Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

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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Yeah, now that I think about the sounds aren’t too too far off, but I think it’s a combination of having to add a syllable rather than subtract or slightly shift one that made this feel more like a puzzle than a pun to me. And contra Amanda, I’m from New York and talk pretty fast, so in my mouth “heist” comes out more like a German “geist” which is maybe farther off from “highest” than it’d be with a different accent/pronunciation.

Anyway as mentioned, the game is fun but pretty straightforward, so I appreciated the sense of accomplishment this meta-challenge presented me!

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My two cents is that I didn’t see it until after, until I wrote the review in the authors’ forum, and I actually like that sort of joke a lot, where you might feel a bit stupid you didn’t get it sooner, but you know you’re not being called stupid. I’m glad the author didn’t explain it. I pronounced them phonetically as hy-ust and hyste, I think, which may be because I’m from the Midwest, or it may not.

(Note: my very very favorite “how’d I miss looking at things slightly differently” joke occurred when I was binge-watching Third Rock From the Sun, and somewhere around the fourth season, someone noted the three main male characters’ names were Tom, Dick and Harry. But because Dick was the leader and got top billing, I never put him second. And with Kristen Johnston’s character you could also have Tom, Dick and Sally.)

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In central Arkansas, I think many people would drop (or reduce to a grace note) the second syllable in “highest,” making it a practical homophone for “heist.” I don’t dare try to spell Cajun dialect phonetically, even after living here four years.

A very clever turn of phrase!

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Hi Mike,

Thanks a lot for your review of “the tin mug” by Alice.E.Wells.

I have to say, you are spot on in your review points, as it turns out, there’s a backstory;

I was contacted independently by a reviewer that was interested in the origin of the british children’s story vernacular, used here from the 60s-80s.

It may interest you to know that this story was originally writen in 1989 by an author that is now 85. The story was indeed heavily influenced by british children’s stories of the 60s and 70s.

I turned this work into IF, so the choices were necessarily limited unless i made up “totally new stuff”. As it was, i took parts of the story and turned them into optional parts, as you figured out.

Turns out there are more stories. I am in search for “the carpet people”. If i get the folio. I will IF-ify it. Hopefully you’ll play it.

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Nose Bleed, by Stanley W. Baxton

I feel like I’ve seen enough games like Nose Bleed to posit that a mini-genre of choice-based IF – the short, abstract game that’s light on concrete narrative content and is all about simulating a mental illness or disorder. The best recent example I can think of was fix it in this year’s Spring Thing, which trapped the player in an OCD loop, and now there’s Nose Bleed, which takes on the social anxiety/imposter syndrome combo pack (apparently this is a fairly common linkage, which is something I learned from post-game Googling; I’ve got a touch of social anxiety, albeit it’s receded substantially from what it was like when I was younger, but as you can probably tell from how much I spout off on this website, for better or worse I’ve never suffered from imposter syndrome).

(While I’m making parenthetical asides, it occurs to me that if you dropped the “choice-based” and lightened up the low-narrative-content criterion, you could recruit Rameses into this subgenre, which might lead to an interesting hybrid lineage to trace. For another time!)

This Texture game is laser-focused on what it’s trying to do – every single passage, if not every single sentence, is dripping with crippling self-consciousness. Much of this is just dramatizing the awful but quotidian experience of these disorders, as the dream-like plot shunts the nameless, ageless protagonist from one stuff-of-nightmares scenario to another: there’s feeling like you don’t know what you’re doing at work, not being able to figure out how to join a conversation, worrying that everyone’s expecting you to do something but you don’t know what it is…. But beyond setting up these situations, the game also takes a more visceral approach to communicating how folks with these conditions suffer. And of course I used the word “visceral” advisedly – also “dripping”, back at the beginning of this paragraph – because per the title, the um, somewhat on-the-nose metaphor here involves spewing blood out of your schnozz when you feel the anxiety coming on.

This is a smart choice, because I think the situations on their own probably wouldn’t be as effective. Even as someone who can struggle a bit in large group settings where I don’t know anyone, I found the protagonist’s mumbley, low-self-esteem flailing occasionally annoying – even when there’s a coworker who seems to want to seek you out to put you on the spot, it still seemed to me that the protagonist could have met some of these challenges with a bit more assertiveness. But when they’re depicted as spewing blood over all and sundry, the idea that everyone would be looking at them with dismay and revulsion lands much more intuitively.

