Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

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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Ooh, I forgot about the walkthrough … I played it straight-up, and I still found everything soon enough, which I think is a big positive, since I’m not shy about hitting up walkthroughs.

My big roadblock was probably talking to the barista about everything and getting that conversation started again.

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Assembly by Ben Kirwin

There’s an old chestnut in adventure games: the recipe. You’ve got to make a magic potion, and you have a recipe, and now you have to first collect the ingredients and then follow the steps of the recipe exactly… and you’ll get the potion. I’m pretty sure King’s Quest has that kind of stuff. Or maybe it’s a real recipe that you’re trying to make, as in Savoir-Faire. It’s not very engaging – usually the real gameplay is getting the ingredients, or getting things ready, and then actually following the recipe is more a little task you need to get out of the way before you get the reward. You don’t want too many of such tasks in your game. It bogs things down.

So it’s bold to build a game that is all about following instructions! Assembly is such a game, although its not recipes we’re following, but IKEA instruction manuals. It’s like having little walkthroughs in the game, telling you how to construct, and also deconstruct, many of the objects you meet. Our protagonist is good at following such rules. Indeed, they’re incredibly bad at not following rules, being unable to unscrew a light bulb without an instruction manual showing them how to do it.

This could have been very boring, but Assembly keeps the instructions short, gives us frequent rewards for successful assembly and disassembly, and, especially, gives us a series of nice puzzles around these mechanics. This is no doubt the only game where finding an IKEA instruction manual feels good – although, come to think of it, All the Troubles Come My Way has this too, so scrap that. The puzzles are good, starting with some simple ones, moving on to slightly more difficult (such as the lamp puzzle), and ending with one that is both simple and over-the-top and yet completely logical, applying IKEA logic to IKEA itself, giving us the comic reward we deserved.

Well, I guess it ends with one that went the least smoothly for me, because I didn’t realise there was a flatpack box in my location, and it felt a little bit like a regression after the great scene with the collapsing stacks… but that’s a nitpick. This game is fun and light-hearted. There are some Elder Gods involved, but it never goes to dark places… at least, not to dark places you can’t illuminate with a good STRÅLA.

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Thank you very much for the review!

I think you’re the first reviewer to mention this connection! I think there’s something interesting to be said about the little rituals that the player and the player-character enact, and how following a script can imbue or rob meaning from a thing, but I never did quite figure out how to work that into the game. Sometime in the future perhaps…

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Dr Ludwig and the Devil by SV Linwood

How did Ludwig ever attain his doctorate? Victor Frankenstein never graduated, being a failure at university for having too much interest in the likes of Agrippa and not enough in modern science. And Ludwig is a far more eccentric character than poor Victor ever was! To be sure, his other literary predecessor, Faust, was a bona fide doctor and university lecturer; but Faust would never have stooped to digging up bodies in the graveyard. Faust is more into… well, yes… come to think of it, Faust, the Goethe version that is, is one of the most bizarre and least summarisable books I’ve ever read, and thinking these thoughts makes me want to reread it. (Doesn’t Faust escape from the devil because Mephistopheles is momentarily distracted by sexy angel buttocks?)

Our Dr. Ludwig would never exclaim in such existential despair. He is a mad scientists of the early horror movie variety, here to bring corpses back to life, make deals with the devil, get rid of pitchfork-waving mobs, and, of course, laugh in the very face of God. I think we have to imagine this whole game being shot in black and white, perhaps German expressionist style.

Dr Ludwig and the Devil is a comic parser puzzler, and it is very good at what it does. The implementation is top-notch, not just from a technical perspective, but also in the sense that many non-necessary actions receive responses that are not merely appropriate, but funny. One feels at every point that the author had fun getting every possibly laugh out of the formula, and one cannot help but join in the fun. It helps that the tone is excellently chosen – mad scientists zaniness, yes, but incongruous daily life elements liberally mixed in – and that the writing is very strong. Here’s a paragraph from the opening text:

This is strong, but it’s the last line that makes it very strong; the perfectly executed contrast between the mad scientist prose and the all-too-quotidian and utilitarian “advancing the sum total of human knowledge” shows that we are in the hands of a writer we can trust. (If I want to be extremely critical, I’d say that you can advance human knowledge, but that you enlarge its sum total. But very few people would notice this in reading. I only noticed it after copy-pasting the passage to single it out for praise!)

