Mike Russo's Spring Thing 2024 Reviews

Alltarach, by Katie Canning and Josef Olsson

(This is a game with a narrative that unfolds in layers, and as a result it’s hard to talk about without engaging with some elements that seem to be meant as surprises; unmarked spoilers ahoy!)

Alltarach is an impressive Twine game that does a whole lot of things very well. The setting is perhaps the most unique element: its take on Dark Ages Ireland engages with the displacement of druidic paganism by Christianity, while taking each side of the struggle seriously and leaving more than enough room for fantasy. There’s also a large cast of appealing characters, each with their own role to play in a complex society but also boasting enough personality to feel like real people. There’s moody art, evocative writing incorporating lots of Irish, strong pacing, and a really well-done climax that introduces a satisfying twist to everything that’s come before and allows your choices to have a significant impact on the story’s resolution (or at least, it really feels like it does – the game autosaves, so no going back to check – but isn’t that all that matters?) As a result, I really really liked it!

I didn’t love it, though, so this is review is going to be one of those unsatisfying ones where I pick at a game I thought was very good and try to determine why I didn’t think it was great. Given that the word-count is going to be disproportionately devoted to nit-picking, let me emphasize that the above paragraph is not just me doing a bit; this is legit a really strong, enjoyable game, and I hope it gets the audience it deserves. And I suspect some of my reaction is down to matters of idiosyncratic preference – I was really digging the grounded historicism of the first section of the game, for example, and found myself slightly disappointed when the fantasy elements came to the fore; other players might find their reactions to that flipped.

Sticking with that shift, though, I don’t think my negative reaction is wholly down to a matter of taste. For one thing, it happens fairly abruptly and without much foreshadowing in the game’s first act, in which the game’s protagonist, an orphaned teenager living on a tiny fishing-dependent island, realizes that her brother has abandoned her and makes grounded preparations to voyage to the mainland and track him down. There are other youths with whom she shares a history (and maybe a flirtation or two), scant possessions to gather, a prized sheep to make arrangements for, and a colloquy with a priest that establishes some of the axes of conflict in this alien world. It’s an effective prologue, so I was taken aback when some mid-journey dialogue established that the brother was under an apparently-effective magical geas preventing him from setting foot on Ireland proper – and then even more taken aback when almost the first person I met upon arrival was the god of the dead himself. True, he’s come down in the world quite a lot what with the rise of Christianity, but still, this felt like a major escalation without much buildup.

Beyond this matter of craft, the density of supernatural people and occurrences – seriously, you wind up meeting at least one major figure from Irish folklore a day – seems sufficiently high that it calls into question the success Saint Patrick appears to have had; there’s no indication that the protagonist is at all special in terms of attracting more supernatural attention than normal (if anything, as a Christian herself, she might be getting less?) but surely the living presence of the old gods would inhibit the adoption of a new one? What’s even more challenging to the story’s integrity is that the player doesn’t get a sense of how this impacts the protagonist’s beliefs: her faith is established as perhaps a bit flexible in that opening act, as much born out of adherence to her dead parents’ wishes as sincere personal engagement with Christianity. But at least in my playthrough, none of the things she experiences causes her to question her allegiance.

Some of this may be due to the authors’ reluctance to characterize the main character and therefore make it harder for players to project themselves into her, I suppose. But I’m not a big fan of that approach to player characters in general, and it seems especially ill-suited for this story, which is no generic quest narrative. And it’s not just the question of religion: the protagonist often felt like a cipher to me. It wasn’t until a throwaway comment in the ending sequence that I realized that she was meant to be deathly afraid of the sea since her parents were killed while sailing during a storm; that hadn’t come through at all during the extended voyage sequence. I also hit a moment in my playthrough where during a conversation with a nun, she was struck by the twin revelations that a) lesbianism existed and b) she was probably one – but as far as I can tell this is never mentioned again.

That’s not the only thing that falls by the wayside as the game progresses. Much of the well-drawn supporting cast largely exits the narrative halfway through, and while there are newcomers who are no less interesting, I have to confess this reduced my engagement. There’s also an inventory system that feels like it has real weight early on – this is a society where most people have very few possessions – but that likewise didn’t seem to have any impact after reaching the convent.

The final thing that kept me at arm’s length was the occasional inscrutability of the game’s prose. I’m fine with confusing writing when it sets a mood or serves a purpose – I will never shut up about how much I love Queenlash – but I sometimes found myself baffled by unclear pronoun referents or glancing references that I think I was supposed to get. Here’s a bit where the protagonist is reflecting on her brother’s flight:

The suggestion of the mainland comes to you again. Men in golden chariots, wheeling around bellowing dreadful cries of vengeance, the great brown bull loose amongst them. But also culture, indigenous and Roman, hiding in their fortresses and churchyards. He wouldn’t fit in there, but nor would he much care. Stubborn, like yourself.

