My (Thomas Hvizdos) Thoughts on IFComp 2020 Games I've Played

Catalan Summer

This was a drama about a family of wealthy industrialists, firmly set in 1920s Catalonia.

The narrative largely centers around the patriarch of the family, Josef Videl, as he struggles to decide what to do about his attraction to his daughter’s fiance, but each family member has their own little subplot–Josef’s wife can cheat on him, too; his son seems more interested in slumming with the proletariat his father employs than inheriting the family business; and his daughter has befriended a ghost. The multiple perspectives, and the fact that most of the action takes place in a lavishly described mansion, give the game a sort of dollhouse feel.

I know very little about 1920s Catalonia, so this was a fun setting to experience. The author does a good job of generating a sense of place and time through description and exposition, the latter of which is of varying quality. There’s a scene where you hang out with your industrialist buddies and bullshit about politics, which felt authentic, but there’s also a scene where you give a mini history lesson to a French friend, which feels fairly forced:

“Since the Catalans were forced to surrender to the Spaniards on September 11th 1714, more than two hundred years ago, this date has become our national holiday, as a reminder of a wound that is still open. Some fifty years ago, regionalist parties emerged on the political scene demanding more independence for our region. The Spanish government in Madrid didn’t really like it, but since 1914 we have been granted a new status, the mancommunitat, which has helped to ease tensions and modernize the region.”

The writing is uneven–I think English isn’t the author’s first language–but the plotting and the interactive elements are fairly well done. I rarely felt like an option I wanted to take wasn’t there, and the game does not assign extra intent to your choices, which leaves you more room to interpret them as you’d like. A few replays revealed that the vast majority of the choices are false choices, or change very little, but that fact was concealed well–I believed my choices mattered, even when they didn’t.

The endings, though, didn’t work as well. As Josef, you have varied options during the game to handle your attraction to your daughter’s fiance: utterly ignore him, run away together, or welcome him as a son-in-law and repress your attraction. That worked well for most of the game, but when you get to the end, your choices are to abandon your family for Charles, or call the wedding off, implying to your wife that you’re too in love with Charles to see him marry your daughter. Neither of those worked for me. I didn’t want to leave my family, but Charles clearly isn’t a good match for your daughter–he’s constantly trying to fuck you, even being so bold as to come to your room at night after spending the day courting your daughter. She loves him, but it seemed pretty apparent he’d be a terrible husband. There seemed to be no way to communicate that opinion to the game: your wife gets mad if you try to call the wedding off, and your only available explanation is that you love Charles. There’s a similar lack of nuance in your son’s potential endings: you can reject your working class friends and lover, or you can run away from home and destroy the family business by leaving it without an heir. I wish there had been more of a middle ground, especially since most of the game does a good job of providing one.

Overall, I had some complaints about the execution, but the game did a good job investing me in a story and setting I had little experience with.

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Sonder Snippets

This was a poetic hypertext fiction game where you navigate through an old woman’s thoughts, many of which are creation myths.

For better or for worse, this seems to represent what some early hypertext enthusiasts wanted to do with the medium: you explore without guidance, moving through a textual space that avoids traditional linear narrative structure and is hard to fully chart. I tend to find that sort of thing frustrating, but it suits this work well. The piece is more about generating a feeling than telling a story, and the meandering nature of the work creates the feeling of being in an elderly woman’s mind. Links in the story map easily to thoughts rising in your mind; clicking on them brings your focus to them. Sometimes that focus returns to the main thread, sometimes it goes off in another direction, leaving the other options to drift away. It represents the chaos of one’s internal monologue well.

The hypertext style also stands out in one of the possible endings, where you’re talking to your granddaughter(?) and the game uses the link structure to pace out some simple things (stomping boots out and begging for stories) in a way that makes them much more vivid than they would be ordinarily.

I still found the structure frustrating at times, but that’s entirely my preference–it suits the work perfectly.

The writing is closer to poetry than prose in many spots, and it frequently left me cold. Lines like “Instead, the Thief’s Lover held love to be expansive, shared, in value and weight. Not just for the Thief, but for entities upon entities in the known universe” and “Reparations have to be made for that which was stolen from the sanctity of silence only to be silenced on the terms of another” felt awkward, and didn’t really make sense to me, even after repeated attempts to crack it. But, I’m generally not a poetry fan, so others might find this more satisfying.

