Reviews by Hannah PS

My first full review is up! Quest for the Traitor Saint by Owlor, an exploratory fantasy game made in Twine.

[spoiler]First Impressions: The blurb is a little lore-heavy, but I like the sound of the setting, and diplomacy is always a draw. I like the pink and black constellation look of the cover image: the scattering of stars appeals to me. Starting play, there’s an offer to “get up to speed” on your situation, which I gratefully accepted, and got a bit of backstory for the protagonist’s current predicament. As a human diplomat to the Horses, a race of alien beings, you’re looking for assistance for your homeland, which is threatened by rising sea levels. So you’ve come to this island to search for a Traitor Saint who can serve as a mediator between Horses and humans.

There’s a lot to get to grips with here: the lore-overload from the blurb carries through to the start of the game, and I found it a bit hard to get things straight. I would have preferred to have information more evenly spread through the beginning. However, it is interesting enough and the otherworldly images help reinforce the sense that the Horses’ viewpoint is “slightly askew”. I should have been careful what I wished for with the pink and black, because I quickly found the text hard to read.

Getting Stuck In: Ah, relief! Post-prologue, the colours are nicer on my eyes, and I’m chilling out in a boat with my Horse friend Silili. I take a minute to look over my Bestiary, which has some cool sketches of the creatures I’m likely to encounter on my trip: I wonder whether I’m going to need to collect animals or plants?

Things drift along until we reach the island, where I can choose which part of the island to visit. There isn’t much information about where might be best, so I pick the grasslands at random. Oh, what a cute little critter…! Oh, it’s attacking. I’ll run away with Silili! Oh. Silili has vanished and the game’s over…?

With a surprise game over like that I would usually chalk it up to experience and move onto something else, but since this is a Comp game I started again. And I’m really glad I did: I got a much richer experience for exploring elsewhere and fulfilling my mission. It was just unfortunate that I hit that game over without much sign that if I ran I’d leave my friend behind.

So, another go: I appreciated the ability to skip the prologue this time, although there is a reasonably long linear section before getting to the island which might have been nicer with variation.

This time round, I explored Fangtop Mountain, met quirky characters, went into another dimension and had all manner of adventure. I decided my character was very serious-business and focused, so I was polite but distant with the characters I met as well as with Silili, and as respectful as possible. I was having fun exploring and poking around observatories and tombs, and a few times ended up getting distracted from my actual mission and thinking “so why am I going to this swamp again?” I had a sense that the game was funnelling me towards where it wanted me to go, but at this point I was enjoying the setting and characters enough that I didn’t really mind.

Pros: The characters, the imaginative setting, and the game art. The sketches brought the island and its strange creatures to life for me, and I enjoyed the points at which the colours changed, giving a different feel to the places I was exploring. Similarly, the times when a ghostly character faded out of view helped build atmosphere. Different playthroughs had very different feels and there was a different perspective on the island communities.

Medium: The writing is a little hit and miss: evocative descriptions and sometimes wry asides, but sometimes not so neat, and with occasional typos or grammar errors. I liked having an inventory and bestiary, but I was only able to use items a couple of times and didn’t have so many that I felt I really needed to keep track of them. Still, your mileage may vary.

Cons: I didn’t have much of a sense of consequence in the story (aside from when I got my only Horse friend killed, I suppose…). There wasn’t a great feel of urgency, and there were points where I simply let the game pull me along rather than feeling proactive. The ending was anticlimactic - intentionally so from the author’s postscript note - which made me wonder whether a longer game had been planned, or perhaps a sequel.

Overall: An engaging and intriguing setting and characters, and a competently put together game that could use a stronger, more urgent plot. Its flaws are interesting ones and I’m looking forward to playing more by this author, especially if they continue their atmospheric use of art in their games.[/spoiler]

Mirror and Queen by Chandler Groover, a puzzleless reflection made in Inform 7.

[spoiler]First Impressions: The combination of the mirror image, the name, and the Disney-style gothic font put my expectations firmly in fairytale land. A disturbing spin on the Snow White fairytale is quickly established with the first paragraph luxuriating in animal sacrifice and hints of a sinister summoning.

The interface is pretty, with the mirror providing a visual and narrative framing for the text. It pulls the reader into the Queen’s situation right away, fixated on the overflowing words and the constricted space in which they appear.

