Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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.


Just out of necessity I mostly stick to short games, so it’s great reading reviews like this. Because it absolutely made me want to give this longer game the time it deserves. Your thoroughness - as always - is appreciated!


Agreed, and this last is another excellent and insightul review. I had a similar experience to Mike with January - initially put off by the subject matter (I count zombie apocalypse amongst my least favourite genres, but then I’m not a fan of horror in general), but then completely drawn in by the writing and finding myself compelled to click through to the end. A very successful piece, I thought, and one of the games from this year’s comp that will stay with me.


Thanks for the kind words! I definitely also find that it’s super helpful to hear from folks whether a longer game is worth the commitment, so glad to have been able to be of use here.

Man, the evidence that we’re all just your hallucinated alternate personalities just continues to stack up… Glad you dug the game, though!


Am I My Brother’s Keeper?, by Nadine Rodriguez

I’m a sucker for stories about siblings. Much of that’s probably for boring autobiographical reasons – most things are when you get right down to it – but even without that personal link, I’d stand by the opinion. They allow you to have strong connections between characters outside of a romantic relationship, with a potentially richer palette of emotions – for one thing, there can often be more pain, resentment, and ugly history between siblings because even after doing things to each other that would be unforgivable in a friend or a partner, they’re still related – and unlike with parent/child relationships, establishing who has power or who’s in control in a particular situation often needs to be continuously negotiated, and can shift drastically with little warning.

Am I My Brother’s Keeper? is a short choice-based thriller that centers on one such bond, following the protagonist searches for her missing sister. Sofía’s got a drug habit, which means everyone else is prone to write her disappearance off as simply ducking off the grid for a while. But you’re sure something terrible has happened, and after a late-night phone call, you get a lead that could take you to her, if you’re got courage enough to brave some sketchy warehouses and even stranger places…

This is another game written in Texture, and while I’ve enjoyed several of the Texture games in the Comp, for some reason the system didn’t seem to work too well for me this time. For one thing, I had to start over since when I played on the phone, I hit a point a third of the way in where I couldn’t drag one of the action-boxes I needed to in order to progress – and then once I switched over to my laptop, had to start over again because the game reset itself after I alt-tabbed for five minutes. For another, the game largely uses choices not to present different paths through the story, but to expand on details in the text – and these are added inline, which dynamically shrinks the font so that the full passage stays on a single page, meaning the writing was often uncomfortably small for my aging eyes.

These minor gripes aren’t the author’s fault, of course, but they perhaps made me grumpier at its weak points than it deserves. There are very much some pieces of Am I My Brother’s Keeper? that I enjoyed; the investigation is pacey, and introduces supernatural elements in a gradual, grounded way that kept me from immediately guessing the truth behind what was going on. And when you share a scene with your sister (there are flashbacks, so that’s not a spoiler), the sibling rivalry and banter definitely strikes me as authentic.

But there are other aspects that aren’t as successful. For one, while much of the joy of this kind of procedural is running through the beats of an investigation, the process of finding and decoding clues usually feels overly abstract or somewhat unrealistic (there’s a sequence where the cop assigned to your sister’s case suggests running down a lead together, then later lets you explore an evidence-containing warehouse on your own, as thought they’ve never heard of the concept of chain of custody). The writing also aims for a neo-noir patter that’s effective at communicating a vibe of omnipresent gloom, but lands in Max Payne territory more often than not:

A journal on a coffee table in between two seats. Compared to the rest of the building, it’s immaculate, unburdened by the marring of abandon.

The game’s almost entirely linear – there’s one choice at the end that might have an impact on the outcome, but other than that you almost always need to use all the actions available to you in a passage in order to move on – which I often don’t mind, but again, for what’s framed as an investigative game, makes progress feel unearned. This extends to a sequence where you’re told you can only take a single item into the final confrontation: but rather than this being interactive, the game just railroads you into bringing a gun, surely the most boring choice imaginable.

The other exception is very early on, when you’re given the chance to answer the title’s question in the negative, and abandon Sofía to her perhaps-deserved fate. This takes you to what’s clearly a premature, unsuccessful end, but along the way the game also plumbs the relationship between the two sisters with more nuance than comes out in the faster-paced rest of the game. With more of this, and less of the soft-boiled narration, Am I My Brother’s Keeper would be substantially stronger; as it is, it’s pleasant enough to play but is unlikely to stick with me for very long.


