Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

This clears things up!

Since I don’t eat meat, I’ll probably never gain the truly deep appreciation, but I’ve already gotten more of an idea of what it’s like. :smiley:

My local Dutch supermarket sells ‘scones’, but they’re very sweet and there’s raisins in them, and even with the unsweeted clotted cream they also sell (yay), it’s still way sweeter than I like. Ah, for some good British scones… I’m not overall a huge fan of British cuisine, but a good cream tea is glorious. :smiley:

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To Sea in a Sieve by J. J. Guest

To Sea in a Sieve is a prequel to To Hell in a Hamper, J. J. Guest’s 2003 game where you find yourself in a hot air balloon with a crazy person who has brought way too many heavy items. That game was a sequence of puzzles about getting rid of all these objects; because if you don’t, you’re both going to die. The setup of To Sea in a Sieve is… more or less identical, except that this time you’re in a boat, and your companion is a pirate captain who wants to bring all his treasures. I wonder if the character of the pirate captain was inspired by the captain from Ryan Veeder’s game Captain Verdeterre’s Plunder, or whether Veeder and Guest are just both leaning into standard pirate tropes.

I looked up my review of To Hell in a Hamper and found this final paragraph:

My single complaint is that the game doesn’t actually contain that many jokes. It has a good comic setup, and some of the stuff you discover inside Booby’s coat is hilarious; but there are few events or descriptions in the rest of the game that make one laugh or smile. This game would have benefited from having Admiral Jota as a co-author; his gift for stuffing a game full of funny remarks would have been very effective here.

It’s fairly unlikely that J. J. Guest wrote To Sea in a Sieve in reaction this, but there is a sense in which he could have: the main difference between his 2003 game and his 2023 game is that the new one is funnier. The captain is a ridiculous guy, and the interactions between him and his cabin boy are a source of smiles. The lesser of two weevils indeed. It also helps that the implementation of the game is deep, and useless or failed actions often lead to amusing responses.

The puzzles are fairly standard, I would say, tending towards traditional object and NPC manipulation sequences that could have fitted in almost any prototypical adventure game, text or graphical. The ones I enjoyed most where those with relatively ridiculous effects, such as blowing up the barrel, simply because those effects were more particularly suited to this specific game. As a puzzle, the little physics conundrum at the very end was my favourite.

This game is very clear about what it sets out to do and it does that very well. That’s good, but I was a bit surprised that everything played out this straightforwardly. I was hoping for some kind of plot twist, or perspective change, or something that would make the game more surprising, more memorable, and more different from its predecessor. But no, you get exactly what you are told to expect on the tin. Not very fair to complain about that, I suppose, but having recently played J. J. Guest’s intriguing Excalibur, I guess I was hoping for a little bit more.

But when To the Moon in a Minibus arrives, hopefully before 2043, I’ll play it and no doubt with a smile on my face.

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:smile:

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I’m not making it up! It’s announced in the game! I had already made up To Mars in a Mine Cart, but I got both the destination and the vehicle wrong, even though I had guessed the correct initial letter. :smiley:

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The Whisperers by Milo van Mesdag

So here’s a strange autobiographical fact, or at least, a fact that felt strange when I started playing The Whisperers. I once made some plans for an IF in the form of a play. The players would not play any particular role, but would only make choices only at the end of scenes, choices that decided the final outcome. I can’t at the moment remember the title I had in mind (though I suspect I have plot sketches somewhere in a drawer), but I certainly remember the setting: that would have been Russia during the time of the Stalin purges. So… I guess those sketches can remain where they are, because Milo van Mesdag has very much beaten me to it!

Now my game would have been a piece of interactive fiction. Milo’s piece, on the other hand, very much wants to be a play, and one feels that he mostly put it in interactive fiction form because it’s hard to find a theatre group to performs one’s script! This is not to say that it doesn’t work as a piece of IF. But there are certain aspects of The Whisperers, including some of its most intriguing ones, that don’t translate well to the medium in which we currently experience it.

The most obvious of these is the whispering. Most of the characters are whispering most of the time (and should be heard through microphones – not sure if that really works to be honest, but maybe it does). That’s in part because this is Stalinist Moscow, and the secret police is everywhere. But it’s also because they’re all living in the same ‘paper wall’ apartment, where everyone hears everything. And they’re living in that apartment with a member of the secret police. A not insubstantial part of the characterisation is done through voice volume. Sergei speaks up, especially in the beginning, when he’s still a confident young officer of the NKVD. The Guide always speaks at full volume. But most of the other characters do not, or only when they forget themselves.