The game doesn’t provide any clues I found to decode that second sentence, and I really can’t parse the third at all. Or later:

When the sailors are red-faced and tired enough and the hooker swaying with the weight of her cargo, the captain, a big, weatherbeaten man who looks half-squid, barks an “all aboard” and stares down at the druidess.

I guess the hooker is the boat, but it seems like there’s a tense change happening somewhere in the middle? This isn’t a matter of the occasional typo, I don’t think; just an element of the writing style that I think adds enough friction to exacerbate some of the other things that occasionally took me out of the story.

That’s a lot of critique, so let me toggle back now and wrap up with some praise, because I really did want to be beguiled by this story, and sometimes was, especially in that first section which I think is the strongest. Here’s one of the first descriptions, of your tiny little hovel:

You stumble into the kitchen area. Like the rest of the little cottage, the walls are bare stone, unpainted and unornamented, and in the centre is the hearth where last night’s sad embers, smoored with ash, struggle on. You look away reflexively, flushed with the shame of knowing that it’s not the same fire that Mam had tended every night since she moved to the island; you had let it die, not long after it happened, and for a long time you lay barely sleeping with him in a hollowed home, damp and dark, wind groaning through every crack. Now you keep it diligently, even though it still feels like someone else’s responsibility.

That’s a great, grounded way of showing the impact of grief with some efficient world-building on the side.

And I really did like many of the characters – I’m not surprised everyone seems to have a crush on Ailbhe – and some of the creative worldbuilding touches – it took me an embarrassingly long time to realize that Brigid wasn’t just the goddess, but somehow was also the saint of the same name, which is really cleverly done. Again, a lot of the ingredients here are excellent; there’s something about the recipe that didn’t fully click for me, but I do appreciate the care that went into making it.


----glances around, raises hand----

Great review. You succeed in stating explicitly some vague impressions and feelings that I recognise but could not find the words for.
I agree with your criticism of the opaqueness of some paragraphs, with sudden incomprehensible references.

The presence of Druidic magic after St Patrick and the abrupt meeting with Donn of the Truth (the psychopomp god guiding spirits to the afterlife-portals) didn’t bother me so much. I took it as a sign of a living mythological/magical world where many supernatural beings and influences coexist with each other and with humans.
In this view, the sudden meeting with the god of death is just something that happens in this world. It doesn’t need foreshadowing because it follows naturally from the active presence of deities in the world. From a more distanced, out-of-story viewpoint, it also fits with a mythological narrative: the protagonist leaves her known and mundane surroundings, she crosses the water and meets a supernatural being on the other shore.

Relatedly, I never regarded Brid as being Christian. She was baptised, and her mother was a convinced convert to the new faith, but Brid herself didn’t strike me as a believer in Jesus and the Roman God. You say she’s “flexible” in her beliefs. I’d say she doesn’t have a particular allegiance to Cristianity’s core tenets at all, only to her mother’s remembrance.

I think the options available in the conversation with the village priest clearly show this ambivalence, they leave ample room for an interpretation of Brid as doubtful or even dismissive of the new religion. Of course, the choices the player makes will in their turn influence/cement the player’s opinion at the time of the choice-making. In my view, Brid saw Christianity as another set of rituals to another living god, perhaps competing with the Druidic religion, but not superceding it.

This fits with Brid’s encounters with the supernatural later in the story, especially her dealings with Donn of the Truth. The fact that he is repelled from breathing her or her brother’s spirit is caused by the active magic of the ritual, the act of baptism, not by any deep-seated faith on Brid’s part.

At least, that’s how I read it.

Again, thanks for the enlightening and thought-provoking review.


Thank you so, so much for your thorough and engaging review. I wrote a long spiel responding to some of your points (spoiler alert: I largely agree with you!), but I think I’ll leave it until the game’s post-mortem, if there’s an appetite for that. I’m so glad to see people engaging with and responding to our work!


That was a helpful pop-up, but I don’t think I saw it after the initial suspect statement – as I recall, it came up after I subsequently went into the new sidebar menu, or maybe when I did the second interview (I talked to the neighbor first)? Sorry I can’t remember more clearly, since it’s been a couple of days, but I’m pretty sure that would have cleared up my confusion if it had displayed immediately!

These are all really good points, thanks for sharing them! You’re definitely right that the game establishes Christian ritual as being efficacious in much the same was as Druidic ones are – and there’s nice scope for playing Brid in a variety of ways, but in none of them is she a whole-hearted true believer in Christianity.

