PaulS Ifcomp Reviews 2015

As in previous years, since I don’t have a blog, I’m going to be posting reviews in this thread. I’ll be playing games in a shuffled order, and I’ll get through as many as I can, but I can’t guarantee that I’ll get through all of them. I don’t post scores. I’ll spoiler tag liberally; but in the past I’ve tagged the whole review, and I think that goes too far. If you prefer to play games utterly uninfluenced by what others have said, just wait to read the review until you’ve played.

Authors: If you think I’ve said something that’s just wrong, or if you want to discuss anything, feel free to PM me here.

Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box

Arthur DiBianca


As with his entry last year, Di Bianca offers a “stripped down” puzzle game, in which you have only two in-world verbs to interact with objects: EXAMINE and USE (understood broadly as “do something with this object”). This time he’s given more thought to the scenario in which these limited commands work. The game involves interacting quite intensively with a single complex (multi-part) object, a whimsical mechanico-magical box, the puzzle being to try to “find” as much as possible that is hidden in it, which requires interacting with the things it produces, in order to produce further interactions. There’s a sort of in-built hint system, in the form of a display on the box which (sometimes) provides guidance about what you can or should do next.

Freed of the problems of making USE work in a broad environment, and presenting a situation where it seems, if not natural, then at least tolerable, I found the “pared down” experience rather better here. But I still don’t see the point. If there’s only really one way to interact with an object, then “USE” is fine, but unnecessary: you could just code for the obvious verb. If there’s more than one way, then it’s frustrating, like trying to do something delicate with gloves on. It doesn’t seem to add value.

[spoiler]Still, the experience is quite smooth. I didn’t find the puzzles especially intriguing. Sometimes (especially later in the game) I felt I knew what I was trying to achieve so that the puzzle held some interest as a brain-teaser; but quite often, especially early on, it was just a question of trying things in more-or-less arbitrary sequence until something worked. The pay-off was modestly satisfying. None of the puzzles struck me as particularly fascinating, and there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between them. I was hoping that over time I might actually begin to understand how the machine worked internally, that there would be a chance for understanding and some payoff from it. But it doesn’t seem to be so: there is no consistent puzzle mechanic, no “key”.

The writing is spare, but I thought it mostly did a good job of saying enough to help me picture the scene but not so much to make that a chore. In technical terms, then, a well-made object.

(One beef. The very first thing everyone is going to do is examine the box. And be told it’s just a red box. Three problems: (1) I intend to wage war on any description which tells me that X is “just a Y”. That “just” is a reproach to player (why bother asking?) and author (“Why do I have to trouble with this damn description. OK, I’ll make it count for little, but make it clear I know I’m doing that!”). (2) I have no idea what something that is “just” a two-foot red box would be like. “Just a chair/table/desk/bed/cabinet” I can just about do, but “just a two-foot square levitating red box”? No. (3) Of course it’s not just a box. So the response is, in a sense, a joke. But it’s a joke that you cannot understand at the time it’s cracked, so it falls flat.)

The best moments for me were when the box produced little mini-stories: a tiny play; some sort of struggle within the box; a sense that I was interacting not merely with an object but with an object populated by homunculi.[/spoiler]

And yet . . . in the end, it’s just a vehicle for a succession of unmotivated puzzles. We have more or less no hint about why, or by whom, this box has been built. No reason why we should wish to interact with it is given. We do it because that is apparently the puzzle. There’s nothing wrong with that; but it’s not my thing. It’s not as if it’s hard to give a puzzle object like this some sort of context, to give it and the player a reason. Refusing to do so seems either lazy or (perhaps) a passive/aggressive challenge to puzzle-free IF.

Partly a matter of taste then, but I didn’t get much from this. I hit the walkthrough pretty heavily, and I didn’t feel I was cheating myself by doing so. It gets credit for the decent writing, clean grammar, and technical solidity. But it’s not for me.


Robert de Ford

Parser (Alan)

I gave up on this, not so much because it’s badly done, but because I was not enjoying it.

[spoiler]The setting is generic fantasy: you are a young refugee orphan. (A human, apparently; it’s surprising you are not a kitten, the better to tug even more heartstrings.) You wish to become an alchemist. To do this you must find and eat vegetables, find and collect gold, find and use various alchemical ingredients. Repeatedly.

You are assisted in this by a variety of more-or-less inanimate aid(e)s. There are books. There are NPCs who textdump didactically. Probably there is not much wind in Onaar, or they would be blown over. Faced with an unknown marauder, Captain Waaren prefers to spend apparently all his time chatting by the fountain; let the parentless kitten take care of that old marauder! When you are not looking, people come by and throw coins into this fountain. These are yours for the taking. You can fish them out under Captain Waaren’s very nose, and he chats on. But woe betide you if you accidentally try to TAKE a banana from dear old grocer Maax, when what you mean to do is to BUY the Banana. Then Captain Waaren swings into action, and you get swung into jail. Marauders, let them maraud! Fishers of gold coins from municipal ponds, let them fish! But inadvertent shoplifters of tropical fruit, the unhappy takers of what is to be bought — they are to be locked in prison.

Within a sparse landscape, your task is to traipse around (or, when you are lucky, xyzzy around) talking to people and collecting things and making potions and checking your stats and collecting and eating a variety of colourful root vegetables. People will come in with handy hints “Since your health is only 30 you look a bit low; this enhanced purple carrot should put lead in your pencil. Try increasing your thievery to 50 and you will be able to steal fruit.” And so forth. Alchemical formulae apparently resemble a sort of simple assembler: P / PO 33 / RF / AF. Tah dah! A potion appears. Now you too can enhance a turnip!

