Rabbit's IFComp 2022 reviews

The Interactive Fiction Competition is open for 2022! Anyone can play and rate the games on the ballot up to November 15th, and their votes will count as long as they’ve rated at least 5 games.

I was intending to enter this year, but I’ve pulled my game on account of landing a new job and having no time to finish writing it. So instead, I’ll try to review a few games. In the past I’ve done this on Wordpress or on the IntFiction forums. This time, I’m trying to cross-post reviews here and on this Cohost account. The reviews should be the same.

I’m not really expecting to get through that many games - I never did even when I was unemployed - but I’m looking forward to trying anyway. Every time I judge IFComp games, I stumble across something a little bit special.

My guidelines

I follow a couple of guidelines when reviewing games. For a start, I’ll be using the “Personal Shuffle” option on the IFComp website. This randomises the order of the ballot in a way that stays consistent for each user. In other words, I’ll be playing random games suggested by the IFComp website, rather than choosing games to play. (This stops me just beelining for authors I know and trust. Some of the most interesting games I’ve played in IFComp are games I wouldn’t have given a moment’s notice if I was choosing what to play.)

I’ll make a good-faith effort to play each game. I’m on a Windows machine so I should be able to run most games; if a game is Mac-only or Linux-only, I’ll do what I can, but I might have to skip those. I’ll play each game for up to 2 hours (the maximum judging time required by IFComp rules) or until I’ve beaten the game at least once.

I’ll try to engage with each game on its own terms. That is, if it’s a horror game, I won’t spend all my time typing >FART.

About scoring

Rating games on the ballot means giving them a score from 1-10, but I never announce my score in my reviews. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they’re very changeable - I might give two games a 6/10, and them compare them and realise that one is clearly better than the other and bump them up or down accordingly. Secondly, sometimes it’s more interesting to write a lot about what a good game does wrong, or what a bad game does right, so that the review and the score seem to be at odds. I don’t want to get an author’s hopes up and then hit them with the 3/10.

Not that it’s relevant, since you won’t see my scores anyway, but here’s how I score games:

10: Flawless or close enough - I can’t think of any improvements I would made
8-9: Excellent, easily recommended to anyone (barring content warnings)
6-7: Good, recommendable but with caveats
4-5: Not enjoyable, but maybe does a couple of things really well that might make it recommendable to a niche audience
2-3: Poor, impossible to recommend
1: Reserved for games which feel malicious; either they’re bigoted in some way, or they seem to be trying to exploit a rule or hurt someone else

A game has to do a lot to get a 10, and I think I’ve only ever given out a couple in the five years or so I’ve been judging. Then again, I’ve only ever given out one 1.

Reviews

One Final Pitbull Song (At the End of the World) (Paige Morgan)
You May Not Escape! (Charm Cochran)
Lucid (Caliban’s Revenge)
Witchfinders (Tania Dreams)
Trouble in Sector 471 (Arthur DiBianca)
The Last Christmas Present (JG Heithcock)
The Alchemist (Older Timer)
4 Edith + 2 Niki (fishandbeer)
Into The Sun (Dark Star)
The Archivist and the Revolution (Autumn Chen)
Admiration Point (Rachel Helps)
Low-Key Learny Jokey Journey (Andrew Schultz)
Esther’s (Brad and Alleson Buchanan)

9 Likes

One Final Pitbull Song (At the End of the World) (Paige Morgan)

Played on: 1st October
How I played it: On the IFComp site via Opera
How long I spent: 2 hours to read the first five chapters

Content warning: this game features extreme violence, gore and sex. I haven’t written about this content in the review.

We’re starting off IFComp in style, with a horror-comedy written in the Harlowe engine for Twine which I did not manage to finish in the 2-hour judging limit. The player-character TeeJay is arrested along with her ex and thrown into prison, where they, along with dozens of other prisoners, are forced to investigate a deep deep hole that’s opened up in the prison yard. Also, it’s 60,000 years in the future and the only culture that still exists is bootlegs of Pitbull songs.

I liked this one a lot. The worldbuilding concept is immediately funny, and One Final Pitbull Song (let’s call it OFPS) absolutely commits to the bit. It also introduces some interesting concepts with regards to narration, establishes a failing romance in the opening chapter, and sticks you in the middle of a heist scene. Later on, it brings in themes of transgender experiences and satirises the prison-industrial complex. OFPS has given itself a lot to do.