Getting Stuck In: Asking the mirror about concepts or objects brings more and more information, each paragraph ending with an eager entreaty to ask more. There’s nothing else to be done here, which gives a claustrophobic, addictive feel to the whole thing. The writing is self-assured and beautiful, words tumbling out seemingly without limit and following the Queen’s meandering, destructive thoughts.

I found myself following threads, sometimes in response to the mirror’s words and sometimes sparking from my own ideas. One thread that turned out to be about infertility was particularly powerful. The mirror responds even to words that weren’t in the game’s library, commenting about the Queen’s preoccupations in a poetic way: it helps maintain the illusion that the mirror can see everything with no limits, a similar technique to last year’s Laid Off From the Synaesthesia Factory by Katherine Morayati. The only limit to the mirror’s eloquence that I found is that it chides you for being repetitive if you ask it about the same thing several times in row.

Shortly before it finished, I started to wonder whether there was a direction the game was headed: demons were increasingly mentioned, as well as the courtiers’ murderous tendencies, and I tried to steer the questions in certain directions, unsure where I wanted to go with it and when it would finish. Still, the game is short enough that it doesn’t outstay its welcome.

Pros: Gorgeous writing, excellent use of limited parser to give an illusion of infinite choice, an extremely strong voice and a protagonist who is both monstrous and sympathetic.

Cons: As a player you don’t have any direction, which could be frustrating, and the ending feels a little abrupt as there isn’t much sense of pace.

Overall: I really enjoyed this. Between the lush writing and unflinching look into the Queen’s psychological state, not to mention the court wheeler-dealing and ruthless aristocracy, it was just my cup of tea. Fairytales can be a hard sell, but this really suited me. I almost want something more from the world and characters, to be able to escape the game’s boundaries… but, after all, we know how this story ends.[/spoiler]

The Skyscraper and the Scar by Diego Freire and Ruber Eaglenest, a post-apocalyptic adventure game made in Twine.

[spoiler]First Impressions: I’m fond of the cover art, especially its colour palette. The subtitle and blurb sound rather grim, though the elaborate style of the blurb makes me think it may be more contemplative-gritty rather than depressing-gritty.

The interface is attractive and easy to read. It autosaves progress, which is a very nice user-friendly element which, as far as I found, works perfectly. I also appreciate the content note at the start! I’m in the mood for some grit, so on I go.

You’re plunged into the action straight off just after having murdered someone in your flat under mysterious circumstances. Aha, and there are zombies. I’d have liked to see a reference to zombies in the game description, as it’s an important element, but since it’s only in the second paragraph of the game I don’t really hold it at fault.

Getting stuck in: It seems we’re in a post-apocalyptic environment, complete with a tragic backstory, sinister Neighbourhood Patrol officers and an atmosphere of misery. I’d enjoy having a greater sense of the community in my depressing tower block: sure, I’m isolated, but it would be nice to know what other ordinary people are up to.

Early on I discover several opportunities to reject the plot, which I experiment with to see what happens. Usually games end up railroading in this situation, and this is no exception; although it does so with reasonable grace, I wonder why the player is allowed to stray off the path when ultimately they’re going to be pushed back.

The atmosphere feels drearily claustrophobic, with hints of a broader world but for most of the game confined to the tower-block home and its immediate surroundings.

The story is serviceable enough, though little surprised me and it could do with more specificity (who’s your loved one? What does your apartment look like/smell like? How do the other characters look/stand/sound?) On a sentence-level the writing could use brushing up - for instance, when choosing to tell the truth to a visitor to my apartment, I reached a page where instead I lied, which I thought was a bug but turned out to be intentional, and there are various bits of awkward wording that could have used further editing.

Later: Following my earlier urge to escape the confines of my protagonist’s miserable life, I avoid what feels like a plot-marker (a zombie-infested shopping mall) and instead leave for the outskirts. In contrast to my earlier wandering-off experience this makes for a rather satisfying ending, escaping into nature rather than delving into the more violent thread of vengeance. I’m pleased my protagonist found some peace, however brief.

Overall: This is a solidly put together game from first-time comp entrants: it’s pretty, it’s user-friendly, and it works. (On a purely self-interested note I want to know how they did the autosave/menu feature, because it’s extremely handy.) I’m interested to see more from the authors - I feel there’s potential, especially if they embark into more distinctive territory. Feel free to point me at any reviews of the Spanish-language version, as I’d like to see if commentary about the prose differs between the versions.[/spoiler]

Ow! Thank YOU <3

Really thoughtful and useful review. I’m going to reply about the autosave system, and I’ve left the other topics to discuss them in private (give me some time).