All this I could have borne with fortitude for a while. I even had a little bit of curiosity to find out who the marauder is and to finish him off. I kinda-fancied getting myself the indigo alchemist’s frock. But, long since running on walkthrough, I realised that a heavy slog was ahead. I was going to have to keep making potions to get better at it, to keep collecting root vegetables, fishing in the fountain, making tedious treks to collect this-or-that oddly named alchemical requirement. And really it was too much like work: the payback in terms of narrative development, characters I might believe in or care about, prose I cared to read — all this was too slight. And so I stopped.[/spoiler]

It’s clear that a lot of work went into this. There’s plenty of text. There are puzzles of sorts, a quite extensive map. It doesn’t have glaring errors or bugs, despite its breadth. But the ratio of effort to reward is wrong. It’s not that it’s difficult or challenging; just sloggy. After Hadean Lands, you’d think that anyone would be wary before taking on alchemy; this game takes it on and makes of it something that more-or-less resembles a slightly user-friendly version of the old-skool part of Endless, Nameless. Straight. No chaser.


Marshall Tenner Winter


Grr. I found this frustrating. It seems like it’s a game without follow-through. There are lots of good things. But the rough little edges, the missed opportunities, the little bugs and niggles — all got on my nerves and ultimately stopped this being the light fun it should have been.

MTW is hardly an unknown author; he’s prolific; he has his preferences. We don’t expect fancy writing, or deep characterisation. He works in cliches: stock locations, stock characters, writing that is flat and largely colourless. If this sounds critical, it partly is, of course. But done well the potboiler can be enjoyable enough: there’s usually at least quite a bit happening; there’s a story; some action. It might not have life, exactly, but it has movement. People enjoy it. There’s nothing wrong with that.

[spoiler]In this case, MTW has hit on a pretty solid idea for a story that can play to his strengths. A framing narrative set in a hospital sleep lab. A main story taking the form of a lucid dream (which neatly relieves him of the obligation to be rigidly logical or excessively realistic: not a criticism), and the chance to play around a little with connections between the two. The dream allows him to play with some fun objects or scenes: the grisly “biological clock”; the animate dental probe. All good fun. How satisfactorily the story resolves itself is open to question; it seemed somehow too abrupt and unexplained. But if there’s nothing fundamentally challenging or interesting about it, it’s not bad. Each of the elements is utterly unoriginal, but the arrangement seems, if not nourishing, at least fairly fresh. It has the makings of the IF equivalent of a page-turner.

But although it’s fine to allow for logical discontinuities in dreams, quite a bit of this seemed merely random. The best dream sequences combine the familiar with the absurd, and operate according to some sort of cockeyed logic. Here a lot seemed just arbitrary. What you needed to do — and in particular where you needed to go — was a matter of trial and error. It felt like it needed more discipline, a decent editor to insist that the material be made rather richer and more consistent; perhaps just more time.

The same could be said of the puzzles. Some of them involved a high degree of guess-the-verbery using non-standard verbs. There were various hints of (good) ideas, not really followed through. There was a brief moment when it seemed as if we were going to have a consistent puzzle action, involving DREAMing about objects; but that only worked twice, and the logic was quite different in both cases, so it all felt terribly ad hoc. There was another period in which it looked as if we were going to have a useful little in-game hint system involving a sentient brain that communicated hints; but mine seemed to run out of steam at a certain point. Puzzles were mostly of a pretty simple get-object-use-object sort, low stakes ways of gating the story. In-game cluing wasn’t great. A bit underwhelming, because it really seemed as if more work and polish might have made so much more of this.

So, too, with the implementation. Often it was thoroughly solid: mentioned objects all present and correct; expected actions yielding expected results. But sometimes it became suddenly flaky, with inconsistent messages (sometimes one suggesting that an action had succeeded, followed by another telling you (truly) that it had failed), awkward handling of implicit actions, stilted and unnatural dialogue, tedious object-juggling. These errors were all the more obvious and jarring because they were not consistent or frequent; but they were regular occurrences. It’s a big game in some ways; there’s lots going on and lots to go wrong. But the level of polish is some way short of where it should be.[/spoiler]

So, yeah. I end with the strong impression that MTW wants to write a fairly fast-moving story-driven sort of game; not a puzzler (the puzzles are for gating, mostly); not deeply philosophical or self-consciously literary; just a jolly good tale. And some of the time he does, and it flows very naturally and well. And then something jars — some authorial short-cut, some rough edge left unsanded, some phrasing which moves from the hackneyed to the downright awkward — and gets in the way of precisely the sort of experience I feel this is meant to be. For such purposes, the mechanics of the game (the parser, the writing) should just get out of the way, and it should all feel natural and necessary. For all its merits, Sueño doesn’t really get there.

To Burn in Memory



I had trouble with this. By which I don’t simply mean that I didn’t enjoy it much, but that I had difficulty getting it to do very much; to the point that I think I may have been having technical issues.

The idea, as one gathers from the blurb and some introductory text, seems to be that some sort of exploration of a (fantastic) city will also involve the revelation of memories of a woman called Salandre. The introductory text uses a quotation from Umberto Eco to make an explicit connection between architecture and memory. We are to explore both.

The city is fantastic, in the dreamlike sense of fantasy. I explored a little. I found a strange device, some vaguely evocative spaces. And then I got stuck; I seemed to be going around in circles. It was quite apparent that there was more to be seen, but I couldn’t seem to find it. Perhaps there was some technical issue. Perhaps it’s just that I missed something, or mucked something up. That’s not unlikely.

But part of the problem is with the writing. It is the equivalent of lobster with a truffled cream butter sauce, perhaps in aspic. With caviar. And oysters. En croute. Flambé. For me, it cloyed.

Sometimes it is quite unintelligible:

Forget for the moment the long parenthesis between adjective and noun, which is bad enough. What does the parenthesis actually mean? “struggle marked the floor where this was not without exception”. Let’s remove the double negative: “struggle marked the floor where this was an exception”. Still nothing. What is “this”? Exception to what? I think this means something like

But if that’s what you mean, why not just say so?

The latinity overall is breathtaking (or, shall we say, respiratorily adductive). Could anyone actually write “all things have their terminance”? Yup. Quite often the grammar slips: “Like clockwork in their monotony, the state will respond to the portent of violence in kind.” The author has got lost in the sentence, and can’t notice the disagreement between the introductory phrase (which assumes a plural subject: their monotony) and its subject (the state). And what does it actually mean? That violence begets violence? So many high-sounding words, marching towards such a trite conclusion.

