Victor's IF Comp 2021 Reviews

My competition reviews – bound to be far less numerous than in the previous years – will appear below. They will contain spoilers. I’ll use this first post as a table of contents.

  1. Cyborg Arena
  2. My Gender is a Fish
  3. A Papal Summons, or The Church Cat
  4. Closure
  5. What remains of me
  6. The Best Man
  7. Walking into it
  8. 4x4 Archipelago
  9. Codex Sadistica
  10. And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One
  11. Infinite Adventure
  12. Taste of Fingers
  13. Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg

My current scores (subject to change)

10: The Best Man
8: And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One; 4x4 Archipelago
7: Cyborg Arena; Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg; A Papal Summons; Walking Into It
6: Closure; Codex Sadistica; My Gender is a Fish; Taste of Fingers
4: What Remains of Me
Hors concours: Infinite Adventure (but I gave it a 5)


Cyborg Arena by John Ayliff

(Here, as always, you should click the arrow to the see the review.)

Here’s what I like most: the fact that we’re playing a variant of rock-paper-scissors where you are told in advance what the opponent’s move will be. Of course this makes it utterly trivial to win the fight that’s playing out in this cyborg arena; but that’s precisely how you’re clued in to the fact that winning isn’t the point. Making the audience happy, that’s the point, even though that may involve taking some heavy hits yourself. This is not a real fight; it is a cooperative ballet. And your partner trusts you so much that they never conceal what they’re planning to do. That’s the subtlety. That’s what you have to realise.

All of this is placed in a serviceable framework, but apart from the mechanic described above there’s not much subtlety to be found. The political commentary is simple to the point of being simplistic and so are the emotional strings that get pulled. It works; but it’s no more than a vehicle for delivering this one brilliant idea: combat as trust.

Reason to play this game: it makes us think about the narrative potential of combat mechanics.


My Gender is a Fish by Carter Gwertzman

My Gender is a Fish is, unsurprisingly, about gender; but it is about gender in a surprising way. At the beginning of your tale, after briefly establishing that we are in a society in which failing to live up to your biological gender identity is a reason for social ostracism, we learn that our own gender is stolen. We then enter the woods, which are a metaphor for the dangerous realm of self-discovery that we enter when we leave the ready-made interpretations of Das Man (the They) behind, and are presented with a series of choices about what our gender is; symbolic choices, choices that have nothing to do with man/woman and everything with the role that gender plays in our life. In the end, we’ll always end up saying, in one poetic way or another: it’s complicated. I’m not there yet, but I’m moving towards it.

I tend to think of myself as someone who doesn’t have a strong gender identity. I’m biologically male, I’m fine with that, but I don’t see it as terribly important to who I am and I kind of resent it when other people do claim it is important to who I am.

I say this with some caution. After all, it is hard to be sure that your gender identity is unimportant to you if you’ve never been in a situation where it was changed or challenged. And it’s also hard to be aware of all the ways that your perceived gender structures how society reacts to you. Still – it’s not easy for me to imagine myself in the situation where gender itself would be a struggle for me (as opposed to the situation where living in sexist conditions would be a struggle for me, which I find very easy to imagine), because it’s hard for me to understand what it’s like to experience gender as deeply meaningful to one’s own identity.

I’m saying this because it’s important for understanding my relationship to Gwertzman’s piece. On the one hand, it made the game more fascinating to me, because Gwertzman does a great job of cataloguing some of the ways in which gender can be experienced. Indeed, it made me want much more – a richer fictional exploration of these abstract scenarios. On the other hand, I think it makes me a lousy critic of the game. If you want to know whether My Gender is a Fish does a good job of evoking the different ways in which gender can be experienced, I’m among the last people to ask.


A Papal Summons, or the Church Cat by Bitter Karella

A Papal Summons bills itself as “a grotesque camp horror story inspired by the works of Franz Kafka and Kobo Abe.” I haven’t read Abe and therefore cannot comment intelligently on that part of the work’s genealogy, but I’ve read quite a bit of Kakfa – and although his work is hardly horror in any traditional sense of the genre, let alone camp, it is easy to discern certain Kafkaesque themes in Bitter Karella’s story. Most obviously, perhaps, there is the soulless bureaucracy that plays a major role in both The Castle and The Trial; a system where meaning is always deferred, never established, and things happen merely because they are supposed to happen. But the Kafka story I was most reminded of was The Great Wall of China (original title: “Beim Bau der Chinesischen Mauer”), or rather a story within that story, in which we hear what would happen if the Emperor ever decided to send a messenger to someone in a distant province. Let me quote the entire passage:

The Emperor—so they say—has sent a message, directly from his death bed, to you alone, his pathetic subject, a tiny shadow which has taken refuge at the furthest distance from the imperial sun. He ordered the herald to kneel down beside his bed and whispered the message into his ear. He thought it was so important that he had the herald repeat it back to him. He confirmed the accuracy of the verbal message by nodding his head. And in front of the entire crowd of those who’ve come to witness his death—all the obstructing walls have been broken down and all the great ones of his empire are standing in a circle on the broad and high soaring flights of stairs—in front of all of them he dispatched his herald. The messenger started off at once, a powerful, tireless man. Sticking one arm out and then another, he makes his way through the crowd. If he runs into resistance, he points to his breast where there is a sign of the sun. So he moves forward easily, unlike anyone else. But the crowd is so huge; its dwelling places are infinite. If there were an open field, how he would fly along, and soon you would hear the marvelous pounding of his fist on your door. But instead of that, how futile are all his efforts. He is still forcing his way through the private rooms of the innermost palace. He will never he win his way through. And if he did manage that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to fight his way down the steps, and, if he managed to do that, nothing would have been achieved. He would have to stride through the courtyards, and after the courtyards the second palace encircling the first, and, then again, stairs and courtyards, and then, once again, a palace, and so on for thousands of years. And if he finally did burst through the outermost door—but that can never, never happen—the royal capital city, the centre of the world, is still there in front of him, piled high and full of sediment. No one pushes his way through here, certainly not with a message from a dead man. But you sit at your window and dream of that message when evening comes.

In the case of the protagonist of A Papal Summons, the situation is slightly different – the message did reach us and we have managed to come to Rome to meet the pope who sent it. But the six months that have passed might as well have been an eternity, for they turned the summons precisely into a message from a dead man. Within the heart of the bureaucracy, justification and scapegoat for all the horrors that are performed, lies a man who is so close to death that the protagonist cannot perceive any distance at all; and he is artificially kept that way, an absolute emptiness, powerless to make even the smallest change to the world, but turned into a symbol by the innocent faith of the true believer. Like the Emperor in Kafka’s story, the pope must never be allowed to be more than a symbol; for that would disturb the inscrutable machinery of state.

Kaemi wrote a rather critical review of the game, complaining about the litany of horrors that doesn’t do justice to the complexities of the faith and its history, and, worse, seems to paint even those who are the victims of institutions with the same cynical brush:

The entire scene takes the venomous invective that, when aimed at a global institution with a deeply troubled history, feels, if not thoughtful, at least understandable, then just splatters it over everyone, powerful and powerless, with the very unfortunate implication that everyone, sex worker and true believer, is complicit in their abuse, which surely wasn’t intended?

I don’t exactly disagree with this. There’s a lot to like about A Papal Summons in terms of structure and inventiveness, and I read through it with rapt attention. But if the purpose of the game was to develop a criticism of the Catholic Church, then a more thoughtful and discerning approach would have been required. If the purpose was merely to revel in the horrifying sights and sounds, what kaemi identifies as a carnival ride of religious terror, then it would have been good to leave out the more human characters and go full institutional horror. And yet – the way I read the game, all the horror, in its banality, in its cynicism, in its universality, is there for what may be called an ethical pay-off: our recognition of the Pope, the one who is supposed to explain things to us and absolve us, as the powerless, the voiceless, the one to be pitied.

The dying Emperor in Kafka’s story, the dying pope in A Papal Summons; these parental figures whose attention and love we, children, desire more than anything else; are they not revealed as people who, powerless to bestow any gift unto us, actually need our love and attention? But of course we are equally powerless to bestow a gift unto them.

“The pope has nothing to say.” It is possible to read this final sentence as a deeply cynical statement about institutional religion in general or the Catholic Church in particular. And perhaps it is meant this way. But I prefer to read it as a statement about the human condition. About the loneliness of death. About the wordlessness of grief. And about the isolation to which we so often condemn ourselves and each other long before physical death comes to claim us. Which would still be rather desperate and hopeless, but which would not be cynical.