Ok, the autosave system is by Stephen Grenade, he handed it to me graciously at euphoria channel, so I saved a lot of time investigating the thing. … owe#latest

And of course, you can cast an eye to the source importing my game on twine 2, to see how to fit the system in a menu.


I’m really glad you got usefulness from the review. Thank you for pointing me to the save system! I haven’t used Harlowe much but that tempts me towards giving it more of a go.

Black Rock City by Jim Munroe, a series of branching vignettes made in Texture.

[spoiler]Preamble: Texture is a recently created tool that uses a drag-and-drop system to enable the player to make choices, often with a verb-noun structure (“talk to young woman”) but with the ability to have variation (“get aboard”). Jim Munroe, the author of Black Rock City, is also the co-creator of Texture.

First Impressions: I love the cover art: it’s stark, simple, and unsettling. The blurb is straightforward and self-assured, and makes me confident that the writing will be solid. I wonder whether there will be an apocalyptic element: the dust storm certainly sounds ominous.

We begin with spare but evocative prose and a dash of surrealism – a flying carpet? Is it real or just a hallucination? – and encounter a young woman whose bike chain has broken. You’ll quickly know whether the game’s for you or not; for me, wandering around a desert festival is just my cup of tea. I drift through the environment, interacting with other characters in a vague, transient way that reminds me of a less frenetic 80 Days. I feel a little disappointed that I didn’t find out more about the bike woman, but it’s time to move on.

Getting Stuck In: We’re almost always given two choices, usually opposing such as stay/follow but sometimes more flavourful like talk to/look at. (Upon replaying, it becomes clear that even the apparently flavour choices take the player on alternative branches.)

A flaw of Texture is that as far as I know, currently you can’t differentiate a link that adds text to the page and one that takes you elsewhere. Black Rock City has a small number of these instances; I’d love to see it, and Texture, with the ability to differentiate between types of choice.

However, I do enjoy the drag and drop mechanic, and the look of the whole thing is minimalistic and neat. The writing style mostly continues to be sparse, but with the occasional more elaborate image such as one of my favourites: “From this far off it [the Temple] looks like a bleached ribcage of a whale-scale creature, the people going in and out like carrion insects.”

Druggy dreamlike logic leads me on my first playthrough to make out with a sexy semi-dressed soldier (real or costumed, it’s unclear) before the storm hits, which is surprising and rather sweet. The playthrough is a short, but atmospheric, morsel and I’m excited to replay.

Subsequently: Replaying, it’s clear that Black Rock City is a time cave or widely branching choose-your-own-adventure style structure in which choices branch outward to form their own plot-threads each time and do not converge. I have a completely different experience getting to know my friend the woman with the broken bike chain, and then another, then another and before I know it my character’s heavy-petting with someone dressed as a Cylon, and I’m totally addicted to finding more endings.

Time caves aren’t usually my thing because they can feel frustrating if the branching nature isn’t clearly signalled. However, Black Rock City works for me partly because the blurb contains an intrinsic end point, and partly because the short length of the game means that you can play the entire thing several times with barely an overlap in content.

Pros: Prose. Conversations and thoughts meander in a vaguely intoxicated way, and surreal imagery combines nicely with sweet human moments. Maybe something very strange is happening, or maybe the protagonist is just really high. It doesn’t really matter.

Cons: It’s short and plotless, and left me wanting more. And it’s good to want more, but I’m not quite satisfied. I want to know more about the main character and the people they meet; I want to be able to lose people and then reunite with them after the storm. I’d like this game even more if its scope was expanded.

Overall: Although I strongly relate to the nap all day sloth, I adore fictional parties, especially if you get to make out with attractive fictional characters. And there’s a lot of that to be had in Black Rock City, along with absurdity, chats about the meaning of life, and aimless but prettily-described wandering. The game doesn’t seem to go anywhere other than the individual threads, but the threads are self-contained tidbits that charmed and delighted me.[/spoiler]

Take by Amelia Pinnolla, a dystopian gladiator-fight made in Inform 7.

[spoiler]The subtitle, “one joke, until expiration”, suggests Take could end up being annoyingly wacky. Instead, once it gets going, it’s more serious and bleak than I was expecting. And makes me feel slightly … guilty? Called out? for writing my own take on it. But that’s not going to stop me!

