PaulS Reviews

Since I don’t have a blog, I thought I’d post short reviews in a thread here, as some others are. I’ll put anything even possibly spoilery in spoiler tags. I’m not going to give scores, because they may well change, but I will try to summarize my thinking. I won’t necessarily review every game I play, because there are some entries that I don’t think I’ll have anything useful to say about.


Will Hines. Inform 7.

[spoiler]A very short work, essentially puzzle-free (just one simple puzzle at the end), largely dependent on the device of using objects to prompt a gradual revelation of back story. This is touching in a sentimental sort of way, but essentially one-dimensional. I didn’t feel that there was really any opportunity either for choice (which, given the situation, probably makes sense) or for deep exploration (which doesn’t really make sense). The essential mechanic involves finding particular objects. There’s really only one way through, and the search for it is not intrinsically interesting; nor, so far as I could see, were there byways to explore.

On the plus side: tidy prose with sentimentality just under control – but rather cloying, nonetheless (monotonous tone of nostalgia, too much sweet; no bitter). Bug free and well proofread – and there’s much to be said for a short and well-polished game over some shaggy monster. On the negative side: the emotional tug seems stale, banal. So that the game is essentially a grind to a not-terribly-interesting conclusion. After-death experience has been done to death, and beyond, in recent years.

In short: I thought this was competent, but unambitious; almost formulaic. It’s likely to end up somewhere in the middle of my scores, because I can’t actively dislike it or resent it, but I didn’t get much out of it either. I’d like to see the author putting his solid technical skills behind something with more passion, more energy.[/spoiler]

Bell Park, Youth Detective

Brendan Patrick Hennessy

Hypertext (Twine?)

[spoiler]A humorous (faux) detective story. There’s not much to see here, really: the story runs pretty solidly on rails (any apparent choice seems to be strictly illusory, at least so far as I could see); and the twist-in-the-tail is not unexpected (indeed, I had predicted it pretty early on).

The great strength of the game is the quality of the writing: at a “micro-level” it’s amusing, though not quite laugh-out-loud funny. But although the writing-as-in-the-prose is good, I didn’t find the writing-as-in-the-structure nearly as sound. It’s got the sort of premise that I think sometimes gets described as “zany”. Of course, it’s perfectly possible to do “zany” in a way that brings forth the necessary suspension of disbelief. That didn’t work for me here, I think, because the game wanted me to combine a belief in the near-impossible with a very mundane my-crappy-conference kind of setting which, apart from the grotesquely improbable things that were happening, was all-too-believable. Nor did I think it made very good use of the interactive element: there were big text dumps, and little player-agency. I think the author wanted to play with genre conventions and stereotypes; but for me it didn’t quite work.

So a near miss, I think, though I don’t want to make it seem like a chore, because it’s short, and the writing is good. Just a pity that it was not in the service of a rather slicker plot. Because of the excellent prose and the fact that it didn’t outstay its welcome, I’d expect this to finish towards the top of the middle of my pack.[/spoiler]


Rob Parker


[spoiler]I changed my mind about this – several times. The first time I played through this, I didn’t really get much out of it: it seemed like a my-shitty-apartment game, only overwritten. I couldn’t really get it to do anything; I didn’t like the tone.

The second time I played it, I had a much better time. I managed to pull a thread which injected some sort of narrative – hazy, confusing, but still a narrative, and a narrative which seemed to break out of the rather hermetically egotistical impression I’d had on the first run through, and suggest a reading in terms of political satire. And perhaps I was going slower, or in a more poetry-reading frame of mind, but I found the writing better this time too.

So at this point I was quite the enthusiast, but as I came to write this review I replayed the game, and I’ve lurched back. Two things bother me. First, I think the narrative aspect of the story (loosely, the things – whatever they are – that are happening outside) is too inaccessible. The presence of gaps, illogicalities, surreal or trippy or dreamy elements, is now familiar in a certain school of Twine games, and can be very effective. But here it is taken to an extreme, to the point where as a reader you feel constant uncertainty that you are doing anything other than projecting your own ideas into the narrative white noise that the game creates.

Secondly, I’m afraid I think the writing needs a sceptical edit. There are some nice touches, but it’s too adjectival, puffy, imprecise. Consider, for instance:

Leave on one side the typo (which is a one-off, and could happen to anyone: the text is largely error free). It’s not clear to me what the point of this is. The fact that things are inscrutable has no bearing on their happening one after another. Perhaps what is inscrutable is the connection between these happenings. But if that is what the author means, it is not what he has said. And what are we to make of “Things rarely go according to plan, even when the plans are ex post facto.” That “things rarely go according to plan” is a dull commonplace (and false?). What exactly an ex post facto plan might be, and what it would mean for things not to go (have gone?) according to it, I don’t know.

