Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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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HOURS, by aidanvoidout

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, says the proverb, dig two graves. It’s an admirably pithy way of foregrounding the corrosive effects of giving yourself over to the single-minded pursuit of vengeance, even if it does raise some practical questions (if you dig them before you leave on a journey, does that mean some poor schmuck of an undertaker has to haul two rapidly-moldering bodies all the way back to the graves? Seems inefficient!)

Sadly, I can’t tell you whether HOURS grapples with the psychological and logistical complexities raised by the adage, because bugs meant I failed in my quest to assassinate the Shogun of the game’s techno-magic empire; his legions of soldiers stymied me just for a moment, but “I need usable code to the right of =.” ended my journey right quick. I can relate that I did not excavate any tombs at the outset, and in fact launched into this quixotic adventure without much in the way of forethought at all. The protagonist is a soldier in the Shogun’s army (initially nameless, though later it’s revealed he’s called Jack so he probably should have stuck with him man-with-no-name schtick. At least he makes out better than the poor Shogun, whose parents called him Charlie) – sorry, lost the plot there for a moment, a soldier who’s told by a ghost that he’s gonna die, so he might as well assassinate his own leader.

Lest you think I’m bottom-lining this in too conclusory a fashion, here’s the passage in question:

According to an apparition you saw on the battlefield, you had less than a day to live.

“How?” you asked. After all, you didn’t feel any different from usual.

“It may not look like it, but it’s your injuries. You’ll die soon.”

“…”

(Jack is a master of JRPG-protagonist ellipses).

“You will die by dawn tomorrow.”

You pull an arrow from your arm and tear a piece of cloth off a corpse to use as a bandage.

“…”

“Nothing to say?”

“…”

(See? I told you!)

“Well, since you’ll die anyway… I have a little favour to ask of you in the last hours of your life. Could you help to assassinate the Shogun of your nation? I’ll keep you alive with magic until dawn, but that’s the most I can do.”

Jack is quickly teleported to the capital city, leaving him with only five hours to spare, so he immediately – rents a room in an inn (hopefully an option to invest in his 401(k) will be added to a post-Comp release). While you have the option to mope around until dawn kills you, you can also just march down to the Shogun’s castle and launch a frontal assault on his personal bodyguard of hardened mercenaries, which isn’t suicidal because Jack just remembered he has a magic sword that can kill people if you stab where they used to be – this makes for a badass fight scene though also makes me wonder why he doesn’t just head to the hospital where the Shogun was born and skip some steps. Anyway after interrogating the lone survivor about some heretofore-unmentioned magical soldiers, Jack heads to a slave auction where poor captives who seem to have X-Men style superpowers are tortured and sold to the highest bidder (I’m not sure what level of Econ Shogun Charlie got to in college, but his failure to establish a monopsony here feels like a major oversight). And then the aforementioned bug brought proceedings to a halt.

I’ve been making fun, but honestly, I was disappointed not to see where things ended. HOURS has the demented, incomprehensible energy of the kind of anime I occasionally was able to watch when I was a kid in the early 90s, where someone at school’s uncle’s cousin stayed up until midnight to tape a poorly-dubbed episode from two thirds of the way through the run of some show you’d never even heard of before and never would again, except the station wasn’t paying attention to the timings so it cut off right before the end so they could run a Thighmaster infomercial. I can’t say that it’s good, but I was carried along by its silly enthusiasm for a while, even as I was MST3king it in my head – and getting any kind of emotional response out of the audience is something a first-time author can be proud of. HOURS isn’t an especially auspicious starting point, no more so than a two-grave cemetery, but here’s hoping the author’s journey into IF creation comes to a better end than Jack’s quest did.

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The Last Christmas Present, by JG Heithcock

IF, it hardly needs repeating, is not real life. That’s probably for the best – blasé as I’ve gotten about managing spaceship crises after being woken prematurely from cryosleep, in actual reality I would not handle that well, and let’s not even bring up Great Cthulhu and his goons. Sadly, in the Last Christmas Present, the arrow flips the other way: this is a parser-IF rendition of a magic-themed scavenger hunt the author created for his daughter, which seems like it was completely awesome in real life, but unfortunately makes for a lackluster time when rendered into a video game. Partially this is due to the lack of feelies – the hunt’s centerpiece is an elaborately-described map that doesn’t work quite as well in prose form – and partially due to some implementation issues that make what should be fairly simple puzzles much too hard.

Here’s the inevitable part of the review where I need to pause to clarify that the theme isn’t just “magic”, it’s “Harry Potter” – the map is a riff on the Marauder’s Map from the books/movies, what you’re looking for are papercrafted snitches, like from quidditch, and there are a few optional clues that rely on deep knowledge of Potter lore, though I suspect 99% of players will do better just searching at random rather than attempting to decode their obscure references. Per the ABOUT text, the scavenger hunt was conducted in 2013, back in the halcyon days when there was no reason to associate teenaged wizards with hardcore transphobia – which is unfortunately no longer the case in this fallen age of 2022. While the game very much seems to be offered in innocent fun, I can definitely understand some potential players not being able to look past the Rowling connection, though speaking personally, the fact that the puzzle was created nearly a decade ago and that this is a free fan game meant I felt okay about continuing.