One Final Pitbull Song (at the End of the World)

Aww, man. I went into this one expecting to like it: the mixtape blurb and eye-catching title mark it out as something special, and the disorienting science-fantasy opening is boldly ridiculous, laying out a post-post-apocalyptic society that’s reconstituted itself in near-total apery of our time based on the fortuitous discovery of a pop-culture-crammed hard-drive heavily featuring – of course – the songs of Pitbull, who winds up having a religion built around him. The game has an endearing ensemble cast, and while the interactivity isn’t especially engaging, that’s an intentional decision in service to what it’s trying to say about agency in relationships (I also get the sense it’s in dialogue with some of the seminal texts in the Twine canon), and if its go-anywhere do-anything gonzo spirit leads to some memorably disgusting scenes, well, they’re certainly memorable.

But it’s let down by one enormous flaw I just couldn’t get past: a flabby, long-winded writing style that drains the prose of its urgency and makes the game feel far too long for its plot – in fact, there are three distinct branches, I think all of comparable length, that make up the game’s overall story, but I was ready to be done with it by two-thirds of the way into the single branch I played (which took me about the requisite two hours). This is really frustrating because there are definite strengths here, but they’re sapped of their effectiveness by the enervating slog that the late game becomes.

Let me start with the good stuff, though. As mentioned, the world-building is completely deranged without being an anything-goes gonzo type of setting. The fact that everything’s been blown up and then rebuilt along familiar-ish lines means that the author’s got a free hand to lean into the ridiculous, without needing to invent entirely new institutions and mores for the new society. And some of the gags here are really out there, like the idea that there’s a wave of oppression based on the new religion centering on Pitbull, with an ominous jail described thusly:

It’s where they put everyone guilty of “Pitbull Crimes” — any crime related to the concept or work of Pitbull. The list is expansive and slightly vague: Unauthorized Selling of Pitbull-related Contraband, Plagiarism of Pit, excessive party fouls in Miami, all the way to the extreme category of Pitbull-motivated Homicides.

While this is an entertaining concept, I’m not sure it fully worked for me, though. I’m not sure I can explain why, but some of the jokes and setting elements felt too specific and took me out of the world – like, the Pitbull stuff is part of the premise, but when there are gags about how homophobic Papa John is, and references to Twitter, which I guess has been rebuilt, I felt like the game was having trouble keeping track of its own premise. Similarly, in my playthrough the Pitbull stuff dropped out almost completely by about halfway through, replaced by a lot of sci-fi-horror-action-comedy business (though this does lead to a joke, near the end of the game, where there’s suddenly an out-of-context Pitbull reference and the narrator admits “Oh right. I forgot about that part of the world.”)

So yeah, it’s not all fun and games – the protagonist is a trans woman going through a rough patch in her relationship with her partner, a trans man, and while their society as a whole seems a bit more accepting of trans folks than ours is, they’re fairly marginalized folks eking out a living through crime, which leads to them getting locked up in the aforementioned Pitbull-prison (at least in two out of the three branches – not sure about the last), and forced into a desperate fight for survival while making new friends and working through their relationship issues.

(I feel compelled to note that the identity of the protagonist is a bit more complicated than I made it out in the above paragraph – actually there’s also a different character, also trans but from just a few years in our future, who’s now dead but shares brain engrams with the main protagonist, or something, so she’s able to perceive and comment on what’s going on. It’s a little confusing but in practice just means that there’s an additional, somewhat fourth-wall-breaking narrative voice in the mix, which given everything else going on doesn’t register all that strongly).

These are a potentially-compelling set of conflicts, but it’s at the prison that the momentum really starts to sag. While the protagonist remains appealingly chipper throughout her travails, the narrative here introduces a half-dozen major supporting characters, plays some flashbacks to establish her relationship, and teases an upcoming event that will subject the prisoners to even more danger. It’s a lot to juggle – and in fact too much to juggle for the author. Forward progress feels like it slows to a crawl, even as each of those elements feel underbaked, because the prose throughout is overly plodding and verbose, dulling the notionally-exciting ideas and action on display to a shapeless mess. Exacerbating the flabbiness, dialogue is written screenplay style, and most scenes have the protagonist accompanied by a significant portion of the supporting cast, meaning there’s often a lot of filler conversation just there to remind the player that a character is part of the action.