Taken as a whole, there’s real talent and real ambition on display here. Strong atmosphere, a sense of place and weirdness, and some moments of solid writing. It’s bleak, angry, not a feel-good piece; but there’s room for bleak anger. But it would benefit from a rather pedantic and practical-minded critic who could periodically tap the author on the shoulder and say “What precisely do you mean by this?” When you say “flakes of flesh” are on the floor, do you mean flakes of skin? Did you mean to refer to the “reek” of black flames in one line, and to a “reeking” futon in the next?

So I’m not really sure, in the end, what I make of it. I find myself quite intrigued by it, but also actually a bit annoyed. Wherever I end up placing the game, I’m interested to see more of Rob Parker’s work.[/spoiler]

Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder

Ryan Veeder

Inform 7 / Glulx

[spoiler]A fun romp. This is – explicitly – a treasure hunt. The central puzzle consists in prioritising tasks. And the essential reward consists of the neat writing (which has real humour and character): it’s not really about winning, but about taking part, enjoying the comments the Captain makes, and so forth. It’s a casual game in every sense, and it’s not going to change the world (it’s not trying to), but it’s good fun, and in its quiet way nearly flawless. Because the text is so good, because the world that is built is so intriguing, you want to explore, to experiment, to see what will happen.

Nearly flawless … but not quite. With a game like this, I’d like to want to replay it lots. But I didn’t find that. I played a few times, just long enough to get some of (what seemed to be) the main treasures and to figure out (1) that there didn’t seem to be some huge alternative payoff – you don’t seem to be able to save the ship, or kill the captain, or do anything drastic like that – so in the end it really is just going to be a question of which treasures you happen to have and (2) it seems to be utterly deterministic: all the same things will be in all the same places, and the Captain will make all the same remarks and so forth. So the flaw is, I think, that although Veeder gives us great playability, he doesn’t give great replayability.

My other niggle – which sounds really silly, but in a game this polished is noticeable – is that the compass directions said “forward”, but the game would not accept “forward” as a synonym for “fore”. This grated, but it’s easily fixed.

A game this light would have to be polished beyond brilliance to deserve to win. But there’s a lot to like in a game that is really trying to please its player, and this player was really pleased and liked it a lot. I’d expect it to finish high, though not right at the top of my final scores. And I think it could go down big with the non-IF crowd, especially if the replayability was improved.[/spoiler]


Alex Warren


[spoiler]Another one I find difficult, because it’s a mix of good and not-so-good, and because as a Londoner it has a special resonance for me. The result is a long review. Short story: this is a technically clever game, well polished and demonstrating Quest’s abilities as a hypertext engine – but in the end it doesn’t work, because it forces the player to make endless unimportant choices, but gives no opportunity to make important ones.

Let’s start with the story. You are on your morning commute, on the London Underground. As you head towards your place of work you have limited choices: to examine fellow-passengers who come and go from the train, and (at stations) to get off the train and change trains. At some point you choose or are forced off the train to work, and then roam around the subway for a while, getting on and off trains and examining passengers.

Now the mechanics of this are quite impressive in some senses: Alex Warren has actually built an accurate underground simulation in hypertext. True, it restricts you to the central stations: but they are all present and correct (and even equipped with little snippets of information about underground history from time to time, like closed stations). Similarly with the characters. We have a big cast; I couldn’t quite work out if there arrival is random or not, but I think it largely is. Each character comes with some descriptive text. And since you might examine them repeatedly, there are repeated descriptions in some cases.

The trouble is that travelling around the London tube and looking at people – who are described through the eyes of a jaded, cynical, rather tiresome PC – is … not really thrilling. There’s precedent for tube-based fiction, notably Geoff Ryman’s very interesting novel 253 (which I highly recommend). But Ryman’s novel works because you get to see inside the passengers’ minds, so that it breaks down the experience one has as a subway passenger of being in the midst of ciphers. Moquette doesn’t do that. So the basic mechanic is a bit dull: rather like being on the tube.

So Warren has superimposed a surreal little story: you decide not to go to work after all, at some point you meet a girl (Heather) on whom you have a crush, at various points you experience hallucinations (or flashbacks) to the tube of the past, where people could smoke and wore bowler hats, and right at the end there’s a surreal little scene in a “Private ROD” cupboard, where the PC is effectively encouraged to break free of the player’s control.

I thought there were the germ of some rather good ideas in all that, but that side of the story really runs on rails. So when you do meet Heather, you have no choice about what to say to her. Effectively, the central scene is a cut scene. True, there is some clever technical stuff going on around the edges. For instance, the final scene “recaps” where you have gone and who you have seen, and it varies depending on the path you took. But most people won’t notice that, I suspect, and anyway it doesn’t really amount to choice.