I did think the myths themselves were quite beautiful. The personifications of the sun and the moon were poignant and fascinating, and reminded me of Italo Calvino’s Cosmicomics.

I enjoyed my time with Sonder Snippets, even if I’m not sure I’ll take much away from it.

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Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder

This was a time travel game that had good temporal and spatial puzzles, but I lost faith in it after encountering a strange bug midway through.

You move around a 10 room area, in four different seasons. You start off in fall, and unlock more seasons as you go, and eventually more powers for your time cocoon. The early parts of the game are sensible and fun to explore–unlocking a new season was a genuine thrill. The map, though visually simple, is incredibly helpful.

Unfortunately, things fell apart for me halfway through. I got stuck in spring, and couldn’t figure out how to progress. In a moment of frustration, I attacked the hermit with a shovel, and killed him. The game doesn’t predict that, so you’re left in a strange space where the hermit is described as alive in some text, but dead in others. After looking at the walkthrough, being able to kill with the shovel seems like an oversight, but, in the moment it seemed like the game was just broken. Also, it didn’t make narrative sense–if I kill the founder of the cult, why doesn’t that end the thing then and there?

That frustration wasn’t assuaged when I went to the walkthrough. The solution turned out to be that a door to a hermit’s hut is the same as the door in the middle of a cultist fortress. This makes sense spatially (they line up), but didn’t make sense to me from a narrative perspective: why would the cultists keep this door, but tear down the rest of his hut? And, why does the door persist across time when similarly durable items don’t? It’s possible I would have recovered from this had I played out the rest of the game, but I had already half-spoiled a lot of the future puzzles by HINT-ing in various rooms that I couldn’t solve yet, which sort of ruined the experience.

From there on I was pretty grouchy, and my experience was much worse. Many of the puzzles in the game include trying to get past a living thing, and I was frustrated I couldn’t just kill them all with my shovel (grim, I know, but my character had already gone to the dark side, and surely killing a cow is a lesser sin than killing a hermit). Some of the puzzles also have a looser grip on reality and seem less clued than I’ve encountered before, so that might be part of it. I wouldn’t have thought to stop a chicken’s pacing with a stop sign in order to get a woodpecker to start pecking again in order to lure out a woodworker so I could kill his apprentice. That said, some of the puzzles I gave up on would’ve been solvable had I been more engaged, so I’m not quite sure how much is the game, and how much is me, here.

I was Mostly Aggravated, Dude through Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder, but others’ posts on the forums lead me to believe I might’ve had a better time if I had been less bloodthirsty.


Mother Tongue

This was a short, sweet game about learning tagalog from your mom. It’s told over one long text message conversation: your mom texts you, you chat a bit, then she gets nostalgic and things veer into the tagalog lesson.

The lesson is more fleshed out than I expected. Your mom will give you an example of how to say something, then ask you how to say something else. You’ll have two very similar options, which does a good job of isolating the rule you’re trying to learn, and the questions build sensibly on each other.

It’s a bit amateurish and scattershot: you bounce around several different topics without focus, and your mom will frequently tell you she doesn’t know why the language works the way it does, but that fits the theme, and doesn’t detract from the game too much. I’m not sure I’ll retain anything, but I did feel like I knew more tagalog at the end of the game.

This game presents an interesting framework for language learning. The story elements were well done, and made me want to engage with the lesson so I didn’t let my mom down. It suggests interesting possibilities down the road–could you create a chat bot that also served as a language learning tool?

This wasn’t anything mind blowing, but it’s short, charming, and relatively novel.


Move On

Edit: This is deeper than I realized. See addendum below.

This is a non-interactive piece of micro fiction about a chase.

The writing is solid. It’s difficult to write action–too much detail and you lose the momentum of the scene, too little and you don’t capture what makes it exciting. This game pulls it off well.

The game’s genre is “experimental,” and the experiment seems to be that you don’t have choices–you just click a button labelled “move on” to advance the scene. The gimmick has potential in principle, but I don’t think the game pulls it off. Clicking “move on” in this game is not different than clicking “next,” so you end up with a linear narrative with lots of pauses in it.