To give an extended example, here’s what should be a thrilling action sequence – the prisoners are being thrown into a giant pit (somehow there’s a cave network under the Florida Keys, which seems worthy of comment from a geological point of view though the game doesn’t provide one), and after a struggle with one of the guards, a prisoner and the guard wind up dangling over the edge, so the prisoner’s friends – including the protagonist, TeeJay – attempt a rescue:

Val pauses before making her next move. She stares at the Enforcer, then reaches into her pocket and pulls out something shiny.

Val: Take the clip!

The Enforcer grabs it from Val’s hands and attaches it to their harness. They look back up at her.

Shattered Visor Enforcer: I can’t hook myself down here, something’s wrong!

Val turns around on Grace’s back and disembarks. Both girls dangle on their own, but close to each other.

Val: That’s 'cause you just have the rope, idiot! You need to climb up and use this one after I unclip Grace!

Shattered Visor Enforcer: But that’ll take so long!

Val: Think about that next time that you attack someone on the edge of a hole!

The Enforcer fidgets on the rope, trying to steady themselves. Val is above them, grabbing ahold of Grace. She sneaks a look down at the Enforcer.

Val: God, you’re pathetic…

She looks up at us.

Val: Someone up there grab ahold of our ropes!

Frankie snaps into action, grabbing Grace’s rope first. I grab onto Val’s, and yell down to her.

TeeJay: We’ve got you!

Val: Okay, when I clip Grace to me — you’re going to give us a little more slack in the ropes! More than one person should be holding onto my rope, since I’ll be carrying her!

The other members of Cabin Seven file in around me and grab ahold of the rope. A few of the other prisoners help as well.

Frankie: You’re good!

Val: I’m going to attach Grace to me now!

Shattered Visor Enforcer: What about me?

Val: Can you climb any further?

This is full of fine-grained logistics and dialogue that doesn’t say much, dreadfully stretching out what’s tended as a taut bit of business. There’s also not much of an authorial voice to make the process of reading all these words engaging – again, it’s screenplay style, so everything other than the characters’ lines often feels excessively bottom-lined. And as for the dialogue, the characters often don’t feel especially differentiated in how they speak: while specific personality traits do come through, everyone comes off like an extremely-online twentysomething joking their way through what are often quite horrifying situations.

There’s a lot more that could be said about One Last Pitbull Song. It’s clearly intending to problematize the concept of agency in choice-based IF, for one thing. There’s a major bifurcation of the plot based on what choice of side-dish you make in the cafeteria, which determines whether the protagonist gets through into an Aliens pastiche or a dance-off, and is clearly sending up the often-arbitrary nature of the much-hyped decision points in other games. And the protagonist reflects that she feels like she defaults to passivity and struggles to articulate and act on her desires, which is at the root of many of her relationship issues – from the epilogue that you’re meant to read after you complete all the branches (and that I, er, read out of order to see what it’s like), this appears to be positioned as the central conflict whose resolution terminates the game.

I can’t say this is the most engaging deconstruction of the tropes of choice-based interaction I’ve seen – it’s fine so far as it goes, but the presentation is fairly shallow – but it’s potentially interesting, and without having seen the remaining 60% of the game I can’t really assess whether it’s ultimately successful. Similarly, some apparently-parodic elements in the survival-horror branch that I wound up struck me as intentionally ridiculous and deconstructionist, in a way that undercut my engagement but which might add up to something compelling if I had the whole picture. So even some of the things I experienced as weaknesses, it’s possible, could turn out to work well. But checking the size of the game’s Twine file, getting the full experience looks like it requires reading about 100,000 words – twice the length of the Great Gatsby! – and unfortunately that’s far more of this lifeless prose than I’m able to commit to. One Last Pitbull Song feels very much like a work that thumbs its nose at the very concept of an editor – to its credit, it boasts a wild mélange of genres, tones, and plot points that would leave the blue-pencil brigade gobsmacked, but also demonstrates the risks of thumbing one’s nose at concision.


I agree with more or less everything you say about One Final Pitbull Song, including the criticisms, and yet it seems I got a lot more out of it! I’ve been thinking about this game quite a bit, and am currently exploring the two branches I didn’t take in order to at least get a sense of what happens in them. Not sure when I’ll be able to write my review, but hopefully soon. :slight_smile:

I’m amazed at the amount and quality of your reviews, Mike. Looking forward to more (and to be able to read more of them as I play more of the games myself)!


