Mike Russo's IF Comp 2023 Reviews

The Whisperers, by Milo van Mesdag

I mentioned in my review of Kaboom that I’ve read a fair bit of Russian literature, and that I tend to like political fiction. The Whisperers, then, is up my alley: it’s an interactive play that is set, and notionally performed, in the USSR in 1938, chronicling the lives of five inhabitants of a communal apartment in Moscow as they make an escalating series of poor decisions that eventually end in catastrophe (but I repeat myself: I already said it’s about the USSR in 1938, when the Great Purge reached its climax).

Before delving into the plot of the play, it’s worth sticking with the framing for a beat. The conceit is that the player is attending a performance of a novel entertainment – at scene breaks, one of the characters in the play will break the fourth wall and ask for the audience to indicate their choice of several narrative options via cheering; whichever one seems to have the greatest enthusiasm behind it will be chosen.

As a way to diegetically explain the mechanics of choice-based fiction, this is smartly done, and I actually wished the game had done more to explore it. At the beginning, you’re given the choice of how literally to take these mechanics; the author recommends a mode where the player’s decisions are given priority, making the game play like any other work of choice-based IF, but there’s also a mode where you just play one audience-member among many, with your voice not necessarily being determinative. I took a risk and picked the latter option, but I was disappointed that there wasn’t more explication of how the audience was responding to the play, and whether my hooting and cheering was making a difference. This is especially the case because some decisions involve resistance to Stalinist orthodoxy; the actor framing the choices swears that they’ve been given special dispensation not to report anyone who evidences signs of deviation, but that struck me as a hollow promise. The audience is already lightly characterized – the player’s given a choice of whether to sit among the proletariat, the party bosses, or those in need of reeducation – so making more explicit the implied social context in which the play is being performed could have enriched proceedings further, I think.

Another interesting aspect of the presentation is the use of stage directions. These are generally a bit more heavy-handed than I’d expect to see in a real theatrical script, but given that a player doesn’t have the benefit of seeing the actors’ interpretations, I think that’s a good choice. But among their idiosyncrasies is the approach to indicating the volume at which dialogue is delivered; the game notes that unless otherwise indicated, all lines are spoken at a whisper. On the one hand, this is both narratively and thematically apt: with five characters crammed into three thin-walled rooms, keeping one’s voice down is both polite and, given the police-state context, prudent. And keeping even extremes of emotion and distress sotto vocce suggests the ways that life in authoritarian states is lived; concealment is the default, rather than an exception. But I found the actual implementation challenging, because of course as I read the game’s text I’d often forget that injunction and assume that un-annotated dialogue was spoken full-volume; again, if the scenes were actually being performed, this wouldn’t be an issue, but the experience of reading the text on the page was different.

The play itself is quite well-written. There’s a certain quality of slightly-awkward effusion that I expect when reading something by a Russian author, and the dialogue captures something of that tone. Here’s a line from one of the two leads, Agnessa, a Trotskeyite idealist, on her feelings about one of her new neighbors:

No, no it’s nice to see you. I do like you Dariya Yuriivna. I’m not embarrassed that you know it.

Or here’s a bit from the other lead, Nikolai, waxing rhapsodic about his romantic connection with Agnessa:

Now. I have things now, I love my work, I love my books, I love … things, life! But sometimes, no, all the time; sometime, sometime, a long time ago, when I was a child, something changed. Dreams became safer than life. Yes, there were reasons to wake up. But there were reasons to stay asleep too. As well. I was scared, I guess. And I became bad. But now I wake up, straight up, childishly up, because I know that I might get to be with her.

Sometimes the characters come across as callow, or talk past each other, but that all generally rings true. I do think Whisperers does sometimes presuppose more familiarity with the politics of pre-WWII Russia than the abbreviated pre-game glossary can provide – there’s an extended riff that depends on knowing the context of what “socialism in one country” means, for example – but I think it still works well enough even if you don’t get the nuances. And the themes it engages with are strong: the central couple’s relationship dynamics drive the plot’s main clash, the tension between the political idealism to change an unjust world and the desire to nonetheless live a private, mostly-happy life within it. That conflict is echoed in a lower key by the marriage of the two older characters, as Dariya’s continued attachment to Orthodoxy is part of longstanding worry on the part of her husband Georgy. And then the fifth character, Agnessa’s brother, Sergei, serves primarily to up the stakes, since he’s an NKVD officer.

