Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

You implemented a pretty complicated series of puzzles and sequences in a language that is, I suspect, not that well-documented – I’d already count the game a success on those merits alone. :slight_smile: Your audience can probably grow if you add more story and stuff like that, but you’re off to a very solid start.

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For reference, that’s very much how the Infocom Hitchhiker’s game was. Adams delighted in cruelty for the sake of cruelty and it is by far the easiest Infocom game to make unwinnable by accident. (For example, there’s a particular set of objects you need to acquire throughout the game, without any reason or prompting whatsoever, often during sequences on tight time limits that you can never come back to. At the very end, an NPC will ask you for one of them at random, and if you don’t have it the game is unwinnable. Except it’s not quite at random: if you missed even one, the game will always choose that one. It doesn’t even ask for all of them, which would tell you what you need to look for on your next playthrough—only one per play. It goes past “cruel” into “sadistic”.)

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Please Sign Here by Road

I’ll spend some of this review being critical about the prose of this entry, but I’d like to start with the good stuff, of which there is quite a bit. First off, there’s the pictures. There’s not that many of them, but they help not only set the mood, but also make the people you interact with more concrete. The immediate, visual knowledge of who it is that has walked into the coffee shop somehow makes the encounters more real; and therefore it makes it all the more disconcerting when you have to pick one of them as the potential serial killer. It’s all the more disconcerting because there is literally no reason to think any one of them is guilty of so heinous a crime, and the only reason you, as a player, are likely to pick a name anyway, is that the police imply very strongly that they’ll try to prosecute you if you don’t.

The scenario is pretty fun too! It’s a good choice to start the game with the police interrogation. This ensures that the coffee shop scenario, which is relatively slow in terms of the build-up of tension, is immediately charged. You’re already looking at all the NPCs with suspicion, which is precisely what the games wants you to do. And it feels less strange that the protagonist is so easily scared, because we know that’s she’s right to be scared. I enjoyed wondering what was going on, and I enjoyed no knowing what to do when I was called on to accuse someone. Then… well, depending on what you choose, you may either be left in the dark (which I suspect is not a very satisfying ending to get) or you may find out what is really happening… and that’s pretty horrific. A good twist ending that left me blinking in disbelief for a while. (On further reflection, it’s an extremely literal take on the idea that you shouldn’t fear people who don’t look like you, but you should fear people who DO look like you. A pretty good idea for a horror story!)

I don’t think you can do much in the game to learn more about what is happening, or to change the outcome. If you can, I’d love that, and it would raise my rating of the game. But I didn’t find any promising avenues to explore.

Okay, so as I indicated in the beginning, the weakest part of Please Sign Here is the prose. It’s always possible to understand it, but it’s marred by frequent grammatical mistakes and sentences that don’t quite work in a variety of ways. Sometimes it’s a metaphor gone awry:

Silence cuts through Jackie’s next intended sentence.

A cutting silence might already be a bit of a stretch, but how can you cut through something that is only intended, and doesn’t come to existence precisely because of the things that’s supposed to do the cutting? In other cases, it is word choice:

The cop returns the evidence and brings forth new ones.

You can’t use ‘evidence’ as a plural this way to describe a bunch of photos. Or there’s an unfortunate, but in this case hilarious, typo:

Until close! No butts!

What is meant is ‘no buts’, but ‘no butts’ is pretty funny, of course. Here’s a passage where we see many of the weaknesses coming together:

It begins to thunder outside, and the lights of the store flickers. Jackie makes a move to look out the window, rain blearing reality and greyness together. The road is empty, and the light from the streetlamp barely illuminates against the concrete.

Here “flickers” should have been “flicker”; ‘making a move to look out the window’ is a weird phrase (why doesn’t she just look out of the window?); blearing (blending?) reality and greyness together is a recherché metaphor; and the final phrase, about illuminating against the concrete, also doesn’t seem to work very well.

Did this impact my enjoyment of the game? To a certain extent. I love good prose, and Please Sign Here didn’t always deliver. But it didn’t sink the game. Everything was clear; I could follow the story just fine. However, prose quality is where the greatest improvement, either for this game or the author’s next game, is possible (perhaps with the help of testers who enjoy doing proofreading).

