Victor's IFComp 2020 reviews

A Rope of Chalk by Ryan Veeder

I want to object, in the strongest possible terms, to the way that mister Veeder has presented the events of August 27, 2011. I am aware that in order to peruse the contents of A Rope of Chalk, I had to waive all my rights of criticism; but the legality of such a move is doubtful at best; and what’s more, with the instalment of ACB to the Supreme Court we can now rest happy in the knowledge that all the freedoms I’ve ever cared about will be defended. No, mister Veeder, you cannot silence me now, as you have so maliciously attempted to silence me in your work, depriving me of my right to exclaim!

I see him in my mental eye, our coward author, hiding behind the role of ‘editor’, merely portraying the ‘experiences’ of what he considers to be the event’s ‘main characters’. And he does it well, indeed very well, pulling the reader along on a rope of chalk through successively more psychedelic scenes, while slowly revealing both story and backstory of the fateful event. He is a master of distraction, making us smile at this detail or that, perhaps even eliciting a loud-out laugh when, say, Nathalie invokes the monomyth to explain her absence. Mister Veeder masterfully strings together several kinds of scene, of narration, keeping the player on the edge of her seat, having great amounts of fun and enjoying the characters.

FUN and CHARACTERS! That’s precisely his trick, isn’t it? By reducing the whole incident to the mistaken actions of individuals, and by painting those people as fundamentally endearing, mister Veeder papers over the systemic failures that lie at the bottom of the entire disaster. It is certainly a message that is very convenient for the institutions! For how is it possible, we ought to ask, that dangerous psychoactive substances are easily available and widely used by our university students? Why is the University of Iowa not more active in the War on Drugs? Why do we still allow our children to be endangered by liberal hippie values from California? Why were there no repercussions? How is it possible that the arts honours class simply reconvened next year, without serious value-based oversight and religious counselling? How much has mister Veeder been paid by the Board of Regents to reduce their own egregious moral failure to a mere – if superior – instance of entertainment? And if anyone can doubt the basic mendacity of mister Veeder’s portrayal of the event, let me stress that the slogan I wrote was not “RON PAUL 2012”, but “RON PAUL 2012!” That exclamation mark was not optional!

Judges of the competition, we must make a stand against this liberal brainwashing. Please vote, and let your votes wash over this dishonest piece as a cold bucket of water washes over sidewalk chalk art! I have spoken.

Yours sincerely,

TRUMP 2024!


Deus Ex Ceviche by Tom Lento & Chandler Groover

Deus Ex Ceviche is the story of an emerging AI/computer/God in a world where software, fish and religion are indistinguishable. Devotionalia meet Deus Ex would be a fairly accurate description, except that this would not clue you into the game’s gameplay, which is a sort of resource/worker allocation mechanism that you use to amass a set amount of resources. Once the right amount of resources is achieved, you can upgrade yourself; after three upgrades, you have become a corporate fish-God-computer.

Which… okay. It’s original, and the writing is very good, although the repetitive nature of the game and the remoteness of the scenario made me skimp over some of the text. I also never got a sense that the text helps you in any way. The resource game is, I think, deterministic, but has so many degrees of freedom, and is spelled out only so vaguely, that one ends up just putting random combinations of disks/helpers into the slots again and again and again and again, waiting for the moment that finally one of your resources is at 10. There’s a suggestion at the end that how you played has some effect on the kind of God you become, but this would presuppose some kind of agency over the unfolding story, and I certainly never felt that I possessed that. This is perhaps more an experience than a game.