(Er, I just realized I’m doing the thing I dinged the game for at the beginning of the last paragraph: the NKVD was one incarnation of the Soviet secret police, part of the alphabet-soup sandwich between the Cheka and the KBG).

(Yes, that’s a terrible mixed metaphor).

It’s all solid and resonant – especially now, given the war of aggression the USSR’s succession state is currently waging – but I have to confess that I didn’t find The Whisperers quite as compelling as I expected. All the themes make sense, they’re played in a smart, historically-grounded way, the writing is strong, and the use of interactivity is well-considered. But I suspect the character work isn’t quite up to the same standard. The core due of Agnessa and Nikolai especially sometimes veer into caricature – she’s a true believer who at one point directly says that she doesn’t see a difference between fiction and real life, and he’s so feckless he seems to make decisions purely on impulse. I liked them, but they felt more like types than people. Sergei, meanwhile, is likewise mostly just a plot device, and while Georgy and Dariya have a world-weary charm, they get by far the least spotlight time (I also came across what I think is a bug that undercut the impact of their strand of the story; in my playthrough, I didn’t have Georgy burn Dariya’s idols, but the NKVD still couldn’t turn up anything untoward when they searched the apartment. From looking over the full text of the game via the included script mode, though, it seems like the bad consequences you’d expect to happen should, in fact, happen).

The related issue is that I suspect I didn’t invest myself too heavily in Agnessa and Nikolai’s relationship because it was clear from the jump that they were doomed. The fact that a story telegraphs that it’s a tragedy doesn’t mean it can’t work, of course. But I did feel like the latter stages of the plot hinged too much on, well, plot-y stuff like whether they would get away with their acts of defiance and if they’d have any broader impact – but of course they don’t, and of course they don’t. This is very old history at this point, and besides, I’ve read all three volumes of Gulag Archipelago, there aren’t really any portrayals of Stalinist brutality that can surprise me at this point. Focusing in on the emotions, conveying what it might be like to live in this horrible situation, could have worked, but here’s where I think the archetypal nature of the characters wound up being a flaw. Admittedly, there’s a plot branch that didn’t show up in my playthrough that I suspect might recast the emphasis of the final scenes (my audience opted not to have Agenssa tell Nikolai that she was pregnant, which would presumably up the soap-opera quotient) so maybe one point of feedback would be to prioritize that choice in the mode where the player doesn’t get to make all the decisions.

The thing is, when I consider all the issues I’ve raised, it occurs to me that they all boil down to the same actually-kind-of-vapid critique: this is a play that I’m reading rather than seeing performed. With actors bringing life to the characters, and the immersive engagement that theater provides, I think these downsides would melt away, and the work’s very real strengths would be even more apparent. Of course, this is also a piece of IF that’s been entered into an IF competition; it’s entirely appropriate to judge it on the form in which I encountered it. But heck, I enjoy reading Shakespeare, even knowing that that’s far from the ideal way to experience his plays – if anyone ever puts on a production of The Whisperers, I’d be eager to see it, but in the meantime I’m glad it was entered into the Comp.


Well this was a delight :smile:


Death on the Stormrider, by Daniel M. Stelzer

While I’ve previously flagged the boatiness of this year’s Comp, I don’t think I’ve mentioned that it’s also murderier than usual, with a solid number of mysteries represented in the entries (in my defense, these seem to have clustered more to the tail end of my queue). Death on the Stormrider crosses the streams, being a murder-mystery on a boat – on a steampunk airship, no less, which makes the protagonist’s isolation and vulnerability even more intense. As a foreigner trying to work their way home on a ship where only one crewmember spoke their language, things were already parlous enough, but when that one crewmember is found murdered – with your brother fingered as the only suspect and thrown in the brig – you’ve got to do everything you can to find the true culprit. Of course, you can’t interview suspects or read any incriminating documents, and you start out locked out in your cabin, though it seems like that wasn’t intentional. At least the rest of the crew is busy getting ready for landing, and will mostly ignore you.

