Update: I’ve fixed or worked around all the issues raised by Victor
The Wayward Story by Cristmo Ibarra
The final sentence of the walkthrough for this game is: “I hope you find some meaning in it.” And that does seem to be a bit of a challenge. The Wayward Story is a sequence of seemingly unrelated vignettes, some of which are tied together by a door-that-needs-keys puzzle mechanic. When I played it, I started out in my apartment watching television. Having fallen asleep, I was at the house of an old friend to fix a television. Then, suddenly we are in a throne room which gives access to three dreamlike scenes – a dark ritual in a fantasy setting, a trek through the desert, an apocalyptic hellscape – which led to one more normal-life scene about a guy delivering a package, and then en ecstatic reunion with two people. There were some recurrent themes (social anxiety, the wish to be reunited with loved ones) , but no real cohesion. So, well, meaningful it felt not.
On the positive side, this really was a painless parser experience. The hints about what to do were so clear that I never got stuck even for a moment, which is essential to a story-centric experience like this.
On the negative side, I had a lot of trouble with the prose. Much of it was of a breathless, try-too-hard variety, where the author tries to cram a joke, some slang, a weird turn of phrase, a sudden reversal into every single sentence. Some scenes were hard to understand because of the sheer chaotic energy of the writing, as here:
I just can’t keep up with this. Less is more, I would say, and I’m tempted to think that the author can improve a lot simply by being a bit more relaxed about their craft. In this particular case, I spent altogether too much time trying to understand why anyone would think a five-year-old cannot open doors… was that supposed to be a meaningful detail showing that the protagonist knows nothing about kids? Or not? Or?
Anyway. Because the experience is so easy to breeze through, the game never annoyed me, and I certainly don’t resent the time spent with it. But I can’t say I got much out of it either.
Chorus by Skarn
The 2018 IF Comp had a game called LETS ROB A BANK, in which you had to choose a team of bank robbers and then found out whether you had chosen a successful combination. Chorus feels like a new, more complicated entry in that genre. This time, though, we are not robbing a bank; rather, we are in charge of an association for non-humans who have to take care of several occult tasks. We meet nine of them in more detail, assign them to three different groups, then make further assignment choices for each group, and finally find out whether this was any good.
It’s definitely not standard! This game feels like every aspect has been thought through and infused with real imagination, serving to give it its own voice and character. The flip side of that is that it’s hard to really wrap your mind around as a player. Any of the nine characters could easily have sustained an entire story just to explain what they actually are; in the case of Chorus, I still don’t understand the nature of most. Of course, this also means it’s hard to make informed choices about whom to assign to what. First, I have to remember which name corresponded to which weird ‘species’; and then I have to use my extremely vague and incomplete mental picture of a species to make an assignment decision. It also doesn’t help that in the end, most of this is rather arbitrary: as far as I can see, there’s no way to know in advance which districts you need to visit, for instance.
So… yeah. I enjoyed reading the piece, but I never really grasped it, and the play experience was mostly making some random choices and then seeing that the results were predictably bad. Now LETS ROB A BANK was so short that replaying many times wasn’t a problem; but Chorus is much more substantial, and I can’t see myself trying this many times in order to get better results. So some good writing and word-building, but I’m less sold on the puzzle/interaction structure.
The Eidolon’s Escape by Mark Clarke
The Eidolon’s Escape tells the story of an otherworldly spirit that has been trapped by a mage. Now you finally have a chance to use your powers of possession to escape from her tower. Success is not predestined, though, as there are at least three different endings (and possibly a fourth), some of which are clearly better than others.
The first thing I want to compliment Mark Clarke on is the strength of the writing. Setting and characters are deftly defined; the prose flows smoothly; and while I would in general prefer shorter pieces of text between choice points, I found that I didn’t really mind the longer prose passages in The Eidolon’s Escape because they were always interesting and well-written. The characterisation of the protagonist as a spirit who doesn’t really understand human communication and finds human bodies rather disgusting was strong, without ever becoming ridiculous.
The game’s structure is also well-done. I believe that most of the game is on rails, so that you’ll always manage to end back up in the laboratory with the password; but then it starts branching, in ways that make perfect sense. Does the eidolon attempt to reign in its anger or not? Does it attempt to satisfy its curiosity about the mage or not? The choices you make about this will lead to entirely appropriate endings. I also loved the fact that the possible endings were foreshadowed in the game’s opening text: the revelation that the mage has kept you in captivity because of a mistaken hope that you were their long lost love was no revelation at all, but something that was clear from the beginning. This adds to the sense of player agency.