Thank you for the extremely detailed review!



I’m excited to hear that! Per my review I do think there’s a lot of neat stuff here and I’m curious how all the pieces wind up fitting together, so I’m excited I’ll get to see your more complete thoughts.

Thanks so much for the kind words! I’m as always really enjoying your reviews too.

Of course! I think everyone who’s played your game will agree that it’s very much worth talking about.

I have to admit, as a moderately-online fortysomething I’m not sure I 100% understand the message being communicated by this emoji, but I think you’re saying that seems right? I mean, given the state of the world these day that is a totally reasonable thing to be!


just so you know, “transwoman” and “transman” are inappropriate terms. there should be a space between “trans” and “woman/man.”

i think it’s fascinating how confused people are about this game which makes it all the more fun if you get it.


Thanks for that correction!

I can definitely see that! I have some theories, some of which would fairly dramatically recast some of the plot points as presented, but not having seen all of the game I’m sure they’re half-right at best. Yet another reason I’m looking forward to seeing what Victor makes of the game after doing a more thorough assessment :slight_smile:


You May Not Escape!, by Charm Cochran

The randomizer continues to send me games that rhyme; You May Not Escape!, much like One Final Pitbull Song, communicates what it’s like to live a marginalized existence through a combination of satire and allegory. This one’s a parser game, though, and cleverly expresses its themes through a slight recontextualization of typical parser gameplay element (in keeping with parser tradition, it’s a lonelier experience too, lacking the found-family gaggle of OFPS). While the ending didn’t fully land for me, and I think the game maybe errs a little too much towards abstraction, it’s still a neat marriage of narrative and crossword, with clean implementation that’s especially impressive for what I think is the author’s first parser game.

Now that I’ve said all that, this is a maze game. Wait, come back! Yes, 90% of the gameplay is wandering around a big, nearly-empty maze, and if you’re allergic to that sort of thing you probably won’t enjoy yourself here (I have to confess, it’s not my personal favorite). But that’s integral to the premise of the game: you’ve been chosen, through a process whose exact operation isn’t clear but which is clearly deeply unfair, to be thrown into a maze. There is an exit, you’re assured by the representative who greets you upon your entry, but it may or may not be unlocked. Still, there’s nothing for it but to try.

This is clearly a bone-dry premise, but it’s not too hard to suss out what it’s in service of. When you ask the representative why you’ve been picked for the maze, he’s a bit shift, but admits “[i]t could be based on any number of factors. Your body, your mind, your home, your clothes – any of these could make you eligible.” As you explore the maze, you come across screens where outside observers seem to be commenting on your situation, sometimes offering not-very-helpful advice, sometimes sending thoughts and prayers, and sometimes vituperatively wishing for bad things to happen to you. And one of the points of interest in the labyrinth is a graveyard with four tombstones – one’s being readied for you, making clear the graves are for those who never escape the maze, while the others appear to be victims of right-wing politics (as best I can make out, there’s a trans woman, a woman who died because she wasn’t able to get an abortion, and some people who were killed by a fire in a gay bar).

It doesn’t take much deductive reasoning to understand that the game is articulating something about what it feels like to face explicit discrimination and hatred, and the implicit challenges of living in a world not designed for you, with the metaphor being sufficiently supple to accommodate several different angles on the idea. It makes sense, then, that navigating your way through the landscape should be difficult, confusing, and fairly depressing. Thus it’s no surprise that exploration is unpleasant: there are lots of twists and turns, with few landmarks and many locations that look exactly the same. Moreover, it quickly begins to rain, soaking you and making the dirty-floored maze muddy as all get-out. And – shocker of shockers – when you get to the exit, it turns out it is indeed locked.

Or at least it was in my game – for the maze is procedurally generated. This is another nice thematic twist, since of course while many marginalized folks face similar barriers, their experiences and circumstances are each unique, and as far as I could tell it worked completely smoothly in my game, which is an impressive bit of coding. So the metaphorical resonance takes some of the sting out of the exhausting gameplay, and the author also provides some support for the maze-averse player through use of an exit-listing status bar that highlights places you haven’t been yet (the ABOUT text also recommends mapping, which would make things much easier – I didn’t, to my regret).

