Mike Russo's IF Comp 2022 Reviews

Jungle Adventure, by Paul Barter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


The Hidden King’s Tomb, by Joshua Fratis

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

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

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

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

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

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


You are carrying:

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

>x treasure

You see nothing special about the treasure.


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

> open coffin

(first removing the lit candle)


Resting in the coffin is a rag-wrapped skeleton.

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

> search skeleton

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

> open king

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

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

hidden king mr.txt (28.0 KB)


Prism, by Eliot M.B. Howard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

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

  1. the developers of Dishonored describing their world;

  2. post 104 of this thread.


Dishonored was the only thing that came to mind! Glad to see I was thinking in the right direction. :smiley:

1 Like

Thanks so much for taking the time! Tremendously kind and really helpful in poking at its pain-points.

The part about not having threads twine together made me go searching… and indeed, I found a path where it’s possible to skirt around the appropriate flag! So sorry that made it into submission; I quickly slotted a fallback “=true” and reuploaded, which should make sure anyone who sees the relevant passage will have it acknowledged elsewhere. Extreeemely grateful that you pointed this out.

(Also, loving your reviews generally! Great balance of commentary on prose, mechanics, and thematics, and the running tally of your expectations as you move through these works is fascinating.)


Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, by Geoffrey Golden

Would it be elitist to confess that I can’t say for sure whether I’ve ever eaten at an Applebee’s? I’ve mostly lived in fairly big cities, and even when I travel for work, because I don’t drive I never wind up at the sorts of suburban strip-malls that tend to host the chain restaurant. For purposes of this review, though, I’m trying to conjure up some associations – I’ve got a sense of the look and overall vibes from Friday Night Lights, since one of the characters was a waitress there for a couple of seasons, and for the actual food I’m imagining Chili’s and subtracting the (admittedly already rather slight) southwestern angle (Chili’s is also a strip-mall kind of place, I think, but there was one sort of accessible when I was in high school so at least I’ve been there a couple times).

Anyway based on that almost-completely-groundless supposition, what I’m coming up with is a restaurant that isn’t any better than it ought to be, but isn’t much worse, either – like, a mediocre place that earns its meh rating not through consistent middle-of-the-road performance, but by frustrating whatever expectations you bring to it: if you think it’s going to be awful, you might be surprised that one or two of the things you get are relatively solid, but if you go in expecting to be wowed, you’re likely in for disappointment.

If that’s right, the restaurant has something in common with the characters of Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s, a short optimization game in Ink that tasks you – an employee of the Schtupmeister brewery, purveyors of a syrupy ale that sounds simply revolting – with reading the minds of four patrons of a franchise somewhere in Middle America and giving them a mental nudge, when the moment’s right, suggesting they try one of your patron’s products using your psychic powers (you can only make one such suggestion per person, due to incredibly-fuzzily-invoked legal issues). In practice, what this means is that you eavesdrop on each, listening to the thoughts of the waitress, the already-in-his-cups older man, the crypto bro, the snot-nosed tween (yes, you can get a 12-year-old hooked on Schtupmeister. Apparently Applebee’s isn’t big on carding?), learning a little about their hopes, dreams, and fears, waiting for a moment when they’re happily distracted enough for your brain mojo to give them a little push.

What you find out, listening in, is that they’re all a little scuzzy – but not too scuzzy. The older guy is celebrating a not-especially-savory escapade that’s left him flush with cash, but he didn’t do anything so awful, and hey, he kinda needed a win. The kid’s consumed with figuring out which of two characters would win in a fight, but he’s also contemplating a crime of his own. The waitress isn’t above a spot of pickpocketing, but adheres to a consistent set of carnie values. The crypto bro – well, he’s a crypto bro, but at least he has a sick mom. And as for you, well, read the previous paragraph about what your job is again.

A game where you only get four opportunities to act could get a little stale, but the author’s done a good job of fitting the design to the constraint. For one thing, it’s short – each playthrough takes maybe five minutes or so, meaning there’s not a lot of downtime where you’re just waiting to click next even if you’ve already taken all your shots. Second, time marches ahead regardless of who you’re listening to – so if you flit from person to person, you could well miss out on a key opportunity, or key information, from someone else. So it works like an optimization game, as you’ll probably do a series of playthroughs focusing on one or maybe two characters each until you have a sense of what their deal is, and when they might be vulnerable. And then there are also a few moments when you’ve got the opportunity to do something other than push a crappy beer on vulnerable people, before reaching the denouement which gives you a last chance to interact with each of the characters and then offers a quickie job evaluation from your boss.

It’s a solid structure that supports four or five playthroughs to get the outcome that feels right to you –one canny thing about the setup is that since complete success means getting a large number of people potentially hooked on a terrible product, the compulsion to play past the point of enjoyment to wring out a “best ending” is largely absent. And honestly, I wanted to put in those replays to see all the jokes I’d missed. I’d characterize Use Your Psychic Powers at Applebee’s more as amusing than laugh-out-loud funny, but it had me smiling a bunch all the same. Like, here’s what happens if you try to strike up a conversation with the drunk guy by pretending you know him from somewhere:

”Excuse me, sir,” you stop to ask the customer. “Sorry to bug you, but this is driving me crazy. Did we go to magician school together?”

”No, I never went to magician school… but it’s not the first time someone’s … asked me that. There must be an up-and-coming… magician who looks just like me,” the customer replies, drunk and befuddled.

Sometimes the author is reaching a little too hard to find humor – there’s a Clubhouse joke that feels instantly dated – but there are way more hits than misses here, and it’s nice that the laughs don’t come too much at the expense of the sad-sacks stuck in a chain restaurant on what feels like it must be a Tuesday night. Between the good writing, clever design, and faintly-detectable humanist vibe, after all maybe this one’s more Cheesecake Factory than Applebee’s.