There’s a version of this experiment that works, where the text on the single choice is recontextualized by the story that comes before it–”move on” could mean different things if you’re a soldier who’s just identified a target you need to capture, a person who’s being broken up with, or a cutthroat businessman. But


“Come on, come on!”
/>Move on



“I’m already far enough away”
/>Move on
“Spike lifts the VTOL into the air”

Don’t feel like they’re really using the gimmick for anything in particular.

The story’s not bad–it’s well written, exciting, and short. But it’s not interactive.


Victor points out in this thread that the game is interactive: the results depend on when you click the link. That gimmick is neat, but I’m not sure how to evaluate it. I happened to get the “good” ending on my first playthrough so I’m not sure how fun figuring it out would be.

It seems to be a linear storyline with dead ends as far as I can see. Either you succeed in the check and pass to the next point, or fail and the story ends. So it is IF, but I did find myself wishing it had some different consequences to acting too fast or slow rather than always a game ending fail state though.


Hm, yeah, that’s a little disappointing. I went back and played around with intentionally trying to get dead ends, but didn’t get much out of it. I think you’re right that branching based on player speed could be really cool.

Ferryman’s gate

This was a fairly robust parser game about proper comma use. You’ve just moved into a house with your family, and, over the course of the game, you explore the house, search for a set of 12 plates, solve comma placement puzzles, talk to your family and servants, and eventually discover your uncle’s secret.

The game’s aim is to “teach comma rules without feeling ‘educational’,” and it largely succeeds. Though the comma puzzles largely boil down to “is this sentence grammatical or not,” there’s enough mechanical and grammatical variety to keep it fresh the whole time: pressing a button that corresponds to an incorrect sentence is different than inserting a comma key into one of 9 possible keyholes in a sentence. There’s a book of rules to help you along if you don’t know the domain, and if you choose the wrong option you’re treated to a page of text explaining why your choice was wrong. That last bit definitely felt “educational”, but if you’ve just made the wrong choice and your character died, the author has probably earned the right to lecture you a bit. You might even welcome the help.

The game does feel a bit fat. Much of my time was spent wandering the halls methodically examining things and opening cabinets to ensure I found 12 plates hidden in the house. I’m assuming there are 12 to make the puzzle they’re related to work, but this part of the game felt like it dragged on a bit too long, especially since the descriptions of things are dry, though thoroughly implemented. Also, there are six NPCs in the house with you, but only two of them have any mechanical purpose. They add to the verisimilitude, but the story, while entertaining, isn’t gripping, and I didn’t come to the comma rule deathtrap game looking for realism.

Overall I liked this. It’s a little slow, but the comma puzzles are well-implemented and fun, and I came away feeling like my writing was going to be better as a result. Certainly a success.

Loosely related tangent about grammar:

I don’t agree with the game’s argument that poor language use makes writing unclear–bad writing makes writing unclear, and, while that often goes along with poor language use, it doesn’t have to. If, I write the next sentence, like this, you can understand it, even, if it slows you down, and, this example is more common, and more exaggerated, than the “let’s eat grandma” and “let’s eat, grandma” sort of contrivances that are used to make the point.

That said, the majority of IFComp games I’ve played this year have copious grammar and punctuation issues, and it makes them worse. I don’t usually comment much on it, because I don’t think it’s very interesting, these are amateur games without editors, I’m not in any position to get on a soapbox, and there are frequently non-native English speakers who enter games, but it’s hard for a game to be great if it has a lot of grammar issues, even if it does a lot else right. Good language usage in writing seems analogous to aging a liquor–you can get something good without doing it, but it’s a signifier of quality, and if you don’t do it, you’re probably not going to be the best.



I used to read a lot of the CRPG Addict blog, and my favorite entries were the ones in which he discovered some long-forgotten game, often a work of personal passion, that transcended genre convention and offered an incredibly novel experience. One of the exciting things about IFComp is that it includes a high proportion of experimental games like that, and Creatures falls in to that category. It’s an old school RPG/adventure game hybrid with talented writing and tight mechanics that more than compensate for its atrocious UI.

