Mike Russo's IF Comp 2023 Reviews

I think a few reviewers seem to have been blindsided by the final questions!

I didn’t have trouble with that, because the first thing I happened to do after talking to the two NPCs was look in the top drawer and find the pills, and since I was still in interrogation mode I kept asking the investigator questions: pills/bleeding/depression/alcoholism/varices. I don’t remember the exact questions but it was something like those. I’ve been meaning to post my own transcripts but I don’t have mine now to check.

I think another reviewer made the fair point that the NPCs don’t have deeply implemented responses otherwise; if a puzzle depends on multi-layered questioning, the NPCs should be responsive to other questions as well or else the player isn’t always going to think to ask! I’m suspecting now that the whole ask tutorial at the start might’ve been added to try to alleviate this.

(I also had trouble with the rack)


Thanks for the review and feedback! I wasn’t sure if mentioning upfront about the game being an education tool would put off people but I’m really glad the game was appreciated for what it’s intended to be :slight_smile:


It seems the picross doesn’t appear well in certain interpreters (e.g. Gargoyle). May I ask which one do you use?

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I played in Lectrote, and the grid was not correctly aligned, as I mentioned in my transcript…


Cool, thanks for sharing this, since now I have a clearer sense of the intended progression, and I can see the logic. I think I ran into two issues: first, I didn’t get the sense that Knapp had any specialized knowledge about medical stuff, so when he said they’d sent the pill bottle out for analysis, I assumed the infodump he provided was all there was to learn, and second, I think there’s some fragility in some of the conversation topics, since asking about BLOOD wasn’t all that helpful and seems like BLEEDING might have gotten more directly at the relevant clue. But I think those are relatively simpler things for the author to tweak!

Actually I think I would have been even more excited to play the game if I’d known that :slight_smile: But yeah I think that framing would help prompt players to do things like dig more deeply into the dialogue trees for the info they need, rather than assuming everything’s going to run on detective-movie logic.

Yeah, I played it in Garyoyle – I think the issue has something to do with monospace fonts, maybe? Above my pay grade but there’s a solid knowledge-base on the board, I think, if you need support troubleshooting!


My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition, by Naomi Norbez

I’ve found myself increasingly interested in non-fictional IF over the past few years, and not just because of a love for lexical paradoxes; the gotcha of pointing out that “interactive fiction” is underbroad as well as overbroad has long since grown stale, after all. No, what’s unique about these games is that they’re the logical end point of quite visible, longstanding trends – I’m thinking here of the decades-long shift towards more personal IF, which was of course turbo-charged by the rise of choice-based games but does have roots that predate it, as well as the significant increase in the prominence and respectability of the memoir in the broader culture – but by this sensible extrapolation, they wind up putting revelatory pressure on the “interactive” part of IF.

If a game is telling a true story, after all inviting a player to interact with it, allowing interactivity to directly change the narrative would be self-undermining (…though it occurs to me that could be a viable strategy; we’re still waiting for the IF equivalent of Adaption). But there are other approaches available; You Couldn’t Have Done That, an almost-memoir with an autistic protagonist from a couple years ago, offers multiple choices at key decision points but redirects the narrative onto the critical path if the player strays from what’s possible for the player, providing a concrete but frustrating look at unrealized alternatives. And my own game Sting from a couple of years ago lets the player act in the gaps in my memories, where I don’t fully recall the order that things happened or the exact details of conversations I had. One could argue these are bits of sleight of hand, and I suppose that’s true. But at the same time, it’s also the case that regular fictional IF very rarely allows for anything like true player agency. The illusions provided by nonfictional IF may put these tactics on more obvious display, but to my mind that’s a virtue, not a vice – part of what I enjoy about games in this subgenre is that they require authors to think more creatively about interaction, and help me better understand what’s going on when I engage with an author’s mind via a piece of IF.

I’m writing this overlong, probably over-theorized, introduction because I think it would be easy to write a review of My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition that focuses just on the content, because it is searing and intense: the game chronicles the author’s year in several treatment facilities as they worked to survive a severe mental health crisis that, among other impacts, dramatically reduced their cognitive function. That crisis by itself would be more than enough to carry the game’s weight, but the author also experienced – and writes about – parental abuse, transphobia and misgendering, suicidal thoughts, and the bureaucratic nightmares of America’s heath care, insurance, and housing systems. But the narrative isn’t misery tourism by any stretch of the imagination, as the author throughout highlights the things that helped them hold on and survive, the art they continued to create despite the incredible limitations they faced, and the authentic moments of connection and joy they found along the way.

The writing tells this story in direct and affecting prose that’s confident in its power; it knows that a specific, well-chosen detail evokes far more emotion than purplishly exaggerated language. I have a lot of these in my notes, but here are a few examples from the early parts of the game:

[The pseudo-dementia] even affected how I could eat food: because of the high executive dysfunction that was now in my brain, I could only eat food that was simple in texture, simple to prepare, and easy to eat. I ate a lot of cups of Kraft Mac and cheese at that time.

When I was in the ER, they couldn’t give me access to a pen due to my suicidal ideations—they were scared I would hurt myself. But I was desperate for a writing utensil, and they were able to give me a little crayon pack: one that you would give to children, with the colors yellow, red, blue, and green. I was very grateful to receive it.

There are also some wry bits that made me laugh – a quartet of paintings depicting the author, their twin, and their parents is titled “Leo Tolstoy Was Right About Families.”

So yes, the narrative here deals with very weighty subject matter, and is very well-told. But I was just as impressed by the structure the game uses for the story. The “exhibition” referred to in the title is entirely literal, as you’re positioned as a visitor to a museum that houses a collection of concrete artifacts from the author’s odyssey. A lovely dual-window view displays text in the right window, and images in the left – the interface elegantly recreates the quintessential museum-going experience of moving your eyes back and forth between an object and its informational label. The game goes even further by embodying the player; rather than flicking through a catalogue of items, you’re given a map of each wing of the show, and use directional navigation controls to decide where you want to go. This means the player can decide to go back to look at a previously-visited object if a later one recontextualizes it, or choose when they feel ready to move on to the next collection. And critically, there’s a small bit of friction at every step – walking around is quick but not instantaneous, and the sound of footsteps imposes a short but noticeable delay when moving from wing to wing.

The effect of all these choices is to create distance, but it’s not the kind of distance that keeps the player at arm’s length; rather, it’s a reflective distance that invites the player to engage with what they’re seeing and reading, and then think about it. There are certainly moments when the exhibition is overwhelming, like long screeds of journal entries written in the throes of crisis, or when a piece of art that depicts a source of chaos in the author’s life fills the screen. But these are balanced by moments of peace and isolation, which I found made the moments of intensity even more impactful since they had time to land. It also helps draw attention to some of the subtler aspects of the game’s design, like the clearly-intentional way that a positive COVID test kit is tucked away in its own isolated niche.

