Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

This topic will contain my competition reviews. I will use this first post to a table of contents linking to the individual reviews.

I’ll ask the mods to move this topic out of the hidden forum once the competition is over, so please only post things you wouldn’t mind appearing in the general forum. If you’d like to discuss things in a more private way, don’t hesitate making a new topic for that. :slight_smile:

My reviews are massively spoilery and can be critical, though I hope in ways that are useful to authors. We’re all here to learn, as far as I’m concerned. If you want to comment on my reviews, agree with them, disagree with them, be my guest! This topic is private (for now), so it’s all within the rules.

  1. Virtue by Oliver Revolta
  2. Shanidar, Safe Return by Cecilia Dougherty
  3. All the Troubles Come My Way by Sam Dunnachie
  4. Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Max Fog
  5. In the Details by M. A. Shannon
  6. Please Sign Here by Road.
  7. Magor Investigates… by Larry Horsfield
  8. Little Match Girl 4: Crown of Pearls by Ryan Veeder
  9. The Sculptor by Yakoub Mousli
  10. Dysfluent by Allyson Gray
  11. The Finders Commission by Deborah Sherwood
  12. To Sea in a Sieve by J. J. Guest
  13. The Whisperers by Milo van Mesdag
  14. All Hands by Natasha Ramoutar
  15. GameCeption by Ruo
  16. One King to Loot them All by Onno Brouwer
  17. Fix Your Mother’s Printer by Geoffrey Golden
  18. The Witch by Charles Moore
  19. Gestures Towards Divinity by Charm Cochran
  20. Assembly by Ben Kirwin
  21. Dr Ludwig and the Devil by SV Linwood
  22. Hand Me Down by Brett Witty
  23. The Vambrace of Destiny by Arthur DiBianca
  24. Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses! by Lacey Green
  25. Dick McButts Gets Kicked in the Nuts by Hubert Janus
  26. Citizen Makane by The Reverend
  27. 20 Exchange Place by Sol FC
  28. Beat Witch by Robert Patten
  29. My Brother; The Parasite by qrowscant
  30. The Gift of What We Notice More by Xavid and Zan
  31. Trail Stash by Andrew Schultz
  32. Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest by Joey Acrimonious
  33. LAKE Adventure by B.J. Best
  34. Eat the Eldritch by Olaf Nowacki.
  35. Kaboom by anonymous
  36. Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head by The Hungry Reader
  37. Tricks of Light in the Forest by Pseudavid
  38. My Pseudo-Dementia Exhibition by Bez
  39. Honk! by Alex Harby

Virtue by Oliver Revolta

As a matter of policy, I’m rating games, not the blurbs or cover art that accompany them. But I find this a little difficult when it comes to Virtue, since my playing experience was significantly impacted, not by the cover art (which is nice), but by the blurb. The problem is, this blurb gives away more or less the entire plot progression of the piece, all the way up to the otherwise surprising ending, and it even explains the game’s central metaphor and tells us how to interpret the action (using normative words like ‘self-righteous’ and ‘ludicrous’). I don’t understand why Oliver Revolta decided to write such a detailed, spoilery blurb – and I’d certainly recommend pairing it down.

On to the game itself. Virtue: an interactive narrative is a short-to-medium choice-based game about an English middle-class woman whose pathetic need to feel like she’s made it, like she’s one of the successful ‘haves’, puts her on a path towards darkness – where darkness is, more or less, Nigel Farage and Suella Braverman. The point of the game is clearly political. It wants to pull the mask from the xenophobic, transphobic, everything-phobic Tory right and show us the ideological emptiness and self-serving psychology beneath. The protagonist of our game, Gloria, is shown to be the type of person who can fall for this sort of politics, even to the point of becoming such a politician herself.

This is not an easily achievable set of intentions, but I can see at least three ways of making it work. One would be to lean sharply into one’s political disgust, showing the disastrous human effects of the policies one opposes. A second would be to ramp up the satire and lean into humour, taking the protagonist all-too-seriously while turning her into a laughingstock. A third would be to go for sympathy and understanding, showing in psychological detail why the protagonist, without being in any sense a terrible person, nevertheless ends up in a terrible political place.

