Spellmotif's IFComp 2023 reviews

This is my second year judging, but I’d never made a review thread before. If I’m honest, last year I would scour review threads looking for anyone else who loved my favorite games as much as I did, so I’m a little excited to be doing this (it feels like a strange honor? And also scary? Who am I to be reviewing anything publicly, oh god…)

I know this isn’t best practice, but I’ll be playing games that call to me most rather than playing at random. Honestly, I have ADHD, and trying to pay attention to anything that doesn’t resonate with my brain at the moment feels like torture. So if you start to see a theme in which games I review, it’s very likely personal bias and I admit it. I will still probably play quite a few games out of my comfort zone, but that might have to wait until I’m in the space for it.

14 Likes

Hand Me Down by Brett Witty

I will admit I’m an absolute sucker for games loaded with personal meaning. The parser section was a little unpolished at times, with the wording being a bit finicky, but it’s well worth the playthrough. Choices felt very deliberate. I actually loved the observatory puzzle (and yes I did have the letter grid and key, just like the finale mentioned) I just couldn’t figure out how to turn the different parts of the receiver panel for the longest time.

The game just made me feel absolutely clever. I didn’t have that much time today so I didn’t get to find everything, but I did find two shareables, two invites, and a costume.

What initially drew me to this game was that it was part TADS parser and part twine game. I think it’s a beautiful usage of both mediums, with the parser living up to its role as a robust, fun, puzzle-laden adventure, while the Twine sections really allow the characters of this game to shine. The in-universe fiction of this being a game made by a dad for his daughter shines through the construction of the game itself, and the writing. It never felt like that was a sidebar to the parser sections, it always stood out as the heart and driving core of the game. It never wanders too far or loses itself in the mechanics of the game, with notes and letters scattered throughout the game explicitly, and the dad’s character shining through in the construction of the parser section itself. Hand Me Down felt like a love letter of a game to Ruby, and that made it easy to love for me, stepping into her shoes and playing through a game entirely dedicated to her.

Besides the small, but not game-breaking, bugs, the only qualm I have about the game’s story is, after spending an hour or two playing the game, I’m a little disappointed the option to have Ruby tell her dad she loved it is marked as a white lie. I wanted her to love it like I had loved it, but I suppose that’s just grappling with the characters of this story. And if any part of it came from the author’s humility, I would encourage them to let me and Ruby both state our love for this game and mean it.

I will say, on a technical level, I don’t fully understand what goes into the making of a parser game, but there needs to be a better way of organizing the what feels like a dozen notes you can pick up along the course of the game. It also seems to struggle a bit with distinguishing between their names, which didn’t make it easy, but it all worked out with a little bit of patience. The puzzles are cool and well thought out, and it never felt like it was impossible to solve or it required knowledge that wasn’t set up in the game itself. The fiction of the in-world game also buys it some leniency: it was very easy for me to imagine that any bugs were diegetic, so to speak, as a hobbyist game and passion project made my Ruby’s father and partner for her.

Overall, it was a lovely and compelling game, with every bit of the parser section oozing with love and care for Ruby and her family. It felt like I was being invited to peek into a family’s dynamic, while at once being entirely at home in it, and stepping into Ruby’s shoes in this whimsical puzzle created for her. (And yes, I absolutely did choose the princess costume as my favorite, tantrum tiara and all.) It changed my understanding of Ruby’s relationship with her father, as I hope it did for her.

12 Likes

I tested this game and love to see the enthusiastic review!

5 Likes

Fix Your Mother’s Printer by Geoffrey Golden

This was a sweet game that I personally loved. I played it exactly once, choosing to be as nice and patient as possible, and I found it very rewarding and lovely as an experience, no matter how many hurdles came between the player character and their mom’s quest to print that PDF. I loved the art, it was simple but conveyed exactly what it needed to. I would definitely say don’t let my calling this game or its art simple seem like I’m calling it lackluster, it definitely wasn’t. I found it reflective and it reminded me a lot of speaking to my mother and my grandparents, and honestly I kind of wanted to give the mom a hug. It was just a really sweet game.

As I’ve grown older I’ve realized how cruel you can casually be to your parents growing up, and how close you can get once you both weather that storm. I appreciate how much the choices I made seemed to matter for the characterization of my PC (I only say “seemed to” because I frankly didn’t have the heart to play it a second time and find out what would happen if I’d been mean or dismissive, so I can’t say for sure how different things would be if I wasn’t playing the nice golden child.)

It felt real, the dialogue was entertaining, and it elicited that kind of flitting nostalgia for reminiscing with your parent once you’re old enough to see them as a flawed, whole person, but a person nonetheless. It also made it feel very rewarding to be kind, and the options drew my attention to the conscious choices you need to make to do that, even if your mother doesn’t know how to get to her printer settings or what the USB symbol means.