Closure by Sarah Wilson

There’s a tradition of parser games that turn the game’s voice into a character; games like Jon Ingold’s Fail-Safe, Tommy Herbert’s Bellclap and my own Terminal Interface for Models RCM301-303. In Sarah Wilson’s Closure, the game’s voice is that of your best friend Kira, and the central conceit is that she’s texting you and you are texting her back. A good idea and implemented in a visually appealing way. Unlike many games of this tradition, Closure keeps the relation between player and narrator pretty straightforward: Kira tells you what she sees is more or less the same way that a ‘neutral’ viewpoint character would.

Ostensibly, the piece is about helping your friend steal a photo of her and her now ex-boyfriend TJ from said ex-boyfriend’s dorm room. In reality, the exploration of his room will trigger a series of revelations and insights that help Kira understand why TJ left her and thus find a much-needed sense of closure. It’s a sympathetic framework that stresses the difficulty of and need for mutual understanding, and it’s a good fit for the chosen medium.

When it comes to the details, things could have been stronger. We don’t get much of a sense of who Kira and TJ are as persons, or how they interacted. So Kira made fun of TJ’s metal albums and sneakers collection. Okay – but there are many ways to make fun of something, and many ways to react to that, ranging from the problematic all the way to good-natured joking that can actually strengthen a couple’s bonds. So how did they interact? We’re not sure. (Some of this would have been easier to show in flashback, but of course there’s no way to incorporate flashbacks into the texting conceit.)

The crowning revelation is that TJ got married to a girl he’s only hooked up with a few weeks ago. This massively unexpected and quite bizarre turn of events seemed to me somewhat out of place; it undercut the realism of the rest; or if it is supposed to be realistic, then at the very least Kira’s understanding of TJ must have been so warped that it makes it hard for us to take her past romance very seriously. I don’t fully understand why the story was taken so far beyond the (surely quite sufficient) revelation that TJ has a new girlfriend.

But overall an easy piece to like!


What remains of me by Jovial Ron

What remains of me is a very short game with a retro look (although I don’t think fonts were ever quite this bad even on my old 8086 with monochrome screen) and a keyword-click interface. The system seems robust but lacks several convenience features, including Save/Restore/Restart as well as Undo (which is frustrating in a game where a dog can tear up your love letter). I also found it strange that arrow keys for directions we cannot move in are shown; surely one of the great advantages of such an interface is that we can communicate possible directions of movement without having to list exits. The game also spews some rather useless messages, such as “you have moved from room 1 to room 4”, which seem to contain internal variable names rather than diegetic content.

The game itself is extremely minimal. You walk through an apartment and some streets, pick up objects, and give them to people in order to ‘help’ them. It’s all ultra bare-bones. Very few descriptions. Very limited opportunities for interaction. NPCs that say only one thing over and over again. The emphasis on helping people is nice (and certainly not a given in old-school text adventures) and there’s something mildly charming about this quaint world. But there’s also just not much there in terms of prose, story, theme, exploration or puzzle.


The Best Man by Stephen Bond

Stephen Bond! I wasn’t putting any money on him coming back to interactive fiction, but he is back, and how. Bond is known especially as the author of Rameses (2000), a work famous for having a socially awkward protagonist who always – no matter what you try to make him do or say – follows the path of least resistance. The poetry scene in my own Turandot is based on Bond’s game, as those who knew it could not fail to notice.

Bond then wrote the 2004 game The Cabal, which is one big in-joke about the interactive fiction newsgroups at the time, and about which Emily Short wrote that it ‘ages badly’… and that was in 2007, so I suspect it is now more or less incomprehensible. He also used to have a website with writings on IF and other topics, but it seems to be down. I remember his essay on player freedom quite well, because in it he criticised an essay of my own at a time when I was young enough to be somewhat scandalised when people misunderstood my writings – and perhaps also young enough to not consider whether the fault might have been my own. In addition I distinctly recall that Bond had an article in which he explained why he didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine. He didn’t like Little Miss Sunshine! What kind of man is that?

A man whose return to the world of interactive fiction is a reason for celebration, that’s the kind of man he is. The Best Man is a powerful work written by what can only be called a deliciously mature writer. Bond is brilliant in evoking personality, giving us not only a distinctly cringe-worthy protagonist, but also a cast of minor supporting characters who are given more life and personality during their brief appearances than the main characters of many another work. And he’s also very good at using the medium he has chosen, expertly hiding or emphasising the linear nature of his game as needed, and giving us one delightfully inventive scene where the protagonist-narrator Aiden keeps rewriting the imagined reconciliation with his loved one – a scene both beautiful in itself and a perfect way to showcase Aiden’s narcissistic obsession.

