Victor's IFComp 2022 reviews

Reviews may (read: will) contain spoilers. I’m reserving this first post for a table of contents linking to the individual reviews. Reviewed so far: 24 out of 71. An asterisk indicates a review that I think is especially substantial.


One Way Ticket by Vitalii Blinov

One Way Ticket is a long game. I played it for around one-and-a-half hour and, judging from the walkthrough, I was not yet halfway through. Since the game mostly eschews a standard narrative development, and since it has a very consistent tone throughout, I expect the part I haven’t played to be much like the part I have played. If that expectation is wrong, this review will of course be less than entirely useful.

What we have here is in many ways a classic adventure set-up. Our unnamed protagonist finds himself stuck in a town where his train has stopped. (The only personal fact we know about the protagonist is his gender, through what I take to be a funny rewrite of the Leather Goddesses gender choice scene.) Everyone in town seems to be expecting him; perhaps not him specifically, but the arrival of a wanderer who has to get his train moving again appears to be a recurring feature of the town’s life.

Playing the game consists of exploring locations, receiving tasks, solving light puzzles which tend to open up new areas with new tasks, and so on. There are usually just one or two tasks one can be working on, and I found the pace at which the game world opens up quite comfortable: you get to know one area well before the next area needs to be explored. It helps that there is a map and a very robust automatic note-taking system.

One thing that I found interesting about the design of One Way Ticket is the clear separation of the main text and the inventory/notes, not just in terms of interface but also in terms of function. In the main text of the game, you can just click on everything, and either the scene will advance in and of itself, or you’ll eventually hit on the option that will take you to the next step. You don’t have to solve anything here. It is only on the occasions where you can access the inventory/notes that your task turns into that of solving puzzles. Vitalii Blinov takes this to the logical extreme of allowing you to change the time of day only by selecting a reason from your inventory/notes for wanting to be at a different time. I think every other game would have implemented the clock manipulation simply as a button you can click whenever you want, but the design choice made in One Way Ticket actually helps us understand that we don’t need to randomly explore the differences between day and night – we’ll know when they matter.

Not every aspect of the interface is equally successful. Navigating the game world is rather tedious, despite the great use of maps. Getting from one location to another often requires clicking ten or more links, since you can only move to adjacent locations and you frequently have to click through some standard opening text for every location. This could be streamlined.

Since there is little story or characterisation, much hinges on the prose and the atmosphere. I’m tempted to call the atmosphere magical realist, although that might mean different things to different people. Everything in this world partakes of both the absurd and the mundane. The characters are one-dimensional fictions, certainly, but they seem to be aware of this and revel in it. The entire world is presented in serious terms, and yet it seems to be a joke that everyone, including the protagonist, is in on. As for the prose… I frequently had the feeling that I was reading sub-optimal translations into English. But I equally frequently had the feeling that the prose was deliberately written to give me that feeling. Verging at times into the awkward, the purple, the repetitive, and the superficial, it was nevertheless so consistent with itself and with the world it described that all this verging seemed deliberate. To give an example, at the beginning of the game I was certain that this was a mistake:

The conductor beckoned me over, and I got off the train. Both were waiting outside.

Because what can ‘both’ refer to other than the conductor and the train? But surely it makes no sense to say that the train was waiting outside? Or does it? I now have the sneaking suspicion that the author is completely in on this joke and did it entirely on purpose. In this way the prose exhibits the same blending of the mundane and the absurd that characterises the world.

All in all quite a unique experience due to the perfectly realised tone and atmosphere. As an adventure game, I found it only mildly engaging, but being an adventure game is only part of the point.


Thanks for the review Victor!

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U.S. Route 160 by Sangita Nuli

U.S. Route 160 is a short, dark Twine game. The protagonist is a lesbian woman fleeing from wedding a man she was never truly attracted to but felt compelled to love because of the expectations of her deeply conservative home town. We follow her through a series of troubled scenes, many delivered in short staccato text, divided roughly equally between flashbacks explaining the situation and adventures on the road. The disconnected prose and narrative evoke the chaotic and exhausted state of mind of the young woman. At the end, our choices determine whether her fate is death, return or escape.

