Mike Russo's IF Comp 2023 Reviews

Oh… Yes, I see. For all the text says, the Aegis could be against the east wall with the camera on the ceiling staring right at it from a meter west and up. Or any other setup that hangs the camera somewhere else than close to the wall.

You’re right. My mental image defaulted to the camera hanging on the wall (but not flat stuck against it). It doesn’t have to be that way.



Hello all,

My brain sees the cameras mounted to the wall pointing inwards. I should have made that much clearer. So if you point the camera near the Aegis either North, South or East, you would have effectively concealed the theft. Thank you for your continued feedback!



Some things just strike minds in different ways. I feel obtuse often enough when solving puzzles, but the decision of which direction to turn the camera only took a split second for me…


Word of God!


Have Orb, Will Travel, by Older Timer

I’m not generally one for “old-school” IF. The text adventures of the 80s don’t tickle my nostalgia receptors – I played a few at the time, and many more since then, but I got into IF via the late 90s/early aughts indie scene so when I think of The Games of My Youth, it’s Photopia and Slouching Towards Bedlam that come to mind. Many of them also tend to take the two-word parser approach, which fundamentally doesn’t jibe with how my brain approaches IF interfaces. And while I enjoy a good puzzle as much as the next person, I tend to place a high value on literary prose, thematic depth, and engaging characters; it’s not so much that most old-school IF is bad at those things as that it politely declines to even attempt such things in favor challenging gameplay in the medium-dry-goods model. I can enjoy this style of gameplay but I’m very aware that when I bounce off an old-school piece, the fault’s more likely to be on my side than the game’s.

At the same time, though, I sometimes wonder whether this attitude has become something of a crutch for my critical faculties. Like, it’s easy to say “I guess this thing I didn’t like is just a matter of taste”, and it makes one feel like a broad-minded, ecumenical sort of person who can look beyond their own prejudices. It’s much harder to try to be more rigorous and nail down questions like a) what exactly do we mean by “old school”, anyway, given that there were plenty of early 80s games that aimed to integrate gameplay, plot, and theme and had literary pretensions; b) what particular design elements are necessary or at least helpful to creating an “old school” vibe; and c) are those elements implemented well or poorly in a particular work?

That sounds like a lot of work that I’m not going to attempt now – maybe post-Comp fodder for the Rosebush – but having had these thoughts, I’ve decided to try to provide a slightly more critical look at Have Orb, Will Travel than I was first inclined to do. Because despite having enjoyed the author’s previous two games, this is another old-school puzzlethon that I didn’t quite get on with, but upon reflection I think that’s due to some particular design choices that deserve to be engaged with rather than just chalked up to de gustibus non est disputandum.

Start with the curious decision to play coy with the plot. It’s a hallmark of this style of game that the story isn’t a primary draw, but even by those standards what we’ve got here is curiously thin. The game’s blurb, its opening text, and the letter you start out with in your inventory all gesture towards your character having been given some sort of charge by a Council of Elders, which can be inferred to be to obtain the titular orb, but despite several hundred words being dedicated to this setup, it never comes out and says what the orb is, what it does, how it got lost, why you’re looking for it where you are, and why finding it will matter. Sure, it’s a MacGuffin, but this is uninspiring and even a little confusing, so much so that when I found a magical “sphere” I thought I’d just about hit the end of the game, even though I was only halfway through.

Speaking of magic, HOWT features a Vancian spellcasting system where you can learn spells from a spellbook and then cast them. I’ve liked this kind of system in games like Enchanter, but it’s again oddly vestigial here. There are only three spells in the book and you never accumulate more through play, there are only two places in the course of several dozen obstacles where spellcasting comes into play (meaning that yes, one of the spells appears to be useless), and the system is needlessly baroque, requiring the player to intuit that they need to manually LEARN each spell, which can only be done when you flip through the book page by page until you get to the appropriate one.

The puzzles are generally solid, though after a couple gimmes (there’s an early maze with a fun but straightforward gimmick that’s satisfying to solve) they quickly ramp up in difficulty. This is genre-appropriate – and kudos to the author for providing a full hint system as well as a walkthrough – but some design decisions around traversal made experimenting with them much more tortuous than it needed to be. The map is riddled with one-way passages whose existence isn’t disclosed in advance, and it’s easy to blunder into one before you’ve completed exploring a new area. It’s always possible to retrace your steps, but for much of the game, doing so typically requires either solving the maze again – which quickly grows tedious – or enduring a medium-length section with timed text, which similarly wears out its welcome almost instantly. Further, many puzzles involve interacting with some kind of mechanism that has an impact somewhere else in the map, often without a direct cue about what sort of changes you should be looking for. As a result, the puzzle design presupposes that the player will be making frequent laps around the map, while the navigation design contrives to make that approach pretty annoying.