The setup here is compelling in narrative terms, but is also cannily contrived to avoid the typical weaknesses of parser-IF mysteries. The language barrier means there’s no fussing about with a clearly-inadequate conversation system, and also explains why everyone else mostly leaves you to your own devices as you wander around and taking everything that isn’t nailed down: they’re busy, and it’s too much trouble to tell you to stop unless you seem to be messing with something important. In fact, though their vibes are wildly different, I was reminded of Mayor McFreeze’s analogous approach – in both games, you’re mostly solving navigation puzzles to thoroughly explore the map, with the investigation part of the gameplay largely reducing to simply examining the stuff you find along the way.

A difference is that in place of the medium-dry-goods puzzles of Mayor McFreeze, in Death on the Stormrider almost all the puzzles involves engaging with the various NPCs – who are in fact quite active, wandering about the ship bent on their own tasks. And just because you can’t talk to them doesn’t mean you can’t interact with them, or they with you. As expected, if you poke your head into some especially important areas, they’ll quickly eject you, and there are also many locked doors that can only be opened by a crewmember who has reason to pass through them. As a result, the primary gameplay involves observing the NPCs’ movement patterns, scoping out hiding places, and creating distractions to get them to go where you want them to. It’s nonstandard, but the optional tutorial that takes the player through the first major puzzle does an admirable job of demonstrating the game’s systems; likewise, the included map makes navigation significantly easier.

The prose isn’t called upon to do anything fancy – it has enough to do to situate the player, alert them to exits, highlight the activity of crewmembers in the immediate or nearby locations, while noting any interactable objects. Still, I found it nonetheless communicated a strong sense of place in just a few words, like this early segment that has you forced to the perimeter of the ship:

The maintenance passage (forward) ends, sharply, terrifyingly, with a narrow metal platform—and then nothing but the great expanse of the air behind you, the ground so far below that you can barely make it out. A hatch to port leads back to the safety of your cabin.

Less positively, I did feel like the writing sometimes wasn’t up to the task of communicating the key clues needed to solve the puzzles. For example, I was able to figure out that I needed to get through a currently-inaccessible exit, but the description of the situation seemed to point somewhere entirely different from the actual solution (trying to move the shelf in the miscellany does say you’re unlikely to succeed with your bare hands, but the rest of the response seems to indicate there’s too much stuff, rather than just one object that’s too heavy to shift unaided). And in one of the final puzzles, the game seemed to go out of its way to provide an anti-clue; once you get the wrench, most location descriptions print out an additional line drawing attention to the presence of pipes you can sabotage, but that line is notably omitted in the captain’s cabin so I assumed there weren’t any present. Still, the final puzzle is intuitive and satisfying, requiring the player to synthesize several different strands of information to determine the actual reasons for the death of the murdered crewman.

That synthesis also points to my other criticism, though, which is that when it comes to the mystery side of things, the game leaves an awful lot up to the player. For one thing, while the stakes – your brother’s life and freedom – are effectively conveyed in the opening, they’re left in the background for most of the game’s running time. The player character doesn’t have much subjectivity, and while I kept expecting that there’d be a sequence where I’d come across my brother, or at least the locked door to the brig where he’s held, nothing like that ever happens (oddly, while the brig is noted on the map, its presence isn’t ever mentioned in game, making it seem like it’s sealed off in a parallel dimension or something). And then the ending doesn’t give the player very much: I found what I think is the optimal resolution, and have a pretty solidly worked-out theory of the various intersecting crimes and deceptions that played out aboard the Stormrider, which is reasonably satisfying from a gameplay perspective, but the final text felt strangely perfunctory, declining to dwell on the protagonist’s joyful reunion with their brother or even to explicate the mystery’s solution. The ending of a whodunnit doesn’t need to provide emotional catharsis or spell out the answer to the puzzlebox, I suppose, but it’d be nice if it did something.