Choice is used effectively to underline the intensity of these episodes. When each attack hits, you typically have a choice of two or three different ways to try to cope – you could try to wipe away the blood, or hold your head at a weird angle to keep it dripping, or mop it up with your shirt – but of course they all look equally unpromising, which I think accurately evokes the feeling that here, unlike other issues like OCD or depression, the problem isn’t that your choices are constrained, it’s that nothing you do can soothe the anxiety (the fact that the nose bleeds are repeated, and per the protagonist’s comments something that they’ve previously struggled with too, makes me wonder why they don’t just carry around a ton of tissues all the time, but that would ruin the conceit so I think it’s forgivable that the game doesn’t even mention the idea).

The visuals work well too; without giving too many of this short game’s surprises away, I’ll just note that there are some arresting graphical effects that helped make things feel substantially more engaging than the prose alone would have managed (speaking of the prose, it’s fine – it does what it needs to do, but it’s not especially evocative. I’d have copied and pasted to show some examples, but Texture apparently doesn’t let you do that, so I suppose you’ll have to take my word for it).

In my analysis, then, I think Nose Bleed succeeds at what it sets out to do. I’m not sure I liked it as much as it deserved, though? Maybe it’s because, unlike most games of this type, in this case I do have some direct knowledge of what Nose Bleed is about, and as a result the depiction didn’t seem as revelatory as it otherwise might have. It could also be that the one-note nature of the protagonist’s characterization did start to get on my nerves after a while, even while conceding that they kind of have to be a perpetual wet noodle for the game to work. I think my reactions here were unfair, though; it’s a well-crafted piece, and has a nice button at the end that indicates a goodly amount of self-awareness, and avoids the trap games in this sub-genre can fall into, with the ultimate message of the game reducing to “look at people who suffer from this disorder, doesn’t it suck” – instead the final note is a subtly hopeful one, pointing to the possibility of connection despite everything.

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Jungle Adventure, by Paul Barter

These days when I’m reviewing a custom-parser game, there’s a little introductory patter I usually launch into where I talk about how back when I was first getting into IF 20ish years ago, seeing that an author had created their own parser for a game was invariably cause for alarm – a sign that I was about to be subjected to an insufficiently-tested, awkwardly-designed system that lacked any of the conveniences that contemporary audiences had justifiably begun to take for granted. But over the years, the quality of custom-parser games has inarguably gotten much better – indeed, one even took fifth in last year’s Comp! – with authors paying attention to what the mainstream systems offer and incorporating most of the same features in their own work.

This trend is a very positive one all around, but here’s a downside – it meant I blithely booted up Jungle Adventure with high hopes for enjoying a round of puzzle-solving and treasure-hunting in tropical climes, and wound up striding gormlessly into a rusty old mantrap of a custom parser that brought me right back to the bad old days.

This is going to be a very negative review, because Jungle Adventure is a badly designed game that’s frustrating in the extreme to play. That’s deeply unfortunate, though, because it’s clear the author put a lot of work and creativity into it. This is most obvious in the detailed, often-clever ASCII art that decorates most scenes – it’s fantastic, with a sense of whimsy and humor (like the bend in the protagonist’s plane once it crashes) that always made me smile. But it’s also reflected in the many different gameplay modes Jungle Adventure boasts; much of it is typical parser fare, but there are also some choice-based sections as well as an extended graphical maze, complete with RPG-style combat.

If the author had a lot of fun putting the game together, though, the player is likely to have no such luck. While most of the puzzles aren’t especially challenging, Jungle Adventure is a beyond-punishing gauntlet of suffering, largely due to the extremely limited capabilities of the parser. From peeking at the python code, in fact it looks like there isn’t really a parser – just a whole mess of hard-coded if-then statements that manually match different input the player can type. That means that unless you read the author’s mind and type the exact right thing at every stage, you’re doomed to see a litany of completely unhelpful error messages as the game fails to communicate whether you got a verb wrong, an object wrong, a preposition wrong, or are just barking up the wrong tree.

I’ll restrain myself from offering too many examples, but a few of the most egregious include the fact that neither X nor LOOK AT suffice to examine an object – just LOOK THING; that EXIT means QUIT but LEAVE means EXIT; to get the batteries out of a RADIO you can’t OPEN RADIO or LOOK IN RADIO, just TAKE OUT BATTERIES; and when you’ve got the opportunity to offer an object to another character GIVE RADIO doesn’t work but RADIO does.

Compounding this obfuscated system is an obfuscated game design. While there are hints offered in every room, they’re often fairly cryptic, and I found them inadequate to the challenge of gently leading me to the solutions to puzzles like e.g. the second one, which requires finding the aforementioned radio by intuiting that you’re probably wearing clothing with pockets and typing LOOK IN POCKETS, despite the inventory screen telling you nothing of the sort. Similarly, many of the remaining puzzles require you to squint at the ASCII art and guess what it’s depicting – and which of several synonyms for the object the game will deign to accept. I quickly had recourse to the inauspiciously-named junge_adventure_walthrough.txt (now I really want someone to make the Jung-themed adventure game…) but it only explains the solution to like half the puzzles, and just gestures towards them in general terms when what’s really needed is the exact syntax.

