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

Academic Pursuits (As Opposed to Regular Pursuits)

This was a short game about moving into your office. It’s also about discovering you’re a vampire.

I really like unpacking after moving, so this game was extra fun. It’s very satisfying to find a place for everything–this is the drawer where I keep my creepy vampire stuff, this is the drawer where I keep my creepy stalker stuff, this is the drawer with my clothes, and everything else can go on the desk or shelves. It even captures the satisfaction of throwing out a bunch of things that you don’t need anymore. The descriptions of the items and your thoughts on them help establish where they should go, and there’s fun text depending on where you put them. Honestly, the game could’ve just been this and I would’ve been into it.

But, it also includes a twist: you’re a vampire and you’ve taken this job to get some sort of revenge on your nemesis, who’s now posing as a professor. The game paces this revelation very well–you open the first shipping box with your “razor-sharp teeth,” the contents of the second box hint at an odd obsession with the professor, the trophies box starts to indicate you’re a vampire, and the final box beats you over the head with it by including a cape and a mirror.

I wasn’t very interested in the backstory between you and the professor (you seem to be former lovers, as well as mortal enemies?), but it’s not really the focus of the story, so that didn’t matter too much.

Overall, this was pretty slight, but it’s satisfying, novel, and very well implemented.

Miscellaneous Thought:

-I was surprised that there were multiple endings to the game. They seem to be based on how you arrange your office, which is a really nice touch.

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Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl
Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl is a parser game about exploring an eccentric mansion trying to rescue your boss from one of his lesser nemesis.

It’s a pretty good time. The majority of the puzzles are sensible, and the writing’s pretty good, if a little loquacious. The stage magic theme leads to some novel puzzles; my favorite was the robot in the disassembler. The setting is cool too: each room has a different lavishly described theme, but it feels coherent. Think Graceland: styles vary wildly room to room, but the taste of the owner is present in every one of them.

All of that said, I spent a lot of time being frustrated by minor things. For example, there are four different puzzles where you need to cut something, and four different cutting implements…each of which is only allowed to cut the thing the designer has decreed. It was immensely frustrating to be told that I had to use a guillotine to cut off a drill bit so I could open a wooden cask when I had been carrying a saw the whole time. If items are truly one-use-only, it seems like it would make more sense to contrive some way to destroy them when they’re used.

I also had a fair number of issues with the parser: things like

“You could pour the wine out now…if only you had a receptacle.

pour wine into helmet

That’s not something you can pour.”

Or the fact that “push drill under guillotine” and “cut drill with guillotine” didn’t work, but “put drill into guillotine” did.

I’m not sure how much to ding the game for this. As other reviewers have noted, problems like this are more a polish issue than anything else…but they significantly harmed my enjoyment of the game. The frustration generated by struggling with the parser was the strongest emotion the game generated, despite the fact that I had fun most of the time I was playing. An interesting quirk of the medium that I don’t have much experience with.

Miscellaneous thoughts:

-The game spends a lot of time talking about your boobs. I’m not above some T&A, but…it’s not really titillating, and the game doesn’t really do anything with it? You’re just sort of playing a buxom ditz, and the game occasionally reminds you of it by having you, say, stuff handkerchiefs in your cleavage. It’s strange. Also, uh, you can take off your gown, but the game doesn’t acknowledge that in any way. Although maybe that’s why Chuckles was so interested in talking to me about Jesus…

-The ending is super abrupt, and you don’t really get any closure on the Rational Skeptic, or your own ostensible goal of proving yourself capable of being a partner instead of an assistant. I thought I had missed something (maybe a twist where I was the rationalist and was pretending to be dumb to usurp/kill mugwort?)

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The Arkhill Darkness

This was a CYOA with some good ideas, but fairly mediocre execution.

You play as a member of the Adventurer’s guild who’s just begun to take solo adventures. You travel to the town of Arkhill, which has been immersed in permanent darkness, and attempt to solve the mystery with the help of a wizard. You fight monsters, explore locations, gather potion ingredients, and attempt to foil a Robed Man.

The overall structure of this is very familiar (the author says the game is inspired by Fighting Fantasy-style gamebooks), so the quality of the game is determined by the execution. Arkhill gets some things right, but falls flat in some key areas.

There are some fun twists on the standard narrative. The intro sets up a world where most of the great adventures (and great adventurers) have come and gone, and your job mostly falls to investigating minor magical mishaps. The game gets some good mileage out of this: the Wizard who’s supposed to mentor you initially dismisses the danger of the situation, and you constantly find yourself out of your depth. There’s some interesting blind alleys to go down, and some solid humor (the game calls you lonely at the end if you talk to the NPCs a lot, and you can buy jokes from a merchant in town that aren’t bad).

But, as the game progresses, and the evil conspiracy reveals itself, the game gets less interesting. The typos and bugs increase in number, and, similar to the old Fighting Fantasy gamebooks, you have to cheat if you want to make progress without constantly restarting (by using the back button instead of sticking your fingers in the page). The apparent climax of the game, a fight with a demon, seemed to be significantly bugged: I would successfully defend against the demon’s attack and be presented with options for my next move, but would also be told that the demon had just ripped me in half and that my game was over.

After scaring off the evil wizard and saving the town, the game told me I had achieved the worst ending. If I could have gone back, I would’ve tried to see what else I could do, but I wasn’t into the game enough to replay it entirely.

