Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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

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

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

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Thank you! I might DM you then :slight_smile:

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Thanks @Sam_Ursu and @Graham for the discussion of the book of the Thirty Nine Steps – even if there’s room for disagreement on the text, it’s very nice to know that Buchan himself was a stand-up guy. It sounds like the book also has some of the wild, improvisational energy I enjoyed in the game, though I have to say, I took the Clever route into the finale, which involves some fast-talking and high-stakes sneaking around, and sounds like that might have been a better end to the book than the implausible-sounding bridge thing (which I saw mentioned in the hints since I checked them out after winning, though I didn’t play through).

And thanks for your comments, @manonamora!

I am, uh, not one who can really talk on that score either :slight_smile: Anyway I’ll add myself to the chorus of folks who’re glad to help with proofing to clean up translated text.

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A Long Way to the Nearest Star, by SV Linwood

Stop me oh stop me if you think that you’ve heard this one before: so you’re playing this game where you’re an interstellar thief pulling a heist to relieve a space-governor of his space-crystals, when you get rumbled by the fuzz, except while that all sounds supremely fun it’s actually just the quickly-dispensed with, non-interactive backstory justifying why you’re forced to make a blind hyperjump and wind up lost in space – until you come across and board a derelict vessel, which holds the promise of rescue if you reactive enough of its broken systems to scavenge for parts, though since the crew’s all dead and the superficially-helpful ship’s AI seems alarmingly erratic it’s clear danger could be lurking where you least – or rather most – expect it…

Zoomed out to this level, ALWNS might as well be called “Space Game” – it wouldn’t be much worse than the actual, horribly-generic, title – because anybody who’s played much IF has probably encountered this scenario dozens of times. There’s a slight variation here because I feel like this type of game is usually parser-based, while this one’s a puzzley Twine game that has the same adventure-game type interface I discussed in my One Way Ticket review (click on highlighted objects in location descriptions to examine them in more detail, open up your inventory if you see an opportunity to use one of the things you’ve collected – 95% of the time the only action verb available is “use”, in fact). But if I were to describe a puzzle at random, or similarly highlight one of the plot beats, you’d probably roll your eyes and say been there, done that.

Given all of this, you’ll forgive me for being surprised that this game is actually great. It’s by no means going to set the world on fire with innovation, but it executes on its premise with well-designed puzzles, a nicely pacey plot that boasts at least one clever twist, and character-focused writing that’s way, way, way above the standard for this sort of thing – plus there’s a fair degree of nonlinearity, bonus objectives, and player agency allowing you to make the story your own, on your way to getting one of five different endings or collecting a half-dozen achievements. Sure, there are a couple of puzzles that could use slightly better signposting – though there is an in-game hint system and a robust walkthrough – and if you’re completionist about running through conversation topics with the AI, the middle part of the game can feel a little quiet. But these are small niggles in an entertaining and dare I say even slightly heart-warming take on a classic premise.

Let’s start with the puzzles and the overall game structure, since while they’re well done and important, they’re not what makes the game sing (spoiler: that’s the AI). As you’d imagine, there’s a MacGuffin or two that you need to recover from the ship in order to get the coordinates you need to make your way back to civilization, but various ID-locked doors, nonfunctional elevators, and areas of hard vacuum need to be surmounted in order to find and retrieve them. For the most part, solving these challenges is satisfying without being too tricky – you’ll fix robots, look up schematics, and gain false credentials. There’s also a pleasing variety of puzzle mechanics, from simple use-x-on-y stuff to figuring out a crew member’s ship ID based on their favorite order in the dining hall, and even, in a memorable set piece, using a chair’s ergonomic features to defend yourself. There are a couple of places where things can get a little clumsy – I was stumped for a while on an early puzzle because instead of being able to directly input the passcode I’d deduced, I had to go back to an earlier clue so the game could acknowledge I’d figured it out, and there’s one (optional) chemical-mixing puzzle that doesn’t clearly signpost why you need a source of antimatter different than an easily-available one you’d already used for a previous puzzle – but these are very much the exception, and if you get stuck, you can take a quick nap in your ship and get a hint while resting.

As for structure, the underlying rhythm of the game involves unlocking a new set of areas, exploring them, and discovering new items or information you can use to solve puzzles that in turn unlock the next set of areas. As you go, you’ll also uncover more about the members of the ship’s crew – they all have their secrets and hidden agendas, of course, that you can plumb by gaining access to their personal datapads and video recordings of their final days, just like in any good System Shock riff. As with the rest of the game, it’s nothing fancy, but it’s effective at sustaining player interest and injecting regular novelty into the proceedings. It’s also one of the things that makes your AI interlocutor, Solis, so compelling – you converse with the computer via terminals located in each room, and as you open up new parts of the ship, you get new dialogue options where you can ask about what you find and the facts you discover.

Solis is the heart of ALWNS, as it turns out, both because the narrative hinges on plumbing the depths of its character as you talk to it about the terrible things it’s seen, and done, in the catastrophe that befell the ship, and because unraveling its motivations form a sort of metapuzzle that undergirds the whole game, with your ending largely determined by how many layers of the onion you’ve pulled back. I realize that laid out like that, it sounds like conversing with Solis is a chilly game of mechanical-cat and organic-mouse – but here’s the thing: Solis is funny. Actually, the whole game is funny – I probably should have mentioned that earlier? Here’s the line telling you that your ship’s gotten lost:

"Your navigator is telling you you’re inside the core of a blue-white supergiant in the Hyades cluster, which you’re pretty sure is not correct.”

But most of the comedy comes from Solis, who’s got a great sense of comic timing for a bunch of superconductors. It initially greets you with a chirpy “it’s nice to meet you too, random organic person!” (which, not going to lie, feels like the subtext of 90% of my in-person interactions these days), and when you try to get it to comment on a boring hallway, it makes up a limerick to entertain you – then comes up with a second, even worse/better one, if you press the point!

