Tabitha's 2024 Review-a-thon thread

This will be where I put my reviews for The Inaugural IF Review-a-thon! With the first one hopefully coming tomorrow. And I’ll throw in a reminder that you can sign up to sponsor me or any of the other reviewers here.

Edit: Thank you @sophia for the lovely banner!!

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Someone Else’s Story by Emery Joyce

This game was written for the 2022 Goncharov Game Jam. While I am 100% out of the loop on the Goncharov meme, beyond knowing it exists, that fortunately didn’t stop me from comprehending or enjoying this short game. You play as Sofia, whose backstory remains largely a mystery beyond her being under the thumb of a mob boss. Tasked with getting information out of Katya, the wife of Goncharov (said boss’s rival mobster), at a party, Sofia studies and chats with her but is ultimately left with more questions than answers.

Throughout the game, optional links provide more information on people or situations mentioned with brief, evocative descriptions. The choices that exist are which dialogue options you say to Katya, ranging from flirtatious to apologetic, direct to subtle. Which you choose will determine in part the content and tenor of your conversation, especially its ending. I enjoyed replaying to see the different possibilities and gain a little more insight into Katya each time, seeing her and Sofia connect, however briefly, in different ways. In one variation, a line from Katya directly alludes to the title: “This isn’t our story, Sofia.” But while these women may be on the periphery of men’s rivalry and violence, the game itself centers their experience, with Goncharov never making an appearance. Well-written and compelling, this is an excellent little bite of a game—like Sofia, I’m left wanting more.

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Museum Heist by Kenneth Pedersen

I enjoy this sort of item-gathering optimization game (someone on IFDB has dubbed the genre “Verdeterrelike”), and I had fun with this one! A brief introduction explains that you’re at this museum to steal the famous “Mon Alicia” and then grab as many additional items as you can in the next 10 minutes before you leave. Like other Verdeterrelikes, it’s meant to be replayed multiple times, so on my initial playthrough I took my time examining everything I encountered, exploring the museum to see how big it was and understand the layout (ADRIFT’s automapper was helpful for this, although not strictly necessary as the map is quite simple).

Every action you perform takes 15 seconds, and you’ll need to be efficient if you want to maximize your score. Acquiring all the items requires solving small puzzles revolving around access and transportation. If time runs out before you’ve manually escaped, the game has you escape automatically—at the cost of dropping everything you’re carrying. So you have to make sure you leave enough time to go through the departure steps after grabbing your items. A single playthrough is quite quick, and I was sufficiently motivated to replay many times in order to keep increasing my take (ultimately hitting $681 million, which I was happy enough with despite knowing a higher score is possible).

The game was made over a brief time period, which shows a bit as there are some rough edges that could be smoothed out. Every turn takes 15 seconds, whether you successfully perform an action or not—so typos and commands that don’t work will cost you as much time as anything else. I also encountered a bug in one playthrough where I was able to do an action I don’t think was supposed to work (pushing the Corvette Stone into an adjacent room without the wheelbarrow), because when I tried the same thing in subsequent playthroughs I was told it wasn’t possible. Still, for anyone looking for a quick little optimization puzzler, I recommend checking this one out!

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WHOM I SHOULD LOVE ABOVE ALL THINGS by Sophia de Augustine

This is a brief excerpt from a longer work-in-progress that packs a lot into its short space. We, the readers, watch the scene unfold in third person as two long-separated men reunite in a confessional booth. Their dialogue has script-like formatting, most of the work a conversation with brief pauses for description. Said description paints a vivid picture of the two, deftly characterizing them through both their appearances and actions. We’re told none of either one’s backstory or their shared history, but are left to infer it based on their conversation, which is sufficient to provide a strong sense of who each is—Andrey, charming and flippant; Joel, earnest and emotional—and why this reunion matters to them.