Or consider this:

Here we have obscure metaphor for the sake of it (“brother”), pompous circumlocution (“no less a great work”), a love of fancy words (“hue” for “colour”, “fashioned” for “made”), high-sounding cliché (“sun in all its radiance”), multisyllabic latinity slightly “off” in meaning, at least to my modern ears, (“fortitude” for purely material strength) and grammatical slips (“no less a great work as” for “as great a work as” or “no less a work than”).

In the end, no doubt, style is a personal thing. But, to speak personally, the language here grated, as if someone was trying to show off, and not quite managing it. And it got in the way of understanding. For all the recherché vocabulary, I found it hard to picture the scene, to envisage the architecture, to have in my mind’s eye any sense of how this city was put together. It was all surface glitter — a beautiful font that is hard to read; mysterious icons; great gouts of rarefied diction; overwrought and precious. So although I think I got stuck half-way through the hors d’oeuvres, I was not very sorry to miss the rest of the meal.

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Cat Manning


This is a short piece. I played it through to a number of (quite different) conclusions; each time it left a very different taste in my mouth. It’s quite tightly written, and the choice points – not all that many, I think – are what you might call “open”. By that I mean that there is no right answer; a choice may be arbitrary (to choose a particular offering, or colour), or obviously heavy with significance, but of a sort that the player cannot possibly understand (to disclose the protagonist’s intentions when the text itself has studiously avoided giving any cluse to what they are). Such choices are consequential in that they affect, sometimes dramatically, the way the story unfolds; but they are not meaningful in the sense that they do not connect and cannot be connected to anything the player already knows: they are choices with an obscure future, but no real past.

There are limitations to that approach. Since the choices do lead to quite divergent branches, but since their direction is unclear, repeated play-throughs take one in very different directions. But because they are so disconnected, the overall impression one is left with is not of deepening understanding – as if one had looked at the same object from quite different points of view – but simply of different experiences. Still, though I’m not sure I would have enjoyed this in a long game, because this was so short I enjoyed it.

My palate is now a bit jaded by the combination of dark fantasy and very self-obsessed psychological exploration. It’s become (dare one say it) something of a Twine cliche. It’s difficult to make it fresh. But here it’s done well, notably with an admirable restraint, for which I was grateful. Even when it becomes fantastic, the imagery here modest, or largely so; the language precise. I was grateful for that too.

So on the whole, for me, Crossroads seemed pretty good. But in the end, I can’t really get excited about it. Partly, its vices are its virtues: that very restraint, and genuine offer of rather weakly directed choice, makes it a bit dull: technically precise, but a little lacking in drive, in soul, in energy. In the end, it seemed rather self-absorbed, even self-obsessed. Which is perhaps the point. But it left me with a sort of painting-by-numbers feel, though it’s pretty skilful painting.

Final Exam

Jack Witham

Parser (Inform 6)

Final Exam is a rather classic combination of story and puzzle. At first sight it might seem to be a bit of a “throwback”. It’s written in Inform 6. It doesn’t fit neatly into any of the currently most fashionable styles of theme or voice. But it is certainly not an exercise in dungeon-crawling nostalgia. I enjoyed it; and as I have thought about it since, my favourable impression has generally got stronger. I’d hope to play a game this Comp that excites me more; but I’m sure it will end up high on my list.

During IfComp – especially when the field is crowded, as it is this year – I sometimes feel I’m getting rather grumpy about issues of solidity and polish (see, for instance, my comments on The Sueno). There are moments when I think this is unfair. But games like Final Exam feel like a vindication of sorts, because they show that high technical standards are achievable. The task Jack Witham has set himself is a famously tough one: objects you can connect and disconnect, and carry about leaving one “part” in one place and another elsewhere. But it works seamlessly and easily. (I suppose I might complain about how multiple identical objects appear in one’s inventory; but it would be a very minor point.) And it’s not simply that this one thing works well. Everything feels solid. Everything works as it should.

And there are other nice pieces of design, things that show a concern for the player’s experience. The central (and reasonably, but by no means unfairly, tough) puzzle is nicely prepared for by some simple trial-runs. There’s a logic to the way everything works. The environment seems believable. There are other signs of genuine concern for the reader. To be sure, in one sense it breaks the fourth wall to be told explicitly that “examine is a synonym for read” and that “search is a synonym for examine”. But this is useful information, and when you’ve been told it once you know. (But, if I may be allowed another quibble or two: in a game where you are likely to get lost quite often, I’d like to be in verbose mode by default; and I’d also, for the same reason, like an exit lister or some other way to navigate as simply as possible without mapping.)

Other reviews have remarked on what they see as an imbalance: the early part of the game is mostly story – and rather intriguing. The later part of the game is mostly puzzle, and although it’s an OK puzzle it’s not quite enthralling. I think there’s something in this criticism. From what I can tell (in the time I played it I didn’t explore much past the obvious and walkthrough-endorsed solution to the puzzle) there are things that you can do in the second part of the game that are not really clued or explicitly encouraged, and it might well be more satisfying as a game if they were. I also felt that there was a slight imbalance in terms of “things happening”. In the early part of the game, there’s a sense not only of disconcerting mystery, but of the pressure of events. But past a certain point (despite a threat that Bad Things Will Happen if the central puzzle is not solved rather quickly), it seems that the pressure lets up somewhat; it would be more absorbing if there seemed to be more at stake.

But though these are fair pointers to ways the experience might be made better, I was still impressed. It’s a little bit a game in two parts, but the two parts are at least coherently connected. Final Exam is not exactly a crowd-pleaser – the writing is effective in a plain way, rather than strikingly good; the sense of tension that the first part of the game establishes does let up a bit; its themes are rather cerebral than emotional; it’s not funny; it requires quite careful attention to geography (even mapping). It’s not technically or artistically ground-breaking. It doesn’t thrill. But it did very much impress me for its careful design, its high level of craft skill: for doing well what it sets out to do.

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Life on Mars?

Hugo Labrande

Inform 6

(Rather light spoilers below for a non-puzzly game.)

