Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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.

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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!

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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.

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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!

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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.

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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.

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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)!

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Thank you for the extremely detailed review!

:cowboy_hat_face:

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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!

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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.

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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:

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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)

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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.

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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.

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

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Blood Island, by Billy Krolick

We are all, every one of us, unique perfect miracles, with thoughts, experiences, beliefs, feelings, likes, dislikes, hopes, dreams, fears, (and bodies) that combine in unrepeated and unrepeatable ways to make us the individuals we are. But simultaneously, sometimes demography is destiny, and am I am betting that like 99% of the people who share my particular niche – early 40s bookishly-nerdy guy – also like House of Leaves. For those of y’all who haven’t read it, it’s an early-aughts pomo horror story that centers on a documentary made by a man whose family house is being overwritten by – or perhaps always connected to – an infinite, empty labyrinth. But the story of the documentary is surrounded by several other layers of narrative and commentary, including a film scholar who deconstructs the story as fast as the documentarian constructs it, which are set off through various cool typographical and word-art flourishes.

This is maybe an odd way to start a review of Blood Island, a choice-based reality show/slasher flick mash-up, but in some ways they’re doing a lot that’s similar. Blood Island’s engagingly-written narrative also centers on a horror movie (the slasher stuff pre-empts the reality TV, obviously enough), and also includes a bunch of media criticism intended to prod the audience the think about the tropes that it’s deploying. But unlike House of Leaves, it mashes all the different things it’s doing into a single narrative thread rather than imposing any kind of structure, and it neglects the emotional core of the characters at the heart of its story. It’s also way too excited about the media studies stuff, leaving the whole package unbalanced, as though the Camille Paglia chapter of House of Leaves took over half the book. When Blood Island is doing the thing that it’s trying to do, it works pretty well – but it spends way too much time talking about the thing rather than doing it.

So what is the thing? Well, as the genre mash-up indicates, it’s looking at the commonalities between slasher flicks and reality shows about dating – and spoiler alert, many of these are about gender. Thus the setup: you play a new contestant on a reality show where you’re isolated in a lovely beachy paradise with a bunch of other hot singles, and if you’re ever not coupled up, you’re at risk of getting sent home. But the previous season of the show was interrupted when a masked maniac stuck a cake knife into the back of one of the cast members, so as you’re gearing up to find love (or lust) you also need to worry about whether the killer’s also returned.

It’s no spoiler to confirm that yes, they have. As a result, there’s an engaging split in gameplay, because even as you’re picking which of the various bachelors and bachelorettes you want to get to know better (you can choose any gender identity and sexual orientation for your character you like; the game doesn’t care a jot, which is an enlightened attitude though does make scenes like the one where the other contestants are staring at your wet-tee-shirt-clad, heaving chest land a little a differently when you’ve decided your character is a middle-aged dude in mediocre shape) you’re also getting glimpses of the killer and deciding how to evade or confront them. It doesn’t take long for things to escalate drastically, with set-piece dates – a romantic scuba-dive! – turning into set-piece murder attempts – uh oh, there’s chum in the water!

Anyone who’s heard the phrase “Final Girl” will get why these two genres are being smashed together. The producers of these entertainments have a clear view of the mix of voyeurism and sexual moralizing that they expect their audiences to bring to the table, for one thing, and the process of winnowing a diverse cast down until there’s just an attractive white girl standing I’d assume plays out similarly in both.

Unfortunately, rather than juxtaposing these elements and creating space for the player to tease out the parallels, the game wants to like engage you in continued Socratic dialogue about this stuff to make sure you aren’t missing anything. Very frequently, the action will screech to a halt so one character or another can ask you why you think people like horror movies, of whether you think the killer is going to intentionally target people who drink and have sex, or what the formula to a successful reality TV show is. In a few places, this is OK – it makes sense for the contestants on one of these shows to reflect on how they work – but when these conversations are happening when you’re still bleeding from barely fending off an attack it feels deeply artificial. Beyond this being a suicidally bad idea from a strategic point of view, there’s no diegetic reason connecting the killer’s behavior to movies – it’s like spending your time unpacking the storytelling tropes in the Godfather trilogy when the real-life mob has put out a hit on you.