Escape isn’t too difficult, though I’m embarrassed to admit it took me longer than it should have since I failed to notice an important detail (in my defense, there are a lot of random events and atmospheric text that fires, meaning my eyes were starting to skip over some of the words by halfway through). But there are also a few optional puzzles that help flesh out the experience and deepen the metaphor. Many of them are pretty intuitive things you’re likely to try anyway, but once again, the author’s provided some assistance in the form of a STATS command that tracks your progress.

All told I found You May Not Escape a smart, well-designed experience. Personally it was more intellectually than emotionally engaging, since the allegory is fairly dry – I got a deep sense of the protagonist’s discomfort, but since the protagonist isn’t characterized in any real way, and there are no other people that they have a relationship with, their suffering isn’t especially barbed. But I think that’s a reasonable authorial choice, and in some way may be a comment on the stereotypical right brain/left brain split between choice-based and parser games (increasingly inaccurate as the division of IF into those two houses is becoming).

As flagged above, the other thing that didn’t fully work for me is the ending, and what it seems to be saying – but to explain this, I’ll have to back up to the beginning. So the person who meets you upon your entry into the maze is one John Everyman, who says he’s there to answer your questions and advocate for you with the people outside to eventually make your lot in life slightly easier. He’s not especially helpful or sympathetic though, growing truculent through the course of your conversation and eventually berating you for “alienat[ing] your potential allies.” Similarly, among the social-media-style messages you’re bombarded with along the way, is this one “Have you considered voting? If we get more of a majority in six months, maybe we can demolish a few of the hallways.” Suffice to say the game seems intensely skeptical of political solutions to the problems it allegorizes.

So if politics and voting aren’t the answer, what is? Here I’ll shift over to spoiler territory. When you get to the gate, you’ll see that it boasts an inscription: “AND IN THE END, THEY FOUND THEMSELVES RETURNED TO THE BEGINNING.” And sure enough, if you wend your way back through the maze, you find that Everyman has skedaddled, but also that there’s now a sledgehammer waiting for you, with which you can simply batter down the gate. As with most metaphors, this is subject to several readings, but one of the most straightforward is that it’s about returning to oneself, gathering one’s strength, and then simply refusing to be bound by the limits society imposes.

That’s an empowering enough message, but also kind of unrealistic and maybe in its own way not dissimilar to some of the annoying “just try harder” messages you seem ticking across the screens? I’m probably biased because my day job involves public policy, but at least in American society it sure does seem to me that there are a whole host of places where the lives of the most vulnerable can be meaningfully improved – maybe even only be meaningfully improved, at least for now – by voting, gathering coalitions of friends who can sometimes be kinda flaky, and at least starting out by making awful things like 15% less awful, in order to get to the place where true transformative change becomes possible. This is not a very inspiring view of the world, I admit! And far be it from me to lecture folks far more directly impacted by oppression on what their strategy for social change should look like, much less how they express themselves through art. But it seems to me this alternative has something to offer folks who can’t find a sledgehammer inside themselves, or find that in battering against the walls that surround them, they’re the ones who start to give.

Okay, back from spoiler-town. I’ll wrap up by saying that just because I didn’t find the game’s suggested resolution of the dilemmas it raises especially compelling, that didn’t undercut the effectiveness with which it poses said dilemmas. You May Not Escape is a smart game that knows how to weave its themes into its gameplay and its themes into its gameplay, which is a rare thing and well worth celebrating.

(Oh, one last note for the author on what may be a bug: though I put appropriate objects on all four graves, the STATS screen only told me I’d laid three of the four spirits to rest. This may be because the fourth grave was for me, and I didn’t actually die, but figured I’d flag this in case that was supposed to register as four out of four! You can check out the attached transcript for details, if that’s useful).

escape mr.txt (221.7 KB)


This might be something for a general humor topic, but this savage line from the ticker might be my favorite so far: “You should know that I donated to CAM two years ago? That’s the Council Against Mazes. They’ve got a lot of big things coming up.”

I found myself glad the mapping wasn’t too bad. But I’m wondering if part of the thrust of the game was a Stockholm Syndrome type “be grateful there’s only so much. It could be worse, or there could be even more puzzle details to worry about.”

Whether or not the author intended that, I realized what I’d thought in the context of the game.