Overall maybe my feelings on this stuff are primarily another indication that I wanted more characterization of and self-reflection by Brid; even if Brigid and the priest are proposing that the Christian god is a different sort of thing than the indigenous ones, does she believe that, or experience a conflict? When Donn tells her she’s definitively on Team Christian, does that prompt any rethinking? And then beyond Brid, I did want to know what level of engagement with the gods and fairies was “normal” in order to assess her expectations.

Yay, would look forward to reading that, and I suspect many other folks here would too – we’re pretty pro-post-mortem around here :slight_smile:


Would you by any chance be planning an eight-appendaged Makane spin-off?

Because that phrase sounds mighty suggestive…


I’m so sorry, but now all I can think about is the title Cocktopus Makane and now I’m inflicting it on you.


It opens after you’ve interviewed the neighbour. I might not be able to make the dialog appear immediately before interviewing the first suspect due to a sequential necessity but will think about it! Thanks.

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Thanks, but I don’t remember asking, by Mea Murukutla

I don’t think it’s a kick against Thanks… to say that its opening is disorienting and dreamlike, since the author’s note reveals that it was in fact directly inspired by a dream. My first ten minutes with the game involved me muttering “oh, now I get it!” three or four times running, as I grokked each potentially-confusing bit of the setup in turn. At first I thought the protagonist was a teenager, but maybe in like a fantasy world with monsters – but eventually I figured out the game’s actually got a postapocalyptic setting and the main character’s just hiding out at a school. Then I wasn’t sure what was going on with the main character’s oddly-aggressive behavior when confronting a trio of passing scavengers, only to realize that she’s got a traumatic backstory and a unique condition (well, unique modulo Memento) that actually made those responses appropriate and thematically rich. And then a couple minutes after that the game wrapped up.

There were definitely some high points to the game’s short run-time – while the writing is generally pretty straightforward and the setting and characters remain archetypal, there were details that stuck with me, like the repeated emphasis on the color of the red volleyball courts outside the school. And the choices offered effectively convey that there’s something not quite right with the protagonist, like this set of options for which of the aforementioned three scavengers to engage in dialogue:

-I looked at her for a second too long before answering.

-Something compelled me to address the whimpering man at the back.

-I didn’t want to admit that I was alone, so I turned to face the short man again.

It reminds me of a Scientology personality test I saw one time, where all the questions were like “What do you do on a Friday night? 1) I stay home by myself because I’m alienated and don’t have friends or 2) I go out and party, trying to pretend my life isn’t meaningless by pursuing hollow pleasures.”

(This is I think the first time in my life I’ve said “hey, this is just like something Scientologists do!” and meant it as a compliment).

And the setup is does arrange some conventional tropes into a promising configuration (spoiler time): the zombie apocalypse generally raises the stakes and puts issues of trust front and center, and also interfaces well with the protagonist’s inability to make new memories: is it actually a blessing to be able to forget the massive trauma of the past, as the main character’s abusive ex suggests, or is there a price to be paid for disconnection from one’s past? That memory issue in turn sets up the interpersonal drama to center on whether and how the other characters, like those scavengers, might try to manipulate and take advantage of her.

Unfortunately the game’s short running time isn’t nearly enough to actually do more with this framework than establish it; there’s a final, climactic scene that adds some action, but it felt very abrupt to me, forcing catharsis and resolution on a dilemma that hadn’t had time to sink in and have any impact. Short games can be great, don’t get me wrong, but there needs to be congruence between a game’s ambition and its length; Thanks, but I don’t remember asking, I fear, has a premise that demands more elaboration than it gets. There’s certainly a risk of dulling the force of an idea by padding it out too much – and I suppose that’s especially the case here, given that nothing makes a dream more prosaic than trying to explain it at length – but I think the author needed to either expand their scope, or trim the number of themes they were working with, in order to right-size the work.


Voyage of the Marigold, by Andrew Stephen

I was into a lot of the standard nerdy stuff when I was a kid in the late 80s – DnD, Star Wars, Asimov, Tolkein, you name it. But the one that stood above all others, the one that really made my heart sing, was Star Trek. Even now there’s something about those ships, those uniforms, that idealistic mission of exploration, that deactivates my critical faculties and makes me just hum along with the theme: dum-dum-dum, dum-dumedy-dum… So when I realized that despite being a sci-fi roguelike about getting your ship from one side of a sector to another with limited crew, weapons, and fuel, Voyage of the Marigold owes a much bigger debt to Star Trek than it does to FTL, I squirmed with glee.