Creatures conjures the feel of a game a lone developer would’ve written in the 80s, and nowhere is that more prominent than the UI. The game world is a series of rooms, but you can’t move about freely: you can only examine the space in one of the four cardinal directions. Upon examination, you’ll be treated to a short description if something’s there, and choices for how to engage with it. This is all done via the number keys, which is the first point of awkwardness: you’ll find yourself looking in directions you didn’t intend, or pressing the wrong key and having to go through a series of menus again. Changing equipment is similarly frustrating: you have to open your inventory with i, press a number from 1-9 to select a piece of equipment, u(N)equip it, select the piece of equipment you’d like to equip, then (E)quip it. It’s possible you’re supposed to be able to swap equipment by equipping the new piece without unequipping the old one, but whenever I did that the game crashed, forcing a restart and loss of progress.

All that said, you eventually get used to the interface, more or less. Once you do, you get to play an refreshingly well-written dungeon crawl. This game is full of tropes, but it constantly presents them in ways that feel fresh. The writing strikes the perfect balance between descriptive and functional, and pulled me forward through the game world. Take the following passage:

After scanning the room through a small hatch in the door you decide it’s safe. As you enter you are overcome by a feeling of sorrow. The memory of pain and suffering is imprinted in the walls of this old chamber. The slightest movement you make stirs up powdery clouds all around you. Dust that has been settled for ages. By the southern wall lies the skeleton of what must have been this cell’s sole resident. On the walls are scratchings and marks of varying readability.

That’s a scene I’ve seen a thousand times before, but Creatures makes it feel new with concise, evocative description. The game also contains a line that might be the most poetic hint text I’ve ever read: “The right wall is to a large extent covered by a huge mural framed by a border of text. You wouldn’t call the painting beautiful, but it exerts a certain magnetism. Like it wants you to know its message.” The story isn’t complex, but it’s told very well.

The mechanics are also great. There’s a very limited number of enemy encounters in the game, and a small set of gear, but the game does a lot with that. You level up four times, and the stat decisions you make significantly influence your build. You have 2 chances to upgrade a piece of equipment, and each item has a unique buff associated if you do so. It seems like you can make poor choices and ruin your character, but there are many correct answers, and they seem distinct. Additionally, the finite distribution of healing items and enemies rewards planning while still feeling systems driven. The game creates a delicate balance that’s immensely enjoyable.

That delicate balance is probably the best way to describe the game. Everything feels considered, weighty, and honed. It’s still an amateur project, with bugs, terrible UI, and some questionable puzzles, but the purity of the experience makes those easy to overlook. I’d encourage people to check this out, especially if you have affection for retro-feeling games.

Miscellaneous thoughts:
-The puzzles in this game are not great. The number puzzle that unlocks the door to the final boss was inscrutable, even after looking at the walkthrough. Part of that is because it uses european-style comma decimals, but you also need to detect a pattern that moves counterclockwise around the points of a cross, with a number in the middle that doesn’t fit into the pattern. I sort of like this as a stylistic choice, as it evokes a fitting meta-narrative of a kid spending a summer stuck at this point in his favorite game, but it was damn frustrating as a player in 2020. There’s also a puzzle that I was grateful I didn’t have to deal with because of a bug where a door didn’t lock when it was supposed to.
-Let me move around with the NESW keys instead of the number keys! I’m already so conditioned to do that by parser games!


Saint Simon’s Saw

Saint Simon’s Saw is a tarot-esqe divination deck, implemented in Unity. You flip four cards onto four positions with four different meanings and the game tells you the meaning of each card, then attempts to summarize the overall reading.

I love the idea of this. I use a Rider-Waite tarot deck occasionally, and I’ve tinkered with a game that used tarot cards to procedurally generate the story. I was intrigued by what Simon’s Saw would have to offer.

Mechanically, the game is fine, and the fact that it tells you card meanings as they’re flipped is useful. The summary at the end is a great idea, though it seemed like it strained to give much more than generic “fill-in-the-blank” style output.

But I really struggled to understand most of the card text, or even what the different boxes were supposed to represent. You think of a question, then put cards into the “paradigm,” “punctum,” “vehicle,” and “outcome” slots. Those seem to represent the current state of affairs, an important focus area, the means by which the situation advances, and a “re-imagining of the endpoint,” respectively. But the instructions are poorly written, so understanding the basic structure of the system required a half hour of thought, experimentation, and looking up what “punctum” meant.