The main plot is fairly simple, and the choices of the audience don’t make that much difference. Young Agnessa has followed her brother Sergei to Moscow. But she’s not a Stalinist; in fact, she’s a secret Trotskyist who believes that Stalin has betrayed the revolution! She falls in love with the young architect Nikolai, and he with her, and gets pregnant. Her dream is to strike a blow against false ideology, and Agnessa and Nikolai conspire to bomb the foundations of the new Palace of the Soviets. (In reality, this megalomaniac construction project was dismantled and abandoned during WW2.) Depending on the audience’s choices, this may or may not succeed, but either way, they end up getting caught.

There’s a subplot about a middle-aged couple, a Russian man and a Ukrainian woman. The woman’s entire family has starved to death in Holodomor, the famine in Ukraine that Stalin intentionally exacerbated. She has taken to the dangerous practice of icon worshipping. And there’s a very minor subplot about Sergei’s ability to find enough traitors to condemn to death.

It’s all interesting enough, and the underlying research is immaculate. But I’m not entirely sold on the plot or the characters. There’s something nihilistic about it. The three men have all found ways to submit to the state. It’s only the women who dare to have any individuality: Dariya through her religious parctices, and Agnessa through her political action. But surely Dariya’s husband, Georgy, is right when he points out that God will also listen if you don’t endanger yourself with the possession of physical icons. As for Agnessa… in another review, I read the suggestion that we are supposed to empathise with her political ideals. But I don’t believe that. Sure, Trotsky looks pretty good when you compare him to Stalin’s terror and remind yourself of the fact that Stalin had him killed with an axe. But Milo has no doubt very carefully chosen to highlight one particular episode from Trotsky’s thinking in the play: his stance on the 1921 Kronstadt rebellion. In that rebellion against the Bolsheviks, sailors and civilians demanded, and I’m quoting Wikipedia:

reduction in Bolshevik power, newly elected soviets to include socialist and anarchist groups, economic freedom for peasants and workers, dissolution of the bureaucratic governmental organs created during the civil war, and the restoration of civil rights for the working class.

Hard to disagree with, right? Well, not hard for Trotsky, who signed the order to ruthlessly crush this rebellion. About 2000 of the rebels were later executed. So I think it’s clear that we are to understand Agnessa as just as much a blinded ideologue as anyone else in the play; in fact, the most blinded ideologue of them all. And this is underlined strongly by the fact that the terrorist attack she plots with Nikolai is incredibly stupid. I mean, what’s the point? Who is going to benefit from a delay in the construction of this building? It makes no sense! It’s hard not to understand it as the roundabout suicide of an ideologue who is addicted to purity. Really, the only sensible person in the play is Georgy, and his being sensible consists in his being as invisible as possible… which, you know, makes the whole play a pretty cynical thing (or, I suppose, simply realistic, given the actual history). A well-written and highly interesting cynical thing, but still.

Except, that is, for the second intriguing feature that does not translate to the current medium: the ability for the audience to revolt. If you check out the script, you’ll find that the idea is that when the final ‘sentencing’ scene comes along, a ‘plant’ in the audience starts booing and shouting that they don’t want to be bound by the choices given to them (execution of 25 years in prison), and if the audience joins in, the actors are to ‘improvise’ a scene in which everyone goes free. Now that is interesting, and that is not cynical. It’s just… not really in the piece that we have now. This thing really needs to be the play that it wants to be.

Actually, this make me realise that there’s also a way in which I beat Milo to ‘it’. Back in 2005, I wrote a little roleplaying game called Vampires in which you play a male vampire who gets power by abusing his female victims. It’s unrelenting in its bleakness and cynicism. And the whole point was… it was never played, as far as I know, so perhaps I should say… the whole point would have been that the players got so disgusted that they rebelled against the system. (I wrote about that in an accompanying essay.)

But to be honest, I’d rather go to Milo’s play than play my own game!

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All Hands by Natasha Ramoutar

I’m still not sold on Texture. There’s the weird bug with the extremely small button text, but let’s ignore that. Then there’s still the problem that the affordances of the text are hidden; that is, you cannot see at a glance how you can interact with the screen; you have to grab each button in turn just to find out what your choices are, then go back to grab the button you want and go to the place where you can drop it. It’s so much more laborious than link clicking, that there should be a large upside to make it worth it. But I’m not yet seeing it. All Hands, for instance, could just as well have been done in Twine.