All of which is to say that Death on the Stormrider leans more on the crossword than narrative side of the parser-IF dilemma. But it’s generally a good crossword that cleverly matches its novel gameplay to its premise; if a post-Comp release cleans up some of the clueing issues, and a player goes into it wanting to uncover all the game’s secrets for their own sake rather than to earn a story-based payoff, I think there’s a whole lot of fun to be had here.

stormrider mr.txt (237.8 KB)


Thank you so much for the review! I don’t want to say too much before judging ends, but there’s one bit I want to respond to because I think it’ll help with post-comp improvements—you’ve sparked a lot of new ideas!

That, I think, is just a straight-up bug. :grimacing: I’ll get on that!

This is definitely a weakness. I didn’t want to undercut the sense of alienation, but as others have also pointed out, more characterization of Kiang and Zagin would probably actually enhance that, by drawing a sharper contrast between the familiar and the unfamiliar. So I’ll be working on that for post-comp.

The brig actually exists in the code, funnily enough—the hatch in Bashti’s cabin leads to another walkway like the one from the tutorial, which goes back to the brig, but ends with no way through. I ended up cutting that (by making the hatch permanently sealed) soon before release because it felt like too much of a red herring. But I think you’re right that including it, not as an element of a puzzle or anything but as a way to give more insight into Kiang and Zagin’s relationship and Zagin’s thoughts about what’s happening, would help a lot in drawing that contrast. I’d been mulling over ways to do that and coming up blank, but this, I think, is a perfect way to go about it.


Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest, by Joey Acrimonious

Joey Acrimonious has written some of the best recent IF that includes graphically-depicted sex – the blurb here refers to its genre as “erotica” rather than “AIF”, and I think that’s an appropriate distinction as to the author’s previous work too. Turbo Chest Hair Massacre is a farce that culminates in the world’s most debauched description of a robot changing her cooling fan, while Digit is a sweet romance that takes its time getting to the moment when its well-drawn characters take their flirtation to the next level. Both mostly progressed as standard parser games with maybe a few lewd touches before climaxing with set-piece sex scenes; Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest breaks the mold, though, because this one starts out with a bang. Specifically, the eponymous heroine is enjoying a bout of vigorous, lovingly-described lovemaking with her barbarian lover – the sex is so good that when he casually mentions that his birthday is coming up, she rejects his suggestion for a casual hang in favor of knocking over a small country and giving it to him as a gift. This sweet gesture is somewhat complicated when her main contact turns up dead and a mysterious assassin starts chasing her down. Hijinks – and lots of interstitial sexy bits – ensue.

The game wrings a lot of comedy out of playing its absurd premise so straight it ends up way over the top, which is to say, it’s very very camp. The prose is written in an exaggerated sword-and-sorcery style that left me chortling. Even the tiny bit of narration when you open your journal (which handily tracks your progress and your to-do list) is an opportunity for a gag:

Zorklang checked her scriven notes, for all great despoilers keep a journal of their deeds and intentions.

Oh, did I not mention that the bat lady is named “Zorklang the Despoiler”? And that she has a catchphrase she intones whenever she meets anyone, warning them that she is “bound by the laws of neither gods nor men”? She also has wings and a cool cape, making her a sexy distaff Batman, plus she has mind control powers she can invoke via the eponymous DESPOIL command? She has more authentically chiropteran powers too, like echolocatory hearing and an impressive sense of smell (OK, it’s less impressive than the whole DESPOILing thing, but still pretty good).

This suite of abilities is used to largely good effect in the game’s puzzles. There are a few that involve inventory items, fiddling with mechanical contraptions, or solving a navigation challenge, but for the most part the player winds up searching out hidden ways, recruiting weak-minded confederates, and leaning into her unique abilities. There are some implementation hiccups that meant some puzzles weren’t as smooth as they could have been – one stymied for a while because I hadn’t noticed that GIVE OBJECT defaulted to making an offering to my pet cat, rather than the NPC who needed an object, making me thing I’d tried the solution and it hadn’t worked. And there’s a late-game sequence that’s only kicked off once you notice that one detail in a single previously-visited locale in the largeish map has changed; the player’s given a light hint pointing them in the right direction, in fairness, but the detail in question is just tacked onto the end of the location’s description without being broken out into a new line or anything, so I found it very easy to overlook.