Another example. The PC works at Liverpool Street, we re told. Once it became clear that the game didn’t want me to get there, and forced me off the train, I fought back, and managed to sneak my way to Liverpool Street by a circuitous route. But when I got there the game didn’t acknowledge, in any way at all, what I had done. It gave me no option to go to work. And it gave me no reason why I couldn’t. There simply was no way out.

In other words: the game gives me unimportant choices (stay on the train, get off it, change lines, look at this passenger or that). But it won’t let me make any important decisions – it won’t let me make any decisions that matter for the story. Now I don’t know if that is part of the message. If so, there’s a double irony. Just as the PC complains that the player has been making his choices, so it turns out that the player … hasn’t really been making any important choices! For me, if this is the intended message, it is insufficiently interesting to compensate for the absence of any real sense of agency throughout the rest of the game.

The piece is intended, as I understand it, in some way as an advertisement for Quest. In that, I think, it succeeds – at least in an advertisement for using it to write quite complicated hypertext games, which run smoothly and look excellent. It all looks very neat and tidy, and there were some clever visual effects too, judiciously used. All this in addition to what I suspect is some quite careful tracking of state behind the scenes. The photographs at beginning and end are outstanding; the typeface (Gill, I think, but evoking the Johnston’s classic LU typeface) nicely matched. These are tiny touches, but they add up to a slick package.

The writing is workmanlike rather than lovely. The cynical “isn’t everyone including me terrible” voice grates a bit, but it fits the piece, and I confess to smiling at some of the stereotypical Londoners on the tube. With so much description to write, it’s not surprising that some was perfunctory. And in other places I felt that some editing and cutting would have tightened things up. But on the whole it seemed pretty solid, and sometimes better than that.[/spoiler]


Andrew Schultz

Inform 7

[spoiler]A crossword-puzzle that is not at war with a story, because there’s no story to speak of. Not, to be frank, really my thing – but that doesn’t mean I can’t admire the tidy idea, nicely done.

That said, I think I’d have enjoyed it more if there had been a more gentle introduction (so I felt that I was grasping the mechanic in a way that was not pure guesswork), and if there had been more scope for exploration alongside the puzzle-solving – more by way of narrative, backstory, cool things to find or see, chances to talk to people and so forth to accompany the puzzles. There were occasional random messages about things happening around me, but I couldn’t really pursue them, and like most random messages they became monotonous quite quickly. Generally, the only reward for solving a puzzle was the sense that you had solved a puzzle and not any additional reward.

So … not something I’m really motivated to play through to a conclusion: I got some way, and then simply got bored. But that’s more a reflection on my personal preferences than on the game, which does what it sets out to do in a well-crafted way, and I imagine will be greatly enjoyed by those who enjoy this sort of puzzle.[/spoiler]

9 Lives

Various authors d/b/a “Inform Storm”

Inform 7

[spoiler]Not really a single piece, but a loose collection of rather unpolished scenes, linked together by the idea that good people progress to higher levels of being, while bad ones sink. I didn’t get much out of this, and it was frustrating that, try as I might, I couldn’t actually do the thing in the very first scene which would have taken me to lower levels, so I could only explore part of the game. Whether this was a bug, or my own stupidity, I can’t say. It does mean that I might have missed something wonderful on a level I didn’t get to play.

This seems to be a sort of collective demonstration of the ability of a group of people, with the aid of Inform, to write a simple game. I suppose it succeeds in that, but I can’t say that the result is inherently satisfying; one might have hoped that with such short scenes to write they could have been given a high level of polish. On the other hand, although I didn’t rate it highly, I didn’t in any way resent the short time I spent with it. Still, frankly speaking, it’s going to be fairly well down my list.[/spoiler]

Their angelical understanding



[spoiler]There are already a lot of reviews and “buzz” about this, and there deserves to be. It was, for me, quite outstanding. Rather than provide an “interpretation”, I want to spend a few paragraphs explaining what makes it stand out for me, and (not to seem like a complete fanboy) the few areas where I didn’t think it worked, or where I have reservations.

The writing

I’ve been pretty impressed this year with the quality of writing, in the Twine pieces in particular. But Porpentine stands out (with one other I will come to later). She is a maker of truly fresh and beautiful phrases and images, with precise control. Take even the title. Consider the choice of the slightly strange, slightly archaic, slightly distancing “angelical” instead of the more familiar “angelic”. This sort of thing – the sort of thing I can notice, but cannot do myself – is the mark for me of a really outstanding writer.

And it’s not just good writing. It is good writing for her chosen medium. Some games, especially Twine games, are walls of words. Not here. Everything is pared down, easily grasped, and yet containing real depth. And this heavily-freighted prose, which would become cloying in an extended work of fiction works perfectly for the sort of exposition that hypertext permits.

