Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

The Archivist and the Revolution, by Autumn Chen

Autumn Chen has had the kind of year that makes one reevaluate one’s standards for productivity. Her impressively-detailed debut in the Comp, last year’s A Paradox Between Worlds, came tenth in a crowded field; New Year’s Eve, 2019, her Spring Thing entry, won nods for Best Writing and Best Characters (and unless I miss my guess, didn’t miss out on a Best In Show ribbon by very much); and just a month or two back, she worked with Emily Short to recover and reimplement Bee, one of Short’s “lost” games.

Coming now to the Archivist and the Revolution, I think it’s that last effort that’s most relevant. Don’t get me wrong, there’s quite a lot of continuity with the two previous games: we’ve got a ChoiceScript-aping game (actually implemented in Dendry this time) with a slightly overwhelming amount of well-written content; we’ve got a cast where just about everybody sympathetic is a (trans or cis) lesbian; we’ve got a plethora of endings. But the narrative structure is largely procedural with randomly-available and discrete storylet-like passages playing a significant role in what the player understands the plot to be, and the interface foregrounds a resource-management frame where narrative actions produce mechanical rewards that in turn feed into new narrative consequences – it’s all very reminiscent of late-period Short (has anyone done the definitive charting of the arc of her career? I mean the Emily Short who’s interested in procedural text and works for Failbetter).

Think I’m reaching? Check the name of the main character then get back to me.

This isn’t a critique, I should make clear – far from it! Chen’s take on this structure feels assured and very much her own, with a dystopic, genderpunk setting quite far from anything I’ve seen in Emily Short’s work, and her trademark emotional palette of anxious grays and exhausted blues, illuminated by the occasional miraculous, vital yellow, is very much in effect. The mood is sketched with an evocative, efficient opening:

The light outside the window was bright and artificial, emanating from a poor simulacrum of the sun hanging on the metal ceiling above. Rows of green and violet macroalgal trees emulated an ancient streetscape, the scene completed by the humans walking by. It was the equivalent of midday in the city without a sun.

(I’d forgotten that there’s literally no sun. Metaphors!)

In this downbeat arcology, the protagonist, Em, works as a freelance archivist, working to recover information have encoded in the genetic material of ambient bacteria – this world has suffered from cycle after cycle of horrific war and violence that appears to have destroyed most traditional forms of information storage, so previous generations of scientists have cannily developed this technique to leverage the hardiness of unicellular life and send messages-in-a-biological-bottle to a future age. That idea, on its own, would be beautiful – except that the shores were these bottles have fetched up are dark ones indeed. After the latest convulsion of violence, the city (and maybe the world as a whole?) has been taken over by a reactionary, oppressive party that brutally enforces traditional gender roles – they’ve recently put down an abortive uprising that Em, a trans woman, took some vague part in – and doesn’t seem able to provide even reasonably economically-productive residents with a decent social minimum.

What this means is that you’ve got rent to pay, and to earn money you need to use your skills to decrypt your pick of two or three of a randomly-selected set of snippets of genetic information, and then send the resulting information to the archive (you do this by clicking, there are no cryptography puzzles or anything). Sometimes the information is garbled or no longer meaningful; sometimes it contains important scientific information; sometimes it contains the personal musings of the recently-suppressed revolutionaries; and sometimes it hearkens back to the very dawn of history, and the events that put the city on track to become the hell that it is. And then you pay for food and hormone treatments, hope you’ve netted enough on the day to be on track to make rent, and do it again the next day, with a new set of randomly-selected snippets waiting on your work account.

The game isn’t limited to just this loop, though. You get opportunities to decompress or interact with others in between, or even instead of, shifts of decryption. Some of these are minor-key – like trawling the CityNet for news stories (Em, in a display of obvious self-hatred, always reads the comments), or tooling around in a samizdat MMO. Others, though, unfurl into major character arcs, largely centering on two of Em’s former partners – one who’s also trans, but “de-transitioned” to hide from the authorities, and the other who’s raising her and Em’s son – and just from those short descriptions you can tell there’s a lot to dig into. Oh, and there’s also a mutual aid society made up of folks who share her revolutionary past and want to recruit her.

If this sounds overstuffed, that’s because it’s overstuffed. It’s here that the more procedural, storylet-based design proves successful. There’s no way you could see a fraction of the content on offer in just one playthrough, and you’re somewhat at the mercy of the RNG because what snippets are presented to you will have a significant impact on how much you can guide the story. And while it’s clear that you can focus more on one partner or the other (or neither) depending on your choices – simple enough – there are also ongoing plot threads woven into the DNA decryption. Some of this is game-mechanical, since at the beginning you lack the technical skills necessary to analyze certain cryptographic algorithms, but you can pick up the needed techniques if you find certain snippets that provide a how-to guide. But it’s also narrative, too – there are prefixes to the snippets that I think mark each as belonging to a particular genre, from deep history to the suppressed diaries of revolutionaries to literally Wikipedia. You can lean more towards one set rather than another, but ultimately, you’ll have a very hard time exhausting even one while spinning all the other plates you’ve got to keep an eye on.

This could be a recipe for incoherence, but I found the engine was tuned to create a satisfying story regardless of what was surely the suboptimal course I charted. I began by largely ignoring my job to meet all the different characters I could, then realized I was going to be short on my bills and overcorrected into work mode, then stumbled across a sequence of snippets that put into question many of the things I’d assumed to be bedrock truths of the city, then went broke nonetheless. At the end, my version of Em achieved an unexpected sort of apotheosis, riding a series of twists I saw coming just before they hit, and leavening the grimness of the story in a way I didn’t think would be possible. It felt lovely and inevitable, but it was only one of nine endings! I doubt they’re all as satisfying, but even so, the way I was able to retroactively construct a clear, clean narrative arc out of so many randomly-generated pieces, quite sure that I missed more words than I saw, was little short of magical.

