Robin's IFComp 2021 reviews

Unfortunately with work, other work, brain chemistry and other stuff, I didn’t get round to judging IFComp this year. I’m a little bit sad about that. But going straight in at the results stage was also fun. I’m playing some games now, starting with the winner, and I’ll post reviews and review-like things here.

And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One

Firstly, I wish I’d played this before reading any reviews of it; even a few lines gave something away that would have been an amazing experience to discover firsthand. If you haven’t played the game yet, go and do so. This is a spoilery review, including a major revelation in the ending I got, and ATYCTAHNUTPO is an extremely spoiler-vulnerable game.

ATYCTAHNUTPO is a game rooted entirely in text adventure nostalgia. It’s a well deserved comp winner, and while innovative, it’s probably one of the best counterexamples to the common complaint from nerdy middle-aged men that IFComp is getting too far removed from the puzzly parser text adventures they played as nerdy boys in the 1980s and 90s. It’s a game about a nerdy teenage boy playing puzzly parser text adventures in the 1980s, or the idealised Stranger Things version of that time. That atmosphere is created skilfully by the prose – you can almost hear the spinning wheel of your Raleigh Chopper carelessly parked against a Vote Dukakis yard sign outside. The nostalgia is mainly in the setting and story, but also from the storytelling form, which manages to be simultaneously traditional and highly inventive.

The first ten minutes or so are nothing but scenes from (fictitious) text adventures of that era, tiny two- or three-room fetch quests that feel procedurally generated. I’ve only played once, so I’m not sure if they actually are procgen, but they feel so much like it that I’m sure it’s deliberate. These are interspersed with commentary from Riley, who is the best friend of the nerdy teenage boy protagonist, Emerson, who is playing games on Riley’s parents’ computer, in Riley’s house, while Riley, your best friend, sits there and watches, I guess. It must suck to be your second-best friend. Anyway, after three or four of these mini-quests, Riley gets understandably bored and demands you play something else.

This opens up a small range of other minigames based on period-appropriate PC games and software: an OTT ye-olde-epic-quest roguelike RPG, a horrendous-quality edutainment program, and “strip poker” complete with squint-and-you-can-just-about-see-it ASCII boobs. All of these play out as mini-IFs in themselves, in a much more modern style, containing their own fairly deep characters, and they all cue revelations about the “real” characters’ stories too, their families, their relationship, their out-of-shot lives, past, and hints of their future. The marriage of the shift to the modern, character-driven style with the continuation of almost parody-level “puzzles” that match the simplistic style of the introductory mini-adventures is interesting, and will give the nostalgia-loving players their fix while smuggling them into a more modern style of IF in a fairly subtle way.

As you play on, the lines between the various layers of fiction start to lose definition. The adventure games bleed objects and character knowledge into each other, then into the other in-game-games as well as the “frame” universe of you and Riley. This is expertly paced, not overwhelming at first, but by the end it’s deliberately uncertain what layer of reality you’re playing in at any time. Then a cut to an actual ending – I’ve only played once, but I think there are multiple of these – that (at least in the case of the ending I got) gives the character some closure, retroactively explains a lot of the seemingly prescient throwaway lines throughout the game about where the characters will be in the following years, and cements the nostalgic element by making this not just a game about being a teenager playing text adventures in the long eighties, but about being an adult remembering being that teenager. As one of those adults I can’t help appreciating this… but we’re not exactly people in desperate need of having our stories told.

Comparisons to both “Endless, Nameless” and “Photopia” are unavoidable: the former for the nostalgia and the gradual reality creep, and the latter for the fairly linear story and the main “perfect girl” NPC. [Mid-to-high-level spoilers for Photopia coming up.] OK, that comparison might not be totally fair: Riley is a much more solid character than Photopia’s Allie, as low as that bar is, and – in the path I got – wasn’t sent marching into a tragic ending because that’s the inevitable fate of flawless female characters. In Riley’s relatively few lines of dialogue and descriptive writing she gets far more characterisation than Allie, and even a few flaws in a “she’s so uncool, isn’t that cool?” sort of way. But I couldn’t help wishing she had more agency of her own, and wasn’t defined almost entirely by her relationship to the extremely audience-insert male player character. In my playthrough, the only point at which she seemed to have any significant control of the narrative was a short scene in which she took her top off. (To be fair, that scene didn’t feel lascivious or inappropriate, another mark of skilful writing.)

The game is too well written for this stuff to bring it down, but for the same reasons, it’s so well written that Riley feels like a missed opportunity. Often, following some revelation from the “games” universe, I tried to talk to Riley and see what she had to say about it, and got nothing but “1. Never mind” as a dialogue choice. If she’s really my best friend, why can’t I talk to her about stuff? The in-game-game protagonists frequently tell you “Don’t worry, Riley can’t hear us.” If she’s really my best friend, why wouldn’t I want to share with her that I’m having a full-on paranormal experience in her house? Even towards the end, when I’m finally allowed to show her the cool stuff I’ve collected from the minigame characters, I’m happy to leave her thinking I thought of it myself. My best friend. I only hope I told her the truth some time before marrying her.

I can’t compare this game to Photopia without noting that you and your character in ATYCTAHNUTPO have a lot more agency than the player/player character(s) in Photopia. (Or at least it felt like it – after one playthrough, I can’t be sure how much railroading was going on under the hood, but that hardly matters.) I’ve inferred from other reviews that there are multiple endings, and I found myself making choices out of genuine care for the characters. In a way it’s doing some of the same things Photopia was doing, playing with expectations and using interactivity to explore a fairly static character piece, but much better. I also suspect that, like Photopia, ATYCTAHNUTPO will be better remembered for its innovations in form and implementation rather than the story itself.

I’m better at writing about flaws in things I like than I am at writing about their good qualities, so I’ll stress again that I really enjoyed this game. The writing is excellent; the characters, including Riley, all have a lot of depth squeezed into their limited screen time; the story is charming; and the form is original and artfully executed.

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