Newcomb's IFComp 2020 Reviews

Ghostfinder: Shift

First of all, it’s super easy to get into and play: after clicking the Play Online link from the IFComp website, I was reading the intro text in a hot second. I really like the typography and colorscheme. Very easy to read, very easy to tap a link, zero distractions from the story.

(Only once or twice were the menu options so close together that I couldn’t tell if it was multiple options or just one really long one, but I think that might have been a bug because it was rare. I also saw a text about “want to kiss you” very early in the game which seemed so out of nowhere I think it was also a bug.)

Doing fantasy is hard, but this one works well, maybe partly because it’s modern-day urban fantasy. Cars and phones feel familiar, and I’m drip-fed the more fantastic elements as I need them instead of all at once. Yet the title and intro do let me know its urban fantasy upfront so I’m not surprised by it. (If this seems basic, well, it is, but some works miss this.)

The intro is workmanlike but sets me up nicely. I know I’m some sort of detective, maybe a consultant, and this particular case is unlike my others because I know a key witness personally.

(Weird that “Load Game” is one of the choices off this intro, rather than a “New Story / Load Story” title page beforehand, but whatever.)

There’s lots of dialogue to get going, the writing is pleasantly competent, and I learn stuff before having to make any significant choices.

Stream of consciousness notes:

A key witness disturbs a crime scene of her dead friend, for CSI: SVU purposes, but it goes unremarked? You knew this person, lady, and you went there?

Stanton detective dude misuses the verb cockblocked. ~heh~

These people seem much more interested in their friend’s secret ability than in the murder of their friend’s friend. WTF. Ok, maybe it IS a super big deal in this universe, but… it feels off.

‘Just don’t tell anybody about this probably illegal thing we’re all conspiring to, and pass that on to your coworker.’ Yeah, I don’t trust these people I’m with, and I include the PC in that too.


Ok, I got to the part where we do exposition in the form of reading case files and talking to databases, but I lose interest. I’m not real big on detective stories, couldn’t even finish Make It Good back in the day, because I feel like it’s work, or at least asking me to think harder than I’m comfortable with. (The graphic depictions, which might be normal for this genre AFAIK, don’t help.)

I would still recommend this to others. It both runs smooth and reads smooth, its take on psychic powers + detective work feels fresh, and seems to be a pretty competent piece of work overall. It isn’t for me personally, but that’s on me.

Spoiler-free mini-review: Definitely worth your time. Works great on mobile devices. But do mind the content warning on this one. It isn’t kidding.

Played on my Android phone.

The Impossible Bottle

I’ll admit I stopped playing after about 15 minutes. I don’t feel that there’s anything at stake in this story.

It’s incredibly well implemented, and works very well on mobile. At one point I waited in the kitchen 10 times in a row just because I just felt that the NPC would return on schedule, and he did.

I got lost in the house. I need a GO TO command.
That’s not a failing of the work, that’s just me, always. At one point I landed in a conversation I didn’t want to enter just because I took a wrong turn going to the kitchen. Couldn’t ignore the conversation and just leave, but at least conversation is just menus so it flew by.

But other than the intro, there’s not much story here, not much writing. Nothing wrong with what is there, but just given a chore list without any stakes in the story makes me feel like, well, I’m doing chores.

Except my house isn’t clean when I’m done.

Minor Arcana

I’m unsure of the purpose of this story. I get that I’m a magic deck of cards that foretells doom if not causes it, but, so what? The writing is an example of “writing about” rather than “writing”, so no tension builds. There’s no mystery since everything is mysterious.


Re: The Impossible Bottle

For what it’s worth, the game pulls a twist right around 15 minutes and gets a lot more interesting.


I was thinking of posting the same thing – not to be a nudge, but I think it’s worth playing at least a few more minutes of TIM to see what it’s about, even though it may not turn things around sufficiently to being a favorite.


Pretty and well-done interface, but big screens only need apply.

Shadow Operative

Stream of consciousness:

I’ve no idea who I am other than random hacker dude #43.

This hoverbike is fussy. RIDE, I say. “What do you want to ride?” I don’t know, the roof itself. GO. “Which way?” Um, the only way that doesn’t face-plant me into a wall. “Sorry, the bike is off.” I’m so immersed.

The music isn’t as awful as I feared. (I always fear graphics and music in an IF.) It’s actually pretty atmospheric for being three Casio synths from the 80s.

Thank you, menu-based conversation.

She hugs me even though I smell like a dumpster?