In conclusion, I found this a delightful little tale.
Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) by ruqiyah
Here’s a problem that many authors of interactive fiction have had to deal with: how do you keep a player engaged as you spin out a story that has already happened? One common solution is to rely on the player exploring the world, walking around and examining items. Another is to give the player character something to read, like books or journal pages. Neither feels particularly fresh, and neither gives us much of a sense of agency – although this may be mitigated by, for example, creating a stunning world or hiding the journal pages behind puzzles.
In general, I tend to think that the best way to solve this predicament is to not get into at all. Wouldn’t it be better to have the story happen right now rather than tell it in retrospect? This is my beef with games like Babel, that tell an elaborate story through diary fragments while the protagonist in the present is just walking around.
Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) takes these questions on in an interesting way. In this piece, we are given a clear if rather mundane task: work our way through four boxes of items, putting all our items somewhere in our new office – in the top drawer of the desk, maybe, or on the nail where we can hang a picture. Since there is not enough space, we’ll also have to throw some of the items away. While this starts as an exercise in being organised – surely a pen should be in the top drawer – it soon turns into an exploration of the character’s background and relationship with the Professor, as almost every new items adds something to our understanding. We are a vampire; and the professor is our nemesis-cum-lover, who has been trying to kill us for ages and who, given our mutual attraction, will probably never stop trying nor ever succeed. This is certainly pursuit in both the physical and romantic senses of the word.
One thing that the game does really well is recontextualising earlier text. Once we find out that the main character is a semi-vengeful vampire here to pursue her female nemesis, the mug that says “Bad Bitch Juice” becomes a lot funnier, and now we understand why the protagonist had to laugh about it. We understand why she was nervous about the very sharp pencil. Indeed, we even come to understand why the protagonist waits in the hall outside the room on the very first turn, and only enters when the assistant invites her in.
What’s more, the backstory that is slowly revealed adds a level of agency to the process of deciding which items to keep and which items to throw in the bin. Are we here to keep ourselves safe, or will we embrace risk? Are we interested in academic pursuits? And the game acknowledges this agency, frequently endorsing some reason to throw particular items away.
One final thing that works in the game’s favour is the fact that it is clearly set in media res, in the sense that there are both an implied past and an implied future. This means that the feeling of just uncovering a story after it has already been ended is mitigated.
Now it’s still possible to feel a little bit disappointed that we see only a small fragment of the story; that we don’t really know what’s going to happen; that we never get to meet the professor. But given that we would get only this glimpse, I would say that the game has been done about as well as it could have been. Easy to recommend.
You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf by B. J. Best
There’s a nice track of electronic music playing in the background, which I quite enjoyed. But otherwise this seems to be a string of utterly disconnected, barely intelligible prose fragments. It is full of metaphors like this:
How does blood coming out of a rubber glove ‘break up’? Or we get this:
What is a majestically colored bikini? How does it raise its hand? Or how could raising one’s hand be like a bikini? Or we get this:
I played until I hit the 45% mark and then quit, since it seemed unlikely that the rest of the game would make more sense than what came before.
Perhaps the bizarre nature of You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf is explained by this sentence in the About text: “This work is a collaboration with GPT-2.” GPT is the same technology that underlies AI Dungeon, a piece of technology that purports to tell a collaborative story with you, but that in fact quickly degenerates into absurdity and incomprehension. I’m afraid it fares no better here.
One sentence written by a human being is still worth more than a million ‘written’ by an AI. Perhaps this is comforting.
Thanks very much for the comment, Victor! And I’m glad you found aspects of interest, I really didn’t intend much more than that.