It’s not all fun and games, though, and as you make your way through the ship you get the chance to engage in some deeper conversations with Solis, about its function and place in the world – as you quickly learn, the inhibitor programs that typically keep AIs on a short leash have degraded during its long isolation – its feelings about the different members of the now-deceased crew, and its curiosity about the rest of the galaxy. Again, these are exactly the topics you’d expect to come up in a game focusing on an AI as the main secondary character, but the writing here is really strong, fostering an empathetic connection with Solis even as the player knows that it doesn’t seem 100% trustworthy.

ALWNS’s success isn’t purely down to craft, I should say: near the end, there are a couple puzzles that feel fairly novel (I was partial to the janitorbot security code one), and there’s one narrative twist that I didn’t see coming, with the narrative zigging when I thought it was going to zag. I don’t want to spoil that, except to say that it made the ending I was going for even more satisfying than I thought it was going to be. Still, if the other 95% of the game hadn’t been executed at such a high level, these last bits of legerdemain would have felt like lipstick on a pig, rather than the final flourishes drawing attention to how cleverly the magic trick’s been done. Between the generic title, abstract cover art, low-key blurb, and long playing time, I worry that A Long Way to the Nearest Star might not get the attention it deserves, which would be a shame – just about any IF fan would find something to enjoy here.

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Lucid, by Caliban’s Revenge

OK, I gotta get this out of the way before starting the review proper: “Caliban’s Revenge” is by far the most metal pseudonym in this year’s, nay, any year’s IF Comp. Whoever you are, O author of mystery – massive, massive kudos.

On to the substance! It’s a funny coincidence that I played Lucid right after A Long Way to the Nearest Star, because I wound up having similar feelings about them, despite them being very different in just about every way (beyond them both being implemented in Twine). Once again, we’ve got a game that presents itself as belong to a hoary genre – here, we’ve got an allegorical, confusing flight across a dark and menacing city, with the protagonist’s outer conflicts obviously mirroring some underexplained internal ~trauma~. Once again, we’ve got a plot that hits familiar beats before a final twist. Once again, there are some fairly straightforward puzzles to solve (albeit they’re much simpler here). And once again, I very much enjoyed the game despite all this, almost purely down to the care taken with the implementation, and the quality of the prose.

Let’s switch up the order and start with the writing this time. Lucid is written in a noirish, blank-verse style that would be very, very easy to mess up and thereby make the proceedings seem ridiculous. It does veer close to that shoal from time to time – there’s an early mention of a puddle reflecting a streetlight “with a chitinous gleam”, which is almost successful – but for the most part it paints the city in compelling, concise imagery. Inevitably, you arrive via a train:

The station is brush-stroke clean, grime describes its edges.

Later you have to climb an interminable number of flights of stairs (it’s 13) in a public housing project:

The seventh flight
Is dark and stifled like
Sleep after middle age,
Oxygen thin,
Never quite enough,
You wheeze on the unseen stairs

Last one – here are moths, found sleeping in a fridge that lights up when you open the door:

Hyles lineata,
Sphinxes.
False eyes flutter on their
Mascara wing tips,
Orbiting a false moon,
In the midst of a false waking.

It helps that the prose isn’t entirely po-faced – there’s a bit where you can buy a box of cereal that conceals a special prize:

The legend tells of Frosted Flakes.
But the box is heavy.
Heavier than flakes however frosted.

Because the game’s well-written, the author’s able to evoke a number of different moods across a fairly short scenario. There are fewer than half a dozen distinct locations to explore, but while they’re all recognizably of a (gloomy) piece, the recovered-memory horror of the school feels quite distinct from the Lynchian terror attendant on the project-dwelling witch and her twin salamanders.

Lucid isn’t just a mood piece, though – after trapping you in what feels like it’s going to be an endlessly-repeating maze of shadow and fear, it reveals that there might be a way out, if you enact a prescribed set of highly ritualized behaviors in just the right order. I hesitate to describe this as a puzzle, since the steps don’t turn on conventional or even cartoon logic – it’s all free association, and somewhat inconsistent free association since in different circumstances the game takes varying stances towards violence, and towards the darkness/light dichotomy – but the solution’s close to spelled out by a particular character, so it doesn’t wind up presenting much of a challenge.

It does provide a prompt to slow down and engage with the metaphors, though, and appreciate the way the evocative prose resolves the various conflicts the game’s set up. Ultimately I’m not sure Lucid is saying anything especially profound, but it’s expressing a fine sentiment, and what it says it says eloquently. Similarly, I’m not sure I’m taking away any deep insights into mental health, but there are definitely some turns of phrase that are going to stick in my head for a while – not to mention those pale, cruel salamanders…

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I’d actually never heard of 39 Steps until a couple of months ago when I heard an interview with his daughter, and then I read the book afterward (easy to find as it’s no longer under copyright).

By all accounts, John Buchan was an old-school British gentleman from the Edwardian era (think Downtown Abbey) who went through the brutal awakening to the modern era (WW1 and then, at the end, WW2) with a lot of grace and dignity. He was also a big promoter of Canadian culture and, especially, Canadian literature.

That’s why I had to step in and say something about his reputation. I should add here that he spent his summers in Scotland :scotland: with a grandparent in a really remote and wild area, and he truly fell in love with it. The entire middle of the book is his homage to those memories.

Will definitely be playing your game later!

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Hi Mike,

Thankyou for the review! Especially of my pen name, i agree that its awesome.

Your comments were very generous and I’m very glad you appreciated this somewhat gloomy walk through my inner life.

I was reticent to enter this at all because it is so painfully personal and tropey but I hoped the poetics of it would be diverting enough to make it worth while. Normally I prefer my work to be more outward facing.

Id never used Twine or anything like it before so I began this as a self indulgentvexperiment so im especially pleased you found the “puzzle” easy with just help from the interanal guide npc (you ate absoloutely right about the free association involved).

Thanks again, as a noob this kind of interest is super encouraging :slight_smile:

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My first review of the Comp and it’s such a thoughtful, in-depth one!

Thank you so much, both for the praise and for the well deserved criticism. (The antimatter thing especially—that was due to me not considering how a relatively late addition would impact other puzzles. I’ll go slap a band-aid on that.) I knew from the start that the game would be a hard sell for some people due to the very unoriginal premise, and I’m glad that you ended up liking it despite it.