Trouble in Sector 471, by Arthur DiBianca

Arthur DiBianca is surely among the few modern IF authors whose name has become a brand. While his games boast an impressive range of settings, genres, and gameplay styles, there are some distinctive elements that mean he offers something unique: they all have a limited parser, ensuring that guess-the-verb problems are never among the challenges a player faces; they all well-written but tight, setting-first stories; they typically last an hour or so, with a set of optional objectives for players who want to dig deeper; there are well-designed interfaces that cleanly present the information you need; and they’re all of a consistently high quality (ok, that last one isn’t unique to DiBianca, but it’s the reason why it’s worth commenting on all the others!)

Trouble in Sector 471 fits all of this to a T – this time out, you play a plucky little maintenance-bot, out first to restore power to the eponymous sci-fi facility, then zap the infestation of bugs at the root of the problem, and maybe help some of your fellow worker robots along the way. The gameplay twist is that there’s a light patina of metroidvania about proceedings – visible first in the slick automap that takes up half the playing window and orients you towards the places you’ve yet to explore, and then made more obvious as you collect new functions for your humble mechanoid: at first, you’re capable only of zapping bugs and opening communications with other bots, but reaching new areas and doing favors sees you win some important upgrades, including the ability to pick stuff up and interface with the various bits of machinery you find in the facility.

The open map is mirrored in the open gameplay structure; while there are definitely chokepoints at several parts of the game, you’re not funneled towards a final encounter or anything like that, and it doesn’t take long until you can wander over quite a large stretch of real estate, worrying away at half a dozen different puzzles as you track down the bugs and optional objectives. I admit that at around the two-thirds mark, even with all the supports built into the game I started feeling a bit overwhelmed, but found that once I started taking some notes the pieces fell into place quite quickly – there’s a lot to keep track of, but when you break down exactly what you can do and what barriers you’re facing, it isn’t too hard to run down your limited command-set and come up with some ideas for how to proceed.

This is a sweet spot for puzzle difficulty for me; progress feels nontrivial, but once you bear down it isn’t too hard to start feeling clever. There was one place where I needed to look at the hints – there’s a multi-step puzzle involving a museum curator-bot that I wasn’t quite wrapping my head around – and while I got most of the optional challenges, I never came across one, and found one involving unblocking pipes too fiddly to be enjoyable, but overall this is a smartly-designed and satisfying grab bag of puzzles.

Getting into critiques, though, it does feel like a grab bag, rather than the more unified puzzle sets of some of DiBianca’s other games, like the wordplay of Sage Sanctum Scramble or the RPG-aping Black Knife Dungeon. In fact, many of the puzzles feel like the sort of thing you get up to in more traditional works of IF – there’s a fair bit of unlocking doors, figuring out combinations, and trading items to NPCs – which I think make me chafe against the limited parser more than I usually do. In particular, I missed the ability to examine things; you can get more information about any object you’re carrying, but the set of grabbable items is pretty small, and there were more than a few environmental puzzles, or encounters with other robots, where I would have liked to get a closer look at the situation, either for hints to the puzzles or just to get better grounded in the world. As a result, while the different rooms are well-described and the charming cast of robots largely does a good job communicating their personalities through their one or two lines of dialogue, I engaged with Sector 471 largely as an abstract set of puzzles and systems rather than as a coherent place where a diegetic narrative was occurring.

There are definitely worse problems to have, and honestly most of the way through a very story-heavy Comp I found it kind of nice to immerse myself in something close to a pure puzzler – and this is a very well-designed, well-tuned example of the breed. So while I’d recommend other of the author’s games before this one to someone who’s trying to figure out what this limited-parser thing is all about, it’s still a worthy addition to his gameography.

sector 471.txt (378.0 KB)


The Staycation, by Maggie H.

I have a really hard time writing reviews when I haven’t enjoyed a game much, but can’t tell how much of my dissatisfaction was due to the design and writing, and how much to bugs. I try (though often fail, I know) to spend at least part of the time in my reviews assessing how well a game achieves what appear to be its goals, and if it doesn’t meet them because the gameplay is at war with the theme, or the characters need to support a level of emotional engagement they’re just not up to, or what have you, that’s fair enough and I feel like I can evaluate those shortfalls in good faith – likewise it’s no big deal to identify discrete bugs, even potentially far-reaching, gamestopping ones. But when I can’t get a sense of the creative agenda, and there appear to be bugs whose scope I don’t fully understand, it’s really challenging to figure out what to say that’s at all useful: were things largely working as intended, and I’m pinning my confusion on a few minor bugs to avoid owning up to being a big thicko? Or was there actually a masterful design whose shape I didn’t get to apprehend due to some unfortunate bugs? Either way, besides the author hopefully realizing they have some fixes to make, I doubt anyone would get much out of my virtual gum-flapping.

(I know, I know, how is that different from any of my other reviews, etc.)

Anyway, I’ve got that dilemma here. Staycation didn’t work for me, but I’m flummoxed to pinpoint what specifically went wrong. Maybe it’s best to just recount my experience with it? This is another Texture piece, whose premise is that you’re a young New Yorker whose housemates (who are romantic partners – you must feel a bit of a third wheel) decide to go for a trip to warmer climes to escape the northeastern winter. You decline, however – this is railroaded despite there being various options, which show up as emoji (?) though thankfully you get a preview in words of what each potential action will be. Apparently you’re a bit of an introvert and looking forward to some time alone? After some painting and lighting some incense – relaxing! – you turn in, only to be woken by scratching in the middle of the night: your cat, which can either come off comforting or menacing depending on the actions you pick.