As long as I’m segueing into complaints – don’t worry, I’ll get back to praise soon enough – I also wasn’t entirely sold on the lewd bits that came (yes, yes, I know) in the middle parts of the game. The opening sex scene is necessary to motivate the game’s plot, and is silly and sweet in equal measure, while the closing one (of course there’s a closing one) is likewise a nice capstone reinforcing what a great time the sexy main couple have with each other; they’re the kind of sex scenes you could take home to meet your parents. But the sex in the rest of the game doesn’t feel nearly as organic; often you’ll just be running around doing your regular parser-game stuff and then run across people making out, or the game will pause and drop not-at-all-subtle hints that you should relax, nudge nudge wink wink. It largely avoids the creepiness of the typical exploitation-film approach – you do use your mind control powers to kick off a small orgy at one point, but it’s pretty clear the characters were just looking for an excuse – but these sequences do feel somewhat shoe-horned in, and without of the emotional connection that animates the lovemaking between Zorklang and her boy toy, the florid language risks just seeming silly:

Gasps and sighs of fleshly pleasure answered the salacious squelch and gurgle of her hotly slathered loins. Arching her back and rocking her hips in an ancient, primal rhythm, she painted the bedsheets with sweat and slick passion.

And speaking of potentially unnecessary elements, there’s a treasure-collection mechanic that gives you a score post-endgame based on how much loot you’ve been able to plunder along the way. It’s right there in the title, I suppose, and the system is entirely optional, but its inclusion still struck me as bizarre – anyone who can try to steal a whole country as a token of affection probably doesn’t need to steal minor valuables along the way.

There, now my critical duties are fulfilled and I can close by giving some more examples of how Bat Lady Plunder Quest’s genre self-awareness made me laugh. There’s an absolutely savage skewering here of the kind of DnD player who won’t shut up about their tortured and completely plot-irrelevant backstory, as well as a blurb laying out the in-game lore for the setting’s dog-furry race that gets increasingly shamefaced as it goes:

The two were of dog-person lineage, a race of beast-people: half-human, and half-dog. Well, more like 90% human and 10% dog. Well, more like humans, but just with cute dog ears and silly dog tails.

The ways other characters respond to your introductory catchphrase also never fail to charm:

“I am Severskidim the Crime Lord,” replied the rather bemused man lounging on a plush chaise longue. “My brothels, gambling-dens, tobacconists, and other illicit enterprises payeth no tax, and I do pass the savings on to me.

A few dodgy puzzles and some unnecessary sex didn’t do much to reduce my enjoyment of the game, in other words. I do wish there’d been a full walkthrough uploaded, rather than the helpful but incomplete hints we’ve got now, since there is more friction than I’d like, but Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest is funny and charming, and lives up to its predecessors as a strangely wholesome and wholly entertaining romp.

Ribald mr.txt (286.5 KB)


All the Troubles Come My Way, by Sam Dunnachie

Is there a name for the genre of games that are structured around collecting all the endings? Insomnia, in this year’s Spring Thing, comes to mind (still need to review that one) but I feel like I’ve played a bunch of others; they tend to be choice-based, with strong Time-Cave-style branching leading to a variety of equally-ridiculous endings, each playthrough is typically pretty short, they have absurdist premises and/or senses of humor, and the only gameplay challenge is typically how much lawnmowering the player wants to do before calling it a day? If not, there really should be, if only because the most interesting thing about All the Troubles Come My Way is the way that it is but also isn’t an Insomnia-like (look, we’ll workshop the name later, let me just get through this review).

On the “way it is” side, we can firmly tick the absurdist premise and/or sense of humor box: you play Johnny Montana, a cowboy from Texas who’s somehow (if you think this “somehow” is ever explained, or at all important, you are in the wrong genre) been transported to modern-day New York City, but instead of the game being about that strange, fish-out-of-water experience, it picks up an indeterminate amount of time later where your biggest challenge is finding your misplaced hat after a bender. The writing also wrests some humor from the clash between your old-fashioned personality and your new, incongruous surroundings:

“No, ma’am, that just wouldn’t be just,” you say. You try to finish the sentence dramatically by looking wistfully in the distance, but being in a bathroom, the distance is limited. You end up just squinting somewhat suspiciously at a toothbrush resting on the sink.

