Mike Russo's IF Comp 2023 Reviews

It’s Comp time, so of course it’s likewise time for me to write a bunch of shaggy reviews that use comedy to conceal that they’re long on navel-gazing and short on genuine insight! As per usual, I’ll try to get through the full suite of games, using the randomizer to guide my way through the list; I’ll save the games I beta tested for the end, though there are only a few of those this year.

My takes maybe lean a bit more towards analyses than should-you-play-this reviews, so fair warning that I’m often a little loose with what some might consider spoilers; I’ll try to flag them in advance if I think I’m about to reveal something that would meaningfully impact a new player’s experience of a game, but if in doubt you might want to wait until after playing (or deciding not to play) a game before reading the review.

The long-delayed table of contents:

20 Exchange Place
All Hands
All Hands Abandon Ship
All the Troubles Come My Way
Antony & Cleopatra IV
Artful Deceit
Bali B&B
Barcarolle in Yellow
Beat Witch
Bright Brave Knight Knave
Citizen Makane
Creative Cooking
Death on the Stormrider
Detective Osiris
Dr Ludwig and the Devil
Eat the Eldritch
The Enigma of Solaris
Escape your Psychosis
Finders Commission
Fix Your Mother’s Printer
For Eternity, Again and Again
Gestures Towards Divinity
The Gift of What You Notice More
Hand Me Down
Have Orb, Will Travel
Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses
Honk! (beta tested)
How Prince Quisborne the Feckless Shook His Title (beta tested)
In the Details
Into the Lion’s Mouth
LAKE Adventure (beta tested)
Lake Starlight
Last Valentine’s Day
Last Vestiges
The Library of Knowledge
The Little Match Girl 4
The Long Kill
Magor Investigates…
My Brother; the Parasite
My Psuedo-Dementia Exhibition
One Does Not Simply Fry
One King to Loot Them All
One Knight Stand
Out of Scope
Paintball Wizard
The Paper Magician
Please Sign Here
Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head
Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest
The Sculptor
Shanidar, Safe Return
The Ship
A Thing of Wretchedness
To Sea in a Sieve
Trail Stash
Tricks of light in the forest (beta tested)
The Vambrace of Destiny
We All Fall Together
The Whale’s Keeper
The Whisperers
Who Iced Mayor McFreeze?
The Witch
Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates (beta tested)


Virtue, by Oliver Revolta

Per a Who song from 50 years ago, no one knows what it’s like to be the bad man, but a cavalcade of anti-hero based movies, TV shows, and podcasts sure are hopeful of filling the gap. Virtue, a UK-set Ink game by a debut author (and/or pseudonym), is the latest to step up to the plate, and it has novelty on its side: here our bad man is a bad woman, and per the blurb, one destined to be a Tory MP. Gloria, our protagonist, is a real piece of work – a status-conscious, property-value obsessed avatar of the bourgeoisie with opinions about Poles, Roma, you name it – and as she confronts, or rather fails to confront, a peeping-Tom incident in the tony neighborhood to which she just moved, her odiousness moves from the personal to the political.

She’s an unpleasant, anxious person, in other words and the game’s great strength is that it keeps just the right distance from her. The player is privy to all Gloria’s fears and hopes (there’s rather a lot more of the former than the latter), which are all sketched with psychological plausibility, but her subjectivity is kept at a remove; the narration weaves in snatches of thoughts and bits of dialogue, but there’s more telling than showing, which might not be the most literary choice but in this case provides the player with some much-needed psychic defenses. Like, here’s a bit where she’s contemplating the horribleness of anything threatening her cozy suburban dream:

So much seems perfect—the proximity to the kids’ school, the quality of the location, the size of the house, the decoration, the conservatory, the new extension you’re planning, the new carpets, all the many book shelves, the TV that when you stop watching it dims and looks like a painting—the new kitchen fittings, the cooker, the plans to fell the tree in the back garden to give the garden more light—how can you face tainting and undermining any of that?

The details are all well-observed, but the language is vapid enough to let the player off the hook (similarly, the author’s careful not to have anyone say anything too awful about the various minorities being demonized, though of course they’re thinking it). This isn’t due to a lack of writerly skill, I don’t think, but reflects a deliberate choice, because when the stakes are lower, the prose is more engaging. Here’s a bit of landscape description that I liked:

Beyond two multi-million pound houses—and beyond the strip of garden belonging to the first house, which was lined prettily with pink bougainvilleas—the estuary turns and opens up in one large, swerving gleam.

At any rate, intentional or not I was glad of the distance because Gloria is a truly odious creature. After learning that a mysterious person has been lurking in the hedgerows and abusing himself while peeping on local women (which fact she discovers through an incredibly awkward conversation with her Polish neighbor), she launches a crusade to push the filth to finger a perpetrator, ideally by trawling the local Roma caravan for some suspects to fit up for the crime.
When that doesn’t work, she forms a busybody committee and catches the attention of the local MP. Her interactions with her family form a counterpoint to this more political strand of the plot, and these are likewise quite dour: she fights with her henpecked husband, infantilizes her much more self-aware daughter, and ignores her furtively absent son. This stuff by no means engenders sympathy, but does provide some context for the aggression she displaces onto those she finds insufficiently British (there’s an intimation that she was a victim of clergy sexual abuse while younger, which serves a similar purpose by giving her what seems to be an anxiety disorder and a persistent fear of impurity and inadequacy).

