Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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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Tower of Plargh, by caranmegil

(With apologies to Leonard Cohen)

Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is grey
I got to the end but I’m not sure what I just played
I’m crazy for IF but I’m rating this one blargh
The cover pic’s Big Ben but I’m talking about the Tower of Plargh

I asked Andrew Plotkin, “are these puzzles tough
Or is it just that they’re not explained enough?”
Andrew Plotkin looked at me like I was from Camargue
It’s all trial and error in the Tower of Plargh

First you drop an egg in rooms with funny names
Then a voice from above has you playing silly games
I looked up the list of Inform actions and ran through them in a slog
To solve the monkey puzzle in the Tower of Plargh

The scenery is implemented never
And you are as good-looking as ever
If you like descriptive detail, you will say “argh”
'Cause there’s not much to look at in the Tower of Plargh

Four times you need to get to the next floor
The map’s always the same and the clueing’s rather poor
There’s one typo that shows up in almost every room
Who put us in this place, and why are we collecting golden cruft?
Who’s the voice on the other side of that big red button we push?
Pondering these questions puts me into a mood of gloom

Now I’m closing down the game, and I won’t be back
There are 70 other Comp entries, and I’ve got to stay on track
I’ll remember this one though, even through a bit of fog
At least it wasn’t a dumb apartment, it was the Tower of Plargh

Well, my friends are gone, and my hair is grey
I got to the end but I’m not sure what I just played
When it comes to first-time authors, I don’t like to flog
Still, I hope your next game will be better than the Tower of Plargh

plargh mr.txt (49.4 KB)

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Glimmer, by Katie Benson

These days it’s easy to take a look around and feel like the world is pretty bleak. Sure, it’s perhaps the case that throughout human history the world has generally looked pretty bleak, and it’s just because of the semi-recent memory of the 90s, when the Cold War was over but we were still close enough to World War II that Nazis knew they had to keep it in their pants instead of whining about cancel culture, that we in the west have an expectation that things should be basically okay. Regardless, what with an on-and-off pandemic, a land war in Europe, rising inflation, raging inequality, the global rise of an anti-democratic right, oh yeah and the marching inevitable catastrophe of climate change, it’s understandable that folks get depressed at where we’re at. And compared to where I live in the US, this is maybe especially the case right now in the post-Brexit, post let’s-crash-the-bond-market-by-being-supply-side-morons UK, where Glimmer is set.

This short choice-based game tracks a simple down-and-up arc. On the front end, you’re confronted with a well-written, linear series of shocks and shames, each of which pushes the protagonist – and the player, as their proxy – into an act of forced renunciation:

On the bus home the next day, you pick up an abandoned newspaper. It’s filled with stories of war, poverty, and environmental destruction.

You stop reading the news.

Your manager calls you into a meeting. She’s been asked to make cut backs. There’s a genuine sadness in her eyes.

You stop going to work

It all ends with you huddled under a duvet because you’ve had to turn off the heat, disconnecting from your loved ones since they’re all just enacting different versions of the fear that’s paralyzed you, and giving up the last thing there is to give: “you stop caring.” From there, though, a friend visits, bringing tea and biscuits, and choices start to open up as you begin to consider that maybe life can be something other than a monotonic decline.

That’s all there is to it – this is a game you can blaze through in five minutes. And even when you reach the part with options, it’s still quite linear, as you end up in the same place, with almost exactly the same plot beats, regardless of what you pick. I found this did undercut the impact of the story on me, I have to admit, and I wished there was a little more detail, a little more specificity, to help the conclusion land with a bit more force (the friend isn’t given a gender, much less a name). With that said, I can’t fault the message Glimmer ultimately conveys, and overall I did find the game effective, albeit more so the first half than the second. That’s no surprise, I suppose – I suspect it’s easier to convey a slide into depression than communicate an authentic path out of it, especially these days.

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The Counsel in the Cave, by Joshua Fratis

Not infrequently, I’ll argue in a review that a game seems unfinished. Usually what I mean is that it’s buggy, or the prose needs an editing pass, or pieces of characterization don’t seem consistent, or puzzles come out of nowhere. The Counsel in the Cave, a character-driven journey into other worlds written in Ink, strikes me as unfinished but in a completely different way: what’s here is high-quality and polished to a high sheen, but the game seems to be missing large chunks of its own story. Some of this seems intentional: there are bottom-lined recaps of the missing action woven into the later scenes, and the “page numbers” displayed at the bottom of each passage look to jump ahead by a few dozen in between each act. It’s still a storytelling choice I found frustrating, though – I loved the game’s grounded beginning and stakes, and really enjoyed the connection and dialogue between the two main characters, but found the compressed runtime stepped on the character arcs, and the abrupt way the narrative leaps into its fantastical elements made them feel somewhat arbitrary.