It could be the case that this is intentional, that the author is trying to undermine the emotional engagement of the various scenarios the game creates. Some late-game plot elements maybe reinforce this idea: so first, the character you’ve spent the most time with gets brutally murdered ¾ of the way through the game, which tanked my emotional engagement because I didn’t care about any of the rest of them, and knew that I’d survive to the end. And second, if most people in my specific demographic know House of Leaves, just about everybody in my age group knows Scream, and are probably going to think about it when an early sequence involves identifying the “rules” of horror movies – so having the twist here be exactly the same as the twist in Scream seems like a really questionable choice if you wanted to maintain tension. But I don’t understand why that would be the case! Indeed, when the Postmodern Studies 101 stuff recedes, some of the dating pieces can be cutely fun, and the killer’s various stratagems for getting at you often exhibit the mix of viciousness and humor you see in good slasher movies (or so I’ve heard; I’ve actually seen very few, I must confess). As a result, I can’t help wondering what a version of this story where the media crit stuff was separated out would look like – dare I say that the “Stateful Narration” approach @anon27656743 has taken in his recent games might be an interesting fit? – not only would that make the narrative aspects more compelling, I suspect they’d also prompt the player to engage more with the bigger questions the author is trying to frame, since they’d no longer be at war with the story.

Before closing, I have one more critique of one detail of Blood Island’s implementation, but it risks ruining the game – I wish I didn’t know it – so I’m going to spoiler-block it. Read at your peril. So in my playthrough, I chose to romance/make friends with Mona, who’s described as a jaded cynic – I am not a reality TV person so focusing on someone who was also not in the tank for this stuff seemed appealing, plus she’s Middle Eastern like my wife is, I dunno maybe I have a type. Anyway! I was surprised to find that despite her initially-crusty demeanor, she very quickly seemed to click with me and starting talking about e.g. how romantic the starlit night. On a hunch, I tried starting over and dragging the bookish, 20-something ingenue on dates, and sure enough, but for a very, very few bits of introductory writing, everything down to the specific dialogue appears to be the same regardless of who you pick. This even extends to changing the identity of the killer, so that the story plays out in exactly the same way, with almost exactly the same way, each time. I’m not one to harp on authors for not spending time writing a bunch of words no-one will ever see – I loved the completely-linear January, for example – but if the game is asking the player to engage with its characters and framing the choice of which one to build a relationship with as significant, having their personalities be completely interchangeable feels like a dirty trick indeed, a betrayal of players who approach the premise sincerely.

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Thanks Mike for both playing through this game and taking the time to do such a detailed review (and for posting your transcript!) You aren’t alone in stumbling over some of these synonym issues and the changing descriptions. I plan on making a number of edits after the comp is over to address these and several other issues. The transcripts are really helpful to see where folk run into issues. (And yes, while I had a number of good friends playtest the game, I didn’t know fo the IntFiction beta test forums - so thanks for that, it is great to see.) I’m glad you liked the feelies (the map and the photos) but it is clear I have more to do to make this more fun for everyone!

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Star Tripper, by Sam Ursu

After playing a bunch of games in a row that required a fair bit of unpacking, can I confess that it felt nice to sink into one that’s content to be just a game, and a fairly low-key one at that? Don’t get me wrong, Star Tripper has a lot going on – it’s a space trading sim a la Elite or Privateer, with dozens of planets and starbases, a host of commodities with varying levels of supply and demand depending on how developed a world is, an ore mining minigame, as well as an overarching plot, all smoothly implemented in ChoiceScript. But it’s fairly slow-paced, quite content to let you tootle around the galaxy buying low and selling high, and despite intermittently-threatening events like losing half your fuel when you need to make an emergency jump away from a black hole or space cops fining you for your forged ship registration, mostly it’s an exercise in slowly watching your number of credits tick upwards.

I don’t in any way mean this as a criticism. There’s this game design framework called MDA that’s gained some currency among tabletop gamers over the last decade or two which breaks down the reasons players engage with a game into a list of different “aesthetics” – this includes predictable stuff like narrative, discovery, challenge, and expression, which are all intuitively applicable to the IF context. But last on the list is one called “abnegation”, which is all about the joy of shutting off your brain and enjoying the sensation of progress without too many demands being placed upon you. Hardcore people often bristle when this comes up, but in my experience abnegation has a lot to recommend it in the right time and place – when I was in law school and spending a lot of time cramming information into my head, for example, I often spent an hour or so in the evening listening to Mountain Goats bootlegs and playing FreeCell over and over.

Star Tripper offers similar pleasures, though again, the modeling here seems reasonably complex – you can’t just run the same commodity to the same destination over and over, as plants only want a finite number of each, and there’s a sort of primitive supply-chain modeled, with lower-tech planets having a lot of low-cost raw materials and a limited ability to pay for some luxury goods and the fewer high-tech paradises shelling out top dollar for everything but selling at even dearer prices, with intermediate worlds somewhere in the middle. Since you’re not given a map at the outset, this means that every once in a while you’ll need to hop to a new quadrant of space and explore to find a new trade route before exhausting it in turn. And at each stage hopefully you’re earning enough to upgrade your ship to increase its cargo bays (and passenger berths – you’ll find folks on starbases willing to pay passage to particular worlds, though the rewards here are much lower than straight commodity trading) and do it all over again, just at a bigger scale.