It’s an unpleasant but neatly-told story with its politics in the right place, I think. It doesn’t lean especially hard into interactivity; most passages end with a single choice leading to the next bit of plot, and those choices that do exist largely seem illusory. But the format does help establish the modicum of complicity that’s needed for the piece to work, so I think it justifies the author’s decision to write IF. I’d rate Virtue a well-done game that’s worth playing – but as always, I do have two caveats.

The first is that the game seemed to end quite abruptly, perhaps due to a bug? I reached the final section of the game, which is the meeting with the local MP, but after greeting him in the pub and deciding to have some white wine, the game simply stopped before getting to the substance of the meeting. This might have been a consequence for some poor decision-making, since the game seemed to be implying that I was insufficiently sloshed (I mean fair, I’d have to be three sheets to the wind to survive a conversation with a Tory backbencher) – there’d been an earlier option to have either a cuppa or some wine before heading out to the meeting, and I’d opted for the tea, and the horrible Tory was having a G+T because of course he was and I could have joined him in that rather than sticking to wine. But since the rest of the game’s choices felt fairly low-stakes, and the ending didn’t indicate he sent me packing for being too much of a lightweight or anything, it felt less like an anticlimax and more like a technical issue. Still, by that point it was clear where the story was headed so I don’t think this negatively impacted my enjoyment too much.

As for the other issue, it’s a broader one but also more nebulous, and it involves a spoiler – though one that the game’s own blurb comes pretty close to revealing, so I’ll omit the blurry-text this time. Turns out in addition to Gloria’s crusade being motivated by her self-esteem issues and general xenophobia, the game is pretty clear that the roving Onanist who’s kicked this whole thing off is her son Andrew, which a part of Gloria recognizes but refuses to confront, leading to her sublimating her denial into political action. I suppose it’s reasonable to consider that many reactionaries are the way they are because of deep-seated insecurities and a guilty conscience – and in some ways it’s even attractive to think that they’re just broken people dealing with trauma in deeply antisocial ways. So it’s all plausible enough.

But I can’t help but wonder whether this is a bit too pat. The blurb also says that this is an “origin story of a shameful MP” – it’s unsurprising that the complete ending appears to involve Gloria running for office as a knock-off Liz Truss – but really, do these kinds of people typically have origin stories? I think they don’t, or if they do, they’re less psychological and more tawdry: people born with unjust privilege realize they can maintain it by scapegoating others; people born without it realize they can curry favor by comforting the comfortable and afflicting the afflicted. We’re primarily dealing with material conditions, in other words, and in the post-Trump, post-Boris Johnson age, the idea that the enemies of democracy could work through their issues if they just got some therapy feels, I have to say, a bit naïve. And here, Virtue’s otherwise-praiseworthy decision to hold Gloria at a remove winds up being a negative, because a more literary take going deep into her subjectivity perhaps could have avoided this objection; since the didactic writing style invites us to view the game not as a character study, but as an object lesson, though, I think it’s harder to argue that Gloria isn’t meant as a type.

Let me emphasize once again this is a pretty rarefied complaint: “Virtue is insufficiently Marxist” isn’t a criticism that should prevent one from playing a smart, well-implemented game that made me think. Recommended!


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)


Library of Knowledge, by Elle Sillitoe

Oof. Despite being a sucker for libraries, knowledge, and (presumably) libraries of knowledge, I did not get on well with this one. The pitch is compelling: you’ve found a magical shrine that plays host to an all-knowing spirit, a collection of all the world’s wisdom, and a masked library attendant with a secret, and now you can ask to read any book you want. Wow! That is a lovely idea, and if the realities of implementation mean that of course the promise of “any book” can’t come close to being delivered, at least it’s a compelling illusion.

Sadly, after establishing the setup, the game quickly began to lose me. Partially this is because there are only three books on offer – specifically, two short-ish ones that establish the background lore of this fantasy world’s two major nations, delivered in DnD-manual style, and one long one that’s just the story of how your character came to the library, which of course you already would know and wouldn’t bother wasting time on. Partially this is because the prose doesn’t really live up to the fantastical premise:

Your breath catches sharply in your chest as the last of the incantations die on the biting wind that whips around you. Streams of pale moonlight flicker in past the broken beams overhead, sending a cascade of sprawling patterns through the old, fractured glass. Ancient words scrawled onto a faded scroll bleed off the edges of their crumbling paper, spilling a black mist onto the cold stone floors which slips and slides into the dark corners of this dilapidated temple.

Adjectivitis, unvarying sentence structure, small grammar errors; it’s not awful but it’s not a high point either, and since the game is almost entirely walls of text – there are some engaging choices towards the endgame, but for the most part you’re either picking “turn to next page” or “turn to next section” – I really found myself wishing for better prose.

As for the content, I found the DnD manuals competent but rather uninspired. One nation is fantasy China, with the serial numbers not even filed off – the provinces are literally just real-world Chinese provinces. It’s got a whiff of Orientalism to it (did you know the lands of the East are ruled by “an ancient and magical dynasty”, that the people are “deeply spiritual and honor their ancestors above all else”, that they “practice martial arts as a way of harnessing [chi] energy”, and are ruled from a capital that is “a place of intrigue”?) but I think this is innocent; the country’s multiculturalism and openness to immigration are held up as a strength, and contrasted with the xenophobia of the western nation (which is Europe-flavored but not a direct insert of anyplace in particular; it’s just general fantasy bollocks).

