Paul S Ifcomp Reviews 2021

At King Arthur’s Christmas Feast

Travis Moy
Choicescript

Warning: Any review I write is liable to contain spoilers, ranging from light to heavy. I will put them all behind spoiler tags.

At King Arthur’s Christmas Feast (not, I think a great title because the feast is the intro, not the real meat) is a retelling in Choicescript of the Gawain poem. I know the poem a bit, so neither story nor setting came as a great surprise. Strange as it may appear, Choicescript is actually quite a neat fit: the whole of Gawain is really about how choices made at one point have consequences later.

Execution

I thought the execution was pretty good. I encountered one possible bug, but it might have been me. There’s a lot of text, so plentiful opportunity for typos and errors, and I expect they are there, but I didn’t notice them, so they’ve been reduced to the bare minimum. With so much text, that is quite an achievement. This seemed solid. 4.

Writing

Choicescript is heavy on text, and there was a lot of it here. For the most part it was fine. It had a tendency (which I assume is quite deliberate) to interject modern idioms (“Anyways”, says Guinevere; or the suggestion that you describe your noble brother as “a bit of a dick”) in among more literary, and even archaic, language, including what are either translations of the poem or slightly modified versions of it.

At first I found this jarring. But the writing is good enough that I am sure it was deliberate, and in the end I came to rather enjoy the way that it made the characters relatable. It is certainly preferable to gauche imitation. Still, multiple registers like this are always risky, and from time to time I thought the choice of words was just odd (e.g. a preference for “the Deity” over “God”, which seemed out of place).

There were times when I thought the game was being a bit heavy handed in the way it insisted on explaining chivalric codes or manners, as if I was reading some rather worthy educational piece. Telling not showing is always a risk in historical fiction, and it did happen sometimes. It’s obvious the author has studied the background of the game thorougly; but when you are writing a game, you need to wear that learning lightly. 3.

Craft and use of medium

The use of choices here seems to serve to different functions (both legitimate): to allow you to develop a sense of your own character (through choices that I think make no difference to the outcome, but do affect the text), and a few key choices which in obvious ways are likely to affect the game. Given the time available, I did not hit the latter very hard, though I risked making one change to the canonical story, which did indeed seem to be reflected; I didn’t dare do the things I thought I would need to do to get a disastrous ending. The character-building choices seemed effective to me: I did feel that I had the ability to “play” Gawain with a certain amount of freedom. The Choicescript mechanism works well for these, since it gives you time to reflect on your selection.

In some cases I thought the choices seemed strained (choice for choice’s sake) or noncommittal; occasionally I got tired of being nagged repeatedly to make a decision I had already rejected. But overall, I felt the game did a decent job of turning the story into an interactive narrative, not simply packaging it with buttons. 3.

How did I enjoy it?

I enjoyed this a good deal more than I suspected I might. If it wasn’t for the pressure of the comp I’d be tempted to play it again and see if I could get a worse ending. It does a solid job of taking a very alien sensibility and making it welcoming. 3.

Overall

I had much more fun that this than I expected. I feared either something completely non-interactive, or a pastiche that wasn’t in any sense true to the poem. It was neither, but something which could stand on its own feet. I don’t know how much my familiarity with Gawain helped, but this is more than merely a retelling and it really makes reasonable use of the medium to give a different spin to an excellent story, where the interactivity is adding something. Overall score: 7, but I would expect this to be a bit higher than many judges give it.

PS: A note on scoring

I mark games out of 20, which I then divide to get a mark out of 10, rounding up or down as I prefer. I allow 5 marks for sheer solidity. 5 for writing. 5 for craft skills and the use of the medium, and reserve 5 for the highly subjective assessment of how much I enjoyed or admired it.

8 Likes

Second Wind

Matthew Warner
Adventuron

Second Wind is a bleak apocalyptic sci-fi story with a deliberately retro feel. You are one of a group of survivors of a biological weapon attack, living in isolated shelters in a post-apocalyptic landscape. When your wife goes into labour and needs medical help, you have to find it.

Execution

I found this patchy. There were some undoubtedly nice features (like neat interactive maps, which were really helpful if a little crudely done), and I can even sort of like the well-done retro appearance.