Playthroughs are also pretty short; I counted three major ways to win the game (by getting a, not necessarily your, hat), and not counting the prologue section, which is skippable on replays, the shortest probably takes about two minutes and the longest maybe ten. And as the blurb says, the game is clearly meant to be replayable, with engagement coming from how deeply you explore the possibility space.

Turning to the “way it isn’t” side of the ledger, though, the possibility space isn’t strictly branching; instead, it’s hub-and-spoke-y, with three major locations you can eventually move between, each of which offers at least a few sub-areas you can investigate or different ways you can engage. Relatedly, there’s also a mechanical system that impacts your ability to move between different branches: you have a quartet of RPG-style stats, with evocative yet vague names like Southern Charm and Rodeo, that sometimes increase when you make decisions and which gate certain actions. It’s an interesting idea but I found it an awkward fit: for one thing the player generally doesn’t have enough information to consciously decide how to build their character (at one point, questioning whether dirt is still brown in the future gets you a point of Cowboy Justice) or weigh whether a less-optimal-sounding choice that checks a strong stat is better than a more-appealing one that relies on a dump stat. Making things harder, unless you take notes you can’t even see how your build has evolved in a particular playthrough – I think this might be a limitation of the default implementation of Ink, since I couldn’t help thinking that a Twine sidebar or ChoiceScript stats page would have come in handy.

The system also seems overengineered for such a short game, like it needed more space to feel worthwhile. This is especially the case due to the game’s last major departure from the Insomnia-like template: all the endings are emphatically not created equal, since in only one of them do you find your own hat. And inverting my narrative intuition, that ending is the easiest, quickest one to get – in fact, I got it first time out, just as I was starting to feel like I understood the game’s vibe and systems. I replayed a few times and saw that it’s got a fair bit more to offer, and there are some fun vignettes in this portion of the game – I liked the verbal duel with the Indiana Jones impersonator and chatting with the costume shop clerk about 12 Angry Men – but since those other endings seemed manifestly worse (you mostly wind up with various hats that don’t belong to you and might only be cowboy-hat-adjacent rather than the genuine article), all this felt too much pointless padding; after all, I’d already gotten the “real” ending.

I should note that I’m no exponent of slavish adherence to a formula, and in theory, the attempt to expand out the Insomnia-like approach to include more robust gameplay systems is one I could see working. And the writing does a good job of being funny without becoming too annoyingly zany. But some of the specific choices made by All the Troubles Come My Way undercut the benefits of the new tack it’s taken; either make the RPG system lighter and more of a joke, or more important and legible to the player, and put the good ending at the far side of the content rather than right at the start, and I think you’d be on to something.


Reading your reviews is often a pleasure, Mike, doubly so when it’s my game being reviewed. Thanks for playing!

Other reviewers have felt similarly, and I get it. In retrospect, I focused a lot on the “let’s cram as much sex into this game as possible” angle - which I still think is a fine angle - but in doing so, neglected to iron out a clear sense of purpose for some of the scenes. As always, making the game and receiving feedback has been a learning experience.


Artful Deceit, by James and Dian Mills O’Reilly

I keep turning the title over in my head. “Artful Deceit” works on a literal level, sure, for a mystery centering on the death of an art magnate that at first appears to be an accident but ultimately proves to be murder most foul. But zoom out a step and it’s still got some apt resonance, since the game’s a retro artifact, packaged as a Commodore 64 disk image that requires an emulator to access. The two-tone blue startup screen, the noticeable delay when typing commands, the feelies that offload long text-dumps to pdfs to reduce the game’s memory footprint – all of these are integral parts of the experience that wouldn’t be replicable if the game were just another .blorb file. But where once these elements were the inevitable consequences of then-cutting-edge hardware, now they’re limitations affirmatively chosen to evoke a specific response: an artful deceit, you might say.