The use of the medium

It’s not just the prose that has been thought through – so has its presentation, the way it physically appears on the screen: font, colours, the use (not overdone) of special effects, the addition of sound. Porpentine understands better than most writers how to use hypertext links in different ways: to control pace, to allow for exploration, to permit digression. She also makes sure that choices you make count. This is not just (or even mainly) about giving the player obviously momentous choices – there’s really only one of those, I think. It’s that the apparently trivial choices (what you look like, whether you travel through jungle or desert, and so on) are vivid, and they make a difference. In many hypertext games, the choice is either ignored, or dealt with perfunctorily. Here one has the impression that choices may and do matter.

The world building

Finally there is the world building. I find this aspect of the game somewhat challenging, because I am by nature and training a dissecter, classifier, straightener. So I want (as I have seen other reviewers do) to read the story as allegorical (the angels are abusers, the “nemesis” is a family member who has facilitated abuse, and so forth), or as a dream or psychotic event, or as a mixture of dream-sequences and “reality”. The game simultaneously facilitates and resists these readings. Allegorical readings work only so far, and then the game rejects them. No boundary between “reality” and “dream/fiction/psychosis” can be kept stable. The mystery insists on remaining mysterious. One consequence of this is that readings which work in a “local” setting (the angels abused you, your nemesis pretended not to notice) become problematic when extended to the game as a whole (how does the red tile game fit into this?). In this sense too the game is poetical, since it embraces and invites plural readings and insists on remaining ambiguous.

This leads me to take reluctant issue with Victor Gijsbers’ complaint in his thoughtful review that in the end the game is peddling a rather hackneyed self-help message: “Face your fears, learn to trust in your own capacity for loving, and then everything will be all right!”. I’m not saying that this is not an element of the work, but it’s more complicated than that, I think; and it is in the complication that the beauty lies. For instance (to take two points) it’s not just about facing fears, it’s about equipping yourself to do so effectively, and finding some way to do so which may involve – as the faceless training in the monastery does – depersonalising yourself. Nor is it the case that everything is all right if fears are faced: the tile game does not make everything all right – this facing comes at a price, physical, emotional, and ethical: it requires the player to become in some senses cruel. So I don’t find the simplistic self-help optimism that Gijsbers understandably takes issue with.

This also, I think, both explains and justifies why some scenes are loosely linked: this is not a piece of marquetry, where everything is supposed to fit together neatly. It has gaps, fissures, inconsistencies and discontinuities. They are vital to it, because they invite a range of different and inconsistent readings which prevent it from becoming trite.

So … any complaints

Thus far, I’ve been overwhelmingly positive – which is how I feel. But I don’t think the game is without any fault. Although it’s one of the game’s strengths that everything doesn’t end up cut and dried and tied together, there are too many loose ends. For instance, I couldn’t get the poem recited by the woman by the tower to connect clearly to other aspects of the game. In retrospect, I think it probably is intended to open a window into the mind of one who has (or is said to have, or thinks she has) allowed a child to be harmed, thereby complicating the otherwise simplistic insistence that the harm could and should have been stopped by others. But it’s placed in such a position in the story that it’s hard to make sense of it when it first happens, and so it offers a long sequence of text whose significance is unclear. More problematic still was the sequence with the many hands which had to be disposed of. It was effective in that I hated it. And unlike Gijsbers I think it’s rather clear that hands play an important part in the game (consider the tile game); but I still found it disconnected from what was around it.


These are quibbles. Their Angelical Understanding was, for me, a really admirable, rich and wonderful experience, and I’m sure it’s going to finish very high for me.[/spoiler]

The Paperbag Princess


Inform 7

[spoiler]A thoroughly likeable adaptation of a children’s story to make a short game. I have only the vaguest recollection of the book, which presumably is responsible for the basic plot and some of the writing. Anyway, it’s a light and pleasant tale of a resourceful princess who wastes here energy trying to save a worthless prince, and repents. Feisty, feel-good stuff.

I thought for the most part that the game was excellent. There are a few very light puzzles, but for the most part they were well clued (the torch puzzle in particular was very nice and clear). The writing is nice, and I thoroughly appreciated little touches which showed that the author knew there were adults playing, like the response to “fuck prince” (though, of course, I didn’t mean it that way …) On the version I played there was a glitch where “dig rubble” didn’t work, although the game suggested it, and I note that Adri has fixed this in an update. Kudos for that – and it’s typical of a game which feels properly designed and made, where you are constantly assured that the author wants you to have a good time. And I did.