But it was replete with parser annoyances: unimplemented synonyms (eg BIKE not recognised as HOVERBIKE), guess the verb (TURN BIKE ON fails, START BIKE works), misleading error messages (USE WRENCH … YOU CAN’T DO THAT; USE WRENCH ON DOOR … works!). How much of this is down to limits in Adventuron, and how much to the author, I don’t know. Objects that must be held to be read or examined; absence of implicit actions.

I’m also hugely doubtful about having “You notice nothing special” as the default response to attempting to examine something that isn’t there. “You notice nothing special” does not mean “I don’t understand” or “That’s not there”. Again, maybe it’s Adventuron. But I don’t think that’s a really satisfactory answer. We choose our tools.

Are these bugs? They’re not game-breaking errors, but they are flaws nonetheless. 3.

Writing

The vibe here is old school: very sparse descriptions which leave it for the reader to fill in the details. In such a milieu, one does not expect more than tolerable prose, and the game delivers on that. That is not really a criticism in itself: sparse description which the reader can fill in is fine. But … there are signs here almost of impatience. A toolbox is “Just a rusty old toolbox, with a black handle”. To me, “Just a …” is a red flag. “Just a” means, I don’t care. I can’t be bothered to describe this thing. I know I have to, so, … there you go. You want to know what the toolbox is. Dude, it’s just a toolbox. Now get on with the game. Such objects abound: “standard” basins, “ordinary” cabinets, a “standard” shower (which, for some reason, is strong enough to withstand a bomb blast, as if the thing you might most need when you are dead is a shower). Sometimes an attempt has been made to make the descriptions a little funny, but the tone (which is sort of world-weary ain’t-life-shit sort of sarcasm) seems out of place in a game with the emotional charge this should have.

And there, I think, is where the writing really falls down. Here is a protagonist who has endured and experienced unimaginable trauma; his wife and unborn child are at risk of dying; and he now has to make a perilous trek to save them. Making that seem real, and thinking through the subtleties of it (is a person who has seen what our protagonist has seen get numbed to death?) is a hard task, and the writing here doesn’t really do it. That part too is going to be filled in by the reader, helped only by a lot of very “telly-not-showy” conversation, notes and so on. 3.

Craft and use of medium

Grrr. Here’s my problem. I actually think the narrative is pretty interesting, if dangerously melodramatic: man who has lived through an apocalypse betrays one woman for another, then must rely on her (sans legs, for this is a world where sorrows come not single spies) to save the life of his new lover and their child, and finally sacrifice his life for the life of all three of them. It’s a bit gothic; high as an old pheasant, but one can work with it.

What one cannot really work with is that this guy doesn’t apparently know the keycodes to his own door (but leaves them partially written around in scrappy notes), and the other survivors of this apocalypse appear given to constructing bizarre puzzles for him to solve. Not difficult puzzles or intellectually challenging ones, just slightly dull ones. There really is no high drama in unscrambling anagrams or adding up numbers coded as letters. Nor in calmly wandering around inspecting everything you own to see where you might have written down the keycode to your own airlock. Nor in suddenly encountering, at a moment of crisis … a maze.

I get that it’s retro. But if the craft has abandoned that sort of puzzle, there’s a reason for it. That reason is twofold: they are pretty dull, and they get in the way of engagement with the story. Good puzzles need to make you think: to put together what you know in some inspiring and difficult way, to master some technique or situation. Not just to find jigsaw pieces which once found fit together obviously. It gets almost absurdist. Here I am, with my wife in labour and close to death, and I’m rummaging in toolboxes because I’ve locked myself like Inspector Clouseau in my own garage, or scrabbling through my own diary to see if I can find fragments of the keycode I’ve forgotten. First as tragedy, then as farce. 2.

Did I enjoy it

Not hugely. The characters, setting, and writing were too generic, and the puzzles tacked onto the dangerously over-wrought story did not excite me. I hit the walkthrough quite early, and I wasn’t sorry I had. I didn’t have a bad time: it’s a good shortish length, and I never got so enraged that I wanted to quit (though without the walkthrough I bet the maze … and I still can’t quite get over the sheer chutzpah of sticking a maze in a comp game in 2021 … would have pushed me there). I could appreciate efforts made to make it play smoothly, with the correct action often hinted. But it’s really not for me. 2.

