Mike Russo's IF Comp 2023 Reviews

Meritocracy, by Ronynn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


One King to Loot Them All, by Onno Brouwer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

one king mr.txt (195.6 KB)


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


Hi Mike,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Escape your Psychosis, by Georg Buchrucker

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

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

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

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

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

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


All Hands Abandon Ship, by David Lee

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

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

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

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

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

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

abandon mr.txt (76.8 KB)


Citizen Makane, by The Reverend

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


That says it all, Mike. Good review.


Citizen Makane, by the Reverend

I played for five more minutes and turns out you can drop your dick, so okay, we’ll do a real review.

Despite having never previously played a Stiffy Makane game other than the short, semi-high-brow Nemesis Macana, I still knew enough to make that joke because somehow, Stiffy has become a part of IF’s communal lore. From humble beginnings in a poorly-made late 90’s work of AIF, he was thrust to stardom via interactive MST3K mockery, much of which from my understanding centered on the fact that Stiffy’s stiffy was implemented as an ordinary inventory item. Thence his career got odd as different authors took the helm, running from sci-fi parody to filthy-minded philosophical rumination, with a few meta meditations on choice-based mechanics and the uglier side of player empowerment along the way (hopefully this potted summary is more or less correct; checking out the Stiffy oeuvre is on my list, but as I said I haven’t really gotten around to it).

Stiffy has a history, in other words, and for a maybe-new author (one never knows with pseudonyms) to make a Stiffy game out of the gate strikes me as audacious – almost as audacious as naming it after Citizen Kane, for all that that is a simply irresistible pun. And in fact this is an ambitious game. After a brief introduction in which you have a nightmare of being stuck in an eternally-resetting loop of the original Stiffy game, you wake up and learn the premise: you’ve just been defrosted from cryogenic suspension into a future where men are extinct (we lost a literalized battle of the sexes) and a new generation of hopefully enlightened scientists are hoping to study you, learn more about heterosexuality, and find out whether peaceful coexistence as a once-again gender-integrated society might be possible. That means you’ll need to wander around having a lot of random sex, which is accomplished through a deckbuilding minigame, all while solving the problems of the good citizens of Urville, from improving production in the local milk farm to teaching a college course on sexuality to helping the priestess recover a stolen relic.

This is of course only a slightly-better worked out version of guess-you-need-to-schtup-everybody AIF worldbuilding (“what if Y: The Last Man, but with a lot more boobs?”), with RPG-light gameplay to match. But the degree of care that’s been taken in implementing the game is impressively far from the notorious shoddiness of the first Stiffy. The minigame hits a just-right level of complexity, being relatively straightforward to understand but taking a few tries to get the nuances, while also striking a good balance between grind and progression. There’s a time-of-day system that gives the city an air of vibrancy without imposing too many annoying delays on the player. And the overall polish is very solid, with lots of synonyms, implemented scenery, and small little Easter eggs, like this one from the time-looping opening:

“Hello, Stiffy. I’ve been expecting you.”

She is naked.

You can imagine where it goes from here.

> imagine

The thing is, you don’t have to. You’ve been through this a million times.

The writing is also well judged; this is AIF, yes, but in normal gameplay it’s content to stay in gentle nudge-nudge wink-wink territory. It’s puerile, but I laughed when I visited Fountain Square and saw a note in the location description about the titular fountain, and laughed again upon examining it:

“Titular” is right. The centerpiece of the fountain is a statue of a beautiful naked nymph, water spurting from at least every orifice.

The first part is obvious, sure, but that “at least” is a good gag.

In the sex scenes the game does get quite explicit, but the randomly-generated text here is far more calculated to raise a laugh than the libido:

As you slide your hammering hampton in and out of Aubrey with a smooth, steady rhythm, the sound of your loving echoes through the air like a whole volume of books being slammed shut in sequence.

You burst like a violently vomiting giraffe. The two of you get dressed again.

The feeling of your protruding pencil stuck deep in her gutted hedgehog is a sensation you won’t forget soon.

(The game’s ABOUT text mentions that ChatGPT was used in some portions of the writing, and I can’t help but wonder if some of these deranged combinations are the fruit of an LLM not knowing how inserting tab A into slot B actually works).