Dr Ludwig turns out to be a surprisingly fun character to inhabit. Yes, he is a mad scientist willing to summon the devil, but he is also very human, feeling attracted to the unlettered, muscular, naive Hans (I somehow feel that their shared future will include Lederhosen) and being unwilling to damn his soul. He is also something of a trickster character, which the mad scientist usually is not. Not only does he manage to trick the devil several times, but – and this was an especially nice touch – he even cheats his way through the recipe, every single ingredient that he obtains fulfilling only the letter but never the spirit of the recipe. This presages how we deal with the devil’s contract.

At the end, Ludwig gets ‘a cookie of his own dough’, as we say in Dutch, when the devil starts using this trick against him.

But you can’t beat Ludwig at his own game.

I got stuck a few times with the puzzles, though I suppose I might have solved them myself with a bit more time. One hard spot seemed to be the place where I had to ask the devil about vacations, but this wasn’t even listed as a topic (even though I had already talked about vacations to the shopkeeper). I can easily imagine getting permanently stuck there.

Brian Rushton (Mathbrush) has a theory that IFComp is usually won by a smooth, comic parser game. On the basis of that theory, and even without it, Dr Ludwig seems a serious contender for this year’s prize, because it is exactly the kind of game that Brian is talking about. (I’ll just add the big caveat that there are few enough IFComp votes that random factors play a huge role in the final ranking.)

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Hand Me Down by Brett Witty

In one important, though easily missable, note in the parser section of Hand Me Down, we find out that the protagonist’s dad thought that the best way to give new energy to his relationship with his wife was to take her to an escape room. He enjoyed himself, getting totally caught up in the experience, while she was not enjoying it at all – but he didn’t notice. Until she made him notice by exclaiming, loudly, the she wanted out. Out of the room. And out of the relationship. It’s hard not to sympathise with her, since her husband clearly had no idea what she needed and seemed singularly insensitive.

The reason that this note is important is that it exactly mirrors what happens in the game as a whole. The protagonist’s dad has made her a TADS3 computer game to show her his love, even though she is not into interactive fiction at all and would no doubt have preferred him to express his love in other ways. Pick-nicks maybe. Or talking. Or something that fitted her needs rather than his.

There’s a beautiful depth to the way this game is constructed. You are given a parser puzzlefest, yes. And the game clearly wants you, the player, to enjoy it. But at the same time it presents this game as your dad’s attempt to connect with you. And it clearly isn’t a great way for him to do that. I mean, it’s sweet. It’s the way he was able to express his love. It’s full of fun and jokes and invention – while the game suffers from some implementation problems, especially concerning disambiguation, it is really inventive and contains some good jokes, e.g., identifying the cheese. (It had to be cheese. This is itself is an interactive fiction joke that only old-timers would get, and therefore perfect for the dad. Explanation: Emily Short used to have a running gag about her love of cheese, including a scale on which games could be rated for how well they included cheese. And of course it’s also a Monty Python joke. This dad ticks all the boxes.) But, it’s also not very good as a vehicle of a father’s love. It’s not personal enough. It doesn’t really delve into the emotional stuff. It doesn’t really connect with you, as the person you are now, but only with memories of your childhood.

This is a difficult thing that Brett is trying to pull off! We’re supposed to understand both the success and the failure of the father’s attempts at connection, and then, in the frame story, we must get some kind of emotional pay-off. I’m not sure that that happened exactly. The fact that the parser games doesn’t delve into the real relationship is essential in portraying this relationship, but at the same time it means that we spend most of our time not getting new insight into the relationship… which lessens what emotional pay-off we might get. I fully agree with Mike Russo when he writes:

But, and I think Mike might well agree with this, it’s not really possible to do that! For if the father had created a game that was more emotionally resonant, he would not have been the father he is, and the protagonist would not have been in the situation she is in. Brett takes a gigantic artistic risk in giving his least emotionally mature character the reigns of the author for most of the game. I salute him for taking the risk, and for getting as far with it as he does. But it doesn’t quite succeed, and maybe it can’t fully succeed,

Nevertheless, Hand Me Down is a really interesting (and enjoyable) experiment, which I am glad to have played. And it certainly raises some questions that hit close to home for me; for a man who spends evenings behind his computer writing about the relation between Xanthippe and Socrates while God knows that his own relationship with his wife, in these intense years of having small children and demanding jobs, could certainly benefit from the application of more of his energy.

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Wow! Thanks for the review. As much as authorial intent matters (it probably doesn’t), you’ve hit on some core stuff that I’m keen to talk about in my post mortem, but I’m leaving that until after the comp.