Do I have complaints? By now I feel like y’all know me, I always have complaints. First, for all that the setting is established as violently repressive, in the game itself didn’t feel much sense of immediate threat, even when choosing somewhat-risky options, and the very real threat posed by Em’s rising rent comes off impersonal and inevitable, rather than terrifying – hell, even the online trolls seem significantly less vicious than the kind you see in real life. Beyond that, there’s a closing revelation that doesn’t quite play fair with Em’s backstory. And in a world where my morning paper included Russian missiles raining on Ukrainian civilians, Los Angeles City Councilors taped being absurdly racist while dividing up the city’s districts, and Iranian geronto-theocrats murdering dozens of women and children to prop up their illegitimate regime, the idea that the world’s conflicts would reduce down to the single point of gender identity seems a bit hard to credit – I’m certainly not complaining about the game foregrounding what it’s about and reading the rhetoric of various contemporary right-wing ideologues you’d be forgiven for thinking transgender rights is the only contested ground in our society. But still, there might have been opportunities to explore some intersectionalities around race, since Em is depicted as Asian and I don’t think it’s implied that everybody else is, too (in fairness, some of these dynamics might be explored in DNA-storylets that I didn’t find).

Finally, I ran into some bugs. Several were found in the resource-management side of the game, though since, as I previously noted, that’s not where the action is they were fairly low-impact: A few times, I decoded DNA but failed to get a message the next day telling whether I’d classified it correctly and giving me my payment; on one occasion, I’d decoded and archived two sequences but only had one acknowledged, while the other time I’d similarly archived two but saw only blank lines when I clicked the link to check for messages the next day. And the finale sequence opened with a two-paragraph warning that I was behind on my rent and would be evicted if I went another week in arrears, followed immediately by another paragraph telling me actually I was being evicted now.

There were also what seemed like a few narrative glitches, in particular two sequences that seemed to assume information that I don’t think was established on-screen in my playthrough (Em references a leaflet leading her to the mutual aid society, but I never found such a thing, and in one scene where K- has a breakdown, as it’s wrapping up she glancingly mentions getting a new job, which Em rolls with without comment despite not having previously known that K- got fired). And I found one dialogue option in the first meeting with the mutual aid society misleading: one of them said something about how I probably wasn’t a government infiltrator, to which I responded “no”, thinking that would be interpreted as agreement – but the game took that to mean refusing their recruitment pitch.

None of these did much to dent my enjoyment of the game – I’m flagging them in the hope they can be ironed out for a post-Comp release, since The Archivist and the Revolution is richly deserving of a second visit after the present frenzy of games wraps up. I’m curious to see how the narrative engine holds up to repeat play, and what happens if I try to focus my energies on a single plot thread rather than playing the field as I did this time out. But even if you just go through the story once, this is a clear highlight of the Comp.


A short sequence (I can’t be sure that it even popped up in your playthrough) that put this into a whole new light for me was that in the minds of the reactionaries, and then filtered down through propaganda to the general populace, transgender was conflated with transhuman, as in artificially/technologically altered/enhanced humans. (Even now we’re beginning to see some of this, in sensory replacements/transplants mostly.)

Once these two categories were squeezed under the same umbrella, fear and hatred against those traitors who denied and looked down upon their own humanity (in the perception of their opponents) could extend to transgender people more easily.

Regrettably standard human psychology of overgeneralizing when scared/angry. (Not that I think hatred against transhumans would be more justified…)


Ah, thanks for flagging that – I came across a few glancing mentions to transhumanism but they were pretty gnomic. In my playthrough I wound up doing much more meatspace stuff than research, and focused my decryption on either the five-years-gone revolution or really far fast stuff, so I suspect I missed out on this. That’s an intriguing and, as you say, depressingly plausible idea so definitely one to dig into on replays.


Thank you so much for the review! Some random comments:

  • On the protagonist’s name: she is not named after Emily Short (though of course Emily Short was a huge inspiration on my writing), but rather K-, Em, and A- are named after Karen Zhao, Emily Chen, and Aubrey Gao from Pageant/NYE2019. In fact, in a lot of ways this story is a spiritual sequel to NYE2019 - compare K-'s life here to Karen’s goals/future plans in NYE2019 (similarly for Em/Emily Chen and A-/Aubrey Gao). Now, I don’t think Emily Chen was named after Emily Short, but maybe…
  • This game actually shares most of its structure with Pageant, my game from earlier, which was in turn inspired by Bee.
  • Thank you for noting the bugs! I have already fixed some of them and might push an update (however, it was expected behavior that documents can take more than one day to get paid after filing them). There will be a post-comp release with more content, too.
  • I’m guessing you got Ending 1? I would love to do some surveys or analytics on which endings people get… Random testers don’t exactly play like humans.
  • With regards to the focus on gender vs other social issues: there are some things on that topic I want to get into eventually, including why the revolution failed and how the posthuman wars interacted with the global south…

Chasing the Sun, by Frankie Kavakich

I was reading Andrew Schultz’s thread on games set in all 50 states the other day, and feeling surprised everybody was blanking on contenders in the great state of Pennsylvania – it’s big, with a couple major cities, a good amount of history, what’s not to like? Well, I must have been tuning into something, since after The Counsel of the Caves, we’ve now hit our second Pennsylvania-set game of the Comp. The protagonist of Chasing the Sun isn’t a native, admittedly: she’s from Vermont but fleeing a bad marriage and a mysterious slow-motion apocalypse (wait – is that you, Nitocris?!) With the sun stopped low in the sky and an unnatural, deadly storm creeping west across the Atlantic, she starts to run out of gas as she hits a forested part of the state, which is where the game opens.

So far what I’ve described would fit a horror game – at first the premise reminded me strongly of 2020’s Alone, for example – but the mood in Chasing the Sun is far more contemplative, and the language is lush and literary. Here’s one of the opening paragraphs:

The sunless Pennsylvania Wilds zips past your car windows — trees upon trees upon trees. Green as envy and swollen with humidity. You are surrounded and far, far away from home. The road ahead is quiet. The air is breathable. The cabin of your truck is dry and covered in trash and bridal lace. You’re alone and you’re not dead yet.