And beyond the tamer-than-it-looks writing, Citizen Makane is actually kind of… wholesome? All the other characters are quite earnest (and generally down to get down with Stiffy – there’s no iffy consent stuff here, thankfully), and you’re written as a laid-back, polite sort of horn-dog. All the game’s quests involve being helpful, and while the recovering-stolen-property one does foil the plans of the thief, she doesn’t wind up holding a grudge and everybody’s cool with everybody else by the end. The best ending even winds up arguing that non-stop sex only gets one so far, and it’s nice to just cuddle or see a movie sometimes too to build a strong relationship. Truly, this is the Stiffy Makane game you can take home to meet your mom.

Qua game, the only other thing I’d note about Citizen Makane is the caveat that the sex minigame does have one obviously-best strategy that’s a little too easy to hit upon and implement, and makes things fell quite mechanical by the end-point: all you need to do is find one rare dominant card and one rare submissive card (cards represent sex acts, and in an effort to keep you from just spamming the same one over and over again, you get a penalty for playing two of the same type in a row), upgrade them each, and then alternate them over and over until you win. Sure, the increasingly-mechanical nature of nonstop coitus is part of the game’s theme, but I think that could have been accomplished narratively while making the gameplay a little more engaging (for example by dealing out a subset of your equipped cards each round rather than having all of them always available).

Those themes are worth digging into, though. Sure, this is a silly sex comedy, but at this point the Stiffy Makane brand, oddly, is at least as much about making philosophical or sociological statements as it is about parodying AIF, so I think it’s worth taking at least a little seriously. We’re not meant to think too hard about the war that killed all the men, which is fair enough, but Citizen Makane does seem to want us to think about the all-female society it depicts. In many ways it’s a utopia – while one character does indicate that Urville’s self-presentation as a post-scarcity, egalitarian, and peaceful society is slightly untrue, the worst we see is that money does still exist in other parts of the world, and some people seem to think that having slightly kinkier sex than others is somehow subversive.

There is one element of the society that is problematized, though. Midway through a history lecture you can wander into and listen to, you get this bit of background:

“Over time, the new all-female society developed a myriad of alternative forms of intimacy. Emotional connections, intellectual stimulation, and artistic collaboration became increasingly significant aspects of women’s relationships with one another. This expansion of intimacy beyond the purely physical realm contributed to significant decline in female sexual activity over time.”

Yes, part of the reason they thawed you out is because Urville, without men, has reached a crisis point of too much cuddling and not enough boning.

Again, this is a standard heal-the-world-through-the-power-of-dick AIF trope, but the game really does dwell on this aspect of the world more than it needs to in order to establish that yeah, random people will want to screw you. And it’s of a piece with a decidedly reticent treatment of people with non-heterosexual orientations; lesbianism is only indirectly acknowledged in the various lectures and documents you find (and when it is, as in this excerpt, it’s implicitly positioned as lacking as compared to straight relationships), and while there are a couple of sapphic orgies you come across (er, not literally, thankfully), there’s only a single, very missable line towards the end to indicate that two characters are in a relationship with each other. For all intents and purposes, it feels like the only real sexuality is straight sexuality, so you’re the only game in town (there’s also no indication that there are any people not on the gender binary, which seems decidedly odd given the setup).

This is an oversight, but I think it’s intentional; to the extent the game has something to say, it’s saying it about male sexuality. The name of the holographic AI who piggybacks on your brain to vicariously experience sex (…I don’t think I’ve mentioned her yet, there’s a lot going on in this game) is called Shamhat, for example, which is the name of the temple prostitute who civilizes the wild man Enkidu through lovemaking in the Epic of Gilgamesh. Shamhat is also a critical part of that climactic scene where Stiffy renounces impersonal fucking in favor of engaging with the humanity of one’s sexual partners. And throughout the game, the player’s interactions with the town’s inhabitants do help bring out restraint in Stiffy; he learns to act professionally even when there are opportunities to push things in a sexy direction in the classes he teaches, for example, and there’s a semen-milking minigame that’s all about teetering at the edge of orgasm without losing control. Without spoiling things too much, the game’s ending also circles back to the beginning, and finishes with an explicit renunciation of the logic of early AIF. To the extent there’s a message, it’s that sex is an important and positive part of many relationships, but it’s just one part of fostering a human connection with one’s partner.