While the gameplay is the main draw, there is actually a plot here, too – and one I enjoyed. There’s an extended opening sequence that sees your out-of-touch space aristocrat forced into interstellar mercantilism in order to mount an off-the-grid rescue of a kidnapped sibling. The writing here is wry and enjoyable, and creates an effective narrative framework around the standard interstellar-merchant premise (though once you’ve completed the story campaign, it looks like you can unlock a more sandbox experience that drops these elements). Of course, the plot is mostly absent once you get into the game proper – though I think I accidentally clicked through at least one random event involving a message from my sibling, oops! – but it does what it needs to do.

The main complaint I have about the game is that in the hour and a half or so that I played, it felt very slow and samey, with all the different trading routes and ships failing to shake up the simple basic gameplay – though in fairness, it appears some elements, like combat, might be gated behind plot events in the campaign, and I was acutely aware that were I playing on my laptop instead of my phone, I’d likely have been able to build a spreadsheet that would have allowed me to hoover credits out of the galaxy much faster than my haphazard explorations allowed.

This seems like part of the game’s chilled-out design ethos, though. My life situation is not currently one where I can put on a podcast and play a couple hours of video games each day, but if it were I think I’d enjoy getting deep into Star Tripper, seeing my ship slowly get bigger and bigger as my bank account swelled towards the million-dollar payday needed to reach the plot’s endgame. As it is, the 90 minutes I’ve put in are probably about all I’ll be able to muster, but I can’t begrudge the relaxing time I had with the game even in that short interval.

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Thank you so much for your kind review. Honestly, reading other reviews, I’m now convinced you have a preternatural ability to see these games from the author’s point of view, which is incredible.

And yes, you’re right about the ability to unlock a type of sandbox mode once you’ve rescued your sibling :beach_umbrella:

Believe it or not, none of this section was in the original prototype I built last year, so thank you so much for saying this!

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The Grown-Up Detective Agency, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

A couple days ago, someone slipped a flyer under the windshield wipers of my wife’s car while she was shopping in Target. She showed it to me when she got home, half outraged and half amused, because it was two pages of densely-packed type fulminating about the horrible pedophilic grooming that our sleepy Southern California school district is inflicting upon our children – it was wall to wall homophobia, transphobia, and, due to a bold claim that they were teaching Critical Race Theory under the guise of a curriculum called Social Emotional Learning, racist to boot.

(I’m actually lucky enough to have taken a class on CRT when I was in law school, from one of the founders of the school. We largely looked at stuff about how things like occupational licenses not being available to folks with a criminal record intersect with the racial disparities in the criminal justice system to turn facially-neutral laws into de facto, and sometimes intentional, discrimination. Social Emotional Learning is about helping 8-year-olds regulate their feelings and develop teamwork and other soft skills, so yeah, they’re basically the same thing).

But so anyway the writer of the letter had a lot of complaints about what was being taught in sex aid, and said that I could see for myself the filth that was being crammed down kids’ throats by going to TeenTalk.ca, the website of the company that created the curriculum being used by the district (thoughtfully, they included a QR code). I figured I would check it out, less because I was expecting to be shocked and more because I wanted to verify a hunch I had based on the URL suffix. Sure enough, not only was the content on TeenTalk.ca completely anodyne (I mean, so long as you don’t have a panic attack at the idea of gay and transgender folks, like, existing), the “About Us” blurb at the very top of the page noted that they were a Winnipeg-based nonprofit that worked across most of Manitoba. As a little bit of subsequent Googling confirmed, they have nothing to do with the California-based organization that uses the same TeenTalk trade name for their programming, and which had actually been tapped to create the materials for the district.

Having learned all this, I wrote what I thought was, under the circumstances, a remarkably temperate letter informing the woman who made the flyer that while by my lights she was advancing a hateful, ignorant agenda, at least we could hopefully agree that spreading blatant misinformation was in no one’s interest, and, since the peccadilloes of those modern Sodomites called Manitobans could be of no possible relevance to Californians like us, it would behoove her to update her flyers with the correct link and critiques so people could in fact judge for themselves.

I don’t know what I was expecting, but it wasn’t what I got, which was a reply doubling down, saying that she 1000% meant to link to that Canadian site, because as the flyer said, it was just giving people an idea of the type of thing they were teaching down here, and the district was keeping the actual curriculum so tightly locked up that this was the only way to spread the word.