Now we’ll talk about the game itself. No, I’m lying! I first want to make a completely random comment about the blurb. This is the entire blurb: “The sea is calling you. Its voice is getting louder.” And that is such pitch perfect Fallen London / Sunless Sea prose that I was surprised to find out that the game is not Failbetter Games fan fiction! But it’s really not.

So let’s finally talk about All Hands. It’s a short story about someone who enters what it for all intents and purposes a ghost ship. They’ve always been drawn to the sea, but their farmer father forbade them to so much as think about anything nautical. And perhaps with good reason, because their sister drowned in the sea; more than that, was pulled under by waves that seemed hungry for her. Now the mysterious ship that has been sailing in this neighbourhood has come to shore, and of course you enter it, drawn in by the fascinating woman who owns it. Once you’re on board, there’s a geographically organised exploration section in which you can find several songs. When you are finished, you return to the woman in charge, dance with her, choose a song to sing… and depending on that song, you get one of several endings.

All Hands is nicely atmospheric. I think it might not have been a great design decision to hide the room which explains the backstory most behind a lock that can only be opened if one has picked up the compass in the beginning; especially because it is extremely easy to miss this compass. After my first playthrough, I thought the story made no sense. Only on my second playthrough, when I got the compass, did things click. (I especially enjoyed the fact that you get a puzzle and then the protagonist just solves it without your input.) The ‘good’ ending, where the magic is dispelled and the characters embrace each other, was a fairly nice surprise.

I enjoyed this snack sized game, and would gladly play something more substantial by the author.

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GameCeption by Ruo

It’s pretty clear from, well, everything that the protagonist is going to be lured into a Battle Royale style game involving real death. So I guess it’s a Battle Royale battle royale game, where the italicised & capitalised phrase is the title of the 2000 Japanese movie about a high school class that has to fight to the death, and the second phrase is the name of the gaming genre named after the film, which usually does not involve real death. Turning a battle royale style game into a Battle Royale style game… yeah, that’s kind of meta. But GameCeption is not afraid of being meta.

I didn’t quite guess the plot development where we are actually playing our partner and then have to go out into the world to rescue him. Maybe that’s in part because it makes no sense. How exactly did we control them? And how is it possible that all these players that were originally in the physical arena didn’t die instantly when they were chopped down with an axe / exploded / were overrun by a car, but all had the chance to phone their partners? To your questions there will be no answers. Better to revel in the terribly clichéd but still satisfying survival part of the game, and then the ultra obvious and nevertheless also satisfying dynamite scene. Oh, and the “you are the player” meta joke at the end. You really must turn off your critical thinking and just go along, but if you do so, it’s great fun. And I think that’s what GameCeption wants to be: great fun. It’s not so bad to be the player.

Several reviewers said they wanted to see more depth to the relationship between the characters. But I don’t think that would work. It’s camp! Embrace the cheesiness! Take that car and go full Carmageddon! More emotional depth is something for a different game, is what I think. And if you disagree with me, please hold this bundle of dynamite while I hide behind the corner with this remote control.

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Oh thank you for such a thoughtful review! And very weird that we seem to have had the same idea!

And Vampires is also exactly the kind of thing I love. Not as a thing to play, even as an experiment I’d never run it, but I love the idea. I do agree with your final point in your essay though: I don’t think it will ever be played properly, because anyone who would play it properly would never play it. And I don’t really want to think about it being used by the kind of people who wouldn’t play it properly…

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I’m starting to think that I might be able to write a good article about designing for revolt… hm…

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Thank you for taking the time to play and review To Sea in a Sieve. I’m glad you enjoyed yourself. The third part of the trilogy is already well underway, so hopefully you won’t have to wait another twenty years to play it!

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One King to Loot them All by Onno Brouwer

Let me come right out and say I don’t like the title of this game. Sure, I get the The Lord of the Rings reference, but, first of all, this game has nothing to with post-Tolkienian fantasy (precisely not!) and second, the suggestion that this king is just out to loot is totally wrong. The title sets low expectations that don’t do justice to the remarkably fun game we actually find.