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Creatures by Andreas Hagelin

A choice-based puzzle RPG sounds like it could be exactly my cup of tea. Unfortunately, there were a couple of things that made it impossible for me to enjoy Creatures. First of all, there’s the interface. For some reason, Hagelin has chosen to present the text in such a way that it wraps character-by-character, rather than word-by-word, leading to situations were part of a word is on one line, and part of it is on the next. So you have “the opposite side of the roo” [hard return] “m.” I found this incredibly irritating. Furthermore, gameplay consists of navigation through an extremely convoluted set of text menus. I don’t mind the menus too much as such, but they lack essential quality of life features. For instance, even if you know that “I” stands for inventory or “P” for map, you will be unable to type them until you have first returned to the main menu. Every action you have taken also requires a useless Enter before you return to a menu where you can actually do something. Going from one room to another costs, I believe, three commands, whereas there is no reason to have more than one (as other text adventure systems). So playing Creatures just feels very slow!

I managed to explore several rooms and encounter an enemy I clearly couldn’t beat yet. Stuck, I checked the walkthrough, and found that I had to open a door using what seems to be a very underclued puzzle. (Yes, the words one, three and five appear in the description of the mural, but so do many other words. It might have helped if I had been clued into the fact that I was apparently looking for a numerical code.) I then found some equipment, and was actually looking forward to trying out the combat system again. But trying to equip the armour fatally crashed the game twice, so I ended up being unable to move on.

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Stoned Ape Hypothesis by James Heaton

I used to have some friends who were great fans of Terence McKenna, so I have a passing familiarity with his ideas. (One of them later found Jesus and told me that McKenna might have been a bit satanic, just in case you need to know.) But… well, actually Stoned Ape Hypothesis doesn’t engage with the theory in its title in any meaningful way. Rather, its basic premise is that you play a human(oid) with mere animal intelligence, whose mental skills increase every time he manages to eat a psychedelic mushroom. You learn to think coherently, to use tools, to play games, and finally to defeat a savage creature – which is your ticket into human company.

As you get the idea for an axe and manage to make one, it is hard not to be reminded of that famous scene from 2001: A Space Odyssey, where the ape gets the idea of using a bone as a club. But where the movie makes a dark point about the link between technology and violence, Stoned Ape Hypothesis is pretty much a charming feel-good piece. It doesn’t seem that anything is lost in our transition into intelligence. Indeed, the ferocious beast you defeat is described as a being filled with hatred – a strange projection into nature of a human emotion that can surely only exist in the confines of civilisation. But this perhaps illustrates the rosy view the game has of the human ape.

The high point of the game is no doubt the implementation of the stone placement game (I’ve forgotten the name), which works surprisingly well. It also reaffirms the game’s fundamentally playful nature.

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Saint Simon’s Saw by Samuel Thomson

Saint Simon’s Saw is of course not strictly speaking a piece of interactive fiction, since it is not a piece of fiction. Rather, it is an alternate tarot deck, complete with a way to lay out the cards and interpretations for each of them. In form, it is a piece of 3D Unity software, looking good and with nice illustrations for the cards.

I have little experience with tarot, but I fancy that I understand the basic mechanics. One does not (need to) suppose that the cards ‘foretell the future’. Rather, by contemplating a particular sequence of meaning-laden pictures, one sets in motion thought processes that allow one to plumb the depths of one’s own mind. What is crucial to this is that the cards themselves combine polysemy (having a multitude of meanings, and thus being applicable to many situations) with unity (being a single strong symbol or archetype rather than a loose collection of ideas). And if one wants to create an alternate deck, this is going to be the big challenge.

It’s a challenge that Saint Simon’s Saw seems to both succeed at and fail. Many of the cards present really interesting symbols! The intertwined snake and ladder, for instace, or the printing press that is being carried around. Normally, the printing press creates books that are then carried around, the press itself being stationary. What’s going on here? What does this symbolise about mobility, knowledge, burden, capital? It’s an intriguing card. Or what about the Other, portrayed as a body in an anatomical theatre? Genius! One feels that Thomson has put a lot of creativity and thought into these cards.