The sentence lengths could use more variation – ditto with the choice of verbs – but still, this is a well-written bit of prose, setting a high bar for quality that’s sustained through the twenty minute runtime, albeit with the occasional hiccup (there’s a mention of the onrushing storm “dragging its clouds towards the id-soaked sunset”).

Similarly, the gameplay doesn’t have you making tense, high-stakes decisions as you squabble for supplies with other desperate survivors. For the most part, the drag-and-drop Texture interface gives you two options in each passage, one which allows you to move some kind of examining or exploration action onto a couple of different nouns to go deeper, and one that moves the game linearly forward. Later on, you fetch up at a farmhouse where gas and other necessities are freely available, and you get into an intense conversation with a woman you seem to share some kind of spark with, which does involve more discrete choices, but these are heavily telegraphed, giving the player free reign to define how they want the tete-a-tete to play out.

There is one odd exception, though, which is that if you spend too much time in the opening futzing around twirling the dial on your radio in search of active stations, you’ll get in a game-ending car crash. I think this is an ill-advised design decision, since it punishes exploration in a way that’s ultimately to the game’s detriment (though I have to say, I find the Texture interface finicky since I use a touchpad – the drag-and-drop feels inaccurate and sometimes releasing the click doesn’t seem to register – I of course don’t hold that against the game, but maybe contributed to my disinclination to mess about after that death).

It’s after you reach the farmhouse that Chasing the Sun shows its hand: the conversation with Bird, the woman you find there, is the center of the piece, as you quickly jump past the wary formalities of meeting someone new and leap into unburdening each other of your respective secrets. This works… okay. I can see what the author is going for – Bird has a specific orientation towards the apocalypse that you can choose to agree or disagree with, and which gets at some heavy (though hardly novel or underexplored) themes – and the dialogue feels largely naturalistic.

Still, it feels very rushed, and while the story tries to paper over the way these two strangers immediately reveal their deepest selves to each other by invoking some kind of ineffable, sudden bond (the protagonist, a woman, seems like she might be gay and either closeted or prevented from living her true sexuality by a repressive family), it still takes an act of will to suspend one’s disbelief. Similarly, the details of the storm’s movement and the end of the earth’s rotation don’t hold together if you start questioning them. Taking it on its own terms, though, I found Chasing the Sun rather lovely, and would love to see the author tackle a somewhat longer piece that gives its characters and themes a little more room to breathe.


Graveyard Strolls, by Adina Brodkin

Graveyard Strolls is a game of halves. All games are games of halves, the pedantic part of me wants to point out –and I just did, spoiler alert, “the pedantic part of me” is just me – but in this case, it really does feel like there are two distinct pieces to Graveyard Strolls, which is another Texture game, oddly coming right after Chasing the Sun in my queue. The first half is a relatively lighthearted, mostly linear help-ghosts-resolve-their-issues-and-move-on kind of setup, while the second, entirely linear, piece swerves into the intensely personal, with the threat of the supernatural functioning as a veil-thin metaphor for trauma. There’s things to like about both of them, but I’m not convinced that they sit together too easily, and the skeletal nature of the game’s choice elements don’t make much of a case for interactivity.

Taking the first piece first, the game opens with you having decided to go to a graveyard to see whether it might be haunted, on the advice of one of your favorite YouTubers. So far so Scooby Doo, but after you hear a spooky groan on the wind, you quickly encounter the first of a series of ghosts, all of whom seem more or less in denial or confusion about their deaths, and all of whom look to you for guidance. Other than their tendency to float and annoying bouts of amnesia, these spooks are understandably human, with relatable challenges. Hank, the first one you meet, is working through some issues with his wife; the second one fell in with a bad crowd and hasn’t quite internalized his mistakes. As for the third, on reflection I suppose he’s not technically “understandably human,” but I found him quite relatable all the same (he’s a dog).

Persuading them into the great beyond is a straightforward affair. In just about every passage, you’re given a choice of two options, one of which typically involves engaging with the ghost, being sympathetic to them, or putting pieces together, while the other usually ignores them, is dismissive of their feelings, or otherwise seems clearly marked as a bad choice. This doesn’t make for very compelling gameplay, unfortunately, all the more so because it doesn’t take much to get a game over. In the first real choice, for example, I decided to believe that the spooky noise was just the wind – which led to me getting freaked out, leaving the cemetery, and being brutally attacked in a way that makes sense in retrospect now that I’ve won the game, but initially just seemed like out-of-context, incongruously brutal violence.

This means that I quickly stopped experimenting and just defaulted to the choice the game seemed to be pushing me towards, which, as you can imagine, wasn’t especially engaging, since felt like I was being presented with false choice after false choice. I liked exploring the backstories of the first two ghosts, and interacting with the third, though, and was ready to finish my time with Graveyard Strolls chalking it up as a fairly enjoyable but very low-key spooky story. But then I got to the final sequence, and everything changed.

I don’t want to spoil the plot points here, since this surprise is much of what makes the game interesting (though nor are the specifics especially relevant to my evaluation of the game, so I’m not going to blurry-text them – the game’s short, just play it if you’re curious). It’s a fairly visceral twist that involves the protagonist’s backstory, injecting an element of psychological horror into proceedings. But it doesn’t seem to build in a meaningful way on anything that’s come before, and the protagonist’s lack of subjectivity or interiority in the first part of the game – you mostly seem like a player-insert who’s just there to listed to ghosts, not a specific character with their own experience of the world – makes the sudden shift feel jarring.

The final sequence is well written, or at least I found it fairly gripping, but to me it felt too disconnected both narratively and thematically from the rest of the game, as if the aforementioned Scooby Doo episode had ten minutes of The Haunting of Hill House spliced onto the end. There’s maybe a way to make that work, but it would probably require more connective tissue than Graveyard Strolls offers – as well as leveraging interactivity to engage the player more fully than the current, rather desultory, approach does. As with Chasing the Sun, I’d gladly play something else by the author, but once again feel like a little more expansion and refinement would make for a more compelling experience.