Overall, then

I make that a 5, which feels about right to me; perhaps a bit mean. The author should be proudest of the execution, which was pretty solid. It may well be doing just exactly what he intended: to conjure up a warm feeling which owes most to nostalgia for a certain kind of playing experience. I’m not really that audience, and other people will certainly like it a good deal better than I did.

3 Likes

Hello! This is the author of At King Arthur’s Christmas Feast. I got a review, that’s exciting; I’ve never had one of those before. Thank you for writing up this review!

Anyways, if you have can remember what it was that seemed like a bug in the text, could you please give me the details?

Also, regarding the explanations of chivalric codes or manners, that’s an interesting note - I don’t think any of my beta readers brought that up at all. I’d be interested in hearing (if you’ve the time, and still remember) what parts of the game stuck out like that. I mean, aside from the one point where a character literally turns to the Gawain and starts lecturing him, which is meant to be, you know, pretty heavy-handed.

E: oh, also, feel free to DM me if you do recall the bug, so it’s not eating up your review thread. Thanks!

4 Likes

The Libonotus Cup

Nils Fagerburg
Parser/Choice (Custom?)

The Libonotus Cup is an interesting mix of parser and choice in which you are a hapless pilot entering a race. It sits in that very safe lightly humourous puzzler space that parser games often seem to occupy in the Comp.

Execution

The game is a web-based one. It doesn’t credit any other system, and I assume therefore must be custom. Custom systems have a bad reputation, but this seemed more than solid. I encountered no parser errors or other glitches; the interface is slick and helpful (complete with a compass showing available exits); the typography nice too. It moves effortlessly between parser and choice-based sections. There are endless conveniences: implicit actions, a built-in hint system. I encountered no typos. Altogether admirable. My only quibble is that the author didn’t put some space between paragraphs. But really, it’s a quibble which doesn’t deserve the deduction of even a mark. 5.

Writing

The writing is workmanlike to the highest degree: just what you need to know, and barely a word more. I understand that nobody playing a tongue-in-cheek puzzler expects Proust, but I could have used a little more, frankly: something to conjure a sense of space and place, of character. You could not for one second forget that you are strictly playing a game; there’s a job to be done and that’s that. NPCs will tell you what you need to know, but they are not a source of much amusement. 3.

Craft and the use of medium

With the exception of two puzzles (mending the mast, and finding your way in the Bayou), these were mostly lock/key kind of puzzles: You need X, and to get X you need Y, and to get Y you need Z. One quite cute puzzle involving a sort of Cretan liar. Perfectly fine, but nothing to get very excited about.

Of the two exceptions, I thought one worked and one didn’t. The Bayou puzzle is quite a clever take on the maze in theory, but it’s really just a trick (and not one I would have worked out without hints); it was also marred for me by a degree of ambiguity about how to put multiple words together. It also suffered from not having any mechanism to teach you that you were making progress. On the other hand, the mast problem is more interesting because it does require some lateral thinking about the situation and the people to figure out a logical set of things to do.

Combining choice and parser worked well for me. I got a bit tired with the hand-to-hand combat mechanic (maybe just because I found it opaque: I couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t purely random; maybe because there wasn’t enough variation; maybe because I just didn’t find it that funny). But the ability it gives to alternate from the things the parser does best (detailed and relatively open exploration) and the things a choice-based interface does (the grand and complex geture) worked.

I always felt that I could trust the game. I suspect there may have often been alternative solutions to some of the puzzles, and possibly some approaches I never considered. For instance, I rather rashly (and, once I had agreed to do it, well-knowing what I was getting into) ended up placing a voodoo doll of myself into the hands of an enemy. I’m guessing there’s a way to wriggle out of that, but I just didn’t find it. I definitely should go back and save a little more often in order to give myself the space to explore.

So, overall, I think 4. It’s got fairly modest aspirations; it’s not out to break any barriers; but it does what it does more than merely acceptably.

Did I enjoy it

I’d say, in parts. Wacky vehicles for puzzles involving false beards and fetch-quests are not really my cup of tea. I kept wishing that this was something it isn’t trying to be. That it would push a bit harder in the direction of the truly grotesque or burlesque, be a bit less polite, a bit more inclined to demand outrageous behaviour. To make a game like this really funny for me, it needs more than the slightly nerdy humour on offer here, to push things just a bit harder that the author was willing to go. So for me, probably 2.

Overall

That takes me to 7 which feels about right. I found it an admirable game in many ways–polished, interesting ideas about interface, looking good and playing smoothly. But it’s a bit safe.