I had two real design gripes. First, I didn’t like the (pseudo-) maze. In some ways, I think, a pseudo-maze is worse than a real one, because it’s not interesting on any level: there’s nothing to see, and nothing to solve. I know why Adri wanted to give the impression of a long journey, but I think this was a poor choice of way to do that, and that we ought to have had either real locations (with things to look at) or a cut-scene. It’s been slightly improved in the update, but I think this could do with some attention when the comp is over.

The second problem was right at the end with the conversation with the dragon. I had trouble with that (as others did) identifying the triggers I needed, which has again been much improved in the update, so all is now smooth. But it would have been really cool if the dragon were equipped, beyond the few topics that really matter, with a wide range of subjects. It would have added interactivity, which the story otherwise somewhat lacks, and character and, I think, charm.

But it’s not really fair to criticise Adri for not writing the game I would have written. She’s written something charming, which goes out of its way to be thoughtful to its players, that is well-crafted, that makes it clear that the author has taken pains so that the reader will not have to. This is just how a game like this ought to be. For me, despite its light subject-matter and shortness, this deserves to finish significantly above the mass of games in middle of the field.[/spoiler]

Dad vs Unicorn

Julius Olofsson


[spoiler]Short and self-consciously bleak. You choose which of three characters to play. Dad is a cardboard villain. Child is a cardboard victim. The unicorn is an absurd force of brute male destructiveness. However it ends, it ends badly. You can neither significantly affect nor meaningfully explore the situation that is revealed.

For me this didn’t really work. I appreciated the care that had gone in to making the game: there are some small pictures, which do actually add to the piece, and the typeface and layout look good. This sort of thing matters, especially in Twine where it’s possible to do things nicely. So I appreciate it when the effort has been made. But I didn’t find the writing compelling: indeed, it seemed oddly inconsistent. For instance, I couldn’t work out what age the child was supposed to be; the clues seemed all over the place. And for me the whole thing was one dimensional, and manipulative.

That sounds a bit tetchy, and in truth I did feel a slightly positive antipathy to this. So although the decent production values will push it up a bit, this is likely to end up towards the bottom of my scores.[/spoiler]

Autumn’s Daughter

Ali Sajid Imami & Shumaila Hashmi (Devolution Games)


[spoiler]A game with a political point. The PC is a young Pakistani woman from a rural area. The game – short, and clearly designed to be re-played – explores a variety of possible outcomes, depending on how the PC responds to various possibilities when faced with a proposed forced marriage.

I’m ather resistant to overtly political art, even when I am in sympathy with the message. Politics seems to be about simplifying, setting up clear dividing lines: us and them, good and bad, friend and foe. But real life is rarely so simple, and my personal preference is toward art that recognises the moral complexity or ambiguity – flawed heroes, sexy villains, people who are not all-bad or all-good. I didn’t find that here: instead, a sort of black-and-white world in which, on the one hand, stand the forces of ignorance, reaction, patriarchal oppression and violence, and, on the other hand, of progressiveness, enlightenment, equality. And while I’m all in favour of progressive enlightened equality, part of me wants to understand, from the inside what it is that will induce people to send a daughter to be a raped and imprisoned second-wife. I didn’t get that in this piece.

Which is not to say it is not powerful. It certainly is. As a piece of propaganda, I think it works well. I was moved, upset, motivated; but it’s all (from my point of view) smug-inducing rather than challenging. I don’t really find that positive. But then again, perhaps I am not the audience, and perhaps there is an audience who might be challenged by this. Perhaps. I also think that it uses the medium well: the encouragement to replay as a way of exploring the situation is effective. But even when I agree with it, propaganda leaves me uncomfortable. Especially when I agree with it.[/spoiler]


I understand your point and grip to your feelings. I’m uncomfortable too, when somebody on my side states something that I can’t fully (or at all) agree with. These days, a lot of people is dying in our seas, refugees who drown by the hundred and all somebody had to suggest is to “force them into their own countries to avoid this massacre”. I have a harder time feeling uncomfortable when the talker shares my views, though. I actually feel a lot more like roaring “fuck, yeah!” than go awkward.

That said, and I don’t want to disagree with you or start a war: how do you tell this is a political piece? Ok, it IS propaganda, but what’s bad in propaganda for such a content? I doesn’t occur to me, in the story itself, where the author is going political. It much more sounds like a cold re-tale of an experience actually occurred (although, certainly, in third person). I’m sincerely puzzled, so I’d like to understand. Can silence be better than propaganda?

To be honest, I’m more uncomfortable with the ones (I’m not saying it is you!) who must find a balancing, reverse face of the medal to everything. “Oh, yeah, the nazis were bad, but the Partisans, too, they weren’t that good: check on how they massacred the surviving nazis when the war was over”. “Oh, yeah, he killed your wife, but you DID say he was a s.o.b, isn’t it?”
I’m exaggerating ofc. But: in my opinion there IS evil everywhere. And it’s such a plain, PERFECT evil that I can’t find a point in looking for something to smooth its corners.