The individual cards aren’t much better. You can identify the concept if you’re willing to work at it, but the meaning is obscured by grammar issues and malapropisms, overuse of ten dollar words, and what seems like a desire to make a philosophical statement instead of communicating clearly. For example, the Prodigy card reads:

A youth wrests on a sheepskin pelt in a wild landscape, poised ready to draw on a boulder. The rest of the flock look on. This card talks of the difference between anthropocentric verification - the affirmation of the existing state of humanity, and an emergent form. The proposal may be radical and appear monstrous at first, but the alternative is banal subjugation to existing states.

It took me several close readings to pull meaning out of this. Eventually, it made sense: the card is about the tension between innovation and the status quo, with a transhumanistic spin. But can’t that be communicated that more clearly? The “wrests/rests” mixup muddies the meaning immediately, and “anthropocentric verification” just seems like nonsense. The card uses a human disguised as a sheep to represent a human transcending humanity, which seems off, and refers to a “proposal” that’s not in the art or any of the preceding text. The art has the youth poised to “draw on a boulder,” and mentions that in the first sentence, but that doesn’t seem to relate to the meaning of the card. Again, it’s possible to pull the author’s intent out of this, and that intended message is pretty interesting, but I can’t use this as a meditation tool if I have to decipher each card. I’d rather get the meaning in plain english, and spend my reflecting on what the card means for my specific question.

That may be overly harsh. Part of my frustration is because I think there’s something pretty cool buried under some of the problems. In an interesting twist, the cards communicate more complex meanings than the standard tarot deck: there’s a card called the printing press that represents “useful abstraction,” for example. Part of me wants to spend a bunch of time puzzling this out, even though I’m annoyed by it, which has to be a good sign. And it’s probably a bit unfair to compare a single person’s art project to an system that has had 200 years to develop. Still, though the concepts behind the game have merit, they’re communicated so poorly that it’s hard to recommend Saint Simon’s Saw.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-One of the things that benefits the tarot is the structure that undergirds the deck. That structure ensures that, when I flip over a set of cards, I can see some things about the reading at a glance, even if I don’t know the specific card meanings. Deeper structure might aid Saint Simon’s Saw, too.

Sense of Harmony

Sense of Harmony is the beginning of a story about a cybernetically enhanced young woman. The PC’s enhancements allow her to perceive details that normal humans might miss, and she uses this to gain insight into situations, unlocking new choices for the player that might not otherwise be there. The story quickly starts to lay the groundwork for the larger plot that includes a cult, and a mysterious woman who is able to disrupt your electronics.

The most innovative (and successful) thing about the story is how it handles Elizabeth’s enhanced perception. Each section has colored links within the text that, when clicked, bring up a sidebar with additional information. So, for example, while the text might indicate nothing’s amiss with one of your clients, clicking the links might reveal that his heart rate is higher than normal, and his eyes are twitching around–he’s anxious. That new information is reflected by new choices appearing: now that you know he’s anxious, you can address his anxiety.

Since you mostly apply these skills to others, the game serves as an exploration of what it’s like to be highly empathetic. The initial representation of the scene is (literally) black and white, and you can make reasonable choices based on those initial observations. But paying attention to the emotions people are feeling, and trying to understand why they might be behaving the way they are brings color to the world (again, literally), and lets you more deftly navigate it.

That feels like a superpower in some ways, but the information rushing in makes it easy to discount your own needs. There’s a scene where a client asks you to book him for an extra session, and each additional perception of how badly he wants it adds another identical choice acquiescing to what he wants. Only one perception, linked to your enhanced cognition, provides you the choice to set useful boundaries and say no.

The stellar mechanical choices are supported by strong writing, so the micro execution is all fantastic. My only complaints are about the plot. First, the game is less of a “prelude”, and more of a first chapter. None of the characters get a full arc, and the second half of this entry is devoted to setting up plot threads that won’t be paid off until whenever the next chapter is released. It’s a great first chapter, but the story is just getting started, so it feels unsatisfying.

I’m also less interested in where the larger plot seems to be going. Your cybernetic enhancements make you a one-of-a-kind magical girl on the run from mysterious forces, and the climax of the first chapter is a fight sequence with a mysterious antagonist who has powers that counter your own. Since the player is left in the dark about these story elements, it’s hard to say how they’ll turn out, but it felt like the story shifted from an innovative exploration of humanity to a somewhat generic anime-y plot, which bummed me out.