The way the presentation focuses on a selected set of the impedimenta of the author’s journey is also a smart way of acknowledging that the full experience can never be communicated to someone who hasn’t gone through something like this: this approach provides concrete, tangible examples and then leaves space for the player’s mind to fill in the gaps. Sure, some examples had more personal resonance for me than others – the author’s practice of writing themself a letter on an important anniversary date is one I’ve used myself, for example, whereas I’m pretty sure I would dislike all the anime series that get mentioned – but that’s not the point, because the game’s methods of fostering engagement don’t rest on anything so flimsy as relatability.

I find it can often be challenging to write good criticism of works like this that engage – often uncomfortably – with intense, personal trauma. Beyond the obvious tendency to softpedal critiques (“your suffering was insufficiently entertaining” is not a sentence anyone ever wants to write), I think it’s also often the case that reviewers overemphasize the bravery of the author for sharing their story, without acknowledging that bravery all by itself doesn’t make for a good work of art. So while I do think the author is brave and have intense empathy for what they’ve gone through, I also wanted to spell out very clearly that I was very impressed too by the craft that went into this game, both as to writing and as to design; I’ve written down a 9 for it in my rating spreadsheet, which is as high as anything else I’ve rated this year, and I might adjust it upwards when I do my final scoring. This one’s not to be missed.


All Hands, by Natasha Ramoutar

There’ve been a goodly number of short Texture games this Comp and last, and call me jaded but by now I’ve got a pretty solid sense of what to expect when I see one coming up next: a personal narrative with a reasonable albeit clunky metaphor, confusing use of the drag-and-drop interface, interestingly flawed writing, and minimal branching. Leave it for the last such game in my queue to leave me spluttering and unsure of what I’ve just seen: All Hands is, I swear to y’all, a limited-parser game in Texture form. I didn’t know you could do such a thing, but now that I have, I think the system might be almost perfect for it?

In retrospect, this maybe should have been obvious to me. The drag-verbs-onto-nouns interface is quite similar to how classic graphic adventures were set up, but since most games tend to change the verbs on offer with each passage, the resemblance is typically obscured. Here, the player gets a consistent trio that map cleanly to traditional IF actions – reflect/examine, take, and approach/go – and the author’s also set things up so that after an introductory section, you’re able to wander around different areas of a ship and even revisit places you’ve been before. And while I wasn’t even aware Texture could do much in the way of state-tracking, there are obstacles that are clearly puzzles, and which respond in different ways if you’ve acquired the right tool or piece of information. I wouldn’t say any of them are challenging – this is very much an exploration-focused game – but this is a sturdy formula to drive player engagement, and it’s well-realized here.

Uncharacteristically, I’m three paragraphs in and I haven’t said anything about the game’s plot or themes; it’s time to remedy that, but take the omission as an indication of just how much the structure bowled me over. So you’re a young person living in a fantasy version of the real world who’s always been fascinated by the sea, and as part of your backstory, your sister killed by sea monsters, so this fascination has a dark, obsessive element to it too. One night while wandering the coast, you come across an unearthly vessel that plays host to a strange, ocean-going carnival. The ringmistress invites you aboard and gives you a chance to explore before the show begins, and as you poke around belowdecks, you can uncover the ship’s secrets, some of which are uncannily personal…

The premise is over the top, in other words, and the writing sometimes doesn’t sell it as effectively as it could – as you climb the ladder onto the ship, for example, you’re told that there’s a bunch of dust on each rung, indicating that it’s been a long time since there’ve been any visitors coming aboard. It’s presumably meant to be a spooky touch, but it’s rendered ridiculous by the fact that you’re scaling the ladder in the middle of a storm, a detail that this very passage takes pains to remind you of. But there are some authentically eerie notes too, like the observation that the ship’s larder seems to stock only root vegetables, which is bizarre and oddly specific. Overall, despite its moments of weakness, I liked the prose; unfortunately, you’ll need to trust me on that because I played the game on mobile which meant that whenever I tried to copy and paste any excerpts into my notes, it crashed (Texture gonna Texture).

The game’s climax is a nice capstone too, snapping into focus some thematic elements whose presence earlier in the narrative seemed slightly off. It seems like there were several different endings the player can choose between, based on how deeply they plumbed the ship’s mysteries, which was a pleasant way to make the parserlike gameplay relevant to the story, though once again one of Texture’s foibles reduced my enjoyment; I wanted to go back and try out some of the other options, but without an undo or save/load option, that would have meant replaying the whole game from the beginning.

I guess I can’t help banging on about Texture even when reviewing a game I enjoyed; it’s a frustrating piece of technology. But for a change, I can actually see how it supports what a game is trying to accomplish, and the tweaks I’d want to see to make the system work better are just tweaks, not fundamental reimaginings. That’s an exciting place to leave my journey with Texture for the year, so nice work, All Hands; your weirdo creepy circus and this weirdo creepy engine are a surprisingly good fit.


I was waiting for you to review this game. I knew how you’ve felt about other texture games, so I’ve been curious to see if this might win you over ever since I played it (randomizer made it #2 for me). I’m glad to see you got some enjoyment out of it. It’s got me contemplating other possible fixed limited verb sets.


Paintball Wizard, by Doug Egan

So this game leaves me in something of a quandary (and I don’t just mean that I tried and failed to do this as a theme review rewriting the Who’s Pinball Wizard): I have long been of the opinion that IF can, and should, take on politically and personally important themes, and I also really enjoy comedy puzzlefests too. You could say that’s inconsistent, and sure, I maybe lean a little more on the games with Something To Say when constructing my list of all-time favorite pieces of IF, but the variation between these kinds of ways a text game can be is actually one of the things I love about the scene: in this very Comp, I played To Sea in a Sieve back to back with Gestures Towards Divinity, which ironically was a perfect pairing.

Usually these contrasts are a matter of different games taking dramatically different approaches, though. Thus the flummoxing: Paintball Wizard is a parserlike choice-based puzzle game where your frat-bro protagonist uses a robust magic system to win the eponymous faux-battle. It’s also a narrative intensely focused on the experience of marginalization and abuse, steering into bleak real-world events so directly that they barely count as allegories. It’s a bold mélange whose audacity I admire, but while there are very strong elements in each of the game’s two halves, for me at least I felt too much whiplash to ever get past the incongruity and feel like the game worked as a unified whole.

I guess I’ll start with the nuts and bolts of the system that supports the paintball game. This is a parser-like choice game with metroidvania elements; you navigate around the outdoor arena searching out your opponents in order to zap them into submission, via an interface that allows you to move around, examine particular objects, take a context-specific action, talk to any NPCs present, access your inventory (though this is typically for informational purposes only, there aren’t any USE X ON Y puzzles), or cast a spell. The magic system is syllable-based; working out exactly how it behaves is a fun meta-puzzle that you can start to solve before you’re “meant” to, which is a nice touch, so I won’t spoil it except to say that it reminded me of one of my favorite tabletop RPG systems (for the curious: Ars Magica). It’s quite complex – and there are some puzzles that I thought were slightly underclued or wonkily implemented, like the paella-pan necromancy or outdrawing your pledge-master, but you’re eased into things because you start out knowing only one spell, and unlock more as you go.