The game is competent enough, but it seems to have been based on the premise that because conservative anti-gay bigotry is very bad (which it is) and can have devastating consequences for those who are subjected to it (which it can), it was therefore necessary to pull out all the stops and make everything in the game as horrible as it could be. There’s death and blood and gore, and the protagonist’s mother was awful, and the man she was going to marry was a loveless bible-thumper, and if she returns to the town her female lover turns out to be dead, and when she sees a bird it will be run over, and the weather is horrible, and … well, the list goes on. The same principle has been applied to the prose. Which is written. In short. Disconnected fragments. Over and over. Again. To show us. Just how bad things are.

I think these techniques actually generate a disconnect between the reader and the issues that are at the centre of the piece. It would have been much more interesting to read a piece about this marriage day where we are allowed to understand why the protagonist almost marries a man she clearly does not love. It would have been more informative – to those of us lucky enough not to live in the society depicted here – to see the simple, every-day ways in which anti-gay messages (and anti-woman messages, anti-independence messages, and so on) are constantly reinforced so as to weave an inescapable social net. I think a small example of unthinking everyday cruelty could have been more horrifying than the protagonist dying on the highway with a shard of glass through her belly.

Perhaps Nuli is deeply invested in the horror genre, in which case my criticism will seem irrelevant. But if the investment is in artistically exploring specific societal ills, my hope is that future works will be less gory and more based in lived reality.


Lucid by Caliban’s Revenge

Lucid is a game about death. Not dealing death to others, as so many games are, nor escaping it, as are so many others; but facing death with something approaching acceptance. As we take our protagonist through a night-time city filled with heavy symbolism, we slowly come to realise that the game is more than just running into dead ends and dying. There are various actions to perform which will in the end allow us to enter the house where we can choose between darkness and light. Don’t be fooled by its reputation: it was always the light that hurt and devoured us. It was always the darkness that was ready to soothe with the balm of forgetfulness.

I would almost have missed the more impactful parts of the game. There are frequent deaths, and they bring you back to the beginning, which misled me into believing that I could explore part of the game on my computer, then part on my phone as I was cooking dinner, and then a bit more on my by now restarted computer. But there actually are states that persist through death, and the switch between devices nearly obscured this to me. It was only by reading other reviews that I realised I should explore more. Possibly it is useful to hint at the structure of the game somewhat more strongly when a new loop begins.

As a whole the game is impactful. The prose poetry is rather uneven in quality, but at its best it is very good, oppressive and evocative at the same time. Sometimes the author surprises with a nice turn of phrase, as when water in the gutters of a downhill street is described as: “Recent rains guttering down the decline.” Sometimes there is a perfectly executed little couplet:

That is just beautiful. Another highlight are the sentences that describe your relation to the shopkeeper just after you’ve found a gun in his pack of cereal:

Unexpected, understated, and exactly right. Combined with a few memorable set pieces – the climbing of the stairs, the scene with the witch and the salamanders – and the effective passages with which the game closes, there was enough quality here to sustain my attention for the duration of the trip and to leave me satisfied at the end.

However, I called the quality uneven. This is true about the game world (the school scene seemed rather perfunctory to me) but even more about the style. There are frequent typos, which is a shame. More importantly, there are many instances where the author’s phrases ‘sound’ poetic if you don’t pay too much attention to them, but collapse when you do. Here is one early offender:

What is ‘brush stroke clean’ supposed to be? Clean? Not clean? What are the ‘edges’ of the station? And how does grime ‘describe’ them? The longer I think about the sentence, the less the words seem to belong together.

At other times, the author’s attempts to evoke images just don’t work for me. For instance:

I have not the faintest idea what ‘the colour of medicine’ is supposed to be. Clicking the link in this phrase then tells us about lettering ‘the colour of trains’. I don’t know. Trains in the Netherlands are yellow and blue, except the slower ones that are white and blue; and in other countries they have all kinds of other colours. I’m left wondering what trains the author has in mind, which can’t have been the aim of introducing the image!