I hasten to point out (er, 900 words into the review) that there are definitely strong elements here. The author’s homebrewed parser continues to be a highlight, feeling almost as seamless as the tried-and-true Inform or TADS ones (the only foible is that taking items from containers requires a little extra typing, but this is well signposted in the documentation, and a shortcut is provided). There are also a lot of little riddles and clues that help lead you through many of the puzzles, which is a style that I like and which is generally well-executed. And while the setting could be a bit more exciting – when you wend your way through a magically-confusing wood and discover a secret cottage hidden away at its center, it’s deflating to be told that it’s “totally uninteresting” in its features and décor – the prose is efficient at communicating what you need to solve the puzzles, and even manages to be fairly evocative. I think I found one bug (the game crashed when I tried to walk W into the lake rather than type SWIM) but otherwise it was completely smooth.

It’s these very positive pieces that make me want to beg off from any sharper critical judgment: this is a well-made game with a cheerful vibe, and its design choices feel intentional rather than being oversights, so if those design decisions frustrated me, again, maybe I should just blame myself. But thinking about them some more, I’m increasingly of the mind that actually some of those decisions were bad ones, and that HOWT could have been just as old-school but decidedly more engaging if it had paid a little more attention to its plot, or made the magic system a more integral part of its challenges, or reduced the friction of navigating its map. A game like this was never going to be my favorite in the Comp – again, this isn’t my subgenre of choice – but there’s no reason I couldn’t have liked it a lot more than I did.


Kaboom, by Anonymous

While I’ve generally read far fewer books by non-Anglophone writers than I would like, to the extent that there’s an exception it’s Russian novelists: while I don’t speak the language and I’ve thus relied on translations, I’ve made my way through a pretty high percentage of the 19th-Century canon as well as a smattering of more recent authors. Probably this is partially down to subject matter: I like political and philosophical novels, so given the preoccupations of Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, Turgenev, et. al. this is a rewarding furrow to plow. But more than that, even in translation there’s something about the quality of the language that’s unique and engaging to me, some blunt poetry and non-Western meter to the writing that forms something of a common thread even for authors with very different styles.

I got something of the same vibe from Kaboom, which is similarly translated from Russian, and which has a premise that’s seemingly as off-kilter as its prose: in this parser-like Twine game, you play a stuffed hare who has to try to help its person (a five-year-old girl) after a bad dream that seems to turn the whole world topsy-turvy. Like, here’s the description of the anthropomorphized sun that floats above the strange dreamscape that opens the game:

The sun gazes directly at you, jokingly wagging his scalding rays. He has a clean-shaven, balding elderly face with somewhat lumpy cheeks and small eyes slightly turned towards the nasal bridge. In spite of his countenance being noble and a little weary, it also gives away an immense inner tension - looks like it takes him quite an effort not to blow up altogether, taking this whole world into oblivion with him.

That’s not a paragraph most native speakers of English would write, I don’t think – that use of “altogether” is a little archaic, the image of wagging rays of sunlight probably wouldn’t occur to me but might make more sense in the original Russian, and the repetition of “somewhat” and “slightly” and “a little” I think reflects diminutives that English lacks. But for all that the writing is grammatically correct, and I found this an arresting image, rendered in a distinctive, engaging way.

I definitely experienced some disorientation from a combination of the odd premise and the unintuitive prose, though. This sometimes made solving the game’s puzzles more challenging: I often had a hard time visualizing the space I was moving through, and while there are usually good hints or cues pushing the player towards what they should be doing, I was often unclear on what broader goal I was serving by pushing a pillow around or getting glue on my paws, even though I could tell that the game wanted me to do these things.

The interface also could be cleaner: there’s an inventory menu in the upper right corner that is mostly limited to your cute little hare-y arms and jumpy hare-y legs, with options for grabbing or kicking showing up when you click to open the menu. But most of the time the choices presented in the main window include things like pushing or picking up objects, so the logic of when and why I’d need to go to the inventory remained opaque throughout my playthrough. There’s also some unneeded friction that comes of the game’s decision to return back to a location’s top menu after you take most actions. There were sequences that require multiple connected steps, like pushing a toy crane truck, turning its crank, connecting its hook to something, then turning the crank again to lift the object into the air, and it was a little annoying to have to manually click “look around” then on the crane truck each time I wanted to perform the next step; the annoyance was increased by the realization that the game appears to have a time limit, though I got to the end before time ran out.

The consequence of all this, though, is that it took me way longer than it should to figure out what Kaboom is actually doing. Full spoilers after one last evocative but confusingly vague passage:

Full of thoughts, you slowly turn towards the house and suddenly hold still, thunderstruck: only a small part of the wall at the corner you came from is visible, the rest of the building is covered by a huge messy heap of unidentifiable something! What’s happening? What crazy giant gambolled here? And how can you, an ordinary toy hare, withstand this giant?