Either way the vibe goes from cosy to horrific in the course of one like 50 word passage; my first time through, I somehow jumped forward in time, staying I think with my parents and reflecting vaguely on something highly traumatic that had just happened – at which point the game ended. So I tried again, making slightly different choices, which led to much the same events except upon the cat entering, the game seemed to rewind to the painting sequence – which I thought was a bug, though from looking at the blurb it sounds like repetition is supposed to be part of the experience? This time I made slightly different choices once again, and wound up at a passage reading “You choose to ignore the cracks within your marrow,” with a check and an X as my verb options, but nothing to apply them to, making it impossible to progress further in the game.

I assume some of what I encountered wasn’t intended – at least that last game-ender has to be a bug – but based on this sort of heap of incidents, I’m having extreme difficulty figuring out what was supposed to happen and how I was supposed to be feeling. Partially this is due to the fact that the game moves really, really fast. Despite the two hour playtime listed in the blurb, each of my tries lasted maybe five or ten minutes, and the shifts from socially-anxious interactions with housemates, to laid-back alone time, to night terrors played out with virtually no transitions between them, leaving me with an emotional hangover that had me still reacting to the previous sequence while a new, tonally distinct one was playing out. The writing doesn’t give much in the way of prompting, either, consisting of workmanlike but not especially evocative prose, with the occasional infelicity:

Incense alights in its holder.

That must be magic incense!

I can try to reverse-engineer a sense of what’s supposed to be going on in Staycation. Maybe we’re awkward with our roomies and not going with them because even in the opening of the game, the protagonist is already on a repeat of the time cycle, so they know this is how things have to play out? Perhaps the attempt at painting shifting the mood from satisfaction to fear indicates that we’re a creatively frustrated type? None of these interpretations quite work, and I can’t say that even on repeat plays things cohered enough for me to even figure out how my expectations were being disappointed. Certainly some combination of bug fixes, more focus on establishing the protagonist’s mindset, and improved pacing would have made the game more successful, but I honestly can’t tell you what combination, or what success would wind up looking like, though I’d be very curious to find out!


i wish you were dead, by Sofia Abarca

There’s this episode of The Office where Michael needs to fire somebody – appropriately enough on Halloween, when I’m this review. Given his general irresolution, his pathological desire to be liked by everyone, and the extra hurdle that it takes to psych yourself up to firing somebody wearing a vampire costume, he hems and haws all day, having weird hesitant interactions where he sort of starts to fire the person then backs down, drawing it out in a way that winds up being way more painful, both for him and the firee, than if he’d just been able to do the thing. In the middle of this can’t-look-away trainwreck, there’s an interview clip with him where he says “I went hunting once. I shot a deer in the leg – had to finish it off with a shovel. It took about an hour. Why do you ask?”

(When searching out the exact wording of that quote, I found a dispiritingly large number of like Reddit threads where people were in fact asking where this question came from and what it has to do with the rest of the episode. Sigh).

For all that this may be a good guide to what termination of employment looks like, I think it works as well if not better when it comes to breaking up with a partner. Oh sure, you’ll roleplay it out in your head and talk it over with loved ones, and commit to doing it quickly and cleanly. But then they’ll ask a question or you’ll feel weird about how you’re ending things, so you’ll keep talking to try to explain or justify or empathize, and before you know it, you’re forty-five minutes in, there’s blood everywhere, and you just keep bringing that shovel down over and over and over again, despite the twin realizations that a) it doesn’t seem to be doing what you need it to, and b) there’s nothing else you could possibly do except keep on going.

At its best, i wish you were dead captures this slow-motion car-crash through fumbling, authentically-painful dialogue that’s general enough to be near universally resonant. It starts in medias res, with the protagonist in the middle of explaining to their girlfriend why they need to separate. The player starts out as much in the dark as the partner, with only hints at backstory and context showing up in the corners of what each partner says – apparently there was a previous breakup and reconciliation, a question of whether the protagonist has actually been forgiven for some earlier transgression. At every juncture, you have a choice of dialogue options, some of which try to cut things off and simply end the breakup, others that try to respond to your partner’s questions or provide a better sense of why you’re doing this – and despite the obvious understanding that you should just end this horrible, no-good interaction for both of your sakes, inevitably the player winds up gravitating to the choices that keep it going. It’s a lovely marriage of in-game and out-of-game motivations – after all, we want to know more of the story, and doesn’t the partner deserve to know the truth? – and it communicates the queasily squirming horror of this awful situation as well as anything else in IF.

At its worst, i wish you were dead makes you pull up Twitter (RIP) while you wait for literal minutes of timed text to unspool, as though forcing you to hang on each um and ah will somehow make the dialogue feel more realistic, and then buries the strongly-written conversation in histrionic stage directions:

She turns her gaze to my hands, which fingerprints are tightly against the wood of the table. I can feel the despondency of her eyes, slowly blinking as she nibbles on the inside of her cheeks. She shifts her weight and she crosses her legs, the same position she adopts when she rests her right calf on the seat under her left leg.

Look, we’ve all done this sort of thing as novice writers, feeling like we can’t just run the dialogue on without checking in on what’s physically happening in the room. But we can! This would be 5x more powerful as “She looks at my hands and shifts her weight,” and 10x more powerful as literally nothing.