The biggest offender, though, is the frequent use of simile. There are many passages in which one thing is described as being ‘like’ another thing. This is something to watch out for when writing poetry, because similes ‘feel’ poetic, but are easy to overuse and hard to do right. Some of the ones in Lucid are done right, but many are more confusing than evocative. Here is an early example:

There are two massive ambiguities in this sentence. First, the grammar seems to suggest that I tear through the pamphlet in the same way that a bad love letter would tear through a pamphlet. This is presumably not how we have to read it. Second, when talking about reading material, ‘to tear through’ usually means ‘to read very quickly’. But that is probably not what is meant here either; we probably have to understand it as a physical act of tearing up the piece of paper. Even with those ambiguities resolved, the image remains deeply unclear. How does one tear up a bad love letter? Quickly? In disgust? In exasperation? (At the bad writing of our lover? Or at our own bad writing?) I have no idea. If the author had a clear idea to convey to me, they failed.

Here is a sample of some other similes that left me similarly bewildered:

(I note in passing that I can understand how balconies would be like the ribs of a human skeleton, which are horizontal, but that it just puzzles me how they could be like the ribs of a cetacean skeleton, which are vertical… as balconies presumably are not.)

Looking over the piece as a whole, I think there’s a lot of talent on display, but there also needs to be some further rigorous, even ruthless editing. That could take the work to a different level. And then, perhaps, I can really start wondering whether it’s better to go gentle into that good night, or rage against the dying of the light.


Thanks for the review geez, lots to think about there…Although i think some of the passages that wrre lost on you might be a matter of aesthetic taste I think one point is maybe lost due to cultural differences. “Y” like an insult is a reference to two fingered cursing gesture unique to the British isles. I thought it was a fun kind of typographical reference but can see how it would be lost on people. Regardless though, again thanks for the thoughtful reflections.

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I just hope it’s useful to you! Feel free to disagree, of course. :slight_smile:


For sure dude, very constructively offered :slight_smile:

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The Thick Table Tavern by manonamora

For all the care that has gone into it, The Thick Table Tavern doesn’t quite know what kind of game it wants to be. The best way to enjoy it is to just, well, enjoy it. Sit back, relax, go with the flow. Mix some drinks. Read the dialogues. Collect coins. Don’t worry about the prologue or the scene with the fortune teller, because the heavy themes they hinted at – free will, moral choice, nothingness – will in fact never come up. You’ll just collect your coins and join the adventurer’s guild, or whatever it is you wanted to do with your hard-earned money. Everyone will be happy.

In one sense, The Thick Table Tavern is a linear story about office dynamics, the office in question being a medieval/fantasy tavern. It’s all good-humoured and low stakes. The boss if gruff but affectionate; the barmaid likes to pull your leg but is fundamentally nice; and the cook is a bit weird but basically harmless. At times the story seems, for just a moment, to veer off into dark directions – child abuse, adultery, marital discord – but then it invariably doesn’t. Your interactions with the story are minimal to the point that I have no idea whether anything you do impacts what happens (though it might). In the end, everyone hugs you when you’ve amassed the necessary amount of money (which is surprisingly easy).

To break the monotony, the game serves up a cocktail mixing mini game. This too is very low stakes. You just need to click the ingredients that are shown in a list. In the beginning a little exploration is required, but after a while it’s just relaxing, perhaps even a bit monotonous in itself. If the game had been longer I might have tired of it, but it went on just long enough. (There are about five or six days if you mix the cocktails well, although the blurb suggests that things will play out over fourteen days. I’m glad that they didn’t.)

The interface is well-made. There do seem to be some serious bugs in the game logic itself: the number of coins I had collected seemed too high, and then the game didn’t actually register that I had collected 300 coins until I had over 600 in my inventory. There is also a day where the boss goes out to see his niece (I think?) run a race, but then the game goes on to present the content of the too-much-food-event for the second time, which made no narrative sense. As for the prose, it’s certainly serviceable, but I ended up reading through it quite quickly because it is on the wordy side. Another reviewer remarked that it might have been good to cut it by about 25%, and I agree with that.

I had a nice time with the game, but, as I indicated in the first sentence of this review, it didn’t seem to have a central point. The mixing mini game is too simple to command much attention. The story about my co-workers is more a sequence of scenes than a gripping narrative. The overall story arc of amassing enough money is without any sense of urgency or accomplishment. And the more serious elements, such as the strange Watcher, feel tacked on and inessential. Given the amount of work the author has clearly put in, The Thick Table Tavern seems a tad too forgettable.