Ah, Aiden. The Best Man stands or falls with Aiden, of course, with how interested we become in this guy who is asked to be the best man at the wedding of the woman he is not-so-secretly in love with. Aiden is not someone for whom social interaction comes easily. This is why being taken up in Laura’s circle of friends unsettles him so much and then feels like a blessing, even though he’s never treated all that well – perhaps the original, first-stage friendship with Laura was okay, but certainly the dubious social rituals of this group of friends, and the disregard for his feelings shown by Laura, tell us that things haven’t been right for a long time. For someone like Aiden, who doesn’t have any other social support to fall back on but craves love and acceptance, the only way to deal with this is to convince himself that everything is okay. Rather than develop his social antennae, he has every reason, at least in the short run, to let them atrophy even further. But of course this is an unstable strategy which cannot be extended indefinitely without embracing madness.

The marriage ceremony will be the crisis point. Either Aiden must succeed at his most over-the-top attempt at self-deception yet (that it’s really, in some sense, Aiden that she is marrying!), or he must finally face reality. And Bond is excellent at raising the tension and keeping us on the edge of our seats. Will there be a disaster? Will it all end in reality and growth, or in self-deception and ruin?

Bond’s final master stroke is the careful ambiguity of the ending sequence. Whatever you do with the rings, it will end up looking like outward compliance and inward resistance. Then you are more or less forced to give a speech, and this speech can be read both as a narcissistic story about Aiden’s own love for Laura and as a straightforward story about the marriage that takes place (a better story, for that matter, than any of the insufferable lads is able to give). With what intention is Aiden making the speech? Both, no doubt.

And so we get to the epilogue. There’s an entire discussion on this forum about whether Aiden joins some crazy incel group or rather becomes emotionally mature. I don’t think we can decide this question based on what Bond is giving us. There’s a dig at his old friends that doesn’t sound very mature, sure; but then again, these old friends were indeed superficial jerks, and it’s not bad to recognise that. It’s clear that Aiden has not reached perfection; but the scenes with the side characters reminded us that imperfection can be enough. The way I read The Best Man, both possibilities, ruin and growth, remain open until the very end. And isn’t that precisely the human condition?


Walking into it by Andrew Schultz

Now this is charming. Walking into it is, on one level, an implementation of tic-tac-toe. In fact the only way you interact with the game is by playing tic-tac-toe. But there’s a very important, indeed crucial, framework: you are playing against a kid you met somewhere in the streets. And the point is that you want to make him feel good; you want to make him feel smart. So winning the game isn’t the point. But neither is losing. If you lose in an obvious way, the kid notices this. So you must lose in an unobvious way: by setting up the kind of situation where you will lose no matter what you do.

After this initial loss, the game subtly shifts into a masterclass of tic-tac-toe where you and the kid explore all the six ways in which you can get into a losing situation. In the end, what makes the feel good, what makes him feel validated, is not that he has defeated you; but that through your mentoring he has been able to grasp the game, to understand it. He has become aware of his own powers of comprehension.

A charming and highly original story about learning and teaching.


4x4 Archipelago by Agnieszka Trzaska

The genre of interactive fiction RPGs was universally reviled when I became aware of the IF scene around 2004, but that is clearly no longer the case, due to one simple cause: the appearance of a whole series of great interactive fiction RPGs. I’m thinking, for instance, of S. John Ross’s 2007 game Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom and William Dooling’s 2019 Skybreak! Those are two very different examples of the genre, the first being a tight puzzle game with nearly linear progression, the second being an expansive adventure across (and beyond) the galaxy where you’d better be enjoying the wildness of the ride rather than, you know, developing any very clear plans.

4x4 Archipelago is again quite different from both. (It is probably quite like 2020’s 4x4 Galaxy, but I didn’t play Trzaska’s earlier game, although I did play 2018’s Lux and 2019’s Chuck and the Arena.) Like S. John Ross’s game, it requires and rewards systematic exploration and planning. Like Dooling’s game, it gives you a wide variety of skills and items and allows you to solve the problems in your way using many different strategies. In a sense it is the most classic RPG of them all: you gain experience, increase your skills, work your way through dungeons, solve quests, go monster hunting, find the artefacts you need, and then achieve the game’s big goal.