Elvish for Goodbye, by David Gürçay-Morris

Counting games I’ve tested, I’ve still got about a third of the Comp to go, but I’m calling it here: this year, there’s no author braver than David Gürçay-Morris. “I would like you to directly compare my writing to Joan Didion’s scalpel-sharp prose, please” is a sentence uttered by no sane writer ever, and yet his entry invites the player to do just that. Elvish for Goodbye isn’t just a riff on Didion’s seminal kiss-off to New York City, Goodbye to All That – the author’s note at the end acknowledges a debt to Calvino too, and appropriately enough for elf stuff, there’s some light linguistics too – but it does take some of its subject matter from the essay, and even redeploys a few specific lines and incidents to its own purposes. Hell, the blurb even uses a quote as its epigram, going out of its way to draw the player’s attention to the Didion connection at the outset rather than take the comparatively-safer option of pointing it out in the afterword! This is foolhardiness taken to the extreme, so while I can’t condone the author’s choices, I can certainly admire the courage on display.

The above could read as though I’m setting up the author for a savaging, but trying to buck him up before the evisceration. Nothing could be further from the truth! Elvish for Goodbye is lovely and loving, a literary tribute to a writer who clearly had an impact on the author, and if holding Didion’s model close to mind meant that I was hyperaware of every slightly-inapt metaphor or just-too-long sentence, that’s just the price for taking such a big swing.

(This is maybe an opportune time to say this is another review where I get spoilery. For best results, you should probably play the game – and read or reread the Didion essay – before continuing).

The story of the game is simple. The protagonist, a writer himself, encounters a woman who was among the last to live among the lost city of the elves; she tells him of that city, of the time she spent there, and how that time came to an end (she’s the Didion character, in other words). The protagonist is callow, the writer experienced; he asks questions, she responds. There’s some interactivity – you can pick the place where the two first meet and decide exactly how in-depth you want the protagonist’s questions to be, as well as putting a little bit of English on his reaction to the final revelation of the Elven city’s fate – but this is largely expressive interactivity; it doesn’t seem like the plot or its overall vibe changes much regardless.

I think this was probably the right call – the effectiveness of the game relies very heavily on the mood it conveys as well as the diptych it forms with Didion’s essay, and being able to rewrite the substance or even the sequence of events too broadly would threaten that. Besides, having made my initial choices, I can’t conceive of wanting to go back and make different ones. Indeed, there’s even a passage that underlines this:

She remarked that one hard lesson of her early years in Wild Idyll had been learning that a tale’s accuracy was far less important than the specificity with which it was told. That those details and particularities, the minutiae of actions and adjectives, were what lodged in our memory, more than a sense of the tale’s “truth.”

(Yes, the Elven city is called “Wild Idyll”, an inversion of the Idlewild airport – rechristened JFK after the assassination – where Didion first alights).

The game does a good job with this specificity. Here’s the protagonist reflecting, as a spoken-word performance comes to a close, on the fact that the image he’d formed of the Didion-analogue from her writing and recordings was some ways distant from her reality as a person:

Of course I didn’t know that at the time, couldn’t have known it, not until after the desultory applause that greeted the show’s end as idol-smashing houselights flickered to full.

This extends to the descriptions of the city, too:

"Oh, those trees! Never before had I seen trees like those of the Idyll: soaring to heaven, their leafy crowns a crystal mosaic sky of greens aglow in golden light, backed in sapphire. These towers of living wood sheltered the great city of Elvenkind. Their immense verticality and spreading canopy formed living caverns in which districts and neighborhoods, each centered about a verdant plaza, were strung together by the grassy esplanades and riverbed boulevards that meandered through the city’s glens and dells.

The writing isn’t quite as clean when it shifts into narrative mode, though. As it turns out, the city was lost because one day, the Elves up and left. Here’s the moment where that’s revealed:

“When Wild Idyll disappeared, those of us left behind–the non-elvenkind of the city–well, I think we half-thought the whole blessed city had blown away! There had been a storm the night before, and while the rain was gone by dawn, a wind had persisted in blowing across the city all morning. For an insane instant the idea that the wind had just picked up the city and carried it away truly seemed like the most reasonable explanation for the Idyll’s sudden absence. We were, after all, always comparing it to a fleet of sails, a field of flags, or a flock of kites.”