Thus, while the name led me to expect that the gameplay might be open and dynamic, in actuality it’s fairly linear; the other players don’t move around, just staying in their respective hideout areas waiting for you to get the tools you need to find them and zap them. Those other players – your frat brothers – are also the way that you gain access to new magic, because after you beat them, you can enter their minds to get a flashback that reveals some backstory while teaching you a new spell or two.

This is what brings us to the other side of the equation: in this world, wizards are known to the world at large but are subject to widespread bullying, hatred, and distrust. As a result, these flashbacks are uniformly bleak, sometimes operatically so:

St Mungo’s is a detention center reserved for children who cannot be adopted, who cannot be fostered, and who will not be accepted at the work farms for normal children. The mission of this grim institution is to hunt down and reform unwanted children who are known or suspected wizards. The other orphans have left for the day, most of them leased laborers at a local glue factory or working in even more horrible places. Some of them actually like the glue factory because they glean extra calories licking spilled horse gelatin off the floor.

You read that and think, “OK, couldn’t get any grimmer”, but turns out the orphanage was an old radium watch-dial factory, and they haven’t bothered to clean up the residue. Other vignettes deal with the immigration system separating children from their parents, redlining and ghetto-formation, and even a lynching. Gameplay-wise, these sequences all use a restricted set of the same mechanics that animate the paintball bits, but instead of creeping around in dark alleys trying to get the drop on your buddy, you’re trying to escape extrajudicial detention or recover a beloved pet before your home is seized. They work well enough on their own terms, with some unique gameplay twists that are actually more interesting than the paintball game. And there’s a narrative link to the frame story, as learning more about his brothers makes the protagonist reciprocate by opening up to them about his own history of trauma, helping reinforce the game’s overall theme of found family.

It all makes sense in the abstract, and I can see the coherent vision that the author is going for. Still, making all these different emotional registers work, and invoking these very real horrors without trivializing them, is a tall order, and I’m not sure the writing is always up to the challenge. There are some odd details or minor errors throughout; nothing too major, but enough to elicit a “huh?”, like the note that you might know more about ants if you’d taken an introduction to ornithology class (should that have been entomology?), or a character bringing their younger sibling into the room for their high-stakes college interview. The game’s focus on bringing dignity to subaltern characters also stands in tension with some mildly culturally-insensitive banter the wizards engage in when they go out for dim sum – so much for solidarity!

The worldbuilding is a little strange too, especially the repeated reference to terms like quidditch or Muggles; it wasn’t clear to me whether this was the result of the wizard community ironically reappropriating these words, or if the setting is supposed to be a more literal alternate take on Harry Potter. And sometimes the needs of gameplay seemed to trump narrative logic, as in the flashback sequence where the mother of one of your frat brothers starts trying to teach him magic in the middle of a crowded immigrant processing center, while trying to pretend they’re not wizards. Paintball Wizard is only rarely clumsy, but I never found it showed the deftness of touch you’d probably need in a game where one minute you’re contemplating the fact that wizards with cancer are denied life-saving medical care because of their identities, and the next you’re trying to figure out what the XYZZY spell does.

So the game’s high-wire act was wobbly throughout, but the moment where I feel like it definitively stopped being able to keep its components from flying apart came close to the end – it’s a sufficiently big twist that it’s worth spoiler-blurring: turns out the protagonist has a deep dark secret he’s keeping from his brothers, which is that he’s not really a wizard; he manages it all with stage magic and sleight of hand. This is nonsensical on its face – for example, one of the things that led to him being on the outs with his family was a vanishing trick he pulled in the middle of his sister’s interview with a Princeton admissions officer. He says this was “accomplished with a half silvered mirror and a trap door in the floor behind the admin officer’s desk”, but what, he snuck into the office to saw out the trap door the night before the interview? And of course he spends the whole game actually doing magic; the game tries to get around this by having the protagonist protest that “I’ve stolen all my real spell casting knowledge from inside your minds using SPLACK. I’m still a fraud.” But SPLACK is a spell! More tellingly, this makes a mess of the game’s themes; while the wizard community mostly seems to operate as a racial metaphor, it could have also worked if wizarding were a behavior, making it more of a queer metaphor. But saying that you can opt into being a wizard, but doing so is a shameful thing you keep secret means that the protagonist is basically positioned as Rachel Dolezal. And again, the player has to think this stuff through while trying to out-paintball your bros and complete various side-tasks like learning the chapter pledge song and trying to work an off-brand TARDIS.

If Paintball Wizard doesn’t work in its current form, though, it still deserves flowers for making the attempt. It’s cleanly programmed, and has strong puzzle design and a myriad of engaging gameplay systems; it’s also unafraid to take on some really important issues and boasts moments of appealing humanism and openness. Sure, in retrospect it’s got an ill-conceived premise that probably would never have fully worked regardless of whether the specific complaints I levy above had been addressed, but it’s a memorable fiasco that’s a standout game in the Comp, which as far as I’m concerned is its own kind of success.


Hawkstone, by Handsome McStranger

I had my issues with Hawkstone, but full points for honesty. The game’s introductory text straight-up tells you that “you will travel to far off imaginary lands with your avatar and attempt to command yourself with basic English sentences; All the while while upping your stats by fighting gratuitous monsters and looting pretend valuables so you can stuggle to the end and earn the magical McGuffin for defeating the game.” The unpretentious humility of that disclaimer made me root for the game even as the typos and expectation-management sent out warning signs – not that it takes an especially sensitive antenna to pick up on such signals when that opening blurb also says “I’m sorry the game isn’t as good or polished as I wanted, but I was down to the wire and needed another week to implement everything I intened. I worked really hard and hope it’s good enough for you.”

Points too for content. I feel like often games written in homebrewed systems are often on the shorter side, since so much of the author’s time has to go into developing the engine, but this adventure-RPG hybrid has complex mechanics (there’s a full character-development system that gradually increases a bevy of stats as you adventure, as well as separate adventure-game and RPG-game inventories) and, from a quick glance at the long walkthrough file, a giant map bursting with puzzles.

There’s obviously been a “but” hanging over those first two paragraphs, so I’m just going to rip off the band-aid: but the game is still a bit of a mess, with technical issues up the wazoo and a mystifying lack of clarity about what’s going on. Without any real plot to speak of to pull me through the rough patches – you’re just an adventurer who washes up on a strange shore and starts solving puzzles and picking stuff up for the heck of it – I bounced off this one fairly quickly.