Sense of Harmony doesn’t tell a full story, but it’s a great demo. I’m very interested in playing the next chapter.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-When you’re alone, your enhanced senses mostly serve to make you hypercritical of yourself, which was a good character touch.

-You lose your abilities a few times during the story, and it feels genuinely depriving. The colorless choices are almost always strictly worse than the choices your abilities let you see, so you have a real sense you’re missing out on things.



Doppeljobs is a pleasant, warmly comic choice-based game about impersonating human beings. You’re a doppelganger who can perfectly impersonate others, and you’ve used that ability to set up a small business that allows people to avoid difficult situations by hiring you to stand in for them.

The world and the characters are charming. The PC exhibits an exuberant curiosity about humans and eagerness to please that makes their voice very endearing, and made me happy to spend time with them. The world feels thought out, which makes the absurdist elements enjoyable instead of intrusive: I’m not sure why the city needs so many sand pipes, or why snake racing is a cherished past-time, but I’m willing to believe the author knows, so I’ll sit back and enjoy the ride. It also helps that the whimsical setting and protagonist are counterbalanced by relatively grounded supporting characters. The world may be silly, but the human element is present and entirely recognizable.

The characters’ humanity also makes them fun to impersonate. When you take a job, you’re treated to a brief explanation of the key personality traits the character possesses: Lonely, paranoid, curious, and patient, for example. This, along with the clearly-defined parameters of the job they give you, make the scenarios distinct and fun. Sometimes those parameters and traits come into conflict with each other (e.g., I was told to not get into trouble, but my curiosity is drawing me to investigate these mysterious stairs!), which makes the choices far more interesting than they would be in a vacuum.

Doppeljobs gets a lot out of that system, and is enjoyable otherwise, too. I’m a little disappointed the endings aren’t more distinct, but it’s definitely worth a play.

Tangent about the Potential Extensibility of Doppeljobs’ Approach to Encouraging Players to Roleplay by Explicitly Telling Them What Their Character’s Traits Are:
Doppeljobs’ explicitly defined traits and goals, and the tension they produce, seem like a valuable mechanical contribution to the genre as a whole. When playing a choice game, I often just play as a version of myself, even when the character seems to have a distinct voice and personality considerably different than my own. For example, there’s a moment in Sense of Harmony in which you decide whether to indulge a client’s request for an additional session; or refuse, in order to take time you desperately need to study. The game conveys some of the character’s mood (and the difficulty of the choice) by giving you three options that agree with his request, and one that doesn’t, but, as a player, it’s hard for me to get the whole picture. Is she tempted to say yes because she likes her client, and wants to help him? Because she has a hard time saying no? Because she doesn’t actually want to leave sex work and will self-sabotage her academics if given the opportunity? All of these seem plausible, even after finishing the game, but I don’t know which accurately describes the main character, so I just made my choice based on what I’d do.*

But what if the game had told me at the beginning that my character was ambitious, empathetic, lonely, and prone to rumination? I have a clearer framework to make the decision in, but it’s still challenging: is my ambition more aroused by school work or sex work? Is it a good idea to let my empathy and loneliness bleed into my work, or might I be better served finding that elsewhere? How do I balance my ambition with my empathy? Providing more information about a character’s values might retain the flavor of the original decision while giving the player a clearer sense of how to consider their options.

It could also be used to provide depth to “false choices” in narratives. Too many purely cosmetic decisions can feel disappointing, especially if they’re not masked well, or don’t provide different perspectives on the story. Encouraging players to think in terms of embodying traits could be another tool to provide a sense of meaning to choices, and increase agency and involvement in the story.

There are some limitations to that, of course. It’s a little blunt, and could be potentially limiting if the reader fixates on the traits described instead of understanding the PC by their actions as the story develops. But I think it could go a long way to bridging the divide between player personality and character personality.

*Which was turning him down to do my homework.



Just wanted to say thanks for such an insightful review of SoH. It’s actually really helpful as I’m figuring out what’s working and whats not for going forward <3


Hi Brook,

Glad it was useful. I’m looking forward to seeing more of the story!


