some choice game reviews

Yes, that’s a play on words. And yes, these will be reviews of choice-based games. Choice reviews of choice-based games, no less. [emote];)[/emote]

Edit: The games I had much to say about are listed below. They are, in order of review:

Caroline, by Kristian Kronstrand
Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes, by B Minus Seven
Venus Meets Venus, by kaleidofish
With Those We Love Alive, by Porpentine

If I play any others that strike me, I’ll add 'em above and below.


I’m really impressed with the presentation in this game. Beautiful formatting: the background color, the ratio of text to whitespace, placement of the text, the font, etc. Splendid design. It feels like reading a well-designed book.

I also like the “hybrid” game format pretty well. It’s primarily a choice game, but you are asked to type your choice. This makes no difference in the level of interaction possible, but it preserves the visual design of the page. Bolding clickable text would have ruined this, so the author found an alternative input method. Bravo.

The story is not typical. It relates to being in love/lust/infatuation with a person who believes strongly in the tenets of a cult/low-population-religion that you have no reason to believe in yourself, but allegiance to which your love interest demands.This choice of topic is worth praise. It’s not sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or historical fiction, and that makes the game stand out. More than that, though, because the plot is so unusual, it makes it seem highly likely that the author had personal experience with the protagonist’s quandary. This lends extra weight to the narrative.

There are some grammatical errors of the type that lead me to think English is the author’s second language. These are infrequent and minor.

The game was a little short. There was absolutely no way I was going to convert to a religion just to be with my love interest, so I let her go. I don’t know how much further the game would have gone if I had chosen differently. However, my choice felt bittersweet. Compelling me to feel this way is another victory for the author.

In short, although I felt like the protagonist’s perspective on the scenario came from someone younger and more innocent than me, I enjoyed it a lot. I wish there was a way to easily rewind to various points to make different choices and see what happens without having to start over from the beginning.

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes

Cool! I’m educated enough to think this story is postmodern, but not enough to be able to extrapolate on why with much authority. Nonetheless: this story breaks rules, consciously, to give a disjointed effect. Not really disorienting, more like showing the seams of a “game” to give said game more texture. The subject becomes not only an illusion brought on by willed suspension of disbelief, but also how that illusion is both parsed and created. It’s a pastiche not afraid to show its ingredients. Also, the snake is so cool.Something about totem animals is just automatically great. So, part postmodern and part magic-realism.

Venus Meets Venus

Venus Meets Venus feels honest.

Do you enjoy movies about dating? About ordinary people? About overcoming a personal sense of defeat? I do. And that’s why I liked this game.

There’s not much choice in this game, but I don’t mind this at all if it’s well-paced with compelling writing. This is that.

Venus Meets Venus starts with the protagonist in a bar, picking up lovers with her short skirt and her liquid courage. This story is not erotica, meant to titillate, but it deals frankly with sexuality. As the player you don’t feel like the onlooker enjoying a good show, but rather like you’ve got a privileged seat in the author’s brain, privy to all her feelings and thoughts. And if you can relate to feelings of longing and love, to problems of miscommunication between lovers, then you can relate to her story.

The author doesn’t veneer her actions or hide her doubts. This kind of memoir is my literary crack cocaine.

There is a bit of a twist that comes early in the game.

The author claims “this is not a love story” but it is. A complicated one, dealing with the birth of a relationship and the changes and challenges to it even over a short period of time.

With Those We Love Alive

Porpentine’s writing is evocative. Before you even begin your game proper, she asks you simply to choose what month you were born, your element, and your eye color. But the months have names like “Ocean Cloud,” and if you choose that month then your default element is “Petal.” I don’t know about you, but these kinds of words immediately have my mind bifurcating away on endless rounds of suggested imagery.

One scene in particular evoked H.R. Giger, the artist behind the design of the alien from the movie Alien: An "Empress rises from the water [of an “inky black lake’], dragging her train of leaves and ichor. Her larval skin floats across the lake like the carcass of a pale leviathan…Her aide…[cleans] the skull of the Empress, running her tongue along the effluvial curves.”

I suspect, having played some of Porpentine’s other works and read some of her postings, autobiographical elements to the story. You play an “artificer” who “make[s] things” and was “noticed…from your showings, and sometimes victories, in the festivals.” Reminiscent of an artist, a writer, a web developer, a game designer.

Further, like the protagonist of Porpentine’s “Their angelic understanding,” the protagonist suffers from a childhood trauma that makes it nearly impossible for her to find joy in life or her surroundings. The protagonist regulary injects hormones, and drinks others’ distilled dreams because her own dreaming faculty was stolen. As in “angelic understanding” (and “ULTRA BUSINESS TYCOON III”), redemption comes in the form of a friend.

The world is built splendidly and logically. Society is ruled by an insect-like class. People are occasionally hunted for sport. Heretics are killed in various ghastly ways. The town is beautiful but blasted. The garden is peaceful but built around ruined war machines from a dead culture, now called “statues.”

The juxtaposition of horror and beauty is repeated endlessly. The grotesque, merciless Empress whose bones are on the outside of her body, who commissions daggers of heretic bone and whose abdomen drags the floor, wears “atlas beetle horns” and a “mantle of moth fur.” If you imagine an actual mantle of moth fur, that’s extraordinary.

If I have any complaints about With Those We Love Alive, it is that the player is too powerless and the resolution comes too suddenly. For much of the game, you can’t advance the story except by going to sleep. Repeatedly. If ever there was a protagonist with a motivation issue, this is her. It’s likely intentional, but the lack of agency is still agonizing to play after a while.

[spoiler]The player is essentially rescued by the fortuitous appearance of a beloved but estranged friend. After a reconciliation, you rescue your friend from certain death and escape society to a hotel on a distant shore. Fine. Wonderful, even. But too fast. If you finally decided to act on something, why? You were unwilling to save yourself, and unwilling to leave the situation to find your friend elsewhere, but once she arrives you flee with her. Some rationale, some change in the protagonist’s thought processes and outlook on life needs to be explicated.

One other minor issue is the dead people you see all around you. It wasn’t clear to me that these were hallucinations until late in the game. I thought they were simply people doomed or condemned to death by virtue of being lower class.[/spoiler]

These problems aside, as always Porpentine is a master of mood, setting, and imagery, and for the most part, pacing. This is a good, ambitious piece worth playing and marveling at.