I wonder if maybe it’s a little too much! The tone veers around a lot in the opening couple of chapters, juddering between serious explorations of its motifs and really goofy worldbuilding and nudges to the audience. Because there’s so much to do so quickly, I think a couple of established setting and plot points get forgotten here and there. The biggest example I can think of is the introduction of Frankie, who accuses TeeJay of being an undercover cop in one scene and then offers to help TeeJay lay her hands on some drugs in the next without any apparent moment of trust-building. The jokes are funny enough, and the character work (especially between TeeJay and her ex Samuel) is strong enough that it’s hard to mind, but OFPS feels a little scattered at first.

It’s all in service of funnelling the player towards Chapter 3, and getting those characters down that big hole. The “horror” tag is there for a reason; once OFPS gets going, it goes hard. I don’t play a lot of horror because I scare very easily, and this got me very tense and upset (in a good way). OFPS has a few tricks up its sleeve with multimedia and text effects, used sparingly enough to catch you off-guard; but it also has a couple of just very upsetting scenes in it. It’s written well, and I was carried by the momentum of the writing even when I wanted to stop. I think two scenes in particular are going to stay with me for a while: one for being genuinely nightmarish, and the other for being probably the grossest thing I’ve ever read in anything. You’ll know it when you read it.

(The use of text effects and certain thematic elements put me in mind of House of Leaves. I don’t know if the author will take that as a compliment or a grave insult, but just to be clear, I mean it in a nice way. I love House of Leaves.)

OFPS is very linear, which isn’t a complaint. This is one of those Twine games which needs Twine for its text effects and little asides rather than for major story branching. (I think there is some story branching, based on how the chapter select screen looks, but it’s not obvious to me how my choices came into play.) But there is something going on with choice as a theme. TeeJay and other characters lament the difficulty of making decisions throughout the game, and admire others for their decisiveness. Minor choices such as what side to have with your meal are framed as pivotal decisions, and are followed with a sense of dread.

An interesting companion piece might be The Light in the Forest, a good game I played in this year’s Spring Thing which I can’t remember if I published a review for or not. That game similarly uses Twine to explore choices through the point of view of a trans character with trauma, simulating her decision paralysis by overwhelming the player with dozens and dozens of useless links during a scene where she just wants to make lunch. OFPS doesn’t pull the same trick, but I think it’s playing with Twine in a similarly interesting way. After certain major events down there in that hole, the nature of the choices you get changes in a way that I’ll hide the spoiler for in the below details tag, but which does a lot to mirror the player character’s mental state and determination.

Okay here’s the spoiler for Chapters 4-5:

You stop getting choices! I’m pretty sure Chapter 5 was entirely linear. TeeJay becomes decisive because she feels like she has to, and that’s mirrored when the player stops getting to dither over choices. Linearity might be dissatisfying in other IF games, but here it’s earned and it’s clever.

I didn’t manage to finish OFPS. The IFComp 2-hour judging limit expired at the end of Chapter 5. I was slowed down a bit by writing review notes, but I think the game is still probably a smidge too long for IFComp. It’s a pity – it was starting to become clear how the themes work together, but I’m not able to write about the game as a whole. There’s a lot I haven’t touched on because I think I needed to see more of it. I’ve barely mentioned whatever’s going on with the narrative voice, which is established early in the opening passage and never mentioned again, but which is still there if you look for it. Also, again, this is set in a post-acopalyptic world which runs on memories of Mr. Worldwide. That’s easy to forget once the game gets scary, but it’s not nothing.

I can’t yet vouch for OFPS as a whole until I see the ending, but I can definitely recommend the first five chapters. OFPS is imaginative, pretty funny, and tons of fun to power through. That said, I think I’m ready for a cosy half-hour puzzler now.

I just took another look at the playlist in the game’s blurb on the IFComp ballot. Okay, that’s pretty good.

11 Likes

Genuinely thank you so much for this review. I’m so glad that you enjoyed what you played in the two hour limit, and I appreciate the respectful criticism of its scope! Happy I could entertain and gross you out :smile:

(Also I love House of Leaves too, no insult taken!)