But for all that it’s remarkably fresh; playing it doesn’t feel like retreading the same old paths. I think this has a lot to do with the fact that the time needed to understand all the possibilities on offer is comparable to the time needed to make use of those possibilities. As you work your way through the archipelago, you begin to grasp the possibilities open to you; and new possibilities (whether a dragon’s pearl or a new kind of weapon or a new kind of companion) keep appearing at the right pace to, on the one hand, not disturb your planning too much, and, on the other hand, keep things interesting and surprising. No sooner had I mastered Combat 2 with my large sword than I received a magical staff that could even be used by a non-mage like myself, forcing me to rethink my approach to combat. No sooner had I mapped the world and understood its structure than a new area was revealed that works according to a different logic. No sooner had I become the ultimate master of fighting than I received an item that allowed me to transcend all of my own carefully built-up skills.

To be honest, I find it hard to believe that this freshness will remain on subsequent play throughs. I liked my time with 4x4 Archipelago, but I’m not very tempted to try it again any time soon – even though I understand that the islands themselves are randomised, I also suspect that most of the discovery aspect would be gone and that the feeling of grinding would start to predominate. But I haven’t tried it; perhaps I’m wrong. To say the same thing in a much more positive way: I felt that 4x4 Archipelago had the perfect length!


Codex Sadistica by grave snail games

This is a garage demo, man. Its heart, its big black beating heart, that’s in the right place, no doubt about it, but the production values are not quite up to snuff. Of course one could claim that that’s for the best. That having more in-game guidance, better implementation, less repetitive messages, that all of that is superficial nonsense for the pop kids and the rock fans, not for the lovers of TRUE METAL. If your music doesn’t sound like it was recorded in your parents’ basement with equipment that spent six years rusting and decaying in a shallow grave, then you’re just SELLING OUT. At which point of my review suddenly the lights dim and the music starts…

I met a boy wearing vans, 501s, and a
Dope beastie t, nipple rings, and
New tattoos that claimed that he
Was OGT,

Well but Tool ain’t true metal! They don’t sound at all like Manowar, and those guys are the self-proclaimed kings of true metal, so they must be the standard for everything else. Although, to be honest, I never listen to Manowar, and the one thing that I’m immediately reminded of when I hear their name is something Dani Filth said when his band Cradle of Filth was playing at Dynamo just before Manowar. “I wanted to come on stage on one of Manowar’s Harleys… but unfortunately I couldn’t reach the pedals.” Which seems to me the exact right thing to say. Unless you’re playing after the demon god of Glam Metal, in which case you’d better set the stage on fire. I mean. Glam metal. Talk about crimes against humanity.

So. Codex Sadistica is a fun take on metal, leaning hard on the excesses, the bizarre number of heavily policed subgenres, and the stupid debates about ‘true’ metal, while also bringing across something of the uninhibited fun of the genre and adding one good and necessary scene which contextualises and criticises all the gatekeeping. As a fan of various (though by no means all) subgenres of metal, I enjoyed many aspects of the game and was happy to play it. But it also needs more testing and polishing so that the play experience can become much smoother. I for one played the last part fully from the walkthrough and had to consult that already at a very early stage to make any headway in the game (because the game failed to understand commands like “crowdsurf” and “climb stage”). So, nice, but could be a lot better with some more work.

(P.S. The truest metal album is of course Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. Don’t listen to people who say anything else. Yeah, no worries, I’ll keep this gate for you.)


Hm, an interesting choice! No matter whether the statement is all joke, or in the inbetween area where I probably think it is, it’s still an interesting choice.


1 Like

It’s a joke in the sense that I couldn’t care less about the ‘trueness’ of any music. But if I had to choose a metal album that means a lot to me and scores high on some imaginary ‘trueness’ scale… well, that’s basically what I did when I chose to mention Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk there!

I started listening to metal in the second half of the nineties. Some of the bands that shaped me during those formative years where Rammstein, Cradle of Filth, Dimmu Borgir, Moonspell, Nightwish, Within Temptation, Paradise Lost, Therion, Lacrimosa, Theatre of Tragedy, and I suppose also Metallica. Lots of European gothic metal in there, some of it tending towards symphonic or black metal. But you can’t really choose a keyboard-heavy band or a female-operatic-voice band and claim that it’s ‘true metal’! And bands like Cradle of Filth and Dimmu Borgir were always being dismissed by supposedly ‘true’ black metal fans as ‘commercial’. But the one band that I loved and that had really high ‘true’ status was Emperor. So it’s a logical choice for me.