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Hey, thank you for being the first person to review the game! I really appreciate the feedback, and I’ll hope to apply it to future projects.

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I’m still thinking about the ending. When I got the ending where the true identity of the person in the police room is revealed, I clicked through before it had really sunk in… and then I thought… wait, wtf… and I replayed that entire branch from the last save just to check whether I had read it correctly. :joy:

Also, I now realise that the moral of the piece seems to be don’t be afraid of people who don’t look like you, be afraid of people who DO look like you, turned into something horrifically literal. :smiley:

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Magor Investigates… by Larry Horsfield

Magor is an Italian cheese made up of alternating layers of Mascarpone and Gorgonzola. (The name, which is an obvious portmanteau of the names of the two constituting cheeses, is apparently mostly used in the Netherlands. I defer to the expertise of @Piergiorgio_d_errico when it comes to what it’s called in Italy itself.) It’s what you buy when the strong taste of Gorgonzola seems a bit too much, and you want something smoother, less adventurous. Of course, when you’re eating it, the enjoyment is somewhat tinged by regret. Why didn’t you get the straight Gorgonzola?

Magor is also an old magician in Larry Horsfield’s extensive Alaric Blackmoon series, of which this is the first game I’ve played. He’s more the goofy Merlin from Disney’s The Sword in the Stone than a serious Gandalf type, prone as he is to losing his spectacles, and given as he is to using most of his magical talents for the production of whisky. But Magor is pretty effective when he wants to be. When the king and duke Blackmoon come to you and ask you to find out what their family connection is, you quickly solve a sequence of problems (all there for you in the Tasks list) and give them the answer they crave.

I’ve had less-than-optimal experiences with Adrift games in the past, having fought the parser much more than I’d like to. But Magor Investigates… is truly one of the smoothest parser experiences ever. Whether we should thank Adrift 5 for that, or whether Larry is just a really good implementer and had really good testers, I don’t know, but it’s something for which the game must be applauded. Larry is certainly responsible for the detailed implementation of objects, the quality of life features, the useful messages when you’re doing things not quite right, and all the other little touches that make the game feel helpful and interested in your success.

I’m less sold on the aesthetics of the game. Like many Adrift games, it has the look and feel of a 1996 website hosted on GeoCities, with sans serif fonts in multiple colours on a black background. The only thing that’s missing are animated gifs that make fun of Bill Gates! At one point, the game even seemed to switch to Comic Sans… but that must have been an illusion. It must have been. Of course none of this really impacts one’s enjoyment of the game, but I don’t understand why the Adrift Runner doesn’t look a little bit more professional. (I should try Frankendrift to see if that’s better.)

On to the substance of the game. As Magor, you have to solve a sequence of ‘puzzles’ in order to get the information the king and the duke wants. I’ve put ‘puzzles’ between scare quotes not because the puzzles are especially scary, but because they’re not scary at all; they’re so not scary that one wonders whether they are really puzzles, or simply tasks one has to perform. Not that I minded. I liked pottering about, relaxing, enjoying the descriptions, which are pretty enjoyable in a low-key, relaxed way. It’s a no stress ‘adventure’. I’ve put ‘adventure’ between scare quotes not because… well, I guess you get the idea.

Indeed, although my play experience had been extremely smooth and quite enjoyable, I nevertheless wondered why all of it had been this low-key. The central stakes of the game are so incredibly tame. The king and duke already know that they are related, and now they want to know exactly where in their vast lineage this link happened… well, turns out it was six generations ago. Not very exciting, but they immediately start a huge party! I think it would have been way more surprising if two nobles had not been related to each other in the sixth generation, and it also got me thinking that the Axe of Kolt, which can only be used by those with the blood of… I forgot his name… must be usable by, oh, I don’t know, but after so many generations, it must be usable by almost everyone in the kingdom, right? Anyway… I suppose I was eager for a little more adventure. It was really nice to play this game, but next time, I’d prefer to leave out the Mascarpone and go for the straight Gorgonzola.

