Mike Russo's ParserComp 2024 Reviews

Free Bird, by Kanderwund

Free Bird’s blurb conveys at best a profound ambivalence about its value: of this short game functioning as a proof-of-concept for a Python IF system, the author says “I never liked it very much,” admits that “the program is inferior to Inform and other parser game creation tools in almost every way”, and closes by saying “I wouldn’t recommend this game or my attempt at a Python interactive fiction ‘library’ to anyone.” Oh, and unlike any of the myriad Python-based IF games I’ve wrestled with, the installation instructions flat-out tell you “it’s not user-friendly.”

Well, that last part is indubitably right – despite my aforementioned track record of snake wrangling, it still took me a solid fifteen minutes to figure out how to get it running (protip: you don’t need to download anything manually to install the required PyGame library, just type in the command prominently featured on the website and Python will take care of the rest). And it’s not surprising to me that one person dabbling at a project can’t rival the multiple decades of effort that have given rise to the Inform ecosystem – I’m not at all qualified to assess how well it works as an authoring environment, but while the system here boasts a reasonably solid parser it also has some foibles even once it’s up and running. The text was blurry on my machine with no obvious way to sharpen it, the scroll function didn’t work for me on either keyboard or trackpad, and the innocuous command SING TO KEY seemed to crash the game, for example. It’s better than many custom systems I’ve played, but there was never a moment where I wasn’t thinking “I wish I were playing this in Inform or TADS.”

On the flip side, though, I wasn’t thinking that just because those languages are more robust, but because I was having a good time with Free Bird and would have preferred it if the author had had more time to flesh out the content rather than work on building a new platform. Often in this kind of situation the demo game is an afterthought, a bland bit of dungeoneering crafted as a showcase for the world’s blandest medium-dry-goods puzzles. Not so with Free Bird, which starts as its protagonist – an immortal avian spirit – is freed from a millennium-long imprisonment by the slow passage of time finally eroding away the runes by which it was bound by a long-dead sorcerer. It’s an evocative setup, rendered in evocative language – I couldn’t copy and paste the text so you’ll largely have to take my word that the prose is really good, but I did jot down the phrase “they chained you in a miserable cell of bitter iron” as a representative example.

Beyond the setup, the puzzle-solving also has a distinctive flair: as implied in my crash-bug report above, since you’re a bird-god, your primary way of interacting with the world is through your songs. Weak as you are, SINGing at a particular object might only give it the weakest of shakes, but these small tweaks and nudges, properly deployed, allow you to navigate a compellingly realized set of ruins. The puzzles here are all ones a seasoned adventurer will have seen before, and the general environment is of course likewise familiar, but there are lovely details that put an endearingly novel spin on even so hoary a chestnut as obtaining a light source. While the game does lose some steam at the very end – after a paid of well-done puzzles where you learn some backstory about your captor and reclaim a greater measure of your magical power, the final sequence just sees you unlock a door with a key to reach an abrupt victory screen – it definitely still left me wanting more. As a proof of concept for Python as a major-league IF platform, Free Bird is, as advertised, a failure, but as an indicator of its author’s skill at making games, it’s a secret success.

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Return of the Sword, by Jim MacBrayne

The legends surrounding King Arthur loomed large to the medieval mind: as the so-called “matter of Britain”, they made up one of the three primary literary canons of the Christian world, using an idealized world of chivalry to reflect on humanity’s weaknesses and the pursuit of the divine. Today, of course, the social milieu of the original stories is quite foreign to us, but there’s still a fascination in the tragic fall of Camelot, a mythic frisson from coming close to a strand of culture that’s so old, and meant so much. So I was excited to learn that the eponymous blade in Return of the Sword is Excalibur; your nameless protagonist is tasked with recovering it and returning it to the Lady of the Lake, tying off a loose end in (some versions of) the myths and participating in the cycle of death and renewal to which they allude.

I was less excited that I didn’t learn this from the blurb or intro text of the game, though, but rather by reading an unprepossessing letter that was in my starting inventory; you need to check out the optional lore documents to reveal that the artifact you’d been commissioned to find for the batty coot who hired you is fricking Excalibur! Said coot, the memorably-named Jedediah Strangeblossom, gives you the job because you did a solid for his friend, who’s got the still more implausible name Ezekial Throgmeister: this, I think, is a reference to the author’s 2022 IF Comp entry, The Alchemist, and in fact Return of the Sword shares more than a few similarities to that and other games he’s made. It’s written in the author’s custom system, for one thing – it’s retro-looking but fairly solid, with a robust parser, some nice though unnecessary bells and whistles like custom macros, and one longstanding foible which is that you need to take items out of containers before you can examine or otherwise interact with them. For another, it boasts a magic system that seems a close cousin of the one from 2023’s Have Orb, Will Travel, aping not just the memorize-from-spellbook-then-cast system but even the names of particular spells. The structure also echoes the hub-and-spokes designs of those other games – here there’s an underground chamber with a dial that allows you to pick one of five different standard adventure-game settings to teleport to (a castle, a cave, a church…) once you unlock each with a different plot-token coin. And the puzzles, which are a mix of codes, object manipulation, and spell-casting, are all old-school in design but vary from bluntly telegraphed to fiendishly recondite, just as in those previous entries in the loose series.