Even as a 43 year old, commanding a starship on a mission of mercy is an irresistible draw – and what makes it even better is the way you get to command it. I’ve played plenty of Star Trek games in my time, and enjoyed them, but hunching over a laptop and clicking the comm badge to open hailing frequencies or flailing the mouse around to try to shake an enemy warbird don’t have much gravitas. No, the actual fantasy is to command the way Kirk or Picard did, snapping off a cool “on screen, Lieutenant” or ordering “evasive maneuvers, bearing oh-three-six mark five.” Turning a marvel of sci-fi engineering and its highly-trained crew into an extension of your intellect just through language – that’s the dream, and it’s one Voyage of the Marigold completely nails.

To help you succeed in your mission of ferrying much-needed medical supplies through a nebula in the neutral zone, you’ve got a nicely graphical star-map and a status screen to show you your resources (we’re a long way from default Ink styling), the game itself is played exclusively via your captain’s log, which chronicles your exploits in note-perfect first-person narration, and drops into dialogue mode whenever it’s time to issue an order and make a decision. Your bridge crew aren’t deeply characterized – they aren’t given names, just addressed by their position – but they play their roles well, and I found the vagueness presented a blank slate onto which to project my positive associations of Sulu, Spock, Data, and the rest. The rhythm of warping into a new sector, scanning to see what’s around, planning how to avoid its dangers or take advantage of its opportunities, and then moving on to the next one, provides a pleasing gameplay loop but also nicely apes the show.

It isn’t just the trappings that reminded me of Star Trek, I should add; the game has an earnest, idealistic streak to it and plays with similar kinds of moral dilemmas. Your progress is dogged by not-Klingons and in some cases fighting is inevitable, and supplies are always tight, but throughout, you’re rewarded for seeing the humanity in even the most frightening aliens, not letting your need for resources push you to desperate measures, taking time for exploration and discovery even in the midst of an urgent mission, and respecting the Prime Directive.

That isn’t to say that it’s easy to win just playing as a goody-two-shoes, though – as befits a roguelike, the difficulty is such that I had to play three or four times before victory. That’s par for the course for the genre, and since each run is only fifteen or twenty minutes, it’s well worth giving it a few tries. But while overall I think the challenge is fair enough, there are a series of interlocking design decisions that occasionally can edge on frustration, and create some tension with the otherwise-consistent mood. Success hinges on navigating from one corner of a five-by-five grid to the other, with limited time and limited fuel, and the randomly-generated maps tend to be constricted, rather than open, with a few specific bottleneck sectors offering the only ways to make forward progress. I found it was very easy to make a wrong turn but only realize I was in a dead-end four or five warp jumps later, requiring me to burn significant resources retracing my steps. What’s worse, revisiting sectors you’ve been to before imposes a steadily-increasing morale penalty; I lost my first playthrough when the crew mutinied over being denied shore leave with only two days remaining before the plague killed millions of colonists. This morale hit feels unnecessary, since the thin margins on fuel and time are already punishment enough for backtracking, and it also jars with the professionalism of the Starfleet crews the game’s clearly trying to evoke.

My other complaint is that the deck of possible events is relatively thin; it’ll probably only take one and a half playthroughs to see just about everything except the endgame. This is fine for some of the more open-ended encounters, but some of them are closer to puzzles, offering clear correct decisions rather than context-dependent tradeoffs. As a result my engagement with the narrative layer started to erode in repeat playthroughs, impatiently clicking past descriptions of ancient civilizations and god-like energy beings since I already knew their deal.

Obviously, though, it’s not a harsh a criticism of a game to wish there was more of it. I heartily enjoyed my time with Voyage of the Marigold and was sad when my time with it came to an end – though learning I was the only Federation citizen for decades to come who received the Glexx Crown of Honor (second glass) for my humanitarian efforts helped take the sting off it. This is a gripping but feel-good game that’s precision-engineered to appeal to me, but even for folks who don’t dream about wormholes and bumpy-headed aliens and low-velocity space battles, there’s a lot here to enjoy.


Thank you so much for your kind review, I am glad you enjoyed VotM. I wrote the game I wanted to play and gambled that there were enough old nerds like myself for it to find an audience.

Not giving the other officers names was a considered choice, if you want to imagine Spock at the science console with Sulu at the helm then that is your business and I won’t tell Paramount’s legal team if you don’t.

You are perfectly right with your critical comments. I have a whole post-mortem written with a bunch of things I thought worked well and a long list of things that didn’t turn out quite the way I intended. I’ll publish it here once the festival is over.


A Simple Happening, by Leon Lin

I was raised Catholic, and unsurprisingly given the wide range of material included in the Bible, I remember often being confused by what on God’s green earth some bits of scripture were trying to say. Revelation was of course both especially exciting – it’s the Avengers: Endgame of the New Testament, all sorts of cross-overs with other characters heading towards a big showdown – as well as especially bewildering, and there was one passage in particular that always stymied 10-year-old-me, an angry missive from an angel to a congregation that had fallen short in some way: “You are neither hot nor cold… because you are lukewarm, I will spit you out of my mouth.” I was smart enough to recognize that this was a metaphor, but figuring out what hot and cold meant into this context was beyond me, and wasn’t spitting a kind of rude, earthy metaphor?

