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.
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)
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.
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 ).
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.
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:
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.
You can’t see any such thing.
You can’t see any such thing.
You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.
That noun did not make sense in this context.
>x top flap
That noun did not make sense in this context.
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)
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.
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.
At first I wanted to write a harsh review centered around the carbon emission and water wastage that comes with growing and shipping avocados. What kind of children’s book promotes ruining the planet?
But that would have been far too cynical for this, as you say, adorable piece.
The Tin Mug, by Alice E. Well, Sia See, and Jkj Yuio
The randomizer is up to its tricks again, as I got a second choice-based game pitched at kids right after Esther’s. The Tin Mug has a similarly classic children’s-book premise – here, the setting is the big, cozy kitchen in what feels like an English country house, and the main character is a mug who comes to life on its birthday (…it’s probably best not to think about what that implies about drinking-vessel re/production in this world) and gets into a series of high-spirited adventures, alongside various other sentient bits of cookware, while the big people go on with their day (mostly) oblivious. The juxtaposition with Esther’s didn’t do it any favors, since it’s not quite as cleverly designed and cleanly implemented, but the comparison is a bit unfair: the Tin Mug is also a winning little tale in its own right.
Let me get the negatives out of the way first, so I can focus on the positives. The prose is generally clean, but there are a couple of small typos, including in the first paragraph (the main character is called “the tin Mug” a couple of times, which surely can’t be right). The art is inconsistent, sometimes cute (I liked the little spoon and the illustration of the crest the mug gets at the end), but sometimes really awkward looking (I’m thinking especially of the two kids). And the use of interactivity feels clunky – it often feels like there’s a lot of text in between choice points, and your decisions sometimes come off low-impact, frequently only adding a short paragraph or two of narratively-irrelevant incident before returning to the main, linear thread of the story.
Within those constraints, though, there’s also a lot to enjoy. The Tin Mug makes for a dynamic protagonist, as it’s kind but also rambunctious, so there’s always something going on – this also plays well with the choice mechanics, since the Mug’s characterization felt like it gave me permission to pick to more interesting options rather than the more straight-ahead ones. The Mug’s energy is also conveyed well by the prose, which, while it does have the occasional overly-elaborated sentence, has a sly sense of humor. Here’s how the Mug’s rival in a race around the kitchen counter is described:
the eggcup…though he did not know it was a relative of the trophies on the mantelpiece in the dining room. Sport was in his blood.
The door-mat’s flirtation with the dessert spoon was also a humorous highlight (how many games could you type that sentence and have it make sense!)
The plot is quite episodic, with three or four sequences that each feel like they could stand alone reasonably well, boasting satisfying setups, elaborations, and payoffs. This injects some welcome novelty through the course of the game’s fifteen-minute running time, which is a good decision – since, appropriately for the genre, no individual element has much depth, more incident and new characters help keep the momentum up. This does mean that I thought the game was coming to an end once or twice before it actually did – but when it did come, the ending boasted an unexpected callback to the very opening, which left me smiling. That’s the Tin Mug in a nutshell – it’s a little bit ragged, sure, but it’s got enthusiasm and is sometimes more clever than it appears.
Thanks so much for your kind comments Mike!
Belated thanks for this! I admit I hit a wall on some of the issues you mentioned in your review, and you’re not the first reviewer to point out a near-the-end puzzle. An update I planned but never materialized had hints, and I think they’re funny, but I got sidetracked.
Tweaks to the SOUNDS command will be great for backporting to the final version of Very Vile Fairy File. Without getting into too much detail, I saw an opportunity to make a lot of reusable code here, and it’s the first time I’ve seriously done this between IFComp entries, and the engineering challenge was novel and rewarding, but I think it distracted from some narrative bits. (I sort of reused code for my anagram games but on a way smaller scale.)
Witchfinders, by Tania Dreams
There’s recently been a thread about whether or not novice authors should be warned off the default Twine style – I think mostly the Sugarcube format? – for fear of turning off potential players. There was a substantial bit of back and forth without firm conclusions being reached, but I have to say, Witchfinder’s inelegant first impression makes me pine for the old comfortable white-black-and-blue. Per another review, there’s a font mixup that means that in my web browser at least, the letters come out looking chunky and, where bolded and highlighted to indicate a link, they’re smooshed into each other in a way that impacts legibility.
Meanwhile, I’m a sucker for historical fiction but the content of the intro doesn’t reassure either:
Age of Enlightment gave a way to Romanticism, leaving behind medieval brutality and aspiring beauty of Reneissance.
Scotland regained their territories and started its way into the Industrial Revolution.