Overall, this is fine. It doesn’t have too much going for it, but it’s also not very demanding.

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Accelerate

Accelerate reads like a cross between a manic, pop culture infused manifesto and Ulysses, which might just be modern Ulysses. The game starts slow, putting you into the headspace of Hank, a disjointed addict desperately trying to score. He’s detestable, full of a sense of wounded nobility and edgy, overwrought language that attempts to take the gnawing desperation of withdrawal and process it into something more emotionally complex and defensible than what it is: a rage fueled, scrabbling charge towards anything that might feed his need.

In the beginning, the player only has access to the world through the addict’s narrowly scoped focus, so the world around him is mysterious. You go from your apartment to a cult building with little discussion of the outside context. There’s a whirlwind of names and allusions to the world’s history, none of which are more deeply developed. Despite having done research on the cult, Hank seems to know little about it, other than the fact it might provide a chance to score.

But surprisingly, once in the Institute, Hank begins to heal. The writing calms down, and you have long stretches of lucidity that begin to ground the player in the character and the world around him. You get hints about his background, mostly delivered via a lie detector examination, and a lot of language about healing the wounds his addiction has created. There’s some implication that Hank’s addiction to metafentanyl (described by another character as the apex of addiction) was spurred on by childhood trauma while he was a member of a boy scouts analogue. Over time, the cult leaders (Mother and Father) replace his addiction with acceptance and love.

The climax of Hank’s initiation is a coerced transition from male to female. It’s not clear if this is something he wants, or if it’s a final exploitation meant to bind him to the TAV Institute. Perhaps his addiction and psychic distress was partially caused by dysphoria, but he never seems to express this, or even have much of an opinion on the process. Mother dictates that becoming a woman will heal him, and so he acquiesces. This moment is the apotheosis of his submission to the TAV Institute. They have remade him on perhaps the most fundamental level, and he has gone from Hank the Addict to Hannah the Perfect.

And now she crusades. Hannah leaves the TAV institute, and becomes an agent of chaos in service of Mother’s plan. This is the bulk of the narrative, and the further you get from Hannah/Hank’s moment of clarity in the institute, the more unhinged and fragmentary the narrative becomes. Hannah has replaced (or augmented) her addiction to metafentanyl with religious fervor, and she carries out her mission unquestioningly. You poison hand sanitizer, brutally torture a war hero, lead a mass shooting in a nightclub, and crucify and burn alive a field of people. Perhaps the metafentanyl haze has detached Hannah from reality, but no attention is paid to the pain inflicted; the focus is on her fervor and the joy the cultists experience as they carry out Mother’s plan. The reader is placed behind the eyes of someone in a long, murderous trance.

As you rampage, you get some sense of the larger world. This is 2300, and it’s unrecognizable in many ways. There are many, many sentences like “every transcendent crack in the firmament will be filled in, like mass graves topped with fresh soil, unguent spread across shallow wounds” that filter reality so profoundly that it’s difficult to see what’s really there. But that’s not the point. Devotion to Mother is.

In this torrent of verbiage there are points of grounding: distorted fragments of the world we live in. A plane is hi-jacked with box cutters, but when the passengers revolt with a “let’s roll,” they are gunned down. The plan is unaffected. Nervous people at Whole Foods buying cleaning supplies is transmuted to barely contained panic at 1000% FOOD, which has recently been acquired by a Jeff Bezos analogue. At one point there is a list of dates referencing, among other things, a distorted version of the Columbine massacre, and 9/11.

But there doesn’t seem to be an agenda. Mother talks about “punching up” and promotes vague Communist-ish rhetoric, but she also talks about “the day of the rope” and rails against the fake news media. This, for me, is where the Ulysses comparison comes in. Joyce boasted his novel would keep the critics busy for three hundred years, and the whirlwind of references, complex worldbuilding, and poetic language in Accelerate seem, to me, to accomplish the same end. I didn’t come away with a message, and I’m not convinced there is one, but the story teases the reader, keeps them off balance, and draws them in, even past the end of story and into the acknowledgements.

I’ve never read anything like this, and it provoked an emotional response that I can’t remember getting from another piece of writing. It combines the prurient thrill of reading a schizophrenic mass murderer’s manifesto, beautiful lyricism of religious writing, and intellectual stimulation of intricate experimental fiction. I don’t fully understand Accelerate, but it’s a fascinating piece of work, and I’m very happy it exists.

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Hey Thomas, I wanted to say thanks for your excellent reviews, especially the one that got me to try Accelerate. Your observations helped me understand and appreciate it lot more.

I have to admit I eventually bounced off the game and left it unrated because the writing became too dense for me. But you helped me remember that just because I don’t understand a game doesn’t mean it’s bad!

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Thanks! It’s by far the review I’m the most pleased with, so I’m happy it’s what I ended up finishing on.

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I’ll echo that I really enjoyed your Accelerate review (your Ulysses comparison is smart!), and thought the Doppeljobs one, including the appendix on character traits, was really insightful too. I also appreciated that while some reviewers (I’m thinking mainly of myself here…) lost a bit of steam as they went, if anything I thought your reviews got even more in-depth as they went, which was very impressive! So kudos on a great set of reviews!

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Thanks! I haven’t written much this year, so there was a lot of rust to shake off initially. It’s been a blast to read/play a bunch of great stuff and get to compare notes with others.

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