Let me be clear: I’m not just trying to balance criticism with praise, what’s good here is really, really good. The story opens with two teenagers talking through their feelings about their upcoming graduation from high school in suburban Pennsylvania and potential college plans, each striking slightly different balances between excitement for the future and nostalgia for the past. I’m no Pennsylvania expert, but the local detail strikes me as authentic (wrestling powerhouse Lehigh University gets a namecheck!) deepening the sense of place, and their conversation unfolds in a walk through the hills where the two – vacillating May and driven Jason – reminisce about their shared childhood. The game’s presented in (screen?)play format, but even in this dialogue-driven presentation the landscape comes through powerfully, albeit with a postmodern sense of unreality:

The curtain rises on a steep green hill covered in clovers. On stage right, tall trees line the edge of a small wood. Below us on stage left, unkempt vegetation grows more wild.

Little can be seen through the dense canopy of low tangled trees. Beneath the brush, mosquitoes buzz and hum. Resting on a rocky creek bed written with tree-roots, May spies an old rowboat split by a twisted vine.

For all this well-observed detail, though, these hills are anything but mundane. Strange obelisks float midair, carts roll of their own volition, and dinosaurs skulk in the woods. It’s maybe a bit much to throw in all at once, but the matter-of-fact way the pair accept all this weirdness creates an alien mood that I found made for a compelling juxtaposition with their more relatable late-adolescent concerns. And the magic realism makes for some lovely images. Here’s Jason, talking about the tall power transmission towers whose cut wire-ends float frondlike in the sky:

”Now they look like titans. As if at night, they put down their wires. And instead of staying here, wander the earth in search of something greater.“

I am very much here for all of this, and as the first scene wrapped up, with May, on Jason’s advice, readying herself to find a guidance counselor who seemed connected to powers beyond this reality for counsel about her mixed feelings about leaving town, I was very much on board. So I was very much taken aback when in a single short paragraph, the second sequence opened by saying she’d looked for the counselor, hadn’t found them, but had fallen into a portal into a multiversal realm of refracted, fantastical realities. Still, I found that after this hiccup, the game did regain its footing – this scene consists of a dialogue with a denizen of the otherworld that continued to play the game’s themes will adding some new lovely metaphors, even if some of them are a little on the nose. Here’s an exchange between May and ethereal fisherman Moondog, talking about some fairy-type creatures she sees riding on what look like underwater rays:

MAY

How do they steer? I don’t see any reigns. [sic]

MOONDOG

Ha! They don’t! The riders surrender themselves to the creatures’ wills. That and the winds. See, the manta rays are blindfolded. They operate on instinct alone.

Any relevance to how May is overthinking her future education and life choices is completely coincidental, I’m sure!

Where Counsel in the Cave really started to lose me, though, was the third and final scene. I don’t want to fully spoil the story, but there’s an even bigger jump ahead in the narrative, with adventures, revelations, and character development addressed only in brief flashback. Don’t get me wrong, sometimes it can work to mention past events only by allusion – a little mystery can go a long way, and having to choose which one of three people May met in her journey to tell Jason about means that many players will only see the sentence “But there I met the Ticking Timekeeper, with his cart of clocks” without ever having it expanded on, which is perfect.

But May’s moment of catharsis, resolving the conflict inside her, also happens off-screen between the second and third sequence, which I found incredibly unsatisfying – that’s not the kind of stuff you can just skip without harming the plausibility of the character arc! Things feel even more abbreviated with Jason, who undergoes a calamitous misfortune and sprouts a hitherto-unmentioned Tragic Backstory. As a result, while I could tell what emotions the finale was working to evoke, it fell far flatter than it should have given the quality of writing on offer.

It’s hard to fully make sense of the author’s intention here – from a few post-game notes, it seems as though parts of the game are drawn from dreams, which can certainly lend a disconnected feel, but there’s also an indication that it might be a work-in-progress, and they decided to polish up half of the story and release it into IF Comp as a teaser for what might be an eventually whole piece to come. I hope that’s the case, because I suspect I would enjoy the final version of Counsel in the Cave very, very, much – as it is there’s still a lot to like here, but the absence of space to fully establish, then play out and resolve, the characters’ inner conflicts is a real shame.

