The Xenographer's Annual Comp Reviews

Well, I don’t know if you can really call them reviews; they’re more initial reactions. They’re not the most in-depth or analytical of game-related writings. But they are a thing I have been doing for the past few years and, shockingly, I am also doing them this year. Exciting times.

The Contortionist

[spoiler]An interesting idea with somewhat unpolished execution; it’s littered with spelling errors, and when using the mirror, I hit an accidental dead end with no links out and had to restart. The hybrid choice/parser interface feels a tad clunky, though that may be because I’m not used to it. I’ve played graphical games with this sort of interface, but with text it just doesn’t feel as smooth.

I feel the game would also have benefited from some way to kill specific amounts of time between guard cycles (along the lines of a “wait X seconds” command), rather than having to perform a handful of actions over and over until time runs out.

It’s not a bad game; I do like the concept of both the setting and the story. But I do think it could have used some more work.[/spoiler]

Venus Meets Venus

I don’t know what to say about this; mundane relationship drama is pretty much my least favorite subject for fiction ever, and that makes it hard for me to judge how well it executes what it sets out to do. I’m also not wild about the lack of actual interactivity or the switching between regular prose and semi-poetic all-lowercase lines with excessive line breaks, but the subject matter pretty much guaranteed out of the gate that it wasn’t going to be my cup of tea. So… sorry about that.

Jesse Stavro’s Doorway

[spoiler]I went into this game with high hopes. I’m always a fan of time travel, and the '60s/'70s counterculture flavor is a fun addition; plus, the cover art is great. All in all, the story is entertaining and the worldbuilding is intriguing, but there are some significant flaws as well, including frontloaded info-dumping, shallow implementation, some roughness with both writing mechanics and programming, and an ending which resolves nothing. Unless there was another ending I didn’t find, in which case I retract my criticism on that front (but feel that the alternate ending should be mentioned in the walkthrough, which I consulted to see if there was anything that could be done in the last scene besides the obvious).

All in all, I really wanted to like this game, but I ended up frustrated by it at least as often as I was having fun. It has a lot of style and a lot of cool ideas, but it felt sort of like a chunk of a larger story that ran out of time before it could be finished, much less polished.[/spoiler]

Slasher Swamp

This game is very, very old-school, and it’s a tongue-in-cheek take on a genre I’m not an especially big fan of, but I did enjoy its sense of humor in places (“A crazed hand has scrawled, ‘TYPE ABOUT OR CREDITS.’ You don’t remember writing this” and “>x spoon / It’s an ordinary spoon. >x fork / You have your doubts about the fork” made me grin) and found only one significant bug, which was not game-breaking. The looping maps were confusing, but I did get the hang of them eventutally. I think the game benefited (as far as my goodwill was concerned) by my having very low expectations for it, but I found it at least somewhat entertaining, if not particularly innovative.


[spoiler]I confess to not having played the original Hugo’s House of Horrors, so there’s context I’m missing here, but I gather that it’s doing the video game creepypasta thing–a familiar and fairly harmless game glitched and distorted, suddenly full of disturbing content that wasn’t supposed to be there, a la Pokemon Ghost Black.

It’s a pretty creditable entry in the genre–the fact that it is an actual game that you are actually playing gives it an advantage over most video game creepypasta I’ve read, since there’s no narrator interposing between you and the game, telling you, in the most heavy-handed of fashions, how absolutely mind-blowingly terrifying you should find it. That said, the narrator of the game itself tends to keep the player at arms’ length; the tone is too arch for the game to ever become really creepy. The ironic, self-conscious use of outdated slang and compound words such as “slimepliances” and “glitchblood” is reminiscent of MS Paint Adventures, which has its charm but is not exactly the eeriest thing. Despite the ironic distancing and my lack of familiarity with the source material, however, I did find the game entertaining.[/spoiler]

Fifteen Minutes

Fifteen Minutes centers around a time travel puzzle which I found very difficult and with little to no room for error, and I got expelled and experienced paradox paralysis a number of times before finally succeeding–with, I must admit, some help from the walkthrough. Still, it’s a well-constructed puzzle, the game works smoothly, and it’s funny. Despite my fairly low frustration threshold, I’d consider this one of the better games I’ve played so far.

Milk Party Palace

This game is definitely that particular sort of ironic pop-culture-laden humor written by an American man in his mid- to late twenties that’s particularly common on the internet, and I suspect how much you enjoy it will depend heavily on how much that style of humor appeals to you. I’m kind of on the fence about it, myself. There were parts of the game that charmed me–I particularly liked the part where you have to win a gallon of milk by playing a particularly byzantine board game where the options eventually descend into, literally, “right choice,” “wrong choice,” and “other wrong choice”–but I was not sufficiently charmed to try starting over when, during the endgame, I hit a screen where clicking the only link available did nothing. So I suppose I’ll never know if the protagonist’s brush with milk-obsessed celebrity comes to anything or whether he remains trapped in his mundane My Crappy Apartment/Job-type life.

