Quackoquack's IFComp 2020 Reviews

Hello, I’ll be posting my short reviews for IFComp here!

Quick intro first: I’ve written a few small pieces of both parser and choice-based IF, and I’ve been playing and rating IFComp games for several years now. This time I wanted to try out actually posting some thoughts in public - might not be able to get through too many, we’ll see how it goes :slightly_smiling_face:

Happy to further discuss any reviewed games in this thread too.

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Seasonal Apocalypse Disorder

A fairly standard parser puzzler that doesn’t take itself too seriously. Its main selling point is the smart use of time travel mechanics (which I’ve always been a fan of!). Definitely a solid game for me to kick off my judging with, and would recommend if you’re just looking for a straightforward puzzle parser game.

The game opens up with some quick exposition: you’re a druid, sent back in time to stop a cult called the Order of Fiery Doom from burning the world down. A good premise, and I wish that there’d been a little more world-building and elaboration on it during the rest of the game. The player character also doesn’t have much personality or internal dialogue, which I missed a little.

The strength of this entry was definitely the puzzles! You jump around between four different seasons, which you satisfyingly unlock one by one, and the game eventually allows you to bring items across time with you too. I particularly enjoyed the puzzle involving the seagull (/lakegull). However, some of the puzzles felt a little arbitrary to me and I don’t know if I would have figured things out without the walkthrough, and after reaching 3 of the 8 possible endings, the narrative hadn’t quite hooked me enough to go back and try the rest.

Overall, I had fun with this though - well-implemented, with simple but effective prose and splashes of humour. The map was also helpful.

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Trusting My Mortal Enemy?! What a Disaster!

A charming and fun choice-based game, where you play both sides of a slightly unusual superhero/supervillain rivalry. Set in the modern day, the story combines over-the-top showdowns with quieter and more pensive downtime. The choices do not branch excessively and so this game may not appeal to those looking for a lot of player agency, but I enjoyed it a lot, and I think anyone looking for a lighthearted and occasionally poignant story will too.

The story is told from the POVs of Lightbearer and Promethium, the respective superhero and supervillain of Garden City. If Promethium is locked up, then Lightbearer will be reassigned elsewhere, and due to her daughter being about to graduate high school, Lightbearer wants to avoid this. And so begins a strange arrangement, where the two start meeting over coffee to plan their future “showdowns”.

I enjoyed the story and the chance to get inside both characters’ heads. All the scenes between Lightbearer (/Diana) and her daughter Allison were very sweet, and it was pleasant to see this combination of family and superhero life. Similarly, the exploration of Promethium’s (/Rachel’s) past and current loneliness was touching, and served as a nice contrast to her snarky supervillain exterior. Topics less common in superhero tales - hot flushes and cramps - also appear, which I found refreshing. The overall story of watching the two characters gradually open up to each other may have been fairly predictable, but for me that didn’t detract from the experience. (One part involving chicken soup was particularly endearing.) It was a tale less about superpowers and more about the connection between these two women, and that appealed to me a lot.

As mentioned, however, the narrative does not appear to branch too widely. Choices are less frequent than the average choice-based game I’ve played, and most of them don’t strongly impact the story. The more important choices are however helpfully highlighted (in a way that reminds me of those big choices in the Life is Strange games). I played through twice - on my first playthrough, I picked all the options to have the two trust each other more; on the second, I picked the opposite. The main divergence happened right at the end, where Lightbearer either chooses to let Promethium go and have a chance at a happy life, or calls the cops on her. I actually liked both of these endings (though I’m sure the former is intended as the better option) - the second one had a nice bittersweet touch where a remorseful Lightbearer is congratulated for her success in bringing Promethium down. It would have been nice to see a little more variation between the two routes (as it is, the second ending caught me slightly off guard as the fact that most of the text was the same between both routes had me expecting them both to end the same way too - and I’m sure if I’d gone for the second ending first, I’d be saying vice versa!).

I’d also like to praise the formatting and appearance of the game - slick and simple, with background images to set each scene. The short segments and snappy dialogue help keep the pace up too, though sometimes I found I lost track of who was speaking.

All in all, I really enjoyed this entry, and I hope to find time to check out Storysinger Presents’ other works after IFComp is over!

Popstar Idol Survival Game

A Twine game inspired by Korean reality talent competition shows, where you play as Kim Nayoung, a young and hopeful entrant. It starts off as a fairly promising simulator, with stats that are affected by the choices you make, but unfortunately it seems the entry is slightly bugged and prevents progression past a certain point (detailed in the spoiler below). This is a shame as I was enjoying the premise up to that point!