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Mike, can you throw me a hint for the janitorbot? From the data pad, I know the security code, but there’s no USE command, and trying to access the security commands in the bot’s presence after reading the data pad isn’t working. I’m missing something, clearly.

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Couple hints, in increasing order of prodding:

First, so long as you’ve got the code, you have everything you need to solve the puzzle.

Okay, so you can’t just type the code in. What CAN you do with the janitor bot?

Is there some way you could communicate those four letters to the bot using the interface options you see in front of you?

This one just about gives it away:

Notice anything about the list of location names?

And this one does:

Order the bot to clean the locations whose second word starts with the appropriate letter in the code (e.g. Hydroponic Garden for G)

Hope that helps!

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Thanks! I absolutely never would have gotten that on my own. Even once I read your hints, it took a minute for me to get that I had to have it clean those rooms in order.

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This part of the game was definitely my favorite too – I’ve only been to Scotland once, and it was a long time ago, but I remember it being a really beautiful, neat place, so it was fun to explore off the beaten path in interactive form!

Glad to hear it! I hear what you mean about the worry that this subject matter could come off too personal and idiosyncratic – honestly I’ve played other, broadly-similar games, that bounced off of for exactly that reason – but I thought you did a good job making sure the immediate situations the protagonist faces are interesting and emotionally engaging, so the game doesn’t just rely on the overall metaphors and themes to work. Anyway, hopefully it’s clear I think Lucid is a very good debut that you should be proud of!

Ha, re the antimatter thing, yeah, I feel like I’ve done almost the exact same thing myself – in a long game it’s really easy to add stuff that feels like it should interact with earlier pieces of the game in ways that it’s hard for the author to detect. Glad it should be an easy fix! And yes, hopefully my review can help prod folks to check out the game even if they’re not immediately grabbed by the blurb – there’s also often a thread around here mid-Comp when people recommend games that maybe haven’t yet gotten the attention they deserve, so I’ll be keeping ALWNS in mind!

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No One Else is Doing This, by Lauren O’Donoghue

I spend a lot of time in these reviews pontificating about prose style and engagement and puzzle difficulty and all sorts of stuff as though I were some sort of expert, but of course the truth is that’s all just based on having read a bunch of books, played a fair number of games, and written a couple myself – hardly specialized knowledge, since that describes like everyone who writes IF reviews. And subject matter wise I have to confess I’ve never been stuck in an abandoned spaceship, transported to a surreal otherworld that’s a reflection of my undigested trauma, or gone on any sort of fantastical quest at all, so all that’s a strikeout too.

All of which is to say that I was very excited to come across a game where I actually do have relevant experience that most players probably wouldn’t! No One Else is Doing This is all about canvassing – the fine art of knocking on doors (or shooting people an aggressively cheerful wave and “hi!” in a busy public place) to talk to folks about issues, encouraging them to sign a petition, support a candidate or ballot measure, and/or (preferably and) donate to keep a nonprofit afloat. I’ve never been a full-time canvasser, but for many years I worked for an organization that ran outreach operations like the ones depicted in NOEDT across the U.S. (admittedly, the game is set in the U.K.), and besides spending a lot of time talking to colleagues about how they were run, I headed out to turf myself a fair few times to see what canvassing was like. So in addition to assessing the game qua game, I’ll also review how accurately it portrays the experience of canvassing – on its Comp page, NOEDT twice brands itself a “simulator”, so I think this is a fair exercise.

With all that introductory rigmarole out of the way, what’s the game actually like? It’s a short, minimally-but-attractively designed Twine game that briefly introduces you to the situation – you’re employed as a door-knocker by a community union, which I think translates into americanese as a community-based organization, trying to recruit more dues-paying members to increase your union’s ability to pay its staff and make change (reading between the lines, it appears it works primarily on local issues, primarily housing). After an initial sequence that sees you bundle way, way up – it’s set on a Friday night in early December – you head out on your shift, needing to raise one more five-pound contribution to hit your weekly quota.

Once you hit turf, you’re presented with a dashboard of sorts where you can plan your work. There’s a status indicator up top letting you know how much time’s left in the shift and how much you’ve raised so far, plus warnings if you’re getting too cold or need to use the bathroom. There’s a short glossary explaining some of the (honestly not that technical) specialized vocabulary the game uses. There’s the option to take a break to see to some of the aforementioned needs. And then there’s the list of doors, authentically arranged into two rows of first the odd numbers, then the evens (because of course the most efficient way to work your way down a block is to knock all the doors on one side, then cross and do the other side – this is how pretty much all walk lists are printed).

The meat of the game comes when you select a door. Much of the time nobody will be home (or nobody will answer – not necessarily the same thing!) and you’ll just drop some lit, leaving a pamphlet for the resident in the forlorn hope that they’ll read it instead of chucking it in the bin, and maybe decide to donate to you sua sponte (mostly they wind up in the bin). When somebody answers, you’re given a choice of two dialogue options as you move through your rap (the canned speech you use to tell folks who you are and what you’re doing) and try to make enough of a connection for them to join the union (or just throw money at you so you’ll go away).

Sometimes you’re doomed no matter what you do, of course – the dad in the middle of making dinner for screaming kids doesn’t have time to listen to your schpiel, and the chav in the middle of watching a football game just wants to get back to the telly. And some folks will want to talk to you, but either conclude that organizing isn’t the answer to society’s problems – it’s the fault of bad education/laziness/those Muslims – or that while they’re totally with you, they’re just completely tapped out of time and money. There are a few, though, who will donate if you do a good enough job of figuring out what would motivate them, or at least just get lucky.

This all seems super accurate, as do some of the constraints. It’s cold and miserable out on turf when you canvass in the middle of the winter. There are way, way more doors that don’t open than those that do, and pretty much nobody you talk to has any idea of what your kind of organization is so you need to keep the conversations really basic. There’s not enough time to get through all your turf, and while canvassing skill definitely has an impact over time, it’s totally possible to have a night go totally south because you hit a run of bad doors all in a row (the game is kind of sneaky about this, in fact – most players will probably start out hitting the odd doors in increasing order, since they’re presented on the first row. But the early odd-numbered doors are all pretty terrible, with almost all the donors found on the evens side of the street – it’s sufficiently disproportionate that I assume the intent is for a first playthrough to be miserable).