That’s a nice lesson that hardly anyone could object to (if they do – run) but at the same time, it sure doesn’t seem like the artistically-collaborating cuddle-happy lesbians of Urville need to learn it; this is all about Stiffy within the fiction, and out-of-game it sure feels directed at a presumably-male player audience. And I dunno, in space-year 2023, where there continue to be lots of issues around sex and intimacy in heterosexual relationships, but where there’s hopefully pretty broad understanding that similar issues arise in other kinds of relationships too – and, not to be a bummer, where setting up straight relationships as the norm can marginalize people with other orientations and gender identities – that approach does strike me as a little parochial. I’ll repeat, this is an ambitious, well-designed and implemented game that’s about as heartwarming as an AIF parody can get, but I can’t help but wish it pushed the envelope a little further and thought through what, if anything, Stiffy Makane has to say to people who aren’t straight men (I mean, his dick comes off! Someone’s gotta be able to do something with that!)

makane mre.txt (405.1 KB)


Thanks a lot for the review (and for teaching me the word “parochial”)!

As they say, you can’t make a Stiffy Makane game without dropping some dicks.

That’s all I’ll say for now, but you made some very good points I’ll be sure to address in my post-comp-post-mortem.


For Eternity, Again and Again, by TheChosenGiraffe

Before we talk about For Eternity, Again and Again, we need to talk about lore.
Wait, come back! Look, I often give lore a hard time – by which I mean the generous slatherings of worldbuilding minutiae that get troweled all over many a fantasy or sci-fi setting. You know the stuff: codex entries going into absurd detail about the botany of a made-up tree that’s just there to pad out the skybox, mythologies that are long on incident but thematically inert, absurdly over-worked discussions of political or economic background with no conceivable relevance to the plot… There are better and worse versions of it, but it’s largely waffle, interesting maybe to think up but deeply enervating for most players to have to wade through (I admit I don’t always fall within the most, since I have a soft-spot for the fantasy economics stuff).

Lore makes for a convenient punching bag, because it’s often the sign of an author who’s more interested in sharing their setting notes than telling a story. But I do fear that the pendulum can sometimes swing too far in the other direction, with authors holding back on important information about how their world works for fear of boring the player. The thing is, worldbuilding for its own sake is dull, but in genre fiction it’s absolutely the case that the player needs to have some sense of the rules governing the pieces of the setting that depart from the familiar real-world milieu. Like, the answer to any question of the form “why did X happen in this story?” is “because the author wanted it to happen.” But emotional engagement requires that dynamic to be disguised as much as possible, so that actions feel like they have understandable consequences and the plot doesn’t come off as bare authorial fiat. The context needed for this alchemy to happen isn’t lore, though it might look like it – it’s stakes.

For Eternity, sadly, is one of those games that throws the baby out with the bathwater. This short Twine game riffs on the Moorcockian Eternal Champion premise, with a protagonist who’s endlessly reincarnated in new situations to carry out quests, and who’s joined by their likewise eternally-recurring lover. But in this latest rebirth, there are worrying signs that this rather cozy cycle is coming to an end. Structurally, the game consists of one conversation with the lover establishing the set up, then a quick transition to a second dialogue as things, predictably, go pear-shaped. This could be a tight, efficient way to get to some drama as these star-crossed lovers are cruelly torn asunder. But it lacks much impact because it’s never clear why anything is happening. Per the opening, “the Universe” has something to do with this whole cycle, with mention of dark tendrils holding different timelines together. That’s an interesting – though not I think especially appealing – image, but it’s pretty hand-wavey. That’d be fine if the focus were on what happened within each cycle, but it’s not; as mentioned, the questy bit is entirely bottom-lined:

It is almost the same as every other hero you have lived as before. You fought monsters, almost died several times, and met companions. All the while your lover floats around you, whispering jokes and loving words in your ear. Well, they were supposed to be.