4 Likes

we, the remainder

Charm Cochran
Twine

A game of exploration, in twine. Uncover dark secrets. Try to escape. The most distinctive feature of the game is that it is doing what I tend to think of as a classic parser mode (exploration of a space, finding and using objects, triggering memories, gradually uncovering layers of truth as you explore), but through a hyperlinked interface.

Execution

I played this both on a PC (which the author recommends) and on a mobile. On a mobile, it really doesn’t work. Text overlaps. The ascii-art map is completely off. Apart from that, there’s not much to say. This is not doing anything complicated: plain text on coloured backgrounds. It seems solid and unbuggy. The only thing that I might really call an error was occasionally inconsistent capitalisation. 3.

Writing

There’s nothing wrong with the writing, and part of me wants to be pleased that having chosen a very heavy set of themes, the author resisted the urge to ramp register of the prose up too. I’m not sure it wouldn’t have benefited from a stern edit to pare it down even further, and it certainly falls short of being great writing, but it gets the job done. 3.

(the decision to remove capitalisation from sentence beginnings seems self-indulgent. unless the author is ee cummings. which they probably aren’t. or writing the whole thing on a mobile phone.)

Craft and use of medium

This is a parser game in a twine closet. The basic mechanism is classic parser: move; examine objects; pick some up; move on. We have all the trad stuff: hunger puzzles, keys (ornate! brass!), journals to read, areas gated until a particular object is found. What we don’t have is choice, beyond the choice about where to go and what to look at.

Now this is not necessarily a bad thing. Explicitly hyperlinked interfaces to parser-like games can work well. Hyperlinks provide a useful guide to the player about what they can interact with. But it’s a very constrained and rather unexpressive interface. And in this case it’s in the service of a rather thin conception of how exploration works. This is strictly in the “find object x to unlock path y” school: one object, one path open or one problem solved. So exploration is really about lawn-mowering. Look at everything until ta-dah you find you have hit on the object you just happen to need. Quite often, the puzzle seemed pretty unhinted. It never permitted planning or imaginative thought.

An example may help explain why I’m being so grudging. Take the food problem. It’s well motivated: I’m hungry, so I know I need food. But if the only solution to that problem is to wander aimlessly around until maybe I find some … the process lacks interest. To turn that from a mere chore into something worth taking time over, I need to be equipped with some sort of way of planning how to get food. I need interesting ways of failing.

At this point the choice-based system is again limiting. If this was a parser game, then, presented with various corpses and so forth, the desperately hungry player can be induced to decide to try … “EAT CORPSE” (or not to: also a choice). Here, however, the game acknowledges the thought, but tells you you are not going to do it. Of course, it’s no answer to say that it should have offered the choice. There’s all the difference in the world between (a) inviting the player to try eating a human corpse or (b) allowing the player to decide to try eating a human corpse, unprompted. I completely understand why the author wasn’t going to offer that option. But it makes the hunger problem essentially tedious.

Put differently: one of the interesting things about the parser is that the author can allow the player to try odd, unacceptable, bizarre things without suggesting them, and can therefore acknowledge my failure without every making me think “why did it suggest I try that, and then complain about it”. Precisely because a choice-based interface has to be reticent about offering false choices, it has more difficulty punishing or rewarding imaginative leaps. With any choice-based interface, hints are never off. And that is both a boon and a curse.

So: a thin and restricted mode of interaction, a very basic conception of what an exploratory puzzle-gated story might look like, and a basic mechanic which doesn’t seem to me to play to the medium’s main strengths. 2.

What did I get out of it?

I have not asked did I enjoy it, because it’s definitely not a game that is aiming to be enjoyable. And that is fine. This is a game telling a dark and serious story; it is obvious that the author wishes to communicate some serious messages about cults and the damage they can do.

I respect that. But I am sorry to say that for me, this didn’t really work. It was both unremittingly dark, and highly stereotypical. Harsh repression, physical punishment, hypocritical manipulation, a cult leader living high on the hog doing all the things he won’t let other people do; serious abuse; religious nutcasery of the most obvious sort. I don’t wish in any way to make light of these things, or to make it look like I disagree with the author’s obvious worry about them.