As said, I’m not trying to start a war. I’m just terribly curious on the subject.

As an afterword: regarding ambiguity in character.
Nowadays, it occurs to me that the cases have ultimately reduced themselves to about nothing. We have ONLY damned heroes and “sexy” villains. In most cases, the villain is the true protagonist of whatever we read or see. The good guy is always a drunkard or a murderer himself. While the bad guy is the more and more the best there is out there. Check the Batman trilogy by Christopher Nolan: look at the Batman and then check the Joker or Bane. Who’s the coolest? Who would you like to be? But this is maybe a too straightforward example, although there are countless more out there.

I stand firmly on my feet: if there is (and there’s a lot of it) pure evil - in the case of Autumn’s Daughter, the society I guess - there is no point in finding the good parts in it. What do you think?

I could of course be wrong in categorising Autumn’s Daughter. I was going largely by my impressions of the game, and partly by the readme, which says that “This is a game which will be used to create awareness among the
Pakistanis about the way women are mistreated.”

I don’t think I made my point very clear, probably. My concern isn’t really that the game doesn’t present “both sides of the argument” or achieve “balance”. Some arguments are not balanced, and as it happens I am actually 100 per cent behind the point this game is making – so it’s not as if I don’t “fully agree” with the point that the game is making, because I do.

I’m not even talking about ethically balanced characters (“everyone must have some good in him/her”). It’s more an artistic thing, and probably a very personal preference, that for me characters that are stereotypes – that stand for the “abusive husband” or the “traditional father” or the “traditional mother” – without any deep exploration of their interior worlds, or why they are as they are, are unconvincing, and that this coarsens the work, and makes it less interesting to me, even when I do fully agree with the message, as in this case I do.

Ok, got the point. In this specific case, i fear that understanding why the father is a jackass would probably be hard, without unitentionally stating that it’s not his fault, after all. Which is probably the case, I guess, but that’s another discussion entirely.

Tex Bonaventure and the Water of Life


Inform 7

[spoiler]This is unashamedly a game, and it’s clear that a lot of thought and effort have gone into its implementation. Writing is, for the most part, better than solid, and implementation seemed sound too. There were occasional glitches (punctuation, especially, is not always perfect; from time to time an object that ought to be described slipped through) but for the most part this was well polished.

I wasn’t so sure about the design. This sort of loose collection of puzzles in a fantasy setting doesn’t do much for me, generally. To grab my interest, I need either a coherent back-story to piece together, or some sort of broad puzzle mechanic to unravel. This doesn’t have either. The puzzles are a set of individual pieces, linked only by their location and general atmosphere. And the temple and its various locations simply exist as an arbitrary collection; curiosity about how or why they are there is not encouraged or rewarded.

I’m pretty terrible at puzzles. Some of these I managed to work out for myself. Some I used the (comprehensive) hints for, and I don’t think I would ever have worked out alone. I just don’t think I would have tried to CLING TO LEDGE for instance, unless told to do it. One puzzle relied on a technique I dislike, in which an object, which ought to be in plain view, only appears when you examine another one. None seemed especially cunning. They were ultimately variations on the lock-and-key theme, where you need one particular item, used just so, in order to proceed. So although I didn’t really think they were unfair, I wasn’t blown away by any of them. I didn’t mind the rather frequent sudden death (there’s always UNDO), but I think it is possible to put the game into an unwinnable state without warning (at least, I could never find a way back through the bats, which meant that having gone that way without disabling the stick trap I was in trouble), and I don’t have much patience with that sort of thing.

So where does that leave me. Generally, I think, impressed by the solid and careful way that this has been put together, but less sold on the overall package. In the end, I’m inclined to think, this is a well done example of a sort of game that just isn’t my personal cup of tea, but it deserves to finish quite well, especially when one thinks of the huge amount of work that is required to produce something this large with such generally sound production values.[/spoiler]


Jim Q. Pfygx-Vobk

Inform 7

[spoiler]I found this rather odd. The basic idea seems to be that you play one of four boys (I wasn’t sure about their age, but I’m assuming about eleven or so) who by overcoming – each individually – an obstacle and then learning to cooperate with each other experience emotional growth. There’s the germ of an idea here that is impressive–a four character game in which the characters cooperate and in which the player might be any one is obviously going to be a bugger to write. Unfortunately, I thought that the author had bitten off rather more than he could chew, and we ended up with a work in which nothing (not the characters, or the narrative, or the environment, or the interaction between the characters) was really sufficiently deep and rounded.