According to Cain by Jim Nelson

According to Cain retells the story of Cain and Abel. I love creative reworkings of existing stories, and the core biblical narratives – with their immense resonance through all of Western culture – are among the most fertile ones. Milton’s Paradise Lost is one of my favourite works of poetry. (I am in fact slowly writing a novel that reworks Milton’s reworking). More idiosyncratically, one of my favourite short stories is Three Versions of Judas by Borges, with its incredible (and from a Christian perspective, incredibly blasphemous) reinterpretation of the core story of the Gospels. As for Cain and Abel, all I can offer is this Dutch cartoon that I think of with some regularity:

“Watch out, Abel! Behind you!”. (Searching for which led me to another Gummbah cartoon where two grown men are lying in bed and a third is standing next to them, pulling the ear of one and saying: “Come on boys! We didn’t get a 200.000 euro grant for translating Mein Kampf into Frisian to then spend the entire day lazing about in bed!” Underappreciated national treasure, Gummbah.)

All of which is just to say that I’m on board with the project of According to Cain. But before we come to what the author does with the existing story, how he reimagines it, let us first delve into the game as an adventure game – for that is what it is, a relatively straightforward parser adventure where we unlock the story by solving a (not entirely linear) series of puzzles. According to Cain is a typical example of what I long ago, in a review of The King of Shreds and Patches, dubbed ‘the second consensus’. After the ‘first consensus’ that a good piece of interactive fiction is a tough puzzle game that requires many hours of thinking to solve (think Infocom and the hobbyist tradition well into the later 90’s and perhaps the early 00’s), came the ‘second consensus’ that a good piece of interactive fiction is a game where puzzles exist to generate pacing and involvement as the author tells us their story. Characteristic of this type of game is that author and player both believe that the player shouldn’t become stuck for long, since that would interrupt the flow of the narrative.

Two techniques are characteristic of (though not universally used in) second consensus games. First, the player is taken by the hand, especially in the early game, to teach them how to solve the puzzles and to assure them that the game will help them progress. Second, and relatedly, the games uses a repeatable puzzle mechanic. Having solved a problem once with some help from the game, the player can repeat the solution later with less help, leading to a sense of mastery and accomplishment without there being an actual increase in the difficulty level of the game. (Such an increase is undesirable since it might lead to the player getting stuck.) In According to Cain, Jim Nelson follows this pattern exactly. We are introduced gently to the alchemical procedures that will form the core of almost every puzzle; the difficulty is slowly ramped up to match our increasing experience; and at the end, there’s a scene (in the final cave) where we can apply several by now familiar solutions in quick succession to escape from a particularly nasty situation. Looking only at the puzzles, According to Cain may not be particularly innovative or deep, but it does what it wants to do and it does it in the right way. The only puzzle that was on the underclued side was the one with the mirror in the cave, but I may have missed out on a hint somewhere.

Another thing that I liked about the puzzles – and now we are slowly starting to talk about the narrative content of the game – is that while the alchemy/recipe trope has been done to death, there were two things that made it seem somewhat fresh in this game. The first is the strong foundation in actual medieval medicine and alchemical theory. (I was fully expecting to have to use leeches at some point, but alas.) The second, and more important, is that the ingredients in this game are not just a random grab bag; and not even a historically inspired grab bag; but that most of them are linked to the daily activities of the Adam/Eve/Cain/Abel family. Thus the puzzles help us engage with the question what life was like for these people and how they spent their days. It’s almost a ‘material culture’ approach to interactive narrative.

For the most part, however, the story is told through memories that we unlock with alchemical compounds. I have been critical in the past – and will no doubt remain critical – of games that present their story exclusively through flashback, memories, journal pages, and so on. (See, for instance, my review of Babel.) Having the player character be active in the story creates all kinds of challenges, of course, but taking them entirely out of it and reducing their role to that of uncovering story fragments is hardly an ideal solution. It takes away much of what is exciting about interactive narrative. According to Cain suffers from this defect. But perhaps in this case the situation is somewhat better than it usually is, since we are exploring a story that we already know, the beginning and end of which are already familiar to us, and towards which we, as members of a culture in which this story is influential, already have the perspective of outside observers. Still, it’s a little bit disappointing when in 2022 one is still playing games in the ‘collect story fragments’ mode.