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An Alien’s Mistaken Impressions of Humanity’s Pockets, by Andrew Howe

Credit where it’s due – it’s hard to come up with a good game title, but “An Alien’s Mistaken Impressions of Humanity’s Pockets” is a doozy. It’s slightly awkward and wordy, true, but that’s consonant with the comedically-rich premise it encapsulates, of over-earnest scientists drawing over-confident and overly-detailed conclusions from inadequate information, generalizing about our society based on the random detritus that’s happened to fetch up in our pockets. I’d seen the name when I first skimmed the list of games in the Comp, and I was excited to see it come up relatively quickly in my queue.

Now that I’ve reached it and played it, does it live up to its name and my expectations? Well, yes and no. The plot and premise are exactly as it says on the tin; there’s some extremely light choice-based puzzling as you help an alien named Gaffor (he refers to his people as “aliens”, which is confusing!) do experiments on ordinary household objects to identify their purpose, with their inevitable incorrect guesses played for laughs. But once I was in, I realized two things: 1) there are a ton of typos, including lots of misspellings, inconsistent capitalization, and missing spaces, and a few small bugs (nothing game-breaking, but several sequences that seem like they should only fire once are repeatable ad infinitum) that make the experience less pleasant than I’d hoped, and 2) I’d radically misapprehended how the humor would work.

This is on me rather than the game, I suppose, but going in I’d assumed that this would be a work of satire – like, the aliens would think that our smartphones were religious icons we hold in high veneration to remind us of our connection to transcendent reality – why else would we never let go of them – and conclude that 2001:A Space Odyssey was a documentary about the monolith in whose image they were created. That’s a not very clever gag, I admit – but still, given this setup it seems like you should be able to do something with some teeth in it.

That’s not really part of the author’s agenda, though – the aliens just confuse things by e.g. thinking clicky pens are used for tattooing or maybe as hole-punches, or that credit and debit cards were pieces in a dominoes-style card game. These confusions are played for laughs (as well as being the basis for a desultory puzzle or two) but the jokes are at the level of the Little Mermaid calling a fork a dinglehopper and trying to comb her hair with it. I didn’t find them especially funny, I have to confess, though partially that’s because I was distracted by the omnipresent typos and awkward grammar, which would have made even the funniest gag hard to land.

This is an inoffensive game – and the ending credits suggest it was made as a class project – and as I said, my disappointment was largely about me going in with incorrect assumptions. The few puzzles are reasonably designed and pleasant to solve, boasting at least a little variety so you don’t get bored with them even though they’re all quite simple, so that’s a solid base to start from. There’s nothing wrong with a short gag game that isn’t going for social comment, and the author’s clearly mastered the art of coming up with a grabby title! Still, the game desperately needs a fair bit more spit and polish to get the prose up to snuff – it’s hard to enjoy what is here when the reader is wincing at a typo or grammar error every other line.

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The Archivist and the Revolution, by Autumn Chen

Autumn Chen has had the kind of year that makes one reevaluate one’s standards for productivity. Her impressively-detailed debut in the Comp, last year’s A Paradox Between Worlds, came tenth in a crowded field; New Year’s Eve, 2019, her Spring Thing entry, won nods for Best Writing and Best Characters (and unless I miss my guess, didn’t miss out on a Best In Show ribbon by very much); and just a month or two back, she worked with Emily Short to recover and reimplement Bee, one of Short’s “lost” games.

Coming now to the Archivist and the Revolution, I think it’s that last effort that’s most relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s quite a lot of continuity with the two previous games: we’ve got a ChoiceScript-aping game (actually implemented in Dendry this time) with a slightly overwhelming amount of well-written content; we’ve got a cast where just about everybody sympathetic is a (trans or cis) lesbian; we’ve got a plethora of endings. But the narrative structure is largely procedural with randomly-available and discrete storylet-like passages playing a significant role in what the player understands the plot to be, and the interface foregrounds a resource-management frame where narrative actions produce mechanical rewards that in turn feed into new narrative consequences – it’s all very reminiscent of late-period Short (has anyone done the definitive charting of the arc of her career? I mean the Emily Short who’s interested in procedural text and works for Failbetter).

Think I’m reaching? Check the name of the main character then get back to me.