You play the part of Katy, a gladiatorial personal-essay writer “gangpressed” into a Hunger Games-style cagematch. Your #hot #takes are growing stale and the audience is weary: you have to escalate your stories more and more, giving pieces of yourself away to perpetually hungry onlookers.

Take immediately put me in mind of It Happened to Me: How I Became a First Person Human Trafficker, and, as it turns out, this article is recommended as further reading in the walkthrough. In Take, you’re victim and fameball; I feel desperately sorry for Katy, and Take lays hints of substance abuse issues, but the grimly matter-of-fact narrative voice rejects pathos.

The prose in Take is sharp and venomous, preoccupied with the injustice of Katy’s situation while self-conscious about the vacuous media-bubble nature of the “vulnerability pageantry”:

“You resort to the old fallback: how totally weird it is to live such a mediated life. You write, as a comparison, “Heisenberg,” then delete it, then write “Truman” and delete that, then give up and drop in the first celebrity who comes to mind.”

And then there’s the occasional sucker-punch:

“You write about your hands, which are too small for gauntlets; the first battle you fought, your opponent thought he’d been sent a child soldier, and fought twice as hard.”

The restriction of the extremely limited parser works well for the piece. Each action makes you send more takes to your director: takes are the only thing you can do, the only thing you feel you’re good at.

Where Take slips up is in its noun coverage: when the blurb says “there is nothing you can’t take” I want to take everything, dammit. This is highlighted in the feast scene where there’s more description and I get a series of “That’s not something you need to take” messages. During the introduction and feast sequences, I received feedback from my monitor about my takes, but I wasn’t sure whether the audience was responding to how well I was doing, or whether it was randomly generated. I also came across a couple of truncated sentences in the fellow-soldier descriptions.

But these are relatively small flaws. Between the tight, sardonically bleak style, the dystopian worldbuilding, and the sharp satire (I advise trying >TAKE BRAND), Take is a thoroughly engaging experience. By the time it became explicit what Katy’s role really is, I was genuinely invested in her fate; the post-credits ability to >WIN is marvellous in its low-key creepiness. Take continues, and I think will continue, to prey on my mind.[/spoiler]

16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds by Abigail Corfman, a comedy horror puzzle game made in Twine.

[spoiler]First impression: The cover image may be on-the-nose but it does the job and looks clean and neat. The blurb is minimalistic and provides all we need to know about the game, as well as a dash of blase humour.

Starting up, we’re plunged into things with our narrator, Lucy, complaining about the “leeches all over this poor little town”. The narrative voice is confident and comes across as effortlessly throwaway as Lucy throws out witticisms and self-deprecating comments - the kind of “effortless” prose that takes a lot of work to pare down.

I’m struck by the menu and inventory sections: this is unusual for a Twine game and puts me in mind of a puzzly setup. The menu helps solidify this impression with achievements, unlockables and multiple endings along with handy hints.

Getting stuck in: The prose continues to be minimalistic but has delightful touches like Lucy going on a self-deprecating riff about being judged for smoking. It turns out that Lucy usually acts as bait along with her more combative vampire hunting team members, and she’s been caught unawares. It’s her job now to remove this vampire from McDonalds before he eats the cashier, using a wide variety of ingenious tactics.

The game’s environment is small and self-contained, but with many items that can be interacted with, combined and used as in a parser or point-and-click adventure game. Some methods of removing the vampire are more complicated to work out than others, some are wonderfully goofy (I enjoyed flooding the room with ultraviolet light) and some I still haven’t managed to complete (my Biblical knowledge isn’t quite up to scratch). But the game by its nature is designed for replayability, providing autosaves, the ability to skip the pre-vampire passages, and generally being both efficient and fun to read.

Pros: Lucy is a delightful protagonist with a disaffected facade but a protective streak, and reminds me of a Bryan Fuller heroine. The game looks and plays simply, but this is not a negative: it does what it does very solidly and is very well put together. The achievements and unlockables make the player’s goals very clear, which for me is important for a puzzle game to be played multiple times, while not removing challenge altogether.

Cons: It’s hard to think of cons that aren’t a wishy-washy “I’m too much of a perfectionist” sort of comment. I’d like to see more of Lucy and her friends and I wasn’t able to finish everything in the two-hour judging limit, but that’s more of a pro since it’s made me keen to play more!

Overall: An excellent bite. Straightforward and effective.[/spoiler]