I’ve been playing a fair bit of IF lately, so I figured I might share some impressions with an audience that actually cares about this sort of thing (as opposed to the people in my life who are probably sick of hearing about it ;-).
Here are some games I played recently, categorized into “must-play” (I really liked this and think a lot of people would), “great fun” (check it out if the premise resonates with you), and “optional” (has commendable qualities, but doesn’t necessarily stand out in the giant Internet candy store of IF).
- Brendan Patrick Hennessy’s choice-based games. The games I’ve played are set in the same universe with shared characters. In chronological order, they are “Bell Park, Youth Detective” (2013), “Birdland” (2015), and “The Grown-Up Detective Agency” (2022).
- Must-play: “Birdland” is surreal & wonderful. It’s set in a summer camp where really odd things are starting to happen all around you. One fantastically clever conceit is that you alternate between playing in dreams and in the real world, and the decisions in your dreams have impact on the choices you can make in the real world. But this is not just a “weird dreams” game–it has a coherent story and a great sense of humor.
- Great fun: “Grown-Up Detective Agency” (2022 IFComp winner) is a bit less surreal than “Birdland”. It’s a missing person case with a time travel component, where your younger self accompanies you to help you (?) solve the mystery. Of course, you’re bound to learn something about yourself in the process.
- Optional: “Bell Park, Youth Detective” gives us some backstory on Bell, who appears in both of the games above. It’s an early work with a simple & fun story that, in all honesty, I’ve already forgotten a couple of weeks after playing it.
- Great fun: “Beyond the Chiron Gate” by John Ayliff. This is another choice-based game, but with a pretty sophisticated “engine within the engine” to power the game. It has icons and background music.
It’s a $10 game, though you may already own it if you picked up the itch.io abortion funds megabundle when it came out. The best way to get a feel for Ayliff’s style is to play his free game “Seedship”, in which you are an AI trying to find a home for humanity.
“Chiron Gate” is a spiritual successor in which you guide a team of human explorers through a newly discovered network of interstellar gateways to visit various star systems. Your goal is to uncover the origin of the gateway network, in order to prevent it from collapsing. Along the way you encounter aliens, robots, and lots of asteroids. Echoes of FTL without the space combat, with tons of procedural text that probably contains within it the plot of 50 Star Trek episodes.
My humble opinion is that “Seedship”, while far simpler, is the better game, because it manages to sustain suspense through the relatively brief runs. In contrast, “Chiron Gate” leans heavily into longer roguelike gameplay, with too much of the plot being pushed towards the very end of a run. Still, I had several hours of fun with “Chiron Gate”, and it’s very much worth checking out if you’re a sci-fi fan. John Ayliff is a brilliant sci-fi game designer, and I can’t wait to find out what he does next.
Must-play: “A Long Way to the Nearest Star” by SV Linwood. This choice-based game has no right to be as good as it is, with a premise that seems straight out of the book of sci-fi tropes (you find yourself on a spaceship, everyone is dead, except for an AI with a personality that definitely suggests it could be homicidal).
What makes it a truly awesome game is the writing and overall game design. It’s got a great sense of humor while still managing to be atmospheric and interesting – a feat that reminds me of the best point-and-click adventures of the 1990s. Solis, the AI, really is a character, and Linwood keeps us on our toes as to what really happened on this spaceship.
There’s another reason it reminds me of point-and-click adventures: In spite of being a text game, it has proper puzzles, an inventory with item descriptions, rooms, all accessible through a mouse-based text UI.
My only critiques, which are far from original: 1) It would have benefited from a fast travel option. 2) One of the puzzles (janitorbot!) could have used a bit more signposting, or at least a second built-in hint.
Must-play: "Violet" by Jeremy Freese. Yep, I’m very late to the party here, and most of you have likely already played this one given its near-universal acclaim. After hearing that it’ll be featured in the next episode of the “Eaten by a Grue” podcast, I finally had to check it out. I’m not a parser game aficionado, so I didn’t know going in whether I was going to bounce, hard, or make it through.
I didn’t bounce! “Violet” is super-friendly to players of any level of comfort with parser games. Built-in hint system? Check. Lots of synonyms? Check. Random messages to keep things interesting? Check. Truth be told, I did have to use one hint, where I felt the game should have accepted my input. (I tried unfolding the origami to cover the window, but it wouldn’t let me do that until I first pulled down the blinds). But that’s the tiniest nit to pick.
Violet, the main character’s opinionated inner voice, is unforgettable. The manner in which the game suggests passage of time (from music playlists to events happening outside the window) worked beautifully. I was worried throughout I might run out of time! The game has a terrific sense of humor, too; I felt like I’m playing out a really well-written comedy sketch.
That’s where I’ll leave things for now. I’m so excited to play some of the IFComp games this year and some more of the winners and stand-out titles from previous years, but it always seems like the backlog of games to try might as well be infinitely long. Recommendations are always appreciated. And if you’ve created one of the games above, thank you!