[spoiler]This is a short, serious (indeed, bleak), but engaging story. It takes the “alone in a space station” genre and at least partly subverts some of its normal patterns. The archetype of such a story involves acquiring knowledge (what happened?) or achieving solutions (rescue, rehabilitation). Not so here. The protagonist (Charlotte) will not be able to find out (and nor will we) what has put her there: an accident, to be sure; but is it Charlotte’s fault? Or is that simply her fear? She will not achieve salvation or rescue. She will not conquer her fear.

Another paradox: it is not even really a game about being alone. Charlotte is separated from others, but not incommunicado. A lot of the story, indeed, unfolds in sending or receiving emails. And even without the emails, those back at base on earth seem to have a fair idea what is going on on the station: where she is, what she is doing.

I enjoyed the story as a psychological exploration. I also admired the way the emails were managed, through a programmed interface which really resembled an email client (though oddly one in which the newest emails appeared at the bottom of the list, which seems a strange decision). I thought the sense of mystery, too, was nicely judged – the way the story presented questions, but declined to provide definitive answers was unsettling in all the right ways. I rather wished it had been a bit longer, deeper, perhaps more interactive. For instance, I would have liked it if the dream sequence had included interactive elements.

I did have a few issues with the interface. I can’t agree that insisting on a very long (160 character) line is sensible; though it worked for the emails, it made ordinary text troublesome to read. I understand that it was done in order to enable Charlotte’s thoughts on the emails she reads to be presented as marginalia. But the advantage of that was doubtful, and I thought the thoughts could just as easily have been placed at the end. Nor did I like the way that incoming emails were placed on the screen as if on an old-fashioned teletype. It is possible to increase the speed; but this had some unfortunate side-effects, notably the increasing of the speed during a dream sequence so that I couldn’t read it all.

As others have remarked, the translation is for the most part excellent. I did find a few cases where the English wasn’t quite correct, a few where it didn’t seem idiomatic; and one or two places where comparing the French I thought the English had introduced some slightly different shade of meaning. But generally it was very convincing and didn’t get in the way at all.[/spoiler]

Overall, then, I found this a very carefully constructed short story – in its design, its writing and translation, and its programming.

Koustrea’s Contentment

Jeremy Pflasterer

Tads 3

I was slowly seduced by this game, though I got nowhere near to finishing it – even using hints and eventually the walkthrough – in the course of the two-hour judging period.

The following contains only the lightest of possible spoilers.

[spoiler]This is a wide, puzzly sort of game, set in a bizarre house, inhabited by strange people with odd names. You are given no clue why you are there; or what you are supposed to be doing. The existing inhabitants, weirdly, seem to know who you are and to be expecting you. Each seems to be in the grip of some sort of obsession. Certain things become … well, “clear” is perhaps too strong a word, but at least strongly hinted. They have been here for ages; this is a place where if anything happens, ever, it happens incredibly slowly.

It remains quite uncertain, however, what you are trying to do, at least on a grand scale, beyond exploring this strange place. I was still far from sure about this by the time I stopped playing. Some short-term goals do, however, present themselves. There are places you obviously want to try to get to, but can’t; there are objects which can obviously have potential uses or secrets, but which need to be got to function. Within a fairly short term, there are enough of these short-range puzzles to keep one busy. I managed (sometimes alone, sometimes with the help of hints) to solve some of these. But even after doing so, I was not much closer to any sense of what Koustrea should be doing, though it is fair to say that I had some sense of wishing to escape from the rather static and claustrophobic house; but I didn’t feel much closer to any idea of how I should be doing that.

There’s quite a lot here that wouldn’t normally be my cup of tea. A broad geography with low narrative thrust, repetitive and passive NPCs rooted to the spot, no clarity of motivation or source of tension: these are things about which I often feel very lukewarm, to say the least. But in fact I was gradually drawn in. The environment was sufficiently intriguing, and is constructed in such a way that its technical limitations are not too jarring. Take the passive NPCs. In the ordinary way, this sort of behaviour seems very unnatural; but the game here embraces its oddness – passive repetition is the hallmark of the people here, and it becomes part of the fabric of the story to understand this oddness as a feature. And if there was not much happening, there is still plenty to see and explore. There were strange objects, and enough unanswered questions (What is this place? What has happened here? Who are these people? What should I be doing?) to keep me wanting to find out just a bit more. There was a sort of Mervyn Peakeish quality to this which I liked.

The puzzles depend on extensive and sometimes only obliquely hinted exploration and thought; but I can’t say that I found them enormously stimulating, because they seemed to reward thoroughness rather than deep understanding or careful planning. Sometimes they were a bit “sloggy”, or required sloggy actions – such as examining the golden door thirty times, or waiting repeatedly for a pot to fill with water. But they were well beyond the find-key-use-key variety, and overall I found them frustrating in the right way. The real satisfaction here is not so much solving the individual puzzles as the new things, places or information they open up.

The implementation seemed (especially given how much there is here) very solid indeed. The descriptions were not excessively detailed, but they were evocative and accurate, and there was a good depth of implementation for scenery and actions, well beyond those that were simply required to finish the game. In a game that encourages exploration, that’s important. There were a few (but only a few) typos or spelling errors (the most obvious: “cylindar” for “cylinder” in a prominent object). I sometimes found that synonyms were missing. I encountered one slightly buggy moment involving a disambiguation loop I didn’t seem able to resolve, and I found the ask/tell system (otherwise reliable) was reluctant to work out who I wanted to talk to until I had started talking, despite a claim that it would – so my first question had to be “ASK BOB ABOUT WIDGETS” not just “A WIDGETS”, though thereafter that would do fine. I would have been grateful for a bit more help with navigation, and indeed a GO TO command would have been welcome, because there’s quite a lot of moving around required. In one location it turns out that many apparently viable exits are not, and it would have been a kindness to adjust the exits listed in the status line as the truth revealed itself. But as should be apparent, these are really very minor quibbles; for as long as I played this it seemed, despite its complexity, rock solid.[/spoiler]

So my general impression, after a slow start, was pretty positive. It looks as if this is a solid and substantial piece, with a bit of an “old school” vibe, but enough originality and intrigue in the world-building to make it much more than merely an exercise in nostalgia. It’s unquestionably too long to finish in two hours, and in the end (not having done so!) I have to reserve judgment to a degree, because I can only really guess whether the questions and tensions that I could feel building up would end up being resolved in a way that was satisfying or anticlimactic. I think my main doubt is over the lack of dynamism (the absence of clear main goal or motivation, or of much in the way of incident or sense of pressure). It’s clear from the walkthrough that the author regards this as a feature not a bug, and I have an inkling why that may be, given the story. But it’s a pretty big risk. It’s likely, on balance, that the design here would be improved if the “hook” (or rather the bait – the thing that draws you into the game at first) were stronger, and I can’t be completely convinced that there’s going to turn out to be enough going on to justify the demands that the author wants to place on the player’s time and patience.