1 Like


[spoiler]There’s very little really wrong with Excelsior, but it feels a little empty. I’ve played dozens of IF games in which you are in a tower and have to solve puzzles, and there’s really not much setting this one apart, either in story/atmosphere/flavor or in innovativeness of puzzles. It’s a competent effort, but I find it hard to summon much enthusiasm for it.

Also, I understand that the simplification of the parser is probably for the benefit of players who are new to parser IF, and the efforts to make the game beginner-friendly are admirable, but for a veteran IF player the limited vocabulary was maddening, especially the conflation of “use” and “take.”[/spoiler]


[spoiler]I started up this one with some trepidation, as the blurb made it clear that this was going to involve certain things I deal with in real life and don’t really like to contemplate while engaging in leisure activities, such as panic attacks, procrastinating on responding to e-mails and feeling guilty about it, and fighting kelpies. (Kidding, of course; I’m not in Scotland, the kelpies don’t live around here. Also, in the interest of full disclosure, I should perhaps note that I don’t have the exact same mental health issues that Raik’s protagonist does, but there are similarities, here and there, to my experience.)

It did hit fairly close to home in places–though at least that means that it’s a realistic and effective portrayal–but I enjoyed it more than I was expecting to, mostly because of the way it dealt with the interlacing of fantasy and reality and the way the language usage tied into that. (And as a bit of a language nerd I just found it interesting to try to figure out a language with which I was unfamiliar, but which was close enough to English to be almost mutually intelligible without having to look up every other word.) I also like the way that the language contributes to a strong sense of place (the presence of which is no easy feat in a work where the viewpoint character barely leaves the house).

Also, it inspired me to wash my dishes to gain a sense of wieldins over my life, so points for that.[/spoiler]

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes

I find it hard to know what to say about this. I thought it had an interesting atmosphere and some turns of phrase and imagery that I liked, but I’m not sure I really got it. Something about drug addiction? Institutionalization?

The Black Lily

[spoiler]This is an atmospheric little horror piece that I was quite enjoying until I got to the big twist about the main character’s identity. Not the serial-killer one (which was pretty obvious and not, I think, meant to be a shock so much as a confirmation of the player’s growing suspicions), but the other one.

I’m familiar with the horror trope of a child being warped by being raised as the opposite gender by a crazy mother (cf Sleepaway Camp), and I don’t think any harm towards existing people or groups was really intended, but I have too many transgender friends whom I’ve heard complain about only appearing in fiction as either serial killers or murder victims to feel comfortable about this. Granted, it is usually trans women, not trans men, who get this treatment, but I’m not sure this makes it better.

My only other complaint is that the endings felt a little… sparse? The ones I saw involved running away, killing Lily, hugging Lily, breaking the mirror, and confessing to Dagmar, and most of them were a couple sentences long and didn’t feel like much of a resolution. But maybe that’s intentional, and maybe one of the two I didn’t find is meatier. (Also, I only ever managed to get 6/10 points, so I’m definitely missing things in the game itself.)[/spoiler]

Just some observations from my own playthroughs.

The Contortionist


You can “play cards with Mary until the guard comes”.[/spoiler]

The Black Lily

All the endings are sparse. You can also kill Dagmar or kill yourself.

FWIW, Slasher Swamp is not a homebrew parser: it’s TADS packaged as an .exe.

Ack, I don’t know where I got the impression that it was. I will edit the review accordingly.

I was holding off on posting these until I had more reviews written up, but that’s not going very fast, so I might as well get these out there:

One Night Stand

[spoiler]I’m not sure I have anything to say about this that hasn’t been adequately covered by other people–I haven’t read many reviews by other people yet, but from what I’ve seen there’s something of a consensus on this one. For the record, though: One Night Stand’s supposed female POV is unconvincing–which is not to say that there’s a set Way Guys Sound and Way Girls Sound, but the narrative voice wasn’t convincing as the inner monologue of the protagonist, instead coming off as an outside observer who is both contemptuous of and titillated by her actions. Beyond that, the gameplay itself was not that fun; it’s a lot of moving back and forth between the same few rooms and performing the same actions over and over, which can be both tedious and unintuitive. And the jokes, such as they were, were not terribly funny.