The typos are unfortunate, and the breezy nods towards alternate history beyond the witchcraft identified in the blurb (like, did the Act of Union get reversed? Which territories are we talking about exactly?) didn’t fill me with confidence. Luckily, the game does bounce back from this dire opening, turning into a reasonably entertaining, albeit low-key, experience helping your neighbors through the power of hedge magic, but I do wish a little more care had been taken to polish things up so it could put its best foot forward.
But for the supernatural elements – and honestly, even with them – Witchfinders would be best characterized as a slice of life game. Pace the blurb’s suggestion that the protagonist will be dodging witch-hunters in a high stakes game of cat and mouse, most of what you wind up doing is running errands to heal a friend’s sick son or keep the local cattle from losing weight. You do have a “witch score” that ticks up if you arouse too much suspicion, triggering a game when you reach four points, but while there are a couple places where the score can go up despite your best efforts, for the most part it’s easy to keep a low profile unless you’re bent on drawing attention to yourself (like, when buying a potentially-suspicious item, you can either offer an innocuous excuse, or react with hostile defensiveness. Guess which one increases the score!)
Solving these quotidian problems does require a bit of work, and indeed, it’s possible to fail at least one of them. These aren’t puzzles, exactly, since you’re typically either straightforwardly completing a task (e.g., upon being told you need willow bark, you go to the one willow tree in the area), on the flip side, inadvertently locking yourself out of full victory (e.g. exhausting all your options in the Esplanade before making a purchase in Lawnmarket, with no indication of why you’d need to do the one before the other). Still, the game lets you eke out a marginal victory even if you make a mistake, and replaying goes very quickly, so it’s hard to hold this against it.
For the most part the prose isn’t trying to be especially authentic, sticking to a direct, slightly anachronistic YA-ish style, but there are a couple nice touches. First, whenever you pass through the hub area, you can read a randomly-generated broadsheet which is drawn from real examples of the form, and second, there’s a butcher who speaks in – well, the author describes it as a Scottish accent, but I think towards the end this is getting into straight-up Scots:
"Aye, amurnay sure whit’s th’ issue thare, bit th’ animals we git lest time keek a bawherr puggelt.”
I was following up until the point where he started talking about a cake decorated with a naked Puggle.
Ultimately I found Witchfinders a lightweight bit of fun, and coming up on halfway through the Comp, that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at – not everything needs to swing for the fences, after all. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but there are worse things to be, and I have to say the bug that meant I scored 110 points out of a possible 100 brought a smile to my face – albeit wonkiness towards the end is always more forgivable than issues at the beginning, and not all players will be willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt after a shaky opening. Authors, make sure those first five minutes are airtight!
Inside, by Ira Vlasenko
First two children’s-book games in a row, then two witch games back to back? I think the randomizer’s been drinking. Despite being a short, choice-based game, with a female magic-user pursued by witch hunters, though, Inside has a very different vibe than Witchfinders. It doesn’t attempt to locate itself in any particular historical milieu, for one thing, and it’s much puzzlier to boot. Perhaps most importantly, rather than a low-key day of visiting neighbors and creating workaday hexes, in Inside the protagonist is up against the wall, facing death at the hands of her inquisitorial pursuers.
The mechanics of this, I confess, were a little obscure to me. The game opens in medias res, with the player coming to awareness but not given much information about where they are or what’s going on – or even who they are, because you’re apparently playing not the witch herself but her familiar spirit. This displacement or bifurcation of identities winds up being effective, as it allows the game to lampshade the player/protagonist divide, and also sets up odd-couple style bickering that helps keep the game engaging even when the puzzles risk getting a bit dry. The precise nature of the challenges you face also helps keep the plot from cliched territory – after being nearly drowned by the witch-hunters, the protagonist (and you) has retreated into her own mind, and needs to revisit her past, present, and possible futures in order to wake up and escape.
You have a reasonable ability to customize the story; in particular, an early choice lets you establish whether you’re a good witch or a bad witch, or occupy a middle ground somewhere in between. Many puzzles also have alternate solutions, with a quick, selfish answer typically juxtaposed against a more laborious, selfless one, with concomitant implications on the plot and ending. The witch is also unique in that she’s married, and by choosing snide or supportive comments, you can do a little bit of characterization of the relationship (I wanted a lot more of this, but in fairness, I think I’m way more excited about marital-dynamics simulations than is the target audience).
This well-considered set-up didn’t feel quite as engaging to me as I’d hoped, though. Partially this is because I found decoding the dialogue between the witch and her familiar occasionally challenging to decode – they use different font colors, but to my slightly-color-blind-eyes, they amount to a somewhat brighter and a somewhat duller shade of beige, and there are no dialogue tags making clear who’s saying what, so I frequently found myself losing the thread of conversation and having to double-check who was saying what. Partially this is because the puzzles sometimes felt simultaneously overly laborious – there’s an alchemy one that’s cool in theory, but requires a lot of clicking to get through – and overly forgiving – I flubbed an early puzzle, only for the game to institute a do-over and automatically solve it on my behalf, which made me question what it even needed me for in the first place.