So yeah, what’s going on is that you’re in Ukraine, and your house has just been hit by a bomb; it’s pretty clearly implied that your owner’s parents were both killed, and you have to draw attention to her predicament so that she can be rescued before she bleeds to death. It’s possible to fail at this task, though mercifully the game doesn’t go into details, but even success comes at a cost: your poor hare winds up doused in ash, covered in glue, and finally half burned away by the end of the game, and since your owner is unconscious when she’s pulled from the ruin of your house, it’s pretty clear that you’re going to be abandoned and lost forever.

This twist hit me like a ton of bricks. Some of that is of course just seeing the horrors I’ve been reading about in the newspapers for a year and a half unexpectedly brought home; some of that is the sentimental fact that I tuck my two-year-old son into bed every night with his favorite toy cat beside him; and some it’s the simple and heartfelt closing message from the game’s anonymous Russian author. This is a game with some infelicities, as I pointed out above, but it got more of an emotional response from me than anything else in the Comp so far, and I think partially it’s those very points of friction that make it so effective. I wish to God we didn’t need to have games like this – much less that there’d be another recently-ignited conflict to which Kaboom could equally apply – but I found this game a very effective use of interactive fiction to create some much-needed empathy and connection; it’s trite to say that art is what will eventually end war, but however small it is, in my heart of heart I believe games like Kaboom are making some difference.


Well said, Mike. Thorough and critical, not shying away from design difficulties, ultimately even giving them a place in your appraisal of the strong emotional impact the work had on you.

My heart of hearts is with yours in believing art like this can make a difference.


To be clear, I never doubted that your conclusion was the one the author intended! I was just arguing that that information wasn’t actually in the game, so how solvable the puzzle is depends on whether your default mental image of the setup is the same as the author’s or not. But I’ll stop derailing Mike’s thread now.


To be clear, digging into the minutiae of heist-game design is always welcome in any of my threads!

(BTW I think Lady Thalia 3 is like next-to-last on my Spring Thing queue, so playing that is going to be my reward for eventually going back and finishing my review thread for that…)


Planning a little something?


I just meant in general it’s one of my favorite genres. Though since you mention it, I have been thinking more seriously about giving Potions Eleven a go eventually…


My question was more meant to be read as “Should I notify the museums in your neighborhood that something is up?”

But sure, keep talking about “games”…


My Brother; the Parasite, by qrowscant

I think most people who’ve lost someone close to them have played some version of the bargaining game: imagining what you’d be willing to give up to get one more day, one more conversation, one more hug, with your loved one. It’s a ghoulish pastime, beyond being quite futile – perhaps for the best, there’s no interlocutor out there ready to take up the opposite side of the bet – but it’s nonetheless a positive fantasy; knowing that it’s impossible to obtain something so devoutly to be wished, or at least not for free, our lex-talionis-addled brains heap up sacrifices to make the vision plausible.

Careful what you wish for: in the grim world of My Brother; the Parasite (dig that semicolon), they’ve discovered a microorganism that delivers the unthinkable: once it colonizes a person’s brain, it will spring into action after they die, sending electricity into the brain and reanimating a corpse for four or five days. The person’s still dead, but their corpse lingers on, a talking thing that’s kept around out a vain hope that it can offer closure.

That hope is especially vain for Inez, the protagonist of the game. Her brother has died – choked on his own vomit after one bender too many – but as he luckily was afflicted by the parasite, she’s offered the chance for a series of one-on-one interviews to unpack the many, many layers of trauma he’s inflicted on her over the years. There are some details given, and others withheld, but it’s dark, dark stuff (while it doesn’t spell things out, I read the game to imply that he raped her at least once), and Inez can’t help but pick her scabs, verbally jousting with the body that used to be her brother in search of something she knows he can’t give.

The writing here is queasy and authentically muddled, and often describes abuse that was inflicted so frequently that it seems to have become almost commonplace:

You knocked the wind out of me. I collapsed onto the floor, gasping, in tears, trying my hardest to force air back into my lungs. You brought me half a mango as an apology and begged me not to tell Mom.

My mind, though… There are a hundred, million reminders that set it aflame. There are sounds that make me jump. Phrases that make me sick. Parts I can no longer touch.

The visual presentation matches this dour tone. The graphics – a mixture of portraits and heavily-modified photographs, with some limited, disorienting animation – occupy a range from moody to actively unsettling. There are occasional choices that prioritize vibe over readability, like the use of dark-gray text over a black background, and a few instances of timed text, but I think these are legitimate decisions that work to make the player uncomfortable, giving them the smallest taste of what it’s like to live as Inez does.