In KC, did you get to the part with:


That was my favorite part of the game.

I got to a part

with a pashvod …

but I’m not sure it was the part, I was hoping

that I might be able to equip myself to confront or otherwise outwit the pashvod,

and if that’s the part you’re thinking about then, no, I didn’t get there!

Nowhere Near Single



I started Nowhere Near Single in a mixture of hope and fear. I was hopeful because I really enjoyed Kaleidofish’s Venus Meets Venus last year. I was a fearful because a combination of lesbian polyamory and the entertainment industry is a good way from my own life-experiences, and not the sort of idea that would normally have me reaching for my trackpad.

As it turned out, my fear wasn’t justified, and I enjoyed this a good deal. It’s mostly linear – it has large linear sections, where the links are simply pacing devices; but there are definite (and, usually, pretty obvious) crux points, where you get to make some sort of choice (though sometimes, I think, the choice was insignificant). Sometimes I felt a bit frustrated that the choice was between options I wouldn’t be taking, especially in the early part of the game where I found myself rather disliking the protagonist, rather keen to establish and mark some sort of emotional space between us, which the need to make choices that would not have been mine constantly threatened. Later, I found myself relaxing, warming to the protagonist, and willing to go along more with her character. This is an advantage of length. NNS is quite a long story. It unfurls slowly. There’s enough space that I often found my attitudes towards particular characters changing as things went along.

It’s all somewhat low key; mature; sensible; measured. Apart from one or two rather didactic passages, it didn’t really seem to be attempting any kind of apologia for polyamorous relationships; more a sort of realistic depiction of their pleasures and pitfalls. When I say “realistic”, I’m afraid I can’t actually judge whether it’s realistic at all; but it felt convincing, and at least it wasn’t a terrible morality story or a rose-tinted hagiography. One of the best things here is that the main characters are all flawed, and yet none of them altogether unsympathetic. It is of course, very unlike the home life of our own dear Queen; but, for all that, it doesn’t feel bizarre or (as the kids would probably try to say) “unrelatable”.

Occasionally there was the glimpse of lectern or pulpit. There was a bit of polyamory-101 at points. (But perhaps experience shows it’s needed to head-off otherwise inevitable questions about how such relationships might work.) The critique of the image-obsessed music industry mostly depended on plucking pretty low hanging fruit; but was saved from complete banality by the protagonist’s own profound commitment to its values, at least for much of the game, and by the way it functioned, as it seemed to me, as a metaphor for the protagonist’s relationship. (In both cases: an older and more experienced woman dictates a set of rules which Jerri at first accepts without question partly because she doesn’t have much choice and partly because they lead to a result which she believes to be in her best interest, though we as readers may wonder how far it is motivated by real concern for Jerry’s welfare and how much by self-interest. In both cases as Jerri becomes more experienced, she learns to question the validity of the rules and to ask in whose interest they really operate.)

Generally, speaking the story was subtle; it had interesting things to say, but they were allowed to bubble up and then settle down again. So, among the things it got me thinking about were: the exploitation of the ingenue by the experienced (both in love and in commerce); the place of “rules” in relationships, who and how they are set and what it means to accept them and keep them, accept them and break them, or reject them; how communities which reject some aspects of conventional morality can easily be just as judgmental in others; how a fictional world which is more or less entirely of one gender other than my own appears (even the existence of men is hardly acknowledged; they have I think two walk-on parts, and certainly no speaking roles). All this was done with a great lightness of touch.

Apart from the slightly clunky didactic passages, and a sprinkling of typos especially later on, this was an easy read for me, with dialogue that generally didn’t jar too much, and passages that were easy to absorb. Especially once the story really got going, I found myself absorbed.

So we end up with something that’s intelligent, measured, balanced. It’s not playing any hugely strong emotional cards, and it may suffer as a result in the competition. But consider the author’s position. Polyamorous relationships currently “enjoy” a role as a by-word for the obviously unacceptable. (During the gay marriage debate, it has been common for opponents of same sex marriage to posit slippery slopes at which the recognition of polyamorous relationships as marriages lurked close to the bottom, a whisper above Caligula and his horse; for tactical reasons, the proponents of same sex marriage generally chose not to take issue with the assumption that it would be a Very Bad Thing to give any sort of support to polyamorous relationships, denying only that the slope tended in that direction.) A darkly powerful work would have played into that negative stereotype. They also, of course, “enjoy” a long-standing role as a topic of sniggering humour; and too funny a work would have played into that negative stereotype. Which left the author with the rather difficult task of writing something which, to be positive and truthful, needed to present its central relationships as at least in some senses quite ordinary. Nowhere Near Single does manage to do that in a way that is, for me, satisfying, rather than thrilling – but that, I assume, is just the note the author wanted to hit.




Duel is a short exploration of magical strategy. You hold a small arsenal of magical champions – powerful memories that you can choose to embody and send to fight your opponent, who will respond with his own. Only experience (the experience of repeatedly being beaten) will teach you how they act, and interact, with your opponent’s arsenal. Many times you will find that you have wasted some potentially valuable resource, or gained some brief advantage that is then reversed. You can expect to die a good deal, and the game makes sure that the “bad” endings are themselves interesting. Although you have only a fairly small number of weapons, the way they can combine and the options you have to hold them in reserve and let your opponent take the initiative makes for a decent number of different options.

