but given its clear status as a lesser work, in a larger sense that’s the only question that matters.
All this is well-trod ground, but the Lazy Wizard’s Guide poses the issue in a curiously inverted form – in offering up an off-label Hogwarts, the game loses much of the richness of detail, and the positive associations some players might have lingering from their first encounters with the books and movies. But it also cleanses this Brand X Wizarding World of the lingering stench of Rowling’s loud transphobia, clearing space for more players to enjoy it in good conscience.
And what’s here is enjoyable, even leaving aside all questions of authenticity. The parser-based magic test is a study formula, and tends to live and die by the strength of its magic system, so the choice to de-emphasize setting and characters by invoking direct Harry Potter tropes with their serial numbers filed off is entirely defensible. Admittedly, said system is also not going to win any awards for novelty, since it uses a traditional mix of spellbooks – to permanently learn new spells – and material components – which can be consumed, putting a limit on the number of times you can spam certain enchantments. Similarly, the hoops your fledgling wizard needs to jump through in order to graduate can feel a bit arbitrary – some are clearly ridiculously dangerous, like summoning a vampire, while others, like finding a lost magic rock, are a tad underwhelming.
These authorial choices mean that the overall framework of the game isn’t especially compelling; you’re solving a test because you’ve been told to solve the test. Fortunately, the actual gameplay and puzzles themselves are pleasantly moreish. There’s a canny mix of difficulties, with a gently-sloping curve that successfully builds familiarity with the system and gives the player some early wins while introducing some more challenging obstacles. Alternate solutions are implemented for many puzzles, some of which work around resource constraints in fairly clever ways. And the custom parser is up to the challenge – it doesn’t recognize “it”, but it does have a well-integrated menu-based conversation system for when you want to talk to not-McGonagall, not-Dobby, and not-Ron, so that feels like a fair trade.
As I played the Lazy Wizard’s Guide, I wound up unconsciously comparing it to an entry in 2019’s Comp, Winter Break at Hogwarts. That game really leaned into a recreation of Hogwarts, boasting a sprawling map that largely coincided with the official plan of the school, with book-appropriate set dressing everywhere you looked. But between some iffy puzzle design and the authenticity generating some bad Rowling vibes, I didn’t wind up enjoying it that much. Lazy Wizard’s Guide flips both those elements and comes up with a much more successful formula – sometimes it’s good that you’d never confuse the generic brand for the real thing.
Arborea, by Richard Devlin
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full reply, so caveat lector)
The second of the big parser puzzlefests in this year’s Comp, Arborea is a decidedly queer duck. It satisfies the expectations of its genre by providing a host of clever condundrums, but the plot it presents is enigmatic and oddly elusive – instead, it relies on a strong sense of theme to unify its disparate parts. Despite its old-school vibe, I can’t say I’ve played anything else quite like it, and while not every swing it takes connects, there’s more than enough creativity here to make Aroborea worth a visit.
There’s very little setup provided before you’re thrust into the game – you’re told that you’re in a simulation and that you’ve got to retrieve a “kernel” (yes, of course it’s a pun), and then you’re left to your own devices in the middle of a sea of trees. This isn’t a maze, though; it’s a clever puzzle that requires you to identify a few different kinds of trees to unlock passages to eight different areas, each with a distinct theme built around said tree. A pine tree points the way to a Norse encampment holding a wake for a dead thane; a bodhi tree to helps you navigate to a mountainous region populated by monks and demons; an oak tree leads you to Renaissance England. There are people to meet and puzzles to solve in each area, though typically you don’t have a clear goal other than to go everywhere and surmount clear barriers when they present themselves – it’s about exploring and experiencing each area, rather than advancing any particular agenda.
The primary motivator, then, is the puzzles, and they’re a curious lot. Some are quite traditional item-swappers, but you’ll also help a monkey find a friend, clean a pirate ship with a slightly kinky crew, and solve a math puzzle in the mountains. Then there are those that are deeply nonstandard and rely on typing commands of the sort parser players have been trained to expect not to work – telling the game why or how you’re doing something, rather than just what you’re doing. These are interesting puzzles and I can see how from a certain point of view they’re fair, but since I think in most cases the player will have figured out the solution but not the exact command the game will accept, they wind up being frustrating; best to have recourse to the walkthrough in these situations.