The game’s perspective in fact is locked very close into her subjectivity; this is a hothouse-flower of a game, focused overwhelmingly and obsessively on the trauma her brother has inflicted on her. If anything, I found that when the game tries to broaden out from this theme, it hits its few false notes: there’s a repeated suggestion that part of the ill will between the siblings came from competing for their mother’s love, and Inez several times repeats that she loves him and will mourn him. But these claims ring hollow in light of the intensity of the brother’s transgressive hatefulness and Inez’s complementary rage; I just didn’t buy these conventional, psychologized elements, and frankly the game doesn’t need them.

I’m hopefully communicating that this is a deeply unpleasant, but also deeply compelling, work to experience. Inez’s experiences are intense, but suggested with enough subtlety that the player can’t push them safely into the realm of melodrama or schlock horror. For all that it’s a very internal work, the author sets up the plot with care; it progresses from one distinct scene to the next with a clear logic of escalation connecting them. Despite the lack of anything resembling a branching choice, there’s some skillfully-deployed interactivity that means clicking through the various bits of text remains engaging throughout. And the conceit of the parasite is brilliant, because instead of a duel between two people, it’s simply a matter of a single person and a thing, meaning Inez is always in the spotlight and on the hook for the decisions she makes, while her brother is a dead but still-animate sparring partner whose incapacity for moral action is no longer blameworthy.

My Brother; the Parasite didn’t resonate very strongly with my personal experiences; my sibling relationship was complicated as all are, but nothing at all like this. And the emotions it evokes most frequently are ones that are generally alien to my personality. If there were too many games like it in the Comp, I think I’d have a hard time playing my way through it – I certainly needed a break after finishing this one. But it’s a haunting and well-crafted work, and for those who enjoy engaging with darker situations and feelings, it’ll be something very special. For my part, I’m glad to have played it, and glad too to be putting it aside.


Into the Lion’s Mouth, by Metalflower

An awesome thing about well-crafted video games is that they can conjure up seamless new worlds for the player to explore. An awesome thing about poorly-crafted video games is that by inadvertently breaking the illusion of mimesis, they can conjure up hallucinatory terrain that dislocates and disorients the player in a way that wind up perversely enjoyable. So it goes with Into the Lion’s Mouth, which combines a strange loop born (I assume!) of a weird bug with some odd writing choices to convey a discordant, postmodern experience where the player’s more Theseus adrift in a maze than Heracles bearding a lion.

The opening is deceptively simple: this choice-based game starts in medias res, as the protagonist suffers a vehicle break-down in the middle of the Serengeti and is immediately menaced by lions. The player is primed for a tale of survival as you need to make the right choices to escape hostile animals and unforgiving wilderness to make it back alive, but the reality is more discombobulating. For one thing, if you try to deal with the lion, your only options are to yell at it and draw attention to yourself (bad idea, duh) or to… try to hypnotize it, which the game illustrates with an inline YouTube video of a young girl “hypnotizing” various small animals like a frog and an iguana. Shockingly, this also doesn’t work, sending you back to the opening menu where you can select the remaining, incongruous option: “Lucky I prepped with the lion taming simulator.”

Clicking on that takes you to what seems to be an unrelated vignette, where you (is this the same you? In this story you apparently work as a park ranger, whereas the main-timeline you seems to be unfamiliar with the Serengeti) encounter an abandoned lion cub and nurse it back to health. There’s another odd fourth-wall breaking bit here, where you get sent to an unrelated website that lays out a DIY recipe for approximating lion’s milk that you then need to pick out of a set of choices in order to successfully feed the cub. But other than that things progress as you’d imagine: you bond with him, you help him learn to hunt, you reach the moment when you realize he belongs in the wild, and you tearfully leave him there and drive away…

At which point you’re sent back to the game’s opening yet again, I guess to hope that hypnosis will work better this time out (it doesn’t).

I have questions. For one thing, in what sense was this vignette a “simulator”? It’s framed as something that actually happened. But are we to assume it was just a Twine game that the protagonist of this other, less-successful Twine game played prior to going on safari (the lion-cub bit is far and away the best part of the game, seeming to indicate that some bit of research went into it, plus as mentioned it has a narrative arc rather than allowing time to become a flat endless circle)? If that’s the case, and you’re the kind of person who is so psychotically prone to overpreparation that before a trip to a wildlife preserve you research exactly what you should do if you happen to come across a lost lion cub and need to raise it into adulthood, shouldn’t you also know how to jump-start or a car? Or at least know not to engage with potentially dangerous animals instead of shouting “yoo-hoo, over here!” or trying, I repeat, to hypnotize them?