While I generally had a good time with the Alchemist, and thought there were some high points in Have Orb, Will Travel, Return of the Sword worked less well for me. Some of this, I think, could just be familiarity breeding contempt – there’s a charm in the author’s sensibility, but it’s not my favorite aesthetic, and even for those who enjoy this stuff more, surely just referencing Adventure’s Witt’s End without an accompanying joke or subversion feels pretty stale. Some of it could be the puzzle design, which wrong-footed me enough times – as with the pin that’s clearly meant to attach two wheels, but which won’t work unless you use trial and error to rotate the wheel into the single configuration where it’ll fit, with no clues provided or even an indication of what exactly is going wrong – that I probably wound up overusing the hint system even for solvable conundrums. And some of it is surely due to the game’s general unpolished and loosely-designed vibe: there are unmarked exits, parser oddities I don’t remember in the author’s previous games (UNLOCK DOOR WITH KEY indicates it doesn’t fit, but simply UNLOCK DOOR opens it up in a jiffy), two of the four spells in your spellbook appear to be useless, and there’s a room that includes an “escritore” as part of its furnishings but of course no such thing is implemented, it’s just a type for “escritoire.”

The biggest issue I had with it, though, is the way it squanders what could have been a compelling, elegiac premise. The cavalierness indicated by putting the backstory in a missable infodump continues to the game’s kitchen-sink fantasy milieu: besides the aforementioned Colossal Cave easter egg, you find a complex electronic scale system in a clergyman’s vestry, solve a riddle straight out of Tolkein, and have as your key nemesis not Mordred or Morgana, but instead a Hammer Films vampire. Far from being an Arthurian game, that’s just one of a dozen flavors sprinkled over the staid gameplay, with little concern for cohesion apparent anywhere. The overall effect is of an overcaffeinated teenager running a marathon DnD game for their friends – they’ve long since outpaced their prep, so now they’re just throwing any nerdy stuff they can think of into the pot. In fairness, that’s not too far off of how the Arthur stories got their start, with a variety of authors taking the basic story framework and adding various bits of previously-independent legends to create enough unmotivated crossovers, dubious retcons, and long-delayed sequels to rival the MCU. But even at their bouillabaissiest, effective writers in that tradition stuck to the key themes: this is just a mishmash, and the puzzles aren’t enough to save such a muddled narrative.

return of the sword mr.txt (234.8 KB)

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Thanks @DeusIrae! I appreciate the offer. I hugely value getting the honest feedback. And I get how frustrating the system can be when things go off the rails,

One thing I definitely underestimated was the vocabulary explosion with this kind of dialog-based game. The other Perplexity games were more classic IF and I had developed an intuition (the hard way) about how much testing was needed to get to the majority of the grammar, this style needs way more to flush out the vocabulary alternatives. That is probably my main takeaway from this competition.

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Word of the day.

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I asked the author about this last week and sent in a couple of other bugs. He had a nice response wherein he revealed that fixing this would take a rewrite of the whole code system and that he is now 82 years old and is not planning on such a thing. 82! I would prefer to have this bug fixed but I agree that I would not want to spend the golden years of my life refactoring game engine code.

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The Mysterious Cave, by Ragi

“Your goal is to navigate through the forest, solve puzzles, interact with characters, and ultimately discover the truth about your identity,” claims the blurb for The Mysterious Cave, and none of that is technically untrue. You do navigate through a forest – though the map is only four locations connected by a linear road, so this is less compelling than you’d think (there is some nice art, though, par for course for an Adventuron game). As to the next bits, they plurals are a bit misleading, since it’s more the case that you solve one puzzle and interact with one character: the only objects that are implemented are a tree and the mushroom growing on it, and the only character is a nameless guardian barring your way into the eponymous cave who monologues that he’s hungry when you examine him, and the only way of interacting with him is to solve the one puzzle, which is giving him the as-it-turns-out-poisoned mushroom to knock him out (I suppose “don’t eat the obviously sketchy mushroom” might qualify as an additional half-puzzle). And once you go past him and enter the eponymous cave, the game does say you now remember who you are – but it ends before it deigns to let the player in on the secret.

So much for truth in advertising, but bar the admittedly-lovely pixel illustrations, it’s very hard to find anything here to catch a player’s interest; the gameplay, as discussed above, is about as minimal as a work of IF can attain, there’s almost no flavor text to speak of, and despite how stripped down it is there are still some noticeable bugs (the game starts with an Adventuron setup error message, there are typos in the first location’s description, and the guardian keeps saying he’s hungry even after he’s unconscious – maybe he’s talking in his sleep?) As an exercise to learn a new authoring system, I can see the value here, and the presentation really is nicely done, so I’d be happy to play a full game from the author, but the solution to the enigma of the cave is that it’s just a glorified tech demo.