By far the biggest usability challenge I ran into was the game’s issues displaying text. The interface keeps the location description constantly available at the top of the window while commands and responses fill in below. This isn’t my favorite approach, since it can involve a lot of looking up and down the screen, but it’s made far worse here by the game’s tendency to resize its window, making them narrow or wider in response to what I typed, and sometimes triggering scroll bars that I had to click through in order to get back to the action prompt (there are some suggestions in the readme that helped make this issue somewhat less pronounced, but it was never fully resolved). Making matters worse, sometimes new output would overwrite previously displayed text, leading to stuff like this:

—What now?–>look gate

—What now?–> ocked gate closely.ck up the plant pot above gate.

You rattle the gate hoping it’s only slightly locked. Turns out it’s very locked.

Even when the display is working properly, I still found it hard to understand what was happening around my character and what, if anything, I’d done to trigger these particular results. The RPG statistics are the worst example of this; while I like the idea that you increase your attributes by doing things (shades of Quest for Glory!) it didn’t seem like there was any link between the actions I was taking and which stats were going up, and the specifics of what different attributes did didn’t appear to be explained anywhere. Sure, strength is probably self-explanatory, but making sense of stuff like this is much harder:

—What now?–>look fishing line Search[TM] without perception and a shovel.

You examine the fishing line closely.

It goes down into the ravine. You can use it to check if the tinker has caught any supper yet.

Moved smelly kipper to location.

You check what’s on the line.


You have discovered ONLINE SHOPPING

The parser is often fairly obtuse; despite a solid five minutes of struggle, I couldn’t figure out how to light a candle with some matches, which is what eventually tipped me over into putting down the game. Occasionally I have enough patience to just key in a walkthrough to see what a game has to offer, but as mentioned, this is a really big game, and I think I’d just get more frustrated if I tried to power through it. That’s a shame given the amount of work the author clearly put into Hawkstone, but hopefully my response exemplifies some good advice for folks entering the Comp: if you think you need another week to make the game you want to submit, you probably should wait for next year (or another festival) because you likely need way more than that week. If you’re homebrewing or creating an intentionally retro experience, think hard about why you’re doing that and what the upside will be for the player’s experience. And if you need to choose between expanding your game and polishing what you’ve got – which eventually you will have to do – polish is almost always the right answer. Entering any game into the Comp is an achievement, and I hope to see more games from the author after taking onboard some lessons learned!


GameCeption, by Ruo

I think anybody who has a job or area of expertise that’s routinely depicted in popular media has a pet-peeve list of things that are continually and hilariously flubbed in said media. As someone with a law degree, I’d put the talismanically-powerful contract waiver near the top of my list: you know, someone’s about to do something ridiculously dangerous and/or ill-advised, but since they agreed to a generic waiver, all is good. So it goes for Ziyan, the protagonist of this stylish choice-based game, who signs his name to a vague waiver saying “We are not responsible for any liabilities and damages that may occur during the games” before entering a reality-TV videogame competition that immediately goes way off the rails. As the battle royale gets way too real and axes, grenades, and body-parts start flying, the question isn’t who’s going to be left standing to claim the million-dollar prize – it’s how fast the survivors and the family members of those who don’t make it out will sue everyone involved back to the stone age, waiver or no waiver.

Okay, okay, that’s clearly not the point – and to a certain extent, the ultraviolence isn’t really the point either, as GameCeption’s thankfully more focused on the relationship between its two leads and the game-theoretical implications of its twist than it is on rendering a Battlegrounds-style game in IF form. Ziyan’s best friend, and partner in the competition, is Airen, an affable, supportive guy who provides a nice counterweight to Ziyan’s occasionally moody nature. There isn’t much time for the two of them to hang out before they decide to sign up for the TV show in hopes of making enough money to pay the rent, but the introductory scenes are enough to establish an easy rapport between them that raises the stakes once things go pear-shaped.

The signs that that something’s off about the production company come early, as the initial interview delves into some oddly invasive questions about how much the duo trust each other – this is effectively lampshaded, though, in a bit that showcases the early, laidback vibe:

“Dude, same,” Airen agrees, scratching his head. “Like are they gonna make us do a trust fall off the side of a building?” Ziyan punches him. “If that really happens, I’m blaming you.”

This introductory sequence does feel fairly long, and doesn’t have too many decision-points, but once the competition starts, things pick up. As you play the game, you’re presented with a series of mostly binary choices; I’m not sure how on-rails this sequence is, but it feels authentically tense. The writing does go a bit over the top, and having the gameplay narrow to determining whether you die or get to continue the story, but this section moves quickly enough that it doesn’t wear out its welcome. And then comes in the twist, which I found fairly predictable but which I’ll spoiler-block nonetheless.

It turns out that you’re not piloting a polygonal avatar around, but rather (through some unexplained technology) your buddy Airen; likewise, the other players you’re fighting are real people who are being killed and/or maimed by the ultraviolence everyone is deploying in pursuit of the prize. This ironically brings the video-game battle royale genre back to its cinematic roots, but shorn of its original thematic heft; GameCeption doesn’t seem interested in interrogating the economic, political, or cultural systems that created such a horrifying competition, but instead uses its premise to put pressure on the traditional understanding of player identity in IF: if you’re making decisions for Ziyan, and Ziyan is making decisions for Airen, who’s actually the player?

It’s a superficially clever turn, but this twist didn’t do much for me. Again, it’s pretty heavily telegraphed, and questions of players’ complicity or agency in a narrative are old hat for IF by now; I don’t feel like adding the second-order complexity of one character piloting another did much to unsettle the well-understood IF triangle of identities (narrator, protagonist, player). Even a somewhat-stale theme can still support a good game, of course, but I felt that GameCeption put too many eggs in the metafictional basket: the rapport between Airen and Ziyan largely drops out as the action picks up, and the simple gameplay isn’t enough to hold the player’s interest. And then the ending doubles down by having Ziyan reup with the competition, and using his interest in game-design to implement an even bigger twist for the next season that makes even less sense, and has even less emotional impact.

Bringing things back as we return for spoiler-town, I’d summarize by saying that the game becomes over-reliant on a meta idea that isn’t quite as clever as it seems to think, and becomes a slender reed upon which to rest the second half of the game. There’s some excitement to be had, but I think GameCeption would have been stronger if it had either gone smaller, by staying grounded in the best-friend relationship between the two characters, or even bigger by leaning into the implications of its twist and dialing up the questions it raises about agency and control to 11. As is, I found the game a little too lukewarm to make much of an impact, like boilerplate contract language your eye just skips right past.