The writing is in quite a high register – not quite poetry, but prose that uses poetic devices and often departs from the most natural word order. It calls to be read with the sort of slow care that one might give poetry. Over a long stretch it might become wearisome, but in the sort of short bursts we have here it works well. The author often manages to find an unexpected word, or a striking image, or to lay emphasis on some particular detail in an effective way. I liked the contrast between the background (the culture in which this strange duel is not just possible but, apparently, customary) which was left a vague as if taken for granted, and the foreground (what is actually happening on the battlefield) which was concrete and specific.

The overall milieu certainly has elements of the nightmare-grotesque of the kind that I’ve come to associate with some Twine pieces (I’m thinking not just of Porpentine, but also of Horse Master, for example). Consider, for instance, this account, describing one of your champions

The temptation, given such a macabre idea, must be to up the ante. But, although the rhythm and word order here is not that of normal prose, it’s beautifully restrained and controlled. And although the general atmosphere is not entirely original, the details are.

This restraint extends to other aspects of the background. There seemed to me to be hints of the erotic in the way the game mentioned elements of restraint or pain: “… draw hard black rope against your body like a coat of string. At home, when you were practising, this had been the fun part”; “Strange to see him bound there, trussed as tightly as you are, the same black ropes pressing vivid against his skin”; “You reach out for a promise, and the teeth against your throat are a hundred tiny kisses”. But if it’s there, it’s very subtle, a whispered voice in the background so quiet that you wonder whether you’ve heard it or imagined it. In similar vein, the game never really explains in detail the background to this duel, but it often uses vocabulary which gestures towards some rather clear set of social expectations: “it is customary” or “unorthodox” to do this or that; some particular move is met with the terse comment “very well”. This sort of effect, barely noticeable when it works, as it does here, is difficult to get right.

My main reservation is about how the delivery of the text interacts with the game mechanic. To solve the puzzle, the game has to be repeatedly replayed; it would be quite surprising to hit on the necessary technique without several attempts. But repeated replays involve repeatedly seeing much of the same text. That’s not mostly a problem in itself. But I found (and I doubt I’m unique) that when I thought I was seeing “old” text, I didn’t really read it properly, but just scanned it. And that’s not really a problem in itself, either – but it leads to quick and careless reading, and in that quick and careless reading it’s easy to miss text that is actually new, or not to give it the attention it deserves. I have no idea about the technical possibilities here, but it would have helped me if there had been some way, on repeated re-playings, to abbreviate or bypass material that you had already seen, and perhaps to skip through linear sections (such as the binding that begins the game). Perhaps that’s very hard to do. But I think that it would strengthen the experience quite a bit, because it would mean that new material got properly read.

A secondary reservation is more a wish than a complaint. The reticence with which the game addresses the background left me wanting to understand more: about my opponent, about this ritual, about the challenge, about my training, about the society and culture from which I sprang. I assume that this has been left sketchy on purpose, and in general that’s an effective decision. I certainly don’t want some great dump of information. But it would have been nice if repeated play-throughs had had a pay-off not only in terms of gradual mastery of the mechanic, but also some further insight into the situation. As it was, I felt that I’d grasped more or less all there was to grasp of that after the first couple of play-throughs, so that later attempts were really exclusively focussed on manipulating my resources, and the only reward I was going to achieve was success or failure.

On balance, however, I was pleased with this. It isn’t trying to be hugely substantial. It’s a bite-sized snack, meant for reasonably quick play and replay. But it’s a snack which has obviously been carefully prepared, and I enjoyed it.


Brendan Patrick Hennessy


(You dream you are a reviewer. You sit in a marble academy, wearing some sort of pink and gold velvet suit. A harrassed looking bird wearing three different pairs of spectacles bustles up to you.)

READER: State your job title.

YOU: Critic!

READER: O! Puhhhhleeeeassse!

YOU: OK Reviewer.

READER: And what is the function of a reviewer.

YOU: It’s our job to say what is good and bad about games in the IfComp, as we see it …

READER: The purpose of a reviewer is to pontificate on the aesthetic success of those who have contributed games to this competition, subjectively speaking?

YOU: In a sense, though I don’t like your tone so much.

READER: Very well. Demonstrate the behaviour of a human reviewer.

(You search for your old review of Bell Park, Youth Detective in the 2013 IfComp. After a certain amount of searching you find it, and wave the screen at the reader, who pecks at it sceptically.)

YOU: Look, here is one I wrote about a game by this very author a couple of years ago.

READER: Indeed it appears to be. When you described this previous competition entry as a “near miss”, were you proud of those twor words? Did you experience a feeling of smugness that you were able to demonstrate a finely attuned palate and a highly discriminating taste?

YOU: Well, I hope not. I was just, well, I was just saying what I felt. The impression of smugness, well, it kind of goes with the territory, I suppose. You can’t make an omelette without breaking …

(The reader-bird assumes a pained expression and you regret your choice of cliche.)

READER: And what emotional condition do you find yourself in now when you consider your previous de-haut-en-bas damning-with-faint-praise?

YOU: (Blushing.) I feel a bit shamefaced, to be frank.

READER: Is this emotional reaction produced by any consciousness of having reached an unreasonably conclusion with respect to the author’s previous publication?

YOU: No … but Birdland is so very good, so pitch-perfect, that I feel like one of those people who said Beethoven’s music theory was shaky, or gave Albert Einstein a C in maths, or accused Napoleon of lacking ambition.

READER: You fear that your critical faculties will be exposed to general ridicule, and you yourself pilloried as a charlatan?

YOU: Well. … I would rather just think that Birdland quite brilliantly gets right those little things that the earlier game didn’t, and gets even better the things it was already good at.

READER: But can you not find some aspect of the piece that can be subjected, if not to withering criticism, then at least to a modicum of sneeriness, which we all so rather enjoy?

YOU: Actually, I can’t. It’s just manages to be fun and touching and funny and cleverly written and unexpected and . . .