It’s fun, it’s polished, it’s cute and surprisingly touching, and it was exactly as long as it needed to be. I’d say this game is definitely one of my favorites so far.

8 Likes

Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses! by Lacey Green

This game seemed cute, and I was excited to play it at least based on appearances (and the fact that if it lived up to its 15 minutes or less promise, I could fit it into my schedule without worrying too hard about procrastinating). So I went in with an open mind and high hopes, but unfortunately, I found it a bit lacking in its execution. The game sets up a number of exciting prospects: The literature club, the romantic interests, the varied locations, and most of all the glasses quest. But, it felt like a game that spent two-thirds of its time on set-up and very little of it paying it off, with some characters feeling like they had more backstory than they did on-screen time. 15 minutes is already a very tight window to try to build chemistry between characters, and it felt like it somewhat missed its mark, with the romance options (in my opinion) requiring you to play a certain kind of character to really make use of them, and not seeming to impact the story or my play experience much in any really meaningful way. I did find my glasses eventually, but it took a few playthroughs to get there, and from what I can tell it takes some specific moves to get them in any other way, despite my poking around the game for maybe 5-6 playthroughs and not getting much of anywhere new.

I do think the game really has promise, but it feels like it was perhaps too rushed to live up to it. I know it’s a risk this early in the comp when authors are still sniping bugs that pop up, but I found some unfinished text that I don’t think was meant for my eyes while poking around a few of the exploration options, and it brought down the level of polish a bit in my eyes. I think with more time, structure (maybe some more explicit time-based stakes surrounding the end of the school day?), and chances to get to know each character beyond the one scene per love interest, it could make for a very fun game. But as it stands, it feels like a game that brings up some good ideas and doesn’t have a chance to really flesh them out yet.

9 Likes

My Brother; The Parasite by qrowscant

This was an absolutely stunning game. I’m biased, in that family relationships are one of the few things that can reliably impress me when executed well, and this one was incredibly well executed. My Brother; The Parasite sets up one of the most interesting, layered, and complex familial dynamics that I’ve seen, creating a relationship between Ines and her brother that is at once complicated and yet almost immediately recognizable.

You play as Ines, a woman whose brother is temporarily kept alive by a parasite, an experience that should allow her (at least in theory) to get some closure on the two’s relationship, as the last time they spoke had been years ago, and she had been denied this kind of closure when it came to their mother’s death. The story has a heart that feels very authentic to me, and everything else falls around that. The speculative aspects of the fiction serve exactly what they need to, creating an exciting world that enables the narrative but doesn’t take up too much of the game’s air time so to speak, sinking into the background and doing the work it needs to set up a tense backdrop for the character to have to deal with her emotions headfirst. I appreciated especially that none of it felt clunky or heavy-handed, as I was worried it might when I first started the game. The relationship feels entirely, utterly believable, and it feels like a game I’d like to come back to and analyze in depth after the comp. It made me cry, and honestly feels like one of those games I’ll think about every few years and come back to.

The game uses its backgrounds and portraits very skillfully. As far as I can tell the portraits are hand-drawn, and remind me a little of the character portraits used in Disco Elysium, while the backgrounds are edited photographs. They add an interesting dynamic layer to the story, with the portraits and backgrounds both shifting as you click through the story, and in a game with no choices so to speak, the emotional impact of the images and text presentation are at the core of why the game has as much of an impact as it does. The backgrounds frequently turn black when Ines is “away” so to speak, in her own mind, spiraling in her thoughts, or otherwise dwelling on her memories while in the middle of a conversation, plunging the reader in the dark with her. It lets us in on Ines’ thoughts in a way that feel confidential, before abruptly flashing back to reality. There was one background in particular that absolutely took my breath away when the game’s text filled up the screen. The portraits also shift, appearing when characters enter a scene, changing when they turn to face Ines, or when she’s recalling them. The character names also shift, reflecting the roles they play in the moment, where Ines starts as “Next of Kin” when speaking to her bother’s handler, then when they speak, the pair switches to “Brother” and “Sister”.

The game is deeply immersive in its design, and the prose is doing a lot of subtle work in the background. It’s strong, evocative, and purposeful. The text is designed so the next clickable option is not always the last line of text, so sometimes you’ll find yourself clicking a word like “love” three times in a row, going back to it as new text appears, putting the static and dynamic text in conversation with each other. It all adds meaning to a game deeply rooted in the relationship between these two and the trauma embedded in it and makes for a striking work that is, at least in my opinion, deeply moving.

I said it before, but I mean it, I really think this game is going to stick with me for a while.

12 Likes