It’s all serviceable enough, but unexciting to slog through, all the more so when the author occasionally loses track of the lore (there’s a bad-guy cult alternately called the “Band of the Dark Sun” and “Band of the Black Sun”) or draws too-direct inspiration from pop culture (there were a bunch of killings at a recent marriage, which has become known as the “Crimson Union”). And none of it actually winds up being all that relevant to the main part of the game, which is your character’s autobiography – the setting details are sufficiently straightforward that they could have easily been explained in the course of the story.

This bit does have some zip to it; it’s maybe paced a little slowly, and sometimes drops to bottom-line narration when writing out a scene would have been more effective. It also isn’t self-aware of how funny the premise sounds (you go on a world-shaking quest to find a cure for the ailing goat that’s your last link to your family); it’s offbeat enough to work well, but I think needed more time establishing the stakes and emotional connection between the main character and the goat. But once it gets moving, it executes YA-style fantasy novel tropes solidly enough; this isn’t my genre of choice, but even I got a kick out of the various double-crosses in the pirate section. Then things kicked up again after the story wraps, as the protagonist does face an actually-challenging set of decisions without a clear moral compass to make their choices easy.

As a result, my view of the game improved as it went on, but it’s still hard to recommend this one. The author’s got enthusiasm and some talent, but the game we’ve got feels too much like a first draft – there’s a lot of unnecessary cruft and an awkward frame that doesn’t cleanly mesh with the main substance of the story, along with prose that needs some polishing. Of course, every great game started out as a terrible first draft, so this is no bad thing by itself – but hopefully for their next game, the author will be able to spend more time figuring out what they need to say and what they don’t need to say, and revising their work to foreground the most compelling parts.


The Long Kill, by James Blair

(Spoilers in this one)

What I like most about The Long Kill is its harshness. Oh, as always, I brought it on myself – there’s a trio of difficulty options at the beginning of this nicely-presented Twine game about a British sniper deployed in the Afghan War (the just-concluded one, that is), including story mode and a conventional “pick whatever choice you want” one. But no, I opted for “Sniper Mode”, where you have to do math and dice are rolled behind the scenes, so you can miss your shots even if you do everything right. And it’s not just the violence: the game has flashbacks and flashforwards to civilian life, and I fucked up my one chance to have a girlfriend because after winning her an elephant at a carnival shooting game, I thought she wanted me to show off and go double or nothing, but actually she was cold and wanted me to go home. Some of this may feel unfair, but who says a game about sudden, explosive death coming before you even have a chance to blink should embrace fairness as an ethos?

(OK, there’s an undo button, and I did use it once or twice, but I felt bad about it).

What I like second-best about The Long Kill is its obsessive focus on shooting. Again, this goes beyond the scenes set during the war. The protagonist – he’s given the uninspiring nom de guerre “Mister” – bonds with his father only through shooting targets and rabbits; as mentioned above, he tries to impress his not-girlfriend by shooting; when he interviews for a job, he talks about how shooting gave him great math skills; even when he takes on a home improvement project, the scene ends with him leveling a power saw and pulling the trigger. Mister is very, very good at shooting; it’s not so much that he’s bad at everything else as that there isn’t anything else.

What I like third-best about The Long Kill is the prose. There are some typos, but it manages to be evocative while sticking to a terse, militaristic style. This sentence is about 2/3 of what the game shares about Mister’s relationship with his father, but it communicates just about everything the player needs to know:

Even without looking though you can picture the little non-smile, that happy frown he does when you do or say something he likes.

What I like least about The Long Kill is its fantasy of victimization. After an opening sequence where you support a house-raid that bags an important Taliban leader, Mister’s convoy gets hit by an IED and he’s captured alongside his unit. They’re subject to torture, and he’s given an ultimatum of teaching the enemy soldiers to be better shots, or his companions will be executed. It’s a queasily compelling sequence, even if it ends rather abruptly, and by making Mister weak and frightened, it finally renders him something close to human. But this was still a bad authorial choice. We know that in the flashforward, Mister has PTSD and a discharge, but there’s no need for a period of abjection to connect the precise, effective wartime operator with the haunted shell of a man; that’s just what war does. More damningly, this sequence creates an underdog narrative that inverts the far more common reality of the war – the number of Western POWs and casualties was miniscule compared to the Afghans captured, maimed, and slain (many, of course, were innocent, and many, of course, were not). To elide this reality, and instead opt for a shell game that seems to swap the positions of the players: that’s kid glove stuff. Not at all harsh.


Wow, thanks so much for your time and detail here.

I know an hour long choice based barrage of text can be a pain to take on so I hugely appreciate you taking it on and the level of analysis here.

So sorry to hear about the typos, my testers and I picked up a good number of them but clearly it’ll need some extra spit and polish before I look at publishing further after the comp.

And thank you for the pointers on the wider implications of the capture/torture scenes. I’d been laser focussed on the protagonists journey and connecting the dots via the shooting element rather than the context you highlighted. That will likely lead to some healthy edits.

The old divorce of ownership can really highlight your blind spots!

Thanks again

P.S. I’m overjoyed the (not too subtle) thread about obsessive focus to the exclusion of all else landed. It’s been a topic of some discussion between my partner and I over the years, how it’s seeded, what it does to your self worth and relationships etc.


It definitely wasn’t a pain – my gimmicky review maybe didn’t communicate that I found this a very engaging game. I honestly was a bit worried going in, since I’m not a big fan of war stories, but your use of the flash-forwards and flash-backs, and good eye for when to enter and leave a scene, meant it had really tight pacing that drew me through.