I had plenty of time to contemplate the answers to these queries as I confirmed that yes, everything remains the same in this second iteration, including the possibility of jumping back into the simulator again and rebooting things yet a third time. Into the Lion’s Mouth is a misnomer of a title: play this one, and you’re crawling into an endless matryoshka doll with infinite narratives nested inside each other, never resolving; I’m half tempted to play it until I’ve set free so many rehabilitated lions that they’re no longer endangered. Surely this can’t have been what the author intended, but from a quick nose at the Twine code, I can’t see a more definitive ending. And honestly I’m glad for that, since absent this bug or whatever it is the game would be a forgettable snack that doesn’t do much with a unique premise. Instead, I get this picture of the future: a man, hypnotizing a lion – forever.


The Paper Magician, by Soojung Choi

I really like riddles. What’s more fun than wordplay, engaging with some cryptic poetry and turning it over and over until it lines up at precisely the right angle and you see the obvious solution that’s been staring you in the face the whole time? I’ve got good memories of a car trip I took with some friends twenty years ago where we killed four or five hours just swapping riddles – somehow I almost stumped everybody with the hoariest of old chestnuts, you know, the whole “a rich man needs it, the poor have more of it than they know what to do with” one, except after fifteen minutes one of my friends looked out the window at a storm-cloud and said “that looks like the Nothing” (you know, from Neverending Story – I told you this was a long time ago) and that shook the answer loose.

That’s the rub, though. Riddles are a good way to pass the time with friends, so you’ve got someone to bounce ideas off of and nothing better to be doing – plus it’s also no big deal if you can’t guess one right, since that just gives someone bragging rights and you can move on to the next one (assuming you’re not going to be a sore loser, skulk after them in an unsuccessful attempt to reclaim their prize, then ultimately bite off the finger of their second cousin once removed). In a piece of IF, they’re a high-stakes design element because these forgiving bits of scaffolding disappear: sure, they can go gangbusters, but a distressingly large percentage of the time, if the player doesn’t immediately figure it out, they’re going to grimly stare at it, fail to get any good ideas, try a couple more options, then dispiritedly have recourse to the walkthrough and feel bad about the whole process.

So yeah, if you’re going to have your game hinge on riddles, it’s good to be mindful of the dangers. And also, for the love of God, don’t make the text entry boxes case-sensitive.

Right, now that that’s off my chest we can talk about Paper Magician. This is a short choice-based game where you play a test subject bent on escaping from the lab where they’re confined so they can finally see the things they’ve only read about in books, like the sky. It’s a premise that could be played many different ways, and the game opts for a fairy-tale take. It opens with an extended sequence where you meet a disembodied spirit in a dream who promises to help you escape if you can make them a body – for you have the power to conjure the things you draw or write about into reality. This is a neat idea, and when the writing stays grounded in the protagonist’s perspective, it can be compelling, like this bit where you fantasize about what escape could mean:

The sensation of placing my hand against a river’s current, running across a field, petting a griffin’s fur. I’ve only truly experienced breathing, the touch of a cold wall, the brush of paper, and the thin solid form of a pencil in my hand.

I like that it’s unclear whether griffins are real in this world, or if, since you only know about what you’ve read in your few books, you just don’t know that they’re mythological. On the other hand, the prose can also feel muddled and vague. Like, it took me a longer time to come to grips with the actually-fairly-simple map of the compound because of stuff like this:

I see two doors, each one on opposite walls, marked West and South.

Wait, west and south are opposite?

This became a bigger issue as I started to dig into the meat of the game, which involves investigating a few rooms in the lab for clues about the experiments being conducted on you. Like, I’m pretty familiar with video game tropes, but I struggled to make sense of stuff like this:

As the source of all magic in this world, the Dragon of Origins is omnipresent in different forms. However, it has a core form, within the depths of this world. If we can draw out the core and then implant it into Subject 0013, then it can become our personal reserve of magic.

If it was just a matter of digging into optional ~lore~, I’d have shrugged and moved on, but actually the player needs to understand this stuff to reach the endgame. The final area of the lab is sealed with four locks, each of which poses a particular question about what the scientists are up to and requires an answer to be typed into the waiting text box. So yeah, they’re riddles. While two of the questions were straightforward to figure out, the other two felt substantially more open-ended, and susceptible to several different legitimate answers. For example, one asks what the subject is going to become, which seems to refer to this extract from one of the documents I found:

Raise and control the subject as our new god. Harness its power as it becomes our own new reserve of magic. A living reservoir.

Another document also uses the phrase ”figurehead god” to refer to this idea. So I tried that, as well as ”new god”, “living reservoir”, “reserve of magic”, and permutations of all of these. Turns out the answer was just ”god”, but either the hint needed to be much clearer, or alternate solutions should have been accepted. And here’s where the case-sensitivity comes in, because actually that doesn’t work either; it needs to be capitalized. This is the point where I went scurrying for the walkthrough with a frown on my face. It didn’t need to be this way – I’d actually gotten all of the riddles mostly right – but this overly-strict design turned what could have been an engaging, albeit diegetically unjustified, opportunity for the player to demonstrate their understanding of the backstory before entering the endgame into a frustrating exercise in reading the author’s mind.