Still, as a reasonably short game, these faults didn’t do too much to undermine my enjoyment – Inside puts enough of a spin on a common premise to feel sufficiently unique, and it was fun to try to draw a line between the different versions of the protagonist I encountered in the various vignettes. Some tightening up of the gameplay, and cleaning up of the aesthetic experience, would certainly make it a stronger entry, but what’s here is still solidly worth playing.
U.S. Route 160, by Sangita V Nuli
Okay, this is getting spooky – I’ve had a bunch of similar games come up one after another in the order the Comp’s randomizer handed me, but even though we have to go back almost ten entries to get to the comparison point, this time the points of overlap are really uncanny. Remember how in Chase the Sun, the protagonist was a runaway bride, gay but on the cusp of marrying a guy due to family and social pressures, escaping by driving westward, and still wearing her wedding dress? Yeah, new bottle, same wine. You can even get to an early bad ending via a car crash – @sophia take note – albeit this time it’s more clearly signposted because what do you think is going to happen if you choose the option that has you nod off while driving? But I gotta ask, did I like miss a TV show or something that’s providing a common jumping-off point here, or is it just a creepy coincidence?
There are some differences, of course. Most notably, instead of the lush forests of western Pennsylvania, here you’re driving through the sun-baked desert at the Colorado-Arizona border, which is obviously less lovely but just as pregnant with metaphor. Less positively, the prose is more inconsistent. Some passages boast a solid, albeit adjective-heavy, invocation of mood:
It’s sandstone, dust, and dirt everywhere you look, wind-worn and desolate. Large dust clouds rise up, making the sky a grimy blue.
Other times, though, the author seems to get overpowered by their own metaphors:
You’re on U.S. Route 160, a massive stretch of concrete spanning east to west with almost nothing in between. You could say it’s like a head without a brain – everything’s just swimming in the middle, floating in and out.
I can’t picture how that’s meant to work, and even if I could, it’s even harder to picture what the image is supposed to add to the first sentence.
There are also some typos that make me wonder whether the game was partially written with text-recognition software – “tool” for “tulle”, “ultraviolence” for “ultraviolet” – as well as too-quickly-vanishing timed text, that make the reading process a little sloppy (there’s also mention of an advertisement prompting you to “call 1-800-JESUS for absolution”, which put my down a Wikipedia rabbit hole to see when the US moved to seven-digit phone numbers within area codes – a long time ago, as it turns out).
This inconsistency characterizes the substance of the story, too. While there are at least three endings you can obtain, they’re all varying flavors of tragic, with the differences between them largely coming down to titrating the balance between fleeing your past and confronting it. The protagonist has more than her share of trauma she’s working through, and while I’m sure this is sadly realistic enough and reflects many folks’ experience, as artistically rendered, it falls a little flat. Her mother is a two-dimensionally abusive presence, while her fiancé is a domineering, reactionary preacher who seems entirely motivated by wanting to make the protagonist’s life terrible by marrying her, without a clear view of what he thinks he’s going to get out of the equation. I’m more than willing to accept that such people exist – I mean, look around – but as literary creations, these two aren’t up to much, and similarly, the protagonist’s angst, while dialed to 11, lacks much heft.
The flip side is that the protagonist’s lover is completely amazing, but here at least there’s some specificity of description:
Featherlight thumb brushes away crystalline tears.
Her eyes are stardust.
Galaxies threaded through the freckles across her nose.
A black hole in the scar on her upper lip.
The imagery is familiar and overwrought, but in a romance that’s forgivable, and there’s something affecting in the giddy, cosmically-abnegating delight the protagonist takes in a flaw as small as her lover’s scar.
The other difference with Chasing the Sun is that where that game ended, at least in my last playthrough, in a moment of connection, U.S. Route 160 seems to lead to the pain of final separation no matter what you choose. This is a reasonable storytelling choice in the abstract, but it’s one I found dissatisfying here; since the game portrays negative emotions with less verve than the positive ones, wallowing in sorrow means engaging with the weaker, more cliched parts of the writing, and most of the endings didn’t seem especially cathartic to me, with over-the-top violence sometimes deployed to make up for a lack of emotional heft.
I can understand the impulse to write downbeat narratives; with so many messages of positivity beaming at us through every channel, it can be empowering to reject all that and explore the possibility that it won’t all work out in the end, and posit that both fleeing from evil and confronting it are doomed to fail with the choice largely just a matter of aesthetics. But for that approach to produce an effective story, the darkness needs to be more compelling than the light, like Milton’s Satan showing up his Godhead; unfortunately for U.S. Route 160, here the reverse is true.