I don’t think Virtue works very well in its current incarnation, and I believe that is in part because Oliver tries to do all of these things, and perhaps other too, at once. But they don’t mix very easily. A lot of time is spent on showing us the inside of Gloria’s thinking, which fits the third, sympathetic approach. But her thinking is so shallow and self-serving that we don’t actually feel like she’s a real human being. At the same time, it’s too realistic, too repetitive, to provoke laughter. And precisely because we never leave Gloria’s mind (and her obsession with appearances), we don’t really see the effects of her actions. It feels like the game knows exactly what it wants to be about, but it doesn’t really know how it wants to be about that.

One feels that because of this, the writing also doesn’t succeed nearly as well as it could have. Passages are often overly long – making points that were already clear, such as the shallowness of Gloria’s middle-class ambitions – again and again. But they also tend to be a bit vague. In this respect, the encounter with the Polish man stands out. Here the reader is trying to understand what has actually happened near the canal (is it a flasher? sexual assault? something else?), but the game is vague about that because it also wants to establish the embarrassment of the Polish doctor in talking about this, and the embarrassment of Gloria in not remembering his name, and the fact that these people are making too much out of a relatively minor incident, and Gloria’s incipient xenophobic thoughts, and Gloria’s determination to be a strong woman, and her panic as her dream is threatened… which is a lot, and it’s all mixed together, and none of it comes out as clearly as it could have. I think with a more consistent aim, it would have been easier to find a more consistent tone, and thereby to write more entertaining, to-the-point dialogue. Suppose we go for humurous, biting satire.

“There’s a streecker in the park,” he whispers.
(A) A streecker? What’s that? Must be some weird Polish word. If only the people who were allowed to come here did their best to learn proper English.
(B) Probably one of those foreign foodstuffs. Raw mutton with garlic, or whatever they eat in the Balkans.
(C) Oh, wait. A streaker. How unseemly!

That’s just an example, of course, and maybe not a path Revolta would ever want to take. My general point is that everything could have been more condensed and more engaging, and I think the root cause of it not being there is that the author is trying to juggle too many tones and ambitions at once. That’s only a hypothesis, but it makes sense to me. The game can feel a bit too much like it’s trying to hammer in its points, and a lot of that could come from tonal uncertainty. For instance, our protagonist gets a panic attack from thinking about council houses… which could work as hyperbolic funny satire! But it reads as hammering in the shallowness of the protagonist, because we’re not a passage filled with fun and hyperbole. So, again: there are good ideas here, they just don’t seem to fit together in quite the right way.

There are a few typos and bugs in the game which could be fixed. The most important is a bug whereby the game ends slightly too soon if you choose to drink a medium dry white wine – the politician never finished his proposal to me, and I had to restart and replay to see the real ending. Some spelling errors: “estury” (should be “estuary”), “flts” for “flits”, “heatbeat” for “heartbeat”, “campled” for “camped”, “his political party believe” (I would write “believes”, but maybe I’m wrong – the collective singular/plural in English sometimes trips me up).


Shanidar, Safe Return by Cecilia Dougherty

Earlier his year, I read Kindred: Neanderthal Life, Love, Death and Art by Rebecca Wragg Sykes, a truly great book of popular science about the Neanderthals. So I had some of the background that one might need to fully appreciate Cecilia Dougherty’s story about Neanderthals, Shanidar, Safe Return. Not that the piece is only accessible to people who already know something about its topic; but it can’t have hurt that terms like ‘Neanderthal’ and ‘Denisovan’ alreasy meant something to me, and that I was able to get some of the many references to archaeological finds. (On the other hand, I did not play Time Before Memory, to which Shanidar is a sequel.)

In Shanidar, we follow a group of Neanderthals as they make their way from one of the most impressive archaeological sites associated with them (Bruniquel Cave in present-day France) to another of those most impressive sites (Shanidar Cave in present-day Iraqi Kurdistan). Bruniquel Cave is famous for the circle of stalagmites built by the Neanderthals. We have no idea why they did it; whether it had a religious meaning, or an artistic meaning, or something else; in Shanidar, the site is a focal point for ancestor worship and shamanistic ritual. Shanidar Cave is famous for its burials, and some of the characters in Shanidar not only end up being buried there, but are indeed identifiable as specific skeletons, Shanidar 1 and Shanidar 4 being clearly referenced. This plays somewhat fast and loose with the archaeology, since those skeletons might have been buried there many thousand years apart… but frankly, what writer could resist the temptation? I for one was waiting the entire game until somebody got the right kind of head wound to turn them into Shanidar 1.