As said, the story is a reworking of the Cain and Abel narrative. I take it that the single most perplexing aspect of the story as told in the Bible is that God prefers Abel’s offering over Cain’s for no apparent reason at all. The Biblical writers do not explain this; their mode of storytelling is light on explanation, which is one of the reasons why these texts are so intriguing and the food for so much thought. (Walter Benjamin is great on this phenomenon in his essay The storyteller: I highly recommend reading the short sections VII and VIII.) But According to Cain doesn’t explain God’s behaviour at all: it resolutely cuts God out of the equation. This is a fallen world, and Man no longer sees eye to eye with the Creator. (In the actual Bible, it takes much longer for God to absent himself.) Instead we are presented with a very human question: what is life like when you have been driven out of Eden? How does the Fall change you psychologically? We learn that Adam and Eve reacted in very different ways, and we see how their dysfunctional parenthood generates a context in which brotherly rivalry can turn into hatred and finally murder. Almost all the events are seen through the eyes of Cain, who emerges as, if not a sympathetic, at least a relatable character. Abel, by contrast, is a massive jerk; although there’s a psychological explanation for that too.

Is this reworking a success? It is entertaining enough, and Jim Nelson adds a number of memorable scenes that flesh out the story far beyond the sacrifice/murder tale of Genesis. Deception, forced marriage, adultery, bullying, apathy, drunkenness, labour wasted, religious fervour, sharply different perceptions of how the parents treat their children – it’s a vivid portrait painted in a relatively small number of words. But it also turns the story of myth into a all-too-familiar tale of family psychology. It reworks the original story into something capable of standing on its own feet, but in doing so it loses access to the power of the original. It does precisely what Benjamin, in the sections I referred to above, suggests ‘real storytelling’ doesn’t do. Which isn’t necessarily bad: the medium that comes to replace storytelling is the novel, and who can dislike the novel? But when you are specifically engaged in rewriting myth, it feels like a missed opportunity.

But there’s one more thing we need to talk about: the answer to the question posed as the game starts. What is the mark of Cain? What is it that God gave to Cain after he had murdered Abel, such that the people who met him would not kill him? Among the interpretations offered throughout history are a horn, a letter signifying the name of God written on Cain’s forehead, and even – another sordid chapter in the history of religious racism – a dark skin tone. Nelson’s answer is so much better than all these. It is, one feels, the only right answer. When one thinks of a murderer in the act of violence, one may be tempted to kill him. But when one thinks of the murderer at a later moment, assailed by true and unfeigned sorrow – then he becomes an object of pity. Then no one will raise his hand against him. The mark of Cain can be only one thing: genuine grief. This is a remarkable invention that adds to the original myth and I applaud it warmly. I can’t think of a better ending to this piece.

And since I’ve already mentioned Three Versions of Judas… would it be too much to say that in the hands of Jim Nelson, it turns out that Cain is the original Man of Sorrows, he who is ‘acquainted with grief’, and therefore the original source of salvation? “God became man in his entirety, to the point of infamy; man to the point of reprobation and abyss.” Only he who has done violence can teach us the meaning of sorrow, repentance, and reconciliation.


Very thoughtful. I playtested this, and have been turning it around in my head ever since. Your review broadened my thoughts on this piece.


Gummbah. Heerlijk!


I thought about that Borges story, too, even though it didn’t get into my final review! (It should have. I should reread it in full.)

This review (and According to Cain) reminded me of (among other things) one of Kurt Vonnegut’s more famous Kilgore Trout stories that discusses the gospel of Jesus in slightly different terms. Vonnegut is a bit more sardonic about the message we actually take away and the message we should take away, but I think both the Kilgore Trout story and AtC take it upon themselves to look for the messages we really SHOULD be getting from the gospels.


Thank you for the extensive review!
I’ll keep your comments in mind when I work on the post-comp update :slight_smile:


Thank you! This is a remarkable review, and well above any response I could have asked from a player. I very much want to respond, not in a negative or a refuting manner, but to continue the conversation. I’ll wait until after the comp, though, and make it part of my postmortem / author’s notes.