The Comp is tough on games like this, I think. You can pick up quite a lot of praise for short and light diversions which are not especially technically challenging, but which have been highly refined, whereas something that sets out to achieve quite difficult effects, but doesn’t really bring it off, tends to sink. That’s a pity. But in truth, I was more intrigued by the idea and then mildly disappointed by the execution than I was pleased with this.[/spoiler]

Impostor Syndrome

Georgiana Bourbonnais


[spoiler]Another well-polished Twine piece, revealing a short story about – well, we will come to what it’s about in a moment. The interaction here is not (as far as I could work out) about directing the story along different paths. Apparently there are different endings, but I didn’t seem able to find them. The links more often involved digressions, or back story. But I still thought it was effective as a narrative technique: consciousness is, after all, a lot about digression. Mine is anyway. And so a piece that is really a stream of (self) consciousness makes good use of them.

My question is really: what is the story about? One reading, and perhaps the most obvious, is that it carries a political message about the way women are treated in the software industry in particular. The PC is a woman of colour, with a personal history of being manipulated or exploited by at least one man. The game tells the story of a vile misogynistic attack on her. In the conclusion of the piece that I found she retreats to a safe and entirely female space, where she can find allies.

Now I want to tread carefully here, for a variety of reasons: I’m a white man; I’m not in the software industry. I do know that there are vast tracts of professional life where sexism and misogyny – more or less suppressed – are powerfully at work, and I have no doubt that they continue to exact a heavy toll on many women. But my initial thoughts about the game, when this is the way I was inclined to read it, were not very favourable: it seemed too crude, too heavy-handed, too obvious.

And my reaction to the PC was not indignation but annoyance. From the start, she moans. Her friend has asked her to speak, but she insists that it is just the result of tokenism. She effects to know nothing about what she is talking about and to be boring her audience – and if that is so, one can hardly blame the audience for being bored. She expresses stereotyped views (wishing that meetings were conducted over “baked goods” and tea: a wish that I could assure her is amply fulfilled in my neck of the woods, without conspicuous victories for the cause of equality). Her constant self deprecation is trying. And when the crucial moment comes, she refuses to confront what has happened, insisting on a fatalistic approach. In short, she is rather wet.

The effect of this is to undercut the obvious message: why should the audience treat the PC as talented and entitled to respect and dignity when she doesn’t see herself that way? Why should they respond favourably to her talk when she thinks it is rubbish, and just tokenism. Read that way, the piece is not (just) about the sexism of the men, it is at least as much about the way that is internalised by the victim. The “impostor syndrome” (Wikipedia tells me it’s an actual expression, though apparently not used in quite this sense) at work here is a sort of variant on Stockholm syndrome, where the victim comes to see her own achievements as worthless, and becomes passive, accepting in some measure the viewpoint of the aggressive male egotism with which she is surrounded. The message of the piece is then that until the victim can throw off this sort of fatalistic point of view, and can understand that standing up to the aggression is something that must be done not for what it will achieve objectively, but for the sake of her own self-respect, nothing will change.

That does seem to me to make it a more interesting piece than at first I thought it was, though I can imagine a wide range of different ways of reacting to that message. I’m not intimately familiar with the internal dynamic of feminism, but I know that among gay men there is huge ambivalence and division about the extent to which one can sympathise or should criticise those gay men, for instance in some religious organisations, who have sufficiently internalised homophobia that they begin to see themselves (and to behave) as their antagonists would have them be: shameful, broken, defective. Are they part of the problem, or a symptom of the problem? Should they be looked after, or outed, or both?

So it seems to me that Impostor Syndrome turns out to be a rather cleverly written invitation to consider the difficult “chicken and egg” problems posed by oppression of groups and the way some people will internalise that, together with the ways that this vicious cycle might be broken. So read, I found it much more satisfactory, though I still wonder if it is too heavy-handed in the techniques and stories it uses to illustrate the oppressive sexism which is the root of the problem.[/spoiler]

PS: Since writing this …

I found, via other reviews, the alternative ending. As it happens, it doesn’t really change my view about the game or its message: it’s not really a call to political action, but an exploration of the personal issues which can impede effective political action and diminish the ability of a group of people to stand up together for what is right.

The Cardew House

Andrew Brown

Inform 7

Done well, a haunted house of horror with puzzles is not really my thing. And, I’m afraid, despite the enthusiastic effort that I am sure went into it, this didn’t impress me. The puzzles seemed illogical and under- or un-clued, the environment lacking in atmosphere, the writing not especially memorable. There seemed to be bugs: death just appeared to crash the interpreter. The story (while it couldn’t be called original) might have the makings of a decent halloween diversion, but it would need to be allowed to emerge creepily as the PC explored the house, rather than being delivered in bite-size chunks from a ghostly vibrator.