On the captivity/torture stuff, I also probably should have added that I thought you did a very good job of avoiding jingoism and humanizing the Afghan characters to the extent you could given your viewpoint character. But I have a lot of intense personal feelings about this stuff – 9/11 and the two wars are what shifted me from studying astronomy to doing human and civil rights work, and the first couple years of my career were focused on US detention and torture practices – so I figured it was either write a 5,000-word navel-gazing disquisition on this stuff or go for a somewhat bottom-lined approach :slight_smile:


I very much liked it, and as I read the review my brain started drafting additions and changes that could help the tale go further in humanising the Afghan people. I can already see a few changes to locations and snippets of dialogue that might really help enrich that element of the tale, really showing the value of this process.

I’m also very anti conflict myself (quite a bone of contention between me and a family very much steeped in the military here in the UK) and was very keen not to glamorise battle and to ensure that the psychological toll on the (often poor and idealistic) people involved was a touchstone of the plot.


Dr Ludwig and the Devil, by SV Linwood

I really enjoyed SV Linwood’s entry in last year’s Comp, A Long Way to the Nearest Star, but dinged it for having a generic title and forgettable blurb. Fortunately, there are no worries on that front this year – I already had a smile on my face when I booted this parser game up, looking forward to the promised mad science, demonological deal-making, and (most exciting of all) legal research. And that smile stayed there for the hour and a half it took me to work through all its puzzles – this is a delight, funny and satisfying in the way of the best comedy puzzlefests.

The setup here is a good one – brainy-yet-hubristic mortal treats with the devil for forbidden knowledge, desperately hoping to keep his soul – and could be played straight for a seasonally-appropriate note of gothic horror. That’s not what we’ve got here, though; Dr Ludwig goes for the laugh every time, and every time nails it – like, it took me five minutes to realize that it wasn’t the case that literally every description in the game started with a sentence with an exclamation point, just most of them. It’s the kind of thing that could wear out its welcome, but the game never comes close to that line, deftly slinging joke after joke. Like, here’s what you get when you examine your trusty mad-scientist’s coat:

My favorite lab coat! After that accident while experimenting with pocket dimensions, I could carry so much stuff in it. And the bloodstains were very fashionable, too!

(See, I told you about the exclamation points).

Crucially, the humor is almost all character-driven rather than embracing wackiness for its own sake; between Dr Ludwig’s crazed ambitions, the Devil’s sly insinuations, and the leader of the pitchfork-bearing mob’s punctilious adherence to the legal niceties, everyone’s got a slightly different schtick, and an in-world justification for being funny.

And actually, as with A Long Way to the Nearest Star, character interaction is a highlight. Beyond their comedy potential, the whole cast is winning, making you solicitous of their love lives and unfair work conditions even as you’re digging up their ancestors and plotting to violate all God’s laws. And the process of engaging with them is very smooth: Dr Ludwig is an Inform game, but it uses a TADS-style conversation interface where after greeting a character, you can ask them about a constantly-updating list of topics. This hits a nice sweet spot between the freeform ASK/TELL system and more-prescriptive choice-based menus, and you’re able to ask everyone about a wide variety of subjects. The devil is especially impressive; as the game starts, you’ve just summoned and bound him, meaning you can give him commands via the traditional DEVIL, DO ACTION syntax. I confess that I often struggle with these kinds of puzzles, but here the process was well-cued and impressively well implemented: I tried to catch the game out by attempting DEVIL, ABOUT, but was told “As powerful as the Devil is, even he cannot access meta commands” (I was able to get him to take inventory and maybe learned some stuff I shouldn’t have that way, but I can’t help but think the author left that in on purpose).

In fact implementation is a major strength throughout. I did find a single Inform-standard response that had been left in; everything’s rewritten in Dr Ludwig’s bombastic voice. TOUCH attempts fail, for example, because “I am a man of science! I am above such physical labor as touching things without purpose!” (you see what I mean about the exclamation points, right?) And you’d better believe that you can LAUGH or CACKLE whenever you want.

The puzzles are similarly of a high standard. They’re mostly traditional object-manipulation challenges, save for the aforementioned get-the-Devil-to-do-your-bidding bits, but they’re well signposted via a dynamic (and funny) to-do list, and they almost all involve engaging with that entertaining supporting cast. Most of the game is fairly open, too, with multiple puzzles available at any one time, so it’s hard to get too stuck. There are two that gave me some trouble, one that could have used better clueing (I hadn’t realized that I’d basically solved the shopkeeper’s puzzle by dropping the flyer, because I didn’t understand that the “someone” she was worried would see her reading it was me), and one that was harder than it should have been due to the single bit of awkward implementation I found (you need to examine the unsuccessfully-made monster to find your scalpel, but the game refers to it as a “disappointment”, but it doesn’t accept that – or either BODY or MONSTER – to refer to it, requiring you to guess that it’s implemented as EXPERIMENT).

Those are quite minor complaints, though, and just the sort of thing that would be easy to clean up for a post-Comp release. And even in its current form this is an early highlight of the Comp – if you’re adamantly against comedy parser puzzle games, Dr Ludwig won’t change your mind, I suppose, but just about everyone else will have a great time with this one.

dr ludwig mr.txt (191.2 KB)


Well, your review blows mine out of the water, but I’m pretty sure I had just as much fun! I also tried ‘disappointment’, but I saw the ‘experiment’ pretty clearly in another context. Funny that you found the meta command answer, I didn’t!