Looking forward to it! (You can also send me a private message, of course, but perhaps it’s more fun to have the conversation in public at the end of the competition.)


Witchfinders by Tania Dreams

Witchfinders is a short Twine game about a witch in a 19th century Edinburgh where detecting and prosecuting witches is still a pastime for some. The game begins rather bizarrely:

Even if we ignore that both ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Renaissance’ are misspelled, and that there are no fewer than three article errors in the sentence, there is still the problem that this makes no sense. How can it be the case that the Age of Enlightenment giving way to Romanticism makes us leave behind the ‘brutality’ of the Middle Ages, which ended some four centuries earlier? This doesn’t inspire confidence, which is very important to inspire at the start of a game. The game then goes on to tell me that I’ll be surprised that I won’t be able to play a witchfinder, because instead I am… the witch! Actually, there are so many IF games in which you are a witch (or wizard) that it would have been a lot more surprising to be the witchfinder!

Thankfully, the rest of the game is significantly better. It is also very much more down to earth. You visit a handful of locations in Edinburgh, learn about a few problems, collect some ingredients, and solve the problems. At all points the prose is very sparse; NPCs are just quest-giving machines, locations are never detailed in more than two sentences, and the PC doesn’t have much of an inner life. There is a system in place where by earning ‘witch points’ you can get yourself persecuted. But there’s no real tension, in part because it is easy to avoid the witch points, and in part because everything is so sparse and functional that you’re never caught up in the fiction.

Actually the experience is somewhat reminiscent of playing a mediocre graphical RPG like Oblivion. There’s a sick child to be saved, but the only possible interaction with him is to click and hear ‘ugh’. You can talk to his father, who has two endlessly repeated sentences of text to give you the quest. You walk into the woods and harvest the necessary ingredient. You return to the father, click, press the ‘give medicine’ button, get the XP and gold coins, and walk away towards the next quest. Without the visuals to distract us, the equivalent experience is Witchfinder shows more clearly how bare bones this approach is. Why don’t we have a more detailed conversation with the father? Why isn’t there a story in which the suspense slowly mounts as even the people we care about start getting suspicious? Why aren’t we forced to choose between helping the needy and our own safety? Why isn’t our character more fleshed out? In general, why isn’t there more fiction in this interactive fiction? I’m just left wishing for a lot more.


I also beta tested According to Cain, and while I won’t read your review until after I replay it and try to write up my own thoughts, I’m looking forward to doing that, and hopefully some post-comp conversation too.

FWIW, I also spent way too long turning this over in my head and trying to figure out what it’s supposed to mean:

Age of Enlightment gave a way to Romanticism, leaving behind medieval brutality and aspiring beauty of Reneissance.

My best guess is that this is just an awkwardly-written sentence and it’s meant to communicate an overall progression – now that Romanticism has come, the earlier periods (Medieval and Renaissance) are even further in the rear-view mirror. But beyond getting the chronology slightly neater, this is still a but of a confusing opening because a) Romanticism actually hearkened back to Renaissance and especially Medieval models in some respects, arguably bringing those eras closer to contemporary society, and b) I have not a single clue what the quotidian action of the game, which you accurately describe, has to do with Romanticism anyway.


You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book by Austin Lim

There are two sides to You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book. On the one hand, it’s a hypertext adventure of a familiar kind. You are a faceless adventure person, you receive a strange quest, and by walking around town you manage to collect some objects and pieces of information that just happen to allow you to solve the problem. It’s more a matter of thorough exploration than of real puzzle solving, and because everything is so disconnected and distant, it is hard to care about what’s going on. As an adventure game, You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book is competently implemented but ultimately forgettable.

On the other hand, You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book is a collage made out of locations from other works of literature. So while you are playing the adventure game, you’re also playing a ‘guess the original’ game. This is certainly a more original conceit than the quest itself. However, the lack of interactivity with the surroundings makes it less interesting than it could have been. You get one paragraph of text, and then you either know it or don’t know it; there’s no way to explore further and interact with the environment to get more clues. In some cases, clues are not needed. The violin playing inhabitants of the apartment next to apartment 221 who seem very interested in murders? Check. The farm that is run by the animals themselves? Check. Waking up as a giant insect? Check. It might still have been fun to explore that farm more, say, and find that we’re in the middle of the scene where the horse is being sold off; but at least we don’t need to in order to guess the source. In other cases, the source material seemed a lot harder to guess. And the problem is, if you don’t know it immediately, there’s no way to investigate further. Does this three sentence description of a forest not ring a bell? Tough luck.