I still can’t claim to fully understand this verse, but if I could send A Simple Happening back to my ten year old self, it’d give me a substantial leg up. This parser game set in feudal Japan runs through every cliché you can imagine – you’re a samurai about to commit seppuku, but you have to write a death poem first, there are carp in the nearby river, you get a katana and a tanto and a shuriken, you get the drill, it’s all fine and correct enough so far as I can tell but just very vanilla. It also features an annoyingly slapstick vibe that throws away any gravitas the setup earns: you’ve been ordered to commit suicide because you threw a helmet at your lord and insulted him, for no real reason that’s ever disclosed; the ambient events that fire every turn include a member of the crowd of spectators mumbling that he’s late for another seppuku; you smash through a wooden door with your bare hands.

But! It’s also quite well implemented and paced, running through a linear series of set-pieces with aplomb, and utilizing a random-haiku-generator for that death poem bit that actually throws up a substantial percentage of hits. Even as I made my way through one deadly situation after another, I don’t think I ran into a single guess-the-verb issue, and the puzzles, while all straightforward, boast a pleasant variety. The mostly-pedestrian prose even has a few moments of real strength, like the response to taking inventory at the beginning of the game:

On the day you’re to die, you’re holding nothing, just like the day you were born.

Admittedly this is undermined by the addition of “How poetic” at the end. No! Stop! You were doing fine! I’d be tempted to say that one line sums up the whole experience of playing A Simple Happening, except there’s one at the very end that’s even more perfect, the protagonist’s final moment of reflection:

…you think, “Isn’t this story just [literary reference redacted] set in feudal Japan?”

That this is correct, and that redoing the cited work in this setting is a fine-but-not-spectacular idea, is completely besides the point – take just about any acknowledged classic and you could knock it down a peg with this exact formulation. Who cares!

So yeah, this is a lukewarm game – which isn’t just a matter of strengths and weaknesses cancelling out, but I think also the author feeling diffident (or at least projecting diffidence) about their own game. So per the angel, I’m cranky and spitting it out, but I’m also frustrated because it didn’t have to be this way: buddy, you’ve got good Inform skills and you can write when you get out of your own way! This game would be really solid if you didn’t undermine yourself at every turn! Be hot, be cold, be whatever you want, but just commit!

And er while you’re at it, watch out for seven trumps and seven seals and if you see a weird leopard thing with extra heads and feet like a bear, book it.

happening MR.txt (34.7 KB)


Doctor Jeangille’s Letters, by manonamora

I can’t think of a piece of IF that’s made me feel dumber than Doctor Jeangille’s Letters. That’s not because it’s got fiendish brainteasers or elevated-but-gnomic prose, I should say – on those scores, this epistolary mystery is accessible to a fault. No, it’s because the game’s eponymous letters are written in a script-handwriting font that after ten minutes started bothering my aging eyes, and only after I’d given myself a headache by persevering to the end did I realize 1) there’s a settings menu in the corner that allows you to shift to something more readable; and 2) I’d actually noticed this menu when I started playing, jotted down a note about the cunning way it rotates in and out of view when summoned, then promptly forgot about it. So yeah, if the game gave me eyestrain, I have only myself to blame – although, now that I think about it, if it hadn’t been so compelling it would have been easier for me to stop, close my eyes for a bit, and consider changing the font, so maybe we should just say the fault is 50/50?

The idea of telling a story entirely through letters goes back almost to the beginning of the history of the novel – partially because in a time of widespread letter-writing, the format added a touch of immediacy and verisimilitude, much as today’s works of fiction (static or interactive) may incorporate emails or social media posts as gestures towards realism, but also because making each chapter its own letter provides a clean structure that wraps up each segment of the tale while inviting the reader to flip another page and see what happens next. So it is with Doctor Jeangille’s Letters, each of which ends on some note that points towards the next exciting development to come. At first, this is simply a matter of wanting to see how the eponymous heroine gets on after she returns to her small French hometown; she’s coming back with a medical degree and a mandate to minister to the health of her former neighbors, but she’s also fleeing a scandal in the capital, one that seems to be wrapped up with the lovely Olympia, to whom her overheated missives are directed. She attempts to push pass the farmers’ wariness of a female doctor; she weathers her parents’ misguided attempts at matchmaking; she meets a charming noblewoman who’s taken up temporary residence in the town, and tries to keep Olympia from feeling jealous. Soon matters escalate beyond this domestic melodrama, however; first livestock goes missing, then one of the village’s children…

The irony powering the game’s engine is that it’s able to go big even as it’s staying small. The prose is all overheated Romantic gushing. Here’s the good doctor on her parting from Olympia:

The breeze danced with your chestnut curls, untangling and entangling your so lovely locks. Your flushed cheeks, on which I had laid my kisses only moments earlier, were now beaded with tears. Your hand, which had refused to let me go, trembled.