Meritocracy, by Ronynn

The major part of Meritocracy depicts a philosophy class where you’re the only student, framing this as an opportunity for free-ranging discussion that sparks creativity and learning – but let me tell you, I’ve lived something close to this experience and the reality is very different. One trimester when I was in college, I took a Philosophy of Mind class on a lark, only to discover that at my small, science-focused school, not many other folks shared that lark – there was only one other student enrolled in the course, and he was pretty flaky in his attendance. Making matters worse, the professor had the most droning voice I’ve ever heard, the class was held immediately after lunch, and the rest of my course load that trimester included some very hard classes so I was regularly pulling two or three all-nighters a week to keep up with the problem sets. As a result, I’ve retained only three things from the class: 1) I can use the word “qualia” correctly a solid 30% of the time; 2) I’ve got an anecdote I can dine out on about the time I walked into the classroom only to see a dozen Secret Service agents staring unblinkingly at me (then-President Clinton was giving a speech and they’d commandeered the room as a command post); and 3) I determined that philosophy is 95% defining reasonably-intuitive terms in excruciating detail, 4% saying completely obvious things with those terms, and 1% thought-provoking new ideas.

When I was 20, I meant this as a burn – take that, Western canon! – but with a bit more perspective, I think there’s actually a lot to respect about this approach. For one thing, having gone to law school helped me recognize that it’s often incredibly hard to come up with air-tight definitions for things that seem to be simple common sense, so while the labor of pinning language down to the mat might not be especially glamorous, it’s useful work, allowing seemingly-obvious propositions to be tested and setting the needed conditions for clear, productive disagreement and discussion. This is where Meritocracy founders: while it takes on a debate that’s recently generated a reasonable amount of energy, I found the writing throughout to be muddled and confusing, such that I’m not sure I ever got a clear sense of what the various ideas, arguments, and counterarguments here on offer actually add up to.

Structurally, the game is relatively simple – using a choice-based interface, you navigate your first day going back to school, visiting first a mechanical engineering lecture (turns out you were in the wrong classroom), then go to the aforementioned solo philosophy class where you discuss the ad hominem fallacy, before you wander into an open-air debate between students about the titular philosophy; the game then wraps up with a final visit back to the philosophy prof, where you can reflect back your take on what you heard and then hear some counterarguments. You have a few incidental choices in each vignette, but save for the one at the end where you give meritocracy a yea or nay, I didn’t get the sense that there was significant branching – which is OK, this is a game that’s trying to walk the player through an argument.

Again, though, the problem is that this argument doesn’t quite land. The general prose style is a major culprit in the lack of clarity I experienced; it’s quite wordy, and often repeats the same idea multiple times after only slight reformulation. This is rather stultifying to read, as in a mid-game sequence where you walk through the campus that feels like it loops back on itself over and over without saying anything of note. Forgive me for quoting at length:

You are observing everything, the buildings, the gardens, the fountains. Observing them with curiosity and admiration. Observing them with reverence and gratitude. Observing them with wonder and awe. You are walking around the campus, thinking about everything. Thinking about what you are doing here. Thinking about why you are here. Thinking about how you came here. Thinking about what you will do here.

You are here, because you want to be here. Because you chose to be here. Because you have a purpose. A purpose that is noble and lofty, that is worthy of your efforts and sacrifices, that is dear to your heart and soul. A purpose that is to study. To study not only for yourself, but for others. To study not only for today, but for tomorrow. To study not only for knowledge, but for wisdom. To study not only for pleasure, but for duty.

But you are also here, because you have to be here. Because you were compelled to be here. Because you have a destiny. A destiny that is mysterious and inevitable, that is beyond your control and understanding, that is shaped by forces greater than yourself. A destiny that is to learn. To learn not only from books and teachers, but from life and experience. To learn not only from success and happiness, but from failure and sorrow. To learn not only from joy and love, but from pain and loss.

You are here, on this campus, where you will study and learn, where you will grow and change, where you will meet and part, where you will love and suffer. You are here, on this campus, where you will face challenges and opportunities, where you will make choices and consequences, where you will find friends and enemies, where you will discover yourself and others.

When it comes to the philosophical aspects of the story, the stylistic issues become even more challenging. Here’s an excerpt from the exchange about meritocracy that kicks off the second half of the game:

[First character:] You are wrong about the effects of meritocracy, my friend. The effects are not positive and beneficial, but negative and harmful. The effects are not empowering and liberating, but oppressive and alienating. The effects are not inclusive and democratic, but exclusive and elitist.

[Second character]: You are wrong about the alternatives to meritocracy, my friend. The alternatives are not better and fairer, but worse and unjust. The alternatives are not more humane and compassionate, but more cruel and indifferent. The alternatives are not more progressive and innovative, but more regressive and stagnant.

This isn’t a debate, it’s a staged reading of the thesaurus.

What’s worse, when the writing isn’t being repetitive, it’s often being confusing. Like, the major choice about how you feel about meritocracy prompts you for your feelings on “this idea”, but there’s no immediate antecedent in the rest of the sentence or paragraph to clue you in on the fact that “this idea” here means the arguments against meritocracy that you just heard, rather than meritocracy itself, which was how I initially interpreted the clause.

The muddle extends beyond the writing into the ideas themselves, too. For one thing, the extended treatment of the ad hominem fallacy – itself somewhat confused, in that it invokes the execution of Marie Antoinette as an example of the fallacy – doesn’t have anything to do with the conversation about meritocracy as far as I could tell; the debaters are barely characterized, so they don’t go after each other on that basis. And then in the final sequence, at least in the branch I chose the professor went off on a bizarre tangent about the trolley problem, arguing that it can be “seen as a metaphor for the competition for limited resources in society” to justify its relevance. But this is pretty unconvincing – the trolley problem is obviously about ethics, not distributional justice (also, can IF please just stop it with the trolley problem? Thanks).

Perhaps as a result of the fact that comparatively little of the game is spent on the idea that’s centered in the title, I likewise found the treatment of meritocracy underbaked. There are lots of arguments and ideas thrown around, but there isn’t any kind of analytic framework provided to make sense of what positions different characters might advance, or which you might want to agree or disagree with. Like, in the farrago of verbiage, nowhere is it acknowledged that arguing that meritocracy has been tried and found wanting – because it devalues the innate dignity of human beings, for example – should take you to a completely different place than arguing that it has been found difficult and not tried – by pointing out that rich people get unfair advantages that have nothing to do with merit; all these critiques are simply lumped together. Similarly, I found the game persistently conflated meritocracy as an ideology and meritocracy as a system of concrete policies and practices. There’s just a lot of words being thrown around, and then the game ends.

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the game needed to situate the conversation about meritocracy in the broader context of political philosophy, or give a potted summary of Rawls or anything like that, in order to be successful (though honestly, some of this kind of thing might not have been a bad idea…) But I do think it needed a lot more discipline, in both its conception and its writing, to convey any idea beyond “meritocracy: people sure have feelings about it, seems complicated!” I suppose that requiring the player to sharpen up their linguistic tools so they can make more refined assessments could well turn out deadly dull, but that, alas, is often the price of philosophy.