On the other hand – and this is the ‘failure’ part of the equation – the accompanying texts are less than ideal. They are convoluted, confusing, and most importantly, too theoretical. The power of tarot is that the symbols speak to us at, well, precisely a symbolic level; what Jung would call the level of archetypes. They take us beyond or behind rationality, and can be applied across time and even to a certain extent culture. But here’s a reading that Saint Simon’s Saw gave me:

The RECIPROCITY card foregrounds the question with the figure of an actor distributing effort or energy, and taking responsibility. The card in the second position represents a focussing-in on a particular part of the issue at hand, in this case, through the OTHER card’s focus on the constraints placed on the self by over-emphasizing the delimitation of corporeality. The PRINTING-PRESS card proposes codifying the systems, operations, and beliefs that structure lived experience as a possible circumvention. A boundary marked by an unexpected ability, drawn from an openness to change will signify a passing of the question through the UNICORN card.

This reads like post-structuralist theory, chock-full of jargon, and of dubious coherence and sense. I have no idea what could be meant by “constraints placed on the self by over-emphasizing the delimitation of corporeality,” and I’m a professional philosopher and have managed to actually read Foucault and Derrida! How do you codify (?) something as a possible (?) circumvention (?)?

Conclusion: great cards, work on the text.


Minor Arcana by Jack Sanderson Thwaite

A second tarot game in a row! But where Saint Simon’s Saw is a game where you actually do a reading for yourself, Minor Arcana is a game where you play a tarot deck. I mean: the player character is a tarot deck. At the beginning, you do some customisation of your history – but whatever the choices you make, things sound somewhat bleak and foreboding. Things certainly didn’t end well with your first possessor.

You then do two quick readings. As a deck of cards, your job is to state which card comes out on top. You then feel what happens to the customer whose reading you did; and while the card you chose does make a difference, there’s one thing it doesn’t make a difference to: the fact that the customer is going to make a bad choice and die horribly. This is an interesting use of choice. One does have a choice; the choice makes a lot of difference in terms of narrative colour; but you seem to be fated to lead people to their doom.

The game ends when you are stolen by a collector who wants to analyse you. Or does it? In fact, you are invited to start over; and when you do so, some new options come up. Nothing major, just enough to suggest that new pathways may be open to you. Persevere, and the truth comes out: you admit to your new owner that you are, in fact, cursed; and that by having stolen you, they too are now doomed to die a horrible death.

I like the twist on the classic horror theme (“there’s a book and if you read it you die… and it’s this book!”) here, where it’s quite unexpected. Shades of Spider and Web here? I do wonder whether the story would have been a bit more coherent, and would have had a bit more payoff, if the owner had been introduced as a framing device also at the beginning of the story. Still – fun. The writing is also quite strong.

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Captain Graybeard’s Plunder by Julian Mortimer Smith

To my great surprise, this game is not an unofficial sequel to Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder; indeed, it is in no way in the possibly emerging genre of Verdeterre-likes. Rather, it is the story of a pirate who has lost his ship in a fight long ago, and who now dreams of revenge. More or less literally: instead of exacting revenge, which would be impossible anyway, he studies his cherished works of classic literature (all of them written long after the age of pirating initially described, but no matter) in order to compose a literary revenge – a story in which his fantastic ship and crew and hand easily achieve victory.

This is charming, short, and perhaps that’s where I should leave this. Or perhaps I should just praise the game’s obvious love of literature and leave it there. But something bothers me about the game, and of course I can’t resist the temptation to try putting that into words.

Initially, what I felt put off by was the moralistic tone of the ending. Yes, yes, reading is a nice and safe pleasure, it doesn’t incite to violence – that was already clear to me, no need to spell it out. I don’t like explicitly spelled out morals in general, but it seems doubly out of place in a game that explicitly engages with – and indeed quotes – such a transcendent work of art as Moby Dick.

But then I realised that there was something much more bothersome going on. Captain Graybeard’s Plunder tells the story of a man who uses works of great literature in order to construct wish-fulfilment fantasies. For him, literature is just escapism. It doesn’t make him reflect on his own life and times; at no point, for instance, does he wonder whether his own lust for vengeance is anything like Ahab’s lust for vengeance. Indeed, he uses the books he owns in a purely utilitarian way, skipping over the ‘nonsense’, looking for the passages he needs. This guy isn’t reading literature at all! He is using it only as a means to his own psychological end. And then we get the saccharine moral at the end.