There are good images here, but the hesitation of “half-thought”, the adjectivitis and adverbitis of the third sentence, undercut their power. Again, this isn’t anything that I’d normally harp on, but I can’t picture the real Joan Didion saying, much less writing, sentences like these.

Another departure from Didion, this one I think intentional, is that where her essay dwells on the social world she encountered in New York, and the shifting impact that society has on her psychological well-being, the game largely ignores such considerations in favor of an extended riff on Elvish linguistics. We’re told that there are hundreds, if not a thousand, different words the Elves use for goodbye, depending on who’s doing the leaving, their relative social rank, the emotional tenor of the present encounter, and on and on and on. This maybe gets a little tedious – you’re given an option to have the protagonist cut some of the exposition short, blessedly – but it’s all in service of the reveal that there’s one last, most important and permanent word for goodbye (were I tempted to cross-pollinate LA literary icons, I suppose I could label it the Big Goodbye):

"This last ‘goodbye’ was a great equalizer–if such can be said of a word–because it existed in only one form, with total disregard for rank or relation, for being the one leaving or the one left behind. It could be literally translated as ‘goodbye to everything, forever’; or more poetically as ‘goodbye to…all that.’” She made a gesture with her hands which simultaneously took in the world around us, and shooed it all away.

That’s a good punch-line, and reconnection with Didion, but a groaner nonetheless, and exemplifies as well as anything else the tightrope the game has to walk: hew too closely to the original essay, and you risk just saying stuff she said earlier and better, or take it as a point of departure and risk the cognitive dissonance of doing non-Didion stuff in your Didion homage. And I admit that while by this point I felt like the game was doing about as well striking that balance as could be expected, I wasn’t sure the game was worth the candle. My mind was changed by the final few sequences, though. After the elves leave, the woman and her compatriots ruminate on their sudden departure means – apologies for one last lengthy quote:

“I find it much harder to see when things end. Even though I know the truth of this with respect to the small, everyday endings, some very human part of me remains convinced that when it comes to the grand things, those events which define a generation or an entire people for generations to come: those moments, surely, must tower before us, clear to see! … I understood, in that moment when I knew what the missing word for ‘goodbye’ must be, that this was exactly the opposite of the truth: the ending of a whole world is, in fact, the hardest thing to see… The specificity of beginnings always eclipse the tattered endings carpeting the ground of its arrival.”

This is compelling in its own right – to take one potential application among many, I feel like anyone who’s had a serious breakup or gotten divorced would recognize something true in that passage – and it also completes a thought Didion left hanging in her essay; “it is easy to see the beginnings of things, and harder to see the ends” is the opening of Goodbye to All That, and she circles back around to having missed the ending of her love affair with New York by the close of the essay, but simply leaps to her newfound sense of disgust at the things that used to delight her without reflecting on what could have changed and why she missed noticing the shift.

Elvish for Goodbye also has a more regenerative approach to what to make of such endings. The very close of Didion’s essay reads to me like sour grapes; she talks about how the last time she was in New York, everyone was “ill and tired” or had moved away, unconvincingly counterposing this with her idealized moonlit, jasmine-scented Los Angeles life – or maybe I’m projecting, as someone who grew up in the New York burbs and passed a good portion of my twenties in the city, but is still reconciling himself to living in LA despite the fact that I’ve been doing it for fifteen years! But in the game, the city of the elves that passed away is the same as the human city that the protagonist now inhabits, completely different yet completely the same – which feels to me like a more plausible account of the way change and continuity intertwine in the wake of great upheavals, which can make you feel like an exile when you’ve only walked a few steps, or feel like you’ve returned home when you travel thousands of miles to a place you’ve never been.

It takes a little while to get there, but ultimately Elvish for Goodbye transcends being a mere Didion pastiche, and winds up in dialogue with her essay without suffering unduly from the juxtaposition – a neat trick to manage! Indeed, there’s a way in which its vision has the last laugh, for despite the emphatic never-going-back-there tone of Goodbye to All That, some twenty years after writing it Didion did return to New York, and stayed there for the closing decades of her life. The game prompts us to ask, did she come back to the city, or did she find one anew? And what language could she use to describe this combined valediction and salutation? Elvish for Goodbye suggests an answer, though it doesn’t tell us how to pronounce it.


Thank you for this thoughtful review! I’m glad you found YMNE effective.