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Sorry to disappoint you, but I’ll reply after 15th of november to your question, I’m under an unpleasant chilling effect whose discourage me from commenting on IF entries, especially this

again my apologies and
Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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That is really sweet of you to say! Considering this is my first time, it feels great to see other writers really break down my writing and let me see ways I can improve on my stuff so that next time I can make something even MORE scarier. -cackle-

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The Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Pearls by Ryan Veeder

Is The Little Match Girl my favourite fairytale? There are other fairytales that have better, more interesting stories. But ever since I was a kid, The Little Match Girl has had a special place in my heart because it makes me cry. Not that it’s that hard to make me cry. In fact, dear readers, it’s (in)famously easy. When in Piglet’s Big Movie Piglet realised that the other animals were really his friends, I cried. And I was 40 years old when I watched it. When I and my wife have a spat, I usually end up holding back my tears while my wife complains that it’s no fun being angry with me because I cry too easily. But most fairytales don’t go for the tear ducts. Except, of course, for The Little Match Girl, which goes for it in the most direct and melodramatic way possible. What can I say? It’s not great art, but I love it.

Although The Little Match Girl 4 is ostensibly by Hans Christian Andersen, it doesn’t have much to do with the original story. Not having played the previous instalments, I rely on the in-game background to tell you that the original little match girl, instead of dying in the Copenhagen snows, found that the she could travel through time and space by looking intensely into a fire. She then became a sharpshooter and vampire hunter, as well as the adopted daughter of Dickens’s Scrooge, who christened her Ebenezabeth. All of which makes little sense. Luckily, however, Ryan Veeder has a talent for taking something that makes little sense and then handling it as if he had no inkling about its senselessness… and then it starts making sense. Throwing together crazy ideas and then revelling in their craziness tends to get old pretty fast. But throwing together crazy ideas and then moving forward as if it’s all perfectly normal, well, that is a way to generate unique and memorable settings. And I don’t know if there’s anyone in the IF scene who has developed that technique as much as Ryan has.

TLM4 is a light puzzle parser game with all the impeccable writing and smooth gameplay that one expects from a Veeder game. It’s supposedly inspired by Metroid Prime, which I haven’t played, but I gather that the basic idea is that you get new powers as you move forward, and these powers open up new passageways in areas you have already visited. In this case, your list of powers is simple: the ability to transport through fire, shooting flaming bullets, turning into a mouse, scanning things, and unlocking anything. All the puzzles in the game require you to use one of these powers, so it’s fairly easy to get through everything without using the hints. You’ll visit a wide variety of locations, which are heavily interconnected, and all of which correspond to one or another standard genre trope: dinosaurs, vampires, pirates, the Old West, spaceships. But Ryan brings enough charm and slight twists to each of them to make them feel fresh. The vampires are trapped in a terrible endless meeting; the pirates are, if I’m not mistaken, straight from Gilbert & Sullivan; the spaceship is being looted by space pirates who are more interested in vague mischief than real harm; and the journal you find near to an abandoned mine is… not what you expect. It doesn’t cohere into a single setting, but all of it is fun.

The most intriguing thing about TLM4 is its tone. So much about it screams ‘light-hearted fun’ that I’m tempted to say that this is a game of light-hearted fun. The off-beat genre takes. The smooth, simple puzzles. The standard video game trajectory of getting more and more powers. The basic treasure finding plot line. And yet… it is quite obvious that at least one person is not having fun, and that is the little match girl herself. She is, if not quite a tormented person, at the very least troubled; even, perhaps, a little dead on the inside. We are told repeatedly that she no longer has the ability to be astonished at the majestic grandeur of the universe. She claims to make friends in all kinds of places, but she doesn’t make friends at all, and the only person she has an emotional connection with is a guy she cannot forgive. And then there’s a brief scene where we are transported back to Copenhagen, to the snow, to the hovel where she, as a child, is suffering with her brothers and sisters, waiting for salvation. It’s all there in the game, but it’s never really thematised; it’s not hidden, but still never allowed to take over from the light-hearted fun.