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You’re welcome, thanks for making this game! I was a bit wary of mentioning House of Leaves because I know some people really hate the thing, but as soon as I noticed (One Final Pitbull Song spoiler) the green "you"s I thought there had to be some House of Leaves in this game’s DNA.

2 Likes

You May Not Escape! (Charm Cochran)

Played on: 2nd October
How I played it: Downloaded and ran in Windows Git
How long I spent: 90 minutes to find two endings and solve most puzzles

This is a parser puzzle game made in Inform 7. The game is one big maze, and your challenge is to escape it. As the tag “parable” on the IFComp might tell you, though, there’s a bit more to it than that. An opening conversation with a politician gives you a brief backstory, as he tells you that you have to solve a maze now, and angrily rebuffs any questions as to why. It quickly becomes apparent that the title You May Not Escape! is not a warning, but an admonishment.

I don’t want to talk about the maze itself in too much detail. The author is trying to preserve a sense of mystery and of, well, being lost – they’ve requested in the game’s ABOUT response that nobody share any maps they make – and I want to respect that. At the same time, I do kinda have to talk about the maze, since it is the game. So, as generally as possible, without spoiling any specific puzzles or revealing any specific locations:

I have a feeling that YMNE’s maze is procedurally generated and different for each player. (I just checked this, and yes, the opening room I get when I open the game now has a different exit than in my main playthrough.) My maze had kind of a wiggly layout without many forks, and certain key locations were placed inconveniently far from each other, and I think a hand-designed maze would have been smoother to play through. I’m not the biggest fan of procedural generation, and in gameplay terms I didn’t really like the maze.

But I do recognise why the maze had to be procedural. It’s not just a maze, after all. LED signs throughout the maze display largely patronising, unhelpful or even abusive messages. And you never get a satisfactory answer for why the maze should exist – you’re in the maze because a politician says you should be and that’s that. The maze is a parable for how just being a certain kind of person – that is, not male, not white, etc. – can place overwhelming systemic obstacles in your way throughout your life. YMNE seems to examine this particularly in terms of misogyny (a lot of the LED messages sound eerily like the way gamers tweet at women they hate), but a certain key location alludes to transphobia and anti-Semitism too.

The randomised maze, then, is an acknowledgement that, although the broad challenges of systemic oppression are the same, the specific lived experiences will be uniquely challenging for everyone. This is a nuanced and important point, and I can see that it would be lost with one hand-designed maze for everyone. For the same reason, I understand that there should be a certain amount of friction in navigating the maze, since if it’s too easy, it’s not a very convincing parable for navigating systemic oppression. Still, though, I think the long winding passages are more time-consuming than difficult, and if I had my druthers I’d try to nudge the maze-generation to produce more forks and fewer lengthy passages. (If that’s possible. I’ve never made a maze generator. It probably isn’t easy.)

Pretty much everything else is on point. There’s some excellent attention to detail throughout YMNE. Navigating the maze is made easier with the much-appreciated exit listing in the header. And there are detailed responses and consequences to trying to use certain items in interesting ways. There are a couple of oversights too – “turn on” should work as a synonym for “switch on”, since the words “turn on” are used in the text – but nothing that can’t be cleaned up in a future release should the author want to keep working on it.

The puzzles that I noticed and solved weren’t too hard in themselves, although I spent an embarrassingly long time on the final puzzle failing to put two and two together (I had to pause the IFComp timer and play Splatoon 3 for an hour before my brain got into gear). This final puzzle is satisfying, extending the metaphor of the maze in a hopeful and defiant direction. There are a couple of extra mysteries that I haven’t solved yet, but I’ve done well enough to escape the maze and see a good ending.

You May Not Escape is neat. I liked this game a lot. It’s taking the classic maze trope of interactive fiction and doing something interesting and artistic and thought-provoking with it. And honestly, maybe this is just my brain, but it’s just fun to make a big map of a maze sometimes.

6 Likes

Thank you for playing the YMNE, and for the review! I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that you found the experience rewarding. Regarding the design of some of the mazes, I do see your point. I’d be interested to know what number the game gave you for your maze(s), if you have it on hand and would be willing to message me.

2 Likes

Lucid (Caliban’s Revenge)

Played on: 3rd October
How I played it: Downloaded and ran on Opera browser
How long I spent: 45 minutes to reach one ending

Content warning: Lucid has cancer and death as central themes, and this review discusses those themes.