I was able to make it to the end by diving into the aforementioned source code and reading off exactly what I was supposed to do. This didn’t save me from a frustrating time in the maze, though – there’s a lot of randomization here, as well as a bunch of instadeath traps and unbeatable monsters (have I mentioned that there’s no undo, and while there are save slots, there appears to be a bug preventing you from overwriting them?), and a combat system that seems coded such that guns are strictly worse than punching, a fact the descriptions in no way makes clear. Still, I am a cussed, ornery soul on occasion, and I certainly did feel a sense of accomplishment at bashing my head against the maze over and over until I battered my way through – a sense of accomplishment significantly tempered by realizing, after I solved one more puzzle through the expedient of source-diving, that my reward was just a message congratulating me on getting past the first chunk of the jungle, and that there will be more to come once the author gets around to it.

It’s not impossible that part two of Jungle Adventure could be turn out well – stranger things have happened. But to accomplish that, the author will need to do what the authors of custom parser systems have done since they started making them good: look at what the major systems do, imitate them unless there’s a very good reason to drop or change a feature, and test, test, test. As it is, Jungle Adventure Part One is a testbed for some cool graphics and a diverse set of gameplay systems, but I can only recommend it to those looking to bone up on their python-reading skills, or people with disastrously low blood pressure. As released, it’s a frustrating, unrewarding experience that risks resurrecting my old prejudices, though I’m doing my best to fight them.

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The Hidden King’s Tomb, by Joshua Fratis

There’s a bit in the British sitcom Extras where Sir Ian McKellen, playing a parodic version of himself, goes on an extended monologue laying out his acting method – which in this case means he explains, at length, that he is not actually a wizard, but he pretended to be one, and people wrote lines for him in a script, which he said, while he imagined that he was actually a wizard and acted the way he pictured the wizard might act.

(The bit is funnier when Ian McKellen does it).

I was put in mind of this skit by one of the pieces of introductory text in The Hidden King’s Tomb:

The goal of this game is to escape the dungeon. You’ll do this by exploring, gaining an understanding of the dungeon in order to find and navigate towards the exit, and clearing any obstacles that stand in your way. These obstacles can be thought of as “doors” opened by “keys,” though these “doors” and “keys” are usually disguised as other objects entirely. For example, a key could be a secret password used to gain entry to a thieves” hideout, a rope used to climb a cliff, or a lantern used to light a dark room. These are puzzles.

This is hard to gainsay, but also seems to be belaboring the obvious. That maybe holds true for the game as a whole, which is about as straightforward a piece of extruded text-adventure product as you’re likely to see. There are some hints of more distinctive writing, as well as some implementation issues albeit nothing you wouldn’t expect to see in something from a first-time author, so I’d definitely play another game by him. But as for this one, it left me asking myself “well yeah, this is how this kind of game works. Is that it?”

Partially this is due to the game’s tomb-raiding premise, which goes back at least as far as Infidel (though the instant piece lacks that game’s ironic bite; the graverobbing is played straight). While that’s a trusty old setup, it’s not going to set the world on fire – it all comes down to the quality of the traps, the cleverness of the puzzles, and the splendor of the treasures to bring the setup to life. But what’s here checks the minimum of each box. There are three tombs to loot, but they’re all completely unguarded; there’s a little flooding mechanism and a secret passage that provides a bit of a gimmick, but it’s very straightforward and that’s the only actual puzzle; and as for treasures, well, here’s an excerpt from my transcript:

>i

You are carrying:

fourteen lit candles (providing light)
three treasures
The Book of the Dead
The Hidden King’s sword
some wrappings
some bones

>x treasure

You see nothing special about the treasure.

Ooof.

Beyond the bland writing and design, the coding, while competent, could use some polish. The treasures aren’t the only thing lacking a description, and there’s lots of unimplemented scenery in most rooms in this small map. Sometimes default reporting rules aren’t suppressed when there’s a custom one that should take priority, and the corpses of the royal family – at least one of which you need to loot in order to complete the game – are implemented as containers, leading to awkwardness like this:

> open coffin

(first removing the lit candle)

Taken.

Resting in the coffin is a rag-wrapped skeleton.

You open The Hidden King’s Coffin, revealing The Hidden King (wrapped).

> search skeleton

You can’t see inside, since The Hidden King is closed.

> open king

You pull the wrappings from The Hidden King, revealing The Hidden King’s sword and The Book of the Dead.