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Yeah, I figured making that tweak is something that would take a lot of work – honestly I don’t even consider it a bug, just a quirk of the system that’s easy enough to deal with. I just mention it in all my reviews of his games since a player who just skims the (admirably complete) help text might miss the note about it.

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Beef, Beans, Grief, Greens by Andrew Schultz

It is nothing short of miraculous that Andrew Schultz has now made eight large, robust games centering on a very specific bit of wordplay that, to my knowledge, no one else has ever picked up on: transforming one two-word phrase to another, rhyming one by substituting a different initial phoneme (as in the b-to-g swap in the title). What’s more miraculous is that, though as always I struggled with it and there are some noticeable bugs, it might actually be my favorite of the bunch?

The gameplay here is much the same as previous installments: after a framing plot establishes stakes, you’re turned loose on a medium-sized world stuffed to the gills with the aforementioned rhyming pairs. The name of each location usually provides the starting blocks: typing in a successful rhyme for that might bring a new object into the scene, give you an inventory item, open up a path to a neighboring area, or just give you brownie points that allow you to skip a puzzle when you get stuck. Items and characters also usually can be poked at through the wordplay mechanic, allowing you to progress still further. There aren’t any traditional parser actions implemented besides movement, keeping the game focused on what it does best, and as per usual there are a large variety of hints, help functions, and other supports that let you know when you’re on the right track with a rhyme, list out common English sounds if you’re stuck for something else to try, and let you know when you’ve exhausted all the essential tasks in a particular area. This is a gameplay structure that can be quite challenging – after an hour, I find I’m muttering nonsense to myself as my brain leaks out my ears – but the games always go out of their way to be friendly to the player, the hitting on an unlikely rhyme that the game recognizes, and uses to spin a good joke, is delightful.

BBGG is a standout in the serious because of its the theme: this time out, you’re a gnome tasked with assembling the fixings for a feast, and you’ve got a checklist of foods and utensils guiding your progress. Beyond being pleasing in its own right, the theme also helps keep the various events that happen from feeling too unmoored from each other – in previous games in the series, it sometimes felt to me like the consequences of successful actions were essentially arbitrary, determined more by a syntactic validity than any other logic, but this time out there’s reason to go with most of the rhymes. The theme also helps guide your guessing in more productive directions: if you know you need to find some salad, it’s easier to jump to CHOOSE CHARD from LOSE LARD (not a real example, obviously that would be a terrible puzzle).

Unfortunately, in its current form BBGG is more than a little buggy. These games often see multiple updates and releases, so I’m confident they’ll be ironed out eventually, but for now, I found a couple of places where obvious placeholder or bug-testing text got spat out in response to what I thought was reasonable input, and the hint system seemed to get a bit confused in places. Most problematically, I also hit what I think is a progress-blocking bug that blocked a valid answer from being successfully processed, meaning that I couldn’t enter the endgame (I couldn’t get the game to accept SPOON SPIED, even after I’d primed the GOON GUIDE with PRUNE PRIDE, which per the walkthrough should have been all that was required). Still, by that point I’d had a solid couple of hours of fun, and these aren’t the kinds of games where seeing the plot conclude is a major draw – much like a meal, the enjoyment is in the process of consuming it, rather than in getting to the end.

bbgg mr.txt (173.4 KB)

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You got the title wrong. You might want to fix that, otherwise the wordplay is not quite so obvious.

EDIT: It’s fixed.

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Thanks! …I actually double checked that and still managed to mess it up.

Project Postmortem, by Gamefic

It’s unfair to Project Postmortem to compare it to The Mysterious Cave, an pretty-but-buggy Adventuron game that consists of one basic puzzle and takes five minutes to play. I didn’t run into any bugs in this tale of academic skullduggery, and while the plot is neither especially novel nor robust – you’re tasked with tracking down a report showing that the research underlying a thesis with big economic potential was falsified, and then need to escape the vengeful postdoc when he comes gunning for you – it at least exists to provide a motivation for the action. The custom parser works well enough, modulo some slight infelicities of implementation, like few objects having descriptions and OPEN FOLDER getting the response “you can’t open the folder” while X FOLDER gets you “You open the folder and skim the contents…” And there are some pleasant features to counterbalance those small bits of awkwardness, like a fun menu-based system for interacting with computers that winds up pivotal to the game’s puzzle.

There’s the similarity and the awkwardness, you see: this is another one-puzzle game (maybe one and a half if you count “unlock the filing cabinet with the plainly-visible key”). The puzzle itself is okay, I suppose – you need to create a distraction to slip through the fingers of the blood-crazed academic, taking advantage of some cutting-edge capabilities of the computer network (Project Postmortem appears to be a nineties period piece, so don’t get too excited). It’s not especially challenging, since there aren’t any red herrings or potential alternate paths to throw you off, and it’s a bit silly that even if you don’t quite get the timing right, you can try again with no penalty, but it’s hard to fault a game for being merciful. Still, between the short playtime, the straightforward gameplay, the underdeveloped plot, and the unremarkable prose there’s as little here to praise as there is to condemn; as one episode in a larger thriller, I might consider it an effective setpiece, but it’s not really up to the rigors of standing on its own.