But. I wonder how much really interesting art is produced by dramatising commonplace evils and showing just how evil they are. To make something more than a cautionary tale, we need some moral nuance and some moral ambiguity. We need a cult leader who has some charisma; we need magnetism there, not just fear. Or we need victims who are also implicated by their participation. Or we need a cult that isn’t doing obviously terrible and ridiculous things, but whose adherents look like us. That, of course, is uncomfortable. But without something like that, we are just dramatising unproblematic commonplace moral judgments.

If you look at the list of trigger warnings, you will think to yourself: this is going to be a dark game. And so in some senses it is. But it is crudely dark. When we show ourselves madness in order to reassure us how sane we are, or evil to reassure ourselves how good, it can in the end be very cosy and unchallenging. 2.

Overall

So, overall, I make that 5. That feels a little bit tough, and reflects the fact that I was slightly irritated by a piece that I felt thought it was deeper and more unsettling than I found it. I might need to edge it up in the end.

3 Likes

The Song of the Mockingbird

Mike Carletta
Glulx (Inform 7)

Song of the Mockingbird is a classic parser game, set in the world of the Western. At its heart it’s a puzzler, but with a fairly high seasoning of atmosphere building and story discovery.

Execution

The execution here was pretty much flawless. It wasn’t attempting anything novel in terms of interface (the only thing I noticed which I can’t remember seeing in most games was the meta-command ART to display the cover art which was designed for the game by Crystal Rain and does just what it should do. I encountered a very few points where the parser got confused by something that in an ideal world it wouldn’t have (mostly guessing what I wanted to refer to wrongly: easily corrected by adding some extra words), and one point where I had a few moments trouble finding exactly the right command (in the hayloft, when trying to light the trailing hay).

I also wasn’t sure I liked something that I think is meant as a convenience. When you find something really important, the game will not only tell you about it, but take it for you. This often happens at moments of high drama, and I sometimes missed the fact I’d picked up something useful, and on one occasion was so sure it must have been there that I wasted some time looking for something I was carrying. I can’t really complain though: if I’d read more slowly and carefully, I’d have been fine.

So for the most part this was entirely dependable. I always felt that my frustration was the right sort of frustration (difficulty working out what my character should do) not the wrong sort (difficulty getting the game to understand what I wanted to try). 4.

Writing

With a game like this, precision is critical. Solving the puzzles here depends largely on being able to understand and visualise quite accurately the position you are in. The writing did that excellently and generally quite economically. There was nothing pastiche-Western about it, but there was plenty to give it atmosphere in deploying objects and a vocabulary to describe them which was historically apt. This cowboy knew the right words to describe a kind of horse, or a kind of cow, or a kind of weapon, just as a cowboy would. Occasionally, there was a text-dump that was a bit longer than is ideal. More often, the descriptions had multiple short paragraphs and got a bit choppy. It might have been nice to integrate some of them into single paragraphs a bit more smoothly.

On a bigger scale, I thought this was doing something rather interesting with “the Western”. When one thinks of the immense popularity of the Western in mid-Twentieth Century popular culture, one cannot help notice that it has fallen out of favour. Why? It’s hardly that it sets such a low price on human life (so do other, still-popular, genres; so, certainly does Mockingbird: it signals no more than perfunctory concern about frequent homicide). Perhaps it is rather that it presents a world in which hierarchies of gender and race with which we are now deeply uncomfortable are fundamental. If so, Mockingbird confronts that head on. Its protagonist is a singing cowboy; he lives by his wits; his world-view is sentimental; the (anti?) hero is a woman who turns out to be in a dominant role. The game considers and rejects slavery. And it contains a veiled allegorical message in opposition to the simultaneous fetishisation and undermining of the US constitution by Donald Trump and his cronies. In other words, this is a thorougly Twenty-First Century take on the genre, and by no means an exercise in 1950s nostalgia.

This is subtle enough, I think, that one might play and enjoy the game without noticing it. It’s not a political piece: it’s a puzzle game with some careful thinking behind it, which has decided not to take the lazy way out of just riffing on the cliches of its genre, but tried to rework them gently. 4.

Craft and use of medium

In a couple of reviews recently, I’ve been complaining about puzzles which are just “find-x-use-x”. Mockingbird in sharp contrast, shows the difference between that kind of approach and a thoroughly realised puzzle design. These are puzzles which certainly require careful exploration; but more than that, they reward careful thought. Admittedly it’s sometimes “adventure-game” thought: one couldn’t I think in the real world expect to lubricate rusted mechanisms with melted lard, or mend axles with unheated barrel hoops. But strict realism is not what matters. What matters is that these are pretty much always the sort of puzzle where the pay-off comes from planning, observation, experiment.