This isn’t a critique, I should make clear – far from it! Chen’s take on this structure feels assured and very much her own, with a dystopic, genderpunk setting quite far from anything I’ve seen in Emily Short’s work, and her trademark emotional palette of anxious grays and exhausted blues, illuminated by the occasional miraculous, vital yellow, is very much in effect. The mood is sketched with an evocative, efficient opening:

The light outside the window was bright and artificial, emanating from a poor simulacrum of the sun hanging on the metal ceiling above. Rows of green and violet macroalgal trees emulated an ancient streetscape, the scene completed by the humans walking by. It was the equivalent of midday in the city without a sun.

(I’d forgotten that there’s literally no sun. Metaphors!)

In this downbeat arcology, the protagonist, Em, works as a freelance archivist, working to recover information have encoded in the genetic material of ambient bacteria – this world has suffered from cycle after cycle of horrific war and violence that appears to have destroyed most traditional forms of information storage, so previous generations of scientists have cannily developed this technique to leverage the hardiness of unicellular life and send messages-in-a-biological-bottle to a future age. That idea, on its own, would be beautiful – except that the shores were these bottles have fetched up are dark ones indeed. After the latest convulsion of violence, the city (and maybe the world as a whole?) has been taken over by a reactionary, oppressive party that brutally enforces traditional gender roles – they’ve recently put down an abortive uprising that Em, a trans woman, took some vague part in – and doesn’t seem able to provide even reasonably economically-productive residents with a decent social minimum.

What this means is that you’ve got rent to pay, and to earn money you need to use your skills to decrypt your pick of two or three of a randomly-selected set of snippets of genetic information, and then send the resulting information to the archive (you do this by clicking, there are no cryptography puzzles or anything). Sometimes the information is garbled or no longer meaningful; sometimes it contains important scientific information; sometimes it contains the personal musings of the recently-suppressed revolutionaries; and sometimes it hearkens back to the very dawn of history, and the events that put the city on track to become the hell that it is. And then you pay for food and hormone treatments, hope you’ve netted enough on the day to be on track to make rent, and do it again the next day, with a new set of randomly-selected snippets waiting on your work account.

The game isn’t limited to just this loop, though. You get opportunities to decompress or interact with others in between, or even instead of, shifts of decryption. Some of these are minor-key – like trawling the CityNet for news stories (Em, in a display of obvious self-hatred, always reads the comments), or tooling around in a samizdat MMO. Others, though, unfurl into major character arcs, largely centering on two of Em’s former partners – one who’s also trans, but “de-transitioned” to hide from the authorities, and the other who’s raising her and Em’s son – and just from those short descriptions you can tell there’s a lot to dig into. Oh, and there’s also a mutual aid society made up of folks who share her revolutionary past and want to recruit her.

If this sounds overstuffed, that’s because it’s overstuffed. It’s here that the more procedural, storylet-based design proves successful. There’s no way you could see a fraction of the content on offer in just one playthrough, and you’re somewhat at the mercy of the RNG because what snippets are presented to you will have a significant impact on how much you can guide the story. And while it’s clear that you can focus more on one partner or the other (or neither) depending on your choices – simple enough – there are also ongoing plot threads woven into the DNA decryption. Some of this is game-mechanical, since at the beginning you lack the technical skills necessary to analyze certain cryptographic algorithms, but you can pick up the needed techniques if you find certain snippets that provide a how-to guide. But it’s also narrative, too – there are prefixes to the snippets that I think mark each as belonging to a particular genre, from deep history to the suppressed diaries of revolutionaries to literally Wikipedia. You can lean more towards one set rather than another, but ultimately, you’ll have a very hard time exhausting even one while spinning all the other plates you’ve got to keep an eye on.

This could be a recipe for incoherence, but I found the engine was tuned to create a satisfying story regardless of what was surely the suboptimal course I charted. I began by largely ignoring my job to meet all the different characters I could, then realized I was going to be short on my bills and overcorrected into work mode, then stumbled across a sequence of snippets that put into question many of the things I’d assumed to be bedrock truths of the city, then went broke nonetheless. At the end, my version of Em achieved an unexpected sort of apotheosis, riding a series of twists I saw coming just before they hit, and leavening the grimness of the story in a way I didn’t think would be possible. It felt lovely and inevitable, but it was only one of nine endings! I doubt they’re all as satisfying, but even so, the way I was able to retroactively construct a clear, clean narrative arc out of so many randomly-generated pieces, quite sure that I missed more words than I saw, was little short of magical.