Regardless of these rough patches, this is a solid, enjoyable set of puzzles, with enough interconnections between the different sub-areas that I liked the chance to wander around unlocking new paths and seeing how an object found in one could be used in another. And while at first the mishmash of settings and tasks struck me as too much of a grab-bag, as I settled into the game’s groove I realized that each place I was visiting had a different story to tell about humanity’s relationship with trees. Admittedly, sometimes these were a little thin – the pine forests felt mostly incidental to the Viking bit – or felt too dark for what’s generally a lighthearted game (I’m thinking of one section in particular that deals with American slavery; the player gets to take some satisfying action here, but it represents a tonal swerve I’m not sure Arborea fully pulls off). But there were several areas, largely those dealing with our economic exploitation of trees, where I felt the theme land quite powerfully.
To sum up – well, this is a hard game to sum up. It’s a big one, made up of many pieces, and the endgame sequence, which is quite distinct from the main body of the action, doesn’t provide any unifying answers. But for all that many of its scenes and set-pieces are stuck in my memory even now, several months after having tested it – if it’s kind of patchy, and more about the journey than the destination, well, I suppose that’s appropriate for a wander through a forest.
You know, I was thinking about what you said, and it occurred to me that what you’re pointing out is really the result of a piece of work being entirely noncommercial.
There’s no intended readership, no editor or publisher, to guide it in any direction except my own. Arborea is a sort of stream of consciousness thing on the subject of trees and a bit of environmentalism, with a lot of personal reflections and predilections thrown in.
I suppose it’s “creative”, which is the sort of art that artists of various genres are persuaded not to do if they want to make any money , but which I think is very rewarding to both reader and writer by virtue of the very fact that it is “unpackaged”.
Thank you once again for testing it and for your review.
All the best
Headlights, by Jordan White
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
I have a bit of history with the Perplexity engine that powers Headlights. A custom parser that aims to provide a natural-language approach to IF so that it can be played via voice (though I’ve admittedly never tried this out), I first encountered it in last Comp’s Kidney Kwest, an educational game aimed at helping kids with kidney disease manage their conditions; despite its humanitarian aims, I cold-bloodedly lambasted it for running slowly, requiring finicky syntax (you couldn’t even drop “the” when referring to objects without the parser complaining), and neglecting basic conveniences offered by mature IF languages (no pronouns, no UNDO, awkward disambiguation). Then this year’s Spring Thing boasted Baby on Board, a comedy about dropping a kid off at day-care, which I similarly found weighed down by an engine that made things way too hard, with few upsides to justify its idiosyncrasies.
So when I saw the author of a new game using Perplexity asking for testers on the forum, part of me groaned, but a fortunately-bigger part of me realized it’d probably be better to be inside the tent peeing out rather than continuing to stay outside peeing in, as LBJ used to say (well, in slightly saltier language). And I have to say, Headlights is a great improvement over what’s come before, at least for my playstyle. At a technical level, it runs notably faster, with barely any noticeable pauses on my machine, and while the game still accepts more complex sentence structures that mimic human speech, typical IF commands are catered to as well. And because the game also offers more traditional gameplay – use-object-A-on-object-B puzzle-solving, for the most part – I could actually see the advantage of some of Perplexity’s key features, like the ability to ask where you left certain items or otherwise interrogate the game about the state of the world.
The flip side of these moves towards the norm is that the scenario is also less novel than in the two previous Perplexity games – it’s a simple series of deserted, dreamlike environments setting up a twist you’ll see coming a mile away, with straightforward puzzles that help pace the experience appropriately but don’t have much inherent interest. And some of the parser’s remaining weirdness – like its tendency to expose ugly game-mechanical constructs at the slightest provocation when they’d better be kept discreetly out of sight – undercuts mimesis. I’m still waiting on the Perplexity game that wouldn’t be better off just being implemented in TADS or Inform, but I think Headlights shows a path towards getting there: firm up the fundamentals, and once the base is solid, lean into a design that takes advantage of the system’s idiosyncratic strengths.