Again, this is all quite forgivable for a first game, and there were some descriptions I quite liked – beyond the Hidden King, the tomb is also the final repose of the Furtive Child and the Secret Queen, and something about those proper-noun titles carries an evocative hint of mystery, for one thing. I’m guessing the author learned a lot from making it, and entering it into the Comp, so I wouldn’t be surprised if their second game is worth checking out; sadly, Tomb of the Hidden King isn’t.

hidden king mr.txt (28.0 KB)

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Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard

There have been a lot of cities in this year’s Comp, I’ve noticed – the arboreal paradise of Elvish for Goodbye, the gentrifying Toronto of Grown-Up Detective Agency, the dying arcology of Archivist and the Revolution, the city-of-Damocles of Hanging by Threads – but I reckon Conduin, the desert metropolis that’s both setting and star of Prism, is the one to beat. The game’s got characters and a plot and significant choices, all which work perfectly well, but it’s this fantastical city at the center of the work, with the story continually circling around the questions of what it is, where it came from, and what it could be.

So what’s the deal with Conduin? While it’s blooming in the middle of the wasteland, with canals sluicing life-giving water in the midst of the sands, it’s no paradise: the city is a stratified place, with the poor chased out even of empty apartments, and growing your own food is a crime because self-sufficiency would insulate you from the lightning-based economy that structures society. Crystal-structured buildings are drawn up from the depths of the dunes by geologicians, the domes of the academy glow on the horizon with the promise of a better life, and couriers cling to a marginal existence, ferrying precious cargo and messages across the rooftops, dodging corrupt constables and cultist-gangsters alike.

This is a hell of a setting, and that’s just what’s established in the opening, before any of its secrets begin to be peeled back. The protagonist, of course, is one of those couriers, with the game starting as they’re hired onto a job that could change everything for them (most people in the city go by “they”; gender is seen as a foreign affectation only a few opt into, choosing pronouns regardless of their body’s biology). What starts as a simple delivery from one scholar to another will see you decide to take a stand against the injustices in Conduin, discover the mysteries behind its rise from arid destitution – or just keep your head down and get paid.

The setup really is masterful, and in some ways I feel like it’s wasted on IF – for all that the author does a good job limning the city and it’s precincts, really this calls out for the AAA treatment. I can easily see Prism as a hybrid of Mirror’s Edge and Dishonored (there’s even some whalepunk elements to this one…), unspooling the same plot over a series of action-packed missions that send you sprinting over, above, and through the city, getting into kinetic fights with the constables, and unlocking supernatural powers if you decide to join the Streetborn cult.

That’s not to say it doesn’t work well in its current form, though. Exploring the city is still very engaging, and unlike many Ink games I’ve played, it’s quite interactive; you can choose to focus on your mission, seek out your childhood friend who has joined the aforementioned group of cultists, or get drawn into a street brawl with a silver-armored superhero. Sure, many of these involve action or sneaking scenes of one description or other – thus the wish for the more conventionally video game version – but the prose is tight and exciting when it needs to be.

While all the pieces are in place for a memorable experience, I think the structure slightly lets Prism down. The game’s overall a sort of dumbbell-shape: there’s the aforementioned delivery mission and related side-activities, and after that wraps up you can either decide to take your earnings and get on with your life, or dig deeper into the secrets that you’ve started to catch glimpses of. If you opt for the latter choice, there’s a time jump, a whole bunch of new characters are introduced, and then you’re conveyed into another action-packed sequence that wraps up the game as a whole. The plot holds together, but it feels unbalanced – after finishing the delivery I spent a long time thinking that I was experiencing an extended, kind of anticlimactic denouement before realizing the narrative hadn’t actually wrapped up. The two pieces didn’t mesh together smoothly in my playthrough, either: I got hints at what Conduin’s engine of prosperity actually was in the course of the delivery, but in the remainder of the game, the protagonist seemed ignorant of those hints even in moments where it seemed like they really should have. Whether these were bugs or narrative oversights, they reinforced the feeling that Prism is two separate experiences stapled together in the middle.

Still, I enjoyed both experiences. Sure, the narrative is a little lumpy, and the fact that I’m gushing about the worldbuilding over all else I think is an indication that the plot and characters are, when you strip away the rococo detail-work, fairly straight-ahead. But it’s not like I needed more of an excuse to play tourist in Conduin, which might wind up being counted as one of the great IF cities.

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Whalepunk = " An entire world based on the hunting of seamonsters" according to Google. The more I read your reviews, the further I plumb the depths of my ignorance…

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Oh, that’s fun backstory to hear! Yeah, the language really conjures up that era and vibe. Would definitely play another game like this if you’re able to dig up the source stories!

In fairness, I’ve only seen the word used in two contexts:

  1. the developers of Dishonored describing their world;

  2. post 104 of this thread.

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