I don’t think the main character is ever named, but we’re obviously playing Conan the Barbarian as written by Robert E. Howard. It’s perhaps important to emphasise that Howard’s Conan is not stupid and does not overcome his foes through brute force alone. He’s a cunning guy who manages to become king and isn’t at all bad at ruling, even though some of his subjects resent his origins among the barbarians. Brouwer follows these ideas to the letter. I’m almost certain that there’s a Howard story that starts exactly like One King to Loot them All, with Conan as king being surprised by some magical assassin whom he defeats; but even if I’m wrong about that, our game is pitch-perfect Howardian Sword & Sorcery. Even the prose is Howardian, which is admittedly not an unreserved compliment – Howard tends to indulge a bit too much in long sentences and rare words that do not quite add up to great prose (although not as much as his friend and fellow writer Clark Ashton Smith). There’s something of that here too, which is especially noticeable in the error messages, that are too long to be easily scanned and mentally discarded.

It’s almost impossible not to be reminded of Treasures of a Slaver’s Kingdom when playing One King to Loot them All, because both are restricted parser games with a barbarian protagonist. But actually they do not have much in common. S. John Ross’s game is a geographically open puzzler involving quasi-RPG-style character progression, whereas Onno Brouwer’s game is a tight story-line with no real puzzles to speak of. Perhaps even more importantly, Ross’ barbarian really is stupid, and the limited verb set is used to streamline puzzle design. Brouwer’s Conan is pretty smart (he has no trouble explaining the logic he used to get through the paths of order and chaos) and the limited parser is used to… yeah… mostly to tease the player with some intentional parser frustrations, actually! One’s inability to open the wine bottle is pretty funny, as is the fact that this puzzle solution if given away in the Help text, where you probably won’t notice it. (Though I did. Right when I was about to give up in the Pit.) There are some real parser frustrations, though, which don’t help. (E.g., “water” is not a synonym of “waters”, the two guards cannot be disambiguated by the adjectives the game itself applies to them, etc.) I can imagine that some players hit their head against a wall. A pit wall, perhaps.

But they really should keep playing. For what had been an entertaining if far from perfect sword & sorcery romp, suddenly turned into a game that had me play it with a giant grin on my face, a grin that grew bigger and bigger when I realised how far I could undo, and then, that I could save the priestess, and then, that everything after that also subtly changed (including the nice scene where the priestess points out that she should be the sacrifice), and… well, yes, it was just lovely. The final fight with the necromancer was a tad confusing (I never really understood how the interception worked), but otherwise it was so much fun. Including the revelation about the three chosen ones.

The one thing I think is a little sad is that you can’t actually start UNDOing when you’ve just opened up a new game. Famously, you can win Slouching towards Bedlam on the first turn, but by taking an action that you only have reason to take once you’ve finished the game and know what’s going on. One King to Loot them All could also allow the player the freedom to start on the winning path immediately; if anyone stumbles upon it without preparation, that’s fine too!

Anyway, really nice game.

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Hi Victor,

Thank you very much for your nice review of my game! I guess I need to spoiler the rest of my reply…

First of all, I completely agree on the choice of title. I had it on my seed list with some comment on having some looting and pillaging king, more or less based on that “time bandits” movie which also featured time travel. When I actually started fleshing out the storyline (loosely based on the short story “The Phoenix on the Sword,”, the battle with the demon and the meetup with the sage is borrowed from that, although these events actually happen near the end of the story), the looting was much reduced (in fact it is now the second least common action to play through the game), and I should have changed the title before the comp started. I guess I did not realise I could change it after I registered my initial intent. At least I did not put the title on the artwork, but I have no idea if I can change the title of a game once it has been made part of IFComp.

Indeed the main character is never named, because I was not 100% sure if copyright issues would be a problem for US citizens (in EU we are safe). So in the story the barbarian is nameless, but in the game code he does have a name:

>regard Conan
Your muscles ripple beneath your sun-tanned skin. You are definitely as good-looking as ever.
You are carrying your axe (wielded), a bottle of wine (closed), and your loincloth (being worn).

Congratulations! You are the first (I know of) who found out about the hidden feature of my online HELP message. HINT tells the player which verb is the current one, and HELP fills in the missing noun for that verb (assuming the verb is not MARCH). I was gambling most people do not look at HELP a lot, and would probably miss that the text shown is not entirely static. Well done!

