Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

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.

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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.

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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.

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HA HA!

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Citizen Makane by The Reverend

This is not a full review. Not because I didn’t like the game and/or have nothing to say about it, but because I do have something to say about it and maybe want to turn it into an article that ranges a bit wider than just Citizen Makane itself. It’s a very smooth parser game; there are a few smaller issues, especially concerning the card game, which becomes mechanical quickly (but it could be argued that that is the point); but mostly, the game is really good at engaging with the narcissistic logic of most depictions of sex in games, as well as in the larger world of porn. If you can handle a game that generates quite a lot of purposefully bad porn prose like this

then it’s recommended.

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I haven’t played a lot of the big ChoiceScript works, but in the ones I have, it’s like building a character in a tabletop RPG: I come up with a character idea, build and customize them in the game (both in aesthetic things like name and mechanical things like the stats on their character sheet), then watch what they get up to. If I especially like the game I’ll replay it coming up with different characters each time and trying to make the choices they would make to see if I can make a cool story result.

So it’s relevant, to me, insofar as it gives me another knob to tweak to build my own character. I recently started replaying Night Road aiming to go 110% in on the toxic romance with the guy who’s using you as an unwitting test subject for his research, so it’s relevant (again, to me) that I’m playing this character as a trans woman who ended up unhealthily devoted to the man who offered her a way out from an unsupportive situation. This probably isn’t something the author specifically considered when writing it, but it’s the story I’m going to make. (I haven’t played the new Baldur’s Gate game but I think it has a similar appeal to a lot of tabletop gamers.) But that’s mostly for the big stories; I don’t think I’d find it as engaging for IFComp-sized pieces.

(I haven’t played Help! I Can’t Find My Glasses! yet, so this isn’t meant as a specific commentary on it.)

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Thanks for the review! Looking forward to that article, if it happens :slight_smile:

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20 Exchange Place by Sol FC

So, you’re apparently the least competent hostage negotiator ever – at least, you don’t seem very competent in the game, constantly battling your nerves – and yet they let you plan the assault on the building, which is surely not your job. And then everything goes wrong… but is it your fault? Not really. It’s just the newspapers that will say it’s your fault. Tough luck, man, but who said life was fair?

This piece is a bit rough around the edges when it comes to things like prose polish, but I nevertheless enjoyed it for its chutzpah. Wanna smash up the report? Okay, smash up the reporter. Wanna go in through the roof guns blazing? Sure, that’s what we’ll do. Of course, most of it ends terribly… and that is where the trouble begins. This is a game that requires you to walk a very narrow path. That can be fine, but (a) with only save slot its a little harsh that you can lock yourself out of the good ending without noticing, and (b) finding the right path seems mostly a matter of luck. It’s not that careful thought and reading will show you why you have to do what you have to do. In fact, the best ending would be reached if you did absolutely nothing. Because it’s only when you act too soon that things are blown up and people die. Also, smoking a cigarette is essential to victory, something you can’t possibly know.

But I persevered, and I enjoyed going in Die Hard style… and then the ending was a bit disappointing (the robbers get away), but it also seemed to hint at more. It seems to hint at a greater mystery to unravel! How did they get away? Is there something I should have noticed? Did they [drum roll] exchange place with someone else? Is there a way to catch them? But I can’t come up with anything that makes sense. The bomb squad? (No.) The old lady? (No.) Or maybe they’re already gone by the time you arrive? (But no, someone opens the door for pizza, somebody kills a hostage if you phone.) Maybe they disguise themselves as hostages? (But surely those are all screened and their loot would be found.) Maybe you can phone them at the wrong moment, and then somebody’s phone goes off, and you know they are secretly the perpetrator? (No, you can’t actually do that.)

In the end, I just checked out the contents of the Javascript file. Friends, there is no better ending. You can pain your brains as much as you want, this game is always going to end sniggering at your incompetence. Which… okay, nobody said life was fair, but I suppose I’d like a little more fairness in my games?