I love reading all of your reviews- but wanted to especially highlight my appreciation for your thoroughness here in mentioning the accident. On first glance on mobile if I hit play, (Texture seemed better suited to a touchscreen) there’s no content warning alluding to it. You very well saved me the trouble of a triggered PTSD flashback in letting me know to steer clear of the game by bringing this to my attention- especially since it had been one I had on my radar to play. Thanks, Mike.


Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey, by Andrew Schultz

There’s a lot that’s distinctive about the way Andrew Schultz makes games, but one thing that sets him out from other authors is the way he makes families or clusters of games rather than one-offs. He’s recently created a series of chess games, for example (in fact there’s another one coming up at the very end of my queue for the Comp), and his Spring Thing entry this year was a shorter iteration of an anagram-themed mechanic he’d explored twice before. You could think of this approach as being like a AAA game maker who releases DLC extending the base game with small tweaks to the basic concept, but for whatever reason, the metaphor my brain goes to is a musical one, like a band developing a particular sound to make an album, then putting out a short EP or sticking with it for another full release, before reinventing themselves and moving on.

Sticking with that metaphor, Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey is like a rarities and B-sides collection that closes out (at least for now) Schultz’s sequence of rhyming games, which started with 2020’s Very Vile Fairy File. Once again, the fundamental interaction involves reading the name of a room or object, then coming up with an appropriate rhyming couplet to move the plot forward. Confronted with a Mad Monk blocking your progress, for example, you might write DAD DUNK – which fits the rhyme scheme, but doesn’t solve the puzzle:

Alas, no middle-aged man soars into the air, basketball in hand, to posterize the mad monk.

Characteristically for Schultz, this basic dynamic is supported with a range of introductory material, helper gadgets, and shortcut verbs that do a lot to support the player without undercutting the often-challenging nature of the puzzles. The thoughtful design means, for example, that when you come up with near-miss rhymes like DAD DUNK, you’re rewarded with a little gag acknowledging that you came close (some of which are quite funny, especially when the game is gently chiding you for following the rhyme scheme into a juvenile or scatological place – call me immature, but POTTY PAIL made me giggle), as well as charging up an item that lets you skip puzzles that aren’t clicking for you. There’s also a fully implemented hints system, as well as a SOUNDS command that lists common English phonemes in case you want to trial-and-error your way through a particularly sticky wicket.

I found the game quite addictive to play; at any given time, you have a couple of locations open to you, and it’s fun to wander around worrying away at different puzzles and checking out the dynamic, loopily-surreal landscape, always knowing you have a safety net if the going gets too tough. What makes it more Odds & Sods than Live at Leeds, though, is that I didn’t feel like there was an especially strong throughline connecting the different pieces. In my memory at least, Very Vile Fairy File had a reasonably-consistent fairy tale vibe, and a plot that, while serving primarily as a justification for the puzzles, seemed to present a coherent antagonist and set of goals to accomplish. Here, I didn’t feel like the frame story doesn’t establish the Burning Bright Spurning Sprite as especially threatening, and the different locations and happenings felt essentially random – again, quite enjoyable in themselves, but very much a grab bag.

I also get the feeling that the game hasn’t (yet) gotten the full studio treatment. While the game’s overall stable and I didn’t run into too many full-fledged bugs, there is a slight lack of polish that hopefully can be cleaned up. There are some rhymes that seem obvious but aren’t implemented – I know being completely exhaustive would be very, very challenging to design, but I was disappointed all the same that, when I was told I had to create a “spark of nature” in the Sore Souls’ Gore Goals, HOAR HOLES didn’t create frosty receptacles (more forgivably, WHORE WHOLES similarly languished unimplemented). More annoyingly, the SOUNDS command seems to have some omissions (it includes a redundant X sound, despite a disclaimer saying that it isn’t listed, while there’s no Y – seems like a typo. And SH isn’t there at all, despite that sound being the solution to a couple of puzzles), and there are some solutions that lean so far into colloquialism that they feel like bugs (slight spoiler, but you’re probably going to need a spoiler to solve this puzzle: if you think “flain” is an acceptable way to create the past participle of “flayed”, I’m pretty sure you were born before the 19th Century).

Schultz has a track record of making many in-Comp and post-Comp improvements, though, so I’m sure these will be addressed in time, which is why I’ve taken the liberty of flagging them (along with several others in the attached transcript). And the bottom line is that this is a lot of fun as a well-designed puzzle collection – gloriously, instead of relying on deep pondering of abstract mechanics, progress here often requires you to chant rhyming nonsense words one after another until you either hit upon the solution or burst out laughing. You can levy aesthetic complaints at a grab-bag of novelty singles, I suppose, but you can’t say they’re not a good time – and it’s just the same here.

low key mr.txt (175.2 KB)


Ha, I had a feeling I might have been reaching on that, but once I noticed the synchronicity I couldn’t not hope it was intentional!

Yup, I did – once I started getting x-prefix DNA I was pretty excited to dig into them!

Without knowing details, I have to say those seem like potentially rich areas to explore. Dunno if you’re thinking of an expanded post-Comp release or this’d be in a follow-on work, but either way I’m looking forward to seeing what you come up with.

Oh geez, thanks for the kind words, and glad the review worked as a bit of service journalism. Yeah, I don’t see a specific warning about a car crash, unfortunately. If you do find the game’s concept interesting, though, it is very easy to avoid that sequence without missing anything that important to the plot – if you interact with the radio, just take the TURN OFF RADIO option rather than FIND ANOTHER STATION when you get to that choice.


Thank you for the review! Lots of things to take into account here and I understand all of your critiques completely. There’s things you mentioned that I would’ve changed as well but didn’t have the time to, or things I wanted to flesh out more (which is my goal for the next iteration of this game, which won’t have horror in it and certainly won’t be on as strict of a deadline as I was here :sweat_smile:).

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HOURS, by aidanvoidout

Before you embark on a journey of revenge, says the proverb, dig two graves. It’s an admirably pithy way of foregrounding the corrosive effects of giving yourself over to the single-minded pursuit of vengeance, even if it does raise some practical questions (if you dig them before you leave on a journey, does that mean some poor schmuck of an undertaker has to haul two rapidly-moldering bodies all the way back to the graves? Seems inefficient!)