Her inamorata’s eyes are “emeralds”; when she considers her grievances, “rage consumed my body inside out, for at that moment, I was only flame.” It’s gloriously over the top, and if it’s occasionally a little silly and marred by the occasional maladroit word choice, it nonetheless is deeply enjoyable, and clearly establishes the doctor’s passionate but often-ingenuous personality.

The writing nonetheless is capable of subtlety, too. Olympia’s replies to the doctor, for example, are never visible, but reading between the lines it’s possible to get glimpses of what she’s like – and my sense was that she’s decidedly more pragmatic, and observant, than her lover realizes. The choice mechanics are also understated. For most of the game, interaction involves clicking on a key sentence or two in each letter to cycle it between various options, before choosing which one to include in the letter’s final draft. These options don’t generally lead to significantly different decisions, but rather give the player a chance to add slight shading to the doctor’s impressions of someone they’ve newly met, or express either certainty or qualms about a particular course of action. This does mean that every once in a while, I was surprised by the way an obliquely-phrased choice wound up being interpreted, but on the whole that’s in keeping with the doctor’s impulsive nature.

So long as I’m listing flaws, I should say that the game’s mystery plot is not exactly a head-scratcher, and the doctor’s inability to put two and two together occasionally risks drifting across the line separating a laudable desire to think well of people from simple thick-headedness. And the ending I got was exciting and wrapped up the story well, but I was also surprised that my choices didn’t put the doctor in substantially more peril than she wound up experiencing (on the other hand, in an epistolary piece it’s a little hard to sustain suspense about the fate of the protagonist – “Dear Olympia, then I was horribly murdered” is a letter that’s not going to make it into the post – so there’s an argument for just embracing the plot-protection that comes with the format). But this is an endearing, engaging game, with likeable characters and an enjoyable interaction mechanic, so much so that I can’t even hold the eyestrain headache it gave me against it.


Thank you Mike for the lovely review! :green_heart:

I considered it, but ran out of time for the original version. Then penned it down as her skills are too valuables to get her on the pyre and Mlle Bouchon has a crush on her so yeah:joy:

I’m glad I didn’t consider a more accurate Doctor hand-writting font :joy:




Are you kidding me??? (rapidly counts family members) ARE YOU KIDDING ME? THIS WAS PREDICTED??!?!? Boy have I misjudged the value of the Biblical Prophecy.


Thank you for your candid and thorough review of my game. I really appreciate the time you took to do this. I agree with all your criticisms, especially as they dovetail with what I’ve seen in other reviews. I am sorry I produced such a disappointing and unsatisfactory game. I need to do a deep dive into what went wrong (I have some ideas already), and I plan to write a postmortem looking into this. Again, thanks for your review.


The Truth About PRIDE!, by Jemon Golfin

I’m not quite sure how folks decided Bitsy should become an IF platform – from its Gameboy aesthetic, I’d imagine it’s mostly used for throwback action games? – but I’m glad that they did. Sure, its affordances seem to encourage the use of graphics and keyboard-based (but non-parser) interfaces, which I suppose aren’t the best fit for IF, but the plucky, lo-fi vibe is dead on, and every piece of Bitsy IF I’ve played has stood out from the crowd. The Truth About PRIDE! is no exception, with gameplay based on navigating a black-and-white sprite through a series of top-down labyrinths. That could describe any number of puzzle games, but here, text is clearly the central element, so yeah, it’s unique but fits comfortably into the IF tradition.

The experience on offer here is simple, as befits the presentation: you’re given a choice of six mini-mazes, each corresponding to a character in “PRIDE!” When you bump into certain icons within each of these smaller areas, you get a few sentences that aim the concept of pride, which is interpreted as a flexible acronym – the author’s chosen a few resonant words that start with each letter, like posture and professionalism, and relates them to the central concept of having confidence in and valuing yourself. You have the option of bringing the experience to a close after finishing each maze, or restarting again, and if you complete all six, you’ll pick up clues to a puzzle that unlocks a final area and a couple more small challenges.