Back to the game: you play a tweenager who’s opening one last Christmas present from her parents, which turns out to be a map of your house. The thing’s lovingly rendered with all sorts of different folds, flaps, stars, and riddles, on top of the depictions of the rooms and yard which are all made up of words (in a neat touch, once you unfold the map to a particular region of the house, the description of exits will update to use the new magic-y room names). It sounds really, really cool, and as a physical artifact to pore over, I imagine it was a wonderful centerpiece for the puzzle. But in prose – well, here’s the fourth of five folds:

The lines of the fourth page show the Great Room and the Kitchen (marked House Elves Only on the map). Where the Christmas tree would be, there is a large label with the words “The Great Room”.

Underneath that label, to the south, is what looks like a paramecium made from the words “Kitchen Island” repeated over and over. It is labeled “House Elves Only”.

On the left, to the west is the doors to the front garden, labeled “Porticus Imago”.

On the right, to the east, are the steps leading down to what would be the Guest Hallway with the steps up to the Balcony beneath.

In the bottom right corner of the Kitchen area is a curved room labeled “The Cauldron Cupboard” that looks like it would be the larder. At the bottom is a round circle labeled “Flue Network” where the Pizza Oven would be.

In the bottom left corner is a label “Way to the Forbidden Forest”.

There is a star in the top left corner of the map, in what would be the south-west.

This is a whole whole lot to parse, even before you get to the fact that not all the locations or paths mentioned on the map are accessible to you – and it doesn’t help that the geography of the house is a little confusing, meaning I desperately wished there was a downloadable or ascii-art map that would be much less pretty but at least make it easier to navigate the space – or at least that the loving descriptions had been truncated with an eye towards playability.

Because this is a scavenger hunt that was conducted in real life, there aren’t many traditional object-manipulation puzzles – most of what you need to do is just search in the right place for the four MacGuffins. In theory, this should be easy, since there isn’t that much scenery implemented – and in fact it’s easy to blunder your way into at least half of them through simple trial and error.

I found the others rather challenging, though, largely because of oddness in the game’s implementation. Using the map is harder than it needs to be, for one thing – on the last fold are two flaps, a top flap and a bottom flap, which the game clearly flags are hiding something. But the simple action of unfolding them is way harder than it needs to be:

>unfold map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>open top flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>unfold flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>x flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>x top flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>open flaps

You pull apart the top and bottom flaps.

(Adding insult to injury, the main reward for opening the flaps is the set of deeply-abstruse clues I mentioned above, which didn’t provide much help).

Beyond thinly-implemented synonyms, the other major stumble I hit was changing scenery in one particular room – I’d realized that it had to be hiding a snitch, but searching everything mentioned in the room description got me nowhere. Fortunately, there’s a well-implemented adaptive hint system that pushed me to look at the room, and lo and behold, sometimes when I typed LOOK an entirely different set of scenery items was mentioned, one of which concealed what I was looking for – but without any rhyme or reason for why things were changing, this feels like an unfair puzzle.

I’m not sure whether these hurdles were intentional – if the game did more to make things easy for you, it would probably be over pretty quickly since again, most of what you need to do is just search every noun you see – but at the same time, if a significant part of a game’s running time is made up of annoyances, I’d just prefer to play a shorter game.

All told, this means that the smile that “magical Christmas scavenger hunt” put on my face was mostly gone by the time I got to the end. The bones of something fun are here, with a good idea for a puzzle and a well-realized setting – despite being set in the author’s house, this feels miles away from a my-dumb-apartment game. But while there are a number of testers listed, I don’t think The Last Christmas Present got quite the shakedown cruise it needed to work seamlessly when offered to more players than its initial audience of one (let me note here that the IntFiction beta test forums are a great, friendly place to recruit some experienced players to put a game through its paces). The beguiling premise and solid writing here suggest the author’s got some promise, though, so if they write another game that gets more testing – and starts with an idea that’s designed for IF from the ground up – I’d definitely give it a try.

EDIT: Having now read some other reviews, turns out I missed that there are photos of the actual map, including an interactive, clicky version – they’re not mentioned in the game itself, but if you download the zip file and read the readme, you’ll find some links. I think playing with these feelies would have significantly increased my enjoyment, so I wanted to flag them for folks who are playing online or didn’t notice the links, like I did!

present MR.txt (114.6 KB)

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Under the Bridge, by Samantha Khan

I always feel a bit like a fraud when I play work of IF and my strongest reaction is to look at the art and go “oooh, pretty” – like I’m getting distracted by superficial fripperies instead of engaging with the words and mechanics that are the bread and butter of the genre. But hopefully that’s a forgivable response to something as lovely as Under the Bridge, a short you-are-the-monster Twine game whose creepily evocative animated drawings instantly communicate, and deepen, the vibe.