Yeah I fear you are not the only one. The necromancer is circling the player and the player is supposed to try to head off the necromancer at the NEXT direction going clockwise. For example:

"My lord," Lydia whispers, "the necromancer is circling us.
I sense his spirit traveling from the southwest to the north."

Then after north, northeast would be next, and the player is supposed to go there. But I guess it was too complex and maybe I should have used a different approach here.

To be honest that was my original intention. Allow the player to go right back to the past and make the right choice and save the priestess. But then the lore gained from the sage would be missing and the parallellism of the travel with Alcaz vs the travel with Lydia would be lost. I saw no easy way out of this dilemma.

Thank you again for the review and I am glad to hear you liked it.

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Fix Your Mother’s Printer by Geoffrey Golden

It had to be a printer. Printers are evil. I’m relatively tech savvy, but the one computer accessory that I look at with trepidation is the printer. There’s so much that can go wrong, and it’s all so unclear. I mean, it would have been easy for Geoffrey to focus on a tech issue that makes the protagonist’s mother look like an elderly ignoramus. But the steps needed to solve this printer problem are completely realistic, and realistically maddening. Why can’t that stupid printer just tell you that the paper is missing from the second tray? God knows that I have desperately clicked options like ‘deep nozzle clean’ in the hope that it would magically solve whatever unfathomable problem I had in the past. Also, after I tried to clean a printer with a leaking ink cartridge, I’ve sworn an oath to never every buy another inkjet printer… but (a) I ended up with a laser printer that somehow got toner in the inner machinery, and (b) my wife later bought another inkjet printer anyway. So printers are stronger than oaths, is all I’m saying.

In a sense, the tech issue in Fix Your Mother’s Printer is only there to give a framework for family conversations. That too is very realistic. The practical is the justification, and then of course your mother wants to talk to you – and at least as I played the protagonist, they also didn’t mind talking to their mother. I liked the conversations, which hit some good personal notes and add interest to the game. It seemed to start out a little silly, with the mother’s obsession for topiary, but ended up at a slightly more serious level that seemed to fit the game as a whole quite well.

I have two points of criticism, one about what the game sets out to achieve, one about how it sets out to do so. The former kind of criticism is always a little fraught: shouldn’t I just judge a game on its own terms? Maybe. But I think Fix Your Mother’s Printer could have been more memorable if it had given up on its intention to stay at the level of the light-hearted. These people have a bond, but they also have problems, and it would have been interesting and possible affecting if their bond had actually helped them gain more insight into those problems. One does not feel that reconciliation between the parents comes any closer, or that the protagonist has gained any real insight into their romantic hang-ups. I would have loved the game to be more ambitious in that regard, even if it would have meant straying from the current tone.

The more internal criticism has to do with the choices we are being offered. There are way too many moments when the choices come down to “(A) be mean, (B) be neutral, (C) be nice”. It felt a bit like the unfortunate type of CRPG dialogue (far too prevalent even in otherwise great games like Baldur’s Gate 2) where the dialogue options often come down to “(A) be evil, (B) be neutral, (C) be good”. It’s not very interesting. It’s not very clear why anyone would choose being nasty to their mother. And crucially, it means that you’re making exactly one choice: your attitude. And then the rest of the game is just you either choosing the option that fits your attitude, or turning the character into a tonally inconsistent mess. The dialogue could have been more interesting if the author hadn’t felt the need to support three tones throughout the game, and had instead focused on more interesting aspects of characterisation.

All in all, this game is simply very enjoyable.

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Or, oaths are easier to break than printers!

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You can, by contacting the organizers, but it’s not recommended outside of little things like typos because it makes things kind of confusing for reviewers and judges (e.g. I write down all my ratings in my notebook during the comp, then go to put them in at the end, but suddenly I can’t find that game I played early on). Up to you to decide if it’s worth it or not!

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The Witch by Charles Moore

I ended up liking The Witch quite a bit more than I started out liking it. It does a lot of stuff early on to make you bounce off of it, from having a map full of empty locations (most of them, unfortunately, in the beginning) to failing to implement prominent nouns. This kind of stuff is off-putting:

❭ put sign in water
The water can’t contain things.

To the east you can see a beaver.
❭ x beaver
You can’t see any such thing.

❭ x desk
It’s a plain wooden desk. There is a single drawer.
❭ open it
The old wooden desk is not something you can open.
❭ open drawer
You can’t see any such thing.