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The Samurai and the Kappa (TALP), by Garry Francis

I’ve never dug that deeply into Text Adventure Literacy Project games, mostly just because I’m already fairly overcommitted when it comes to IF, so it’s interesting to see a game initially intended for that event crop up in ParserComp instead, if only to provide a look at how one veteran author might introduce IF to new players. Beyond its well-implemented tutorial, The Samurai and the Kappa provides a few simple but mostly appealing characters, manageable medium-dry-goods challenges, a world that’s enjoyable to explore, some slightly ill-fitting logic puzzles, an old-school maze that’s not too hard to flail through with trial and error, and a happy ending – seems like a pretty good way of getting your feet wet to me.

You play a Tokugawa-era samurai era who’s fed up with life as a courtier and has take to wandering the countryside looking for work. After spending the night in a small village inn – the business of paying for a room, taking a bath, having dinner, and retiring for the night constitutes the tutorial section – the plot kicks in when you’re approached by a peasant who asks for your help rescuing a kidnapped child from an evil turtle-spirit. There’s a nice mix of historicity and fantasy to this premise; the Kappa’s folklore feels authentic, and SAK does do a good job of weaving in period-appropriate detail so that the world never feels generic and rewards poking at the scenery. Admittedly, it wears its research a bit heavily – implementing three separate pieces of your clothing feels a bit much, and while I enjoyed the density of scenery, some of the descriptions feel like they could have come from a textbook:

The shimenawa is a special rope that’s woven from hemp and tapers towards each end. It’s suspended below the rafters of the haiden to denote its sanctity or purity.

Still, I enjoyed the care taken with the game’s setting and atmosphere, so this is a mild complaint.

The process of rescuing the child is enjoyable too. You need to learn the kappa’s weaknesses from several characters across the game’s small map, and while dialogue is mostly kept short and to the point, they respond to a wide variety of potential topics. For the most part progress depends on solving two puzzles – there’s a Nurikabe, which is a sort of Slitherlink or Picross-style exercise in coloring a grid, and one traditional logic grid. The game’s itch.io page provides feelies to make solving them more convenient. I found them satisfying to work through, though writing down all the different clues and then alt-tabbing into a logic grid tool to laboriously work through them did take me out of the story. The final set of challenges are resolutely in-game, though, and focus on taking advantage of what you’ve learned about the kappa’s likes and dislikes, and even when these are a bit esoteric, I never had any trouble getting the parser to understand what I was saying.

…and I really wish that I could end this review here, saying that SAK is a fleet, puzzle-focused adventure with nice period details and a pleasant story. Alas, I can’t end the review without addressing the inclusion of one disastrously ill-advised bit of content. The game earns its “adult content” content warning by virtue of your interactions with Mokuko, the maid who works at the inn in the tutorial section. When you first enter, the innkeeper suggestively indicates that you can avail yourself of some extra “service” for one additional silver coin. The implication is made clear when, after your meal, Mokuko asks “if you require any extra ‘service’.” As far as I can see there’s no option to simply decline the invitation – the tutorial text butts in here to say “when someone mentions something interesting, you should ask them about it. In this case, ASK MOKUKO ABOUT SERVICE.” And when you do, well:

Mokuko parts the folds in her kimono in a suggestive manner to reveal the cleavage of her petite breasts. The poor girl looks like she’s barely out of puberty.

You see, this is Mokuko’s description:

Mokuko is very pretty, but she looks too young to be a maid. You wonder how old she is.

And when you ask her about her age:

“I’m 16 sir, but I’m very experienced.”

It’s a small mercy that you don’t have the option of going to bed with her, as you automatically decline politely and go to bed. Any relief I felt at that point was undone by the fact that the game then told me that I had a hard time getting to sleep because of the noise from the guest next door having sex with Mokuko.

So this is a game that forces you to think about the sexual exploitation of a 16 year old girl. And it gets even worse – I think there’s a reasonable implication from the excerpts mentioned above that Mokuko is lying about her age, and she tells you this if you ask her about herself:

"I’ve been working here for two years. I’ll make sure you have a pleasant experience in our humble little inn.”

So actually this is a game that forces you to think, at minimum, about the sexual exploitation of a 14 year old girl.

I am really at a loss to understand why this is here. Is it the case that maids at roadside inns like this engaged in sex work, that they were pimped out by their innkeepers, and that they were sometimes teenagers? I’m no expert on the period here, but I’m certainly willing to believe it. Authenticity is certainly no reason on its own to have included something like this, though – the setting here departs from reality in innumerable ways, and reflects the author’s editorial judgment about what to include and what to elide. And it’s not as though this is a plot element that has any narrative significance or connection to the rest of the story in any way; it’s just a throwaway incident that’s the definition of gratuitous.