The Lottery Ticket, by Dorian Passer ft. Anton Chekhov
(I beta tested this game, though since it’s short I did do a replay before writing this review)
There are always a few odd ducks in any IF competition or festival, and Dorian Passer’s Cost of Living was a whole flock of ‘em in one in this summer’s ParserComp; using a bespoke system that required the user to type single words to fill out an ongoing dialogue between two characters discussing a public-domain sci-fi story – don’t call it MadLibs! – it occasioned some controversy, being disqualified as being IF but not really an example of a parser game, then kinda-sorta-unofficially reinstated after discussion, with the author posting some detailed notes relating the thinking behind the so-called “stateful narration” approach he’s taking and kicking off much discussion in reviews and on this forum.
This time, we’ve once again got an original story juxtaposed against a text written by someone else – here a Chekhov short story, making The Lottery Ticket a competitive runner-up to Elvish for Goodbye in the I-am-going-to-hubristically-invite-comparison-to-a-badass-writer side-comp – but rather than a peanut gallery directly commenting on the story, here what connects the two narrative strands is a bit of thematic irony: the Chekhov story is a compact fable about a man driven to selfish misanthropy by the possibility that his wife might have won a fortune, while the frame story involves a near-future office worker killing time and texting with her roommates while similarly awaiting the outcome of a lotto drawing –
– sorry, I am informed that a group of ducks is not typically called a flock; instead they can be a raft, a team, a paddling, a skein, a badling, a plump, or a brace. I regret the error but honestly, look at all those synonyms, I feel like the ducks have to shoulder their share of the blame here too.
That’s not just a bit – I’m flagging the ridiculous fecundity of the English language to highlight the potential of the sentiment-analysis approach to player input the game takes. Whereas in a traditional parser game, the game only recognizes a few standard bits of vocabulary, plus whatever else the author has laboriously taught the engine to understand, and in a choice-based game your options are constrained to picking whatever’s been programmed in, in theory a player could type nearly any English word into the input boxes offered by the Lottery Ticket and see a reasonable response.
In practice, the design doesn’t fully take full advantage of this flexibility, I think because Passer is trying to walk before he runs. While I found the frame story engaging as a work of fiction, it’s a bit thinner when it comes to interactivity. There are only four places where the player is asked for input, and the results appear to be fairly binary – half allow the player to express whether or not the protagonist attempts to play down her anxiety about the lottery’s outcome with her roommates, while the other half are about matters of taste (being bored by a roommate’s cooking, preferring light or dark coffee) that are essentially aesthetic.
Passer’s written about wanting to deemphasize players’ expectations of agency in terms of changing the plot, since that’s a promise no author can ever fully deliver, in terms of creating so-called “narrational agency” – the idea, as I understand it, is that the player doesn’t alter what happens in the story, but how the story is told. And that’s a fine theory; I don’t mind that these choices aren’t narratively impactful – expressive choice works fine, after all – but they perhaps feel too simple, too reducible to a coin flip, even if that overly facile take ignores what’s actually happening behind the scenes, and even blows past how impactful even these simple choices are. Like, it makes a big difference to our understanding of the story if the protagonist is honest with her friends or if she feels she needs to hide her nervousness from them, especially since she’s said she’ll split any potential winnings with them! Imagine a version of Gatsby where he levels with Nick about how he actually made his money, rather than flashing a fake medal from Montenegro – it’s not at all the same story.
While recognizing this, it’s hard for me to fully let go of the expectations I’ve built up from many many years of playing more traditional pieces of IF – these kinds of toggles just don’t bring the fireworks when other games engage the player in more visceral ways. Still, this seems like a surmountable problem; I’m intrigued by the idea that the engine here could add a second dimension, so that each word’s input wouldn’t be assessed on a single continuum but on two at the same time, or possibly adding granularity so that instead of a positive/negative switch, the system clearly recognized degrees as well… And what’s promising is that the system, because it just relies on an algorithmic assessment of words, could be infinitely malleable, rather than relying on bespoke simulations of particular physical situations or pre-chosen options for its ability to be responsive. This “narrational agency” approach doesn’t have its killer app yet, but The Lottery Ticket is definitely moving things ahead, and I’m looking forward to seeing what might come next.
Crash, by Phil Riley
(I beta tested this game, and haven’t done a full replay, so caveat lector)
It doesn’t get much more classic than the setup for Crash: you play a lowly maintenance worker who boards a top-of-the-line military starship to repair the microwave and unstick the cabinets before its next important mission, when disaster strikes and you’re the only one who can fix the ship in time to avert a disaster. There are more than a few shades of Planetfall, not to mention Space Quest, in the premise, and while they’re a bit thinner on the ground now than they were a decade or two ago, the woke-up-alone-on-a-busted-spaceship game is a trope for a reason.