I’ve already used the words “small” and “simple” a fair number of times in this small, simple review, but I don’t think those are critiques; the author’s kept their ambitions aligned with their design, and I spend a satisfying fifteen minutes working through it. I will say that the game’s exhortations to positivity struck me as pleasant, but not especially impactful – they’re pitched at a high level of generality so I assume just about everybody can nod along, but that means they lack the specificity that can make a moral or philosophical point linger. At the same time, I suspect part of the reason these affirmations didn’t register that strongly for me is that I’m a straight white middle-aged guy: pretty much all of Western civilization is designed to tell me that I’m important and my life and thoughts are valuable 24/7. There’s a reason why capital-p Pride was started by non-straight people, after all, and while it’s nice that the author made a game that speaks equally to more or less everyone, I think grounding it in a more particular set of experiences or perspectives could have given it more resonance.


You Can Only Turn Left, written by Emiland Kray, Programmed by Ember Chan, Music by Mary Kray

I’ve made the point before (even in another review for this festival, I think?) that dreams are typically more meaningful to experience than relate. Like, just a few weeks I had one where I was in airport, trying to get rebooked after my flight was cancelled, and then after I’d managed to wrangle a replacement ticket, upon takeoff my seat was somehow flung forward and got lodged in the cockpit window, which didn’t hurt me(?), except I uncharacteristically hadn’t fastened my seatbelt so the only thing keeping me in my now-open-air perch as we climbed and climbed was a death-grip on my armrests, which obviously wasn’t going to be sustainable, so I reached down to try to buckle myself in but wasn’t quick enough so I found myself falling, for long enough to think well this is it, all my hopes and dreams and loves are ending in just a few seconds, I’m not ready and I never got to say goodbye – and then I woke up. It shook me pretty hard, and I’m still processing some of the aftershocks, but it doesn’t at all hold together as a story; it’s just a boring dream of falling with some implausible details, and if I add in that this happened almost to the day of the fourth anniversary of my sister’s death, well, the armchair psychologizing writes itself.

You Can Only Turn Left, as you might have guessed from this intro, has to do with dreams, though it carves out some space for itself by concerning itself with overall sleep practices and sets of dream patterns, rather than just expanding one particular dream into game length. This approach means that there are some grounded sequences threaded through the narrative, which let you catch a glimpse of the protagonist’s changing life circumstances and discern something of an arc. Their very mundanity is even sort of appealing: in amidst trippy visions, engaging with the way a new job forces you to wake up super early feels like a breath of fresh air (it does make me question why the main character seems so bent on never getting a good night’s sleep, or thinks that given all this dropping acid is still a good life choice).

Breaking up the dreams like this also means there’s less need to shoehorn narrative weight where it doesn’t truly belong, instead presenting them as a series of arresting images. And the writing on a few of these does feel like it conveys something of the immanence of the original experience:

The air was electric and the veins of your eyes became ghosts of hot pink lightning. The static shock grounded your body into the abyss and you clenched your jaw.

The title image also is one that will stick with me – it’s drawn from a science-class experiment where deformed tadpoles birth frogs with spinal issues that prevent them from swimming in more than one direction, which lends some power to what’s otherwise a clangingly obvious metaphor. The game’s presentation also deepen its impact; there’s blurry, shifting text, eyestrain-inducing background images, quick pans and flashes, that aim to alienate the player from what they’re reading.

For all that, though, I didn’t find You Can Only Turn Left escaped the oneiric trap. Like, I played the game the day before yesterday, and while the vibe was memorable, before I reviewed my notes I don’t think I could have told you a single thing that actually happens in the game; shorn of the context and structure that gives incidents their heft, you’re just left with a lot of stuff. There is some gameplay here – there are a host of choices that mostly boil down to “try to stay awake”/”try to go to sleep”, albeit without much clarity about the implications those decisions wound up having – and something of an arc, with the protagonist exiting the story seemingly better actualized and having reclaimed their ability to break out of patterns, though I couldn’t even make a retroactive guess at what led to that shift. As a result the game is I think a success as an aesthetic experience, but not so compelling as a narrative one; perhaps that’s the most that can be done with such stuff as dreams are made on.


This is actually the one thing that Bitsy does: it’s a tiny engine for making turn-based walking around and bumping into things for dialogue. Two-color, two-frame animations on the tiles. The limitations are to make it less intimidating to get started with.

Its intro is:

hi! bitsy is a little editor for little games or worlds. the goal is to make it easy to make games where you can walk around and talk to people and be somewhere.


There are also 3D and full-color versions of Bitsy, plus lots of extensions.

The 3D version is surprisingly versatile since you can choose between third person, mouselook/WASD, and fixed-rotation dungeon crawler styles, and everything in between.

I’m surprised it hasn’t caught on as much as the original Game Boy-style version.

Sleep Boi Can’t Sleep is a really impressive use of the 3D version.