The cover art is nice, though![/spoiler]

Creatures Such As We

[spoiler]Creatures Such As We is definitely the most interesting and thought-provoking game I’ve played so far this IF Comp. I admit I was skeptical at first about playing a game about playing a game and then contemplating the ending of said game–that’s already my life, you know?–but once it started getting more into the PC’s real life and the world of the tourist-trap space station, it won me over. I loved the worldbuilding, with its blend of wonder and mundanity, and it was interesting to see how the frame story and the game-within-the-game paralleled each other.

That said, I was bothered by how cluttered the game felt. A bit in terms of plot threads and characters, but mostly in terms of the questions and issues that it raised. The main question of endings–of what makes an ending satisfying or not, of what if anything writers owe to their audiences, of who the narrative ultimately belongs to–is one that could sustain (and has sustained) hours of discussion and entire games all on its own. (I could talk about just this issue and its portrayal in Creatures Such As We for ages, but this review is going to be long enough already.) And while I don’t necessarily think that being as narrow in focus as, say, Save the Date is the only way to approach these issues, Creatures Such As We just kept piling things on. There was, first of all, the assortment of game-industry talking points: treatment of women in the industry, representation in games, whether games can or should deal with social issues, whether an indie outfit being bought by a larger company is losing something or gaining better resources to enact their vision, and so on. Then there were the big issues raised by the game-within-the-game and echoed in the main plot, explorations of the inevitability (or not) of failure, the assignment of blame, the selfishness or selflessness of deciding to sacrifice yourself for another person. All of this is a lot of stuff for a not-so-large game to tackle, and the result is that none of it gets very much space–many of these things are waved at briefly but never explored in much depth.

I did enjoy the game a lot, and even as I’m complaining about how much it had going on, a part of me feels that it would lose something if streamlined. Maybe I just wish it had been longer so that some of these topics could have been discussed in more depth. But as it was I felt sometimes like it was racing down a list of things it wanted to include and I was left feeling vaguely unsatisfied.[/spoiler]

Hunger Daemon

[spoiler]I really, unreservedly like this one! What a nice feeling.

I’m always a sucker for Lovecraftian fiction and incongruous juxtapositions of the mundane and the fantastical, but even beyond that, it’s got wit, it’s got character, it’s got polish, it’s got solid puzzles, it’s got an extensive hint system, it’s got inept cultists who really just want a sandwich… all good stuff.

My one complaint was all the schlepping back and forth across town in the car. I don’t know why the driving aspect made it that much more arduous than going back and forth between regular rooms, but it did (possibly because I kept forgetting to enter or exit the car at the beginning/end of these trips?). But other than that, it was delightful.[/spoiler]

With Those We Love Alive

[spoiler]This is pretty much exactly what one would expect from a Porpentine production. Which sounds a bit dismissive, I guess–I do like Porpentine’s work generally and this game in particular, I don’t mean to give the impression that I don’t. But if you’ve played howling dogs and their angelical understanding, you know more or less what you’re in for: a dreamlike fantastical world with moments of great beauty and great ugliness; semi-metaphorical explorations of gender issues, power, and abuse; inventive use of the capabilities of Twine. All of this is handled with characteristic skill and poetry, and Brenda Neotenomie’s score supplements the atmosphere nicely.

The major new element here is that the game will, at various points, ask the player to draw a “glyph” on their own skin. At first these are relatively straightforward, such as “a glyph of new beginnings” or “a glyph of burial” (though it’s still up to the player to determine what this means), but eventually the prompts become more along the lines of “draw a glyph representing your feelings about this situation.” I imagine that this is not a thing which all players will enjoy, but I liked that it added another layer to my interactions with the narrative. It meant that I really had to think about, and distill into a concrete form, how I did feel about its events, or at least how I thought the PC might feel.

I will say that the game became monotonous at times, especially early on. The game progresses through a series of days that advance when the PC goes to sleep, but on most days nothing happens and very little changes in the game world, so I soon found myself clicking “sleep” repeatedly until an event came up. I assume this was a choice made to demonstrate a certain apathy or depression on the part of the PC, but–as I believe I said in my original review of howling dogs, actually–intentionally boring your audience is a fine line to walk.[/spoiler]

Two solidly enjoyable games in a row this time! Though they’re very different and have very different merits.

Ah, I missed this comment, sorry!

… and I also missed that option in The Contortionist, apparently. Whoops.

Thanks for letting me know about the other two endings of The Black Lily. You’re right, they’re all pretty sparse. There’s something to be said for leaving things up in the air, especially in horror fiction, but in this case it seemed a little… anticlimactic, maybe, or unsatisfying. It’s possible that the two big reveals are meant to carry most of the weight here, but it didn’t quite work for me.