This dichotomy unfortunately extends to some of the details that get slowly revealed about the doomed relationship being dissected. There’s a canny reversal of sympathies that plays out over the course of the conversation, as you begin to put together the pieces of what’s going on and understand that the protagonist’s motives, and previous behavior, are not wholly blameless and this isn’t the altruistic we-need-to-break-up-for-your-own-good situation they start out presenting it as. That’s a neat narrative dynamic, but I personally found the game overcorrected, and by the end I felt like the protagonist was a profoundly toxic, un-self-aware person to an extent that significantly reduced my investment in the relationship (you appear to be terminally insecure and broke up with your actor girlfriend the first time because she went to a cast party; you’re now freaking out because she’s texting with a friend, though admittedly one she might have feelings for). Different players might have different tolerance for these kinds of things, admittedly, but this is another place where I feel like a more grounded, low-drama approach would have been more effective.

Still, when it works it really works – and it did make me bark a stunned laugh of disbelief at something that ultimately wound up as a headfake, albeit it still makes me giggle (at around the one-third mark, as you work up the nerve to ask about the person you’re worried has displaced you in your intended’s affections, you blurt out “who’s Link?” and I thought, holy shit, this is a close-perspective melodrama about Gannon feeling two-timed by Zelda, that’s amazing. It isn’t, but wow now I want that game). Ironically, I might have had the best possible experience with i wish you were dead if I’d just brought it to an early conclusion, picking dialogue options that steered the conversation to an ending without revealing too much about how awful the protagonist is, or giving so much space for the bad writing to overcome the good parts. But human nature is human nature, so what was I to do but bring that shovel up for another heart-not-fully-in-it thwack…


The Pool, by Jacob Reux

I’ve a couple times in these reviews done the gimmick of presenting a game by harping on its most hackneyed or weakest elements, then doing a lame rug-pull and revealing that Actually It’s Great. I’m not doing that here – The Pool is objectively not that good of a game. It’s a horror thriller that’s simultaneously underdeveloped and overbaked, with a premise (sci-fi monster aquarium research base attacked by inside-man saboteurs and also the fish monsters turn you into zombies and also some are psychic octopi or something plus you have social anxiety) that has way too many details yet makes way too little sense to hang together. It’s a default-Twine presentation, with all the typos and sloppy writing that black-and-blue color scheme often signifies. It boasts multiple branches, but they don’t work that well on their own, throwing out-of-context character betrayals and plot twists that seem to presuppose multiple replays to be coherent, let alone effective. And at every point it manages to step on its own theme, as the story ostensibly presents the protagonist learning to grow past their anxiety but in reality brutally punishes you nearly every time you step outside of your shell and trust someone else or behave the slightest bit altruistically.

But – of course there was a but coming – I enjoyed it quite a bunch, laughing at it as much as I was laughing with it but laughing all the same. For all that I take IF sufficiently seriously that I’ve written a review engaging with a game through the lens of Brechtian “epic theater”, sometimes all it takes for me to have fun is playing a dopey monster mash on Halloween.

Look, this thing is ridiculous, with shifts in tone that make gold-medal slalom look like a lazy inner-tube ride down a gently winding river. One second you’re about to bash a sea-zombie with a rock but focused more on how that’s scary because it’s taking you outside your comfort zone than because you’re about to bash a sea zombie with a rock (who does have that in their comfort zone?), the next you’re facing down a terrorist who’s unleashed all this chaos because “I just wanted to escape all of this. This monotony. Don’t we all?” (protip: if your villain’s motivation could equally well apply to starting a D&D club, taking up swinging, or unleashing a seamonster apocalypse, it could probably use more time in the workshop).

There are a ton of instadeaths, too – again, many cued by doing something seemingly in-genre and innocuous like extending a moment of mercy to seemingly-beaten enemies – gorily described but so many in number, and so lightweight due to the omnipresent undo button, that I started to relate to the protagonist as though he were Wile E. Coyote, fated to be dismembered, drowned, and zombified for my amusement.

My instinct is of course to overcomplicate this, to bang on for hundreds more words unpacking why I enjoyed it despite struggling to name one thing it does unambiguously well, perhaps delve into what “so bad it’s good” really means and assess whether liking something ironically is meaningfully distinct from liking it directly. But for once I’m going to resist, and just say that The Pool is trashy and dumb, but if it catches you in the mood for something trashy and dumb, and you don’t overthink it – for god’s sake don’t replay it to fully understand how all the strands of its plot fit together – and read it quickly so you don’t notice the typos as much… well, you still might dislike it, because it’s a rickety contraption. But you might find it scratches an itch, and catch yourself thinking “sea zombie” to yourself with a giggle for a day or so. Some games aim for more, some settle for less, but here we are.

EDIT: while putting my son to bed for like the fifth time last night I realized what about The Pool made me like it. It’s the pacing, stupid! For all its warts, this is a game that moves, setting up and resolving conflicts quickly and efficiently. Due to some of the storytelling issues noted above, the transitions can sometimes be a little rough since you don’t know what all the characters’ deals are, and the worldbuilding is pretty arbitrary so what happens next can feel a little random. But once you’re in a scene, the stakes tend to be established clearly and concisely, and nothing feels belabored or like it overstays its welcome. Lots of IF – especially choice-based IF, which tends to have longer gaps between player input than parser games – can feel quite plodding so it’s nice to play a game with some zip in its step, and as the rest of the review demonstrates, that can make up for a whole lot of other faults!


Cannelé & Nomnom - Defective Agency – Younès R. & Yazaleea

So I mentioned at the top of the thread that I have a one year old son. He is an amazing, lovable little guy, but he is also precocious as all get-out, meaning that he’s realized that since he’s (mostly) figured out how to walk, he might as well get started on other life skills such as climbing out of his play-pen, eating anything that looks like it’s been on the floor for a long time, and face-planting into the edges of his toys. He’s a one-baby force of anarchy, and my wife and I trade off trailing after him, trying to preserve him from gross bodily injury and restore some semblance of order in his wake.