One Does Not Simply Fry, by Stewart C Baker and James Beamon

I’m only half a dozen games into the Comp, but I’d be surprised to come across an entry more high-concept than One Does Not Simply Fry: I’m sure I’ve seen mash-ups weirder than the Great British Bake Off meets Lord of the Rings, but I can’t think of them offhand. But for all that I’m deeply curious about precisely where the idea came from, it’s a match made in, if not heaven, at least one of the higher tiers of purgatory: the bake-off formula provides a sturdy framework for a ChoiceScript style game, with cooking skill, sucking up to the judges, and engaging with the other contestants providing distinct areas of endeavor, while the Tolkein stuff allows for a wide cast of familiar characters and works as a font for a million bad jokes and worse puns. It makes for engaging gameplay – and it’s quite replayable, with three distinct characters (plus a bonus unlockable one), multiple endings, and a host of potentially-viable strategies – even if the humor sometimes feels a bit forced.

Starting up the game, my first impression was that it was overstuffed with content. There are the aforementioned multiple characters, each of which is a knock-off of a member of the Fellowship: ersatz Legolas, faux Frodo, and a version of Éowyn who’s mysteriously called “Avis Barb” (is that like “has a beard” in schoolboy Latin? Anyway, I played as her my first time out). As per usual in ChoiceScript, they each have a distinct array of strengths and weakness, encompassing cooking ability, martial skill, speechcraft, and magical powers denoted as “breadomancy”. You’ve got the trio of judges: lead judge Tira Masu, grumpypants Gorgon Ramsayer, and the Doldrums/Seagull double act. There are optional vegetarian and vegan modes if you’d prefer not to be confronted with certain ingredients (a touch I appreciated!) Then there are the competitors you’re up against, including the certainly-not-going-to-turn-out-to-be-the-baddy “Sour Ron”, and a loaf of bread. And once the competition kicks off, you find out that your goal is not just to make the best onion ring, but to fry up the On(e)ion Ring which may or many not reawaken the Dark Lord resting uneasily under Mount Boom.

It’s a lot, but fortunately once the game kicks off, it’s reasonably manageable. Play proceeds in phases, from buying ingredients to preparing your frying setup to jostling with the competition and completing the challenge, before transitioning into a high-stakes endgame. Since each of the characters have distinct skills, it was usually straightforward to figure out which actions would make the most sense to attempt. I wound up winning the competition and making the On(e)ion Ring my first time out, but it felt excitingly touch-and-go throughout, and I was eager to start over to try out to the hidden character. At a gameplay level, then, I’d judge One Does Not Fry a success.

The humor, though, wound up being a slight net negative for me. There are some good jokes in here, don’t get me wrong – not-Éowyn makes brutal fun of the Witch King for being overconfident about that “no man can slay me” prophecy in a world that’s 50% women and also has hobbits, elves, dwarves, ents… And there’s an extended bit where you can decide to get potatoes rather than onions from the store, which rather scotches your chances of wining the onion ring challenge, but does set up a lovely line where you attempt to explain potatoes to the ancient Elven ghost who lives in your copy of the rulebook – don’t ask, I told you it’s a lot – and get the following nonplussed response:

Back in the Worst Age, we didn’t have any weird eldritch ground tubes with self-replicating eyes that would try to convince you to plant them so they could poison you.

But as that “Worst Age” (First Age, geddit?) and all the punny names I mention above indicate, there are a lot of clunkers here too. The game subscribes to the view that everything has to be a pun, and go figure, many of them seem forced. It’s not Edoras, it’s Fedoras; it’s not the Witch King, it’s the Which King?; and I already mentioned Doldrums, who besides boasting a really forced name also for some reason has a Cockney accent. I regret to have to report that there’s a “Riders of Lohan” joke. Look, I don’t want to come off like a humorless scold, and I think my appetite for silly Tolkein stuff is pretty high, up to and including having a favorite LotR-themed rap band. But still, I would have enjoyed the game a lot more if it’d had more restraint; the authors clearly came up with a bunch of really good Tolkein jokes, but unfortunately felt like they had to crank out like double or triple that amount to meet their quota.

After a first playthrough it’s easy enough to skim over that stuff, and the bones here are solid; I’m tempted to give the game another spin to check out how the classic Frodo and Sam team would fare. And there are a couple of achievements I failed to get in my two playthroughs (oh yeah, forgot to mention, there are achievements too). One Does Not Simply Fry really is an embarrassment of riches, even if you do need to take the bitter along with the sweet.


Beat Witch, by Robert Patten

Beat Witch is something I haven’t seen before: a parser game imagined as a series of high-octane action set pieces. It makes for a propulsive, pacey experience that’s easy to imagine seeing as a blockbuster movie, with sudden reversals, twists, and explosive climaxes coming one after the other. This approach isn’t without its downsides – the traditional parser pleasures of exploring an environment at one’s leisure and carefully thinking through the solutions to a smorgasbord of puzzles are completely absent, as the game pushes you from one adrenaline-fueled sequence to the next – but it makes for a unique change of pace.

Unsurprisingly given the game’s design ethos, Beat Witch starts in medias res, as you jostle your way into a safehouse alongside a bunch of hazmat-suit clad rescue workers dealing with a deadly plague. And just as you start to sort out what’s going on, you’re in for further rug-pulls; as it turns out, you’re not actually part of the team, and there isn’t actually a plague. The ABOUT menu fills you in on the situation through a neat bit of worldbuilding – it offers you the table of contents of a book about the eponymous “beat witches”, dangerous women who have the supernatural ability to siphon off and invest life energy, as well as a fatal vulnerability to music. Just giving the title of each chapter establishes the setting with admirable concision; I was way engaged contemplating “The Choral Uprising and why it failed” or “The phonograph, the radio, and the Great Extermination” than I would have been by a traditional lore-dump.