Said endgame does pick up a bit; the scenario as a whole is fairly underdeveloped (I would have liked to see more uses for the protagonist’s cool magic abilities, and better integration of the backstory elements into the narrative once they figure out what’s going on), and the story just goes exactly where you think it’s going to go given the setup, but it still finishes on a nice note of catharsis. Still, my opinion on riddles remains unchanged: a lovely game to play among friends, but outside of that, they’re a dangerous business.


Thank God it doesn’t involve boots.


Last Valentine’s Day, by Daniel Gao

The thing about Groundhog Day is that it’s a horror premise dressed up as a rom-com. Like of course there’s the sheer existential terror of the way the time loop cuts you off from the rest of the world, shipwrecked on an isolated outcrop of temporality. But beyond that, God or fate or kismet or whatever taking a direct hand and saying you are meant to be with this one specific person, and will keep you stuck in a timey-wimey rut until you perform just the right steps to unlock the prison? That’s the part that kicks things over into nightmare territory. Even if there’s a spark and connection, life is long and relationships are hard; once time’s arrow is flying forward again, who’s to say what’ll happen next Groundhog Day, or the one after that? If you get in a fight, or decide you want a divorce, will the world stop again until you take it back? Every minute of every day would be torture as your subjectivity is annihilated.

As per usual I am perhaps overthinking things. But Last Valentine’s Day remix of the classic formula comes up with what I think is a better alignment of themes and narrative: if the story is trapping the protagonist in a loop, shouldn’t the resolution also hinge on an internal emancipation? Certainly the main character doesn’t start out the story in any obvious need of a personality adjustment: walking through an unseasonably-warm February afternoon with a spring in their step, they seem to have it all figured out, with their biggest dilemma deciding whether to get orchids or roses for their partner. Given the framing of the game, it’s not much of a surprise when they get home only to be blindsided by a Dear John letter, nor that you quickly get sent back to the beginning of a day that’s suddenly a little colder, reflecting on a relationship that suddenly seems to have some cracks in its façade.

The challenge of a time-loop game is that it can get boring for the player to run down the same track time and again, and in its second iteration, I was worried Last Valentine’s Day was going to fall into that trap; the situations, and even the specific sentences you read, are quite similar to the initial sequence. The modifications are well-chosen to clearly but subtly shift the mood, but I still felt my eyes starting to skim over seemingly-familiar bits of prose. Fortunately, subsequent trips through the loop see even clearer variations, focusing on new characters or situations, or zooming in to focus more on things that were bottom-lined the previous time out. As a result, while the palette of narrative elements stays limited throughout, I found the game remained fresh through its running time.

These narrative elements are decidedly low-key, but effectively play with the central theme of a curdling relationship. You have encounters that foreground the potentially transactional nature of love, highlight the possibility of heartbreak due to betrayal or tragedy, or just provide a light thematic throughline based on the legend of Orpheus (I was disappointed that telling a character that yes, I was familiar with the story, wound up terminating that branch of the conversation rather than leading to a dialogue about what it means). There are plenty of choices available throughout, and while I never got the sense that any particular decision I made was going to have much of an impact – the protagonist’s escape from the loop isn’t a puzzle the player needs to solve by doing everything exactly right, thankfully – these frequent interjections of interactivity succeeded in keeping me engaged as I decided how sympathetic to be to each of the views of love being offered up.

For all that there’s a lot of external incident, though, the game is quite solipsistic, with the reality of the protagonist’s partner never coming through in any concrete way. Instead the focus is all on the protagonist’s feelings and reflections about love. I think this is a reasonable choice for a game that’s so internal, but it does contribute to an impression that the work is intended to speak for and to younger people entering into some of their first relationships (also adding to this impression: the fact that the florist, who I think is described as being in her very early thirties, is referred to as middle-aged, and who, after suffering a romantic setback of her own, bemoans the difficulty of starting all over and worries that she’s far too old to find love again. For the record, I am 42 and only like halfway crumbled into dust). The writing, while generally strong, also occasionally hits a clunky or callow note, like this bit of one of the breakup notes:

Life with you has been an adventure. There is no other word to describe it. The clouds parted and I started anew. There was so much excitement. And so much angst. I ceased to live in a pit, I ceased to walk on a plateau. I was on a roller coaster, and you were there right beside me, laughing and screaming and crying, all at once.