While “U.S. Route 160” is in Twine, Sangita V. Nuli’s other game in the comp, “Ink”, was written in Texture, as was “Chase the Sun” by Frankie Kavakich. I’ve read elsewhere on the forum that this year’s Texture games come from a workshop (which also explains why there are several Texture games all of a sudden), so the thematic overlap might not be a coincidence.
The Absence of Miriam Lane, by Abigail Corfman
Abigail Corfman’s got an impressive body of work incorporating parser-like mechanics into sophisticated choice-based formats, usually with a fantastical, clever vibe, as in Sixteen Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds and A Murder in Fairyland. The Absence of Miriam Lane has points of continuity, but also departure, from this gameography – there are interesting systems to engage with, and satisfying puzzles with a fair bit of depth to solve. The setting is comparatively grounded, with the protagonist an occult investigator seeking to unravel the intensely-personal disappearance referred to in the title, with the ultimate explanation turning not on supernatural MacGuffins but developing a psychological profile of a seemingly-unremarkable wife and mother.
It’s harder than usual to talk about this game without spoiling it pretty thoroughly, both in terms of how the plot resolves but also the various distinct systems that govern its major phases, so despite the blanket warning about spoilers in my opening post, I figured I’d use this paragraph to give prospective players that if you care about such things, you might want to give the rest of this review a pass until you’ve given Absence a try (and I think most players would find it worth a try).
Okay, no one here but us chickens, right?
While there are no formal divisions within the narrative, in practice The Absence of Miriam Lane is cleanly divided into three pieces, all with related but distinct game mechanics. The first is all about investigating Miriam’s house and looking for non-obvious clues and things that are out of place. In cases of this kind, the protagonist confidently explains, both light and time are often out of joint – by looking for places where shadows are behaving oddly, or objects seem to have been subject to incongruous aging, you identify potentially-important clues (mechanically, this is accomplished by clicking through different rooms and links and sub-links for the areas and objects they contain, using a “thoughts” interface to signal when you think something’s off), and eventually discover where Miriam is.
Or where she isn’t, rather, because it turns out that she hasn’t gone missing in the sense of leaving, but rather that she’s faded away, into the titular Absence – an unmoving, nonreactive white void. In the second act, you need to remind her of who she is by bringing her personally-significant objects. There’s a rub here, though, because what’s led her to her current condition is a failure to nourish the personally-significant aspects of her life, passing them over in favor of obligations to others. So it may or may not make sense to bring her some things that are clearly salient – the spoons she uses to make food for her church’s bake sales, for example – without trying to figure out how she felt about them (you can bring most things to her husband, Arthur, to get what he knows about them, but there are often environmental clues to unravel too).
Assuming you succeed in that challenge, the final sequence involves bringing Miriam back to herself by “telling her her story” – mechanically, this means filling out a long, multiple-choice mad-libs style quiz running through her background, her frustrations, and her joys. Much of this you’ll have sussed out in the course of solving the previous sets of puzzles, but you’ll also need to make some hopefully-informed guesses to do well enough to get a good ending – I believe there are at least three, differentiated by how much of Miriam, if any, you’re able to bring back to reality.
This is a canny setup that winds up embedding a narrative arc in its mechanics. The first section is all about exploration, checking out the house and its contents for the first time. Because the signs that something isn’t right are fairly general, you need to carefully examine everything, without too many preconceptions about where you should be looking – but because the signs are pretty clear once you find them, the player isn’t left floundering and trying to read the author’s mind. Then in phase two, you go back over all the clues you’ve found in the first section and weigh them up, trying to evaluate exactly what they were saying about Miriam’s life to determine whether they’ll be a net positive or negative. There are also some more traditional puzzles in this section, fitting with the overall analytic vibe – many of these hinge on deducing that a particular flower might be meaningful to Miriam, then looking up its attributes in her gardening manual and locating it in the yard via an attractively-designed interface that mimics a plant. All that leads in the final section, where you’re explicitly synthesizing the individual pieces of evidence into a coherent narrative.
It also makes for a well-paced game. The house isn’t especially large, and isn’t inherently all that interesting, so tromping back and forth multiple times could become tedious. But because the context for your exploration shifts over time, and you feel like you’re making, concrete, tangible progress, it was usually exciting to revisit its rooms and understand more of what I was seeing, and how it could be used. Similarly, the interface is pretty streamlined. It’s not miles away from that in One Way Ticket, but navigation to other rooms is always available via a single click, and the list of thoughts and items is typically not that long (in fact, there’s an inventory limit – usually an annoyance, but important here to prevent lawnmowering, and forgivable because you never need to go that far) so I didn’t get bogged down the way I did in that game.