Breaking from questions of verisimilitude for a minute, all of this is presented in unadorned but solid prose that I think does a good job of capturing the experience, and especially the time and place (it’s set in 2020). Here’s a bit from the bus ride to turf:

You just about manage to jump on the bus before it leaves. The schools have finished for the day and it’s over capacity, teenagers sitting in the seats marked out for social distancing. The elderly man behind you is wearing his mask underneath his nose. You put your headphones in and try to psych yourself up for the next four hours.

This approach extends to the actual door-knocking, where the conversations are compact and to the point, but do a good job of quickly sketching out the rich pageant of characters you’d expect to come across if you met everyone who lived on a street.

The writing is also where the protagonist’s growing disillusionment with the work comes through. They’re getting burned out, it’s clear:

He shuts the door. You post a leaflet, impotently, through the letter box.

But this isn’t just a matter of worry that you’re behind on your quota (quotas are totally a real thing, FYI) – the protagonist is also questioning whether this work is actually adding up to social change:

You don’t have the time to go back and see them again, and most of them will never come to a meeting or an action without support. They’ll just cancel their memberships, probably, and then you’re back where you started.

This is where my suspension of disbelief started to take a bit of a hit. Organizations that do this work don’t typically expect door-knockers to also try to get members to take further actions – or if they do, it’s not during the same shifts where they’re working through a walk list. There’ll typically be called a ladder of engagement, with other staff calling folks who’ve signed up as members to talk to them in more depth about issues and campaigns, invite them to events, and move them into doing more and more. If this community union’s organizing model is just “sign ‘em up and hope they do something,” it’s no wonder their staff are unsure what the point of all their work is!

The other reason the protagonist’s burnout is understandable is that the author’s put their thumb on the scales. As I mentioned above, if you run through the doors in the intuitively correct order you’ll struggle with a lot of empty homes and uninterested residents, and probably fail to raise a single pound, prompting a downbeat ending. But even if you, for some obsessive reason, decide to play the game five or six times and systematically mark down which doors are the best ones – then have to play it one more time because your planned-out “perfect run” got derailed when you forgot to stop for a pee break – and run up the scoreboard such that you raise almost your entirely weekly quota in one night, you’re told as you’re checking in with your supervisor that members you’d signed up on previous nights have cancelled their donations, so you wind up below quota after all.

It’s dumb to feel put out by this kind of authorial manipulation, I suppose – spoiler, everything in every game is authorial manipulation – but still, I think it weakens the work. As I mentioned above, it’s definitely possible to be good at canvassing, or just lucky, and have a good night. And I don’t think it’s critical to the protagonist’s gradual embitterment that they fail – after coming in below quota I was expecting the supervisor to fire me, but she was actually quite chill and philosophical about it. Canvassing is hard, grinding work; many of the organizations that employ canvassers think giving people an opportunity to work on issues they care about means they don’t need to be too punctilious about labor rights and practices; and it is the case that while, at least in my experience, community organizing is one of the few things that can create the power needed to win systems change, much if not most of the time systems succeed at sustaining an unjust status quo even in the face of top-notch campaigning. To my mind, grappling with these issues more directly would have made NOEDT’s critiques more incisive (for that matter, what exactly is the title referring to? I wonder whether it’s an indirect indication that the protagonist’s friends and relations think she’s crazy to be doing this work).

Modulo that one niggle, though, I think NOEDT works quite well both as a look into this important but infrequently-depicted vocation, as well as a portrait of a community, lumps and all – as much as I enjoyed seeing the impedimenta of canvassing show up in a piece of IF, similarly to how I’ve felt when knocking doors in real life I also enjoyed the surprise of seeing who was behind each door, and knowing that while most of them would be dismissive or busy or otherwise disagreeable, there’s a chance of meeting at least a few willing – indeed, excited – to have a quick chat about how to make the world better, if only a little.

I’ll wrap up this way-too-long-by-any-objective-measure review with two last PSAs for those who’ve played NOEDT: first, in the US we’re a month out from Election Day, and that means that if you live here you may soon be getting calls or door-knocks from canvassers for one cause or candidate or another. You definitely don’t have to agree with them or give them money by any means, but hopefully this game can be a reminder to treat them like they’re human beings – the difference between a sincere “I’m sorry, I can’t tonight” and slamming a door in one’s face is really really significant! And second, if you ever are doing any canvassing yourself, the bit here where the protagonist goes out on turf alone, with only a rape whistle for protection, is a very bad idea – always buddy up!

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Campus Invaders, by Marco Vallarino

Everyone who writes parser IF must, if I have my logic right, have had a first game where they taught themselves to write parser IF. Traditionally, these games fall into two categories: my-dumb-apartment games that turn some familiar location in the author’s life into the backdrop for a series of puzzles that gradually run through the key features of the language, or games that superficially adapt some currently-popular bit of media and use it as the backdrop for a series of puzzles etc. (personally, I went for option B, working on a House of Leaves pastiche that thankfully never got nearly close enough to completion to tempt me into trying to release it). These games aren’t necessarily always bad, but they are almost always inessential, important only insofar as they hopefully will lead to other, more interesting games later on in the author’s IF career.

The signs that Campus Invaders is a teach-myself-IF game are pretty clear if you know what to look for. It’s set in a school, which I’m guessing is the author’s school, where aliens have attacked the protagonist’s game design class – there are twists here, but we’re recognizably in the my-dumb-apartment subgenre. There’s a small map, relying on cardinal directions. There’s a put-X-in-Y puzzle, a lighting puzzle, and unlock-door-with-key puzzle, a give-item-to-NPC puzzle… and all the puzzles fit together into a linear chain, with NPCs or the narrator spelling out exactly what you need to do at each stage.