It doesn’t take long to realize that you’re one of the eponymous witches – but you’re a good witch, not a bad witch, with an angsty backstory from having accidentally hurt members of your family and striving for redemption by taking out the especially evil beat witch who’s made the city her hunting grounds. Of course, once the rest of the hazmat team realizes what you are, they aren’t going to take any chances or ask any questions before trying to kill you – in only a few turns, you’re faced with deadly danger, and once you solve that puzzle, there’s only a fleeting moment to catch your breath before you make it to the bad witch’s skyscraper lair and find the next desperate situation from which you need to extricate yourself.

The game never really stops, shunting you from one well-implemented sequence to the next – sometimes literally, as if you dawdle too long other characters might force you to move on. In pretty much all of Beat Witch’s scenes, you’re at the brink of death and struggling just to survive; there’s little extraneous scenery to explore, and in a convenient bit of worldbuilding, beat witches like you are mute, so there’s no real conversation system to slow things down. And while you’re powerful, your abilities are relatively straightforward, so you only have a few options in any given situation. As a result, things move quick; the puzzles aren’t especially hard, but it feels good to solve them because they have such high stakes.

Beat Witch does run on action-movie logic; if it explains how you knew about the bad witch you’re trying to stop, I didn’t notice that being established. You zip up, down, and around the skyscraper without being especially bound by the laws of physics (there’s an internal monologue and flashback as you fall from the roof that goes so long it almost becomes funny). And your nemesis is a classic motormouthed villain, cartoonishly evil and incapable of shutting up: when, late in the game, she taunted me by saying “think how much you goofed while I squeeze you like a juicy fart”, I imagined the protagonist was as tired of her BS as I was.

But these are all in keeping with the genre the game is trying to emulate, and may be the price to be paid for some really compelling moments like – I’m going to spoiler-block this one so as not to ruin the surprise – sky-bridge of semi-animated bodies connecting the roofs of neighboring skyscrapers, or the LIVE command overwriting the after-death menu and heralding your resurrection. The game does have some unforced missteps, though: having an antagonist named “Dr Steve” is a little too goofy for the mood, and while I understand the intended thematic resonance of the final encounter, I think it comes off a bit anticlimactic. But these are easy to look past.

Reading between the lines of this review, it’s probably not a surprise for me to reveal that I admired Beat Witch more than I enjoyed it. I am an increasingly-old fuddy-duddy who likes to potter around when I play a parser game, and I tend to prioritize things like literary prose, thematic depth, and well-realized characters – none of which Beat Witch has much interest in. But I’m pretty sure that for some folks out there, this will be their favorite game of the Comp, and I can completely understand why; it delivers an experience most parser games don’t even attempt, and does so with elan.

beat witch mr.txt (92.0 KB)


Thank you very much! Your reviews are always a highlight of the Comp. And also thanks for pointing out that issue with the experiment—I think I changed the description at the last minute and forgot to update the synonym list, whoops.

(And yes, the response to having the Devil take inventory was specifically coded!)


Thank you so much for taking the time to play Beat Witch and give it such a thoughtful review! It made my day.


Thanks for this, Mike!

And yeah, it’s definitely a lot.

I think if we’d had more time we would have put more plot-and-character-stuff in–as another reviewer has mentioned, it’s pretty light on that aspect. I wonder if that’s where the sense that it’s too much jokes comes from, although admittedly it may well also be too much jokes. (We wrote this after another, much longer choicescript game which also uses the bake-off formula, but while that one’s also stuffed full of ridiculous stuff I think we kind of forgot that it’s got a lot more in it in terms of character development and “big picture” plots you can work at. In such a short space as One Does Not Simply Fry, yeah, it kind of overwhelms!

Wikipedia informed me that Eowyn’s name is derived from an OE word for “war-horse.”

So our stunt double is named for the Barb (or Berber) horse.

I will readily admit that nobody would ever be able to figure that out. :slight_smile:


Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head, by E.Z. Poschman

Everyone remembers the first time they truly understood death, I suspect – the moment when it toggled from a frightening but abstract notion, one of a million things about being grown-up that kids have to accept but don’t really get, to the viscera; and frankly terrifying revelation that anyone, anytime can be taken, with no exceptions or escapes or ways back. I was a sheltered kid, so for me that didn’t happen until just after I turned nine, when one morning on the way to school the radio said that Jim Henson had died. Of course I knew who he was: the Muppets and Sesame Street loomed large in my childhood. I tried to hold myself together, but then they played Kermit the Frog singing Rainbow Connection, and I lost it, blubbering as my harried mom dropped me off.

As a result, while it took me a while to figure out what Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head was doing, once I twigged to it I immediately was on board. It’s a Twine game built around a recently-deceased puppeteer who’s clearly modeled on Henson, albeit with significant differences in biography (Malcolm Newsome is a Black millennial from Lancaster, CA); there’s a Disney-style megacorporation threatening to buy out and bulldoze his studio and a tabloid narrative saying that Newsome died of a drug overdose threatening to undermine his reputation. The player character is a former member of Newsome’s troupe who’s snuck back into the studio to try to figure out what really happened, fight back against his enemies, and reclaim his legacy.