That streamlining extends to the writing, as well. The prose is efficient to a fault, with dialogue even presented in screenplay style, and almost completely devoid of errors (I found one unneeded comma, but that’s it). Given the large number of objects to interact with, this helps keep things manageable, and means it’s easier to pick out what might be significant since the important adjectives aren’t left swimming in a sea of words. The flip side, though, is that I found it a little dry. Fortunately, atmosphere is provided in spades by the always-visible illustrations – I think these are largely photos with the contrast blown way out, which is in keeping with the light/shadow motif that runs through the game (the illustrations also provide clues to some puzzles if you study them carefully, which I sometimes have mixed feelings about due to accessibility considerations, but I don’t think any of them are ultimately necessary to progress).
All of this makes for a solid, engaging game that I liked quite a lot. It didn’t quite reach the level of greatness for me, though, largely due to the narrative design not being as satisfying as the systems design. True, this is partially down to the workmanlike prose and uncharacterized protagonist, which even though I personally found them unexciting are clearly intentional choices. But I also found that my interest in the story didn’t rise over time and peak at the climax; instead it started out high and declined, with the gameplay providing the major impetus to get over the finish line. The opening sequence has the most supernatural elements, for one thing: they’re understated, but feverishly searching for tiny nooks where the shadows fall wrong, or looking suspiciously at a backyard sky that’s different than the one in the front, lends these early stages an uncanny thrill. And the initial beats of the mystery, where you’re starting with the least information and trying to connect the dots between the novel fantastical elements and Miriam’s beyond-mundane life, are pretty compelling.
By the time I was a third of the way through the game, though, I’d figured out the broad outlines of the backstory, which don’t wind up being that complex: Miriam was feeling neglected and overlooked, and somehow (I don’t think there are any clues that even gesture towards an explanation for this “somehow”) became an absence in her own house, an empty, invisible outline lying immobile on her side of the bed. From there, the rest of the game is just an exercise in filling in the details of this overall story, without any new developments to liven things up – and even the details don’t really add much to the player’s understanding of Miriam’s personality. There’s a bit of gameplay and challenge in determining whether she was burned out on gardening but found baking was still deeply rewarding, or vice versa, but it’s not a very narratively interesting question, and one limitation of the way the game’s difficulty is tuned is that the details of some of the potentially most compelling aspects of the story, like Miriam’s relationship with her sister, appear to be left vague in order to add to the difficulty.
Relatedly, I think the difficulty overall might be set too high. Judging by the little gauge at the bottom charting my progress, I wasn’t able to reach a perfect ending, despite playing fairly thoroughly and feeling like I had plumbed all the interesting questions and then some – in fact, the first ending I got was pretty negative. I reloaded a save and tried again, realizing that part of the issue is that you’re meant to spend more time giving Miriam stuff and making her more connected to reality, even after the third section kicks off and you think you should transition into the storytelling portion of the game. Even then, though, the ending was pretty equivocal. I think getting the best result requires you to really chase down every single potentially-important object – and ask Arthur, the world’s most boring man, about each of them – and probably do a little bit of trial and error in the mad-libs section. My brain is pathological enough that I often want to get 100% completion in games – hell, I’ve done that for every Assassin’s Creed game, there’s something wrong with me – but that compulsion never hit me here, since I felt like I’d done all the real work and all that was left was some grinding.
Switching gears back to the literary, I think the last thing that left me feeling more lukewarm than I expected about Absence is the message it ultimately sends about psychological health. As mentioned, the problem is that Miriam didn’t create enough space for herself and the things that brought her joy – an empty-nester treated with benign neglect by her spouse, after her kids went away to college, she threw herself into church functions and found herself consumed by bake sales and raffles, while neglecting the gardening and drawing that nourished her. This is all plausible enough when you type it out, but in practice what this means is that the stuff she was doing with other people, which largely seemed to focus on helping others, is portrayed as poisonous; her connections with her family largely have both positive and negative aspects that balance out in the wash; and it’s only the private, inward-facing hobbies that are unmitigated goods, with success determined by how much you direct her attention to those.
Look, I’m an introvert who was raised Catholic, I get it; the self-sacrificing martyr schtick is ultimately empty, and other people can be exhausting sometimes. But still, I can’t help but feel that this is a dark, antisocial theme to build the game around. Miriam draws but keeps what she makes secret; she plants a lovely garden in her back yard, but no one else seems to spend much time there. Art nourishes the soul, certainly, but in my experience the greatest joy in creating something is sharing it – maybe not with the whole world, but at least with one or two people. And as for the various church fund-raisers and events, even if the process of trying to do good in the world is tiring, and prey to suspect, selfish motives, well, that’s still better than just opting out entirely.