The Gift of What You Notice More, by Xavid and Zan

My first year of college, I had a roommate who was super into Dar Williams. He was so into her, in fact, that he would fall asleep every night listening to his playlist of her songs on repeat. This being 1998, though, we were well before the era of Spotify and infinite music availability; that playlist was about fifteen songs he’d managed to snag on Napster. Oh, and our room was pretty small – our beds were about four feet from each other – so when I said he would listen to that playlist every night, I meant we would listen to that playlist every night. And while when I first heard Williams’ stuff, I found her a pleasant enough singer-songwriter who’s recognizably of a piece with a bunch of similar mid-90s folks that I really enjoy, being subjected to the same hourlong loop of music, running over and over, day after day, week after week, month after month, did uh not leave that positive first impression intact, through no fault of her own. You might justifiably ask “wait, why didn’t you just ask your roommate to play something else or turn down the volume or wear headphones or something?”, but I was a 17 year old boy, dealing with another 17 year old boy – I did not have nearly the emotional intelligence needed to initiate and negotiate that dialogue, so now something I once kind of liked leaves me twitching with shellshock.

…for once, I am starting a review off with a rambling, overly-specific personal anecdote, and it is precisely on point. The Gift of What You Notice More takes its title from a Dar Williams song, and takes as its subject a failed relationship whose fractures stem in large part from its protagonist’s reluctance to speak up and have direct conversations about their needs and feelings. Rather than an interactive drama, though, this parser-like Twine game explores its emotional terrain through allegory and flashback. After an opening that sees the protagonist ready to leave their apartment, and husband, for good, you visit a strange café where you encounter a trio of poets and an ambiguous angel who arm you with the tools you need to delve into your memories, which you do by entering three photos of pivotal moments in your conjugal lives: the night when your husband proposed, the day you moved away from your hometown to support his career, and your last birthday, when the façade of happiness you showed to him and your friends became too much to bear. By solving inventory-based puzzles in each vignette, you achieve some tentative revelation about one of three key questions that are gnawing at you (where did it all start to go wrong, what do I really need, etc.), and then you can choose which one is most compelling to you when you revisit the poets and unlock the next phase of the game.

I actually really like this structure; it combines things that parser-like IF is really good at (environmental storytelling, light puzzle-solving) with a strong thematic framework that links the gameplay to the overall narrative, while giving the player space to provide specific input about how they’re interpreting the story as they uncover it. And divorce has supported a million novels and movies, hard to go wrong there. The puzzles are solid too, all quite intuitive so they never slow you down, with an inventory system providing the tiniest bit of friction so lawnmowering isn’t that appealing.

And yet, as if it were a Dar Williams song, I found I didn’t quite get on with the game (I repeat, my current antipathy for her music is entirely irrational and undeserved!), I think for two primary reasons. The first is that the allegory is often way too literal for my tastes. This is maybe a Scylla and Charybdis thing, since I also tend to dislike games where the allegory gets too personal and abstruse to be resonant to anyone else, but I still think there’s a generous margin between that sort of thing and the puzzles we get here, where you need to confront the elephant in the room and recover what’s been swept under the rug. As one-off groaners these’d be bad enough, but they’re often the prompts for multi-step puzzles that make you really dwell on how clangingly obvious the imagery is, like the bit where you see that you’re wearing armor in the birthday-party scene, but when you try to take the armor off so you can be vulnerable, a jester comes jumping out from behind the couch to replace your protection. I admit, I’m not sure I can immediately come up with an instantly-readable metaphor for using humor as a defense mechanism that’s any less ridiculous, but perhaps that’s an indication that this whole approach is flawed.

I think I get why the allegory is as on-the-nose as it is, though, which goes to the other reason I didn’t click with the game. There’s very little here that says anything specific about the relationship, or about the character of the husband, or for that matter about the character of the protagonist. We get a very few hints – there’s a short text-message exchange where your husband’s trying to cheer you up ahead of the birthday party, and we see he’s fond of emojis – but when you go to the flashbacks, everything is static; all the characters, your past self included, are frozen, and you can’t engage or interact with any of them. While there would have been ways to keep this element of the design while still getting more concrete details into the picture – the narration could have incorporated more specific bits of dialogue, for example, or spent more time reflecting on what drew the narrator to her husband in the first place – for the most part the authors seemed content to leave both characters largely as ciphers.

As a result, picking apart the reasons why the relationship failed felt too abstract to truly land for me. Like, many of the potential problems listed – saying yes to a commitment when you weren’t 100% sure, moving someplace far away from your home for a partner’s career opportunity – could either be deal-breakers or complete non-issues depending on the specific people and specific circumstances involved. And the others are largely just truisms – yes, addressing challenges as they come up rather than burying them and building up resentment is important! – that, shorn of any particulars, lack the heft to elicit more than a shrug.

The frustrating thing is, in the ending sequence the game is more concrete and specific, and it’s by far the most affecting part of the piece. Calling a friend to come pick you up, washing the dishes one last time before you leave the apartment forever, deciding what to pack in the one suitcase you’re taking with you: the writing here conveys real emotion, and I think would resonate with anyone who’s ever been in a similar situation. After all, as great songwriters know, all the platitudes about love and overwrought metaphors in the world can’t stand up to a single well-chosen detail (again, Dar Williams could certainly be counted among these great songwriters for all I know!)


One King to Loot Them All, by Onno Brouwer

Without context, One King to Loot Them All would be a weird game. Not so much in its premise – it’s a limited-parser sword and sorcery pastiche set in a funhouse-dungeon that wouldn’t be out of place in an early-80s D&D module, with dracoliches, logic puzzles, and pit traps set cheek-by-jowl without excessive regard for rhyme or reason – but weird in its gameplay, especially the way it provides information and responds to player commands. For one thing, location descriptions are typically quite long and detailed and print out the player’s inventory at the bottom, while examining most objects just unedifyingly reprints the details already included in the location description. For another, it’s extremely solicitous of the player – maybe even sometimes veering to the pushy – in how it prompts you towards the next action. More so than most parser IF, the experience is of being on a ride (uncharitably, one might say a railroad) where doing the one right action gets you a mini-cutscene and moves you on to the next sequence, and anything else is quite unrewarding.

There’s nothing wrong with linear IF in my view, but this is an approach at odds with the traditional strengths of the parser game, where tootling around a map and examining every detail that catches your fancy is typically a big part of the draw. So coming to the game without any context, the player might be scratching their head about why the author took this particular tack. Fortunately, the ABOUT text reveals the secret origin of One King to Loot Them All, which explains quite a lot: the game was originally intended for this year’s Single Choice Jam, where games had to have only one moment where the player could do more than one thing, but missed the deadline.

Viewed in that light, many of its odder features make sense: the descriptions works the way they do, for example, because originally, looking or examining random scenery or even checking inventory would have been disallowed, so all that information needed to be conveyed automatically when entering a new area. Similarly, the limited-parser approach would cut down on the frustration of most commands not doing anything, and since the player could similarly easily get fed up without being able to uncover clues by investigating a scene, these likewise need to be extremely obvious.