One detail that might change a bit your view… They are two girls!
i didn’t realize this somehow! makes it even better
Like… really? Wow. This turned out to be way more confusing that I could even conceive. Like, I know Araceli is a very strange name that no one but Spanish/Italian speakers will recognize, but Araceli is the girl who comes! Constantly referred to as “she”. The narrator could be more dubious, but her name is Verónica, barely ambiguous!
hmm, it’s possible i’m misremembering, then. i should mention here that i’m a terrible tester in this sense, knowing you and your style, and accepting entirely at face value that i was stepping into a sort of intimate space i couldn’t fully understand. pronouns are something i notice less than names (especially post-brain injury), and i think perhaps i mixed up ariceli (which i assumed was a male name) and veronica (which i knew was a female name).
to me this seems like you’ve succeeded grandly – nothing got in the way of me fitting myself into a very intimate moment for two people, and all the details felt true. it’s not a story i personally felt needed even that amount of coherence; the words just felt true enough that i suppose i stuck my own notions on top of yours!
How did I get confused about that? It’s in the very first screen! (Is the name repeated later? If not, perhaps it’s because we are still very much getting our bearing in the first screens.) I’ve fixed it in the review.
Doesn’t really change my view, I think.
Flattened London by Carter Gwertzman
Flattened London is a parser game with two rather distinct sources of inspiration: the late 19th century novel Flatland, and Fallen London by Failbetter Games. I’ve read the book, although it was many years ago. And I’ve played some Fallen London, although I decided rather quickly that it’s “limited turns per hour” pacing mechanism was harmful to my life. I did play Sunless Sea and Sunless Sky, though, so I have quite a bit of familiarity with the setting.
Fallen London takes place in a London that has fallen down into an underground world. Flattened London takes place in a London that – I think – has been flattened into a 2-dimensional city. I say “I think” because the exact backstory never becomes entirely clear. The title of the game certainly suggests that London was once 3-dimensional, but there are also hints in the game itself that suggest that the city has always been like this. Anyway, it’s not too important: like Fallen London, Carter Gwertzman’s game feels no need to explain itself too much, and nevertheless crafts an engaging experience.
Indeed, I found the game perhaps easier to relate to than Failbetter’s offerings. Part of the charm of those games lies in their weird use of language, which is frequently ‘off’ in slightly unsettling and unheimlich ways. In addition, those games involve a lot of repeatable content that will give you abstract story elements, like ‘horrific stories’ or ‘steamy gossip’ – elements that look like they ought to have content, but don’t. Flattened London is much more traditional in its approach to writing and storytelling. This puts it at some remove from its inspiration, but it was probably a necessary step for the kind of text adventure it wants to be. A choice-based grinding game like Fallen London can afford to be ambiguous; a parser game where you have to solve puzzles needs to be very clear. Anyway, I found the combination of Failbetter’s world-building and Flatland rather amusing.
The puzzles in Flattened London are definitely on the easier end of the scale, so much so that they often do not feel as puzzles. The entire play experience is extremely smooth. It’s immediately clear if you have to do something in a location or not; and it is often clear what you have to do. I consulted the hints only twice. (Once for freeing the prisoner in the dream world, which I should have been able to do without the hints; and once for getting the triangle a job, which was mostly me not realising that particular syntax would work. And I never really understood from the book how to defeat Death at chess, but cheated my way through it using undo. Worked perfectly.) As a result, I was just enjoying the world and the story, which is surely the way that the author wanted me to enjoy it. And although none of it is world-shattering, it is definitely fun!
Highly enjoyable, one of my favourites so far.
Hah, I just finished playing this one five minutes ago, and had much the same response and experience – you made me feel less bad for likewise undo-spamming my way out of the Seventh Seal reenactment!
Did you get the “best” ending? I thought that shed a bit of light on the topological status of the city.
Yeah, I think so – the one where you move up? It shows us something about the topological status, but not really about how things came to be this way, I think? Of perhaps I misread it.
Yeah, it’s not super-clear…
But there is this line in that ending: “You can see the rest of the world, the one London was stolen from so many years ago, as another flat plane far above you.” Which I thought pointed to it always being flat. The 3-d spires of the Bazaar, also mentioned in that ending, cut against this perhaps, but it’s also implied that that’s the home of the bats, who are extrinsic to London-as-it-was? That would be odd, since the bats seem to be aware of the third dimensions but not able to use it. But maybe they took over the Bazaar from someone else? I believe Fallen London was also originally called Echo Bazaar so it could be someone with more familiarity with the Failbetter games would be able to make more sense of this!
fallen london was originally called echo bazaar, yes. one of the longest-running storylines involved a shadowy group of figures known as the “masters of the bazaar,” high merchants of the fifth city, one of whom was betrayed, devoured, and thrown down a well by his colleagues.