(Just to be clear, I think Ihsahn, Emperor’s driving creative force, could not care less about being ‘true’ and has made this abundantly clear in both word and music later on, turning his solo career into a continued exercise in musical evolution and genre bending.)

I remember very clearly the first time I heard Emperor. A friend of mine, like me slowly getting into metal, had an older sister whose then-boyfriend was into extreme metal. And that boyfriend had lent my friend a bunch of CDs of which I remember two: Satyricon’s Nemesis Divina and Emperor’s Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk. We put on the Emperor album – intrigued already by the typical black metal band logo – and were greeted by beautiful melodious music. And then, suddenly, by an immense and seemingly never-ending wall of noise. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. I could hear that things were happening in that noise, but being untrained in the genre and condemned to my friend’s really crappy sound system, I didn’t really understand it. But I was intrigued. I wanted to understand it. And so Anthems to the Welkin at Dusk was actually one of the first albums I ever bought.

There was a time in my life, a bit later on, around 2005 or so, when I slept next to my stereo and would wake myself up by turning on the music, hearing whatever CD happened to be in the CD player. I often put Emperor in there before going to sleep, because the melodious music suddenly turning into the wall of noise was exactly what I’d need to wake up.

Anyway – I think it’s a great album and a good way to get into extreme metal!


Ah yes, I guessed it might be something like this :slight_smile:

Emperor are my favourite black metal band and one of my favourites of any genre. My intro to them was that in the early 2000s a friend bought me a compilation CD as part of a lucky dip that a record store was having (to get rid of excess stock… you’d buy bags of cheap CDs blind). The CD was mostly metal, and I Am The Black Wizards was on there, though mislabelled as Inno A Satana. Anyway that track seized me and then I bought Nightside Eclipse, and that was the start.

Yes, I’ve read and seen a lot from him.

Maybe I’m not into metal enough specifically to have encountered so many true metal rants. That said, you find similar arguments in every nook of every kind of music.

Anyway thanks for the aside. I don’t want to clog up your review topic too much!



And Then You Come to a House Not Unlike the Previous One by B.J. Best
plus Infinite Adventure by A. Scotts

I seem to remember that about ten years ago someone – not someone in the intfiction/IFDB/IFComp sphere of things, but someone in academia – made a system for producing solvable text adventures that was much like a slightly more sophisticated version of Infinite Adventure. It would produce a map of rooms, some puzzles involving certain standard types of objects, and of course it would ensure solvability. The key would always be on this side of the locked door. While this works, and could in the end be a way of generating an unlimited amount of adventure games, there would be little reason to actually play those games. They would not involve the unique voice of an author, the delightful prose, the genuinely original puzzles, the thematic exploration, and so on, that we hope each new piece of interactive fiction will give us. And so it’s unsurprising that we, the players, don’t get very far in our Infinite Adventure; and equally unsurprising that Riley soon loses interest in the version that is available to her and Emerson in ATYCtaHNUtPO, which I guess I had better abbreviate as House.

Unlike Infinite Adventure, House is a very nice game. It starts out as an exploration of some old school computer games, but quickly turns this into an exploration of Riley’s troubles and our (Emerson’s) relationship to her. It is structured as a series of fetch quests for NPCs, where giving one NPC what they want usually grants us an item we can then use with a different NPC; but it’s brought with a lot of charm, some good opportunities for showing off Emerson’s personality, and both pacing and length seem exactly right. We don’t delve very deeply in the psychology of our two main characters, and the tension that the plot was perhaps going for – stormy night, dramatic confrontation scene is a darkened bedroom – doesn’t really materialise. But the epilogue is nice (I suppose it will be less nice if you make different decisions in the bedroom scene) and the opportunity to get some extra information when you return to (our) Infinite Adventure is cool.

I enjoyed my time with this.


Taste of Fingers by V Dobranov

Taste of Fingers is a relatively brief choice game about a western businessman who goes to China and ends up in a horrifying virus/zombie scenario. Two features set the game apart: its focus on racism and the way it gives us two very different perspectives on which part of the population turned into zombies. For most of the game, we get the perspective of the businessman, according to which it is the people around him – presumably the Chinese – who have turned into zombies. We then get a scene narrated from the perspective of some local soldiers who see the westerners as the ones who have turned into zombies. There’s no neutral perspective telling us who is right, even though we may be tempted to go with the second interpretation, because it involves more people and fewer weird dream sequences.