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To Beseech Old Sins, by Nic June

OK, anecdote time: when I was in high school, my summer job for a couple years was as a busboy at a country club. This was less exciting than it sounds – and believe me, I’m under no illusions as to how exciting it sounds – but one fun thing was that there was a team-building day where we saw Rent on Broadway (the club was on Long Island). This necessitated a bus trip, and whether or not said bus was formally licensed as a party bus – I rather suspect not – my coworkers decided it would be prudent to avoid inflated NYC liquor prices by getting blasted on the way in, and further decided it would be amusing to peer-pressure the 17-year-old into having a couple of beers (reader, I’d like to say I put up a fight, but I was nerdy and was moved that they cared enough to make the attempt). I only had two drinks, but I was an inexperienced drinker and weighed like 120 pounds, so that was enough to throw me off-kilter for the remainder of the trip as well as – and here we’re finally getting to the point of the anecdote – the entire first act of Rent.

There’s a whole lot of incident that plays out over that initial hour or so, and I’m sure a more sober critic of theater would have found a lot to unpack, but I have to confess that all the relationship melodrama and demimondaine cris de coeurs were lost on me, because in the flush of my first drunkenness, I’d decided that actually the most important thing on that stage was this one particular chair. All the frenetic dancing and singing happening all around it, I was sure, was just meant to provide a counterpoint to the stolid immanent quiddity of this humble chair; people sat in it, gripped it from behind, leaped over it in impressive jetes, but rather than see the chair as providing a backdrop to their actions, the musical’s author clearly wanted the audience to see the cast as a backdrop to the furniture.

I dried out over intermission so thankfully my impressions of Act Two are much more normal, but that experience of fixating on something that in retrospect was clearly of at-best tertiary importance persists; obviously I was totally off base, but maybe I was chasing some elusive insight that could unlock the greater meaning of the piece?

All of which is an excessively long intro to explain why throughout To Beseech Old Sin’s Sturm-und-Drang space opera, I was only half paying attention to the narrative and wondering how sexual harassment laws worked in the far future.
See, the story has the trappings of a Halo or a Warhammer 40k – there’s this squad of giant armored supersoldiers, who are ordered to make a desperate assault on an enemy capital ship – but the shooty-shooty business is largely underplayed, while the setting, as well as the personal and ideological stakes of the game’s main conflicts, are underexplained.

I’m typically allergic to extended infodumps laying out a game’s premise in unnecessary detail, don’t get me wrong, but here I missed them, because it’s both the case that the elided details were necessary to build investment in a generic, and ultimately low-key, shootout, as well as seeming intriguing in their own right (the supersoldiers are referred to as golems, and seem to have alchemical script tattooed onto their bodies, which is part of what empowers them as sets them apart from ordinary humans? Yeah, I’d like to hear more about that). That vagueness extended to the trio of main characters, consisting of the protagonist plus two squadmates – none of them felt like they had especially distinct personalities or voices, and making their names Greek letters fuels the genericism. And the game’s choices don’t feel especially impactful; mostly links either provide more detail or just move the story forward, and this is a low-risk mission that seems impossible to mess up too badly, so while it’s pleasant enough to click through the attractively-presented text, there isn’t grabby gameplay or any moments of high drama to liven things up.

So in the absence of more traditional engagement points to latch onto, the thing that mostly stood out to me was the contextually-inappropriate cuddling. You and your squadmates aren’t just a trio, you’re also a throuple, and seem to spend most of your downtime half-naked and spooning. And that’s fine! Office relationships can be challenging to navigate, but everybody seems into it and I’m sure space combat is super stressful so this seems like a nice, healthy way to blow off steam. Except the three of you keep up said canoodling even when the admiral commanding the squadron comes down to give you your mission briefing, which isn’t just an accident but a deliberate provocation as it’s made clear you knew she was coming but decided not to put pants on nonetheless. Sure, the admiral is presented as a romantic interest – she blushes yet seems intrigued, and your dialogue options with her range from double entendres to point five entendres – but c’mon, this is her workplace, and almost the exact same scenario plays out a second time towards the end of the game. If you really think you’re vibing ask her out for a drink once she’s off-duty, but right now this is textbook hostile work environment sexual harassment.

To stop kidding for a minute, I do get the sense that there is meant to be more depth here; the author’s note indicates that these are recurring characters, and there’s an “other stories in the anthology” link on the festival page. So I’m guessing that some other game provides more in the way of backstory for the characters, establishes deeper themes for the milieu, and otherwise offers more in the way of on-ramps for uninitiated players. Indeed, the author’s note positions To Beseech Old Sins as a lighter interlude from an overarching story that trends grim; in that context, and with more investment in the characters, I’d probably have more to focus on than the state of employment law in this imagined world. Okay, it’s still mostly my fault that I fixated on a mostly-irrelevant detail this time out, but unlike with Rent, I do think the author could have given me a little more help.