Sadly, I can’t tell you whether HOURS grapples with the psychological and logistical complexities raised by the adage, because bugs meant I failed in my quest to assassinate the Shogun of the game’s techno-magic empire; his legions of soldiers stymied me just for a moment, but “I need usable code to the right of =.” ended my journey right quick. I can relate that I did not excavate any tombs at the outset, and in fact launched into this quixotic adventure without much in the way of forethought at all. The protagonist is a soldier in the Shogun’s army (initially nameless, though later it’s revealed he’s called Jack so he probably should have stuck with him man-with-no-name schtick. At least he makes out better than the poor Shogun, whose parents called him Charlie) – sorry, lost the plot there for a moment, a soldier who’s told by a ghost that he’s gonna die, so he might as well assassinate his own leader.

Lest you think I’m bottom-lining this in too conclusory a fashion, here’s the passage in question:

According to an apparition you saw on the battlefield, you had less than a day to live.

“How?” you asked. After all, you didn’t feel any different from usual.

“It may not look like it, but it’s your injuries. You’ll die soon.”


(Jack is a master of JRPG-protagonist ellipses).

“You will die by dawn tomorrow.”

You pull an arrow from your arm and tear a piece of cloth off a corpse to use as a bandage.


“Nothing to say?”


(See? I told you!)

“Well, since you’ll die anyway… I have a little favour to ask of you in the last hours of your life. Could you help to assassinate the Shogun of your nation? I’ll keep you alive with magic until dawn, but that’s the most I can do.”

Jack is quickly teleported to the capital city, leaving him with only five hours to spare, so he immediately – rents a room in an inn (hopefully an option to invest in his 401(k) will be added to a post-Comp release). While you have the option to mope around until dawn kills you, you can also just march down to the Shogun’s castle and launch a frontal assault on his personal bodyguard of hardened mercenaries, which isn’t suicidal because Jack just remembered he has a magic sword that can kill people if you stab where they used to be – this makes for a badass fight scene though also makes me wonder why he doesn’t just head to the hospital where the Shogun was born and skip some steps. Anyway after interrogating the lone survivor about some heretofore-unmentioned magical soldiers, Jack heads to a slave auction where poor captives who seem to have X-Men style superpowers are tortured and sold to the highest bidder (I’m not sure what level of Econ Shogun Charlie got to in college, but his failure to establish a monopsony here feels like a major oversight). And then the aforementioned bug brought proceedings to a halt.

I’ve been making fun, but honestly, I was disappointed not to see where things ended. HOURS has the demented, incomprehensible energy of the kind of anime I occasionally was able to watch when I was a kid in the early 90s, where someone at school’s uncle’s cousin stayed up until midnight to tape a poorly-dubbed episode from two thirds of the way through the run of some show you’d never even heard of before and never would again, except the station wasn’t paying attention to the timings so it cut off right before the end so they could run a Thighmaster infomercial. I can’t say that it’s good, but I was carried along by its silly enthusiasm for a while, even as I was MST3king it in my head – and getting any kind of emotional response out of the audience is something a first-time author can be proud of. HOURS isn’t an especially auspicious starting point, no more so than a two-grave cemetery, but here’s hoping the author’s journey into IF creation comes to a better end than Jack’s quest did.


The Last Christmas Present, by JG Heithcock

IF, it hardly needs repeating, is not real life. That’s probably for the best – blasé as I’ve gotten about managing spaceship crises after being woken prematurely from cryosleep, in actual reality I would not handle that well, and let’s not even bring up Great Cthulhu and his goons. Sadly, in the Last Christmas Present, the arrow flips the other way: this is a parser-IF rendition of a magic-themed scavenger hunt the author created for his daughter, which seems like it was completely awesome in real life, but unfortunately makes for a lackluster time when rendered into a video game. Partially this is due to the lack of feelies – the hunt’s centerpiece is an elaborately-described map that doesn’t work quite as well in prose form – and partially due to some implementation issues that make what should be fairly simple puzzles much too hard.

Here’s the inevitable part of the review where I need to pause to clarify that the theme isn’t just “magic”, it’s “Harry Potter” – the map is a riff on the Marauder’s Map from the books/movies, what you’re looking for are papercrafted snitches, like from quidditch, and there are a few optional clues that rely on deep knowledge of Potter lore, though I suspect 99% of players will do better just searching at random rather than attempting to decode their obscure references. Per the ABOUT text, the scavenger hunt was conducted in 2013, back in the halcyon days when there was no reason to associate teenaged wizards with hardcore transphobia – which is unfortunately no longer the case in this fallen age of 2022. While the game very much seems to be offered in innocent fun, I can definitely understand some potential players not being able to look past the Rowling connection, though speaking personally, the fact that the puzzle was created nearly a decade ago and that this is a free fan game meant I felt okay about continuing.

Back to the game: you play a tweenager who’s opening one last Christmas present from her parents, which turns out to be a map of your house. The thing’s lovingly rendered with all sorts of different folds, flaps, stars, and riddles, on top of the depictions of the rooms and yard which are all made up of words (in a neat touch, once you unfold the map to a particular region of the house, the description of exits will update to use the new magic-y room names). It sounds really, really cool, and as a physical artifact to pore over, I imagine it was a wonderful centerpiece for the puzzle. But in prose – well, here’s the fourth of five folds:

The lines of the fourth page show the Great Room and the Kitchen (marked House Elves Only on the map). Where the Christmas tree would be, there is a large label with the words “The Great Room”.

Underneath that label, to the south, is what looks like a paramecium made from the words “Kitchen Island” repeated over and over. It is labeled “House Elves Only”.

On the left, to the west is the doors to the front garden, labeled “Porticus Imago”.

On the right, to the east, are the steps leading down to what would be the Guest Hallway with the steps up to the Balcony beneath.

In the bottom right corner of the Kitchen area is a curved room labeled “The Cauldron Cupboard” that looks like it would be the larder. At the bottom is a round circle labeled “Flue Network” where the Pizza Oven would be.