Do I have complaints? By now I feel like y’all know me, I always have complaints. First, for all that the setting is established as violently repressive, in the game itself didn’t feel much sense of immediate threat, even when choosing somewhat-risky options, and the very real threat posed by Em’s rising rent comes off impersonal and inevitable, rather than terrifying – hell, even the online trolls seem significantly less vicious than the kind you see in real life. Beyond that, there’s a closing revelation that doesn’t quite play fair with Em’s backstory. And in a world where my morning paper included Russian missiles raining on Ukrainian civilians, Los Angeles City Councilors taped being absurdly racist while dividing up the city’s districts, and Iranian geronto-theocrats murdering dozens of women and children to prop up their illegitimate regime, the idea that the world’s conflicts would reduce down to the single point of gender identity seems a bit hard to credit – I’m certainly not complaining about the game foregrounding what it’s about and reading the rhetoric of various contemporary right-wing ideologues you’d be forgiven for thinking transgender rights is the only contested ground in our society. But still, there might have been opportunities to explore some intersectionalities around race, since Em is depicted as Asian and I don’t think it’s implied that everybody else is, too (in fairness, some of these dynamics might be explored in DNA-storylets that I didn’t find).

Finally, I ran into some bugs. Several were found in the resource-management side of the game, though since, as I previously noted, that’s not where the action is they were fairly low-impact: A few times, I decoded DNA but failed to get a message the next day telling whether I’d classified it correctly and giving me my payment; on one occasion, I’d decoded and archived two sequences but only had one acknowledged, while the other time I’d similarly archived two but saw only blank lines when I clicked the link to check for messages the next day. And the finale sequence opened with a two-paragraph warning that I was behind on my rent and would be evicted if I went another week in arrears, followed immediately by another paragraph telling me actually I was being evicted now.

There were also what seemed like a few narrative glitches, in particular two sequences that seemed to assume information that I don’t think was established on-screen in my playthrough (Em references a leaflet leading her to the mutual aid society, but I never found such a thing, and in one scene where K- has a breakdown, as it’s wrapping up she glancingly mentions getting a new job, which Em rolls with without comment despite not having previously known that K- got fired). And I found one dialogue option in the first meeting with the mutual aid society misleading: one of them said something about how I probably wasn’t a government infiltrator, to which I responded “no”, thinking that would be interpreted as agreement – but the game took that to mean refusing their recruitment pitch.

None of these did much to dent my enjoyment of the game – I’m flagging them in the hope they can be ironed out for a post-Comp release, since The Archivist and the Revolution is richly deserving of a second visit after the present frenzy of games wraps up. I’m curious to see how the narrative engine holds up to repeat play, and what happens if I try to focus my energies on a single plot thread rather than playing the field as I did this time out. But even if you just go through the story once, this is a clear highlight of the Comp.

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A short sequence (I can’t be sure that it even popped up in your playthrough) that put this into a whole new light for me was that in the minds of the reactionaries, and then filtered down through propaganda to the general populace, transgender was conflated with transhuman, as in artificially/technologically altered/enhanced humans. (Even now we’re beginning to see some of this, in sensory replacements/transplants mostly.)

Once these two categories were squeezed under the same umbrella, fear and hatred against those traitors who denied and looked down upon their own humanity (in the perception of their opponents) could extend to transgender people more easily.

Regrettably standard human psychology of overgeneralizing when scared/angry. (Not that I think hatred against transhumans would be more justified…)

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Ah, thanks for flagging that – I came across a few glancing mentions to transhumanism but they were pretty gnomic. In my playthrough I wound up doing much more meatspace stuff than research, and focused my decryption on either the five-years-gone revolution or really far fast stuff, so I suspect I missed out on this. That’s an intriguing and, as you say, depressingly plausible idea so definitely one to dig into on replays.

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Thank you so much for the review! Some random comments:

  • On the protagonist’s name: she is not named after Emily Short (though of course Emily Short was a huge inspiration on my writing), but rather K-, Em, and A- are named after Karen Zhao, Emily Chen, and Aubrey Gao from Pageant/NYE2019. In fact, in a lot of ways this story is a spiritual sequel to NYE2019 - compare K-'s life here to Karen’s goals/future plans in NYE2019 (similarly for Em/Emily Chen and A-/Aubrey Gao). Now, I don’t think Emily Chen was named after Emily Short, but maybe…
  • This game actually shares most of its structure with Pageant, my game from earlier, which was in turn inspired by Bee.
  • Thank you for noting the bugs! I have already fixed some of them and might push an update (however, it was expected behavior that documents can take more than one day to get paid after filing them). There will be a post-comp release with more content, too.
  • I’m guessing you got Ending 1? I would love to do some surveys or analytics on which endings people get… Random testers don’t exactly play like humans.
  • With regards to the focus on gender vs other social issues: there are some things on that topic I want to get into eventually, including why the revolution failed and how the posthuman wars interacted with the global south…
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Chasing the Sun, by Frankie Kavakich