Lucid is a 30-40 minute Harlowe Twine game. It’s one of those games where part of the experience is working out what’s going on, but it begins with the player character escaping the rising darkness in a train station, and continues with them exploring a strange and nightmarish city.

This work is thick with atmosphere and poetry. Lucid’s world is clearly a dream-world, painted in blacks and blacker blacks, and the setting is very rich. It doesn’t go wild with dream imagery, but rather holds back just enough that the weird parts become all the more unsettling. It’s a very visual work for one which is solely text without multimedia. This is a game world that’s very compelling just to explore.

Although the setting is fantastic, not all the game’s moment-to-moment writing quite works for me. It occasionally strays on the wrong side of overwrought, like when it describes cereal boxes as “uniform masks of anarchy adorning the face of every packet,” and a couple of unfortunate typos interrupt the atmosphere. More often, though, the writing is exactly the right amount of wrought, as in the description of the housing estate “open[ing] to accept / You as if it was a mother that / Never had any other choice.” (It’s worth running into traffic early on, an apparently silly choice which gives a surprisingly haunting response.) The text is complemented here and there by some fabulous use of Twine effects and features. For example, the choice links getting terser and more breathless during a long climb is very very clever.

The theme of Lucid is played close to its chest for a while, but since it’s named in the content warning of the game (and this review) I’ll just go and say it: it’s an allegory for cancer. It’s said explicitly at one point in-game. Lucid is a dream-world full of symbolism, and as we explore it we start to build a picture of someone coming to terms with a deadly disease. The way this unwinds is well controlled, and gives the player a lot to think about long after the game is over.

A lot of this allegory comes in the late game, and I’d like to discuss it. It’s probably better to experience it than to read me writing about it, though, so I’ll put the spoilery stuff behind this details tag:

Endgame spoilers

More specifically, Lucid is about dying from cancer, and the choice between chemotherapy and acceptance of death. The way chemotherapy is portrayed in this game is as a poison; it destroys your quality of life, and then you die anyway. This struck me as very morbid and nihilist when I was playing, but it makes more sense when you frame Lucid as being about terminal cancer specifically. In that sense, I suppose chemotherapy really does seem pointless.

I’m having a bit of trouble fitting the salamander into it, though, to be honest. It’s pretty clearly a representation of a malignant tumour, as something white which grows and consumes you. In the late game, you’re expected to make a sacrifice to enter the finale of the game, which means killing the salamander with a cutlass, which must be a metaphor for surgical intervention, right? But then the “true” ending of the game is to let the darkness consume you in that final area, which I think is about learning not to fear death, and choosing that over destructive chemotherapy. So you go under the knife for a tumour, and then choose to die anyway? Is it much of a sacrifice to lose a tumour? I thought a sacrifice was something you didn’t want to give up. And then there’s the part about childhood demons in the school which, although it fits the setting well, doesn’t seem to belong with the rest of the metaphor. I expect this is all extremely frustrating for the author to read – I feel sure I’ve got the wrong end of the stick somewhere – but I’m having trouble putting the parts of the allegory together into a coherent whole.

As well as being exploratory, Lucid is also part puzzlebox. It’s not so difficult as a puzzle game, and I got lucky and stumbled through the right choices before realising why I was doing what I was doing. There’s some thoughtful design here, though, once you put yourself in puzzle-solving mode. For example, at one stage you’re on a timer, but this timer is reset whenever you start doing something that shouldn’t be interrupted (e.g. talking to another character). And even though it’s possible to die, some events persist between lives, so that you don’t need to play the whole thing in one perfect run. Between the writing effects and this smart programming, Lucid makes some very well-considered design choices which I appreciated a lot.

Another good game for the pile! Lucid is a rich and evocative game to explore, and if you’ve dodged the spoilers above and skipped to the end, it’s well worth experiencing.

6 Likes

Nice review! I also really enjoyed Lucid, but didn’t pick up on some of the things you highlight, like the choices getting shorter as you climb, so thanks for pointing those out. On the cereal boxes, I read that passage as slightly making fun of itself – the description of like a leering, horrible Tony the Tiger and the awful freight contained in the folds of his loathsome packaging is pretty over the top – but yeah it doesn’t really work played 100% straight, though I definitely agree the writing overall is great!