In the bottom left corner is a label “Way to the Forbidden Forest”.

There is a star in the top left corner of the map, in what would be the south-west.

This is a whole whole lot to parse, even before you get to the fact that not all the locations or paths mentioned on the map are accessible to you – and it doesn’t help that the geography of the house is a little confusing, meaning I desperately wished there was a downloadable or ascii-art map that would be much less pretty but at least make it easier to navigate the space – or at least that the loving descriptions had been truncated with an eye towards playability.

Because this is a scavenger hunt that was conducted in real life, there aren’t many traditional object-manipulation puzzles – most of what you need to do is just search in the right place for the four MacGuffins. In theory, this should be easy, since there isn’t that much scenery implemented – and in fact it’s easy to blunder your way into at least half of them through simple trial and error.

I found the others rather challenging, though, largely because of oddness in the game’s implementation. Using the map is harder than it needs to be, for one thing – on the last fold are two flaps, a top flap and a bottom flap, which the game clearly flags are hiding something. But the simple action of unfolding them is way harder than it needs to be:

>unfold map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>open top flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>unfold flap

You can’t see any such thing.

>open map

You are at the last page. There are two flaps on the last page, closed.

>x flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>x top flap

That noun did not make sense in this context.

>open flaps

You pull apart the top and bottom flaps.

(Adding insult to injury, the main reward for opening the flaps is the set of deeply-abstruse clues I mentioned above, which didn’t provide much help).

Beyond thinly-implemented synonyms, the other major stumble I hit was changing scenery in one particular room – I’d realized that it had to be hiding a snitch, but searching everything mentioned in the room description got me nowhere. Fortunately, there’s a well-implemented adaptive hint system that pushed me to look at the room, and lo and behold, sometimes when I typed LOOK an entirely different set of scenery items was mentioned, one of which concealed what I was looking for – but without any rhyme or reason for why things were changing, this feels like an unfair puzzle.

I’m not sure whether these hurdles were intentional – if the game did more to make things easy for you, it would probably be over pretty quickly since again, most of what you need to do is just search every noun you see – but at the same time, if a significant part of a game’s running time is made up of annoyances, I’d just prefer to play a shorter game.

All told, this means that the smile that “magical Christmas scavenger hunt” put on my face was mostly gone by the time I got to the end. The bones of something fun are here, with a good idea for a puzzle and a well-realized setting – despite being set in the author’s house, this feels miles away from a my-dumb-apartment game. But while there are a number of testers listed, I don’t think The Last Christmas Present got quite the shakedown cruise it needed to work seamlessly when offered to more players than its initial audience of one (let me note here that the IntFiction beta test forums are a great, friendly place to recruit some experienced players to put a game through its paces). The beguiling premise and solid writing here suggest the author’s got some promise, though, so if they write another game that gets more testing – and starts with an idea that’s designed for IF from the ground up – I’d definitely give it a try.

EDIT: Having now read some other reviews, turns out I missed that there are photos of the actual map, including an interactive, clicky version – they’re not mentioned in the game itself, but if you download the zip file and read the readme, you’ll find some links. I think playing with these feelies would have significantly increased my enjoyment, so I wanted to flag them for folks who are playing online or didn’t notice the links, like I did!

present MR.txt (114.6 KB)


Under the Bridge, by Samantha Khan

I always feel a bit like a fraud when I play work of IF and my strongest reaction is to look at the art and go “oooh, pretty” – like I’m getting distracted by superficial fripperies instead of engaging with the words and mechanics that are the bread and butter of the genre. But hopefully that’s a forgivable response to something as lovely as Under the Bridge, a short you-are-the-monster Twine game whose creepily evocative animated drawings instantly communicate, and deepen, the vibe.

That isn’t to say that the premise or writing are bad – far from it! I actually really like the setup, which has an elemental, fairy-tale power to it. You play a man-eating beast who’s been driven from their usual abode by perfidious humans, and find shelter under a bridge. Three times passers-by tromp across the bridge, and three times, you can choose how and whether to reveal yourself, when to speak and when to feast. There aren’t a lot of words wasted communicating this minimalist setup, but those that are there are used to good effect. Here’s the aftermath of my first attack, spare prose detailing the wildlife around the bridge:

Frogs with too large eyes, flies that congregate at the left-over pieces of flesh, birds that caw a little too loudly through the quiet forest.

The gameplay is grabby too. You almost always just have two choices of just two or three words each, but the author does a good job of conveying the stakes for your decisions while providing all the information the monster should have – sometimes you need to act under conditions of ambiguity, but it feels fair because the uncertainty feels baked into the situation, rather than being introduced by the author to make you sweat over your options. And the choices feel like they matter; I only played once, but I get the sense that there are a number of different potential endings (I got an accommodationist one where I made a deal with the villagers only to eat the bad people, because even when play-acting as a cannibalistic abomination I can’t stop being a boring liberal).

But as I said, all this pales next to the art. The first image you see when starting the game is an antlered skull rendered in a black-on-black scrawl, with stark white eyes and a queasily animated halo flickering behind its horns – if I saw that coming at me from under a bridge, you’d better believe I’d run. There are similar images interspersed through the story, all working from the same limited palette and establishing a richly threatening energy that nicely accentuates the text (the flip side of this emphasis on aesthetics is that there are blurred-text animations that fire off between passages – this technique is a near cousin go the hated timed-text mechanic, but thankfully the transitions run sufficiently quickly that they don’t get annoying).

I know EctoComp is coming up soon, at which point we’ll be spoiled for choice when it comes to spooky games, but in the meantime if you want to get in the Halloween spirit a little early, Under the Bridge has you covered – it’s a moody little slice of horror that’s as assured a debut as you’re likely to see from a first-time author.


Esther’s, by Brad and Alleson Buchanan

I worry that, just as with people, it can come off patronizing to call a game “adorable,” so I’ve been staring at the thesaurus for the last five minutes. Esther’s is “cute” and “appealing”, sure, but that undersells how winsome it is. Is it “precious”? Nah, that sounds too cloying. “Captivating” and “enchanting” miss how pleasantly low-key it is, and after that, let’s just say the line of proposed synonyms that start with “dreamy” and proceed from there are a bit too adult for this children’s-book-aping Twine game. Sorry, folks – I guess we’re stuck with “adorable.”