The religious aspect is well-employed, both to hint at what drove them apart—Joel is a priest, while Andrey has lost his faith—and to serve as an analogy. The work’s title is taken from a Catholic prayer, which when excerpted at the end is cast in a new light by what we’ve just seen play out. A hint of sacrilege, delightful in the deep meaning it gives their relationship.

There are no choices in the piece; the reader simply clicks a link on each page to continue, with the short length of the pages encouraging you to linger on each, taking in the richness of the writing, processing each beat of this emotionally fraught moment as it unfolds.

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Thanks for the review - glad you liked the game :smiley:
Yes, it could probably do with a more thorough polish!

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Not Just Once by TaciturnFriend

I played Not Just Once back when it was first released and enjoyed it then, but encountered a few bugs. Having just played the updated version, I’m happy to report that my experience this time around was bug-free! Both on my original playthrough and again today, I found it quite compelling from the get-go; there’s a very moody vibe to it as the PC walks home in the snow on a January evening, preparing to eat a sad corner-store meal, and soon it takes a mysterious and somewhat spooky turn. (I found myself reading parts of it in the voice of Jonathan Sims from The Magnus Archives, which was delightful.)

Early in the game, the choices are about characterizing the PC—do you find Christmas lights still up in January charming, or irritating? What type of ostentatious shoes are your favorite? (Later, there’s also an appearance customization section, but it subverts expectations in several ways; clicking “skin color” does not actually allow you to choose a skin color, and the things you do get to choose have an immediate, very effective payoff.) We’re never told much about the PC outright; there are hints at your past, and apparently you knew going into it that today would be difficult, but the reason why, whatever happened prior to the game’s start, is never revealed.

Players also get to help shape the PC’s reality in an interesting way, going beyond looks or fashion choices. When a stranger tells the PC the two of you have met before, you get to choose if she seems familiar or not, and whether or not it’s possible that you had the encounter she describes. For these reasons, I felt somewhat distanced from the PC the whole time, like I was co-crafting them more than playing them, but that wasn’t a bad thing; having all these different options made it feel like the game was full of possibilities, and I was eager to explore them.

After playing several times, I definitely have a favorite ending, one that felt most fitting with the game as a whole. Multiple times throughout you’re given the choice to pursue/continue your odd encounter or give up and just head home, and continuing was the most rewarding to me; heading home (alone) at any point feels like it cuts the game off early, and leads to an ending I found less satisfying than what I consider the “main” one.

Two minor mechanical things—this is a stretch-text Twine game without an auto-scroll function, so constantly having to scroll down after clicking a choice was a bit annoying. The other is that the game doesn’t properly restart if you click the “end” link, which returns you to the beginning screen, and then click “start” again; if you do this, the game still remembers the appearance choices from your prior playthrough, and you don’t get to pick new ones. To fully clear the slate and start fresh, you have to click the “restart” icon. But these are small complaints about an overall rich, intriguing game!

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Suspended in the air so that all of your weight is concentrated on a single point halfway down your spine by Charm Cochran

This is the second of three games (so far) in Charm’s RGB Cycle, all of which were made for this year’s Neo-Twiny Jam, which had a length restriction of 500 words (not counting code). I definitely recommend starting with the first entry, not because this one can’t stand alone, but because playing it within the context of the first adds a layer to the experience. In this trilogy, each game builds on the previous one to recontextualize what came before it and what you think you know about the characters.

But on to the actual game! It’s very stylish, with a nicely presented introduction screen (containing instructions for playing and a cast list) and making good use of color throughout, presenting each character’s dialogue in a different color in order to distinguish them. The opening lines set a sinister mood that ramps up as you realize what exactly the PC’s current situation is—I won’t spoil it, but suffice to say that you spend the game trapped in a dark room. Reminiscent of Abigail Corfman’s A Dream of Silence, you have a range of available actions—looking, speaking, and moving—which result in more information and/or different outcomes as you repeat them.