Here on this planet, of course, the flyer specifically said these were the folks making the curriculum, and if you search TeenTalk with the name of the school district, the first hit that comes up is a Google Drive containing the actual slides and lesson plans the district is using.

I bring this up in the context of The Grown-Up Detective Agency – well, mostly because I find the anecdote darkly hilarious, and in two weeks or so once we see the results of the midterms the “darkly” part is likely to overpower the “hilarious” part so might as well laugh while we can. But the fig leaf of relevance I’m using to crowbar it in is that the game’s protagonist, 21-year-old lesbian detective Bell Park, is suffering from a species of the same mind-blowingly-implausible and toxic self-delusion as afflicts my right-wing interlocutor (she’s also from Canada, so there) (Bell I mean, not the DeSantis groupie).

Bell was once a kid detective, you see, solving crimes a la Encyclopedia Brown or Nancy Drew, and in the course of one of her cases realized she was gay and even started dating an amazing girlfriend – much of which is depicted in the author’s previous games, though I haven’t played any of them. But somewhere along the way, as she got older, the detective game started to curdle her, making her cynical about other people but mostly herself. As the game opens, she’s got a desk in a Toronto coworking space, a favorite mall-court chicken place, and not much else, cut out of the lives of all her old friends and ex-partners and convincing herself it’s for the best. Two visitors might just jolt her out of this rut, though – one is an old crush, turning to Bell because her fiancé has gone missing, while the other is herself as she was at 12 years old, a plucky, can-do kid vomited up by the space-time continuum for what’s surely some reason. Can they crack the case?

This is an all-time amazing premise, made all the more compelling by the intertitle:

PART 1: THE HETEROSEXUAL DISAPPEARANCE OF MARK G

Reader, I laughed, and then laughed harder when the old flame’s description of her in-fact-incredibly-het boyfriend made me feel completely attacked, from his boring hair to his normcore fashion sense. While I usually enjoy comedy games, very few of them manage to get more than a wry chuckle out of me, but this game had me giggling at least once per scene. Like, here’s the two Bells interrogating someone about the photo of a suspect who’s wearing some very incongruous headwear:

ADULT BELL: Where’d he get the crown?

BRETT: Let’s just say I’ve got a connection at Medieval Times. (He lowers his voice.) And you didn’t hear this from me, but the jousting is rigged.

KID BELL: You should tell them the menu has too many New World crops for a medieval European banquet.

Speaking of self-delusion, I’m going to spend the next couple of days trying to convince myself this is a joke I’ve actually made.

While it’s very, very funny, though, Grown-Up Detective also wears its heart on its sleeve. Indeed, if I have a critique it’s that the case that’s notionally the jumping-off point for the adventure quickly recedes into a mere justification for the two Bells to bounce off of each other. Adult Bell is frustrated by her younger version’s naivete, while Kid Bell can’t understand why her grown-up self is so cranky to be living her dream – it’s a standard dynamic when flatly stated, but the dialogue between the two of them is very well-written, always pithy and with plenty of punch lines but enlivened by real emotion. Plus it turns out that there are some root causes to their tension – in particular, Kid Bell is outraged that Adult Bell has let a great relationship slip through her fingers, for what seems the dumbest of reasons.

All of this is played out in an attractive, low-friction interface; there are nicely-done cartoon portraits of all the main characters, the prose efficiently sets the stage for each part of the investigation, and it moves you quickly through dialogue, which typically progresses through a series of forward-linking choices rather than looping back into trees that need to be laboriously explored. I found I played this one really quickly, because the pacing is excellent – each scene was just long enough to get me eager for the next one, and progressed the Bells’ character arcs in meaningful ways as well as providing plenty of comment on the challenges of growing up gay or the vicissitudes gentrification has inflicted on Toronto.

I don’t think it’s possible to fail the case, which despite a bunch of twists and turns past a certain point feels like it largely solves itself, and again – without spoiling too much – reveals itself to have much lower stakes than what’s ostensibly the B-plot of how Kid Bell became Adult Bell. While the detective frame becomes a bit of an afterthought in narrative terms, though, it’s necessary to make the character business work. For all that Adult Bell thinks she’s a hard-boiled detective, she’s let depression prevent her from truly seeing her situation for what it is; Kid Bell, still analytic to a fault, runs down the clues, pushes back against her subject’s self-delusions, and eventually gets her to realize the truth. Would that everyone was afforded such a chance to let go of the lies they tell themselves – the world might be a different place.

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