In the best picture-book tradition, the game stars two mice, Janie and Harold, and follow them on their way to their favorite brunch spot, the eponymous Esther’s. Said café is run by a little girl who’s a thoughtful host in every way save one – she doesn’t understand the mice’s squeaky language, so always serves them cheese and crackers, rather than the mimosas and avocado toast they’re craving (Janie and Harold must be millennials). Today’s the day when they decide to really make an effort and get through to Esther – and it’s up to the player to help.

This is a cute premise for sure, and it could come off twee, but I don’t think it goes too far. Partly this is due to the lovely illustrations, which wouldn’t be out of place in a real children’s book – they have a textured, watercolor quality and a neat attention to detail: look closely at the opening image, which shows Janie bringing flowers while Harold carries her library books, and you can see she’s checked out Goodnight Moon. And I won’t spoil the one where Janie tries to mime an avocado, but it got the first out-loud laugh of the Comp out of me.

The prose also hits just the right note, with simple, clear sentences but a sly turn of phrase here and there to make it fun for a grown-up to read, too:

Janie buttered an invisible toast and pretended to nibble at it. Harold stuffed his pretend toast in his mouth. He licked his fingers with pretend satisfaction.

It’s nothing fancy, but the repeated use of “pretend” setting up “pretend satisfaction” is cleverly done.

The interactivity is also nicely gauged – you’ve got a fair number of options to choose from, and while the challenge of getting your order right isn’t a devilish puzzle or anything, the authors have done a good job of communicating just enough information about what each choice might do, while still retaining room to surprise you with how exactly each stab at communication plays out.

Esther’s is admittedly a small thing – my playthrough went quicker than it usually takes me to get through Goodnight Moon with my son, albeit he’s typically doing a lot of wriggling and pointing which pads things out. But it pulls off everything it tries to with aplomb, and I had a smile plastered to my face the whole time I was playing it. There’s no other word for it: from stem to stern, it’s adorable.


At first I wanted to write a harsh review centered around the carbon emission and water wastage that comes with growing and shipping avocados. What kind of children’s book promotes ruining the planet?

But that would have been far too cynical for this, as you say, adorable piece.


The Tin Mug, by Alice E. Well, Sia See, and Jkj Yuio

The randomizer is up to its tricks again, as I got a second choice-based game pitched at kids right after Esther’s. The Tin Mug has a similarly classic children’s-book premise – here, the setting is the big, cozy kitchen in what feels like an English country house, and the main character is a mug who comes to life on its birthday (…it’s probably best not to think about what that implies about drinking-vessel re/production in this world) and gets into a series of high-spirited adventures, alongside various other sentient bits of cookware, while the big people go on with their day (mostly) oblivious. The juxtaposition with Esther’s didn’t do it any favors, since it’s not quite as cleverly designed and cleanly implemented, but the comparison is a bit unfair: the Tin Mug is also a winning little tale in its own right.

Let me get the negatives out of the way first, so I can focus on the positives. The prose is generally clean, but there are a couple of small typos, including in the first paragraph (the main character is called “the tin Mug” a couple of times, which surely can’t be right). The art is inconsistent, sometimes cute (I liked the little spoon and the illustration of the crest the mug gets at the end), but sometimes really awkward looking (I’m thinking especially of the two kids). And the use of interactivity feels clunky – it often feels like there’s a lot of text in between choice points, and your decisions sometimes come off low-impact, frequently only adding a short paragraph or two of narratively-irrelevant incident before returning to the main, linear thread of the story.

Within those constraints, though, there’s also a lot to enjoy. The Tin Mug makes for a dynamic protagonist, as it’s kind but also rambunctious, so there’s always something going on – this also plays well with the choice mechanics, since the Mug’s characterization felt like it gave me permission to pick to more interesting options rather than the more straight-ahead ones. The Mug’s energy is also conveyed well by the prose, which, while it does have the occasional overly-elaborated sentence, has a sly sense of humor. Here’s how the Mug’s rival in a race around the kitchen counter is described:

the eggcup…though he did not know it was a relative of the trophies on the mantelpiece in the dining room. Sport was in his blood.

The door-mat’s flirtation with the dessert spoon was also a humorous highlight (how many games could you type that sentence and have it make sense!)

The plot is quite episodic, with three or four sequences that each feel like they could stand alone reasonably well, boasting satisfying setups, elaborations, and payoffs. This injects some welcome novelty through the course of the game’s fifteen-minute running time, which is a good decision – since, appropriately for the genre, no individual element has much depth, more incident and new characters help keep the momentum up. This does mean that I thought the game was coming to an end once or twice before it actually did – but when it did come, the ending boasted an unexpected callback to the very opening, which left me smiling. That’s the Tin Mug in a nutshell – it’s a little bit ragged, sure, but it’s got enthusiasm and is sometimes more clever than it appears.


Thanks so much for your kind comments Mike!

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Belated thanks for this! I admit I hit a wall on some of the issues you mentioned in your review, and you’re not the first reviewer to point out a near-the-end puzzle. An update I planned but never materialized had hints, and I think they’re funny, but I got sidetracked.

Tweaks to the SOUNDS command will be great for backporting to the final version of Very Vile Fairy File. Without getting into too much detail, I saw an opportunity to make a lot of reusable code here, and it’s the first time I’ve seriously done this between IFComp entries, and the engineering challenge was novel and rewarding, but I think it distracted from some narrative bits. (I sort of reused code for my anagram games but on a way smaller scale.)

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Witchfinders, by Tania Dreams

There’s recently been a thread about whether or not novice authors should be warned off the default Twine style – I think mostly the Sugarcube format? – for fear of turning off potential players. There was a substantial bit of back and forth without firm conclusions being reached, but I have to say, Witchfinder’s inelegant first impression makes me pine for the old comfortable white-black-and-blue. Per another review, there’s a font mixup that means that in my web browser at least, the letters come out looking chunky and, where bolded and highlighted to indicate a link, they’re smooshed into each other in a way that impacts legibility.