I couldn’t get past the passage where we choose where to spend our token, as all of the choices led to dead ends. I tried playing through a couple more times in case I’d stumbled across a bad path but unfortunately ran into the same issue each time.

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Ghostfinder: Shift

An impressive and serious choice-based game that will appeal to any true crime fans. You play as an occult detective named Six, who is a member of the Fraternal Order of Ghostfinders, working together with your novice protege Cyra to track down a nasty serial killer. This is a very well-written and thought out piece of work, but be prepared for a lot of sifting through non-interactive text to pick up the information you need to proceed since you’re left to do the piecing together of clues yourself. I found this enjoyable and immersive, but definitely attention-demanding too - have a notepad handy. (Though the game helps you out with a built in notebook that automatically records important names and conversations.)

It’s a long (but satisfying) game - I just about managed to reach the end in 2 hours. My other disclaimer is not to ignore the content warnings from the author: there is a notable amount of graphic detail about the crimes being investigated.

The unique selling point of the story is that Cyra is a shifter - every now and then, she finds herself in another person’s body, witnessing their activities firsthand (think Being John Malkovich). Early on it is revealed that Cyra has in fact shifted into the murderer - known as the Bay Side Killer - and the journal she’s kept of her shifts serves as vital information for solving the case. The bulk of the game involves you reading the murder case files (realistic and impressively detailed), interviewing people, and searching terms up in the Ghostfinders’ database.

I really liked the free-form text search box - it added to the immersion and had me physically scribbling down each name and location I read so that I could look it up afterwards. Of course, not everything I tried to type in gave results, but for the most part I was satisfied with how comprehensive the database was.

As mentioned, the game also has a built in notebook to help out with the sheer amount of information being given to you. It records the names of important people, pieces of evidence, and the conversations you have so that you don’t have to worry about not being able to go back to something. (It is also possible to redo conversations, which felt a little weird but was useful at times - e.g. the conversation with Mike Turner is for whatever reason not recorded, so I had to replay it to double check some of the things he said.)

One thing I struggled with was not knowing when I actually had all the information I needed to deduce the Bay Side Killer’s identity - I just ended up making a (correct!) guess when I ran out of new leads to follow. In retrospect, it’s probably fairly obvious that the option to guess a name appeared as soon as I reached this point, but that didn’t quite click for me whilst playing.

I think my main disappointment with this entry is that I came in expecting more supernatural/occult content. The game’s name and synopsis made me think there’d be more emphasis on this, but this only really manifested in the form of Cyra’s shifting (though I did like that a lot). We don’t learn too much about the titular Ghostfinders, or who Six is. I should also point out this is a linear story - the interactivity comes from digging through clues, and though there are occasional choices, they’re not important to the narrative. My other gripe is with how graphic the text was at times - obviously, it’s a game dealing with heavy material so, although this didn’t feel out of place, I did find myself wondering whether it’d be possible to have a “toned down” option, since none of those graphic details were key to solving the crime.

To conclude though, I was very impressed with this entry. As soon as I finished, I wanted to load back in and read over things again just to solidify how it all connected together. Crime/detective stories aren’t usually my thing (so I can’t really comment on how novel the story of this game would be if you subtracted the shifting aspect) but I’m glad I played this.

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I had this exact same problem with Popstar Idol Survival Game.

It had started off looking like it was capable of heading in some really unusual directions.

OK, I’m glad it wasn’t just me! I tried downloading the files and playing locally but still the same. Hopefully the author can put a fix in before the end of judging if it is just a bug, it feels like they had more content ready in the submission but it’s just not reachable at the moment :confused:

The Pinecone and The Turnip

These are two short and sweet Twine games by the same author, Joseph Pentangelo. His prose is excellent, so although the games are brief, there are some truly lovely sentences. The interactivity is minimal (both entries were adapted from short stories), and one of them is linear, but I personally find that hyperlinking still adds a little extra immersion that non-interactive prose doesn’t have.

Both stories deftly blend everyday descriptions with surreal elements, and end in ways that leave you pleasantly confused, with more questions than answers. I enjoyed them both, even if I couldn’t try to explain them to you - it’s nice to just be taken somewhere else for a little while.

(I was slightly hoping the two pieces would be related somehow, and reveal themselves to be a single larger “meta entry”, but they are standalone.)

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Enjoying your review.

I also ran in the same problem as you for Popstar Idol.

I also really enjoyed Ghostfinder and its search box. :slight_smile:

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Mother Tongue by Nell Raban

This was a really touching entry. At a glance, it’s just a text conversation between your character (a second-generation Filipino immigrant) and their mother, but the simplicity lends it a sense of genuineness: it’s not trying to do anything fancy, it’s just putting you into someone else’s shoes for a little while.