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Beat Witch by Robert Patten

Beat Witch has an intriguing opening which leads into an exciting and consistently unpredictable horror adventure. You don’t initially know what/where/why you are, only that you are in dire trouble. As soon as you think you’ve got a handle on this state of affairs, the state of affairs changes. And as soon as you think you’ve got a handle on the next state of affairs, that state of affairs changes as well. Though the game may be more linear than some players would like, it is great at pulling the rug out from under you time and time again, while also building up a complex set of rules about the witchcraft shenanigans that are going on.

Okay, that entire paragraph was stolen from Wade Clarke’s review of The Hours, with just a few changes to update it to Robert Patten’s new game. I don’t mean to imply that his two games are too similar (they are not), but Patten definitely has his own style, a breathless, linear, action-packed, inventive style. This style is pretty rare, so it’s good to see it return.

I really like the premise of Beat Witch. It takes a rather traditional vampire / teenage girl trope, but turns it into something fresh by making our beat witches mute and allergic to music. We also get both draining and life-giving powers. And then we are sent on a mad dash quest to destroy another beat witch, who has been killing people and wants us to take the blame.

It’s enjoyable, but it’s also extremely on rails. I’m not the only reviewer who wonders why this game is a parser game rather than a choice-based game. I think it would have worked better as a choice game; that would have allowed for more natural pushing in the right direction and less of a disconnect between the mode of input and the possibilities allowed us. The current game often hints very heavily at the one thing we have to do to advance the plot. And it is jarring how little it allows us to explore. We’re in a huge building, but we’re not allowed to go anywhere – and even though there is always a plot explanation for this, it’s still grating. In a choice-based game, this would have felt much more natural!

(After finishing the game, I suddenly wondered whether the title was a big joke and you could win the game by just typing ‘beat witch’ at every prompt. After all, that’s exactly what we have to do! That would have justified using a parser! Alas, no. Or maybe it’s for the better, because who, besides me, would have enjoyed that?)

Of course the other option is to allow us a little more room for exploration. The game might have actually benefited from that. The scenes are pretty intense, and some downtime looking through a few rooms, learning some details about ourselves and the setting, wouldn’t have been amiss. If anything, the game moves too fast, bringing us to climax after climax without really allowing us to get to know our character.

There’s some good stuff there! I liked the walkman (technology from when our character was ‘turned’) and the family backstory. But the game could have used more of it, or more ways for us to experience and maybe give shape to the inner life of the character, to set up more of an emotional resonance for the final scene. This is maybe also true for the villain. There were one or two great moment (like finding out that she has childishly molested our notepad), but there’s no emotional pay-off when we learn about her past.

Beat Witch is memorable, and I’m looking forward to the implied sequel… but I suggest taking it a little bit easy, and trusting the player a little bit more to veer off the intended path and then return to it.

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Thanks for taking the time to play and review Beat Witch, Victor! I was hoping you’d get to share your thoughts on it.

I didn’t set out to constantly pull the rug out from under the player – it just happened … again! Sigh. :roll_eyes:

As far as why I chose a parser and why the game kept up such a high pace – other reviewers have noted those things too, and I think it’s best that I address those observations in the post-mortem. For now, all I can say is that these choices were deliberate, though perhaps not the wisest. And you’re onto something about the “big joke” …

I’m glad someone noticed the pun in the title! And that’s a great idea about adding beat witch as a command. I doubt you would be the only person to try it. Maybe in the post-comp release …

(It occurred to me after the comp started that a different, fatalistic title might have helped players know what kind of experience to expect, such as Polly Miller Must Die.)

Again, I’m really appreciative of this review. Next time, I’ll give you a little more breathing room. I look forward to surprising you and putting you in dire trouble again!

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I don’t know how Wade meant it, but I didn’t read ‘pulling the rug’ as negative. It’s more like, wow, okay, what’s happening now? Which is surely part of the charm!