The pacing is excellent, with conversations overheard from outside your prison conveying the passage of time and adding to the suspense. The game uses its small word count very effectively, and because of the several options always available to you and the different ways they build on each other, you likely won’t see all the text on a single playthrough—and while the game always ends the same way, there are at least two variations on the ending. After my first playthrough I replayed it immediately to see what I’d missed.

I won’t say much more due to the risk of spoilers, but it’s a great little horror game. The two moments of peak horror for me: There is a point where your choices are “Crawl”, “Scream”, or “Bleed”, and damn, that reveal at the end.

Small bug: after I’d already found that the door was locked, “Look around” gave me the text “Maybe if you swing to the door, you can get it open.”

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It can’t be true it mustn’t be true by Charm Cochran

Following on my last review, I’m now reviewing the conclusion (for now) of the RGB Cycle!

First, while I didn’t call this out in my review of the prior entry, it’s true of all three games: the cast list is a great introduction to the characters, introducing the two or three people who appear in each game with two positive and two negative adjectives, giving you a sense of who they are without giving away any of the games’ secrets. Like the others, this one also has a nice UI, again with a great use of color and starting out with a well-done emulation of a messaging app.

In contrast to the slow build of the prior installment, in this one you’re given the details of the situation—and the possible danger you’re in—right away, immediately establishing tension. Other notable contrasts are that you have much more agency (or at least, there’s the illusion that you do), but instead of choosing actions to do/try, you’re picking nouns to engage with. The game has a mini world model and is focused on exploring your environment, and there’s even a small puzzle (although you can finish the game without solving it). This entry clearly belongs with the two previous games while still having its own distinct type of gameplay. As I said about #2, the range of options the player has in such a short game is impressive—while, as in the prior installment, it always ends the same way, there are variations to the ending (I found three) depending on what you do or don’t do during your playthrough.

While technically this is a review of the third game, the rest of this is thoughts on the cycle (as it stands now) as a whole. As such, it has major spoilers!

RGB Cycle thoughts

You may have noted that I didn’t review the first game; it wasn’t as striking to me as these two, mainly because it feels like necessary setup before things really get going in #2. As I said in my review of that one, each game builds on the previous one to recontextualize what came before it and what you think you know about the characters. Each has a different PC; the one in the first game is the current wife in a Bluebeard scenario who kills her murderous husband and escapes. However, in the second game this same woman is the villain—she murders that game’s PC, and has been doing the same to any man who gets too close to her daughter. “Men are horrors, every one,” she says in seeming justification.

When playing this entry for the first time, this statement reads as a misguided belief based on her traumatic experience with her husband, with the PC an innocent victim who we have no reason to believe deserved this. But in the third game, we’re taken back in time and shown that he’s actually a serial killer—he’s the villain now, with a new PC as his hapless victim. Just as this man is reframed, so is the woman from #1 and #2 yet again—maybe she was entirely justified in taking out her daughter’s fiance! Of course it’s much less black-and-white than that, but I loved how I was made to rethink her character twice over the course of the cycle.

It’s an excellent linked series of games. All three feature a PC trying to get out of a dangerous situation alive, and all have only a single possible outcome—someone always dies. In the first one—the only one with a woman PC—you succeed, but in the second two, you don’t. Two of the games have a serial killer meeting his end, both killed by the same woman. In the first one, a man threatens a woman’s life, but ultimately she kills him. The third one has a presumably queer man killing another queer man. The trilogy is playing with the idea of victim and perpetrator—anyone can be either, or both—and showing how context-dependent our judgments of who deserves to live or die are.

I know there are a few more games to come in the cycle, and I’m curious what they’ll do to change my view of these three and their characters. Will we see more of the PC from #3, or the daughter from #2? She feels like a foil to the Bluebeard character from the first game; him clearly evil, a perpetrator only, her clearly innocent, solely a victim. But will we learn things that call her innocence or that of #3’s PC into question? I certainly look forward to finding out.

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