Speaking of gross, an hour ago as of this writing he pooped in his bathtub. You know what’s not especially pleasant to clean up? Poop. From a bathtub.

I share this not to give Henry something unique to tell his therapist when, later in life, he’s asked why he’s a pathologically private person – that’s a happy side-effect – but to say that a) I know whereof I speak when I say trying to keep the eponymous detectives in Cannelé & Nomnom on track feels like bottling chaos, and b) given that’s what I already spend the majority of my non-work hours doing, I’m maybe not the ideal audience for the game. Combine that with running into some bugs that, from looking at other reviews, don’t seem to strike universally, and I unfortunately didn’t wind up liking this big, funny, creative game as much as I think it deserves.

This is another high-production-value Twine game, with attractive character art, well-chosen colors, and a bunch of different sub-interfaces and minigames that bring its mechanics to life. The story is just as vibrant, taking a hoary old protagonist-with-amnesia premise and giving it an extra jolt by having you turn to the aforementioned duo, who bicker like a long-married couple and whose approaches to crime-solving turn on blagging your way into places you don’t belong with no goal or aim in mind, and trying to cadge free food wherever it can be found, respectively. The world isn’t our own, either – while the overall vibe struck me as early 20th-Century French, everyone’s got some kind of magical gift (so far as I could tell these tend to be fairly low-key – less slinging fireballs, more having a really sensitive nose), and it’s populated by characters who are less colorful than the title pair, but only just, from a hobo with a magic coin to a delightfully-married couple of cheesemonging lesbians.

Does this sound overstuffed? It feels overstuffed. Getting from point A to point B typically involves detours through C, D, X, H, back to A, choice of L or R, and then a jaunt to the conspiracy-board minigame where you match clue post-its to the mysteries they solve to finally unlock the road to B. There are further diversions, like having the option to defer to one detective or the other in their attempts to crack the case of your identity, which sometimes adds to their respective scores, which are tracked and always visible in the game’s sidebar; I also played a Texas-Hold-em-meets-Scrabble minigame, to no clear purpose, and had fun though I suspect the game cheats to get to the narratively correct result. Plus getting anywhere always involves a lot of banter between the core trio, which is advanced single line by single line (thankfully, you can bang the space bar instead of wearing out your finger clicking).

All this is to say that after an hour and a half of play, I’d only just managed to make it to the first significant location of the investigation and gotten the clues to solve the first non-tutorial mystery; I’m a fan of shaggy dog stories, but the game felt especially shaggy to me. Partially this is because I wound up finding Cannelé and Nomnom a little annoying. They’re each funny, and are able to create distinct scenarios of comedic mayhem – I don’t mean to be a killjoy, there is some good stuff here, with the quip that the cat who’d run off with my wallet had committed a “heinous feline-y” eliciting a half-laugh, half-groan – but they’re very one-note characters, at least in the time I spent with them. More, they’re continually at each others’ throats, forcing the player to mediate, keep them focused, and/or take sides between them; again, it’s like the most exhausting parts of parenting, with siblings who never let up the bickering to play nicely together or give a compliment if one has a good idea. This is a dynamic that can work in adventure games, I think – it’s not miles off Sam and Max, for example – but I think there’s a difference between games where you play one of the chaotic duo, and this one where you play their babysitter.

The game’s also shaggy because it has some polish and stability issues to iron out. I think the authors’ first language is French, as there are some passages that seem oddly or incompletely translated – “we have many interrogations”, one character says upon opening up an interview – plus there’s a cool rotating-text effect that leads to spaces getting erased, as well as the generally-flabby pacing mentioned above that would probably be tightened in an editing pass.

The bigger issue were the host of bugs I ran into, though. The conspiracy board is the game’s primary mechanic, but from the tutorial, it was throwing off errors. I seemed to be able to ignore a popup saying there was a bad evaluation error, but when I tried to link any clue to certain mysteries, I got another popup complaining about not being able to read the properties of an undefined ‘note_id’. At first this only afflicted an optional mystery, but eventually it spread to a mystery I needed to solve to move the story forward, bringing my progress to a halt. Attempts to shake off the bug by restarting and reloading, or trying a different browser (I was using Chrome, truly the most normcore of browsers) failed to fix the issue.

Despite the complaints I’ve leveled, I was disappointed when that happened; there’s much more good here than bad, and if I’d had the chance I would have followed Cannelé and Nomnom to the end. So I hope there’ll be a post-Comp release that makes it once again playable for me, and maybe smooths out the rough edges to boot. I’ll of necessity be keeping my toddler-wrangling skills sharp in the meantime, so should be ready to go whenever it surfaces!


Who Shot Gum E. Bear?, by Damon L. Wakes

Props to Who Shot Gum E. Bear? – it commits to the bit. In this absurdist detective-noir parody, you’re the one honest private dick (or Jane, actually) in a spun-sugar city where the candy-bar cast are as crooked as they are sweet, determined to crack the case of who offed the eponymous pop-rock-snorting bear. Your tools are a set of standard parser verbs, a willingness to poke your nose where it doesn’t belong (if you have a nose? X ME just says you’re “a street-smart broad with a hard sugar shell but a soft centre”, so like the green M&M maybe?), and the ability to ACCUSE any character of the crime (er, plus the bonus ability to UNDO if you happen to guess wrong).
It’d be easy for the film-noir business to overtake the parodic elements until they were just a layer of surrealism sprinkled lightly over a stale procedural plot, like so much powdered sugar. Bu the writing never lets you forget, in ways both PG and not. Here’s what you see when you peruse the wares at an, uh, adult bookshop:

You’re never going to look at lollipops the same way again.