That stuff actually sounds interesting, but those couple sentences are all the player gets. Instead, you’re shunted into one of I think two distinct endgames; in one, the universe is decaying into an entropic end-state, taking you with it, while in the other, it somehow decides it doesn’t like you and brings an end to your reincarnation dealie. The first thing that makes this feel arbitrary is that your choice of dialogue as you groundlessly speculate on what’s going appears to determine which path you wind up on. But since neither scenario is motivated by facts or observations, just tossed-off brainstorming, it feels decidedly coincidental that your stab-in-the-dark just happens to be right. Beyond that, there’s no previously-established reason why the universe would be decaying, or how, mechanically, it can have opinions and act on them. These ideas aren’t terrible in of themselves, but they’re given no context or buildup: when you get to Act III, you can’t have the narrator run onto the stage, blurt out “oh sorry, there was a gun on the mantel this whole time, forgot to mention it”, then speed off just as a character aims and fires. Rather than situations leading to consequences, this is consequences dictating situations. If the universe decides it dislikes me, what’s stopping me from deciding I don’t like it and I’m not going to play it’s stupid game anymore? Who can say.

The overall weak prose means that these narrative problems loom all the larger. There are myriad typos, starting at the beginning of the game’s second passage, and there are often-bizarre images, like this description of your lover:

Soft skin, plush lips, tender touches, and a voice like a music box.

Or this bit of establishing dialogue, which achieves a sort of low-energy camp poetry:.

A huff echoes through your mind. “It took a while to look for you. It will take a short time for me to materialize. The Universe is just playing tricks.”

“That you don’t appreicate.” You say, knowing how much they hate the Universe.

Stupid universe, I hate it so much!

On the plus side, sometimes this kind of thing teetered into hilarity, perhaps intentionally, like the bit where the hero, a mighty immortal warrior, gets punked by a lowly goblin because they’re hanging out flapping their gums while backlit by a cave entrance. But this comedy makes the low-stakes melodrama even more bathetic. I repeat, the concept for For Eternity’s narrative could work, but I needed more of a reason to care about these people and their world to make the story hit home.


LUNIUM, by Ben Jackson

The thing about escape-room inspired games is that you can’t think about them too hard, or they suffer narrative collapse. Like, okay, you’re stuck in a cell of some kind, sure – sometimes there’s a more-or-less-contrived reason the baddie would do that instead of just kill you, sometimes there isn’t, but that’s a sufficiently common genre situation that it’s not too hard to swallow. But instead of one normal lock that keeps you in (and that presumably would have had to be opened to put you there in the first place), there’s a system of like half a dozen different interlocking mechanisms that all need to align? And there just happen to be clues scattered around that make the puzzles solvable, but not too trivially so? There’s no way to rationalize this kind of setup, so instead of being a killjoy clearly you’re supposed to just turn off that part of your brain and enjoy the puzzles.

Major, major points to LUNIUM, then, that I think it basically works? It’s got all the trappings of the genre: you wake up with amnesia, chained to the wall in a room chock-a-block with paintings with mystical symbolism, scraps of paper with numbers and letters scrawled on them, turgidly-written pages of your diary that you can recover piecemeal, and a ticking-clock conceit that requires you to escape before the dawn so that you can stop the killer who trapped you from claiming their next victim. It even adds a layer of complexity by requiring you to deduce the identity of the baddie from a list of suspects to get the best ending, in addition to unlocking the final door so you can escape (I mentioned liking this structure in my Mayor McFreeze and Death on the Stormrider reviews, and I think it works well here too). And yet, when I got to the end and figured out what was going on – it actually all kind of made sense and held together! True, I haven’t gone back and rigorously tested the diegetic plausibility of every single bit of the design, but that’s an unfair standard to inflict on a piece of IF; at least as to the broad strokes, each of these bits of contrived escape-room logic hold up, and in fact things couldn’t have gone any other way!