Crash isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel, in other words – in fact, I think it’s consciously calling back to the classics, what with the shout-out to Steve Meretzky in the ABOUT text. But, impressively for a debut game, it can hold its own even in this distinguished field, boasting a strong set of puzzles and enough small twists to keep the game distinct from its many stablemates, without straying too far outside of its lane. The implementation and writing are likewise unobtrusive, but in their quietly solid way support exactly the experience the game’s intending to provide.
Admittedly, the puzzles can be a bit tough. Crash has a bit of an old-school edge to it, requiring the player to think carefully about their environment and try actions beyond the obvious ones in order to progress. But the challenges are logical, with reasonably cluing, and for the most part the trickier ones come early, when there are fewer places to go and things to try, which winds up making them more solvable. There are also some good set pieces in the mix, from an extended high-stakes EVA sequence to an engine-rebooting logic puzzle. And while your initial quotidian maintenance tasks are soon demoted in importance, you have the option of completing them for some satisfying bonus points.
As for the twists, there’s a surprising branch point midway through, when in the wake of an accident that increasingly starts to look like sabotage, you’re contacted by two characters via the ship’s radio and need to decide who to trust. Refreshingly, this isn’t a false choice that will just color the experience, with the narrative cheating to give you a happy ending regardless of who you pick: there’s a right answer and a wrong answer, and if you act hastily things are likely to go quite badly for you. It’s an unexpected social-engineering challenge in the middle of what’s otherwise a very gearheaded game, and makes for an entertaining and engaging change-up.
I’m personally not overly enamored of the Infocom-style “golden age” of parser IF – the more narratively convoluted early-aughts style is more my jam – but I can appreciate a good throwback when I see one, and Crash definitely qualifies. And with its shorter playtime (it’ll neatly fill out a typical two-hour Comp slot) and merciful design, it’s a forgiving way of dipping back into these classic waters without having to put up with all the annoyances one’s memory tends, conveniently, to elide.
Hey Mike, did you ever find the copy of PLANETFALL and play it?
I did, chortling all the while! I think I saw some other reviewers mention that Easter Egg too so seems like folks are enjoying it
I didn’t mention it in the review but I was actually super impressed by how many changes and improvements you made to the game between testing cycles!
According to Cain, by Jim Nelson
(I beta tested this game, but did a full replay before writing this review)
This is my last review of the 2022 Comp, so y’all will hopefully forgive me if I indulge in one of my worst habits, which is opening a review with a meandering personal anecdote that’s only tangentially related to the matter at hand (see, now I’ve lampshaded it, it’s fine) – it’s about my favorite band, the Mountain Goats. If you’re not familiar, for purposes of this story the salient facts about them are a) as good as their albums are, the live shows are really where it’s at, and thus there’s a very robust, band-sanctioned bootleg scene, and b) even in 2005 when this story is set they had a deep, deep discography with hundreds of unreleased songs, limited-run EPs, and albums released on cassette-only record labels lost to do the mists of time, such that even a devoted fan like me couldn’t come close to being familiar with all of it.
With that background set, let me take you back seventeen years ago – I was living in New York City, and cursing my luck because the band’s frontman was coming to the city to do a pair of rooftop shows over the Fourth of July weekend, which was the same weekend an old high school friend of mine was getting married in Massachusetts. The wedding was lovely, I have to admit, but part of me was gritting my teeth with fomo the whole time, knowing I was missing what were surely some awesome shows. Fortunately, a kind soul recorded them, and after a few weeks’ waiting, I downloaded the files – and then was beyond startled to see listed fifteenth on the July 2nd setlist a song called Going to Port Washington. Port Washington, you see, is where I grew up, a Long Island town – technically a hamlet – of 15,000 souls, so unexceptional that its Wikipedia page will put you to sleep (the most notable fact is that we were big in sand-mining in the 1870s). The odds that my favorite band would have written a song about my hometown seemed astronomically small – and I came so close to discovering this at a live show I could have attended myself but for that quirk of scheduling.