There are some light puzzles to solve along the way, allowing you to access some locked areas on the small map, and opening up more people/treats to interrogate using a fairly robustly-implemented ASK/TELL ABOUT system. But lawnmowering your way through these will largely just rule out suspects and resolve ancillary mysteries. Success requires the player, not the protagonist, to make a realization, and if you don’t pay attention to the confectionary nature of your surroundings, your victim, and your suspect, you’ll never crack the case, which relies on the player being a careful, and clever, observer of events (or, again, trail-and-error via the UNDO function, not that I would know anything about that).

This gimmick wound up being my favorite part of the design, helping integrate the comedy with the gameplay. Who Shot Gum E. Bear is still rather slight; depending on how deep you want to get into everybody’s dialogue options before you figure out the answer/start spamming the ACCUSE command, you’re looking at ten or twenty minutes, and the mystery is as thin as the central-casting characters – the mob boss Don Toberlone, the tough-as-nails Jawbreaker, the femme fatale Candy Kane. But it’s amusing and clever, so I’m quite confident pronouncing it the best sweets-based murder-mystery of this or any Comp.

gum e bear mr.txt (52.8 KB)


The Alchemist, by Older Timer

I remember the first time I heard about post-modernism; I would have been about thirteen (this feels late, especially now – surely kids these days suck post-modernism with their mother’s milk) and my mom, who went back to finish college once we kids were off at high school, was taking a class on the media. I was curious about she was learning, since the idea of my mom taking classes, much less a class not being “English” or “Physics” but “the media”, seemed bizarre to me, and while most of what she related seemed understandable enough, post-modernism was elusive; it had something to do with things that comment on themselves? “It’s like if a hotel were called ‘Hotel’”, I remember her saying at one point, or words to that effect.

The Alchemist is the kind of hotel that could be called “Hotel” – or more to the point, the kind of text adventure that could be called “Text Adventure.” This is I think the third game I’ve reviewed by the author, and in fact it has a lot in common with the previous one I played, the ParserComp entry Uncle Mortimer’s Secret – besides the fairly robust qbasic engine undergirding both titles, there’s a missing acquaintance (there an uncle, here an alchemist – the titles are getting the job done here) whose wacky mansion serves as a hub, via a strange device (there a time machine, here a magic mirror), allowing you to travel to different realms (there different historically-important time periods, here standard text adventure locations like a church or a mine or a lab) to solve riddle-y puzzles and collect clues to unlock the next realm, before eventually reaching the endgame and being reunited with your uncle/friend.

From that comparison, I think it’s clear that I enjoyed Uncle Mortimer’s Secret more – the time-tourism conceit is more distinctive than The Alchemist’s rather generic take on the premise, even if nothing is especially lavishly described in either game. But this one is solid enough too – the main quest is a collectathon and there’s nothing resembling a character or a plot, but the puzzles are pretty easy while being satisfying to solve, and the thing moves at a good clip. Technically, the parser continues to have the quirk where you can’t interact with items in containers or on supporters until you take them, but there’s no inventory limit and by now I’m used to hoovering everything up as soon as I see it – and other than that one foible, it seems like it can do everything Inform or TADS are capable of. Like I said, call it Text Adventure because if you like text adventures, you’ll probably like this one.

Sure, there are things I could call out as especially nice touches – there’s one clue that says “play safe, remember the Battle of Hastings” which I thought was a prompt to wear eye protection (it’s not), and I’m always a sucker for a game with a narthex. On the flip side, having to type in the key combos that unlocked each realm got more and more annoying as time went on, leading me to check the hints once or twice to confirm that I didn’t need to do any backtracking. And the central puzzle, which involves collecting various bits of quotidian lab equipment like tubing and a beaker, is a pretty underwhelming take on alchemy (though perhaps I’ve been spoiled by Hadean Lands and, in this Comp, According to Cain).

But all that’s besides the point; The Alchemist is a text adventure working through a series of puzzles set across a mid-sized geography, and the puzzles are pretty good. It’s a cop-out for a reviewer to say “if you like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that you like” – but in this case it’s true! And hey, maybe I can rescue things by pointing out that self-consciously ending a review on a reviewer’s cliché sounds pretty post-modern to me.

alchemist mr.txt (182.2 KB)


Aww man! If only I had known…


It’s mentioned at the bottom of the Comp blurb – I actually played the game over two sessions, and only noticed this when I loaded it up the second time. Made a big difference!

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The game is unfinished, and it ends pretty soon after this, asking players to submit suggestions on how it should end.

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A Chinese Room, by Milo van Mesdag

There have been a lot of war novels written, and most of them communicate the same simple message: war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force no matter how just one’s cause may or may not be (you’d think this message is in fact so simple that after people had written two or three books like this, there wouldn’t be a need for any more, but [gestures impotently] look around). Catch-22, though, stands out on the list – in large part because it’s funny, but also because it asserts the eternal war-novel truism in the context of a “good” war (WWII), and applies the critique beyond combat, to the mere experience of being in the military (again, even a “good” one, like the American army). The novel has several leitmotifs, but I’d say the most critical is “every victim is a culprit”; it’s a motto that seems, and is, harsh, but it I think accurately conveys how everyone who’s broken down by a brutal, absurd system and goes along with it reinforces the system, and makes it harder for anyone else to resist. Because Heller is an optimist, and primarily writing about characters who live in a democracy, however flawed, the novel’s ending still offers the hope of transcendence, of leaping straight out of the totalitarian negative-sum game and winning individual, and maybe even eventually societal, freedom.