(You seem to find yourself going a little weak at the knees. A bird, dressed in a white coat, with a stethoscope (or perhaps a worm) around its “neck”, and a strange sort of mirror-like thing attached to its head, arrives to administer the kiss of life, or some equivalent procedure.)

DOCTOR BIRD: Tsk, tsk. Such uncharacteristic behaviour on the part of the reviewer makes me fear for his sanity. He seems to have developed some sort of a crush on this Birdland fellow and it is rotting his already feeble wits. If someone would be good enough to pass me a bicycle pump and and a hacksaw, we can get his chest open and normal service will resume shortly.



Inform 7

Ether is interesting, not run-of-the-mill. You are an ancient creature, manoeuvring in a three-dimensional world (for most of the game, air). It is an open and seemingly continuous space (a nine-by-nine cube, apparently), and you can move freely, so that NEU (north + east + up) or SWD (south + west + down) are viable directions. Although continuous, the space is not uniform: it has different characteristics of pressure, temperature and wind in different places. You are (to some extent at least) aware of what is going on elsewhere in the space: of something happening far to the east, or way below you. You play mostly by moving around this space, finding and using objects. As the game develops, there’s the germ of a story about creating, or at least being in some way complicit in creating, a new world, and some rather gentle puzzles – perhaps that even makes them sound harder than they are, say “tasks” – need to be accomplished to achieve this.

I enjoyed the uncharacteristic open-ness and sense of continuity here. And I thought that some of the puzzles (notable those that involved making use of the physical characteristics of the space to break open containers) were well thought through and rewarding in the right way. But overall the game didn’t seem quite sure of itself, and didn’t make the most of its own possibilities. It seemed to me that there were three issues.

[spoiler]First, strange as it is for me to say such a thing, I found the puzzles rather too easy. Since there’s nothing intrinsically interesting about most of the “landscape” here, the game is all about what you do with it, or in it. The game made something out of this with the two puzzles I’ve already mentioned (opening the vacuum bottle and the chest – though in one case I “solved” the puzzle by pure chance). But mostly it seemed rather too simple. I’d rather expected, for instance, that the game might require rather careful planning to work out what order to collect objects in before they became inaccessible; but it doesn’t seem to, and the walkthrough suggests that the order isn’t critical. A “spatial” puzzle isn’t a common thing in IF, and it would have been good to see rather more made of it.

Secondly – to resort to a much more common complaint – the puzzles seemed a bit random and unmotivated. Maybe I was missing something, but it wasn’t immediately obvious to me why the particular objects that appeared were critical, or indeed why they had the effect that they had. It may be that I am missing something, and that if only I could remember chemistry I would instantly see the significance of the combination of gold and toluene, say. But at any rate, I didn’t.

Thirdly, given that the design can’t really be said to focus on puzzles for their own sake, but tends to give some prominence to the story, I found that story rather vague and ungraspable. There was a sort of general rumble of cosmic significance, but it was full of loose ends and lacking in specifics. That general sense was not helped much by the relative paucity of things to see, and the unavoidably generic list of snippets of information about where you are and what is where. There were some moments (such as early on in the game when you encounter the red ice, and right at the end when you encounter the bathysphere) when the writing managed to advance the story through specific detail, but much of the rest seemed to be either rather empty or to put “tell” rather firmly ahead of “show”. Nor did there seem to be much at stake; there wasn’t much in the way of tension or choice – simply a set of tasks to be accomplished.[/spoiler]

So maybe in the end I don’t think this every quite ignites, because it doesn’t manage to produce either a narrative or a set of challenges that really match or make the best use of its central mechanic. I was left with a sense of promise slightly unfulfilled, as if someone had built a Ferrari and then used it to do the grocery run. I wished that having come up with a really bright idea and implemented it well, the author could have found something a bit more juicy to do with it. But it’s more than just an interesting experiment: it’s solidly crafted, player-friendly, and well worth the rather small amount of time it demands.

Laid Off from the Synasthesia Factory

Katherine Morayati


Laid Off is doing a number of interesting things – technically, artistically, even in terms of the basic assumptions about what interactive fiction consists of. I found it difficult to grasp, and in some ways frustrating. But it feels like an important experiment. I played (not the right word) / read (not the right word) / used (not the right word) it several times.

So what sort of thing is this? Well, in some respects it seems to resemble the fairly familiar form in which you explore an environment and gradually develop a story and, perhaps more importantly, reveal a backstory. Generally, in this sort of structure, the story is the tip of the iceberg, the backstory much more substantial. Among games in this IFComp that I have already reviewed, Life on Mars? exemplifies this structure.

At root, as far as I could tell, this is the essential underlying structure here. But the feeling is subtly different. I can’t quite put my finger on exactly why this is. Partly it’s because the game/story/thing abandons the convention that your main mode of interaction with the world is visual, blurring the line between examining some visible object and thinking about or otherwise contemplating something or someone elsewhere. This aspect I found entirely successful. Partly it is because the story advances in some sense in spite of you. If you do nothing, or if you try to do something that the game doesn’t understand or thinks is wrong, you will still get (mostly) substantive text.

I’m not sure this really works. Consider the following exchange:

Now of course those are silly examples. But the game will respond similarly to more reasonable (but not understood) commands. This turned out to be rather distancing for me, because I never knew whether I was getting a response which happened to be apparently appropriate, or one which actually was genuinely the result of something I had done.

[spoiler]The same applied to making the game actually respond. The help text suggests that the author’s idea of story generation does include some sense of collaboration with the player – some sense in which the player is to be given some form of agency. But I found it hard to grab any. I spent a long time, for instance, trying to change my clothes. Everything suggested this should be possible: my description, the description of the clothes in the dresser, the general circumstances. But I couldn’t seem to find the right words. But rather than getting what you might call “honest” feedback, a clear indication that the attempt had failed, I would get these apparently encouraging responses. The feeling was of an attempt at communication which had nearly succeeded, but never quite did.

I had similar problems at a later point in the game, when I wanted to take a turn off the highway which would take me to Russell’s house. There were plenty of things to make me think I should be able to do this; but the game simply didn’t acknowledge the attempt, but just continued on its own sweet way. This was simply frustrating, because I couldn’t work out whether the problem I was enountering was an in-game artifact (a refusal or inability on the part of the PC to do what I wanted to try), or just a failure on my part to hit the right command at the right moment. The absence of SAVE and UNDO doesn’t help here.

