Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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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Into the Sun, by Dark Star

The eternal pastime of the ur-protagonists of parser IF was treasure-hunting. From Adventure to Zork, the player may have delved, fought, and explored, but in the end they accumulated points from plunder, wresting valuables from the bowels of the earth and/or their rightful owners to bring them back and heap up treasures on the earth. The fashion for such things has long since passed, of course, but it’s intriguing to note that one of the most modern of IF subgenres, the Verdeterrelike, hearkens back to such deep roots. These optimization games play very differently, of course featuring as they do dynamic environments, aggressive timers, and less emphasis on individual challenges in favor of the repeated plays unlocking the overall metapuzzle of calculating the best route and best timing to loot the most stuff – they can feel almost like roguelikes, where the expectation is that the player pursues, though never reaches, mastery through failure after failure. But peek below the chicken costume of the protagonist of Mike Spivey’s Sugarlawn, say, and you’ll find the amoral wielder of an Elvish sword of great antiquity.

Into the Sun sits squarely in this new-yet-old tradition, and at first it seems to just be playing the hits: like Captain Verdeterre’s Treasure, which inaugurated the subgenre, it’s set on a ship that’s not long for this world (here a derelict spaceship that’s about the fall into a star’s gravity-well, admittedly, rather than a pirate vessel taking on water), with a goal of maximizing the salvage you collect in the time remaining in order to get the biggest payday. The puzzles similarly also trend towards the simple, largely being straightforward door-and-key puzzles you’ve seen a million times before.

What’s unique about this game, though, is that you’re not alone. To explain the spin Into the Sun puts on the standard setup requires a spoiler, though one that becomes clear about five minutes into the game. So I’m not going to spoiler-block the rest of the review, but fair warning if you’re sensitive to such things that you might want to step away after this paragraph.

I suppose it’d be polite to write some filler here so folks who’ve decided to bail don’t accidentally see the spoiler. So let me just mention a few random things I liked. First, there’s an incredibly-helpful map that’s bundled with the download – definitely check that out. Also, for all that the spaceship setting is incredibly generic (more on that in a bit), it’s atmospherically described. Here’s a utilitarian corridor:

With the batteries running out, the lights in this section collide with the smoke to create an orange glow. It gives the room an imagined warmth, where there is none in space. The companionway is wide, with an access panel on the forward bulkhead.

That’s nicer than it needs to be (I enjoy the word “companionway”).

OK, that’s the buffer done. So what the deal is is there’s an alien on the ship with you. Sorry, I mean an Alien – it’s got acid blood, a penis-shaped head, the table manners of a toddler, the works. Let you think I’m being overly-dismissive of an author using what’s by now a very well-established sci-fi archetype, exploration will turn up various logs referencing Ripley, Dallas, and others – it’s the Nostromo, you’re being stalked by a xenomorph, everyone knows what’s up. What this premise loses in originality, it gains in clarity – everyone knows how these guys work – and terror – because everyone knows how these guys work.

What that means is that even as you’re picking your way around the ship, discovering key codes and hoovering up personal mementos and likely bits of tech, the alien is stalking you. And because the map is replete with dead ends and choke points, it will catch you sooner or later. Fortunately, the first item you get is a cattle prod that will let you fight the monster off at least a few times, and there are few additional limited-use weapons you can pick up along the way. But when you’re out of those, you’re done, even if the ship still has a ways to go before it’s sucked into the sun. Having what’s in effect two timers rather than just one enlivens the formula substantially, because you don’t wind up just plotting the same course and slightly optimizing it each time; you need to pay attention to where you hear the alien rattling around, and make canny use of the elevator that can zoom you from the top deck to the bottom one, in order to conserve your weapon-charges.

The other tweak the alien imposes is that when it’s not stalking you, it might be venting its rage on the derelict ship. As you explore one deck, it might be tearing open access panels on another, and using its acid to melt through some of the items you’d be hoping to acquire for yourself. Again, this substantially changes the tweak-and-optimize gameplay loop typical of these games, because you can’t know whether the crate of valuable wines will still be intact even if you make a beeline for it. What’s more, the game also randomizes the locations of some of the puzzle-solving items, so you can’t know for sure where you’ll find the flashcard that tells you the code for the door locks.

Well, so much for description: do these changes work well, or no? I am going to split the difference, characteristically. I played Into the Sun twice through, and enjoyed both playthroughs – they were tense and I always felt like I was on my toes, improvising and having to balance playing it safe against going out on a limb to go for one of the more valuable items. But having gotten a reasonable payday my second time out ($2,190 “adjusted dollars”, if anyone wants to compare high scores!) I don’t feel much compulsion to go back and try for something even bigger. The optimize-and-tweak loop, turns out, is highly compelling to me (I play a lot of Zachlikes, for the record), and Into the Sun injects sufficient randomness to break it. I didn’t wrap up runs itching to try doing just one thing different next time; instead, I had to gird myself to start from scratch and come up with a plan of attack mostly from scratch. In some ways this makes the game a better design – and also makes it easier for me to feel satisfied with my experience playing it within the Comp’s two hour limit, whereas I feel like with Sugarlawn I’d barely scratched the surface – but all told, I think I prefer a more straight-forward Verdeterrelike experience (no need to include an Elvish sword, though – my appreciation for the classics has its limits).

into the sun mr.txt (86.9 KB)

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Ellen Ripley with a glowing Elvish sword.