I’m tempted to read all of that as a parable of Ryan Veeder’s creative activity. If you follow him, you see a man who creates fun in many ways: elaborate RPG campaigns, highly polished IF games, cute plush toys, music tracks. But there’s a darkness there too, never allowed to take over the work, but never quite absent. Like the little match girl, Veeder is shooting his flaming bullets around for all of us to enjoy – but who knows how he feels on the inside?

Which is probably terrible psychologising. But hey, that’s a parable for my creative activity; always trying to bring that darkness to light, get it out in the open, put it at the centre of attention, and then, if I really indulge myself (which I usually try not to), go for the tear ducts. What can I say? I love it.

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ugh EXACTLY

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Thank goodness, @Afterward thought when he realised that at least one reviewer had grasped the autobiographical nature of LMG4. He hadn’t felt this understood by another human being since that time Jenni bought him a Cthulhu-themed novelty toilet brush for Valentine’s day.

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I’m digressing from my randomised list for the first time. Yesterday, I was lying in bed, quite ill, and a short Texture game seemed perfect. I replayed it today, now that I’m feeling better, and so here is a review of

The Sculptor by Yakoub Mousli

The best moment in The Sculptor is the description of the final statue. This is a hard moment for any artist. When you’re writing about a fictional masterwork, you need to describe a masterwork in terms that make it believable for the reader – but of course, without having to actually make that masterwork yourself. Here’s what Yakoub gives us: an old nude man, wrestling down a falcon that attempts to peck his heart, raising a scythe with which to kill the falcon; meanwhile, the old man is being strangled by his own beard, and water flows around his feet, washing the shame away.

What I love about this is how it audaciously combines several motifs from European art into a single vision. The man is, clearly, Old Man Time, or Death, with his scythe. But he’s also Saint Michael fighting the dragon, as well as Prometheus, his innards being pecked at by a bird. And being strangled by his own beard, well, this cannot help but remind one of Laocoön being strangled by the snakes. As for the water, I heard these lines of Elliot in my mind:

A painter of the Umbrian school
Designed upon a gesso ground
The nimbus of the Baptized God.
The wilderness is cracked and browned
But through the water pale and thin
Still shine the unoffending feet
And there above the painter set
The Father and the Paraclete.

Which would make the man also Christ. Death, the angel, Prometheus, Laocoön and Christ, all rolled into one – yes, that makes sense as the masterwork that this sculptor has wanted to make, and we accept on faith that the statue does justice to the idea.

To be fair, much of The Sculptor doesn’t quite live up to this standard. The basic idea and setting are fine: it’s an interesting protagonist, this very old artist in dire financial circumstances with one last chance of achieving his ambitions. The thematic development is more problematic. Other reviewers (Mike Russo, Brad Buchanan) have already pointed out that the game’s final choice, between destroying your work of art to keep it pure and selling it even though this sullies you, is simplistic. I’d go further and say that it comes close to a fundamental misunderstanding of art. There’s nothing pure about keeping your art for yourself. Something isn’t art if it doesn’t aspire, at least in principle if not in practice, to universal recognition; a work of art is a bond between humans. Destroying it so others cannot see it not l’art pour l’art, but the anti-artistic gesture par excellence. Perhaps the point is that the sculptor is too embittered to embrace art himself, but if so, the point doesn’t come out clearly.

The writing, while it has it moment, is also frequently marred by errors (“they certainly knows your name”; “She in informs you”; a choice labelled “Sand” that I think should have been “Stand”; people who want to buy your “sculptor” when “sculpture” is meant). And it sometimes loses itself in a language that’s a bit too flowery for its own good. Or maybe not flowery; I suppose the problem is that it sometimes becomes imprecise, exactly at the moments when it tries to be metaphorical, which are the moments when precision becomes most crucial. An example:

On the marble’s waves ran the memories of your lost days.
And through them shimmered back the reflection of tears, now held up by your thirsty, wrinkled lids.