I had a few quibbles (and I did need, at some points, to use the walkthrough–which is excellent, by the way–to get me over a hump in the time I had). But playing back over some of those moments, I would say that they were always more the result of playing against the clock, and if I had more time I think I could mostly have got there myself. I do doubt that this is a game that any but the most brilliant puzzle-solvers could actually complete within two hours on their own. It’s not a long game, but it needs thought.

There are only two points of real (but light) criticism. First, because of how I moved around the ranch, I didn’t encounter Podge and Whitey when (I think) the author expected I would, and it took me a bit longer to work out what was happening with them than it should. Not a major issue. Secondly, although I appreciate mercifulness (a good choice for a Comp game especially!) I slightly wished that this could have been a bit crueller, so that there was maybe a bit more sense of pressure to solve the puzzles, and a real risk of dying. As it was, I came to feel more invulnerable than perhaps I should.

But these are small points. Overall, I think, 5.

Did I enjoy it

Rather contrary to my expectations, I really did. Mockingbird is every inch a game; it’s not breaking any really new ground artistically; in the end it’s a set of puzzles designed to be taken in a light-hearted spirit. But it’s not only rock-solid technically, but every aspect of it shows deliberate and carefully considered design decisions. I had a thoroughly good time with it. 4.

Overall

So, overall then, that gets it to 8 or 9. I’ll reserve judgment on that until the end of the Comp, but that feels in the right ballpark. For anyone looking for a well-done classic parser puzzler, this should score well.

2 Likes

Thanks very much for playing Mockingbird, and for the in-depth review!

Fine Felines

Felicity Banks
Choicescript

A short-ish choicescript pieces about launching yourself in a career as a … cat breeder. I wasn’t sure what to expect. Some sort of choice-based tamagochi? In fact, it’s a rather gentle story about independence and recovery. Although described as kid-friendly, it’s most certainly not a story for children, though they might enjoy some of the pictures.

Execution

The execution seemed very polished. It’s apparent from the “cheat sheet” that this is tracking quite heavily, but it never seemed to put a foot wrong. I didn’t notice errors in the text. The most striking thing it does is produce photographs of various cats. The photos were good. Three people are credited for supplying photos, so it looks as if they have been specifically obtained for the game, and it shows. It doesn’t look like a random harvesting of google images. 4.

Writing

The writing keeps itself out of the way, for the most part. It’s a bit bloodless. We are in the realm of “good” writing, with all the things that might be encouraged if one were teaching someone how to write clear prose: short sentences, carefully controlled, rather understated. The early sections tend to dump quite heavy doses of information. One feels a writer who puts a high premium on clarity, and is certainly not going to leave anything to chance or allow the reader to be even momentarily confused. Nothing to complain about, but I don’t think this is a game you play to be blown away by the quality of the prose. 3.

Craft and use of medium

This feels very “mainstream” Choicescript: selecting your gender, romance options, accessible stats. It’s not doing anything innovative, but it’s thoroughly competent. I thought myself that the game was a bit short. I’d have liked to see rather more: longer digressions and side-stories; perhaps a chance to raise some further litters, to learn from mistakes a bit more. Slightly higher stakes? 3.

Did I enjoy it

I feel slightly indifferent. This was happily not the cat-raising simulation of my nightmares; it had more going on in the way of story. But it seemed rather low temperature. A story of a person putting a rather difficult and dreary life into some sort of shape is moderatly heart-warming, but it’s not going to set anyone’s world on fire, and it didn’t set mine on fire. It’s cosy. Safe. But a little bit dull. 3.

Overall

Overall then, a safe and rather conservative game. Definitely well-made in every way. Thoroughly competent. Sometimes charming. But not a thrill. I get to 6 or 7, and I’ll reserve judgment on that.

1 Like

What Heart Heard Of, Ghost Guessed

Amanda Walker
Glulx (Inform 7)

An unsettling and tightly constructed limited-verb parser game, with light gating puzzles: uncover dark family secrets, expose evil, seek revenge.