Possibly this is precisely the point that Smith wants to make. But one feels rather that there is a fundamental mismatch between the love of literature that is being sold, and the frame story in which this selling is to take place.


Thank you for your kind and thoughtful review of Minor Arcana - I’m glad you had fun. The idea of introducing the collector earlier on as a framing device is really useful feedback and one I will certainly give some thought as I plan various tweaks for a post-comp release .


Sonder Snippets by Sana

Sonder Snippets is a strange game, and one of its most mysterious aspects is the subtitle, “What Dadi Hears.” This is mysterious because Dadi is the character who speaks, who tells the story. Or is she? Typographically, the exact in-fiction status of the myths is left unclear; they are not bracketed by quotation marks, and so not clearly direct speech, even though it is natural to think of them as such. Dadi certainly tells a story. But perhaps not quite the story that we read? Or not quite in the way that we read it? Perhaps this is the story as Dadi hears it, not as she tells it to the child?

These questions are perhaps unanswerable, but they crop up because the theme of Sonder Snippets is failed communication. The myths ‘told’ by Dadi are surely supposed, like all myth, to be full of meaning, experience, even wisdom. But the child hardly listens to them; listens to them only, in fact, to spite the other children who won’t let her play; and even if she were to listen, she could not understand them. Do we understand them? Does Dadi herself understand them, or is she lost among half-forgotten snippets of story that come together in ways that only seem to make sense?

Perhaps the most confusing thing about Sonder Snippets is the status of the beginning. The blurb hints at this, asking whether you can get to the true beginning. Choices made in the beginning – if they can be called choices, given that there is no guidance as to their effect – have a lot of effect on that beginning itself. (In the more confusing versions, the child is not even introduced, making the frame story hard to understand.) And perhaps also beyond that. I suspect, at least, that choosing ‘free will’ at one of the early choice points allows you to select Dadi’s stories later on instead of being served a random one. But what’s going on? What’s the point or logic? And what does the blurb mean with a ‘true beginning’? I feel that there may be answers lurking in this game. But I did not find them.

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Tavern Crawler by Josh Labelle

From the subtitle, one might well expect Tavern Crawler to be a satire on dungeon crawling roleplaying games: “A story about what happens AFTER you slay the dragon.” That sounds like it’s going to be a pretty facile take on how unrealistic RPGs tend to be. But my experience was the same as Mike Spivey’s, who wrote:

The point of Tavern Crawler is to create a traditional RPG experience focused on quests, conversation, choice, relationships and character improvement; and notably, without any combat. That may sound a bit like it could describe Planescape: Torment or Tides of Numenera; but where those games are dark and profound, Tavern Crawler is definitely more on the lighter side. It doesn’t shy away from seriousness and never veers into the zany; but it steers away from tragedy and tends to affirm your moral choices as being okay. Having two character along representing the two ends of the game’s moral spectrum (altruism versus looking out for yourself) certainly helps with this.

Perhaps the neatest trick pulled by Tavern Crawler is that it reinterprets the traditional RPG roles in moral terms. In this game, to be a mage means to choose the altruistic and non-violent; to be a rogue means to choose the sneaky and wily; to be a tank means to choose the straightforward and unsubtle. I really like how this transforms the roles from a set of toolkits which you acquire in order to solve problems into expressions of character. (Although, to be honest, the effect is undercut by some of the ways you acquire skills – e.g. you can level up rogue by spending money on drinks, which has nothing to do with its supposed meaning.)

What makes Tavern Crawler fun to play is not so much the story or the individual quests, none of which are too original; but the deft touch and confidence with which all the game’s elements have been woven together. It all just works. Pursuing the quests will at the same time push you to develop your relationships, improve your character, explore the story and make choices. All of it happens at the right pace, in the right mix. This game is just a lot of well-made fun.