What also made me consider quitting was the first puzzle I solved. I get the sign, went to the beaver, brought it to the tree, get ten points… and then, happy as I was, typed ‘score’ and read that my puzzle solution had made the game unwinnable. As this was literally the first thing I did in the game, I found it rather discouraging!

But I persevered, and as I went on, I actually started liking the game more and more. The setting is more fun that it at first appears, with many neat little touches of world building and some good descriptions, especially around puzzle solutions. It also made sense, once I came across the mill, that my little adventure with the beaver had the undesirable result it had. I came to appreciate the ‘score’ message as a helpful guide to what made the game unwinnable. And I started solving some of the puzzles, such as the mill and the mine, without hints, which made me feel good. These puzzles are not completely groundbreaking, but they are fresh enough to be fun. And the programming is very solid.

I wasn’t able to finish the game without hints, though, and that had mostly to do with implementation – so I strongly suggest that Charles returns to the game and make some changes based on what I’m going to say now, because it can greatly improve the experiences of future players. (1) The owl puzzle could be better clued. Showing the seed leads to death, okay. But the current behaviour of the seed is rather overwhelming: dropping it anywhere in the game leads to instant death. This does not suggest that it’s possible to throw it at the owl in its den, given that the owl can instantaneously move to the other side of the map to kill me! I wasted quite some time trying to protect myself with a bucket on my head and things like that. Perhaps the seed should simply do nothing outside of the tree; and perhaps it can be a bit better clued that you might have the time to throw it. (2) I had the exact right idea with growing the peach tree, but “put plant food on peach pit” gives an error message, and so I abandoned the idea. This should probably just work! I also think it would be good to have a more positive message for dropping the pit at that location, and maybe allowing something like “put peach in mud”. (3) I also got stuck with ‘apricot’, but that was more my own fault for not being a thorough enough old-school adventure player. But it might be a bit better clued that you need to say a password to the mirror. I spent time trying to show it different objects. (4) When I crossed the river for the end game, the game told me that it had become unwinnable. But it hadn’t! I could still win, using the exact chain of commands in the walkthrough. I had all the right objects with me. Not sure what was going on there. (5) I’m not sure if I would have ever solved the final puzzle, but I love the idea of it: the race through the maze and the final imprisonment. Perhaps it would have bee nice to put an object somewhere in the maze over which the player trips the first time they go there? That would be a great clue.

All in all, I think The Witch is a really neat game. It has gotten a fairly cold shoulder in the reviews so far, which is unfortunate. Solving some of the implementation issues in the early game, and improving cluing of a few of the puzzles, could go a long way though. You’ll never get the love of people who don’t like difficult parser games, but you sure can get the love of those who do. It’s all solid, well thought out, and with some seriously good puzzle ideas.

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Your review just swung me from having completely written this one off to hoping that I find time for it…

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Gestures Towards Divinity by Charm Cochran

Recent world events are fairly disheartening and would give a lot of comfort to those who believe that violence is the dominant force in human nature, if comfort were something that such people could be given. On my Mastodon account, I wrote:

I had decided to start my review of Gestures Towards Divinity with this quote, even without realising that I too had used the word ‘gesture’, something I only noticed when I copy-pasted it into this post. But this is what Cochran’s game is about. It is about small acts of kindness against a background of relentless violence. Those are our gestures towards divinity. Without them, we can only be the inhuman mourners at a crucifixion that might not even be taking place, and certainly will not absolve us of any of our sins.

Gestures Towards Divinity is a piece of interactive fiction that would have been perfectly suited as an entrant into the IF Art Show competitions, back in the days, which focused on creating an object or scene which the player could explore. In this case, we explore an entire art show, albeit a small one, in which three triptychs of Francis Bacon are being exhibited, along with a still from Battleship Potemkin. These are real paintings, and I assume that only considerations of copyright stopped Cochran from adding visuals to the game. As it is, we can easily look up the paintings as we play, which adds to the atmosphere. The middle panel of each triptych can be entered, and we then come into an abstract space in which we converse with either a fury, or George Dyer, once at the beginning of his relationship with Bacon, and once after his death.