Sage Sanctum Scramble

Sage Sanctum Scramble put a speed bump in my progress through the comp, mostly because I kept going back to try and beat it well after the two hour mark had passed. It’s a fun collection of word puzzles, with a solid veneer of story.

By and large, the puzzles are satisfying and varied. The game uses the parser interface to include a number of things you wouldn’t ordinarily be able to do with pen and paper. Most of it works very well: the game may provide hints/encouragement if the player is on the right track, many of the puzzles use a “guess and check” sort of mechanic, and the individual puzzle questions can stand alone, since the right answer can be checked by the parser. A few of the puzzles were especially exciting: the “list as many colors as you can,” and mini-IF house both felt totally new.

I had some minor gripes. Many of the puzzles use scrambled words in some capacity, which got old fast. I imagine it’s a valuable tool when building puzzles, but it felt like drudgery after a while. And, there’s a few instances where the game won’t accept an answer that fits the clue, but doesn’t provide further hints. There’s nothing technically wrong with that, but it felt somehow…unjust.

This was fun, and I’m having to tear myself away from it to return to the rest of the games of the competition. I’m looking forward to returning.

Favorite puzzles so far: color list, mime, mini-if house, roman numerals

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The Turnip and The Pinecone

The Turnip and The Pinecone are two short pieces of magical realism from the same author. The Pinecone has slightly more interactive elements, but they are both short, and mostly linear. You play as a laborer and a child, respectively, and the stories are mild tales about low-stakes conflict.

They’re both very pleasant. The cover art and descriptive text do a good job of immersing you in the story. The laborer’s life feels simple, serene and rewarding, and the wait for the bus and childlike fretting conjured mild nostalgia. They create worlds that, though strange, are cozy and feel nice to be in.

The antagonists in the stories are fittingly low stakes. The turnip is mostly regarded with detachment by the protagonist, and, though the child fears the goats, the worst they seem to do is messily lick you. Even the goat commandeering the bus is still taking the kids to school.

There wasn’t too much interactivity in either of these stories, but that’s alright. They’re very well written, and provide a sense of warmth that is hard to find at present. I liked The Turnip better overall, mostly because of the main character’s relationship with his dog. The story made me laugh out loud several times, which is rare for me when I’m reading.

Favorite quotes from The Turnip:

-“Your dog is in the running for canine employee of the month.”

-Reflecting on the fact your dog has not chosen to eat lunch with you: “Sometimes you fear that the two of you are growing apart”

-“rudimentary ruminant etiquette”


A Rope of Chalk
This was a perspective-jumping and perspective-warping parser game about a disastrous sidewalk chalk tournament. You play as a series of college honors students navigating a twisty length of sidewalk full of chalk art, sand sculptures, and dangerous hallucinations.

Things start off innocently enough: you’re charged with settling a dispute between two contest participants. On the way, the game suggests that disaster will be brought on by the intense heat–your character keeps getting thirsty, your pal Nathalie is handing out water bottles to everyone you meet, and eventually characters start to show signs of what would appear to be heat stroke. Thus, the twist (that all the water is spiked) is very well earned, and makes the player feel complicit in the prank (I was chugging water aggressively, and talking to each contestant in the hopes Nathalie would give them water).

The story is much more “interactive fiction” than puzzler–the goals in the game are easily achievable, and if you rush towards them you’re likely to miss a bunch of the game’s content, which is where much of the fun lies. Everything feels well thought out. The characters are recognizable as undergraduate honors students (with attendant foibles), and are drawn along by their own motivations. The chalk art, too, feels realistic: my favorite touch was a character struggling to recreate the precision of his fantasy world with chalk, a medium ill-suited to detail. The game even includes a tour through the author’s office at the end, which functions both as an epilogue and a way to display some facets of the characters you don’t see in the game.

There are some great gags: the RON PAUL 2012 payoff was incredible, and I’m still amused by the notion that your character was scraping her face along the asphalt when she was exploring the hexagonal fantasy kingdom (as well as the fact that she had subconsciously absorbed all of said fantasy kingdom’s Deep Lore during a previous annoying study session).

The game also recontextualizes some standard IF actions to deliver crucial information: never has “x me” felt so critical, and taking inventory during the sand sculpture section goes a long way to resolving the player’s confusion.