I’m no prude and I’m not opposed to “adult” or sexual content in IF by any means. But there are certain topics that, if you include them in your game, now your game is about them whether you want them to be or not. I can certainly imagine playing a game that engages with this topic in a nuanced way and creates space for Makuko’s subjectivity, but this is the Samurai and the Kappa – no room for her here. At best, the child sexual abuse is meant to be an interesting historical detail and a way of underlining the manly self-restraint of the protagonist, while at worst it’s meant to function as an enjoyable moment of titillation. Either way, it was a profound mistake to include it, and it comprehensively soured me on the rest of the game.

samurai mr.txt (130.2 KB)

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Thanks for the review. The game is based on extensive research and everything is authentic.

Mokuko’s parents died when she was 14. Nakaari gave her a job at the inn and she’s been working there for two years, hence she is experienced as a maid, nothing more. There was no formal schooling for the masses and children started working from about 12. It was normal for teenage girls to be employed as maids at inns during this period. In fact, it still is, albeit a little older once they’ve completed school.

Each guest had their own maid. Mokuko did not serve your next-door neighbour. Sex is never mentioned, although it is implied by the terms ‘extra service’ and ‘amorous activity’.

This is only the second game I’ve written that has a content warning. (The first was for mild horror.) As half of your review is based on a couple of sentences in the game and you have read a lot into it that wasn’t there, I’d be very interested to hear what others think. Should I perhaps do a post-comp version that applies modern morals to a historically accurate game and make Mokuko older or should I ignore the extra service that was normally provided in these inns? There are many factors that are interlinked in the story, so I’d have to be careful not to break something. Rather than pollute Mike’s reviews, you might like to respond in the game’s announcement topic.

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Writing as a neutral member who hasn’t played the game yet, yes. Even the ones who were “rescued” were sent to the more “professional” and licensed districts:

I don’t really have much to add whether it is necessary for the game nor to evaluate its authenticity. This question just happens to fall onto my alley of research.

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During this period of time, there were two levels of inns. The larger honjin (or chief inn) only existed in post-towns. The smaller hatagoya existed both in post-towns and the smaller non-post-towns.

The start of the game takes place in a hatagoya. The maids in these inns provided all sorts of services to their customers, such as bathing, washing of clothes, preparing meals, entertaining (music, dance, conversation) and so on. Sexual favours were one of the optional services they provided. Remember that these were legitimate inns for passing travellers, not brothels. Brothels were generally licensed, whereas the inns (and other establishments) are described in the first three paragraphs under the heading ‘Sex Work Outside the Licensed Quarters and Outside of Tokugawa Law’ in that very interesting article. Thanks for the link.

Yurf, by spaceflounder

The rise of choice-based games to co-equal status alongside their parser cousins has had a lot of positive effects, in my view, among which is an understanding of the fact that under the hood parser games also operate on choice-based logic: the unlimited freedom of text input hides the fact that a game will only accept a limited, pre-programmed set of actions, which can then be likewise applied to a limited, pre-programmed set of objects. This isn’t to say that there aren’t real differences, as anyone who’s ever cursed at a guess-the-verb challenge in a parser game will attest, but it’s an interesting viewpoint that interrogates the conventional wisdom.

None of that applies when you’ve got a game based on riddles, though – sure, there are only a finite number of words in the English language, but if an author doesn’t implement all of them, that doesn’t undermine the illusion of mimesis: that just means there’s one right answer and a whole whole lot of wrong answers, and suddenly the parser really can offer a whole world of possibility. Of course, building your game around riddles is a risky move exactly because of this. While a wonky puzzle in the medium-dry-goods tradition might see a player shoving all sorts of odd objects at NPCs to see if they’ll accept a swap, or one focused on complex Myst-style machinery might lead to pushing and pulling of levers at random, there’s no way to attack a riddle via trial and error or make slow progress by solving other puzzles and clearing out your inventory first. A bad riddle will leave the player frustrated and running to the hints, grunting out “I never would have guessed that” as I seethe.

Yurf is a one-word parser fantasia that dares to run that risk, and I think mostly succeeds despite it boasting its share of bumpy patches. You’re a nameless faceless etc. adventurer journeying around an Alice-in-Wonderland-inspired kingdom in search of four card-suit-themed jewels, in order to – well, despite having played through the game twice (since completing it a first time unlocks a “boss mode” that remixes some of the puzzles), I confess I couldn’t quite tell you, though it seems to have something to do with unlocking a vault and reuniting the king of the day with his estranged spouse, the queen of the night? To say that the plot isn’t the point isn’t to undersell the enjoyable whimsy with which the world is sketched, though: although the broad outlines are familiar, down to specific quotations of Lewis Carroll, the various characters and environments are drawn with verve, from the mathemagical neighborhood where number is all, to the slyly grumpy tree, to the pirates plying the space-lanes between the earth and the moon. The sad-sack king is a particular highlight: you first meet him crying his eyes out while being force-fed pies, because, as he says, “having banished the Queen, I’m getting just desserts.” The parser puts a cherry on top of the gag, too, in how it expands your command CONVERSE to CONVERSE WITH THE WET WEEPING MOUND THAT IS APPARENTLY THE KING.