The most famous of the Art Show games, entered in 2000, is Emily Short’s Galatea, and it’s hard not to be reminded of that piece when Gestures Towards Divinity allows us to converse with the painted characters. But there are important structural differences. In Galatea, a large part of the point is that the conversational space is wide open and the conversation can take different turns, depending on how your choices influence Galatea’s mood. In Gestures Towards Divinity, however, the conversations are meant to be exhausted – there are even achievements for this – and we are given explicit lists of topics we can still discuss. This is a textbook case of lawn mowering, where we almost mindlessly choose one option after another because in the end we’ll have to choose all of them anyway. This was a bit tedious; but what saved it from being really tedious was the great writing and intense substance. I think the game would have been even stronger if some of the less central subjects had been left out (nothing, I feel, would be lost if the topics ‘fate’, ‘luck’, ‘karma’, ‘life after death’ and ‘soul’ were to be removed from the game entirely), but even in the current version I was thoroughly intrigued by what the characters had to tell me. The vapidity of my conversations with the barista was endearing as a contrast, and as a useful reminder that life can be concrete and small.

The approach that Cochran takes to Bacon’s art is unashamedly biographical. The piece does mention stylistic choices, world events, art movements… but it returns again and again and in great depth to Bacon’s life, his relationships, and especially the violence, the alcoholism, the masochism and sadism, and the influence – the terrible, destructive influence – he had on Dyer. It’s not a nice portrait that is being painted; which is fitting, given that Bacon was not in the habit of painting nice portraits of others. Just as the painter puts the ugliness, the violence and the estrangement at the centre in all his works, so Cochran puts all of that at the centre of our conversations on Bacon. The fact that we can talk to Dyer both when he’s still hopeful and naive, and when he has committed suicide in a desperate attempt to win back Bacon’s love, and that we can do that because the real Bacon painted a bunch of triptychs showing the dead Dyer in horrible poses(!) and then sold them(!!), makes all of this extra haunting and powerful.

If that had been the entire game, it would have been very interesting and it would have mostly confirmed me in the antipathy I felt towards Bacon’s art. I’m not sure I have seen it in real life – certainly not much of it – so I must be a little circumspect in judging it… but, essentially, I really don’t need art to show me the ugliness, the violence and the estrangement with which the world is rife. Or rather, maybe I do need that, and certainly I can handle it, but please do also give me, I don’t ask much, but at least a gesture towards divinity.

Well, Cochran has me covered. Some reviewers have stated that there’s a disconnect between, on the one hand, the heavy and serious conversations in the paintings; and, on the other hand, the extremely light-hearted puzzles that you can solve in the museum. But there’s no disconnect. The paintings are the background of violence and ugliness. The puzzles, all of which involve small selfless acts of compassion and positivity, are the gestures towards something else. They are acts of faith. To have seen the dead Dyer casting a devil’s shadow, to have mourned at the cross of a God who does not exist, and then still to pick up the empty cup and put it in the bin, then still to buy the water and give it to the plant – it’s such a small thing, but it is an affirmation of that than which nothing is bigger. (Which you could call God, but which I prefer to call humanity, or love. God has so many problematic connotations.)

It is no accident that only through an act of kindness can we gain access to the final conversation, the one with the guard, who is the only one to give us a more positive perspective on Bacon’s art. That was nice, and made me feel better about Bacon – not, perhaps, Bacon the man, although he too was in need of acts of kindness, but about the art. It can work differently on different people, and its power is undeniable.

There’s a strange, strange sequence at the end that I’m not sure how to place. We finally come face to face with Bacon himself, but we can’t talk to him, since he is hiding behind bon mots and abstract theories. But then, if we wait long enough, he starts screaming. (According to some reviewers, you can also get him to scream by telling him who he is. I tried this, but it didn’t work. Perhaps the parser was being overly finicky.) And there he is, screaming, screaming, screaming. Is this a final gesture of the game, condemning Bacon to a hell of his own making? I suppose those gestures too are towards divinity. I tried my best to be kind to Bacon – to hold him, or soothe him, or console him – but nothing worked. “If comfort were something that such people could be given,” well, indeed. It was a dark, dark note to end the game on. But at least I had a date with the guard, and I suppose, as I (almost) said in my own entry to this competition, that the point of art and fiction (I said history) is not to help the dead, but to help the living.

A wonderful piece. Thank you, Charm.

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I figured I was missing a few things when I wrote my review. I’m glad I wrote mine first, though. I might have just glided through GTD without it, and having yours to compare gave me a few “aha” moments about other things in GTD.

In particular, I thought the achievements probably weren’t random. But I couldn’t make out why or how they might be important.

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Actually, the walkthrough consists only of hints about how to get the achievements! You could check that out. :slight_smile:

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