I’m pretty sure there aren’t any Russian war novels that end like that.

A Chinese Room is a hard beast to sum up. The temptation is to start with the gameplay, since that’s probably what’s most distinctive about it. An asymmetric two-handed multiplayer game, it’s designed so that two people pass keywords back and forth maybe half a dozen times over the course of the two or so hour playtime, which encode the decisions each one is making. It’s an elaboration of the system the author used in last Comp’s Last Night of Alexisgrad, though it’s more smoothly implemented here – the passwords are just words, rather than random-seeming gobbledygook, and it’s better-paced for asynchronous play, since there are fewer keyword-exchange points with longer chunks of gameplay in between. Even though I was afraid it’d be difficult to play this one as intended since I’ve got a teething one-year-old holding my game-playing schedule hostage, I was still able to get through it without much difficulty over the course of a day or so (shoutout to @aschultz for being my partner).

With that said, the game can be played single-player too. And to assess whether I think that’d work just as well as playing it as intended, I need to delve into the plot – or at least the half of the plot that I experienced, since the two players guide entirely different protagonists in entirely different circumstances who don’t, I believe, ever directly encounter one another, and I think this ignorance of what exactly is going on in the other player’s story is an important part of the game.
As a result, discussing the narrative even in very broad strokes could constitute a significant spoiler to half of potential players – and actually, I find I want to talk about it in considerably more detail than that. So I’m going to spoiler-block the rest of this review. For those leaving us here, I’ll just say that A Chinese Room is a very grown-up, very intense work that’s sufficiently strong that I’m not overly bothered that the last ten percent kind of falls apart. Definitely read the content warnings first, but if you think you can handle it, it’s very much worth a play.

So, the plot(s). Each player picks a protagonist – a woman named Caroline or a man named Leon, with the content warnings flagging that Leon’s story is more descriptive about the game’s shared, dark themes. I opted for Caroline, though after finishing my multiplayer play-through I dipped into the single-player version of Leon’s story to confirm that I understood the basic setup. It rapidly becomes clear that, despite the Western names, the story’s set in a slightly-alternate version of Russia that’s successfully achieved its war aims in Ukraine and is now demobilizing and toggling back to “peace” in order to escape sanctions (in fairness, since this long game must have been started at least several months ago, when Ukraine’s current battlefield successes would have seemed unlikely, it’s unclear how intentional the alternate-reality angle). We’ll get back to Leon later, but Caroline is a civilian on the home front. Indeed, her life at first appears little touched by the war: her husband is an “opposition” politician (he has a government contact who tells him exactly what level of dissent is allowed), her children are students, and she herself is a housewife with a brain and an economics degree but no socially-permitted way of using either.

The inciting incident is deceptively low-key. Her husband’s fixer asks her to serve as a guide for a visiting functionary – a mid-level IMF bureaucrat named Matteo – and show him around. So you do, with a bunch of choices for whether you want to take him to e.g. a European-style restaurant or a hole-in-the-wall local joint for lunch, which reveals different aspects of your society to him, and by extension, the player. In the early stages, things seem corrupt – the opening scene sees Caroline figuring out how to bribe her husband out of a speeding ticket – and ramshackle:

>Now you’re here, the Office of Regional Development looming over you, bright concrete all in sharp lines and steeples, like an uninspired Lego Notre Dame all in white. No choice but to push the doors open, the inside clean and orderly but less impressive than the facade would have implied.

But nothing’s too bad – indeed, while your life isn’t pleasant it’s still fundamentally livable and has its joys as well as its pains. And indeed, this assignment, strange as its genesis seems, is one of those high points for Caroline; again, you can decide how to approach him, but he’s an interested and sympathetic figure who’s curious about your take on everything you see, and his own thoughts without being a stereotypical economist-guy. Depending on how you play your cards, this can lead into a bit of a flirtation, and even possibly an affair, but the player is very much in the driver’s seat.

But – of course there’s a but – as you play the game, you start to get the sneaking suspicion that none of this matters very much, because for all the different options about how to manage your relationship with Matteo, the password you send to the other player doesn’t seem to have anything to do with any of that. Instead, as one portion of your duties, each day you’re ordered into a room where there’s a machine with a blinking colored light, a chart relating different colors to numbers, and a keypad for entering in the number. When you reach one of these sequences, the game pauses while you wait for your partner to send you a color; then you pick a number and send that along in return.

This is clearly ominous as hell, and you have the opportunity to push for answers – but none were easily forthcoming at least in my playthrough, and besides, it was clear that Caroline had a lot to lose from asking too many questions. Those fears also animated a tense late-game sequence, where a family lunch is interrupted by an anti-war protest that your son drifts to – by this point it’s clear that the war was illegitimate and involved atrocities, but it’s also clear that this is not a regime that tolerates dissent. You can choose to let him stand with the demonstrators, or try to pull him away (me? I thought of my son, and dragged the kid out). But again, none of these decisions get fed into the other half of the story.

This is all very effective, I found. The game elegantly gets you to go along with totalitarianism, convincingly demonstrating the consequences of resistance and the unlikelihood that it would even accomplish anything, since you’re just a humble housewife and who cares what you do? The sequences with the machine add an undercurrent of dread, while the pleasant time you spend with Matteo gives you something to focus on besides how fearful and incomplete everyone around you has become. It’s well-written, too; there’s a lot of dialogue here, and a lot of detail-work around how international institutions like the IMF functions – while I’m not an expert on that sort of thing, I do have a law degree and read a lot of policy papers, and almost everything rang true to me. And the game can wax lyrical sometimes too; here’s a description of taking a train to the capital:

> You sit in darkness for a time then you cross a border and the sky begins to brighten again. Then suddenly all sky is gone, all distance dissolved into a blur of buildings; an endless salute of identical concrete dwellings. The lit windows and the lives upon countless lives being lived out on the other side of them merge into straight lines of light.

