Hand Me Down, by Brett Witty
I’ve noted elsewhere that the Manichean parser/choice split has been breaking down in recent years, and Hand Me Down is a leading example of the trend: what we have here is a big old Twine-TADS-Twine sandwich, and despite the slight wonkiness that description might suggest, the narrative handles the transitions with aplomb. In the framing choice-based bits, you play a young woman who’s visiting her ailing father in a hospital oncology ward, while in the middle you play the text adventure he (and your partner) has written up as a gift for you, so the shift in platforms makes diegetic sense.
To its credit, the novelty of the game’s design never felt like a distraction. It helps that the various pieces are playing to their platform’s strengths, and even their stereotypes: the parser game is a lightly comic puzzle-‘em-up in the mansion of a whimsical relation, while the Twine bits deal with emotional family drama. On the technical level, I found the process a tiny bit convoluted, but largely because the author provided a lot of choices about how to play each bit; while I could have simply gone from one bit to the next via the game’s webpage, in my experience TADS games tend to be way better when played via the QTADS interpreter, so I the slight fussiness that came from deciding to download the game file instead is on me. And while there’s no state carried between the different pieces, given the setup, that’s not a feature I missed.
This isn’t exactly a game of halves, though – the two Twine pieces are much shorter than the meaty middle. That’s not to slight them by any means: I thought the opener efficiently sketched out the loves, annoyances, and fears between the various character, while providing scope for a few low-stakes decisions that nonetheless helped characterize the protagonist. And the finale sequence is an impressively open-ended conversation where you can choose to chat about what you liked (or disliked) about the text adventure, press your dad on his health and prognosis, or a combination of the two; while the game cues you towards positivity and escapism, at least it does acknowledge that your dad’s constant wisecracking and avoidance of hard topics is at least a bit problematic, so there’s some tension in how to navigate the discussion. But still, combined these two parts made up perhaps half an hour of my two with the game.
(I also can’t help but note that the Twine sections feature AI-generated character portraits; adding insult to injury, I didn’t think they were very good).
As for the text adventure, it’s an impressively realized artifact that does a great job communicating the fictional details of its construction: it’s a wacky puzzlefest set in the house where your dad grew up (very in line with the first parser game many folks write), and since it was originally intended as a gift for your 16th birthday, the main goal is for you to get an invitation, costume, and shareable gift to bring to your party. So if there are sometimes dumb jokes, overcomplicated puzzles, or implementation niggles, well, those are all to be expected!
Irony can only take you so far, but at least as to the first two potential issues, I think Hand Me Down succeeds. On the writing front, the joke-a-minute style lands more often than not, helped along by appealing, entertaining prose; there’s the inevitable puzzle where you need to search an unpleasant pile of compost, and of course you know there’s something in there, but the game’s going to drag things out:
The only way to make this dark curiosity go away is meet it at the end. You thought you were used to the smell, a cross between vegetable corpses and bug barf, but nope, urk! there it is again, with a fresh layer of horribleness now that you’re getting closer.
There’s also an extended sequence where you have to follow a snail as he races to show you something that left me giggling.
As for puzzles, thought has clearly gone into how to balance the old-school feel with player accessibility. In particular, while there are five different invitations, costumes, and gifts in the game, you only need to get one of each to get to the ending, which takes a substantial edge off the difficulty. There are definitely some design approaches that are too hardcore for me – if you want to get a full score, this is the kind of game where you’d better LOOK UNDER the kitchen table without any prompting. I also signally failed to figure out how to interact with any of the computers I found, with USE COMPUTER or TURN ON COMPUTER being no help at all; turns out MOVE MOUSE is the way to go, which is a pretty granular requirement for something that shouldn’t be at all hard for the protagonist to accomplish. But since those puzzles were largely optional, I can’t complain too much about a design that allows more hardcore puzzle-solvers than I to have extra fun.
That third category, implementation niggles, did sometimes get more than niggle-y, though. There’s some minor stuff, like unimplemented objects (the narration calls great attention to a clock on a mantelpiece in one room, so I was surprised no such thing actually existed) and a takeable beam of sunlight. But the major issues I ran into were about disambiguation. I had to go to incredible lengths to manage such mundane tasks as unlocking a drawer with the key that clearly unlocked it, or reading the most recent of the dozen notes I’d picked up. Judicious inventory juggling got me through most of these challenges, but there were a few I simply had to write off because I couldn’t figure out how to communicate exactly which object I was referring to. I haven’t experienced anything this rough since playing Cragne Manor – and that had 84 different authors, none of whom coordinated with each other!
Those nearly-interchangeable notes bring me to what I think is Hand Me Down’s other missed opportunity. See, over the course of years, your dad has added what amount to diary entries into the game, musing on his relationship with you, his divorce from your mom, how he felt about his own dad… these are well written, and form the clearest connection point between the text adventure and the frame story, rewarding the diligent player with backstory and deeper emotional engagement to inform the eventual climax. But it’s pretty hard to find them – I only discovered about half – and because they’re embedded in a big, riotous puzzlefest, I found they didn’t have as much heft as they merited, because as soon as I read one it was on to the next complex challenge. I would have enjoyed the game more, I think, if the author had leaned harder into creating resonance between the frame story and the text adventure, so that it felt like progress through the parser game was more directly shedding light on the central character relationships.
That would have been a different game, though; and to be honest I have a hard time believing that the protagonist’s dad would have made a more modern, post-Photopia game instead of going back to the 80s text adventures of his youth. Similarly, if Hand Me Down doesn’t fully integrate and unify its disparate pieces, it’s still quite successful at the ambitious task its set itself. The game has heart, comedy, and clever puzzles out the wazoo; if the pieces don’t fully cohere, at least each of them is enjoyable on its own.
Hand Me Down MR.txt (290.7 KB)