Also, I have trouble figuring out where to start reading again. I get so used to looking about 3 lines up that when something more substantial pops up I’m lost. The highlighted hyperlinks (which I like) grab the eye, the bolded room description heading much less so, and the little bitty greater-than prompt just gets lost.

I’ve no idea how to answer Suzy truthfully. I don’t know enough about my character to know if he’s in over his head or if keeps hoverbikes on the roof as a matter of course for situations like this. (Actually, was that even his? He started it up no problem.) OK, I guess I know he’s not overly sentimental about equipment, having trashed two things in as many minutes.

Ah, now she smells me.

MUSIC OFF is unavailable while in conversation? WTF? What does that have to do with anything? On the subject, do many people listen to music while reading, either I-F or otherwise? It’s distracting.

What’s the point of a menu when I’m forced to hit all three options before continuing? General question, I know.

I seem to like these detective-type games until we get down to brass tacks and I have to start thinking / planning / remembering. I always assumed the fun thing about detective stories is you get to ride around in someone’s head that’s smarter than you.

“Here’s five-figures for a shot at getting me more to a story we already know the end result of.” Srsly? Can I be your friend too?

OUT. “But you aren’t in anything at the moment.” I’m… in an apartment.

I think I dislike room descriptions. If the room itself is the most interesting thing in the room, I must be in the wrong room.

Hi Doc, I just popped in for a bit of 3-hour brain surgery. What, no drive-through?

BUY AQUAVIT. Bought. DRINK. “What do you want to drink?” AQUAVIT (by click). “It’s Scandanavian.” GRR. “I didn’t understa–”. I KNOW.

And now I’m both stuck and my kids are back. Since I can’t play this on my phone I guess I end here.

Overall thoughts: Although the static graphic and the music create an appropriate atmosphere, I’d rather that come from the writing. And the writing, while it avoids any hiccups in my understanding, is pretty plain. Dialogue feels a touch artificial. The game’s full-screen display is very well-done but I don’t feel that it really adds much. It also pretty much bars anything other than a big computer from even attempting the game, which limits the audience. Personally, I would’ve preferred that time be spent on writing first, and on a few parser niceties second. I appreciate the clickable links, and the joke about Syn Cola.

The Pinecone

When my oldest was one, he was fascinated by pinecones. He would collect them, show them to me, toss them in the creek. We fell into a rhythm that summer, collecting, examining, tossing the pinecones. He’s older now and interested in toy trucks, leaving me with warm feelings toward pinecones.

I played this game, once, and behaved “impeccably.”

I thank my son for having prepared me for this day.


So I know we really shouldn’t be just playing other’s recommendations because it starves out all else, but, Viv knows things and one of them is that this is worth your 15 minutes.

(Choice-based with inventory.)


Captain Graybeard's Plunder

One of my pet peeves with the parser-based IF is it retreads the same ground as videogames. A map, acquiring physical objects to progress, the possibility of death. The thing books have over movies is interiority: showing the inner thoughts of characters. So of course IF should put the (or at least some) interactive there.

Plunder doesn’t do that either, but it does something next door to it: an inventory of non-physical stuff, which builds your character’s abilities in the whatever-you-call-it setting that either in his mind, or, the whole thing is in someone else’s mind who pretends they’re a pirate. I dunno which and it’s kinda of unimportant, but it felt fresh and in the right direction of what IF should explore.

Oh yeah, there’s also some good imagery, a good use of multiple fonts (which is rare), and a clever upending of whatever-you-call-it that makes me glad this wasn’t the stereotypical pirate game I feared it was.

Still: how did he escape the prince’s men to tell the rest of the tale?


I got frustrated with this one quickly so won’t vote on it.

Magpie Takes the Train

This started off well. Each parser entry was pretty obvious, and each entry gave a fair bit of text, so much so that nearly every response was a little scene all by itself.

After that initial hand-holding, I was left to guess at what I’m supposed to do. Not: I was left some choices to make (however ill-prepared I felt), but, I was left to guess at the author’s intention for me. Most of my obvious attempts gave a unique response so there’s not really an implementation problem, but I have always been bad at parser games.

However, it’s Inform’s broken implementation of darkness that really irritates me. Suddenly I can’t continue the conversation I’m in because it got dark. The PC is suddenly deaf and forgetful in addition to blind. I have never understood why. I’m sure I’ll need the darkness for a later puzzle bit, so I Z Z Z a lot until it goes away.

Nothing I try gets very far until the text tells me to destroy a beard, which I easily do, but, on examining that character after it fell off, it’s still on, and nobody else seemed to notice despite the text hinting that it would have. I’m confused.