I can well see how other players’ mileage will vary on this stuff; the Absence of Miriam Lane is very well designed, with novel mechanics that draw you in, and I deeply admire that it’s unapologetically focused on a middle-aged woman’s desire to have the dignity and respect she deserves. But still, I wanted the ending of the game to reverse the negation that she’d suffered, to achieve catharsis by reconnecting her with the people who’d abandoned her in the transformative hope that things would be different this time. To call her back only so that she could replace her supernatural retreat with an all-too-ordinary one didn’t seem like progress; maybe that’s down to the theme, or just to not having gotten to the best ending, but either way I was left feeling dissatisfied with the game’s apparent views on human nature even though I’d enjoyed my time with it quite a lot.
Through the Forest With the Beast, by Star
Many years ago, I was on a family road trip where I wound up sitting next to my three-year-old cousin for a four-hour drive through New England. The early-summer scenery was lovely, and my cousin was delightful company – and still is, for that matter, albeit the fact that she’s now in college is a deeply unpleasant reminder of the relentless march of time – because, a precociously verbal child, she decided to pass the time in telling stories. These stories had several things in common: 1) she was always the main character; 2) there was always a forest, and a monster (in that order); 3) they each went through setup, rising action, climax, and very-compressed denouement in like four minutes apiece; and 4) the next one started immediately after the previous one wrapped up.
Playing Through the Forest With the Beast, the years melted away until I felt like I was back in that car again, listening to my cousin babble on, albeit it only lasts fifteen minutes and nobody got carsick, which must be counted as improvements on both scores.
What we’ve got here is a short, choice-based game that’s much simpler than the setup, with its glancingly-blasphemous worldbuilding and survival-game stat-box, communicates. You’ve got a mark on your chest that identifies you as some kind of beast to a frightened populace, which you’d think would imply a religious or apocalyptic angle, and an omnipresent set of health and stamina bar charts, plus a hunger and thirst meter, that set you up to expect resource-management sim elements. But the game pretty much entirely consists of just walking through a forest until you get to the safety of the other side, running through a short set of encounters that just sort of happen, without any of them setting up or impacting any of the rest, until you get to a sudden ending.
On the plus side, the game has some of the manic energy of an impatient toddler trying to distract herself. It’s truly impossible to predict what’s going to happen next – I won’t spoil the specific scenes I came across, few as they are, but while some predictably riff off of fairy tales, others go much farther afield (the only scene I ran into in my first playthrough appears to be a medium-length Star Trek easter egg). And the simple prose keeps things moving, with a charming amount of editorializing about how exciting everything is:
You follow the twisty windy road as vines move on their own and trees seem to bend to block out the sun. Time itself seems to have lost meaning back here. Finally you exit out into a clearing. At the far end is a small wooden cabin shockingly built in this forest.
On the negative side, the game also has the attention span you’d expect from an impatient toddler trying to distract herself. For one thing, during the opening you’re asked for your name and favorite color, with the former being mentioned one time in a skippable sequence, so far as I can tell, and the latter never coming up again at all. Similarly, your heath, stamina, hunger, and thirst appear to change only at fixed points, in predictable ways, so despite their prominent placement they feel very much like afterthoughts in play. The same description or plot point can also be repeated in adjacent sentences, as though the author forgot they already established something and thought they had to do it again.
Through the Forest can also feel exhausting, despite its short length: the backdrop is a pretty but very busy set of paintbrush-swirls that does succeed in evoking a forest, but succeeded even better in giving me a headache. Plus, many of the choices are simple, zero-context “do you want to go forward or back, or left or right?” quandaries where it’s impossible to know whether there are better or worse choices to make, which can be wearying, and there are no real puzzles to create deeper engagement.
At least it’s easy; I go through successfully in all three games I tried, and I was curious enough about the paths not taken to jump right back to the beginning those first two times to see what I’d missed. Twice was enough, though – there’s no real payoff to reaching your goal, no sense of how you’ve been changed, and without those elements, the story felt like it often reduced to “and then this happened, and then that happened, the end.” I was very much done after those fifteen minutes were up – though, points in Through the Forest’s favor, it was way easier to bring the game to a stop by closing my browser window than it would have been to bail out of that road trip with more than three hours still to go.
Taking your warning and holding off on reading your review on Absence until I’ve tried it myself.
Also, I just finished A Long Way to the Nearest Star.
Completely agree with you there. Although “great” is a bit too generic as praise goes…
And I think I just fell in love with HAL’s sarcastic sister.