I had trouble at other points too. Right at the climax of the story,I kept finding I couldn’t really do anything. I got a hint from reading another review, but it wasn’t to do something I would ever have thought of doing myself. I also found that I saw things that looked buggy: in one case some corrupted text; sometimes some text out of order; sometimes sets of asterisks (used as section markers) with nothing in between. Replays began to grate: as with Duel very text heavy games which require frequent replay are a bit difficult, because however fresh text looked the first time you saw it, it doesn’t hold the same interest when repeatedly reheated – and there’s a lot of text.[/spoiler]

Finally, and at this juncture we’re getting into the definitely subjective and personal, I wasn’t really sold on the story. Some of it seemed a bit pat: the spooky emotion-manipulating hi-tech company; its corporate ways; the rather rom-commish bitter-sweet relationship. The PC was obviously smart and clever: so why so wet? It wasn’t really ringing true for me. But that, I think, says as much about me as it does about the piece: I just happen to have other preoccupations.

What I unequivocally admired and enjoyed was the writing. It’s always good, and sometimes excellent. It has a distinctive tone, which is fresh and filled with dry humour. Really first rate.

So where do we end up? Laid Off is a really well-written piece, trying to do something original in an original way, and absolutely worth playing with. It’s a carefully planned and substantial experiment, which must have been a labour of love to write. But in the end, I wasn’t sold on it, mostly because I found it difficult to “steer” the story, and partly because it wasn’t a story I was particularly interested in steering. The design decisions (especially the decision to have constant forward movement) are clearly motivated by careful thought, but sometimes they didn’t quite work for me. I think it ends up being more interesting for the seasoned IF player who is interesting in seeing how the medium can be used in a way that only approximates the traditional interface than it would be to the complete newcomer whose interest was story driven.

TOMBs of Reschette

Richard Goodness


I think I might now be sated – bloated, perhaps – with knowingly nostalgic dungeon crawlers. I can see why it is a tempting idea. On the one hand, there’s some genuine nostalgia there; a sort of comfort food. On the other hand, of course, it can’t be played quite straight – that would be too guilty an indulgence. So we end up with the equivalent of the artisan burger or the gourmet pop tart: something that must preserve just enough of the unhealthy simplicity of the original to be comforting, but substitute just enough acid and bitter to be respectable.

This is not to say that it cannot work, and work well. Endless, Nameless, of course. But I wonder how much mileage there is left in it. Like it’s comestible cousins, the first encounter is amusing, but it depends too much on a small number of rapidly predictable gimmicks.

So I began playing TOMBs without very high hopes. It seemed as conventionally unconventional as a hipster coffee shop: a pixellated font, over references to XP points and stats, a faux-mediaeval dungeon crawling theme, references to hunting wumpuses. And of course (because this is made, of course, for the lover of artisan irony) there were plenty of reminders of how stupidly random and morally suspect this all was. And so I was more-or-less thinking “Ugh! Not another spoonful of gourmet hot dog”, and ready to move on.

But in fact I’m glad I didn’t, because although I don’t think that TOMBs is quite as funny or as original as it seems to think it is, there definitely is more to it than mere nostalgia-with-a-knowing-wink. Gradually, as I blundered around, I found little puzzles, and the little puzzles were combined into something that did more than simply sneer at its archetype, but actually played productively with its assumptions, in a way that was reasonably satisfying. It’s still not quite wholesome: there is too much nostalgic pastiche and it scores too many easy points. But it’s neatly put together, and more than the sum of its parts. Its main weakness is that it’s very dependent on finding the thread that needs to be pulled. But I ended up getting much more out of it than I expected.

That should not, however, be read as any encouragement to others to produce further exercises in disingenuous nostalgia. It really is getting old (again).

[spoiler]You can OPEN DRESSER and then GET CLOTHES, which will put on a random item. You can G until you wear what you want (up to 7 times).

I haven’t yet figured out if it makes a difference what you wear, though. In one playthrough I did see something about regretting not changing clothes, but I’m not clear on whether it actually affects the ending otherwise…[/spoiler]

Actually it’s Jeremy Pflasterer

but thanks for the exceptionally well-written and well-considered review, especially in light of the time constraints and sheer number of games you have to deal with! Kudos, my friend.

I’m very sorry to make such a careless mistake. Corrected.

[spoiler]This quite illustrates the problem. I tried various things (having opened the dresser) – I can’t remember exactly what but I think EXAMINING the dresser, LOOKING IN the dresser, EXAMINING clothes, certainly REMOVING the dress, even CHANGING clothes (which was a phrasing I think suggested by one of the responses I got, unless it was just a stupid idea of my own) – but I didn’t hit on the correct one, which doesn’t seem intuitive to me because I generally choose an outfit rather than selecting things at random. In a more conventional game, I think, I could expect some feedback that would guide me towards the right phrasing, but although I realised I hadn’t hit the right form of words and was fairly certain that there was a right form of words to hit, I didn’t get the sort of nudge that would help me understand what I was doing wrong. I’m quite certain the same goes for leaving the highway at exit 49: it’s quite clear that it must be possible, but none of the things I tried (TURN, TURN RIGHT, EXIT) worked. I can’t remember now if I tried TAKE EXIT 49. And in each case you are on a timer, very tight in one case, and so if you don’t hit the right form of words at the right time, the moment is lost.

It’s quite important to realise I think that this is not laziness but a deliberate decision. The trouble with the conventional sort of nudging (“You’re not the kind of person who can pick an outfit like that – you really need to try things on and see what feels right.”) introduces a third “voice” to the narrative – the voice of the “game”, which is not the voice of the character. I may be barking up quite the wrong tree, but I thought this is what KM was trying to avoid, and I can see why, because it’s often a rather irritating voice (observe how patronising that message I just invented is). So the experiment in eliminating it is coming from somewhere I can totally understand; but every solution is a new problem.[/spoiler]