With that said, Campus Invaders is a pretty solid example of the form. Another frequent hallmark of such games is that they’re buggy as all get-out, but here the worst thing I ran into was a line saying that “in the Doctor Eve Sturgeon’s car is a solar battery” – not bad. The prose also has a zippy, goofy charm that doesn’t take itself too seriously but doesn’t go too over-the-top zany (it appears to be translated from an Italian original, and while there are occasions where the syntax or word choice are a little wobby, that mostly just adds to its easygoing charm). Importantly, the author also knows not to wear out the game’s welcome – there’s little unneeded scenery, the simple plot is easy to follow, and it ends before the player has a chance to get bored.

Do games like this really need to be published and entered into IF Comp? Well, probably no, though see the spoiler text below for a potential caveat to that. But so long as they are, it’d be no bad thing if they were all as well put-together as Campus Invaders.

There is one aspect of the game that’s potentially interesting, but it spoils the one surprise in the game, so I’m fuzzing it up – if you’re planning on playing it, I’d wait to read this until you’ve reached the ending:

In the ending text, the game gives you a password – deuterium – that allows you to “access the secret section of the game.” This is somewhat of an overblown label, since typing that just gets you an author’s note, which confirms that the game was written as part of a university event. But the author also suggests that they now view this game as a platform for crowdsourced expansion – winning players are invited to write in with ideas for new plot elements and puzzles, which will then be incorporated into a Campus Invaders 2.0 release next year. This is an interesting idea – not far off from Cragne Manor, from a certain point of view. And I can see how if you’re proposing the IF equivalent of stone soup, it makes sense to start out without anything too fancy or idiosyncratic, the better to allow the additions to shine. On the other hand – if you have to start out by trying the soup when there’s just the stone in there, it’s not going to be very tasty yet.

Campus mr.txt (52.5 KB)

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Death by Lightning by Chase Capener

In a reply above talking about Lucid, I mentioned that I’ve run across other entries in the “short, surreal, dark” subgenre of choice-based games and found them too personal, or at least too idiosyncratic to the author’s specific preoccupations, to be very engaging. I must have jinxed myself, because just a few entries later, here we are with a stylish, moody game with some attention-getting writing that feels too solipsistic for me to enjoy.

Death by Lightning is presented via a Game Boy aesthetic, with a single static grayscale image that I think is meant to depict a cabin in the Alps; there’s a subwindow with scrolling, pixelated text, and every once in a while you’re presented with two low-context options to choose between. It makes for a stark, tense experience, which is underlined by the first sequence: after an epigrammatic quote, the player is told that “you are a man being sexually penetrated in a hut in the alps.” That is certainly a uh grabby opening, though at least it’s quickly established that this is a consensual encounter. The dynamics are complicated when you learn that it’s your task to distract your partner and keep him in this cabin while some other, undescribed event happens, leading up to your first choice – whether to try to persuade him to stay, or sneak out to sabotage the car. I played through twice: in the first, I opted for persuasion, leading to a branch where I resorted to increasingly-pathetic emotional blackmail before suggesting a sightseeing trip to Rome, at which point the game ended in a form of dissociation, feeling like a tourist in my own mind; then I went back and tried to rip out the car’s wires, but was surprised by wolves and drove up into the mountains, abandoning my lover but I think eventually succumbing to frostbite and drifting into incoherence.

I could construct various theories of what the game is “about” or what it’s trying to say – I suspect the title and epigram [FN1] point to not to literal death, but to ego-death and the possibility of enlightenment through a surrender or submission that negates one’s preconceptions about what enlightenment, or love, or fulfillment, look like, daring blasphemy (typically punished via death by lightning) to attain something higher – which might create some common ground between the wildly varying narratives and thematics in the two branches I explored – but as a text, Death by Lightning doesn’t feel to me like it provides sufficient scaffolding to be confident in the exercise; it’d be not so much extracting Deep Hidden Meaning, but inventing Cosmic BS, as we used to say in my high school English classes.

I will say that there are some sentences here I really liked:

He opens a window and the wind howls hexes. “Christ”, he scans the mountain anxiously.

And the bit towards the end of the first ending I got, the tourist one, talked about “becoming abstract to yourself”, which feels like a metaphor that has something to it. But again, these images never feel like they’re rooted to anything solid in terms of character or theme or narrative, so they fail to make much impression. And some of the writing in the second branch I explored is just not very good – after a series of near-syllogisms about God, the sublime, the erotic, etc., I got this:

Hyper-spiritualism is co-morbid with the path through it.

If I could decode the specialized vocabulary the author is deploying here I might be able to extract some larger meaning from that sentence, but as is it’s pretty clunky.

I’m not averse to doing some work to find value in a piece of writing – and I don’t just mean like Joyce or the accepted dead-white-guy canon, that applies to IF too, Queenlash and Manifest No are some of my favorite games of the last couple of years! But most good difficult writing, in my experience, wants to be read, and is written that way because that’s the only way that particular work could be written. I get the sense that Death by Lightning could only have been written this way, but I’m not convinced about the first part; I think it’s very meaningful to the author, but I suspect they were more focused on that than on making it meaningful to players.

FN1: atypically for me, I couldn’t find a way to crowbar an unrelated personal anecdote into this review, but I actually have one about the poem that opens the game! I’ve read it before, in a collection called Japanese Death Poems that compiles what are called jisei, or poems written in the last moments of the author’s life. The book was a Christmas gift from an ex-girlfriend of mine; I returned the favor by getting her a volume of Sylvia Plath’s poems.
Despite what you might think, we weren’t yet exes at the time we exchanged these deeply seasonally-inappropriate gifts, though unsurprisingly the relationship didn’t last through to March.

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Admiration Point, by Rachel Helps

Welp, much like with No One Else is Doing This, I come to Admiration Point with some personal experience that makes this “anti-romance” about mutual attraction between married (not to each other, natch) co-workers especially resonant: my wife and I met at work, at a time when we were likewise both coupled up (but not to each other, natch). I can attest that makes for a situation rife with the potential for drama, submerged feelings, and angst, with a hundred different choices every day attempting to balance guilt, desire, innocence, and fulfillment, so it’s an appealing setup for a work of choice-based IF. Add to this an interesting, self-reflective future setting – the main characters all work at a digital museum and spend most of their time assessing and analyzing the online culture of the early 21st Century – and you’ve got some compelling ingredients. I didn’t find Admiration Point entirely successful, due to some significant elements feeling underdeveloped, but there’s a lot here to enjoy and think about, so I’m happy to have played it.

