Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

Blood Island, by Billy Krolick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Star Tripper, by Sam Ursu

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


The Grown-Up Detective Agency, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

ADULT BELL: Where’d he get the crown?

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

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

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

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

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

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


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)


Ellen Ripley with a glowing Elvish sword.


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.


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.


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


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


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!


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


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!


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.)


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!


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.


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.