One King to Loot Them All, in the form we’ve gotten it, has lifted the most extreme constraints of the jam – commands other than the intended ones are allowed and sometimes marginally useful – but the gimmick is still imprinted deep in the game’s DNA. It has some fun with the concept, too, with a consistent meta joke being the way the protagonist (an off-brand Conan the Barbarian) never met a complex problem he couldn’t solve with immediate violence – when all you’ve got is a hammer… (I kid, but really, the solution to the hoary old “one guard always lies, the other always tells the truth” problem made me snicker).

On the down side, I found the game sort of… lulled me? I’ve played easy games before, of course, but even in an easy parser game there’s typically at least some decision-making incumbent on the player, and again, there’s always the temptation of noodling around (I am an inveterate noodler). Knowing that actually, I should just do the thing I was supposed to do and then move on to the next thing meant that I was acting in as direct a fashion as the protagonist, but also made me feel like my job was just to figure out what the author wanted me to do and then do it – this got me into a flow state of a sort, but it was a sort of inattentive flow state, if that makes sense (it doesn’t).

Of course, you typically don’t just say something “lulled me”, you say it “lulled me into a false sense of security.” And that’s my excuse for why when One King to Loot Them All got to the point where I could make my one choice, I was incredibly slow on the uptake. I’m spoiler-blocking this bit, since it’s the cleverest part of the game: so knowing that there was only one point in the game where more than one action would be productive, I naively assumed it would either come at the beginning or at the end. When the opening half hour was completely linear, I relaxed and, as mentioned in the paragraph above, just played on autopilot, figuring I could turn my brain off until I got to the final scene of the straightforward kill-Foozle story. Even when I went through an odd timey-wimey bit, I still contented myself with doing the most obvious thing at every juncture – and was surprised when it turned out that wasn’t working.

It took me astonishingly long to realize the game’s twist – the choice isn’t so much a choice as a puzzle, and it’s embedded in the middle of the game, not the end. It’s an impressive bit of misdirection that left me clapping my hands, but it also left me a bit frustrated. There’s a fair bit of drudgery involved in experimenting, since I wound up replaying the whole game to that point to confirm that what I’d tried didn’t work, and the logic of the puzzle still doesn’t fully make sense to me: you meet a mysterious sage who blesses your axe, then tells you you need to rewind time to change something that happened before the game starts. So after a bunch of UNDOs you can actually slingshot your way beyond the opening scene and try to change history – but crucially, the axe remains blessed even though you’ve turned back the clock to hours before you met the sage. It’s fair enough, I suppose, since who knows how a diegetic UNDO should work, but in my fugue state, I wasn’t quick enough to figure out the trick, and I didn’t notice any clues (like a telltale new sparkle about the axe, say) that would have helped me out, and I had to use the walkthrough.

To briefly summarize all that blurry text: there’s a really cool twist, but I was too dull to appreciate it, which is mostly my fault though I think some elements of the design could have mitigated the risk of the player being a big old dum-dum like me. I also think the game could have cut itself freer of its single-choice origins while retaining its impact. In particular, making the descriptions more conventional would have made the gameplay a bit more engaging by rewarding player investigation, and kept certain sequences, like the multi-part puzzle to get across the river, from feeling overly constrained.

While I’m picking nits, I also felt like the writing could have been a little zestier. It’s technically solid and hits the genre tropes in a satisfying fashion, but I like my sword-and-sorcery prose to be more over the top, with extravagant superlatives and overly-baroque locutions, as in Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest; One King to Loot Them All is more workmanlike. Similarly, sometimes the barbarian-y synonyms chosen for the limited-parser actions were strained; OPEN being remapped to LOOT made good sense when I was pillaging a chest, but less so when I had to LOOT a wineskin already in my possession to drink it. But these really are nits, and my complaint above might just reflect that I was a bit tired when I played the game and not sufficiently with it to appreciate its uniqueness and smarts.

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I present for your delectation: 327 The Test of the Mind - Giant in the Playground Games


Hi Mike,

Thank you very much for playing my game and writing a review! You hit so many nails on the head, it reminds me of the Penn & Teller act with the nail gun :smiley: . True, the game is the way it is due to its origins. I realise I took a very big risk to put it out into IFComp, because it is indeed very limited in what it accepts, and its strict “story forward” approach severely limits what the player can do.

I considered e.g. to allow the player to walk back to previously visited locations, but that would break the momentum of the game. I was extremely curious to find out if the format would work at all. I am happy to learn it did, at least to some extent.

Actually what the sage does, is to ascertain the nature of the enemy the PC faced:

You present your axe to the sage. He touches the blade of the axe
and the blade's edge becomes translucent for a moment, radiating
ethereal energy, before it reverts to normal.
"You have faced entities of the ethereal plane," he says. He hands
the axe back to you and continues, "Walk the Path of Justice with
her blessing, fulfill your destiny, and bring balance to this world
once more."

So not really a blessing. But many players apparently took this as the hint on making the right choice when it came around. Maybe I should rewrite this part :smiley: .

I completely agree! I guess I was scared sh*tless going overboard with zestiness and decided to “play it safe”. Next time I will no doubt swing to the other side :smiley: .

If I understand Googol correctly, this would be more zestier?

In the old free days, all you needed was a sharp sword and a straight
path to your enemies. Overthrowing the old dynasty was easy enough,
but you quickly learned that as a King, no path was straight, and your
sword was useless. Now, an old enemy has sent you this abomination
through a magical portal, and you face death. You feel alive once more.
[Roger] Drumroll...
[Wilco] Ssshhh... You are breaking the tension!
The demon sparks in you a frenzied rage. You reverse your sword grip,
clenching it tightly, and strike with all your might. Thrusting your sword
like a dagger, you drive it deep into the horror, breaking it off at the hilt.
The damage is done, and the loathsome creature convulses in agony.
You are hurled away, and as you rise on one hand, you see the struggles
of the demon cease. The thing disintegrates into a slimy mass, until it
dissolves completely, leaving only an outline in blood on the floor.
[Roger] Good riddance, I say. And hi there, my name is Roger, and I am
here to reward your successful playthrough with my deep knowledge
on this terrific game.
[Wilco] You mean, you peeked at the source code. Hi there as well,
my name is Wilco, and I am here to keep Roger in check.

Escape your Psychosis, by Georg Buchrucker

In my Dysfluent review, I mentioned that there’s a robust subgenre of IF that centers on the experience of living with a particular disability, and at first blush Escape your Psychosis – which is quite literally about trying to escape a repeated series of psychotic episodes – seems to fit squarely among their number. It’s late in the Comp, so forgive me for quoting from myself about the common threads that tend to show up in these games:

they’re most often short, choice-based, and allow the player to engage with the disability via a central game or interface mechanic. I’d also say that much of the time, their focus on the subjective experience of a particular challenge understandably gets prioritized over traditional IF elements like narrative, character development, or gameplay.