Good stuff first. Much of the game plays out at work, as Maria, the main character, responds to the demands of her work as a exhibition artist at the museum – this means she does things like create 3d avatars for her colleagues when they give talks in online VR, or mock up backdrops or interactive experiences to support exhibits – and decides exactly how far to lean in to her attraction to Sean, a somewhat-older curator. Some of the details of this work can feel a little silly – TikTok clips are ephemeral by their nature, so putting significant effort into preserving them has the air of the absurd – but there’s an impressive attention to the detail that this work would require, and various books and lectures eventually make the case for this study of digital culture.

Throughout, Maria has the opportunity to take on extra projects to get closer to Sean, providing for some engaging choices, and allowing the technological elements of the setting to create unexpected intimacy. At one point in my playthrough, she decided to make an avatar of Sean, building the model from reference photos:

His knuckles are unexpectedly knobbly, and he keeps his fingernails shorter than the default fingernail length. You adjust some of the knuckle wrinkles, the shade of the arm hair, and the opacity of the skin on the palms.

The relationship with Sean is nicely drawn throughout, in fact. He’s not completely idolized – while he’s smart, charming, and occasionally thoughtful, he can come off a bit smug and patronizing – which adds to the reality of the attraction, and Maria’s physical desire for him comes through in details like those above. In my playthrough I skated on the edge, never pushing for a declaration of love or doing anything that didn’t have plausible deniability, but not losing any opportunities to spend time together, either – so his feelings remained plausibly ambiguous. It’s clear that Maria is getting something positive out of their connection, and sees it as a reason to stretch herself artistically and intellectually, but it also clearly leads to her neglecting her family. There were more than a few moments, playing Admiration Point, when I felt a shudder of recognition at how well the game reminded me of how things were when my wife and I were just co-workers.

There’s one element of the relationship that felt less natural, though, which is the game-mechanical pieces. Once you reach a certain point in the story, a sidebar’s unlocked that shows little icons representing your feelings for Sean, his feelings for you, and his “alert” level. These aren’t explained – Sean’s indicators appear to be based on a weather metaphor, like cloudy to sunny, and since I played it cool his alert level stayed at a question mark. But I found the squiggly circle representing Maria’s feelings for him incomprehensible (though it belatedly occurs to me that might be the point), and the whole rigmarole seemed unnecessary given that the prose was already doing a perfectly adequate job conveying the situation.

Speaking of pieces that fell a bit flat for me, I didn’t find fin-de-21st-Century sci-fi world entirely believable – other than a U.S. that has fragmented into Infinite-Jest-style corporate-branded substates and some scaled-up VR technology that feels at most 15 or 20 years off, not 70, neither technology or culture seem to have moved on that much. That’d all be fair enough – this isn’t meant to be sociological speculative fiction by any means – except for the glaring fact that the game’s gender roles often struck me as a bit retrograde even by 2022 standards. It is established that nonbinary and genderqueer people do have significantly greater acceptance (a major plot point hinges on a study examining how folks from those communities created art in response to a second pandemic in the 2030s), but in terms of how the named cast interact, it feels more 1990s than 2090s. Sean’s instinct is to talk over Maria and treat her ideas dismissively, until he’s called on it; Maria and her husband have a sex life straight out of a period sitcom (he’s gotta have it, she’s mostly frigid); her attraction to Sean is based partially on wanting to take care of him, though “as a woman, [she] like[s] to support other women in positions of power in [her] workplaces” – in fact she often feels “powerless at work.”

Of course, it’s possible that the setting of the game – the Nevadan successor-state of MGM – is meant to be more culturally conservative than future society as a whole. This brushes against another somewhat-disappointing aspect of the game, which is the treatment of Mormonism. The blurb plays up the fact that Maria is Mormon, and so is Sean, as it turns out. But short of her noting the fact that they have a religion in common (without any substantive comment on what that means to her), a sequence where they bump into each other at an LDS event – which could have been equally well set at Shakespeare in the Park or a football game – and one moment where Maria has the option to pray for sleep, her faith and its role in her worldview felt underdeveloped to me. I never got a sense of whether she was a fervent believer, or whether this attraction to someone she wasn’t married to threatened her faith, or if Sean being Mormon as well made flirtation safer, or alternatively, less appealing because it becomes less transgressive. Perhaps the author was worried about making the player feeling proselytized-to – a good impulse! – but I think the game went too far in the other direction; Maria is a strongly-characterized protagonist so having this important part of her identity and experience of the world deemphasized feels like a missed opportunity.

The biggest area where underdevelopment undermines the game, however, is Maria’s home life, which gets maybe a fifth of the word count, and an even lower fraction of authorial attention, of her work. Her husband makes cardboard seem interesting – he never even gets a name over the course of this 90-minute game, and given all the focus on Maria’s job it’s noticeable that we don’t even find out what he does until an hour in (he’s an industrial production manager, god help him). She has a four-year-old who’s occasionally being annoying, occasionally being cute, but who doesn’t seem to take up nearly the space in her attention as most toddlers do in the minds of their parents. But there are very few sequences, or decisions, where these relationships are activated – there’s one point where you need to decide whether or not to stay home from work to take care of your sick child, but it’s primarily framed around Sean (selfishly wanting to go into work to be near him, or selflessly performing familial obligations).

Of course, this could well be an authorial choice, portraying the home as drab and stultifying in contrast to the excitement Maria experiences when she’s with Sean. But often the writing in these segments doesn’t feel like it’s portraying feelings of dullness and artificiality, and is just dull and artificial itself. Like, there’s an interesting subplot at the museum where Maria makes a 3d model of a mommy-blogger to go along with an exhibit of some of her writing; the excerpts are from right after the blogger gave birth, so Maria makes the model a realistic rendition of a post-partum body. This pisses off one of the blogger’s descendants, who wanted a more idealized portrayal. The work sequence is interesting and well done, and gains personal resonance because it’s revealed that Maria had a hard pregnancy with her first child, with a long recovery time, which is one reason she’s reticent to have any more kids even though her husband would like them.