While I would have enjoyed the game more if its take on love had been a little more grounded and, dare I say, mature, I’ll admit that this is a game with a naïve protagonist who is a little too much in their own head. As I read the game, it gradually makes clear that what’s trapped you in the loop isn’t so much any external force, it’s your own desire to cling to the past and escape heartbreak, and your tendency to catastrophize what’s after all an ordinary and expected part of life, however painful. The prose in the ending is slightly overdone for my tastes, but it hits a properly resonant thematic note: it’s not that you finally move on by jumping through the proper set of hoops, but rather that you move on by moving on. And having gotten the knack, one hopes, there’s no sword of Damocles hanging overhead waiting to strike if you ever again stray from the straight and narrow.


I went to check IFDB to see if you played/reviewed Daniel Gao’s earlier The Brutal Murder of Jenny Lee, and I see you did. Just because it also had loopy or timey aspects.



Who Iced Mayor McFreeze?, by Damon L. Wakes

I feel like there are a larger-than-usual number of sequels in this year’s Comp, and this is probably the most unexpected of them. Last year’s Who Shot Gum E. Bear? was an fun but slight whodunnit that mashed up hard-boiled narration with hard-candy characters; it wrung some solid laughs out of its off-the-wall premise, but gave every sign of being a one-off joke. So when I saw that Bubble Gumshoe had another case, part of me wondered whether the gag would have gone stale. Fortunately the answer is no; Mayor McFreeze still entertains by leaning into its Candyland-gone-bad setting, and changes up the gameplay formula by swapping more traditional IF puzzles for Gum E. Bear’s focus on interviewing suspects.

The plot this time out is a mystery cliché, but a different one from the straightforward who-killed-the-dead-guy hook of the previous installment: the mayor’s femme-fatale wife walks through the door of your office and asks you to check in on him, as she learned he was lured to a meeting with a notorious crime-boss at an abandoned factory on the wrong side of town. But when you go to investigate, you get locked in, and turns out the factory is due for demolition in the morning – you’ve got to escape, and hopefully solve the crime along the way.

My memory of the previous game is that the comedy came largely from one-liners and delicious puns, and those are still in evidence this time out, but I got the most enjoyment from the places where the author really leaned into the absurdity of the game’s world, piling joke upon joke without once cracking a smile:

The docks once saw fleets of ships coming in full of raw sugar, and leaving full of premium saltwater taffy. But the pollution from Sugar City’s industrial district has given the cola here an extra kick: the extra maintenance costs involved in shoring up the ships’ dissolving hulls put the factory into the red, and when the Good Ship Lollipop foundered right in the middle of the channel - blocking access to all other vessels - that was the final marshmallow in the s’more.

This kind of scene-setting calms down a bit once you reach the main part of the gameplay, but there are still plenty of good lines slipped in even once things get serious, and the endling features a delightful escalation of noir cliches and dessert-based investigative techniques, again all played entirely straight.

I also thought the gameplay structure here was cleverly done. There are basically two tracks the player needs to work through: to escape the factory, you need to solve a series of fairly conventional medium-dry-goods puzzles that are primarily about traversal. But along the way, you’ll also have the opportunity to find and investigate some clues about the titular crime; these aren’t puzzles per se, but the game tracks which ones you’ve found, and then changes the ending based on the information you’ve gathered. This is an elegant way of representing a mystery in IF form – conversing with NPCs is obviously challenging to do in a satisfying way, and requiring the player to demonstrate they’ve figured out the solution can often be tricky, since it’s easy to make things either too easy (most genre-aware players will guess the identity of the bad guy pretty quickly) or too hard (since spelling out the exact way all the clues fit together represents an interface challenge, and may require information the protagonist has but the player doesn’t). And allowing the player to get to the end without solving the mystery helps provide a hint about what they missed, so they can go back and try to do better.

The implementation sadly lets the comedic tone and elegant structure down, though. There aren’t a lot of alternate syntaxes provided, and Inform’s default responses largely haven’t been changed, so I spent a lot of time fighting with the parser and hearing Graham Nelson’s drily amused voice chastising me, which took me out of the world (tip to authors: it only takes fifteen minutes or so to customize the most commonly-used responses, and this goes a very long way to making your game feel polished and unique). There’s a point where I needed to untie a piece of cord from a door, and TAKE CORD, UNTIE CORD, and DETACH CORD were all unsuccessful, with only TAKE DOOR working – which was odd, since I needed the cord, not the door! There are also several things that look like containers that you can’t put anything in, a fair number of disambiguation issues, and long location descriptions that are presented as single unbroken blocks of text.

Beyond the technical aspects of implementation, I also found a fair number of the puzzles required a higher amount of authorial-ESP than I’d like, and solutions sometimes relied on what felt to me like dodgy logic. Like speaking of that guess-the-verb issue I mentioned above, one puzzle requires you to rip a metal door off its hinges using detonator cord, which from my understanding is made of plastic and quite thin, so I wouldn’t have thought it would be up to the challenge. Conversely, I had to go to the hints because I wasn’t sure how to get through this door:

A cheap, stained wooden door, badly warped by damp. There’s a small keyhole just beneath the brass handle.