Saving John

Josephine Tsay


[spoiler]The basic premise (though not its detail) is revealed on the first page: you are drowning; you have a psychiatrist; in order to be saved you have to want to be saved. From this I concluded that my essential aim was to want to be saved, or perhaps to decide whether I wanted to be saved. My tools for this purpose? The conventional “life flashing before your eyes” of nos morituri. This is a convenient trick for the author, since it absolves her of having to give a coherent structure to the threads and patches of personal history that then emerge, leaving it for the reader to try to piece them together. Given a sufficiently strong story, that can actually work quite well. It’s enjoyable to puzzle over fitting fragments of some beautiful old statue. But the statue must be beautiful and old, and the fragments must be so related that they do actually fit: no great pleasure to spend time piecing together fragments only to discover it’s some piece of Lladro (apologies to Lladro lovers everywhere), or worse that it’s a few assorted bits of different Lladro figurines that don’t really match. And in this case I wasn’t sufficiently interested. The PC had a miserable life – but not really an interestingly miserable life; there was no trajectory. (Apparently the PC suffers from dissociative identity disorder. I’m not sure I’d have picked that up, if it hadn’t been for other reviews – I’d just have assumed that the PC suffered from psychotic episodes. I didn’t find that the game gave me any real sense of what it feels like to suffer with multiple personalities.)

Themes of brokenness, abuse, mental illness are, in their way, as common in Twine games as locks and keys and mazes in certain parser games. They are important themes, of course – but if you want to take on this sort of subject you have to have something fresh to say, or some fresh way of saying it, or both. A work of art does not get a pass because it deals with an important subject – as anyone who visits a modern site of Christian pilgrimage could tell you, the loftiest subjects can inspire truly terrible as well as truly great art. Saving John is certainly not truly terrible, but it didn’t strike me as fresh or urgent. The writing tries too hard; and there are just too many words – too much text, with the interactive elements not (as they do in the best Twine games) making that text deeper or richer, but simply serving as a way of rationing it out.

So, for me, this was a miss. It’s a well-intentioned miss, and there’s competence in the writing and finish, but I’m afraid it will still be in the bottom half of the pack when I come to score the games.[/spoiler]

The House at the End of Rosewood Street

Michael Thomét

Inform 7

[spoiler]This is billed as an exploration of the “uncanny, the abject, and the fantastic”. It’s clearly had some thought and effort put into it – for instance, the descriptions are detailed, the game is quite long, and effort has been made to produce things like a daily newspaper. So this is a serious effort, and it feels bad not be have only nice things to say about it. But I’m afraid I didn’t really enjoy it.

My basic problem is with the essential mechanic, which required me to do vast amounts of drudge-work, for insufficient reward. I understand that the drudgery was supposed to be annoying: that this was its point. “Show don’t tell”, they say. But it’s very risky to force the player to experience boredom, because if you succeed, you have a bored player. And for much of the game I was. Moreover, there was really no pay-back from this boredom: apart from the paper, and the occasional odd event (see below) nothing regularly changed. The scenery couldn’t be examined. The residents – a dull lot anyway – were not as far as I could see forthcoming on any possible topics of interest. So many doors knocked on in order to read one paragraph in a paper and have a dream each day.

From time to time some little task would arise to break the monotony, and the arrival of Caius and Elisabeth injected some welcome mystery. But these were not payback enough for the constant tedium. The author could have made the mystery something that the player could explore – but it seems not to be. He could have made the tasks challenging puzzles – but with one exception they are not: you either do the obvious thing (fix something, or go to the bus stop) or you have to trail round yet again in a sort of door-to-door inquiry looking for clothing or garden equipment. Not fun.

The final puzzle I actually just thought was absolutely unfair. I couldn’t possibly have understood what I was supposed to do without the walkthrough, and I still don’t understand how it fits into the logic of the game’s world or the creepy dreams. The endings were nicely done, but again not enough to compensate for the tedium.

On top of all of this, I kept encountering little technical glitches which annoyed me. The use of “left” and “right” is silly, and stopping L from meaning LOOK infuriated me again and again. The map is pointlessly broad, so there’s endless trudging through completely empty areas just to get from place to place, and no thought has been given to naming locations on the street in a way that assists quick navigation. A deliberate pause has been incorporated every time you knock on a door, which slows things down still further. Parser errors have been reworked to provide incomprehensible references to whether various people in the street would or would not appreciate you doing such-and-such a thing.

There is the germ of an OK idea in here, albeit a rather hackneyed one: establish a super-normal environment, and then let surreal or dream-like elements gradually seep into it. It’s been done before, but I daresay there’s still juice to be sucked from it. Sadly, the balance here was all wrong for me: this needed to be much tighter and deeper to have positive impact.[/spoiler]