Speaking of that parser, as mentioned it only takes one word – all actions, no objects. That means that there’s only ever one thing you can examine, or one character you can converse with, at any location. Aside from compass navigation, those commands are in fact most of what’s available to you, save for a few special commands reflecting expanded abilities from obtaining some inventory objects. It works cleanly enough, but it’s not really enough to hang a puzzle around, which is where the riddles come in. Except for a few straightforward places where using the aforementioned items allows you to progress, most of the obstacles you encounter require you to answer some kind of riddle – helping an artist-cum-engineer decide what kind of bridge to build, say, or editing a bit of doggerel to become a compelling love poem. Some of these are quite good – I especially liked the first of the math-based puzzles, which puts a numeric twist on the hoary old “one guard lies, one tells the truth” gag – though others, predictably, were too out-of-the-box for me to figure out without a hint (I still don’t really understand how the solution to the Air to the Throne’s riddle is meant to work). But the good ones predominate over the wonky ones, enough so that I continued on to play through that second quest – it disables hints, though if anything I found the riddles a bit better clued the second time round, with the exception of that %$#@ Air guy.

Beyond the occasional wonky riddle, I did find a few bugs – most notably, I was able to sequence break since the game allows you to burn stuff before you find the tinder box that notionally unlocks the ability. I was still able to complete my playthrough, though, and I actually found that contributed to the enjoyably topsy-turvy vibe of the game. That lovely atmosphere, combined with Yurf’s ability to pull off those moments of inspiration where you come up with the answer to a riddle out of thin air and marvel that it works, makes for a pleasant sojourn in Wonderland indeed.

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Thank you for your very kind review. As an author I’m of course a bit biased, but I think you’re right: not everything works.

In fact, I think this kind of parser-riddle system works best as a short game. A couple of players have commented that Yurf is quite short. That’s true, but if it were as big as, say, Uncle Zebulon’s Will, I think it would become an untenable slog. The last thing I wanted was to make Yurf a difficult or joyless affair.

I’ve recently released the source code to my last game, Steal 10 Treasures, on if-archive. I’ll likely do the same for this one, after the comp is over and I fix a few bugs. Though theoretically someone COULD use the source code to create a new game, I hope nobody does. Both S1t and Yurf are kind of one trick ponies, and the world of IF is too vast to not innovate something new.

But thank you for playing my game!

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The Postage Code, by noab

I have to give Postage Code massive points for what seems like a simple thing: it starts when you double-click it. It’s a Python game, you see, and while I’m used to those requiring some command-line incantations to get running – witness Free Bird, from this Comp – so this level of ease of use is definitely an improvement. Its pixel-art graphics also help it make a positive first impression, as does the cozy premise that tasks you with making mail-delivery rounds to get the quirky inhabitants of a small village their packages. Admittedly, my virus-checker did throw up a false positive on the executable, and it loses some points for the title – wouldn’t the postage code be setting out how much you charge for shipping, rather than governing your responsibilities as a mail carrier? – but still, I went into this one with high hopes.

The fact that I just did a paragraph transition probably flags that those high hopes, alas, were quickly dashed. I can see a core gameplay loop here that could work – you deliver packages, earn money, and use that money to buy stuff you need to deliver more packages, with a couple of different entertaining Easter Eggs and more nice pixel art carrying you through to the end. But unfortunately Postage Code’s spotty implementation of basic parser mechanics combined with cruel design choices make it a pain to play; I persevered through to the end, but this really isn’t the kind of game that should require grim, Dark-Souls-style stamina to play.

Let’s start with the parser, since this is ParserComp, after all. Postage Code doesn’t contain any instructions, or respond to ABOUT or any similar commands, but it does have a quick rundown of accepted commands on its itch.io page. Unfortunately, some of the listed commands don’t seem to work – I was never able to successfully TALK to any of the character I met – and at least one critical command isn’t listed at all. That command is GO, and it’s what you need to type to get out of the very first screen; I spent a solid five minutes trying to look at stuff or use the directional commands to progress before I lucked out on the solution. The parser also lacks most helpful abbreviations as far as I can tell; I suppose that’s not the biggest deal in the world, but having to type out ordinal directions is quite the pain (thankfully, TAKE ALL is implemented). Oh, and DROPPING a package causes it to disappear from the world, meaning you’ll fail the game (there’s no save or undo, of course).

As to the design, as mentioned the basics of the puzzles are fine. There are a couple of completely straightforward deliveries, one that requires making a fairly intuitive purchase to complete, and finishing the first three unlocks a final tier that are more challenging. These last challenges aren’t particularly fun, though, inasmuch as two of them are impossible-to-predict gotchas that are trivial to solve once you know they’re coming, but first time out will cause you to instantly fail and have to restart (again: no saves). The last one, meanwhile, is a maze you can only solve with knowledge of an old-school video game reference (the infamous Konami code); it’s clued in the game, at least, but by the time you’re stuck in the maze you’re not able to go back and reference the clue, so that’s another restart. And while we’re talking about restarts, I had to do one more because trying to microwave some shrimp crashed the game – though I have to confess that I’m a vegetarian so I don’t know whether that last was something no one in their right mind would ever attempt.