As to the spoilery stuff: I went through a similar thought process and found the pieces didn’t fit together sufficiently neatly to feel like the game worked as a consistent allegory for one particular experience, vs. exploration of a broader theme of resistance vs. acceptance of trauma. It could be there’s a way to square the various circles that you raise but I was OK with feeling like the game was a slightly wooly way of looking at a cluster of related ideas and not necessarily cohering more tightly, though I can see it being more satisfying if it did!

3 Likes

Thankyou for your review Rabbit that was very cool.

Im really gratified you picked up on rhe central theme- Mike is right to say its slso a more ‘wooly’ discussion of traumatic experiences more generally (such as my real world car accident which im genuinely delighted you enjoyed) but the issue you point to is the organising theme- which is why its also the basis on the puzzle.

The writing is most definitely as wrought as it could be, which is a personal foible. I like to wrought it but good- but to some extent I do try to let this intentionally bleed into self parody. The whole thing is, as with all dreams, absurd.

Thanlyou again so much for you review and for giving me a chance to blab about my game on your thread.

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You’re welcome, glad you were cool with my review. What you and Mike say about treating it as more woolly is fair - I think, after interpreting and reviewing You May Not Escape before this, my mind was in the mode of trying to “solve” the allegory rather than taking it on its own terms.

Hah. Sorry to hear about this, but you got some art out of it.

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Oh no youre fully right- the central allegory is cancer. Do you have game in this year btw? Would love to play it if so.

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Thanks for the offer, but I didn’t manage to get my game done in time for IFComp. Maybe next year!

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Witchfinders (Tania Dreams)

Played on: 8th October
How I played it: Downloaded and ran on Opera
How long I spent: 50 minutes for 6 runs (including a perfect ending and a failure)

Witchfinders is a short puzzlebox Twine game which will probably take 10-20 minutes for your first run. You are a witch in Edinburgh in 1827, trying to help and heal your friends and neighbours without drawing the suspicions of the populace.

I enjoyed my time with Witchfinders – I’m saying that now because I’m about to front-load some complaints. Witchfinders makes a lot of work for itself early on with a bad first impression. The spelling and grammar of the opening paragraphs are awkward, but since the author tells us in the post-game About page that English isn’t their first language, that’s forgivable. (And actually, the standard of English is very good once you’re past the intro.)

More problematic is the text styling. The white Impact font on a black background becomes hard to read when the text is bolded, making the letters bleed into each other, and close to illegible when it changes colour to blue-on-black. I’ve checked this in a couple of browsers in case it’s an Opera issue, but Chrome and Edge look about the same. Also, given the association with terrible early-2010s Reddit memes, I think Impact is kind of an odd choice for a realist-fantasy historical fiction game. I’m trying not to harp on styling much this year, but it’s an immediate problem with Witchfinders.

Once the game starts properly, though, it’s very pleasing and playable. I like the way Witchfinders lays out what it calls its “house rules” – that is, what certain colours of text mean. This makes Witchfinders approachable as a puzzle game, and it builds trust that you won’t be whisked away to a game over because you clicked a link that looked like it would just expand some text. I know I just said the colours can be too hard to read, and they are, but associating the colours with mechanical effects is a good idea.

The core gameplay loop of Witchfinders is to explore a section of Edinburgh, talking to people and using magical means to help them with their problems. Say the wrong thing, or act too obviously witch-y, and someone will become suspicious of you (flagged up in grey text, in a way that’s reminiscent of the old Telltale “So-And-So will remember that” pop-ups) and you’ll gain a Witch Point; gain four Witch Points, and it’s game over, as you skip town before the Witchfinders can catch up with you. This adds some tension to navigating the puzzles, but it’s not so troublesome – it’s usually pretty obvious what the wrong thing to say is, and having four chances gives you plenty of room for error.

The NPCs are a subtle strength of Witchfinders. Their mixed reactions to you help the game to suggest the politics and traumas of witch-hunting. These NPCs are not always suspicious or hostile. Alexina seems to avoid asking any questions about how exactly you’ll help her husband’s cattle, and another NPC, approached in the right way, will prove to be fully on your side. The politics of witch-hunting are not delved into as they might be in a different kind of game, but they add a little intrigue to the setting. The author also gives themselves some leeway with a deliberately ahistorical setting – as they point out in the About page, the 19th century is well past the peak of witchcraft accusations in Scotland. This allows the game to be a little playful with the history and geography of Edinburgh. Again, it’s not a big thing, but it’s there and it’s appreciated.