I’ll let this simmer in the back of my mind a bit and then write a full review on IFDB. I will leave the bulk of Russovian theorizing to you however.
January, by litrouke
Can y’all just pretend you didn’t read my Long Way to the Nearest Star review? Thanks, I’m about to reuse a bit.
January a postapocalyptic story that puts no interesting spin or distinctive worldbuilding on its hoary premise. The player has absolutely no agency, and the only interactive element is that you can sometimes make the unmotivated choice to read the passages in random rather than chronological order (an option that readers of regular books also have, though understandably they don’t exercise it that often). There’s only one character, outside of the beginning and ending the plot is pretty much just a grab-bag of stuff that happens, and the illustrations that conclude each segment are often a bit amateurish. And speaking of art, the cover, as well as the title and blurb, are at best unexciting and at worst actively off-putting.
It got me more excited than anything I’ve played yet in the Comp; it’s comfortably my favorite game so far.
This is another review that’s going to spoil things pretty thoroughly, and there’s at least one thing the game does that I think I would have been upset to know about going in, so I’m once again going to recommend you play January first, then come back here. I found it took a little while for me to settle into it, so even if your first impression isn’t great, give it a half hour to see if you’re able to get on its wavelength – if you can, I think you’ll be glad of it.
Okay, I’ll give one more teaser before getting into the review proper. Here’s a passage from fairly late in the story, when the protagonist, realizing that he doesn’t know what most plants are actually called, decides to just pick the ones that seem to fit:
He found a sprig of stubby flowers bowered beneath a tree. They huddled together in an unfriendly way, white-petaled, small-eyed, so he called them elderflowers. On the side of the road, fuzzy yellow things sprouted from the earth like uncombed licks of hair. He knew that daisies were yellow, and so daisies they became, and the cat entertained itself by weaving through them, its feathery tail flicking among the flowerheads like it might convince them it belonged.
Coral tree-buds became peonies; umbrella-wide blooms, dahlias; a weeping of top-heavy bells, willowseeds.
(Spoilers from this point on. But you can now probably guess why I like January. That prose!)
January plays its cards a little close to the chest at first, but seeing the “end of the world” tag in the blurb and the lone shovel in the cover illustration gave me some suspicions. When the first couple of scenes involved a nameless man scavenging through an eerie, lifeless environment with no other living souls around, those suspicions deepened, though I held out hope that this was like a nuclear winter scenario or something (there’s snow on the cover image too!) But no, my fears were proved right soon thereafter when the first zombie reared its ugly, decaying head.
I just don’t get on with zombie stories. Fast, slow, allegorical, supernatural, intimate, blockbuster, it really doesn’t matter – I am down with a comedy zombie, but outside of that very specific special case, if something has zombies in it that’s an instant turn-off. I find gore unpleasant, for one thing, and zombie stuff almost always involves a very blunt form of body horror that I find disgusting but not especially scary. As mindless, relentless antagonists, I feel like they don’t add much narrative interest. And 99 times out of 100, wittingly or not the politics seem to me dumbed-down and retrograde, vindicating the society-shunning “self-reliance” of survivalists, who use violence to reinscribe fear-based patriarchy across the ruins of a failed cosmopolitan society – grosser than any tub of entrails. There are far-distant riffs on zombie stories that I do enjoy, admittedly (like, squint at Battlestar Galactica and you can see the zombie DNA in it, at least for the first season or two), but the original recipe doesn’t appeal.
So getting to that plot point, and realizing I still had another hour and a half of this game left, made my heart sink a little, since I thought I could see exactly where January was headed – a dark, nihilistic slog that would end either with an unsatisfying surrender to the inevitable (my worries on this score deepened substantially once the cat entered the picture), or an implausible, unsatisfying last-minute turn towards optimism. Still, I stuck with it, largely on the strength of the writing. While the opening is quite episodic and not especially creative in terms of the scenarios it presents, January doesn’t waste much time before laying down some well-crafted imagery. Here’s an abandoned train, turned into a shelter by some other survivors:
The train unfurled from the tunnel like a tongue. The front engine had come to rest half a mile from the mouth of the tunnel, and behind it a long procession of tattered boxcars faded into the dark, their orange paint dulled to sepia and their wheels spiked with weeds. A single oil tanker, bulbous and pale as the head of a cyst, interrupted the straight line of boxcars.
Those details are chosen with care, adjectives sparingly used to pick out what’s important like flecks of white directing the eye in an oil painting. The author uses this literary style to good effect when laying out the various landscapes the protagonist traverses, allowing the reader to glimpse the eerie beauty of the world that comes after this one, but it also is deployed to darker effect, making the zombies’ decaying bodies into aesthetic objects of fascination and revulsion:
A smaller girl shadowed the window’s bottom panel. The blood hadn’t dripped that far yet; he could see her raw, macilent hands as she dragged herself across the carpet to the window. One of her legs must have sloughed off, or both. She drew close enough to mush her face to the glass, and toothlessly she jawed at it, docked tongue quivering in a cockroach mouth.