All of these get a solid check save the one about having a unique game or interface mechanic that’s thematically tied to the disability at issue – though it does stand out from the rest of the games in the Comp by being presented as a pdf file with internal hyperlinks, I couldn’t find any linkages between this approach and the experience of psychosis. For all these points of similarity, though, there’s something about Escape your Psychosis that felt slightly off to me compared to other games in the subgenre, and once I finished and read the post-script, I realized what it was: whereas all those other games were written by folks who actually live with the conditions they describe, this one was written from the outside. So it’s perhaps unsurprising that there’s some distinct distancing from the protagonist, and a slightly dodgy quality to some of the depictions; the game’s got an educational purpose, and I think it mostly fulfills that remit, but I’m unsure about how well it communicates the subjectivity of psychosis.

One aspect of this is the game’s cartoony presentation. Each page features attractive doodly art that helps make what could be a heavy topic go down more easily. But when it’s juxtaposed against events that are legitimately concerning, I experienced dissonance that sometimes undercut the impact of what the narrative was depicting. And it was uncomfortable to see the somewhat-dehumanized depiction of two homeless characters – they’re treated straightforwardly by the prose, but are drawn with stink-lines emanating from them and other exaggerated characteristics. On its own terms, I actually like the art; it’s cute and well done. But it seems calculated to make the game more approachable rather than to convey how a person experiencing a psychotic episode views the world.

Similarly, the plot takes some rather wacky turns. Structurally, the game is built as a series of interlocking circles, with different choices at the onset of an episode taking you down various semi-overlapping paths as you alarm your friends and neighbors, then possibly attract official attention and get into treatment, before inevitably having another episode recur. The various incidents seem to map with what little I know of psychosis – a few are built around megalomania, many around paranoia – but the focus is very much on what the protagonist is doing, with their emotional state described primarily to explain the behavior, and the consequences of the protagonist’s disturbance are sometimes played for laughs, like when you strip naked and splash around in a fountain in the park.

None of this is ill-intentioned, I don’t think, and the information the game conveys about how to support people undergoing psychotic episodes seems valuable to me (there are one or two things that struck me as odd, especially the way the game suggests that treatment, medication, and regular habits are helpful but can’t prevent backsliding, whereas if you just have three episodes you’ll eventually learn enough about how they go to get to a happy ending where the condition becomes manageable. But I think that’s primarily just a limitation of this very unsophisticated game format). So I guess it’s unfair to criticize Escape your Psychosis for not doing very much to show me what it’s like to live with an awful, highly-stigmatized mental illness. But I was hoping it would do just that, especially since people with the condition are so heavily marginalized; there’d be real value in helping more people better understand, only slightly, what the experience is like. And the success of many other works of IF in a similar vein indicate that such a thing would be possible; maybe someday somewhat will write that game, since I don’t think Escape your Psychosis is the last word on the subject.


All Hands Abandon Ship, by David Lee

Interactive fiction, we’re told, can be conceptualized as a crossword at war with a narrative (this obviously isn’t true for much, if not most, contemporary IF, but please just go with it). All Hands Abandon Ship is what happens when they’re enmeshed in a three-front war with an all-encompassing pile of Easter eggs and pop-culture references, and actually neither of them are putting up much of a fight.

This sounds like I’m saying the game is bad. It isn’t bad! Mind, it’s not great, either: the escape-the-doomed-spaceship premise isn’t just old enough to drink, it’s got a Facebook account it uses to post photos of the grandkids and share awkward grumbling about foreigners; the implementation is pretty thin, with lots of generic descriptions and unimplemented synonyms; and there are no characters or much in the way of environmental storytelling to liven things up. But there are attractive feelies with a cool map of the ship, there’s a pretty solid amount of geography to explore, and I didn’t notice any bugs. So it’s got solid enough bones for a low-narrative sci-fi puzzlefest.

The trouble is, there aren’t really any puzzles. Okay, I guess there’s an overall time limit that counts, but since that just makes escape impossible (after 100 turns, you drift beyond a black hole’s event horizon so life pods can’t get out) and you can continue running around the ship exploring, all that means in practice is that you’ll run out of your time on your first go-through, figure out how to win, then type RESTART to do so. Outside of the countdown, though, all you need to do is wriggle down a dumbwaiter (this doesn’t require any commands more exotic than ENTER DUMBWAITER and D, then get an electrical system working again by the simple expedient of OPENING a panel and then TURNING ON a circuit breaker. I spoiler-blocked the details to be polite, but trust me, this is stuff that anyone with even minimal experience with parser games would do in their sleep. In fairness, there is one alternate path to victory that involves a tiny bit of problem solving, but this is marred by some guess the verb issues (you need to put a yoga mat on some live wires to provide insulation, but various iterations of PUT MAT ON CABLES fail; only DROP MAT works) so I think best not to count it.

This isn’t to say that there’s nothing to do, though, since the game actually has a reasonable amount of things to mess around with and places to explore. Some of these include some reasonable jokes – when you’re told, of an unremarkable head, that “[y]ou wouldn’t be at all surprised to see its design aesthetic featured on the front cover of Brutalist Architecture Monthly” it’s inevitable but still entertaining that you’ll eventually come across an issue of just such a magazine. And there are lots of little optional interactions, like microwaving various inappropriate foodstuffs or getting a physical from the holographic doctor.

But mainly what you do is notice references. Past a certain point, my notes just became a litany of all the in-jokes I’d seen – there’s a strong 80s/90s pop-culture angle here, since I came across a Soundgarden CD, a Presidents of the United States lyric, a Scarface reference, and of course a couple from Aliens. But lest you think there’s a consistent retro pre-millennium revival across the futuristic society, there are also prominent mentions of the Doors and the Great Gatsby.

Look, I know I sound like a scold. And I can’t lie, it is a fun idea to have a holodoc that goes by T.J. Eckleburg. But, like, what am I, as a player, to do with that idea? The doctor doesn’t have any dialogue, I don’t think, beyond “open up and say ahh” (I thought he was an optician, not an ENT); he doesn’t have a fascination with the book, or provide a thematically similar role by witnessing and judging the player’s activities. Like all the other references, it’s an empty signifier, there to provide a frisson of recognition and that’s it. This sort of thing can be entertaining in moderation, as a break from more engaging business, but again, the game doesn’t have a story to speak of and lacks much in the way of challenge. To risk a culinary metaphor (I know, that’s @Truthcraze’s job), the author phoned in the entrees and spent all their time on the side dishes instead – but actually, the side dishes are junk food, conveying an instant pop of flavor but containing no nutrition – so go figure, I didn’t leave especially satisfied.

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Citizen Makane, by The Reverend

You can’t drop your dick on the first turn 0/10.


That says it all, Mike. Good review.