The puzzles are generally reasonable and straightforward. They’re all of the format “get item A, do something witchy to it, give it to Person B”. The challenge is to put the puzzle solutions together while avoiding Witch Points in order to get a perfect score at the end of the game. I managed this and I just about enjoyed doing it. Unfortunately, there’s a lot of friction to it that I’m not sure is supposed to be there. For example, it’s not clear how to end the game until you’ve done it by accident. It seems to happen when you’ve helped the sick child after offering to help Alexina’s cattle, even if you haven’t helped the cattle yet. If you haven’t, the game’s ending suggests you were unable to figure out how to help the cattle. If you were planning to help the cattle after the child, the game cutting you off like this is surprising and a little galling.

There’s a bigger issue which I think is a design oversight – if it’s deliberate, it’s not a very kind design choice. You know how I said you can offer to help the cattle? You can also choose to end the conversation and miss that choice for the rest of the game, as you can with a couple of other NPCs. Problem is, if you do that you don’t trip the flag that the game’s ending needs, so you can’t end the game. You can lock off other puzzles like this, too, and get yourself completely stuck. My first run ended in a reset because I’d locked myself out in this way.

If this is accidental, there needs to be a little more attention paid to how the player can get stuck; if it’s deliberate, I think there should be more warning that this is part of the puzzle, because it’s not fun to be stuck on a puzzle and not be sure if there’s a solution you’re not seeing or if it’s just unsolvable now. The walkthrough also needs to be better – pretty much all it does is reiterate your objectives, making it frankly useless for getting yourself unstuck. Luckily Witchfinders is small enough that it’s quick to replay if you think you’ve broken something and you can pretty much brute-force the whole thing, but I might not have bothered if this had been a bigger game.

Despite this, I did work out Witchfinders, and I did get a perfect score at the end of the day, and I did enjoy putting together the whole solution. It was very pleasing to string everything together properly to get the perfect run, and not so frustrating to do once I worked out how I kept breaking the game. I think the idea for Witchfinders is fantastic, and the setting and structure are great, but this could be a much smoother game with some work on its presentation and with fewer one-shot chances for the player to progress.

5 Likes

I look forward to it mate, thanks again for sharing your thoughts.

1 Like

Trouble in Sector 471 (Arthur DiBianca)

Played on: 8th October
How I played it: Downloaded and ran on Windows Git
How long I spent: 1hr 50mins to beat the game with 5/8 optional objectives

Trouble in Sector 471 is a two-hour puzzle-exploration game controlled by parser. The blurb offers few hints, but the opening minutes reveal that you are a robot dispatched to the Sector 471 space station(?) to exterminate the bugs wreaking havoc all over the place.

As much as I’ve enjoyed IFComp so far, it was very pleasing to see the randomiser serve up DiBianca’s yearly entry near the top of my list. DiBianca has a formula, which may sound like a backhanded thing to say, but it’s a good formula: a puzzlefest with a limited parser (that is, a lot of the verbs which come as standard in Inform games have been stripped out and the game is very specific about how you can interact with the world), a surprisingly-deep gameplay gimmick, an ending that can be reached in two hours, and maybe a little more for players who dig a little deeper.

This time, the limited parser itself is the gameplay gimmick. As a robot, you need to be upgraded to do your job. Several of the early puzzles are based around solving some problem in order to get some upgrade, which will add a new verb to your repertoire. Then you can roam around the map, testing your new verb and its effects and working out the implications of it. I’m saying “map” because a very helpful in-game map shows you where you need to explore, and it’s inherently satisfying to fill it in as you go. Trouble in Sector 471 sort of plays out like a Metroidvania; the world is constantly reconfigured and opened up as you realise “oh, now I can go back here and do this…” It’s a little like if Inside the Facility, one of DiBianca’s previous works, was a lot more condensed. The gameplay loop of getting a new verb and testing it on the old puzzles to make breakthroughs is really really fun.