By the way, I noticed in another review that there extra background information if you type ABOUT. But unless I missed it, the game never suggested that command to me. I went back and read it, and it would be a shame to have missed it. :slight_smile:

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I don’t view the rug-pulling as negative in itself – in fact, I get a kick out of doing it! But as an overly sensitive writer, I do get worried people will think I can only write one way. I’m probably overthinking it.

Oh my! I thought I had mentioned the bonus material at the beginning of the game! Thank you! I’ll add that mention in the next release. It would be a pity for people to miss out on Emlyn Berlin’s words of beat witch hate …

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My Brother; The Parasite by qrowscant

I went into this game with one extremely important question burning in my mind: why the semicolon? ‘My brother, the parasite’ – sure. ‘My brother; or, The parasite’ – absolutely. ‘My brother: the parasite’ – could work. But a semicolon? So I was happy to find out that the semicolon is the perfect, indeed the only correct, choice. It’s such a weirdly ambiguous punctuation mark, used when somehow, two phrases are neither independent sentences, nor the same sentence. And that is exactly the relation between the brother and the parasite. Who are we talking to? What do his (its?) words mean? What can we expect it (him?) to still mean to us?

My Brother; The Parasite explores the relationship between a sister and a brother at a very meaningful moment: just after the brother’s death. The twist is that a neural parasite in the brother’s brain allows his to keep communicating for a while – if it is still him – and so this is the last chance for closure for these two characters. In some ways, this is not so different from my own entry, Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates! But qrowscant’s piece is much, much darker. Xanthippe and Socrates have their problems, sure, but they are coming from a place of genuine love and respect. Ines and her brother, on the other hand, have a history of frequent, long-lasting and extreme abuse, both physical and emotional.

There’s not going to be any closure. That’s for sure. There wouldn’t be closure, or forgiveness, or anything in that area, if the brother were still alive. And there sure as hell isn’t going to be closure, or forgiveness, or anything in that area, when we are talking to an inhuman parasite instead of the living being that hurt us all those years ago. Ines is doomed from the start, doomed to remain with all of her emotions, all of her memories, just as unresolved and unbearable as they have always been. This is what the set-up requires. And it is, quite properly, what qrowscant gives us.

To me, the piece would have been significantly stronger if it had focused more relentlessly on this: on the abuse, Ines’ need for closure, and the impossibility of getting it. Of course that is a main theme, even the main theme, of the work. But it gets diluted somewhat by other concerns, such as rivalry for their mother’s love, resentment about one or the other leaving the house for a prolonged time, horror tropes, and, at the level of the player, a struggle to piece together what the backstory of the characters actually is. Some of it felt extraneous to the main concerns. And some of it made me less able to get into the game emotionally. This may just be me, but I felt that the extremely graphic scene at the end was far less effective at driving home the emotional point than the earlier scene in which Ines is simply sitting alone in her hotel room. Suddenly I’m not feeling the sadness and loneliness, but I’m being grossed out by the fact that she has rotting brains all over her hands. Yuck.

I’ve read some reviews where the game seemed to really click with the reviewer, so my own experience may be idiosyncratic. But I’d like qrowscant to be more confident about the ability of their own scenario to pull the emotional strings. Flashing texts, weird colour schemes, body horror, escaped monsters, scary pictures – it felt a bit heavy-handed when a lighter touch would have done more justice to the soul of Ines.

Maybe this review sounds critical, but I can be this critical only because My Brother; The Parasite gives me intense and interesting stuff to be critical about. I love what the author is aiming for, and am looking forward to the sequels(?) that seem to be promised.

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The Gift of What You Notice More by Xavid and Zan

This puzzly Twine piece is based on the song The Blessings by Dar Williams. The name of this artist does not ring a bell for me, but I looked at the lyrics of the song, and the inspiration is indeed major and direct:

There is a sense in which the game makes quite a bit more sense if you know the song, which could perhaps be seen as a weakness, but in practice didn’t bother me that much.