That brings us, at long last, to According to Cain. This thing is my jam – it’s a smartly-implemented, beautifully written parser game where you use an authentically-researched alchemy system to delve into the psychology behind Cain’s slaying of Abel, with a list of inspirations that had me nodding my head as I went down the list from obvious (of course Name of the Rose is on there, everyone loves Name of the Rose) to the obscure (I’ve not previously met anyone who knows, let alone adores, Peter Gabriel’s soundtrack to the Last Temptation of Christ, but here we are). So what’s the fomo? While I’m glad to have been a tester and help with the game’s development, part of me wishes I could have just discovered the game fresh in the competition, playing it in its fully formed version and free to shout to anyone who’d listen that they have to play this one (I feel it’s gauche to do that for something where you’re listed in the credits!)
With the Comp coming to a close, though, it’s well past time to sing the game’s praises. To start, for all that the premise is a bit brainy and potentially daunting, it does a very good job of easing the player in. The opening narration gives you just enough to understand who you are, what you’re doing, and why you’re doing it: you’re an alchemical investigator, sent back in time to investigate the settlement abandoned by the first humans in the wake of Cain’s kinslaying, in order to learn the nature of the mark God put upon Cain as a punishment for his crime. It also gradually introduces the tools you’ll use to unravel the mystery of Cain’s mark. You start with a small collection of alchemical reagents, then acquire a reference book you can use to look up the objects, people, and spells that you’ll encounter in your adventure (complete with chatty, helpful marginalia from your mentor).
The rituals start out simple, and directly clued, before growing in complexity without ever becoming obfuscated or overwhelming. There are two basic kinds of puzzles in the game, beyond simply collecting more ingredients to empower your spells as you go. The most straightforward involve using alchemical formulae to wreak physical changes on your environment. These often require you to be creative about looking up possible approaches in your reference book – you might be confronted with a boulder and start casting about for potential solutions, for example – at which point you’ll learn the required ingredients. Second, the most narratively-important puzzles involve unlocking “revelations” – looking for things or places that bore witness to significant events in Cain’s story, then accessing the memories imprinted upon them by applying an appropriate mix of elements. One of the first formulas you learn will tell you the list of required ingredients, but sometimes these encode riddles – you might be told you need to apply salt, phlegm, and the poison of Abel’s humour, say, meaning that you need to figure out which of the four basic humours most resonates with his personality.
This isn’t just a way of gating progress and making the puzzles more interesting than following a recipe – it winds up tying the magic system to the themes of the story, and requires the player to understand, and engage with, the psychology of the lead players of the drama. In fact, one of the things that’s most successful about According to Cain is that all of its elements are cannily judged to reinforce the story’s themes. The landscape, for example, is geologically active as befits a young earth, roiling and burning and churning just as Cain resents his brother’s insolence. Meanwhile, your character is gently characterized, given a bit of backstory that lightly suggests that you can sympathize with the experience of someone driven out from their home and, justly or unjustly, made a scapegoat.
The writing is another strength, as it’s particularly graceful throughout. It’s not showy – in fact, it’s often downright terse – but it’s evocative, nailing the peculiar dance required of parser-game prose by communicating lovely, lyrical imagery while still being concrete enough to allow the player to understand what they’re seeing and how to use it to solve puzzles. Here’s the description of a crow flying across a river:
As though demonstrating the ease of fording a river, the crow launches from the far bank, soars over the river in a geometric arc, and lands gracefully a few feet from you.
More darkly, here’s the description of a slaughterhouse:
The planks are a rich tannin color from the sheer quantity of blood spilled. The coloration spreads up the walls, spattered from countless slaughtered animals. You imagine a grim assortment of iron tools and instruments once filled this place. Mostly, it’s the lingering odor here that strikes you.
We’re not inundated with extraneous details, all of which would need to be implemented as scenery and laboriously examined in turn, but it’s more than enough to get a feeling of the places you’re exploring as you perform your forensic investigations and piece together what really happened (as the description indications, SMELL and LISTEN are implemented where appropriate).
The game’s structure is also well judged. It opens up in layers, with a medium-sized map gradually unlocking as you solve puzzles, with progress corresponding to deeper understanding of the story behind Cain’s growing resentment of Abel. While you’ve always got quite a lot of freedom to explore, the puzzle-solving dependencies mean that you’ll likely encounter the different memories in a sequence that piques your curiosity about what really happened between the brothers, as early fragments of knowledge quickly establish that the conventional tale omits key facts. Indeed, the game’s narrative treats all the characters with some degree of sympathy; while Cain is situated as the most important character, and given some clear reasons for his violent acts, he’s not let completely off the hook, just as the bratty, button-pushing Abel is also allowed a few moments of subjectivity before the end.