(One small complaint about the limited parser here, which looks like a big complaint because it takes a paragraph to explain: I did miss having an examine command this time. It’s a fine design decision not to have to write descriptions for all the scenery, but there are some items whose purpose isn’t clear until you’ve looked closer, and that means picking them up and then checking the player character’s status. It adds an extra step, it leads to some awkward juggling since you can only carry one object at a time, and it means it’s not always obvious when certain items change to something more significant.)

The puzzles in the main path are all good and fair. There’s a surprising amount of variety, from timing puzzles to inventory-juggling puzzles to put-the-clues-together puzzles, but none of them are unreasonable. I needed a few hints to make sure I got to the end in two hours, and most of the time I looked at a hint I kicked myself for not putting the clues together. Perhaps the difficulty is a touch uneven in the main game – there’s one bug you need to exterminate which is much more elaborate and intricate to get than the others, whereas some endgame bugs turn out to be very simple – but on the whole it’s very smooth without being trivial.

There are a bunch of optional objectives too. I didn’t solve all of these (which means, judging by previous DiBianca games, that I definitely haven’t seen every secret Trouble in Sector 471 has), but I don’t mind that – I think purely optional stuff has free reign to be more difficult than the rest of the game. But I wish it was more obvious which puzzles are mandatory to earn necessary upgrades and which puzzles are sidequests. This won’t matter if you’re not playing under a judging time limit for IFComp, but as I was racing a clock to see the ending, it was annoying to spend time on a tricky puzzle and find out it didn’t get me closer to the end.

The story is pretty thin – it’s just an excuse to get you solving puzzles and blasting bugs, really. There’s usually something more substantial hidden in DiBianca’s games for people who can dig deep enough, and I know that there are mysteries I did not solve here. Still, there’s not much going on plotwise in the core game. But the NPCs are very charming, and manage to suggest that they have a life outside of the game with just a descritpion and a few lines of dialogue each. I’m fond of the robot who only exists to mimic other robots mockingly. I wouldn’t say this is an out-and-out comedy game, but it’s pretty funny – it’s mastered the art of disguising a puzzle contrivance as a goofy character or a silly bit of worldbuilding.

Trouble in Sector 471 is a very high-quality, very satisfying puzzle game. I love games like this. I can’t wait until the judging period is over so I can go back to this and spend more than 2 hours solving the extra puzzles and trying to figure out how to arrange those bloody pipes.

4 Likes

The Last Christmas Present (JG Heithcock)

Played on: 9th October
How I played it: Downloaded and ran on Windows Git
How long I spent: 1hr 20min to beat the game and look at the feelies

This game is a short little scavenger hunt based on an event from the author’s personal life. You play as a twelve-year-old girl using a Marauder’s Map (i.e. the magic map from Harry Potter) of her house to hunt for her final Christmas present. It’s a parser game which can be completed in a little over an hour.

This is a short and sweet slice-of-life puzzle game with a map-reading gimmick. Much of the game is spent cross-referencing the map with the layout of the house in order to find secrets. The map is integrated well into the game as a central puzzle object. It feels as tactile as it can in a text-only game, giving you pages to flip and a couple of flaps to open. It’s a little like an interactive fiction version of those MIT Mystery Hunt puzzles which give the teams some papercraft to do. There’s also a thoughtful game feature which triggers when you read each page of the map: the Harry Potter-y names it gives to the rooms of the house appear in the game descriptions to help you cross-reference. There are a couple of extra in-game hints in the map which will mean more to players who know their Harry Potter books, but they’re not necessary to beat the game and I solved a lot of the puzzles before realising they were there.

(A sidebar here, because it’s something I can’t leave unsaid in good conscience. I am non-binary, and after JK Rowling’s cruelty to the trans community (in addition to the rest of her political weirdness), my distaste for Harry Potter stuff is now limitless. I don’t begrudge the author this and I’m not docking any points for it, because this is a scavenger hunt for a preteen girl who loves the biggest children’s media franchise of the 21st century. I don’t expect young Morgan or her papa to be plugged into the discourse of online transphobia, and I’m not asking that the game stop dead to say something Important about trans rights, because it’s not (and shouldn’t have to be) that kind of game. Still, though, it’s something that’s going to colour my perception in a way that the author can’t control. Sorry, I won’t mention it again.)