Meanwhile, I’m a sucker for historical fiction but the content of the intro doesn’t reassure either:

Edinburgh, 1827.

Age of Enlightment gave a way to Romanticism, leaving behind medieval brutality and aspiring beauty of Reneissance.

Scotland regained their territories and started its way into the Industrial Revolution.

The typos are unfortunate, and the breezy nods towards alternate history beyond the witchcraft identified in the blurb (like, did the Act of Union get reversed? Which territories are we talking about exactly?) didn’t fill me with confidence. Luckily, the game does bounce back from this dire opening, turning into a reasonably entertaining, albeit low-key, experience helping your neighbors through the power of hedge magic, but I do wish a little more care had been taken to polish things up so it could put its best foot forward.

But for the supernatural elements – and honestly, even with them – Witchfinders would be best characterized as a slice of life game. Pace the blurb’s suggestion that the protagonist will be dodging witch-hunters in a high stakes game of cat and mouse, most of what you wind up doing is running errands to heal a friend’s sick son or keep the local cattle from losing weight. You do have a “witch score” that ticks up if you arouse too much suspicion, triggering a game when you reach four points, but while there are a couple places where the score can go up despite your best efforts, for the most part it’s easy to keep a low profile unless you’re bent on drawing attention to yourself (like, when buying a potentially-suspicious item, you can either offer an innocuous excuse, or react with hostile defensiveness. Guess which one increases the score!)

Solving these quotidian problems does require a bit of work, and indeed, it’s possible to fail at least one of them. These aren’t puzzles, exactly, since you’re typically either straightforwardly completing a task (e.g., upon being told you need willow bark, you go to the one willow tree in the area), on the flip side, inadvertently locking yourself out of full victory (e.g. exhausting all your options in the Esplanade before making a purchase in Lawnmarket, with no indication of why you’d need to do the one before the other). Still, the game lets you eke out a marginal victory even if you make a mistake, and replaying goes very quickly, so it’s hard to hold this against it.

For the most part the prose isn’t trying to be especially authentic, sticking to a direct, slightly anachronistic YA-ish style, but there are a couple nice touches. First, whenever you pass through the hub area, you can read a randomly-generated broadsheet which is drawn from real examples of the form, and second, there’s a butcher who speaks in – well, the author describes it as a Scottish accent, but I think towards the end this is getting into straight-up Scots:

"Aye, amurnay sure whit’s th’ issue thare, bit th’ animals we git lest time keek a bawherr puggelt.”

I was following up until the point where he started talking about a cake decorated with a naked Puggle.

Ultimately I found Witchfinders a lightweight bit of fun, and coming up on halfway through the Comp, that’s certainly nothing to sneeze at – not everything needs to swing for the fences, after all. It’s rough around the edges, sure, but there are worse things to be, and I have to say the bug that meant I scored 110 points out of a possible 100 brought a smile to my face – albeit wonkiness towards the end is always more forgivable than issues at the beginning, and not all players will be willing to give a game the benefit of the doubt after a shaky opening. Authors, make sure those first five minutes are airtight!


Inside, by Ira Vlasenko

First two children’s-book games in a row, then two witch games back to back? I think the randomizer’s been drinking. Despite being a short, choice-based game, with a female magic-user pursued by witch hunters, though, Inside has a very different vibe than Witchfinders. It doesn’t attempt to locate itself in any particular historical milieu, for one thing, and it’s much puzzlier to boot. Perhaps most importantly, rather than a low-key day of visiting neighbors and creating workaday hexes, in Inside the protagonist is up against the wall, facing death at the hands of her inquisitorial pursuers.

The mechanics of this, I confess, were a little obscure to me. The game opens in medias res, with the player coming to awareness but not given much information about where they are or what’s going on – or even who they are, because you’re apparently playing not the witch herself but her familiar spirit. This displacement or bifurcation of identities winds up being effective, as it allows the game to lampshade the player/protagonist divide, and also sets up odd-couple style bickering that helps keep the game engaging even when the puzzles risk getting a bit dry. The precise nature of the challenges you face also helps keep the plot from cliched territory – after being nearly drowned by the witch-hunters, the protagonist (and you) has retreated into her own mind, and needs to revisit her past, present, and possible futures in order to wake up and escape.

You have a reasonable ability to customize the story; in particular, an early choice lets you establish whether you’re a good witch or a bad witch, or occupy a middle ground somewhere in between. Many puzzles also have alternate solutions, with a quick, selfish answer typically juxtaposed against a more laborious, selfless one, with concomitant implications on the plot and ending. The witch is also unique in that she’s married, and by choosing snide or supportive comments, you can do a little bit of characterization of the relationship (I wanted a lot more of this, but in fairness, I think I’m way more excited about marital-dynamics simulations than is the target audience).

This well-considered set-up didn’t feel quite as engaging to me as I’d hoped, though. Partially this is because I found decoding the dialogue between the witch and her familiar occasionally challenging to decode – they use different font colors, but to my slightly-color-blind-eyes, they amount to a somewhat brighter and a somewhat duller shade of beige, and there are no dialogue tags making clear who’s saying what, so I frequently found myself losing the thread of conversation and having to double-check who was saying what. Partially this is because the puzzles sometimes felt simultaneously overly laborious – there’s an alchemy one that’s cool in theory, but requires a lot of clicking to get through – and overly forgiving – I flubbed an early puzzle, only for the game to institute a do-over and automatically solve it on my behalf, which made me question what it even needed me for in the first place.

Still, as a reasonably short game, these faults didn’t do too much to undermine my enjoyment – Inside puts enough of a spin on a common premise to feel sufficiently unique, and it was fun to try to draw a line between the different versions of the protagonist I encountered in the various vignettes. Some tightening up of the gameplay, and cleaning up of the aesthetic experience, would certainly make it a stronger entry, but what’s here is still solidly worth playing.