The story of The Gift of What You Notice More centres on our protagonist, who is moving out of their house after breaking up a relationship. (The game isn’t fully clear about this, but the song is.) Gameplay then consists of delving into a series of surreal (I’m sorry Carl) memories through which we get to ask three questions: When did things go wrong? What should we have done differently? What do we need now?

The structure of the game is smart and indeed impeccable. The three memories are each visited three times, with a different item unlocking a different part of the solution space. Rabbit gives us a perfect story about how the puzzles progress, noticing patterns that I had not:

The puzzles themselves work okay, I think, but I quickly got into the habit of clicking every single inventory item at each node, which was optimal as a puzzle solution strategy, but suboptimal as an enjoyment strategy. A game where these two kinds of optimality diverge always has a bit of a problem, though I do not think it was particularly egregious in this case.

My main complain about The Gift of What You Notice More is that it deals way too much in abstractions. After playing the game, I have no idea what the protagonist is like; I have no idea what their ex-partner is like; and I have no idea what went wrong in their relationship. “We didn’t talk enough. We weren’t vulnerable.” Yes, okay, but that is always true. Now tell me what was going on in this particular case. But the truth is, there is no particular case. We are dealing only with the abstractions of love and relationships. Which… is not the level at which love or relationships function.

Great structure. Lack of meaningful content. I’d love to see these authors come down to earth a little and apply their talents to real, detailed characters.

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Trail Stash by Andrew Schultz

Other reviews have pointed out the rather inescapable fact that Andrew Schultz is the king of IF worldplay games (as well as of IF chess games). But what may be even more typically Schultz is his good-natured, positive approach to humans who are not being as they could or should be. He’s always working with people who are too angry, to conceited, too incurious, too aggressive, too insecure, too anything, and then somehow they are either forced to leave the protagonist alone, or, and I think this is more frequent, they are reformed – at least a little. Schultz has a sharp eye for very everyday human failings, and he’d like us all to, you know, just be a bit nicer to each other and work together a bit more! It’s interesting to me that even in a game as abstract and surreal as Trail Stash, this remains a recognisable concern.

Trail Stash is in some ways a simple game: there’s a highly symmetrical map, you pick up items, you use items in locations, and once you’ve used every item (one per location), you’re done. In other ways it’s a complicated game. It is built entirely around spoonerisms. This is tricky for the author! Not only are spoonerisms not that easy to come up with, but the puzzle design requires us to have a location A and an item B such that A will be turned into spoon-A by the use of B that is also spoon-B. Like, for the perfect puzzle, four semantically unrelated phrases have to come together into one image that makes sense. Trail Stash doesn’t always succeed at that – I felt that especially for the items, either their normal or their spooned version sometimes didn’t really make an appearance – but it succeeds several times, and that’s already impressive.

To be honest, I’m a very non-ideal judge for this game. Here’s Mike Russo:

I didn’t get either of those, and still don’t. I had to look up ‘pail’ (it’s a kind of bucket) and ‘funk’ is, as far as I know, a kind of music and an attitude. The phrase ‘funk pail’ doesn’t really make sense to me. And it’s spoonerism, ‘punk fail’… I mean, maybe that’s a very bad Greenday concert? When you use this item, the effect is described thus: “The funk pail reveals the poseurs who participate a lot in class but do not contribute anything!” And I have literally no idea what is going on.

With ‘plaid base’, I don’t even get the spoonerism. ‘Baid plase’. Listening only to the sounds, I get ‘bade place’, maybe? I bade him make place? No, I just don’t get it.

So… yeah, I’m sure others have enjoyed this more than I have. The game made sense to me about half the time, in the sense that I solved about half the puzzles myself and brute-forced my way through the rest. It was fine! But you probably need to be a native speaker of English to enjoy this the way it’s supposed to be enjoyed.

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Regarding your review of Trail Stash:

Plaid is pronounced “plad”.