Turns out it’s sufficiently fragile that throwing a heavy object into it will break it, but I don’t think that description adequately signposted that brute force would be a solution here (the fact that the keyhole is a separately-implemented object also seems designed to mislead the player).

The investigative track I think is a bit more intuitive than the puzzle track, though again there were places where a bit more hand-holding would have been appreciated, especially where world-building details that might be lost on the player are at issue ([spoiler]I’m thinking here mostly of the need to TASTE various objects, most importantly the dead body, which feels like an egregious violation of crime scene protocol as well as slightly cannibalistic).

As is my wont, I’m harping on details, but it really just is the details that are the issue here; the writing, story, and general design are quite strong, unlike the funny but sometimes-dodgy Gum E. Bear (I solved that one by accusing suspects at random, which I think was a common experience for players). Despite its sometimes-thin implementation and inadequate clueing, Mayor McFreeze represents a real progression; dare I wonder whether we’ll see a completed trilogy next year?

mcfreeze mr.txt (89.5 KB)


20 Exchange Place, by Sol FC


SEPTEMBER 20, 2006


CRIMINAL IMPERSONATION (PL 190.26): suspect entered the scene of a hostage situation outside a Financial District bank at 20 Exchange Place. He put himself out as an NYPD officer and engaged in various law enforcement activities, but his level of professionalism and effectiveness was so indescribably low that suspect obviously was nothing of the sort.

AGGRAVATED ASSAULT UPON A POLICE OFFICER (PL 120.11): suspect claims that upon arriving at the scene and asking his notional colleague, Officer CORTEZ, for a briefing, CORTEZ responded with unreasoning hostility and initiated a physical altercation (Office CORTEZ has been placed on administrative leave pending an investigation into his actions).

ASSAULT IN THE FIRST DEGREE (PL 120.05): suspect, noting that a crowd had gathered around the crime scene, attempted to clear the surroundings. Subsequently, a reporter for the New York Post identified him as a police officer and approached suspect to ask for an update; suspect, apparently incapable of delivering a simple “no comment”, responded with hostility and escalated the situation and eventually initiated a brawl with the journalist (NOTE: eyewitness indicated the Post reporter carried a live mic and was accompanied by a video camera crew; potential credibility issues if we put them on the stand?)

CRIMINAL USE OF A FIREARM (PL 265.09): after the aforementioned physical altercation appeared not to be going his way, suspect fired three “warning shots” in an attempt to stop the brawl, and then aimed his loaded firearm at one of the journalists. Suspect argues that this was a conservative choice, as his only other option was to “go off book”, though he did not elaborate on what that would have entailed.

AGGRAVATED ASSAULT UPON A POLICE OFFICER (PL 120.11) (yes, again): subsequent to the above altercation, Deputy Inspector PASH arrived and attempted to deescalate. Suspect once again initiated a fistfight (NOTE: several eyewitnesses swear that the fight lead to HAYES being shot dead, which is clearly impossible. Did the bank robbers release a hallucinogen or something?)

OBSCENITY (PL 235.05): despite claiming to be a police officer, suspect appears to have an aversion to even as mild an oath as “pissed off”, somehow managing to pronounce it as “p***** off”.

SMOKING (NYCAC 17.503): before initiating planning on how to breach the bank and rescue the 17 hostages, suspect paused to smoke a cigarette within 50 feet of the bank’s entrance. Suspect claims that he had no choice, as he is sufficiently addicted to nicotine that without said cigarette, he would have been so nervous that he would have been forced to blurt out confidential information when engaged in negotiations with the robbers.

EMPLOYMENT DISCRIMINATION – HOSTILE WORK ENVIRONMENT (NYCR A.2.7): suspect seems to harbor a bizarre grudge against Irish-Americans, including claiming not to understand the accent of a decorated member of the NYPD bomb squad (NOTE: see charge under PL 190.26. Who the hell does this guy think makes up the force, anyway?)

AIDING AND ABETTING ROBBERY IN THE FIRST DEGREE (PL 160.15): while suspect purported to be trying to rescue the hostages and apprehend the robbers, his advice and actions were so error-prone as to indicate that he was likely in collusion with the criminals. At every stage, even the most anodyne of his suggestions would lead to disorder within the ranks (see charges under PL 120.05, PL 12.11 x2), assistance to the criminals (see charge under NYCAC 17.503), or catastrophic failure and loss of life (three separate suggestions about how to infiltrate the building, plausible on their face, led to unexpected explosions and death of hostages). One initially-promising sortie via a side door was even brought to a halt when suspect appeared to have some form of seizure, requiring resetting planning from the beginning.

CRIMES AGAINST MIMESIS (IFTR 1-25): please just make them stop.