Rather than diving straight into the sub-categories I try to use, I need a little spoilery introduction. In this game, you are (as is clear from the first) a ghost. As you explore the house in which you find yourself you are both uncovering its secrets–which are your secrets–and acquiring new verbs that you can use to go further. The verbs are emotions (“confuse”, “desire”, “regret”, “rage”, “excite”, “anger”) which correspond to physical or meta-physical actions.

Execution

For a first time game (as the notes show it is), the execution here is incredibly smooth. I very occasionally encountered some confusion of verbs, or some unimplemented action (or action which uses a verb the game shouldn’t recognise because it’s off the parser-limit, but did): once, early, when I tried to look in rather than at the mirror; once when I tried to listen to something specific. A dirty window which I revealed resisted examination on the alleged ground that I could no see any such thing, though X WINDOW worked. Little things. From time to time here is a sort of script of conversation, and I would have welcomed a slightly easier presentation. But generally, all seemed super solid, including (which is always hard) the hint system. 4.

Writing

The fact that the game draws on a hauntingly beautiful (and difficult, and ambiguous) poem by Gerard Manley Hopkins leads one to expect a literary sensibility, but perhaps slightly to fear that it might be a rather overwrought one. It turns out not to be. It’s carefully precise writing, which makes the most of small details but leaves plenty discreetly unsaid.

Just occasionally … There’s a problem with parser IF. With so many objects to describe even the most skilful author will sometimes find themselves lost for words or reaching for cliches, or at least cliches of IF: “lustrous” wood, a collection of coloured doors (as anyone who has ever written any parser will attest, naming doors is tedious work). But most of this was fresh and interesting.

As I noticed with another game, tight writing with individual objects given their own paragraphs can make for rather choppy prose. It doesn’t matter, but it would have been even tidier if the author could sometimes have woven descriptions into the main paragraphs of room description. Still, all good stuff. 4.

Craft and use of medium

Obviously a game in which you explore and discover a back story, and in which puzzles serve as a gating device, is standard enough fare. But there were some nice touches. The amnesia, which serves a necessary purpose, was explained and made a positive contribution to the story. The pace of exploration and revelation was very well judged. There was a nice integration of the central mechanic (leveraging your knowledge of a few verbs to learn new ones), and when you did learn a new thing you could do there were usually multiple ways to make use of it, so it felt that you were not must making progress but really expanding on the possibilities available.

I balked at just one puzzle, which involved connecting the note about the combination to a keypad, a rainbow, and numbers which happen to be mentioned on the doors to which the colours of the rainbow relate. I hated this, because it was a fourth-wall-breaking puzzle. It beggars belief to suppose that anyone would communicate a combination in this way. The connection of coloured doors to numbers is in large part an artifact not of the doors but of the way the doors are described in the game, so the puzzle assumed esoteric knowledge by the protagonists of how the game author would describe their world. This was a far-fetched piece of Zorkiness which need not have been there. On the other hand, there was one puzzle that struck me as particularly neat, involving opening the box. That was a cracker. 4.

Did I like it

I did. I will admit (in fact I think I’ve said it before in a previous review for this Comp) that I sometimes get a bit jaded with the tendency of authors to pile tragedy and coarse horror together, to play on the rather simplistic evil of things like the physical or emotional abuse of children in a way that is … well, cheap. I feared this could be going to happen here. But the game stays just the right side of the line. Yes, it’s gothic, and not subtle. But it was intent on producing a complex mix of shifting emotions, especially towards Eva and Ian, and I valued that. The gradual revelation of the true horror of the situation (and saving the opening of the chest for last was a clever twist) was thoroughly effective for me.

The only thing that slightly peeved me was that, as far as I can see, the only resolution that is offered is rage and revenge. I had very much hoped that the game would have offered me some way of achieving true justice – of showing the lawyer who is present what had really happened, and having Eva and Ian locked up rather than incinerated. I can see, however, that that would have been very difficult, and would have made for a different game. But the absence of that sort of possibility (or even, so far as I can see, the option simply to walk away) does mean that in the end the PC remains a sort of puppet. Maybe I missed some alternative ending. 4.

Overall

Overall, then, an excellent and recommended game, and really remarkably good for a first-time author. I make my overall score an 8, which seems about right, perhaps a tiny bit kind.

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Thank you so much! I am so appreciative of your taking the time to play and review my game!

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