I’m not totally sold on the memoires running on the waves, though I guess it might be possible to express oneself that way. But then the word ‘them’ generates instant confusion. Who’s the them? The waves, the memories, or the lost days? It’s something through which the reflection of tears shimmers back. Hmm… if it’s a reflection, then it’s probably not going through something? And my thirsty lids, are they drinking the tears? That’s weird. Also, if the tears are held up, how can they shimmer back? Lots of questions, and the point is, I shouldn’t have any questions. I should be surprised and possibly delighted by the metaphor. But for that, it needs to be made more precise. This would work a lot better for me:

On the marble’s waves danced the memories of lost days, shimmering and distorted as one, two, three tears squeezed past your wrinkled lids.

And of course there are a million other ways to rewrite it.

The Sculptor didn’t quite convince me, then, but there’s some real artistic vision going on here, and a desire to talk about stuff that matters. I’m here for the author’s next game.

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Dysfluent by Allyson Gray

A few years ago I had a student who talked extremely slowly. He didn’t stutter, he just took a very long time between words. I admired the fact that he nevertheless frequently asked questions during class – even if the class had to wait five minutes for the question to be finished – and, although adding this should not be necessary, they were good questions too. (Indeed, he was one of the best students in that class.)

Later on I did supervision sessions with him which were, well, long, because he wasn’t just asking questions, but explaining his ideas and goals for the thesis at the same very low speed. I had a lot of time to reflect on the experience during those sessions. There were certain weaknesses on my side that I needed to work on; e.g., my mind tended to wander, which was something I had to combat; and some annoyance sometimes crept in, especially as I saw the clock ticking towards the moment I had to start doing something else, which I needed to suppress too. But I also wondered whether there was anything I could do to help him. Sometimes he seemed stuck on a word that was obvious to me. Should I help him out and say it? I decided against this – it seemed more rude than helpful, possibly even just adding a source of stress. With even more time to reflect on it, and being spurred to do this by playing Dysfluent, it now seems rather obvious that I should have simply discussed this with the student. Or not? To be honest, I find it difficult to choose between the “I’m not even going to mention this thing because it would be rude to imply that something about you is not the way it should be” line and the “let’s discuss this so I can do things in a way that is most helpful to you” line. But I suspect that the first line, the line that I in fact chose, is too much just me being afraid of embarrassment, and not enough me being helpful. I can probably use some advice on this from people with more experience being on the other side of that table.

The relation between all this and Dysfluent should be obvious. Allison’s game is a very effective piece that puts you into the role of someone who stutters, as they get through a day in which they need to perform several tasks that involve talking. Interactivity is key. By giving you the choices that the protagonist faces, and letting you live through their successes and failures, Dysfluent does more to generate understanding of what it’s like to stutter than a non-interactive story does. The use of slow timed text, usually a big no-no, is actually something you are not allowed to complain about in this case. To complain about it would be to refuse to put yourself in the protagonist’s shoes – and while that’s fine for, let’s say, some random horror game, it’s not fine for a piece that is all about generating understanding of a real-world phenomenon.

I love the use of colours in this game: green dialogue options are easily said, yellow ones will come out with some difficulty, red indicates a full-on block. I assume that it’s a good reflection of how the protagonist experiences their stuttering. It’s not a complete surprise; there’s some premonition of what you’ll be able to say, and what you won’t be able to say (as easily). And it generates some excellent dilemmas. The best of those is during the job interview, where you can choose fluency (green) or accurateness (yellow). Of course you choose accuracy. And then you get another choice, but not fluency is green and accurateness is red. Ouch. What do you do? It’s a tough call, and of course that’s precisely the point. (I also enjoyed the sense of dread when, after telling the game what my favourite food was, I also had to tell it what my least favourite food was…)

If I have any criticism, it might be that the way the world reacts to the protagonist is so insensitive that it strains incredibility. Especially the flashbacks are all just straightforwardly horrible. I hope they weren’t taken from real life, though they have something of the autobiographical about them. It seems to me that even when I was a kid, stuttering was explained to me in terms that were far more nuanced than those used by the supposedly professional specialist we meet here in the therapy scene.