I was reading Andrew Schultz’s thread on games set in all 50 states the other day, and feeling surprised everybody was blanking on contenders in the great state of Pennsylvania – it’s big, with a couple major cities, a good amount of history, what’s not to like? Well, I must have been tuning into something, since after The Counsel of the Caves, we’ve now hit our second Pennsylvania-set game of the Comp. The protagonist of Chasing the Sun isn’t a native, admittedly: she’s from Vermont but fleeing a bad marriage and a mysterious slow-motion apocalypse (wait – is that you, Nitocris?!) With the sun stopped low in the sky and an unnatural, deadly storm creeping west across the Atlantic, she starts to run out of gas as she hits a forested part of the state, which is where the game opens.

So far what I’ve described would fit a horror game – at first the premise reminded me strongly of 2020’s Alone, for example – but the mood in Chasing the Sun is far more contemplative, and the language is lush and literary. Here’s one of the opening paragraphs:

The sunless Pennsylvania Wilds zips past your car windows — trees upon trees upon trees. Green as envy and swollen with humidity. You are surrounded and far, far away from home. The road ahead is quiet. The air is breathable. The cabin of your truck is dry and covered in trash and bridal lace. You’re alone and you’re not dead yet.

The sentence lengths could use more variation – ditto with the choice of verbs – but still, this is a well-written bit of prose, setting a high bar for quality that’s sustained through the twenty minute runtime, albeit with the occasional hiccup (there’s a mention of the onrushing storm “dragging its clouds towards the id-soaked sunset”).

Similarly, the gameplay doesn’t have you making tense, high-stakes decisions as you squabble for supplies with other desperate survivors. For the most part, the drag-and-drop Texture interface gives you two options in each passage, one which allows you to move some kind of examining or exploration action onto a couple of different nouns to go deeper, and one that moves the game linearly forward. Later on, you fetch up at a farmhouse where gas and other necessities are freely available, and you get into an intense conversation with a woman you seem to share some kind of spark with, which does involve more discrete choices, but these are heavily telegraphed, giving the player free reign to define how they want the tete-a-tete to play out.

There is one odd exception, though, which is that if you spend too much time in the opening futzing around twirling the dial on your radio in search of active stations, you’ll get in a game-ending car crash. I think this is an ill-advised design decision, since it punishes exploration in a way that’s ultimately to the game’s detriment (though I have to say, I find the Texture interface finicky since I use a touchpad – the drag-and-drop feels inaccurate and sometimes releasing the click doesn’t seem to register – I of course don’t hold that against the game, but maybe contributed to my disinclination to mess about after that death).

It’s after you reach the farmhouse that Chasing the Sun shows its hand: the conversation with Bird, the woman you find there, is the center of the piece, as you quickly jump past the wary formalities of meeting someone new and leap into unburdening each other of your respective secrets. This works… okay. I can see what the author is going for – Bird has a specific orientation towards the apocalypse that you can choose to agree or disagree with, and which gets at some heavy (though hardly novel or underexplored) themes – and the dialogue feels largely naturalistic.

Still, it feels very rushed, and while the story tries to paper over the way these two strangers immediately reveal their deepest selves to each other by invoking some kind of ineffable, sudden bond (the protagonist, a woman, seems like she might be gay and either closeted or prevented from living her true sexuality by a repressive family), it still takes an act of will to suspend one’s disbelief. Similarly, the details of the storm’s movement and the end of the earth’s rotation don’t hold together if you start questioning them. Taking it on its own terms, though, I found Chasing the Sun rather lovely, and would love to see the author tackle a somewhat longer piece that gives its characters and themes a little more room to breathe.

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Graveyard Strolls, by Adina Brodkin

Graveyard Strolls is a game of halves. All games are games of halves, the pedantic part of me wants to point out –and I just did, spoiler alert, “the pedantic part of me” is just me – but in this case, it really does feel like there are two distinct pieces to Graveyard Strolls, which is another Texture game, oddly coming right after Chasing the Sun in my queue. The first half is a relatively lighthearted, mostly linear help-ghosts-resolve-their-issues-and-move-on kind of setup, while the second, entirely linear, piece swerves into the intensely personal, with the threat of the supernatural functioning as a veil-thin metaphor for trauma. There’s things to like about both of them, but I’m not convinced that they sit together too easily, and the skeletal nature of the game’s choice elements don’t make much of a case for interactivity.