Thanks again, and thanks for all your dedicated work reviewing and entering the comp!

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The Vambrace of Destiny by Arthur DiBianca

DiBianca is by now extremely well known as the author of streamlined puzzle games with limited command sets. The Vambrace of Destiny is no exception. I got exactly what I was expecting as I went into the game, but since I was expecting enjoyment, that’s not a bad thing.

DiBianca worlds tend to be relatively sparse, and his prose tends to be relatively terse and functional. Everything is made so that it will not detract from the puzzles; red herrings are not on the menu. That’s all true for The Vambrace of Destiny, except that it had one laugh-out-loud moment for me in the very beginning:

Zolmaskar did not know that we possess the Vambrace of Destiny, a Krotonian artifact that is fortunately small enough for you to wear. (Krotonians were quite large, but Destiny was the king’s young daughter.)

The point of this are the puzzles, and the puzzles are good. There are two main components to that. The first component is the well-timed progression of puzzle structure. First, we have single commands. Then, we get combinations of commands; we get timed bonuses that we must bring from another location; we get situations with state (that is, in which commands do not always do the same thing, depending on the exact turn in some sequence); we learn to teleport; and finally, we sneakily receive a verb-noun command, although it is implement as two separate verbs. The complexity keeps increasing, but never overwhelms.

The second component is that all puzzles have good cluing. By trying out different spells, you get subtle hints as to what might and what might not work. I managed to solve almost the entire game without hint, and the places where I used hints were basically just cases where I had forgotten about a glyph, or failed to notice something I could tag.

So, another classy game in Arthur’s ever-expanding oeuvre! I’m already looking forward to next year’s sequel, The Pauldron of Chastity.

8 Likes

Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses by Lacey Green

One thing I may never understand is that there are so many ChoiceScript games that allow you to first choose your own gender, and then choose the gender of potential romantic partners. I just don’t get the point. If the gender of the protagonist and/or their romantic partners are relevant to the story, then I’d like the writer to pick them for me and make sure the story works as intended. And if they are not relevant to the story, well, why am I being asked to make an irrelevant choice? (I suppose somebody could make a game that is intended to be replayed and in which you find out, during play, the difference between playing as a male or female, straight or gay character… but that would be a particular kind of game, and these games are usually not that.)

Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses is an extremely short game, and yet it still starts with a sequence in which I choose my gender and the gender of my love interests. Since the romance really doesn’t go anywhere, it almost seems like a parody of standard ChoiceScript practices, but there is little indication that it was meant that way.

Despite a rather large number of language errors, Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses shows some potential. The main character’s grim determination to find out who stole their glasses reminded me a lot of the main character of a German children’s book that is also popular in the Netherlands, Vom kleinen Maulwurf, der wissen wollte, wer ihm auf den Kopf gemacht hat (translated into English as The Story of the Little Mole Who Went in Search of Whodunit). It’s about a mole who sticks his head out of his hole, and then somebody poops on it. So even though he is almost blind, he goes on a determined quest to find out which animal did that to him, because he’ll make them pay! It’s pretty funny.

Unfortunately, Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses seems unfinished. You can get back your glasses… by going to sleep. You can pursue two suspects, but one investigation starts of an interesting storyline that then just stops, and the other investigation goes nowhere. I tried several paths, which was made quite annoying by the fact that you have to click through the same introductory scene every time. Finally, I used the walkthrough, and it turns out that what you have to do to get your glasses back… makes absolutely no sense at all. There’s no logic to it. It’s just that if you happen to jump through certain hoops, a random event will occur that solves the case. Well, okay. It also turned out that many of the achievements have not been implemented yet. Having invested some energy in trying to solve the case, I felt a bit let down by the author.

6 Likes

Dick McButts Get Kicked in the Nuts by Hubert Janus

This was surprisingly fun, at least once I got past the first five minutes or so. The crude picture and sounds that played every time the protagonist got kicked in the nuts didn’t work for me. The text is actually far less crude than that, and once things got rolling, and the dead ends became fewer, I started to enjoy myself more. Sure, the idea of characters who are aware of their story has been done to death… but here it’s taken to such absurd extremes that it once again feels fresh. At one point in the game, you have to dial a machine up to eleven; but the game itself also dials everything up to eleven, and the author has the writing talent to deliver. The ending was even almost touching. Okay, who am I kidding. It wasn’t. But it was unexpected – to me, at least, though I guess I might have seen it coming – and entertaining.

Best kick in the nuts I’ve ever had.

7 Likes

HA HA!

2 Likes