Put it all together and you get a frustrating game that’s all the more annoying for its missed potential; I did like the variety of people and places I got to visit in this little village, and a gentle mail carrier simulation seems a perfect premise for a piece of chilled-out IF – heck, I swear I can see what this game would look like if it was implemented in Adventuron. But punishing gameplay, an underbaked parser, and an inability to interact with the world by talking to folks or examining its finer points takes the Postage Code out of the idyllic realm of Postman Pat and into the era of 90s postal workers on the edge.

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The Moon-house Technician, by Outgrabe

When I was a kid I went through a phase where Howard Pyle was one of my favorite authors. A turn-of-the-century writer and illustrator, he wrote charmingly old-fashioned books about Robin Hood and King Arthur that delighted eleven year old me with their ornate prose and classic narratives. My tastes have since moved on, but The Moon-house Technician confirms that I still get the appeal; it’s based on one of his stories that I never read, about a boy who spends a year on the moon getting into various fairy-tale adventures, and while I’m not sure if any of the writing comes directly from Pyle or if it’s just inspired by him, either way I enjoyed it quite a lot. Here’s a bit where the game’s main character – who’s similarly taken to the moon-house after the plot of the original story has wrapped up – helps earn his keep by polishing stars and setting them back in the sky:

You sit on the wooden bench and pick up the first star, rubbing it with the lamb’s-wool. As you rub the star it grows brighter and brighter until it throbs with light as if alive. You repeat this process with the remaining stars before casting them into the sky.

Everything about the game has this sort of Victorian Stardew Valley vibe; your companions, for example, are an initially taciturn but eventually simpatico moon-angel, the man in the moon himself, who’s got a beardy raconteur vibe, and a beautiful lady who teaches you alongside some other children every Saturday. And the major progression tracker involves obtaining illustrated playing cards from this trio; the ASCII art is more 1980s than 1880s but it’s a wholesome pastime nonetheless, and each gives you a short excerpt from the original Pyle story too.

There is a downside, though, which is that Moon-house Technician is Stardew Valleyish in more ways than one. There are no puzzles to speak of here; the gameplay is just a menu-based time-allocation simulator, as you step through a full year on the moon one day at a time with your only goal to collect all of the aforementioned cards. Admittedly, each month is only a week, but what is there to do over those 96 days? Well, you earn $5 a day polishing the stars, which always gives you the same text quoted above, along with a little tune that takes five seconds or so to play to completion (the delay ceases being charming and starts being painful at about day four). You can talk to the moon-angel to try to win him over, though it only takes five months before he thaws and gives you a free card, and isn’t ever a voluble conversationalist. You can visit the main in the moon, giving you a couple sentences of rotating flavor text and the opportunity to buy a card, though I’d bought him out by month nine. You can look out a window at the stars, though that again just leads to a single bit of unchanging text and also regularly would crash the game for me. And every Saturday you can have a lesson with the beautiful lady; those only start repeating at month ten.

The gameplay is very grindy, in other words, with most of the interesting bits feeling like they’re references to the fun things that happened to the protagonist of the original story rather than anything that you get to experience yourself. Mostly you’re just doing the same thing over and over again, with a couple of sentences of new flavor text and maybe some fine but unspectacular ASCII art the only rewards on offer. The game does end with a nice coda allowing you to reflect on your time on the moon, but getting to that point is the definition of drudgery: Moon-house Technician is ten minutes of lovely writing stretched across forty-five minutes of dreary incrementalist gameplay, with not much in the way of narrative motivation and a frankly ugly presentation (it’s a Pythonesque text window that lacks word-wrapping). I’d rather just read Pyle’s lush prose and look at his Pre-Raphaelite illustrations; I appreciate the game for reminding me of how much I enjoy him, but any shine it’s got is from his reflected light.

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19 Once, by Yvonne Jeagon and Larissa Jemmy

It’s a truism that there’s a lot about being young that only makes sense in retrospect. One can interrogate whether that’s actually, y’know, correct, or if it’s just a way for middle-aged people to feel superior to their past selves, but the lovely thing about truisms is that it doesn’t really matter if their true. Anyway, one can certainly cherry-pick examples – the reasons why you messed things up with your first romantic partner are probably going to be painfully obvious at just a couple of years’ remove – and I think high school graduation also falls into that category: at the time you think it’s a uniquely important change as you embark on your adult life, but the truth is there are very likely to be much bigger pivots waiting in your twenties and even thirties, and most likely you’ll still be cluelessly failing to figure yourself out all through your college years (reader, do I project? I think I do). No, with the benefit of perspective, we can see what’s special about high school graduation is that everybody you know is clumsily trying to change who they are all at the same time, and the tensions of trying to hold old social arrangements together across that maelstrom of becoming can be as poignant as they are doomed.