Taking the first piece first, the game opens with you having decided to go to a graveyard to see whether it might be haunted, on the advice of one of your favorite YouTubers. So far so Scooby Doo, but after you hear a spooky groan on the wind, you quickly encounter the first of a series of ghosts, all of whom seem more or less in denial or confusion about their deaths, and all of whom look to you for guidance. Other than their tendency to float and annoying bouts of amnesia, these spooks are understandably human, with relatable challenges. Hank, the first one you meet, is working through some issues with his wife; the second one fell in with a bad crowd and hasn’t quite internalized his mistakes. As for the third, on reflection I suppose he’s not technically “understandably human,” but I found him quite relatable all the same (he’s a dog).

Persuading them into the great beyond is a straightforward affair. In just about every passage, you’re given a choice of two options, one of which typically involves engaging with the ghost, being sympathetic to them, or putting pieces together, while the other usually ignores them, is dismissive of their feelings, or otherwise seems clearly marked as a bad choice. This doesn’t make for very compelling gameplay, unfortunately, all the more so because it doesn’t take much to get a game over. In the first real choice, for example, I decided to believe that the spooky noise was just the wind – which led to me getting freaked out, leaving the cemetery, and being brutally attacked in a way that makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve won the game, but initially just seemed like out-of-context, incongruously brutal violence.

This means that I quickly stopped experimenting and just defaulted to the choice the game seemed to be pushing me towards, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t especially engaging, since felt like I was being presented with false choice after false choice. I liked exploring the backstories of the first two ghosts, and interacting with the third, though, and was ready to finish my time with Graveyard Strolls chalking it up as a fairly enjoyable but very low-key spooky story. But then I got to the final sequence, and everything changed.

I don’t want to spoil the plot points here, since this surprise is much of what makes the game interesting (though nor are the specifics especially relevant to my evaluation of the game, so I’m not going to blurry-text them – the game’s short, just play it if you’re curious). It’s a fairly visceral twist that involves the protagonist’s backstory, injecting an element of psychological horror into proceedings. But it doesn’t seem to build in a meaningful way on anything that’s come before, and the protagonist’s lack of subjectivity or interiority in the first part of the game – you mostly seem like a player-insert who’s just there to listed to ghosts, not a specific character with their own experience of the world – makes the sudden shift feel jarring.

The final sequence is well written, or at least I found it fairly gripping, but to me it felt too disconnected both narratively and thematically from the rest of the game, as if the aforementioned Scooby Doo episode had ten minutes of The Haunting of Hill House spliced onto the end. There’s maybe a way to make that work, but it would probably require more connective tissue than Graveyard Strolls offers – as well as leveraging interactivity to engage the player more fully than the current, rather desultory, approach does. As with Chasing the Sun, I’d gladly play something else by the author, but once again feel like a little more expansion and refinement would make for a more compelling experience.

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I love reading all of your reviews- but wanted to especially highlight my appreciation for your thoroughness here in mentioning the accident. On first glance on mobile if I hit play, (Texture seemed better suited to a touchscreen) there’s no content warning alluding to it. You very well saved me the trouble of a triggered PTSD flashback in letting me know to steer clear of the game by bringing this to my attention- especially since it had been one I had on my radar to play. Thanks, Mike.

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Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey, by Andrew Schultz

There’s a lot that’s distinctive about the way Andrew Schultz makes games, but one thing that sets him out from other authors is the way he makes families or clusters of games rather than one-offs. He’s recently created a series of chess games, for example (in fact there’s another one coming up at the very end of my queue for the Comp), and his Spring Thing entry this year was a shorter iteration of an anagram-themed mechanic he’d explored twice before. You could think of this approach as being like a AAA game maker who releases DLC extending the base game with small tweaks to the basic concept, but for whatever reason, the metaphor my brain goes to is a musical one, like a band developing a particular sound to make an album, then putting out a short EP or sticking with it for another full release, before reinventing themselves and moving on.

Sticking with that metaphor, Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey is like a rarities and B-sides collection that closes out (at least for now) Schultz’s sequence of rhyming games, which started with 2020’s Very Vile Fairy File. Once again, the fundamental interaction involves reading the name of a room or object, then coming up with an appropriate rhyming couplet to move the plot forward. Confronted with a Mad Monk blocking your progress, for example, you might write DAD DUNK – which fits the rhyme scheme, but doesn’t solve the puzzle:

Alas, no middle-aged man soars into the air, basketball in hand, to posterize the mad monk.