It’s a little dehumanizing, but not too aggressively so. And in fact while the portrayal of Russian political society is appropriately dark, there are positive aspects of the culture too – Caroline derives meaning from her Orthodox faith and her love of cooking, and the regular people she and Matteo meet are mostly… well, regular people, with some assholes but many nice folks too (I think the deliberate use of Western names, the very sparing use of details that could feel exotic to the presumed Anglophone audience, are in service of making Caroline’s experiences feel less alien, so it’s easier to sympathize with her and find her society natural). It all feels very plausible, and while it’s clearly an unpleasant life compared to what a Western audience is used to, it seems to work well enough for Caroline – or at least, it’s clear that if you have her step too far out of line, it could suddenly start working much, much less well for her and her family.

It lures you in, in other words; the game pushes your buttons sometimes, but it opens up opportunities too. You’re a victim, you’re a culprit.

Then the shoe drops, and the game starts to lose its footing. I won’t spoil the ways Caroline’s story can end in terms of where she and her family (and Matteo) can wind up, since there appears to be a range of options and anyway these details are less important to the point the game is making, but I will spoil what the deal is with the room with the lights and the numbers – so don’t deblur the next paragraph if you want to experience the revelation for yourself.

What’s going on is that the powers that be have developed a new machine for committing war crimes in a way that displaces responsibility for atrocities. As best I can piece together, over in occupied Ukraine – in Leon’s share of the plot, I believe – there are a group of Russian soldiers and officers who decide, in a purely theoretical way, what should be done with POWs and civilian prisoners who have resisted the invaders in particular ways. These theoretical recommendations are fed into a secure room via a color-coding system, presumably indicating different kinds of tortures. Someone in that secure room then selects a number based on the color they’re seeing, which instructs a machine back in the prison camp to maim and/or murder the prisoners whose crimes align with whatever scenario the soldiers were “theoretically” discussing. Caroline, of course, was one such patsy, and when she unknowingly keyed in a 5 because she saw a light flashing red, she, I’m guessing, was telling the machine to kill innocents.

(This, at last, is the Chinese Room of the title – it refers to a philosophical thought experiment denying the “Strong AI” hypothesis that you could make a computer with the same kind of mind a human has. The idea is that you could train a person to respond to a certain set of inputs with a corresponding set of outputs, without actually understanding what they were doing, even though outside observers would impute conscious intentionally to the observed cycle of action and response).

As a metaphor, sure, this works – Caroline’s a cog in a totalitarian machine, unwittingly but also kinda wittingly participating in a sick society’s crimes. But as a diegetic element of the story, I had a hard time swallowing it. Why would the regime construct this complex mechanism? In the real world, Russia isn’t exactly fussed about covering up the crimes against humanity it’s been committing, and the alternate version in the game doesn’t seem significantly more squeamish; in neither case is it clear how consequences would be enforced. And while there’s a way in which this game casuistically could allow the regime to formally displace liability from respected military officers to disfavored civilians, it’s hard to imagine any Western governments taking this sophistry seriously. Perhaps intuiting the weakness of the arguments here, the game presents them skeletally, in broken excerpts overheard while Caroline is distracted or in distress – it almost holds together as it’s being presented, but it breaks apart as soon as you start thinking about it.

The thing is, the whole device rigmarole isn’t thematically necessary. Even without the metaphor, the game had managed to establish the awful dynamics of life in a totalitarian society! If anything, I found this sci-fi MacGuffin confused things, muddying up responsibility and making it easy to point the finger at the cartoon villains who’d constructed these torture devices instead of reflecting on the choices I’d made to have Caroline protect herself and her family at the expense of what we both knew was right.

It is necessary for the two-player mechanic to work, though – there needs to be some gameplay connection between the two strands of the story in order to make it a multiplayer game, and not simply a single-player story you play through in two halves. It’s true that knowing there was another player making decisions out there stoked my paranoia about what was going on, and decisions in the room with the device do have an uncanny Milgram-Experiment vibe that might not work as well without knowing someone else was going to be doing something based on what I sent them. So this isn’t a case where it’s easy to see how the game would work if you excised the piece that I don’t think works as well – still, I can’t help but wonder whether the game evolved past its initial conception, and perhaps could have benefitted from a more radical late-in-the-day rethinking.

As I said way (way, way) back at the beginning of this review, though, I still found A Chinese Room very compelling – I tore through it, nervous and engaged the whole time – and it left me with a good amount to think about even without playing the Leon portion of the story, which I’m sure has even more queasy scenes of moral compromise (I’m not tempted to check it out, I have to confess; while I’m sure it’s well done, I don’t get on with depictions of torture). Even without its technical elements, the game’s a highlight of the Comp, taking on real issues in a grounded, sophisticated way and leaving the player without easy answers – besides, yes, that war is a dehumanizing, monstrous force and totalitarian regimes make it even worse.


Oh wow Mike you’ve given me so, so much to think about. Thank you so, so much! I won’t talk to any of my intentions here or now (whether I do a post mortem or not I’ll definitely talk to some of your points and questions in the discussion thread once the comp closes), but I will say that the other half does not dwell on the torture, although it is there even if the ‘camera’ does not show the vast majority of it (the worst bit is actually a character describing something that happened to them in the past) (also as a side, side note, don’t read my petit mort ectocomp submission, it’s very graphic) and anything that mentions something I wrote and Catch 22 (my favourite novel) together makes me incredibly, incredibly happy.