Do I have critiques? Well, I can think of one, which involves the aforementioned ending, though it’s fairly minor – let me take this behind spoiler tags: you start the game with a magic bracelet that will allow you to return to your home, but it’s quickly lost. Fortunately, there’s a replacement that can be found, which belonged to one of the previous investigators assigned to plumb the mystery of Cain’s mark but who died by misadventure along the way. The game frames the question of whether to take this bracelet as a dilemma – you can return it to the corpse that it can be sent back and presumably receive a proper burial – but the decision feels too easy, especially because the protagonist comes down with a fever partway through the game that’s a death sentence if they’re not able to make it home. This is too bad because the downbeat ending where you learn the secret you’re searching for, but must resign yourself to a lonely death in exchange, seems a better thematic fit for the dour, obsessive mood the game conjures up, but to access this more satisfying resolution the player needs to take actions that are clearly counter to the protagonist’s interests.
Again, that’s not much of a criticism – I thoroughly enjoyed my time with According to Cain, and while I feel like it was designed specifically to appeal to me, I think many other players will be in the same boat. And if I didn’t get to experience the pleasing shock of discovery when stumbling upon this gem amid a sea of 70 other Comp entries, well, I can’t have too many regrets, since after all I did get to play it. Highly recommended (oh, so too is Going to Port Washington, I forgot to say! It would make for an unflattering lead-in anecdote if the song was bad, so luckily that’s not the case).
And here at long last our journey is done! Thanks to all the authors for providing such an amazingly rich tapestry of games to encounter and explore and riff on, and to everyone else writing reviews for your amazing perspectives, which much of the time made me slap my head and wish I’d thought of a point first. And thanks to everyone who read and commented on this thread – I hope I helped at least a few of you find or better appreciate one of these games!
I’ll probably be taking some time to catch up on various boring non-IF tasks, then play at least some of the very enticing EctoComp games, and return to finish my Cragne Manor let’s play thread before the end of the year. And one lucky/unlucky IF Comp winner will also get to pick an annotated playthrough by me as their “prize”, so y’all can look for that probably in early '23!
I had the exact opposite feeling. I was thrilled to play this game outside of any Comp-related pressure. Even when I saw it in its testing gown, I was mightily impressed. Had I found it in that shape in a random IFDB search, I would have jumped up and down with joy to discover such a gem.
I haven’t played the refined Comp-version yet, but even while testing I had the feeling that, as you so nicely put it, “this is my jam”!
Congrats on diving into the ocean of games and coming back up with such a load of impressive reviews.
I shared this exact feeling when playing this, Prom Dress and A Walk Around the Neighborhood. I am at a loss to explain why only one of those made my Top 5 this year. I suspect some of the other choices hit harder because non-Parser IF is still pretty virgin ground for me, and I was getting a noob’s wide-eyed introduction. Also, there were some really, really good non-Parser games.
Agreed, I am only now going back and digesting them. Your insight and writing voice are addictive, not to mention the insane depth of some of the analyses you put together. Kudos, and definitely let me know the secret of your apparently metric 100-hr days.
Thank you, Mike, for the incredible review, as well as the support and thoughtful insights during beta. I’m seeing Cain listed as a contender in a few places around the message board, and…it’s still sinking in.
It’s a singular album, and one I cherish. A few years ago I put it on while driving across Colorado, with the Rocky Mountains stretching across the horizon and feeling rather puny and mortal.
Thanks, Mike. You were indeed the first person to finish the game, as far as I know – perhaps the only one so far. As I said in the in-game notes, you and the other testers deserve MAJOR credit for whipping a lot of messy code into shape.
Two years ago I landed in 16th place for Captivity, which was my first venture into IFComp. This year I decided ahead of time that I would hope to come in 10th. I ended up 8th, so I’m satisfied. I knew the game was way too long for the comp. I wonder if any of the judges used the hints to advance more quickly so as to get a better idea about the game. (The text messages from Samantha were invented during testing specifically to help players get the story moving more quickly.)
Anyway, thanks again!