What I found very interesting indeed is that in several cases, I immediately recognised what the source material was… and then found out, at the end, that Austin Lim and I had different things in mind. You enter a church and are almost driven to madness by a bell that won’t stop tolling? Obviously this is a reference to Emily Dickinson’s stunning I felt a Funeral, in my Brain; but actually the scene was inspired by Edgar Allan Poe’s The Bells. In another scene, you are walking across a beach and warned against staying out in the sunshine for too long. No clearer reference to Albert Camus’s L’étranger is possible, right? Except that the reference was to Dune. Which just goes to show, one, that our literary heritage is highly overdetermined (as the literary critics like to say; we philosophers would say that the works of literature are underdetermined by the clues, but it means more or less the same thing); and, two, that you really need more space for exploration if you want to implement a puzzle like this! Maybe let me check my inventory to see whether there’s a gun, and then have me discover some… spice? (I’ve never read Dune, so this is stab in the dark.)


I’ve read Dune, and although the scene that part of You Feel Like You’ve Read this in a Book is riffing wouldn’t have a gun in it (the characters at that point didn’t have one), spice could definitely have helped clue people in and would be plausible. That, or worms on the beach that needed to be avoided (the other thing that is in regular cultural osmosis from Dune) - particularly if it was by walking in a non-rhythmic or otherwise unusal way. (Travelling by day being a bad idea is definitely a thing in Dune… …and at least two-thirds of the other books set in deserts I’ve read).

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Esther’s by Brad and Alleson Buchanan

Esther’s is a short piece of interactive children’s literature about two mice eating at a child’s (both real and make-believe) cafe. No age range is indicated, but the simple premise and the straightforward plot (the mice want a particular meal and are happy once they get it) make me think that the authors are aiming at children of about 3 to 5 years old. The piece is implemented well and accompanied by a small selection of cute, professionally executed pictures.

I played through the game myself, but then decided to also play it with one of my children. My eldest is now 6 years old and I usually read books to him that are far more demanding – from a narrative and language perspective – than Esther’s; so I decided to play it with the 4-year-old. Her native language is Dutch, so I had to do off-the-cuff translation, but I don’t think this posed a problem. Did she enjoy it? Yes, and she wanted to read it again afterwards. (But couldn’t because it was bed time.) So one can certainly count that as a success.

Still, I’m not convinced that Esther’s was as successful as it could have been. While reading it to my daughter, I noticed more clearly than when I read it myself that the game makes some heavy and perhaps unnecessary demands on the young listener. The basic idea of mice wanting specific food and not being able to communicate with the cafe owner is easily grasped. But the foods in question were highly unfamiliar. Even I myself had to look up mimosas. In addition, my 4-year-old has only a vague knowledge of avocados and guacamole, and none at all of tapioca pudding. Possibly this is a cultural issue. But I think my daughter would have been more invested in the game if she had had a better grasp of the kinds of food that were required, and therefore of the steps needed to make them.

This problem is exacerbated by the rather complex cognitive task of keeping in mind the current inventory of the mice. Children are really good at grasping and remembering narratives. I read long books over many nights with my daughter, and she’ll still know what happened to the horse ten chapters ago, no problem. Story is easy. But I noticed that it was really hard for her to mentally keep track of the foodstuff that was on the table in Esther’s. The mice now have… an empty cup, a slice of orange, toast with the cinnamon & sugar still on it, a quesadilla with cheese and some guacamole. I mean, that is hard. But if you’re not keeping track of this, you don’t really understand how far you are along in the story; what you have done; what still needs to be done. It makes me wonder why the authors chose this particular form for the game, rather than a more traditional narrative that requires less complex non-story state tracking.

So, yes, it was fun and visually attractive, and I’m happy to see more interactive fiction for young children. But I also have some doubts about the design choices that went into Esther’s.