19 Once sees its protagonist caught by this dilemma, a first-year university student unable or unwilling to turn the page on her old life (is that why she’s called Paige? Almost definitely not, but it might be fun to agree that I’m being insightful rather than just making a dumb pun). Her four closest friends have all gone their separate ways – high-achieving Sofia’s off at a different uni imbibing critical theory, Esther’s repeating a year to try to get into a better school, Nora’s entered the workforce, and Wesley’s moved into the attic and is devoting himself to dank memes. But back in the day they were all fans of a YA book franchise whose final film installment has just come out, so maybe it’d be possible to bring everybody together for one more, or one last, hurrah?

The translation of this social puzzle into parser form involves considerable abstraction, but I found it overall successful. Navigation commands let you initiate a text chat with each friend – going north gets you to Nora, south to Sofia, and so on. This is a limited-parser game, so just about all there is to do once you’re in one of these “rooms” is to engage in conversation, which proceeds via a keyword system that flags when you unlock a new topic. Unsurprisingly, nobody’s initially excited to buy a ticket to the film – Wesley prefers video games now, Nora’s stressed at work, Esther’s skint, and Sofia finds the whole thing a bit bourgeois (Sofia was my favorite). You need to change their minds, but rather than persuading them one at a time, instead you need to hop from conversation to conversation to progress, because the topics unlocked from speaking to one friend will only allow you to make inroads with another friend – talking to Nora reveals that she’s pressed for time because of her job, and then asking Sofia what she’s doing with her time reveals that she’s been journaling, which opens up the memories keyword.

It’s a mechanical approach, I suppose, but it works to mimic the structure of online conversation – rather than unfolding as a linear discussion, instead you’re hopping between windows, always with your head half-stuck in the previous topic as you broach a new one with someone else (this also functions as another metaphor for Paige’s ambiguously-post-graduation mindset, perhaps). It also winds up dulling the danger of lawnmowering, since you can never brainlessly plug through the topic list with a single character; you need to rotate through, building out new keywords as you go. With that said, this admittedly-simple gameplay model puts pressure on the writing to deliver, which happily it does. It’s all jokey, of course, swerving pleasantly from highbrow to low humor:

Sofia, she went to uni too, we haven’t spoke much since school. She was always very intense, always had a paperback sociology book in her back pocket. Pelicans. Wesley called her pelibutt.

There’s also the odd moment of pathos:

WESLEY: I’m a neet, what do you think?
PAIGE: You’re not neat.
WESLEY: not in education or training. you know, not like you or Nora or Sofe

I’ll admit that Esther didn’t make much of an impression on me, but the other three characters are drawn with verve, boasting distinct voices and grappling with prosaic but engaging dilemmas. 19 Once is a slight game (it’s over in perhaps fifteen minutes), and the stakes are low because of course we know that whether or not this quintet manages a fun night at the cinema, none of them will be hanging out when they’re 20. But part of the perspective that comes with age is realizing that moments still matter even if they don’t actually change anything, and 19 Once is a winning, wistful collection of such moments.

Spoilers now for the endgame:

If you check out the ParserComp 2024 entries page, it doesn’t take much perspicacity to notice that the cover art, itch.io blurb, and author names for two games rhyme in peculiar ways: 19 Once and Zugzwang both have a cruciform grid as the central element of their cover images, the author names are anagrams of each other, and the credits blurb listing how the cover art was made are word for word the same. And despite the variation in their genres – post-high-school nostalgia-fest and dark-fantasy action thriller – the gameplay in both involves navigating to a single-room location and gaining keywords you can use to unlock still others if used at a different point of the compass. It’s not shocking to learn, then, that they were both written by the same duo of authors, and that their plots are more connected than they appear: Zugzwang depicts the climactic sequence of the movie that the friends in 19 Once are all going to see. There’s also a series of nested Easter eggs that unlock a secret coda for the pair of games: the end text of 19 Once has a certain phrase bolded, which if you type it into Zugzwang will unlock a new commentary mode, where you can see the 19 Once crew banter as they follow the pawn’s progress. This in turn leads to one more keyphrase that leads to a secret ending for 19 Once (at which point the trail ends, as far as I can tell).

This is a fun way to braid the two games together; it’s perhaps a bit on the simple side, though it probably needs to be given that many people are likely to play one or the other game outside of ParserComp and might not otherwise easily notice the similarities. And bringing the irreverent voices of the 19 Once folks into Zugzwang’s grim world of perilous adventure makes for an entertaining juxtaposition. With that said, while I laughed at many of the extra jokes, I didn’t feel like I learned too much more about the characters than I’d picked up from playing the initial segment of 19 Once; similarly, while I appreciated the secret ending, it doesn’t feel like it culminates the stories of both games so much as it provides a punchy alternative narrative that loses some power inasmuch as it focuses on Esther, who as I mentioned in my 19 Once review I found the dullest of the buddies. But not everything needs to be a narrative puzzle that clicks into place; I think both games work well on their own terms – it’s just better to think of their intersections as a series of DVD extras rather than the narrative climax.

19 once mr.txt (21.2 KB)

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