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Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest by Joey Acrimonious

So I thought I knew exactly the right music to listen to while playing this game: the English goth/pagan band Inkubus Sukkubus, who tend to sing about, you know, sex and hot demon chicks and stuff like that. And I don’t regret putting it on. But having played all of Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest, I’ve come to the conclusion, obvious perhaps to others, that Zorklang the Despoiler is not in fact a succubus. She’s not demonic. She’s just a bat lady in a world that also contains dog ladies. And she doesn’t seduce otherwise virtuous men – on the contrary, not only is Zorklang herself completely monogamous, there’s also no-one in the world she could tempt towards sexual ruin, since every single person we meet is already obsessed with sex. (Maybe not every single one. But a lot of them.)

It took me a while to get into this game, for two reasons: the prose and the very, uh, light implementation. Let’s start with the prose. I spent the first ten minutes that I was playing the game trying to find out what time period it was trying to emulate. For instance, the game says:

Escrive? It didn’t appear in any standard English dictionaries. I resorted to a middle-English dictionary, and there I found the verb ‘escriue’, which I suppose we would now spell as ‘escrive’. So, middle-English? But much of the rest of the prose didn’t fit that hypothesis at all. In the end, I decided that it’s probably supposed to be a weird mishmash of different times and registers, and things became more enjoyable after that. Some absurdly overwrought passages brought a smile to my lips, such as in this terrible and yet somehow perfect sex scene:

I’ll return to this sex scene in a moment. But first, the light implementation. This is not a parser game where every noun has been lovingly implemented, and trying out weird actions gives you appropriate responses! Which is fair enough, but here’s one of the first exchanged I had with the game:

Unforgivable! If there’s a squeezable ass, I want to be able to squeeze it! Again, the first ten minutes or so of interacting with the game were fairly frustrating because of the many times it did not understand me or gave me standard fail messages. But after a while I began to see that this is a game that goes out of its way to steer the player to the correct next action, and the light implementation began to see more and more as a deliberate design decision; as the decision, namely, to take away all distractions and focus only on the path towards the goal. Which is fine. At some points the game goes a little too far in this approach; e.g., when as a player you know exactly what to do with the crate, but you’re not allowed to do it because you haven’t heard the exact reason for it yet – this seemed unnecessarily frustrating. But most of the time, Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest does a very good job propelling you forward while still giving you the idea that it is you who does the moving.

Which brings me to what is perhaps the most important point: I really enjoyed this game! The storytelling is very good, with a main character that is fun to inhabit, a premise that makes one chuckle (Zorklang is the worst offender in the category of people who are told not to bring presents but insist on bringing a present anyway), and the initial plot outline is quickly complicated by some audacious plot twists that nevertheless make sense. Maybe the end is a bit over the top, when an entirely new villain is introduced and then turns out to be a lich… but okay, who cares. It’s a fun ride. The Maize puzzle made me laugh. And the writing turns out to be surprisingly good, once you’ve looked past its absurdity!

Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest is one of several games in the competition that prominently feature sex. Of the games I’ve seen so far, this one has the most explicit, detailed scenes. But there is nothing pornographic about it. The language of the game puts so much distance between us and the events that it turns these scenes from potential erotica to show pieces of creative writing. Read again the sex scene I quoted above. Citizen Makane (this is not much of a spoiler) takes porn tropes and dials them up to eleven and in that way undoes them as porn. But Ribald Bat Lady Plunder Quest does not use porn tropes. No porn writer – I hope – would ever have their characters say “I shall sup from thy honeypot!” Maybe if Clark Ashton Smith had gotten really drunk…

A really enjoyable game, and one that makes me want to check out Joey’s earlier games as well.

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Right. Okay.

Please hold my beer while I go murder the English language! :rofl:

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…which means it does actually rhyme with “bade”, which outside of North America sounds the same as “bad”.

But of course it doesn’t rhyme with “said”, which rhymes with “bed”.

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