I don’t mean that to be a slam on retro gaming as a category, or this game in particular; heck, you could safely argue that “artful deceit” is redundant inasmuch as all art involves an artist creating an illusion that may make gestures towards realism but is nothing of the sort. But if the medium is the message, I always wonder why an author chooses to introduce the level of friction that comes with a game that’s an intentional throwback to a 40-year-old experience of playing a game: is it just nostalgia, or is it something more that explains why the player’s expected to wait over a minute for the game to load, or put up with typing LOOK INTERIOR GARAGE DOOR instead of X INTERIOR?

Artful Deceit isn’t an exercise in throwback annoyance for its own sake, I should admit. There are some notable player-friendly touches, like a means/motive/opportunity system that signposts to the player when they’ve gathered enough evidence to solve (and prove) an aspect of the case, and unlike many self-consciously old-school puzzlers, there are robust hints and a complete walkthrough. Meanwhile, if the lack of implemented scenery grates on someone used to more modern IF, and the NPCs aren’t especially interactive, that’s both authentic to the 80s experience and also helps keep the player focused on the core gameplay needed to solve the puzzles and reach the ending.

At the same time, elements of the design did start to grate, over and above the lack of the conveniences offered by a modern parser. Progress requires knowing that at some point you’ll need to leave the scene of the crime to drive to the victim’s workplace, despite the absence of any specific clueing that this is possible, for example; and a bug meant that I wasn’t able to complete the game despite having all the necessary evidence in hand (I happened to search the corner of the sculpture that had the magenta button first, and when I pushed it, the hidden compartment popped open even though I hadn’t realized there were other buttons – much less that the correct combination was hidden in several paintings in an overly-literal interpretation of art having a message – which meant the game didn’t recognize that I’d fully solved this puzzle chain). Modern games have issues like this, too, but what feels like a forgivable oversight there can sometimes come off as deliberate obtuseness in a retro context, through no fault of the author.

The details of the plot also sometimes made me happy to have left the 80s far back in the past. The resolution of the mystery hinges on some fairly retrograde thriller tropes that struck me as insufficiently motivated, and left me with a bit of a bad taste in my mouth – it’s the kind of plot that could be palatable if viewed through a revisionist lens, but in my opinion isn’t much fun anymore when played straight.

All these pros and cons might just add up to the same thing, which is that Artful Deceit is successful at its aesthetic endeavor of recreating a long-gone moment in time. When writing these reviews, I generally try to be sympathetic to authorial aims and judge a game according to how well it meets its brief, so I suppose I should end things there. But – cards on the table – I was one in 1982, and didn’t really get into IF until I was almost 20, so in this instance the nostalgia of imagined time travel is lost on me, and I’m left going back to the question with which I opened the review: what’s the point of all this effort, really? If Artful Deceit is content to be a view back to the early 80s, but as far as I could tell it doesn’t use the perspective granted by age to say anything distinctive about the era, either in terms of the culture depicted, the experience created by then-current gameplay aesthetics, or the ludonarrative implications of contemporary hardware. Let me repeat: that’s not necessarily a failing, but in this case I was left wanting something more.


Last Vestiges, by thesleuthacademy

Would it be braggy to say that I don’t think I’ve ever had the showing-up-for-a-test-and-you-haven’t-studied dream? When I was in school, I had the Lisa-Simpsonish trait common to many people-pleasing nerds of kind of enjoying tests for the opportunities they offered for external validation, and I guess as a result tests, even when they were hard, never generated the same intense apprehension that makes them the stuff of literal nightmares for many (to this day I do still have anxiety dreams about the time in college that I failed to drop a PE class that I couldn’t attend since it clashed with my course schedule – make of that what you will). So it was something of a revelation to me when I entered the endgame of Last Vestiges and suddenly realized I was wildly unprepared for what this locked-room mystery required of me if I wanted to solve it.

After Mayor McFreeze and Death on the Stormrider, this is the third mystery in the comp that decouples the puzzles required to trigger the end of the game and the steps needed to actually solve the mystery – I continue to like this structure, though its recurrence is making me wonder if this is a well-settled design approach that I’m only belatedly catching on to? – but here, instead of Mayor McFreeze’s medium-dry-goods puzzles and Death on the Stormrider’s NPC-manipulation challenges, progress involves solving a series of escape-room style puzzles. It took me a minute to get into the swing of this, since it felt somewhat at odds with fairly-grounded vibe established by the game’s narration, and I felt another moment of dissonance once I reached the end of the chain, since it turned out that the reward for solving all the puzzles was finding the victim’s hidden will – protip from someone who knows a bit of inheritance law, you generally want to make it super easy for the authorities to find your will, not conceal it behind a set of arbitrary barriers. But judged on their own terms the puzzles are solid enough, offering a bit of variety without too much challenge (though one picross puzzle was a bit annoying solve since it displayed oddly on my interpreter – fortunately it was pretty easy to intuit the answer).