Characteristically for Schultz, this basic dynamic is supported with a range of introductory material, helper gadgets, and shortcut verbs that do a lot to support the player without undercutting the often-challenging nature of the puzzles. The thoughtful design means, for example, that when you come up with near-miss rhymes like DAD DUNK, you’re rewarded with a little gag acknowledging that you came close (some of which are quite funny, especially when the game is gently chiding you for following the rhyme scheme into a juvenile or scatological place – call me immature, but POTTY PAIL made me giggle), as well as charging up an item that lets you skip puzzles that aren’t clicking for you. There’s also a fully implemented hints system, as well as a SOUNDS command that lists common English phonemes in case you want to trial-and-error your way through a particularly sticky wicket.

I found the game quite addictive to play; at any given time, you have a couple of locations open to you, and it’s fun to wander around worrying away at different puzzles and checking out the dynamic, loopily-surreal landscape, always knowing you have a safety net if the going gets too tough. What makes it more Odds & Sods than Live at Leeds, though, is that I didn’t feel like there was an especially strong throughline connecting the different pieces. In my memory at least, Very Vile Fairy File had a reasonably-consistent fairy tale vibe, and a plot that, while serving primarily as a justification for the puzzles, seemed to present a coherent antagonist and set of goals to accomplish. Here, I didn’t feel like the frame story doesn’t establish the Burning Bright Spurning Sprite as especially threatening, and the different locations and happenings felt essentially random – again, quite enjoyable in themselves, but very much a grab bag.

I also get the feeling that the game hasn’t (yet) gotten the full studio treatment. While the game’s overall stable and I didn’t run into too many full-fledged bugs, there is a slight lack of polish that hopefully can be cleaned up. There are some rhymes that seem obvious but aren’t implemented – I know being completely exhaustive would be very, very challenging to design, but I was disappointed all the same that, when I was told I had to create a “spark of nature” in the Sore Souls’ Gore Goals, HOAR HOLES didn’t create frosty receptacles (more forgivably, WHORE WHOLES similarly languished unimplemented). More annoyingly, the SOUNDS command seems to have some omissions (it includes a redundant X sound, despite a disclaimer saying that it isn’t listed, while there’s no Y – seems like a typo. And SH isn’t there at all, despite that sound being the solution to a couple of puzzles), and there are some solutions that lean so far into colloquialism that they feel like bugs (slight spoiler, but you’re probably going to need a spoiler to solve this puzzle: if you think “flain” is an acceptable way to create the past participle of “flayed”, I’m pretty sure you were born before the 19th Century).

Schultz has a track record of making many in-Comp and post-Comp improvements, though, so I’m sure these will be addressed in time, which is why I’ve taken the liberty of flagging them (along with several others in the attached transcript). And the bottom line is that this is a lot of fun as a well-designed puzzle collection – gloriously, instead of relying on deep pondering of abstract mechanics, progress here often requires you to chant rhyming nonsense words one after another until you either hit upon the solution or burst out laughing. You can levy aesthetic complaints at a grab-bag of novelty singles, I suppose, but you can’t say they’re not a good time – and it’s just the same here.

low key mr.txt (175.2 KB)

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Ha, I had a feeling I might have been reaching on that, but once I noticed the synchronicity I couldn’t not hope it was intentional!

Yup, I did – once I started getting x-prefix DNA I was pretty excited to dig into them!

Without knowing details, I have to say those seem like potentially rich areas to explore. Dunno if you’re thinking of an expanded post-Comp release or this’d be in a follow-on work, but either way I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

Oh geez, thanks for the kind words, and glad the review worked as a bit of service journalism. Yeah, I don’t see a specific warning about a car crash, unfortunately. If you do find the game’s concept interesting, though, it is very easy to avoid that sequence without missing anything that important to the plot – if you interact with the radio, just take the TURN OFF RADIO option rather than FIND ANOTHER STATION when you get to that choice.

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Thank you for the review! Lots of things to take into account here and I understand all of your critiques completely. There’s things you mentioned that I would’ve changed as well but didn’t have the time to, or things I wanted to flesh out more (which is my goal for the next iteration of this game, which won’t have horror in it and certainly won’t be on as strict of a deadline as I was here :sweat_smile:).

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