The structure of the piece is fairly strange. There are several parts to the game, and each is laid out not so much as a linear narrative, nor as a garden of forking paths, but more as a tapestry in which your gaze can follow different strands that happen parallel to each other, and then hop back to follow another strand. Initially, I found this very confusing, and it does tax the reader that one often reads passages that refer to events of other passages that one has not yet read. One has to put oneself into what for want of a better word I will call a cubistic mood, thinking here of the paintings by Picasso and Braque that show objects in disconnected ways and from different sides. You’ll have to piece things together yourself, but you’ll manage to get a relatively clear picture, especially if you are willing to replay parts of the game.

Two things make the experience more difficult than perhaps it might have been. First, there are many names. I understand the impulse to show these societies in a broad way, and also to show three different groups of early humans in one game. But perhaps it’s a bit much for a piece of this size. Second, the choice to name one of the characters ‘you’, even though this character is not much more central than some others and is not a focal point of choices, is quite confusing. It seems to be that the game would have been a bit clearer if everything had been in the third person.

In the end, reading Shanidar, Safe Return is a strange experience. We are always at a considerable emotional distance from the characters, nor do we make choices for them. We observe a story that is both wide-ranging and long – indeed, there’s even a strand about the people who will move to Australia and Oceania, and there are flash-forwards to today – and which doesn’t have much narrative pay-off. Sure, these people who have survived an attack manage to get to their safe haven, but we never doubted that and weren’t too invested in them. On the other hand, there’s a intriguing sense of scope. Something of the mystery of thinking about and dealing with the Deep Past has been captured here, perhaps better than it could have been captured in a more straightforward narrative.

There’s a tension in Rebecca Wragg Sykes’s book, in that she both wants us to be impressed by how different the Neanderthals were, and by how close they are to us (in fact, they are partly our ancestors, though not nearly as much as the Cro-Magnon humans). The moral is something like: we should celebrate the diversity of humans, because there’s an underlying unity; it’s great that we’re different, because we are also one. It’s hard to see how this works. It’s hard to see how tales about common ancestry can effectively combat racist thinking, say, unless uses them to squash diversity. In Shalidar, the idea of common ancestry comes in the form of an ancient shaman called Bihotz, neither male nor female, and from before the splitting of humans into Cro-Magnon, Neanderthal, and Denisovan. They are a fascinating figure, but there’s something of the same problem about them. It’s hard to use the idea of primordial unity for the cause of celebrating diversity. I don’t have a clear suggestion for a better way of approaching these issues, but perhaps it is something we can contemplate as we let our minds roam through the Deep Past.


All the Troubles Come My Way by Sam Dunnachie

The premise of All the Troubles Come My Way is exceptionally silly: you are a cowboy who has been transported 150 years into the future. You wake up in a bathtub (an empty one) and the point of the game is to find your missing cowboy hat. Or procure another hat that suits you. But this premise is worked out with a lot of what we can maybe call southern charm, as well as tobacco grit, and when all else fails, a real sense of rodeo, so I think we should say that Sam Dunnachie does cowboy justice to it. Those are the four ‘stats’ of the game, and mechanically, much of the gameplay consists in finding ways to increase these stats, since you’ll need different stats to follow different paths to a cowboy hat. Cowboy Justice allows you to find your real hat; Southern Charm allows you to out-hustle the hat-wearing hustler; and I assume that the other two stats unlock their own paths (it’s strongly hinted at that Tobacco Grit will allow you to go to the discount shop).

It’s all genuinely charming. My favourite part was probably that involving the IKEA manual and the table, but all the interactions are well-written and inventive. So I enjoyed my time with the game. It’s not a long time; All the Troubles Come My Way is very short. Indeed, the stat raising part in the apartment lasts longer than the actual quest to retrieve a hat, which feels a bit unbalanced. But it’s a minor complaint. This entry is not very ambitious, but it delivers the entertainment it wants to deliver, and doesn’t outstay its welcome.


Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe by Max Fog

Max Fog’s Milliways: the Restaurant at the End of the Universe is an old-school parser puzzler, and an explicit homage to the Infocom games of yore. Not only does it bill itself as a sequel to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, it is also written in ZIL, the programming language used by Infocom. This makes it a little bit awkward to review, at least for me. On the one hand, there are certain design decisions which I personally think we’re better off without, including the inventory limit and the fact that you can easily put the game in an unwinnable state. On the other hand, it makes absolute perfect sense to make those decisions when you’re explicitly positioning yourself in the tradition of Infocom games. So let’s let all of that slide.

Milliways puts us in the shoes of… well, I think it’s strongly implied that these are the shoes of Arthur Dent, hapless earthling, as he is travelling space and time with his ‘friends’ Ford, Beeblebrox, Marvin and Trillian. The game explains almost nothing about its setting and characters, and prior knowledge of Douglas Adams’s books is almost necessary to not feel completely lost. Perhaps it also helps to have played the Infocom game; I can’t say, because I haven’t played it. Descriptions in the game tend to be very short and/or non-existent, or even downright unhelpful:

x television
What did you expect? It’s a TV.

although sometimes it’s possible to consult the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy for more information.

Even with this background knowledge, though, setting and plot feel extremely arbitrary. At no point do we have any bigger motivation for pursuing certain goals. We’re just dropped in an environment, or rather, in a whole sequence of environments, and then we have to do things because they can be done. There’s a car park that you can only enter with an access card? Better go to extreme lengths to get that access card, even though there is literally no reason for you to want to go to the car park. There is a sense in which this is acceptable adventure game logic, but even Infocom had moved beyond this… well, from the beginning, I think. Zork’s treasure hunt isn’t much of an internal justification for exploring every nook and cranny of the world, but it’s something, and it’s more than Milliways gives us. When little plot lines do spring up – you team up with Marvin, you’re trying to escape from some mice – they invariably end very soon afterwards, because the game has a tendency to randomly change from one environment to another with little or no justification.

So, you’re going to be playing this for the puzzles. Those are quite varied and while they’re not easy, they also don’t seem to be unfair, at least as far as I’ve seen the game. (I ended my 2 hours with 155 of 400 points.) The implementation also seems solid. I ran into one game-breaking but apparently very rare bug, but otherwise Milliways seems well-tested. So if you like pure puzzle games where the reward for a puzzle is the next puzzle; and if you enjoy dynamic but not-too-coherent romps through space and time; then this might be a very fine game to check out. I personally prefer my parser games with more of a coherent character, motivation, and plot. But it’s certainly possible that Max Fog’s game actually fits the original Adams & Meretzky vibe better.


In the Details by M.A. Shannon

Of course I should have known there would be a devil from the title alone, or if I’d actually looked at the cover art instead of just clicking that ‘Play’ link. In In the Details we take on the role of a young musician, a burgeoning pop star, who is about to play the biggest gig of their lives, the gig that will catapult them to serious fame. It’s slightly weird to soon find out that we’re drunk or high – not a smart choice. But a few minutes later, we understand the immense stress that the protagonist must have been under. For all their talent is actually borrowed from the devil, and they failed to return it on the agreed upon day. Well. That can’t end well. And guess who that is, waiting for you in the dressing room?

In the Details is a very short game. Depending on your choices, you can be eviscerated immediately. have your neck snapped, or be forced to perform with no talent at all. The latter seems to be the ‘canon’ choice, since it’s the only one to suggest that the story will be continued.

It’s all very fine, but it’s a very short game which is over by the time we’re getting into it. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it, something that really got me to think, was the purposeful use of a bug. When the devil, still in disguise, asks you to tell him the secret of his success, you can drag either “Truth” or “Lie” to the option. But dragging “Truth” doesn’t do anything! I don’t know how Texture works, but I assume this is just the result of a programming bug… except that the bug must be intentional. There’s simply no way you can tell anyone this truth. It’s close to Texture’s equivalent of a grayed out choice in ChoiceScript, except that here, you won’t know about the impossibility until you try it.


Thanks for the review! I need to change most unreasonable parts (no descs, no reasoning for doing stuff) much more in my next games. :grinning:


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.


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”.)


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).


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.


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:


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.


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.


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-


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.




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.


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.


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.