The elegance here goes beyond the narrative, though. This is one attractive Twine game, with moody illustrations conveying a vibe as well as critical clues if you zoom in to enjoy the artwork, and the interface makes it simple to fiddle with the various safes, locks, and other paraphernalia on display. There are also well-integrated hints (plus straight-up solutions, if you need them), though many players might not need them given the well-judged clueing. There’s a nice range of puzzles here, and if they’re not especially thematic, they’re solidly designed and offer some good variety, so no particular approach overstays its welcome: there are of course a number of code-deciphering puzzles, but some are exercises in pure logic, others rely on deductive reasoning that lend a mystery-solving vibe to proceedings, and a few require a bit of lateral thinking, which lead to some satisfying aha moments while still being eminently fair. I’m not the best escape-room puzzler-solver in the world, but I only needed to go to the hints twice: once when the small screen of my phone meant I couldn’t make out an important clue (though I should say that unlike many graphically-rich Twine games, LUNIUM generally works a treat on mobile), and a second time when I’d mixed up two character’s names and therefore didn’t realize I’d already gotten the solution to the puzzle, I was just implementing the solution wrong.

As for the plot, I don’t want to say too much lest I spoil the fun reveal I alluded to above. As is typical for escape rooms, there isn’t much in ongoing narrative, but there is some backstory to discover, and this is parceled out judiciously in between bouts of puzzle-solving. As a Victorian detective, you’re on the trail of a serial killer, and while the outline is quite generic, there’s enough detail given about your previous investigations of the key suspects to give them at least a whiff of personality. There are also some specific themes that keep recurring, like an omnipresent moon motif to go along with the game’s title. As a result it’s enjoyable to read the various document-facsimiles provided, even when you’re largely skimming them looking for clues to the puzzles. This is helpful because it’s this non-puzzle-relevant information that provides the prompts needed to guess the identity of the killer, and while I got to the end with only a tentative guess at whodunnit, the ending prompts pushing me to make my accusation provided another subtle hint or two that let me feel very clever for ultimately fingering the right suspect.

LUNIUM isn’t perfect – I noticed one small bug, where I got some text mentioning the contents of my pockets after I freed myself from the wall despite not having had a chance to look in them yet. But that’s an incredibly minor issue, and I honestly am having trouble dredging up any additional constructive criticism (the writing could be a little more authentically Victorian, I guess? Really though it’s just fine for the purpose it serves). This is an assured game, playable and narratively satisfying in a way I didn’t think I was even allowed to hope an escape room game could be. So I guess that’s my other criticism: it may have spoiled me for other games in the subgenre by making it harder for me to look past it when they don’t make any sense!


Achievement: Wrote Own Epitaph


Mike’s epitaph is good, but to be honest, this one is even better!


And they’re all inside the cell you’re locked up in!

(Which is a criticism of escape games in general, but is indeed justified in LUNIUM.)


My wife and I have agreed that my epitaph is going to be “Of course it’s safe, honey!”


I didn’t love that part of the history lecture, but given the evidence that the society doesn’t like to admit to the sex that people are still having, I ultimately took it as more reflective of the official line than of reality. It reads to me like a society more or less constructed on the kind of second-wave feminist philosophy that sees women as less sexual than men and universally able to be satisfied with loving and emotionally supportive nonsexual relationships in lieu of sexual ones, although that’s a fairly fringe view these days, so arguably the game’s use of it is something of a strawman (strawwoman?).


…and now I’ve realized that achievement unlocked by itself would be an awesome/terrible epitaph, too.

Yeah, that all makes sense and close to how I read it; mostly I think it’s just hard to see how this is actually meant to work without any relationships of any kind depicted.

Looking forward to reading it!


Thanks, Mike !!

post-judging (still dealing with cyoa/browser-based side of the entries…) surely Citizen Makane will be on the top of “to do” playlist, also because, as a pair of people already know, my main WIP is incentered about the “other side” of Urville’s “artistically-collaborating (not-only)-cuddle-happy lesbians”, and indeed I admit that Railei IS a “post-scarcity, egalitarian, and peaceful society” and one of the main message of this utopian narrative is indeed “that sex is an important and positive part of many relationships, but it’s just one part of fostering a human connection with one’s partner”

Thanks for your insight on Citizen Makane.
Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.