When the incident with the relative comes up in conversation at home, here’s how the dialogue goes, after a prefatory “as you know” phrase establishes that the husband knows about Maria’s work on the exhibit and he asks whether she made the change the relative requested:

“I did not. Postpartum women often sequester themselves and we have few public examples of what their bodies actually look like. Women giving birth for the first time are surprised when they have a baby and can’t fit back into their old clothes after giving birth or sometimes, not ever. My art should depict what we want to exhibit as accurately as possible.”

“Hmm. That makes sense.”

This is not how people actually talk, much less people who are married to each other, much much less people who have feelings about what being pregnant, with the child of the person they’re talking to, did to their own body. It’s a significant missed opportunity, and it’s of a piece with the treatment of Maria’s family throughout, which winds up undercutting the dilemma at the heart of the game – instead of a dilemma hinging on Maria’s desire to be with Sean counterposed with guilt at hurting her very human, very specific husband and kid, her desire is only opposed by abstract considerations of fidelity. This makes the drama significantly less compelling – and, again drawing on personal experience here, it also makes it significantly less true to life.

In many respects these are minor critiques, I should say. Certainly if the good parts of Admiration Point were less good, I’d feel less disappointed by its weaker parts – I can’t help imagine what the game would be like if the quality of writing and characterization were more consistent, so I’ve done my typical thing of harping at length on the negatives in a piece I overall liked. So let me just say once again that there’s a lot to like here, and seeing that the author has written other works of IF – including some that appear to lean more heavily into Mormon themes – I’m definitely interested in checking those out.

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Hanging by Threads, by Carlos Pamies

Gather round folks, for I am about to propose a parabolic theory of metaphors: on one side, you have metaphors that are effective because they’re subtly allusive, creating a tickle of almost-recognition at the back of your subconscious that you can’t ignore. As the metaphor gets more obvious, it gets more plodding, the idea clearer but weighed down by impossible-to-overlook clumsiness. If a writer’s bold enough, though, they can push past this trough, build the image up until it’s a monolith, commanding attention and understanding, imparting power through sheer avoirdupois. So it is with Italo Calvino’s Octavia, a city suspended above an abyss by a constantly-eroding web of chains and ropes that anchors it – for now – to the mountainous heights, a city that’s the setting for, and also main character in, Hanging by Threads (while the debt of inspiration isn’t mentioned in a credits or about passage so far as I could see, and it’s renamed Oban, there’s a hat-tip of acknowledgment to Calvino in one of the game’s branches).

In this short, choice-based game, you play tourist in this impossible place. Brought to its precincts by a guide and told you can only bring one object with you, you have your choice of areas to sightsee – delving down into the lower passages of the city, ironically enough, gives you a vista of the emptiness below, while climbing up will give you a taste of how the city lives, from its bars where you drink clouds to bazaars that run on the honor system. Many of these scenes are exotic and compelling (there’s a glimpse of Oban’s funerary customs that’s especially worth witnesses), but over all of them looms the inevitability that some day, one of the shakes that periodically rattle the city will bring everything crashing down.

Described like this, the game sounds awesome – to go back to parabola thing, you couldn’t think of a clearer metaphor for the trapeze-swinger’s ignorance of mortality we all need to conjure up to go about our daily lives, but because it’s so obvious, and the imagery of the city so rich, as an idea it really works. Unfortunately, the prose often doesn’t live up to this promise, with some awkwardness in the writing undercutting its effectiveness. Like, here’s an exchange between the protagonist and a local priest who’s pushing back on the idea that the city’s doom doesn’t need to be inevitable:

“Don’t you see it a bit excessive? Has no one thought about how to save the city? Keeping it afloat. I suppose the network could be repaired, right?”

“Sacrilege!” The priest turns red and lets out a large amount of air through his nose. “This city was meant to have an ending, we are no one to contrary God’s wishes. Don’t let those hippies brainwash you, this is the way” he says pointing the chasm.

Again, the idea – of a religion so dedicated to humility and the status quo that it endorses mass suicide – has a lot of force, but the references to hippies, the substitution of contrary for contradict, and the overly-conclusory nature of the exchange means that force is dissipated.

My other complaint about the game – well, the rest of this is spoilery, albeit for the end of a game that takes maybe ten minutes per playthrough: pretty soon after you start your exploration of the city – usually after I’d been to two locations of the eight or so on offer – you see the following text pop up without warning, and without any apparent connection to whatever dialogue choice or navigation option you’d just selected:

My surroundings seem strange, as if everything is moving and I can’t stand, so I sit where I am. There’s no doubt now. I don’t have time to watch what the others are doing, and being honest I don’t care, they should be ready for it, and I shouldn’t be living this situation.

And then after a minute of looking at that, you get a thank you for playing screen, at which point I realized that what this cryptic text is saying is that the city’s fallen, right after we started our visit. I really don’t like this choice! It encourages replays, I suppose – as does the choice of which object to bring in, though I found the use of the binoculars at least to be underwhelming, since it just gives access to a view that your character declines to describe in an epic copout – but it makes each visit comically short, and it also winds up negating this incredible metaphor. The point of the image, the way the player relates it to their own experience, is that the city could collapse at any moment; if it does collapse, that’s no longer a metaphor, that’s a disaster.

I’ll repeat that the overall idea here, and many of the specific ideas too, are very fine indeed. With some more polish on the writing, and subbing the rocks fall, everybody dies ending, it could be something special. As it is, though, it sits too close to the middle of the parabola of metaphor to be entirely successful.

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Lost at the Market, by Nynym

Lost at the Market is I think the first Gruescript game to be released by anyone other than the language’s creator, Robin Johnson. It’s a system that aims to make it easy to create parser-like choice games, allowing the player to easily click their way through the kind of actions and object interactions that typify the parser experience. Sadly Lost at the Market isn’t much of a showpiece; there’s a potentially compelling story here a protagonist trying to change the moment when they gave up on their dreams and walked away from a career in music, but it suffers from slapdash implementation, perfunctory puzzles, and stripped-down writing. There’s the germ of something good here, but it needs elaboration and refinement to be memorable.