That isn’t to say that the premise or writing are bad – far from it! I actually really like the setup, which has an elemental, fairy-tale power to it. You play a man-eating beast who’s been driven from their usual abode by perfidious humans, and find shelter under a bridge. Three times passers-by tromp across the bridge, and three times, you can choose how and whether to reveal yourself, when to speak and when to feast. There aren’t a lot of words wasted communicating this minimalist setup, but those that are there are used to good effect. Here’s the aftermath of my first attack, spare prose detailing the wildlife around the bridge:

Frogs with too large eyes, flies that congregate at the left-over pieces of flesh, birds that caw a little too loudly through the quiet forest.

The gameplay is grabby too. You almost always just have two choices of just two or three words each, but the author does a good job of conveying the stakes for your decisions while providing all the information the monster should have – sometimes you need to act under conditions of ambiguity, but it feels fair because the uncertainty feels baked into the situation, rather than being introduced by the author to make you sweat over your options. And the choices feel like they matter; I only played once, but I get the sense that there are a number of different potential endings (I got an accommodationist one where I made a deal with the villagers only to eat the bad people, because even when play-acting as a cannibalistic abomination I can’t stop being a boring liberal).

But as I said, all this pales next to the art. The first image you see when starting the game is an antlered skull rendered in a black-on-black scrawl, with stark white eyes and a queasily animated halo flickering behind its horns – if I saw that coming at me from under a bridge, you’d better believe I’d run. There are similar images interspersed through the story, all working from the same limited palette and establishing a richly threatening energy that nicely accentuates the text (the flip side of this emphasis on aesthetics is that there are blurred-text animations that fire off between passages – this technique is a near cousin go the hated timed-text mechanic, but thankfully the transitions run sufficiently quickly that they don’t get annoying).

I know EctoComp is coming up soon, at which point we’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to spooky games, but in the meantime if you want to get in the Halloween spirit a little early, Under the Bridge has you covered – it’s a moody little slice of horror that’s as assured a debut as you’re likely to see from a first-time author.

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Esther’s, by Brad and Alleson Buchanan

I worry that, just as with people, it can come off patronizing to call a game “adorable,” so I’ve been staring at the thesaurus for the last five minutes. Esther’s is “cute” and “appealing”, sure, but that undersells how winsome it is. Is it “precious”? Nah, that sounds too cloying. “Captivating” and “enchanting” miss how pleasantly low-key it is, and after that, let’s just say the line of proposed synonyms that start with “dreamy” and proceed from there are a bit too adult for this children’s-book-aping Twine game. Sorry, folks – I guess we’re stuck with “adorable.”

In the best picture-book tradition, the game stars two mice, Janie and Harold, and follow them on their way to their favorite brunch spot, the eponymous Esther’s. Said café is run by a little girl who’s a thoughtful host in every way save one – she doesn’t understand the mice’s squeaky language, so always serves them cheese and crackers, rather than the mimosas and avocado toast they’re craving (Janie and Harold must be millennials). Today’s the day when they decide to really make an effort and get through to Esther – and it’s up to the player to help.

This is a cute premise for sure, and it could come off twee, but I don’t think it goes too far. Partly this is due to the lovely illustrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in a real children’s book – they have a textured, watercolor quality and a neat attention to detail: look closely at the opening image, which shows Janie bringing flowers while Harold carries her library books, and you can see she’s checked out Goodnight Moon. And I won’t spoil the one where Janie tries to mime an avocado, but it got the first out-loud laugh of the Comp out of me.

The prose also hits just the right note, with simple, clear sentences but a sly turn of phrase here and there to make it fun for a grown-up to read, too:

Janie buttered an invisible toast and pretended to nibble at it. Harold stuffed his pretend toast in his mouth. He licked his fingers with pretend satisfaction.

It’s nothing fancy, but the repeated use of “pretend” setting up “pretend satisfaction” is cleverly done.

The interactivity is also nicely gauged – you’ve got a fair number of options to choose from, and while the challenge of getting your order right isn’t a devilish puzzle or anything, the authors have done a good job of communicating just enough information about what each choice might do, while still retaining room to surprise you with how exactly each stab at communication plays out.

Esther’s is admittedly a small thing – my playthrough went quicker than it usually takes me to get through Goodnight Moon with my son, albeit he’s typically doing a lot of wriggling and pointing which pads things out. But it pulls off everything it tries to with aplomb, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time I was playing it. There’s no other word for it: from stem to stern, it’s adorable.

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