Desolation by Earth Traveler
In Desolation we are running through the desert in an attempt to escape an evil cult. The game is apparently an unofficial sequel to Two Braids Girl, and perhaps playing that game would shed some light on the story. As it is, though, we never learn much more than there is something necromantic going on, and that we had better not be caught by her.
After a few moments in the desert, Desolation takes a weird turn and becomes a full-on Shade homage. As other reviewers have mentioned, it sticks so close to Andrew Plotkin’s game that it is unclear what we are to take away from this part of the game. (I would add to that that Desolation can in fact be considered a spoiler for Shade!)
Once we have escaped from the apartment – for which I used Stian’s transcript, since I hadn’t really noticed the curtains – there are a few more scenes and puzzles. Possibly all of them riff on earlier games, though I only recognised Adventure. It’s all fine, barring some small implementation problems. (E.g., taking the rope and bag will leave them in the room description.) But nothing about the game really stood out to me, with neither the story nor the puzzles not the setting nor the writing being all that memorable.
An okay foray into parser games, but more is needed to become truly rewarding.
The Shadow in the Snow by Andrew Brown
The Shadow in the Snow is a short choice-based horror game. It is very tightly wed to the staples of the genre: you’re lost in the woods in a snowstorm, you come across an abandoned motel, somebody has been torn apart by a werewolf, and you have to assemble a shotgun with silver bullets before you can hope to survive an encounter with this beast. The game never surprises us. I find that rather problematic; surely, if one is adding yet another entry to the already over-saturated horror genre, one would need at least some kind of twist or idea or plot element or setting that makes the game feel fresh.
Not that The Shadow in the Snow is too much of an imposition on your time. It’s very short, and you’ll be able to first die and then win in about fifteen minutes. There are a few minor technical problems – the shack can become inaccessible rather easily, and the bullets get “loaded into the shotgun” even if you haven’t found the gun yet – but otherwise nothing impedes a quick playthrough.
My advise for the author’s next game would be: try to shake things up a bit!
Thanks for your review! I definitely agree that Flattened London fell flat when it came to actually, you know, being flat. Part of that is because of how much you can’t do in two dimensions (how would reading a sign even work?), and part of that is because I didn’t want to get too bogged down in explaining things. Also, it’s interesting that you mentioned getting stuck on the chess puzzle - a lot of people had that same problem. Perhaps I should update the walkthrough…
The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson
Last year’s Pas de deux was a fascinating and experimental game, though somewhat overwhelming. The Impossible Bottle seems to tread safer ground: it is a parser comedy in which we play a six-year old girl. (What’s up with the age of six? It’s also the age of the protagonists in Little Girl in Monsterland and, obviously, Six.) We’re solving puzzles in a limited environment as we work through the items on our to do list. So far, so standard.
But what a joy it is to play The Impossible Bottle! Most importantly, there is the main puzzle mechanic itself, which centres around the doll house. Put an item in the doll house, and an enlarged version of it appears in the real world. Take an item out of the doll house, and you have a miniature version of it in the real world. Simple, but used to great effect as a puzzle mechanic. And, of course, not simple at all from a programming perspective – yet I never experienced even a single glitch with it, which is a testament to the prowess and carefulness of Linus Åkesson.
I’m tempted to say that everything about The Impossible Bottle is perfect. The nice ramping up of difficulty. The amount of fun that is contained in so many of the activities you get to perform – including riding a dinosaur! (Dad telling you that he has put the dinosaur in the doll house was certainly one of my favourite moments in the game.) The brief but effective characterisation of the characters. The ending, which revealed the true nature of the ‘visitors’ and gave us a short but poignant little tale about family life in the current situation, already slowly hinted at by the hand sanitizer. Mr. Creosote disliked this part of the game, but I have to disagree strongly! I thought it was perfect. Your brother putting on a nice shirt – so meaningful! It even turns out that mum had been on the phone about your present, and not as absent as she seemed.
Perhaps the getting-rid-of-the-dinosaur puzzle was slightly on the difficult side, but I didn’t mind using the hints once or twice to make sure I got on with that within the 2-hour competition limit. And the vacuum cleaner could have been described on its own when I opened the closet; after all, given that dad is missing his cufflinks, I’m clearly looking for it. But these are details.
This was simply one of the most fun, heart-warming and well-made puzzle parser games I’ve ever played.