The puzzles themselves are simple enough, and structured well. Simple puzzles in individual parts of the house give way to a couple of larger put-it-all-together puzzles in the back half. The Last Christmas Present tries to stop you skipping ahead by setting a few hidden triggers – for example, you can’t find a few things until you’ve read a part of the map that proves it’s there. This stumped me a little in the back half because I knew what to do but I hadn’t proven it in-game yet, but I don’t think I mind that. This is a recreation of a real scavenger hunt, after all, and the player character is a real person, and I think it’s fair enough to ground the game in what she actually did rather than let the player speedrun things.

There has been some good testing on this game, as the credits show, but I think a few more testers could have been useful, because I found a lot of hitches and little frustrations. I fell at the first hurdle because I hadn’t realised you can open the flaps on the map; I had tried “open flap” but in fact the correct syntax is “open flaps”. At a later stage, I failed to put something on something because the correct syntax was “put something IN something” even though the thing you’re putting other things in is not a container. Does that make sense? I’m trying to avoid puzzle spoilers. The point is, I think a lot of reasonable synonyms are missing.

There’s also a trick where a couple of puzzles are obscured by finding the right thing to examine. One important item is hidden in nested descriptions; a couple of important things are revealed by examining the same objects multiple times; one item is hidden in a piece of scenery which isn’t always mentioned to the player because the description of that location has a random element to it. This isn’t that much of a complaint, since a lot of classic text adventures play with examining objects and scenery in similar ways (although the random-description thing is pretty egregious in my opinion; it’s a good thing that the cluing is strong enough that a player is likely to linger there and keep looking). But it is a curiosity in that it changes the nature of the scavenger hunt. Presumably it was immediately obvious to Morgan where to look in the real scavenger hunt, taking place as it did in her own house which she could see. The player of this text adventure has no such familiarity and has to do a lot more work to even be sure what’s in the room with them. I’m reminded of the reviews for Hard Puzzle, many of which focus on how little help that game’s responses deliberately give you, and how untrustworthy it subsequently feels. Scavenger-hunting in the text adventure, by virtue of missing immediate visuality, feels fundamentally different to scavenger-hunting in real life. I don’t know where I’m going with this and I don’t hold it against The Last Christmas Present, but it is something very interesting about text games to me.

Honestly, I think the biggest pleasure of The Last Christmas Present exists outside of the game. In the readme you get when you download the zip file, there are links to two bonus features: an interactive version of the Marauder’s Map, and a gallery of photos from the real scavenger hunt showing the Map in action. This gallery has a few puzzle spoilers, so save it until you’re done playing, but make sure you look through it. The actual physical Map looks gorgeous, and it’s clear how much love and care the author put into this scavenger hunt for his daughter. It’s a reminder that this is a very personal game.

The Last Christmas Present is a little clumsy as a text adventure and you have to be prepared to put up with some guess-the-verb issues. But it’s earnest and sweet and an honest labour of love.

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Wow! Thanks for pointing out the photographs of the real-life map. Amazing.

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Likewise - I actually also completely missed that there were photos! Will need to check those out.

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I too found the text, using the Impact font, nearly unreadable (but I liked the game). However, it turns out that the game doesn’t actually specify Impact, but instead this font list: ‘Fantasy, Luminari, sans-serif’. And Luminari (Luminari™ Font Family | Fonts.com) seems like an appropriate, medieval-style font.

But the first font in the list is Fantasy, which a ‘generic font family’ keyword for a ‘primarily decorative fonts that contain playful representations of characters’. And it’s the first choice, so even if you have the (non-free) Luminari font installed, the browser would always choose its generic ‘fantasy’ font, which for some very odd reason is Impact (Impact™ Font Family | Fonts.com) on your (and on my) system.

So – perhaps unless you happen to have a font actually named Fantasy – you will get the browser’s default ‘fantasy’ font, which might not be very readable or appropriate for the game.

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There are quite a few fonts literally called “Fantasy”. Some of them look very different to others, ranging from highly medieval through psuedo-handwritten to art deco (though some of them are free). So even if someone does indeed have a font called exactly “Fantasy”, there’s still no guarantee the results look as intended.

Although this is the first I’ve heard of the concept of “generic font family” keywords that aren’t serif/san-serif/monospaced/proportional , so I can easily imagine how the problem occurred.

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