I played this game buzzed and with another person, so take the following with a grain of salt: for all of the thought and care that’s gone into the game, it felt oddly insubstantial. I believe this is due to tension between the plot’s urgent simplicity and the non-essential elements’ depth. Your character is always stressed and motivated to complete their task quickly, but much of the joy of the game is in discovering the side narratives that have been carefully threaded through the experience–narratives that do very little to impose themselves at the player. For example, I didn’t pay very close attention to the art and contestants at the beginning of the game, because I assumed I’d be going back (probably to judge), and the person I was playing the game with was (understandably) focussed on dealing with the conflict between Jessica and Xavier. This turned out to be a mistake–the sections of sidewalk that I had explored more thoroughly ended up being the parts that were most entertaining later, because I understood their context. Similarly, when you destroy a sand castle blocking your way, there’s very funny text if you “examine” it after each destructive act…but a goal oriented player could just type “smash castle” over and over again until they made it through.

This may not be a fair critique (imagine complaining that a book feels less substantial because you skipped half of the chapters), and, again, some of this was the context I played in, but I do think the urgency of the characters’ motives discourages the player from getting the payoffs to be found in more contemplatively exploring the world. I’m planning on going back and doing just that, and I’m excited to see what I missed.

Despite that qualification, the game is quite fun. Prospective players should perhaps just keep in mind the heightened level of anxiety that might possess an undergraduate honors student, and adjust their sense of urgency accordingly.


The Copyright of Silence
This was a fun optimization puzzle about defeating John Cage forever in a titanic battle of wits. Just kidding. It’s an optimization puzzle about being quiet, featuring John Cage as a fickle (and sometimes sinister) conversation partner.

By far my favorite part was the depth of the interaction you can have with Cage. The conversation can veer in several different directions, depending on how you choose to engage with him. Your responses can be either either sycophantic or jeering, but they’re almost always funny, which provides inherent motivation to explore the dialogue and see what new paths you can discover. Cage is someone who I’m aware exists, but I have no concept of what he’s actually like, which makes him a perfect character for a game of this sort. It’s a bit reminiscent of Being John Malkovich.

Getting to 4:33 is relatively straightforward, mechanically, but I found myself constantly distracted by the secrets the game waves in your face. What’s in the mysterious folder?? What else has John hidden in the piano?? What did the parrot see?? I expected these would be critical to achieving my goal, but they’re just bits of information that flesh out the game’s backstory. Still, the discovery was totally worth it.

Also: the art on the splash screen is amazing, and really sets the scene for the game.

My only complaint is that the interface is awkward. I cursed the lack of an UNDO button many times, and the game has some noticeable lag. Other than that, it’s great fun.


I am so happy that you enjoyed the conversation with Cage as it took forever to write all the branches! I really feared that it was going to be a wasted effort.

The lag annoys me too, but I don’t know how to reduce it. The background images are partly to blame, but even without any images there is a noticeable lag. I use a lot of header passages, running a lot of code for each passage (and a lot of “display functions” in each passage), so I guess the code is just too unwieldy for Twine/Harlowe.

It might be wise to add an undo-button. I’ll have to ponder on it. Thanks for the suggestions and for your review – much appreciated :slight_smile:



This was an educational game that seemed designed to teach some basic facts about solar panels, batteries, and electrical notation. You fund your #VanLife with a small loan of $5000, and then travel the country solving math problems about your rig, accepting sponsorship deals, and managing your power consumption.

I didn’t really understand this game. Power consumption notation has always confused me, and I didn’t feel drawn in to the game enough to try and figure it out. It didn’t help that the game didn’t really try to explain anything. There’s a sidebar that intermittently appears that’s crammed full of statistics about your van, and you can delve into the gritty details of your solar panel arrangements and types of batteries, user manuals included. Self-directed learning and experimentation are probably good ways to learn things, but the game doesn’t provide any obvious narrative goal, or reason for you to figure out how to optimize your van, which leaves the player with little incentive to figure things out. If you’re supposed to pay off your loan, I had the money to do so almost immediately.

The game does track statistics on players based on what philosophical quote they select, which was pretty funny. I didn’t look very hard at the data, but I liked the concept.

This is a noble pursuit, but the implementation is severely lacking.

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