Dan Fabulich has written a scathing review of the game, claiming that it severely errs in not taking a stand on racism and in merely using the theme as a backdrop for some zombie fun. I respect Dan as a reviewer, but in this case I think he’s wrong. It seems to me that Taste of Fingers takes a very clear (and utterly unsurprising) stance on racism. From the first scene onwards, we are shown the racism of the protagonist and the ways in which this makes him unable to see the Chinese around him as fully human. We also get early hints that this racism is not one-way; the use of a Cantonese slur for westerners (gwailou, literally ‘ghost guy’) is in indication that the businessman himself is also not seen as fully human.

I’d say that the parable is clear: racism is the virus. When we are infected with racism, we can no longer see the people that surround us as humans; in the world of the parable, we start seeing them as zombies. The mutual certainty that we are the living ones and the others the hungry ghosts – the basic horror plot of the game – is nothing other than racism in action. And it’s hard, I would say, not to agree with this.


Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg by Arthur DiBianca

When starting Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg, one could be forgiven for believing that it will be a stereotypical puzzle game. You have accidentally handcuffed yourself; you’re in a room you cannot leave; and there are some weird objects here that may help you pick the lock. Let’s find out what devious challenges DiBianca – an accomplished designer of puzzle games – will throw at us this time!

But this game turns out to be something very different. Indeed, ‘game’ may not even be the right word to capture the spirit of the work. It’s more of a toy. There are some easy puzzles you have to solve to progress towards the unlocking of the handcuffs, but they are all quite easy, solvable even by brute force, and very much not the point of the game. The point is playing with the remarkable egg, exploring all its possibilities, enjoying its weirdness, and perhaps coming up with strange combinations of effects. It’s kind of funny that one unlocks the handcuffs by waiting until the lockpick command becomes available and then simply typing ‘lockpick’.

I enjoyed my time with the game mostly because the things the eggs can do are genuinely amusing and because DiBianca made sure that playing with this toy is a very polished experience. There were also some optional challenges I solved and felt good about – in particular using the internal robot to repair the egg and solving the unitron/vent problem. (That one had me stuck for a while until I realised there was a very nice mathematical representation of the problem.) Perhaps the right word for describing Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg is one I’ve never used for a piece of interactive fiction, or for anything else, before: it is droll.

I can’t see a new genre of egg-likes hatching from this experiment, but it feels like a type of game that needed to be made at least once, and this is a very fine version.


Just curious: What is the mathematical representation of the problem? I was trying to find one, but I suck at Math so in the end I solved it through trial-and-error.

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Okay, @Angstsmurf, here’s the ‘mathematics’ behind the steam venting in Grandma Bethlinda’s Egg!

What happens is that six times, 35 gets added to the sum (starting with zero). Between each of these events, you can either do nothing or ‘vent’, which halves the total achieved until then (rounding down fractions, unfortunately, this is going to introduce a little guesswork – you can treat it mathematically too, but it’s not really worth it). So here’s one way to see what is happening. Let Z = wait and V = vent. Then if you do nothing, you basically get this:

35 Z 35 Z 35 Z 35 Z 35 Z 35 = 6*35 = 210

But suppose that you vent the last time. Then all those 35s before the last one will be halved. And so we would have:

17 Z 17 Z 17 Z 17 Z 17 Z 17 V 35 = 5*17 + 35 = 120 (except for some rounding errors)

If instead we had vented the first time, then only the first 35 would have been halved and we would have ended up with:

17 V 35 Z 35 Z 35 Z 35 Z 35 = 17 + 5*35 = 192.

If we vent more than once, we can turn 17s into 8s, 8s into 4s, 4s into 2s and 2s into 1s. Suppose we vent on the first and the third turn, what we get is:

8 V 17 Z 17 V 35 Z 35 Z 35 = 8 + 2 * 17 + 3 * 35 = 8 + 34 + 105 = 147.

So what we now see is that the exercise is to pick six numbers from the list 1, 2, 4, 8, 17, 35 such that they sum to 100 (and such that 35 is one of them and as we go down none are skipped)! (Again with a possible small rounding error.) And then we may notice 4 + 8 + 17 + 17 + 17 + 35 = 98, which might well be 100 with a small rounding error. And so we see that we should do:

4 V 8 V 17 Z 17 Z 17 V 35, that is, vent on the first, second and fifth turn.

I hope this is at all clear!


Thanks! That is a very clever way to think about it.

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