But overall, I think this is simple a very good piece of interactive fiction. It’s solid as fiction, built on smart design decisions, and it’s effectiveness as a tool for generating understanding boosts it further.

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The Finders Commission by Deborah Sherwood

Heist games are well-known genre, and with good reason. There’s a clear goal that requires ingenuity to achieve; there’s a spatial and temporal element that fits IF world building well; and of course here are opportunities for puzzles and suspense. As others have noted, The Finders Commission starts of with some pretty bizarre world building (and a weird choice between what seem to be five indistinguishable characters). But then it quickly turns into a fairly standard heist game. There’s the museum; there are some people to either manipulate or watch out for; a few opportunities for puzzle solving; and if it all goes well, you walk out with the loot!

Apart from one possible bug (the box that I believe I needed to turn off the alarm suddenly disappeared from my inventory), everything was solidly implemented. It’s bit strange that you cannot investigate the display before launching the chariot – the first few times I tried, I got interrupted, but later on the room was empty and I still wasn’t allowed to read the label. This threw me for a while. But I ended up solving the puzzles without too much trouble, felt some nice tension as I had to defeat a timed sequence, and was satisfied. There’s nothing truly memorable or innovative about the game, but it succeeds at being what it wants to be.

The biggest mystery of all was the breakfast my character claimed to be their favourite: buttermilk biscuits with sausage gravy. This sounded like the worst and most implausible thing in existence, so I did some googling, and found recipes in which I saw: biscuits that did not look like biscuits; sausages that did not look like sausages (but more like the minced meat you might put into a sausage); and most of all, gravy that really, really did not look like gravy. From what I gathered, it was more something like minced meat in a creamy sauce. All of which left me only more flabbergasted. Cookies served with meat and cream? As a breakfast? Now this is a mystery someone should make a game about!

(One small grammar thing: “She believes she is an ancient deity whom should be worshipped by all.” should either have ‘who’ instead of ‘whom’, or be rephrased as “She believes she is an ancient deity whom all should worship” If we’re using ‘whom’, we’d better be using it correctly! :smiley: )

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Hi Victor!
Thank you for playing and reviewing my game. I am working on the bugs this weekend and thanks for the grammar correction.
Please come visit us here in the South (USA), you’ll gain a deeper appreciation for biscuits and gravy!
This game started out to be way bigger than it ended up. Some of the other locations were also going to be playable with the sought after item being hidden randomly. I just ran out of time and had to pare it down considerably. A couple beta-testers enjoyed the ability to roam about so I left the other locations in. As always, this has been a wonderful learning experience.

Cheers!
Deborah

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It’s one of the more bizarre American-European linguistic differences—American “biscuits” are like scones in texture, but savory instead of sweet, and (Southern) American “gravy” is a béchamel sauce with meat juices; “sausage” here means just the ground meat without the casing. So your assessment is basically right: it’s ground meat in a roux-based sauce with a flaky or crumbly pastry giving it structure.

(But in our defense—the gravy is a sauce made with meat juices, and if our biscuits aren’t technically “twice-baked”, the Brits’ aren’t either!)

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Scones in the UK are essentially neutral. You can have them with cream and jam (or jam and cream), or you can have them just with butter. There are also cheese scones which are just what you might imagine. I actually quite enjoyed them in their incarnation as “biscuits” with gravy during my extensive travels around the American South.

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Huh! Around here “scones” are sweet and “biscuits” are savory, so the ones with cheese are always “cheese biscuits”. “Scones” generally have something like raisins in them to add sweetness.

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We have “fruit scones” here too, but we don’t talk about “fruit scones”.

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Okay, so that’s not strictly true. But the thing you need to understand about scones is that the Cornish put the jam on first and the cream on top. Whereas in the county of Devon they put the cream on first and the jam on top of the cream. Getting the order wrong in the wrong county has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.

Worse than either of these is asking for a cream tea with cream and jam and being given a fruit scone to spread it on. No. No. No. No. Just no. I’d rather have my cream tea on a cheese scone than a fruit one. That’s just WRONG. Fruit scones are just served with butter.

Let’s not get started on the pronunciation of “scone”.

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