It’s a great premise, and like I said, one that resonates with me. But the reason it took me a while to realize that was what was going on is that the game initially presents itself as a heist – actually, you’ve been hired to try to steal back as many of Nesome’s puppets as you can before the compound is demolished. And once you enter the first of four buildings on the lot, the set-up is quickly complicated by a pair of twists that come in quick succession: 1) once you grab the first puppet you find, you’re compelled to put it on your hand and it starts talking to you, and 2) there are monsters, bastardized puppets who now patrol the compound on behalf of the company that’s coming to bulldoze everything. Despite the game’s blurb claiming that its genre is horror (well, “mascot horror”, whatever that is) this isn’t played for as many scares as it could be – in particular, while it’s weird that the puppets appear to be sapient, they’re friendly, and actually quite helpful, as the most important ones each have a special power that can help you navigate through the maze-like interiors of the studio’s buildings, find your way around the various locks and obstacles, and evade or defeat the monsters.

Gameplay-wise, then, we’ve got a sort of Muppetvania, as you gather keys and new puppet powers enabling you to traverse more of the game’s world and in turn obtain yet more keys and puppets. It’s a pretty big game, and while you don’t need to recover all 14 puppets to get the best ending, I found the gameplay loop compelling enough to find all but one (and my failure to go the distance might have been due to a bug rather than a lack of commitment: the puppet-detecting puppet kept telling me there was another to be found in the sink of the dishwashing area, but when I searched there I couldn’t find anything). Each dive into a building makes for a tense game of push-your-luck, as you attempt to explore and search every room, identify obstacles and hidden exits, try to work out the pattern of the monsters’ movements (there’s a different one in each building, and they all have bespoke movement strategies), and then flee so you can come back with the puppet or puppets you need to make progress. It’s fun stuff, even if I defaulted to undo-scumming more often than I like to admit.

I’m not sure it fits well with the broader ambitions of the game, though. For one thing, you’re limited to carrying at most two puppets at a time (and if you’re full up on puppets, you won’t have a hand free to pick up keys), so to speed up the process of recovering puppets from the buildings, I tended to eschew the ones with utility powers in favor of the ones that were strictly necessary to solve puzzles. Because the author’s coded in a bunch of neat interactions where puppets give commentary on the workshops and soundstages you encounter, as well as putting in unique dialogue between each pair of puppets if you wear two at the same time – but I know I missed out on a lot of that. This is a shame because I really did like the cast; all the characters seem like plausible members of a Muppet-like ensemble, and had winning personalities in their own right. And missing out on their commentary in the studio areas meant that they felt more like monster mazes than opportunities for environmental storytelling that enriched the game’s overall themes.

The other disconnect is that it turns out that the real villain of the piece isn’t Disney-branded monsters, it’s systemic racism. I’m going to spoiler-block the rest of this discussion because this is a big late-game revelation, but I can’t help discussing it in some depth. Turns out there’s one particular puppet who has a camera built into her, and she recorded Newsome’s death, which is different from the vague “maybe it was a drug overdose” story you hear hinted at in the early game. Actually, he was pulled over by some LAPD cops who got angry that he wasn’t sufficiently deferential, so they murdered him and planted drugs on his body to cover up their crime. I’m deeply conflicted about this plot point; on the one hand, I liked the way the game foregrounds Newsome’s experience as a Black man in the entertainment industry, and God knows we’ve all seen enough examples of police violence and even killings of Black folks in recent years. But at the same time, this is an exaggerated, if not cartoonish, take on how these incidents play out. I’m maybe especially sensitive to this because I work for an LA-based civil rights organization and know some of the groups and people who helped reform the LAPD post-Rodney King; they still do a bunch of racially-biased stuff and much of my day job involves working to shift funding from policing to community-based alternatives, but for all that the story as conveyed by the game didn’t feel plausible. And again, the struggle against the monsters and the company that made them turns out not to be all that on point with what actually killed Newsome.

Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head does end strong, with a lovely epilogue where you explore a museum exhibit that’s been built around the puppets you recovered, encountering Newsome’s family and colleagues to explore the impact he had, and, at least in my ending, seeing his legacy vindicated. It’s really well done, and gives the player a strong sense of accomplishment as they end their time with the game. But again, its elegiac tone and more grounded themes (race is again a major factor) are at odds with the maze-y horror bits that make up the innards of the game. Again, I think those innards are good, but I’m left with the feeling that this is a game whose components are all quite strong, but which don’t necessarily reinforce each other all that well – it’d take a master puppeteer like Mal Newsome to stitch these disparate parts together into a unified whole.


Bali B&B, by Felicity Banks

For all that Bali B&B lives up to its billing as a cozy domestic simulator, this ChoiceScript game inspired more stomach-churning dread than any other game in the Comp so far – just as I was settling into my week-long stint of temporarily managing my grandparents’ eponymous business, I was terrified to learn that the proprietor of a B&B is expected to play host over breakfast, talking to all the different guests at once, making sure the conversation doesn’t lag, and generally engaging in an extended personal interaction with people who are involved in a purely economic transaction with you. I can see how people with less social anxiety than me would enjoy this as an opportunity to get to know new people and learn more about the world, but ye gods – this is one career I can definitely cross off the list when I need to figure out what to do post-retirement.

Other than that one shocking moment, though, this really is a warm duvet of a game. As a quarter-Indonesian Australian, you’ve grown used to coming back to Bali for vacations and spending time with your grandparents, so when they surprise you on your latest trip by telling you that they’re off to Paris and you’re in charge, at least you know many of the locals and most of what needs to be done. The week progresses in an agreeable series of vignettes; you’re always jumping from one crisis to another, but buoyed by a charming supporting cast, nothing ever feels insurmountable. A litter of cats in the oven when the health inspector comes calling? Guests who don’t speak any language you know? Another who insists on eating bacon over the religious objections of the cook? I dealt with some of these better than others (I charmed the health inspector and tamed the cats; I gave the Chinese guests some mild food poisoning but they overall seemed to have an OK time; and I’m a vegetarian so I told bacon-guy to fuck right off) but the game was happy to keep things moving without excoriating me for my mistakes.