The conversation explores the weirdness that comes with being a second-generation immigrant who feels disconnected from their family’s heritage and language, in this case Tagalog. As a British-born Chinese woman (who can sort of speak Mandarin but certainly not fluently), the themes rang very true for me. It’s really great to see a story like this being told through IF, and as a welcome bonus to an already lovely playing experience, I now know a couple of words of Tagalog!

A lot of the things the player character said felt very relatable. I think it’s easy to feel somewhat alone or “in limbo” as a second-gen immigrant, and like your heritage feels distant and at times almost unimportant, so it was affecting to see the player character express a similar sentiment by saying they didn’t really “feel Filipino”. There’s a strange guilt that comes with it, and I think this game gets that across nicely.

At one point the mother sends a message entirely in Tagalog that the player character has no hope of understanding - definitely had that happen to me with my mother and Mandarin. Another memorable moment was when the mother says “I didn’t want you to grow up with an accent” (to which the protagonist appropriately responds “that’s depressing”). So it’s not only the player character’s PoV you come to appreciate, but the parents’ too, and the choices they make all to try and ensure their children have the best life.

It is a short game so it doesn’t have time to go into a lot of depth, but it does a great job of touching on interesting points. Choices are sprinkled in at a nice frequency to keep you engaged as the player (there’s enough variety to create some replay value too), and the voices of both characters were distinct and believable. You can also sense the slight tension and distance in the relationship at times, which I really liked - definitely adds to the realism.

To tie up: this is lovely little gem of a game that will no doubt speak to many people with similar experiences, and I can also see it appealing to people who don’t normally play IF but are interested in the themes it explores.

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Thanks for the detailed and thoughtful review quacko, and I’m glad you enjoyed it! “Ghostfinder: Shift” is my first “real” attempt at a serious work of IF, but it’s actually the second episode of the series. The first episode, which I completed last year, is much heavier on the supernatural side of things, but I ultimately deemed it to be a bit too amateurish to warrant being entered into last year’s IFC, which I think might account for some the sloppier aspects of worldbuilding in this one. Once again, it means a lot that you took the time to right up all this! Thank you for your encouraging words!

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You’re welcome, and thank you for putting together a good game! I didn’t intend for my review to end up as long as it did but the more I wrote, the more I realised I had a lot to say hahah. Ahh I see - the abruptness with which we’re thrown into Six’s world makes a little more sense knowing this was actually a sequel. That’s awesome to hear that there is more to the world and to the characters though!

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The Moon Wed Saturn by Pseudavid

This game is a really nice example of non-chronological storytelling. It follows a romance between two women, but you jump between three days: Monday, Wednesday and Saturday. It’s a quiet, introspective piece, pretty much entirely driven by the two characters and how they interact with each other.

The time jumps don’t feel gimmicky - a jump forward lets you see how a dialogue choice you just made impacts the future, and a jump back lets you see what led to the present moment. It makes it feel like you’re the protagonist looking back on the memories and trying to make sense of how things played out, and I really liked that. The writing style was lovely too.

The story is told from the perspective of Veronica, who works as a night warden at a half-built estate where there isn’t really anything worth watching over. She forms a connection with another woman, Araceli, who she catches trespassing on the estate one night, and they keep meeting during Veronica’s night shifts. The empty estate is presented as unsettling, but also as a quiet and peaceful escape from other people.

The relationship portrayed is realistic and flawed. We are shown the contrast between the two characters - Veronica, who is just grateful she has a stable job even if it’s not the best, and Araceli, who is bolder and more ambitious. We see lots of Veronica’s internal thoughts and insecurities, and the choice of saying the truth or saying what she thinks Araceli wants to hear comes up a few times. Some of the text is in blue and a different font, which I took as being the (often regretful) thoughts of “present day” Veronica as she looks back at these memories, and they sometimes explain why her attention has just jumped back/forward in time. The blue text also means we get a sense early on in the game that the relationship has since ended, so we feel like we’re looking for clues for how and where things went wrong. (If Veronica had said something different here, would things be different now?)

It takes a little while to fully understand what’s going on, so although I started off a little confused, things made a lot more sense by the end. And to be honest I kind of liked how this mirrors what the game is doing - you read something, and you then you think back to a sentence you read a few minutes ago which now makes sense.

Overall, this game was a great demonstration of how to make the player feel like they’re processing memories rather than actively making choices in the present, and I very much enjoyed the story it told as well.

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Thank you for your review!

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