This is deeply unpleasant, but it’s a novel way of approaching the subject – the prose holds the zombies at a distance so the reader can contemplate them without the blurring abstraction imposed by adrenaline. Indeed, the protagonist is generally well-armed and competent, and the zombies, while sometimes aggressive, often are portrayed as pathos-inducing and pathetic, almost becoming an especially atmospheric part of the landscape rather than immediate threats:
And a head, visible now as he approached the window and cut out the sun’s glare. The dead body nuzzled the liquor store window, its hands plastered to the glass, fingers curling at the bottom edge of BEER. With no mandible to contain it, the body’s tongue lolled caninely from its drooping mouth. Harmless. Most of them had forgotten doors.
The style also supports the game’s structure, which is a series of loosely-connected tone poems arranged in a calendar. This is the one place where the player has some say in the text the game provides; at any point in time, you’ll typically have two or three unread days marked on the calendar interface, and you can choose which to turn to next, though as I said above, I’m not sure what reading them out of order would do except needlessly confuse you. There are usually two weeks or so between vignettes, and they often start just as an incident is kicking off, and end before it’s wrapped up, with enough left blurry that attempting to construct the full narrative thread that connects all the dots is a fool’s errand (sometimes reading a later day will open up a new, final page or two in a previously-visited day, which adds more context but typically doesn’t radically revise the player’s understanding of events).
There is one major point of continuity between these sequences, though, and that’s the cat. Early in the game, the protagonist picks up a cat as a companion, and begins to look out for it by getting it food and shelter, and being looked out for by the animal in its turn, as its sensitive hearing and unease around zombies serves as something of an early warning system. Much like the rest of the story, the relationship between the two is predictable in its outlines – we learn from the opening line that the protagonist is fleeing some sort of tragedy, though since this is a zombie story a) we already knew that, and b) we’re also pretty sure what the tragedy was, so it’s through caring for the cat that the protagonist learns to be vulnerable and care for others again. But it’s still very finely drawn, with a light touch that lets the player fill in the blanks, and once I’d realized that this internal dynamic was what January was interested in, rather than positing its zombies as metaphors for capitalism or wanting to comment on the decadence of society or anything like that, I finally relaxed, looking forward to some lovely writing on the way to the clearly-telegraphed end.
And then at the 80% mark, January does something unexpected. All at once, the previously third-person narration switches over to first person, and the flowery prose shifts to a far more grounded style – and this doesn’t just apply prospectively, all the previous entries are rewritten, with a new perspective and new details revealed. This is a jarring change that risks alienating the player, especially so because it’s really the prose that’s the highlight of the first part of the game, so radically altering the writing style risks undercutting the thing that’s drawing the player along, far more so than the comparatively-thin plot and even-thinner interactivity.
Fortunately, the new mode of writing is also very well done, though clearly distinct from what’s come before – it’s comparatively plain in terms of word choice and sentence structure, but the ideas and imagery are still very rewarding:
I let Cat drink from the cap of my bottle, and watching him lap up the clear water, I thought it was funny how water doesn’t turn blue until there’s enough of it. That it has to grow into itself, like a newborn kitten crawling around blind til it gets the strength to open its eyes.
This just might be a metaphor for how the protagonist sees himself as the story is wrapping up – and the late-in-the-game invocations of Aeneas and Dido also clearly bear some relation to his perception of his role in the originating tragedy. Similarly, there are varying interpretations you can put on the language shift, but one of the simplest is surely just that it reflects the end of a distancing, depersonalized shield the protagonist had erected – and again, despite its slight reticence towards the start, January isn’t trying to be needlessly obscure. But secrecy and concealment aren’t the only route to literary power.
January isn’t faultless. Besides the issues I’ve raised above about genre and interactivity that might prove off-putting to some players, and the art that’s so much less evocative and polished than the prose, it’s also the case that very occasionally the writing gets over its skis – when the protagonist says of a pair of metal scissors that’s grown hot under direct sunlight that “they burned against his ear like a slow-motion boxing, the handle as hot and hard as any father’s hand”, my eyes rolled. But for how many big, big swings the author takes, it’s astonishing how few misses like this there are. It was also astonishing to me that for all the typical aspects of IF that January eschews, I missed basically none of them – this isn’t the sort of game that would be measurably improved by a hunger meter or premature bad endings. If you come to IF largely focused on the interactivity, this one might not be for you, but if the fiction side looms larger for you, there might not be a better game in the Comp.