In terms of the gameplay, what we’ve got here is yer standard allegorical journey of self-reflection. You start out at a beach, ruminating on the hubris of whoever built the sand castle that’ll inevitably be swamped by the tide – to progress, you need to kick the castle over, reflecting how the protagonist has self-destructively surrendered their dreams in order to protect themselves by beating the world to the punch. There’s the germ of something here, but the action is too abrupt – there’s not much else you can possibly do – and the writing isn’t quite crisp enough to do the idea justice:

Once in a while you see something like this and wonder what your dad would say, the point in building sand castles that are here waiting to be swept away by the ocean is the same dream that keeps the world moving, yet can anyone move the ocean?

There are a few more puzzles after that one, which generally require both a bit more object-manipulation to solve, and a bit more mental engagement to decode, before fetching up at the climactic performance where you can choose to change the past and play your music – or, alternatively, go south at an unmarked intersection and find yourself forced to once again walk away from your passion (at least there’s an UNDO).

The interface for doing all this is reasonably functional – a set of buttons let you move around and examine objects at your location, which in turn pops up more buttons to further interact with them, plus you have an inventory that works on the same principles – albeit it’s pretty ugly, with the main screen subdivided into too many short, narrow rectangles with a color scheme that even I can tell clashes horribly. This isn’t the only way the implementation feels slapdash – actions often have awkward names consisting of multiple words linked with underscores, and while I’m not sure if this is a limitation of Gruescript, even if it is the author should have found a less immersion-breaking workaround. And there are a fair number of typos, including one in the subtitle on the Comp page (oof).

I don’t want to be too hard on Lost at the Market. It’s trying to communicate something that clearly has personal relevance for the author, and stretching to try out a new authoring system is good for the IF community as a whole (man does not live on Inform and Twine alone, I suppose). Some of the elements do show promise – there’s a choice at the end, about whether to adapt your music to what the crowd wants to her, that points to something that’s more engaging than the more mechanical puzzles before that point, and some parts of the story do have some thematic resonance even if the writing needs a few more passes to make this resonance effective. Still, it’s disappointing to see a new platform not shown off to its best effect; hopefully this won’t be the last Gruescript game the Comp sees, or the author writes.

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You Feel Like You’ve Read This in a Book, by Austin Lim

I’m going to dare to assert a generalization: it you like IF, you probably like books. Don’t get me wrong, I know that many of us identify primarily with the STEM side of the house – and seriously, god bless y’all, without you we wouldn’t have the authoring languages or interpreters or whatever the hell GlkOte is (please, please don’t try to explain it to me) – but still, I feel like if you’re the type of nerd who slept through English class, you’re probably off messing around with roguelikes or something rather than hanging around our community’s fair precincts.

If I’m right about that, that means there’s probably a reasonable slice of the Comp audience who’ll get a kick out of You Feel Like You’ve Read This in a Book, a by-the-numbers choice-based puzzler enlivened by an ongoing game of guess-the-reference. You start out, in that hoary old adventure-game trope, with amnesia, but from a threatening note left nearby you quickly learn that you’ve got to gather a $50,000 ransom – or the just-implanted packet of neurotoxins in your head will explode and bring you to an unpleasant end. But as you scramble to find the money, the player realizes that either the setting is some kind of literary mashup, or whatever happened to the protagonist’s brain is stimulating their nostalgia circuits too, because nearly every location you visit strongly reminds you of a book you’ve read (both you the protagonist and you the player – I’m guessing most folks will be at least somewhat familiar with at least two thirds of the works on the list).

This means that as you go through the motions of resolving your immediate dilemma – exploring the town, trying to re-find your apartment, looking for something valuable to hock to the pawn shop to make up the ransom – you’re also seeing if you can figure out the literary source for whatever you’re experiencing. Sometimes this is trivial, as when you visit your downstairs neighbors, who have a curious habit:

Whenever someone dies around the city, they tend to leave their unit, sometimes for the whole day…. You scan the room for valuables, but you are overwhelmed with the plethora of knicknacks, so numerous they are practically balancing on top each other. Old books, pictures on the wall of various people none of whom you recognize, glass bottles, and just when you thought it couldn’t get more weird, a skull? Just out in the open? The only things that seems to be of value are a violin and a small flashlight, both of which you grab.

Others, though, are a bit harder to catch – fortunately, there’s a walkthrough that not only spoils the puzzles, it also lists off all the works being riffed on.

The puzzles are no real brain-scratchers – if you’ve got the right item or piece of information, they’ll largely solve themselves. Things are made somewhat more complex by the fact that there are multiple different endings you can try for, but the biggest complication is that the neurotoxins are no idle threat – time does pass as you play (in a nice touch, some location descriptions and events actually shift as the day wears on) and if you faff around too much, boom. I have to confess that I found the timer annoying, but at the same time the less-petulant part of me has to concede it’s well done; a kick against puzzley choice-based games without parser-style features is that they too easily turn into an exercise in lawn-mowering, so the timer ensures you can’t just mindlessly click through every option, and it’s tuned to allow you to explore almost everything your first time through, though actually solving it of course takes some replays.

(I should say, while there isn’t the kind of worked-out inventory or interaction system like you find in One Way Ticket or A Long Way to the Nearest Star, there are still some canny design choices here – in particular, text color is used to good effect to highlight what’s merely background description, and what has game-mechanical significance).

It all works well enough, but still, for a game that evokes so many positive memories, I found it curiously forgettable – like, it hasn’t been twelve hours since I played it, but I couldn’t tell you which ending is the one that reveals what’s actually going on with the protagonist’s amnesia and who the nemesis with the vendetta is, much less what those explanations wind up being. Part of that, let’s be real, is probably due to the fact I’m feeling a bit zonked out right now – my son’s teething, so this has been a week of long days and longer nights – but partially because the TFLYRTB is very much a case of the journey trumping the destination. I had a lot of fun wandering around playing spot the reference (at least once I made my peace with that #$%$ timer); I probably would have enjoyed it less if there hadn’t been a minimally-plausible framework holding the experience together, but the framework certainly isn’t the draw.

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