Awesomeness.

I’m gonna type that into one of those AI photo collage artistlikes.

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Thanks so much for playing through this. I was pleased to read your review.

With the game design, it’s nowhere as deep as Sugar Lawn. And replayability is limited. It was designed with the Competition in mind and playing around with the idea of a hostile NPC.

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Thanks for sharing that re your design goals! Hopefully it’s clear from the review that I very much enjoyed the game and it filled the hour-and-a-bit I played it nearly perfectly; I just have in my head that Verdeterrelikes are about optimization so it’s hard not to assess it on those terms, even though I think Into the Sun would have been a worse Comp entry if it worked better on that score, if that makes sense.

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I am annoyingly spamming my own thread, but I realized I forgot to include my transcript in the post, so wanted to flag that I went back and edited it in in case you want to take a look (I don’t recall running into any bugs – the alien’s behavior comes off impressively sophisticated, I have to say!)

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A Matter of Heist Urgency, by FLACRabbit

Friends, I have by now been around the block a little bit. I’ve been playing Comps since aught-two, on and off, and in that time I’ve lost count of the cryopods I’ve woken up in, the dragons I’ve run away from, the obfuscated allegories I’ve squinted at, (the prepositions I’ve left dangling)…. But this is a new one on me: sure, you could say A Matter of Heist Urgency is a straightforward enough creature, a comedy parser game, on rails, where you foil the theft of the kingdom’s crown jewels from some evildoers.

But ye gods, the details: start with the title, for one thing, which sounds like it’s trying to be a pun but one I can’t for the life of me decode; then the world, which is a completely-unexplained off-brand My Little Pony thing (this isn’t actually My Little Pony, right?); and the protagonist, Anastasia the Power Pony, whose deal is likewise basically assumed and seems to be like a horse-person-superhero, maybe with a secret identity, since before investigating the theft you “disguise as Bess” (albeit when you arrive and X ME, you’re told “You, Anastasia the Power Pony, look just like you always do”). Once you show up at the scene of the crime, it only takes a few moments of looking around to find clues indicating that the culprits must be a band of evil llamas (this is starting to feel suspiciously speciest…) and you zoom off (you can fly) and soon find yourself in the first of three extended fight sequences that wrap up the game.

Per the ABOUT text, the game’s raison d’etre actually is to test out how to do action scenes in IF, so perhaps these oddities are just about the author wanting to get to said test-bed scenes as quickly as possible. But it’s still fairly disorienting stuff, all the more so since I dunno about you, but if I were trying to come up with a premise to justify some design experimentation around fight sequences, “superhero horse jewel theft” isn’t even the 23rd one I’d come up with.

This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though! The off-kilter plot elements help keep the game from feeling too dry, and it’s game’s designed so you don’t really need to know much about what’s going on to make progress. Indeed, even just speaking mechanically each set piece works pretty well on its own terms. The initial investigation scene just involves typing X [SCENERY ITEM] a couple times before it automatically ends, but the game does a good job keeping track of which clues you’ve found and making the order seem natural regardless of where you start looking.

The first of the fight scenes is a little dull, admittedly – you just type ATTACK [TARGET] until you’ve worn down your three assailants, as best I can tell, with the RNG deciding whether you hit, or are hit in turn. But the remaining two mix things up in fun ways, with the second allowing you to use the environment on a pirate ship to take out mooks with a single action, and the third implementing a choice-based approach to fisticuffs for the “boss fight” that bottom-lines things just as the action is starting to wear thin. Then you get an ending – there are a couple of choices here, plus a ranking based on how efficiently you won the first fight – and that’s your lot, probably having never caught your breath or having twigged to what the heck is meant to be going on.

The game styles itself “An Anastasia the Power Pony Adventure” – though it’s the first of its kind, that subtitle seems to indicate there might be more to come. Hopefully future installments wouldn’t be quite so monomaniacally fighty, but despite my confusion I had fun with this pacy, silly game that doesn’t wear out its welcome – so I’d be down for a second installment, though I’d hope for a flashback to Anastasia’s secret origin or something so someone could explain exactly what is everybody’s deal.

heist mr.txt (40.7 KB)

EDIT: Wait, I think I got the title – it’s a pun where you pronounce “heist” like “highest”, so “a matter of highest urgency”. But that’s not at all how it’s really pronounced! I repeat, this game is kind of zany.

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Oh wow Mike. I could hear the gears grinding from here. Better get some motor-oil on that.

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I don’t get it. Heist is very close in pronunciation to highest, isn’t it? Like, almost identical?

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I guess, except ‘highest’ is two syllables and ‘heist’ only one (unless you’re a Geordie, possibly). Anyway - it’s a silly pun for a silly game, and I’m glad Mike got there in the end, grinding gears and all!

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In deep fried country Texas, we say, “Ha-est” for both. So there.

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