An NPC barks at me for touching the radiator – fine, I’ll wait until it’s dark to fill the room with steam or however this is supposed to change matters – but when it gets dark I can’t do anything again.

I’m done.

1 Like

Hey Ron! Somehow missed this review, but thank you for taking the time to play Ghostfinder! I’m sorry that it wasn’t quite to your taste, but I’m also very glad that you seemed to have gotten some enjoyment out of it anyway! Thank you so much!

1 Like

About Magpie, did you experiment with the costumes in your inventory? Because I can imagine that the game is somewhat baffling unless you realise that every costume allows you to interact with people and things in different ways, and that the whole point of the darkness is that it allows you to switch costumes.

Thank you! My review didn’t call out very well just how much the graphic descriptions bothered me. Kudos to your writing, I guess? The case file suggested a gesture that I, a new parent, promptly Noped out on.


It’s still one of my more favorite entries in the comp so far. This is the first time I’ve played choice based works in the comp, and I have discovered a habit I have of speed-reading them, since there’s no parser to “test” my understanding. Yours was one of the few that I slowed down for, without ever really meaning to.

1 Like

I’m guessing that when the grumpier comp voters want choice-based works gone, it’s because of stuff like…

Sonder Snippets

After one read-through, I learned that Dadi means grandmother, and she’s apparently telling bits of her culture’s creation myth to you, her only attentive grandchild.

That’s the sum total of setting I got. I don’t know what culture this is, or even if it is a made-up one. The grandmother’s words aren’t in dialogue quotes so even that takes some work to tell the omniscient narrator apart from her.

But mainly, creation myths make little sense to most people. Especially if it’s someone else’s culture and or the listener isn’t a scholar in that sort of thing. They all read the same, as disconnected bits of declarations with little rhyme or reason to it.

1 Like

I want to like this one because of its central mechanic, which involves an inventory of non-physical things. But it’s mainly an interesting puzzle with some light theming.

Vain Empire

It’s a good thing I played this on the big computer, because I did a lot of typing to try out things randomly.

The central concept is interesting: you fill your inventory with verbs by taking them from other people who are currently doing those verbs. The text called this out early, but I guess I didn’t give it the literal weight I should have, because I spun through 9 hints in a row before realizing such, and to just use the TAKE command.

I think using different verbs than take and give would’ve added a lot of flavor to this work. And also just pare down the list of verbs to what’s needed, because I went to the HELP looking for the new verbs to extract intents, and just saw the basic list, leaving me confused. Hence, 9 hints.

I really appreciate the map on top. It prevents mobile use, more or less, but I’m doing so much typing anyway. And I used the map a lot because I cannot hold a compass’ed map in my head.

Once equipped, I start TAKE ALL in every room I enter before reading the room descriptions. I eventually stop reading the room descriptions because they’re kind of useless. This is a puzzle game and a fine one, but the setting and theme are just to support the puzzle. Interiors aren’t interesting.

Plus, the parts of the setting which are significant are called out with notable “keyword” descriptions: “sparkling with spiritual energy”. I learned elsewhere that there’s three things to get, and it seems there’s three things that sparkle.

After collecting all intents I try them on random people, but I don’t get very far at all. I pulled the guard away from his duty, but it had no effect. “Fold” was used as a play on words, but it didn’t look like the resulting game changed much, nor looked like I could cause a final win or loss for either side, to effect any particular long-term change in the world. I have ideas about cleaning and holly, but my major issue is that I can’t get anyone to move into a different room. I could just cycle through all combinations of people and actions until something happens, or just read hints again, but neither sound appealing. I just can’t move people to where I want them.

This is where I stop. There’s not enough stuff here to call it a story, so I don’t feel motivated to see the end of the puzzle, and I’m not real big on puzzles anyway.

The explore intent will make them move. Once you have that, a lot becomes easier.

I already had it. It didn’t make most people move that I used it on. Only once did a character move, and even then just to toggle between 2 rooms.

Meh. Kinda mobile friendly depending on how much you like typing 4-word statements a lot.

Academic Pursuits

This one started asking me for so much typing I eventually resorted to TAKE ALL on each box and then DROP ALL or PUT ALL IN BIN. Reading the multiple responses I get that the PC and the Professor are both vampires, but I don’t know how to trigger the ending. And, I find that I haven’t been really brought to care to. Much like Vain Empire it’s a pretty bare puzzle game, and I don’t feel that finishing it will give a payoff worth the work.

I think the central “mechanic” or whatever you call it of unpacking boxes to decorate an apartment/office/closet is a fine organizing principle, but if the story is restricted to looking at your own things, then both you and your things had better be really well-written.

1 Like