The implementation has some nice touches, with the various characters having a robust set of conversational topics, and an integrated tutorial helps get new players up to speed. And while I wouldn’t formally count it as a limited-parser game, it’s aggressive about pruning out unused commands to avoid potentially confusing or unexpected interactions. There are some odd choices (the game’s single location doesn’t appear to have a description, just a list of its contents) and an awkward moment here or there (when I wanted to check whether there was anything behind the clothes in the wardrobe, MOVE CLOTHES and TAKE CLOTHES didn’t work, with the less-intuitive X RACK being the right answer), but I found the game generally quite solid.

So everything was going well, until I found the will and the game told me I could trigger the endgame at any time, and I realized I only had a very vague idea of what had happened and no obvious outstanding leads still to investigate. There were a few small clues I’d picked up along the way by asking my superior officer about various bits of forensic analysis that had already been done, and noting a few suggestive details about the objects I’d turned up, but certainly nothing conclusive. And then when I figured I’d just see if I could bluff my way through the game’s concluding quiz – which works similarly to Antony and Cleopatra, where you need to select your theory via a multiple-choice menu – I was reasonably confident about my guess of suspects, maybe fifty-fifty on my guess about the general cause of death… and then was confronted with this set of choices for the final question on what specifically killed the victim:

1 - drug overdose

2 - self-inflicted cut injury

3 - adverse side effect of propranolol

4 - adverse side effect of antidepressants

5 - drug interaction

6 - gunshot wound

7 - stroke

8 - heart attack

9 - ruptured esophageal varices

10 - stomach ulcers

11 - intractable vomiting

12 - diverticular bleeding

13 – tuberculosis

Thus the anxiety – as far as I can tell, there’s nothing you can do in the game to get a primer on what diverticular bleeding is, or an NPC you can consult to fill you in on the specific side effects or interactions of drugs. So for me the game ended in a decidedly un-Sherlockian fit of panicked trial-and-error guessing; after four or five tries I eventually got there by process of elimination, but rarely have I felt a less sleuthy sleuth.

The game’s postscript explains what I was missing: apparently the author wrote it as a proof of concept for potentially using IF as a teaching tool for people studying forensics or medical examination. Used as part of a course of study where players would have outside resources to consult and a sense of what questions to ask, this final challenge could actually work really well. This focus on pedagogy also makes sense of some aspects of the game that feel underbaked (I haven’t mentioned the plot or characters that much in this review since there isn’t much to talk about on either head), as well as the rationale for the easy escape-room style puzzles, which I suspect are meant to be there as a pleasant bit of sugar to make the lesson more fun.

But with all that said – yes, this is exactly showing up at the test without having studied, and without even knowing you should have studied and there was going to be this kind of a test at all. So as a Comp entry offered up without more warning or context for the player, I can’t judge Last Vestiges as that successful; nonetheless, I’m intrigued by this approach, and could easily see myself enjoying a future game along the same lines that offers lay people an opportunity to access the information they’d need to be successful, and maybe learn something along the way (I told you I’m a nerd, turns out I want IF Comp to be more like school).

last vestiges mr.txt (39.0 KB)


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

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

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

(I also had trouble with the rack)


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


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

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


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

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

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


My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition, by Naomi Norbez

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


All Hands, by Natasha Ramoutar

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Paintball Wizard, by Doug Egan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Hawkstone, by Handsome McStranger

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

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

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

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

—What now?–>look gate

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

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

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

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

You examine the fishing line closely.

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

Moved smelly kipper to location.

You check what’s on the line.


You have discovered ONLINE SHOPPING

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


GameCeption, by Ruo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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