The problems and confusions that arise as you attempt to keep the B&B running are the main focus of gameplay, but the true star is the setting. I’ve never been to Bali – though since there was an Indonesian restaurant a couple blocks from my college dorm, I can confirm the food is absolutely delicious – but this game is a great advertisement for a stay there. The scenery is described in lush detail, there’s an attention to the cultural and religious diversity that feels authentic and respectful, and overall there’s a lovely, laid-back vibe to the proceedings. A game with this premise could easily fall into the trap of demonizing the guests or stereotyping the staff, but even when someone’s being a jerk, the author manages to convey their humanity (and even the ones who behave badly have an opportunity to at least partially redeem themselves). There’s also an adorable yet mischievous monkey, what’s not to like.

If anything, my only complaint is that I felt like the game went too easy on me. It has the usual overwhelming flurry of ChoiceScript stats, which I promptly ignored, but regardless, almost everything I tried seemed to succeed. Late in the game, there was a moment where it said that because I took good care of my health, I was able to accomplish a challenging task, but I had no memory of ever prioritizing health or even having the option of doing so. And the health inspector felt like a Chekhov’s gun that didn’t go off – after an initial encounter where she finds some violations, she says she’s going to come back, but since she returns after your grandparents do, you don’t get to see whether the consequences of your decisions have saved the B&B from a shutdown. Given the general gentle vibe of the game, this isn’t a real threat, of course – and again, this is comfort gaming, I didn’t need it to be overly punishing – but at the end of the week, I did feel like there were some times that I’d made mistakes, and it maybe felt a little patronizing that the game didn’t call me on them.

That’s mostly me finding something to criticize, though. I had a lot of fun with this one, from the well-drawn characters to the intelligent approach to choice-based gameplay (there are times when you’re asked big-picture questions, for example, but if you feel like you don’t have enough information you can sensibly just punt on them with no penalty). And I didn’t even talk much about the kittens! It almost was enough to make me think that B&B life could be worth the awkward breakfast table chit-chat. Almost.


You were there, you remember. I relived that day over and over as the game came together. A lot of this game is me trying to tell the broken-hearted ten-year-old me that still lives somewhere inside, that it’s going to be OK. I’m so glad you get it too.


Lonehouse, by Ayu Sekarlangit Mokoginta

My wife has a sweatshirt that used to belong to my sister. We live in California, and she lived in Maryland, so one September when we were visiting and it got cold, she noticed that my wife was shivering in her SoCal-appropriate outfit, and lent her a hoody. I forgot to give it back before we left, and a month later we found out Liz’s cancer had come back, so returning a sweatshirt wasn’t ever a priority in the time we had left. And now that sweatshirt isn’t just a sweatshirt.

There can be an unbearable poignancy to the artifacts our loved ones leave behind when they die; the books they read and wrote in, the glasses that let them see, the tchotchkes they’d look at and smile. Trivial, everyday objects that were barely worth a second of thought are transmuted to relics, bearing the last impress of someone’s now-finished time in the world.

Lonehouse engages with that poignancy, in ways that were occasionally quite arresting for me to encounter – the protagonist is visiting the apartment of her recently-deceased sister, named Liv, to help clean it out and take away some keepsakes. As you explore using Texture’s drag-verbs-to-nouns interface, you get snatches of the history between them – it’s not fully explained, but it seems like the sisters hadn’t been in touch, and perhaps there’d been a falling out – and identify the things that seem to have the most Liv-ness to them: a jacket, a favored plushie, a photo.

Despite the strong personal resonance of the premise, though, I didn’t wind up feeling like Lonehouse was truly compelling. Partially this is because the writing is often awkward. The style is generally unadorned and matter-of-fact, which I think is appropriate to communicating grief, but some of the author’s word choices undermine the simple power of this approach. Partially though it’s because the writing never gets especially specific. The general experience of death is one we’ve all had or will have, of course, but it’s unique details that turn this from a vague sense of loss to heart-rending tragedy, and Lonehouse doesn’t usually try to work in this register. Upon seeing that Liv saved an old Christmas gift that the protagonist made her, for example, we’re told that “[a] complicated feeling stirs in you” – but what feeling is that? Again, we aren’t given much detail of the prior relationship between the two, so it’s hard to place this in context.

The Texture engine also makes experiencing the story less engaging than I would have liked. I ran into what appears to be a bug with the system, since I came across it in another game too, where the buttons holding each scene’s verbs displayed their text in a tiny font – that’s not the author’s fault, but it did mean that I was often taken out of the story as I tried to decode my options. The interface also made it challenging to figure out which actions would allow me to explore or get more detail, and which would progress to the next sequence; several times in this short game, I wound up accidentally speeding through rooms I’m not sure I was finished with.

This is a short game that takes on some compelling issues; I’m not sure whether it’s the author’s debut, but if so I think it’s a more than respectable start. My key feedback for next time (and hopefully there’ll be a next time!) is to lean into the concrete, grounded style displayed here, but not to sacrifice the particular in the vain hope of making a piece of writing universal: otherwise, a sweatshirt will remain just a sweatshirt.


Thank you so much for spending time and effort reviewing my game. I am choosing not to make any specific comments about reviews until after the comp, but I assure you that I am grateful for any and all comments, which are so useful in improving my game and future games.