Victor's IFComp 2023 Reviews

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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Thanks for playing and for the review! You’ve given me plenty to think about. I will endeavor to pay closer attention to details like ass-squeezability in the future.

I confess that while writing the game, I consumed a massive quantity of the seminal Swedish doom metal masters, Candlemass. The subject matter of their music rarely matches up with what I wrote, but I’m sure that I was greatly influenced by their dramatic attitude.

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LAKE Adventure by B. J. Best

There exists senseless suffering and death. This is a truth so momentous that we usually cannot bear to think on it. Of course what we want most is happiness. But when happiness is not on offer, we will settle for meaning. Yes, it is terrible that this person died, but …

… they brought it on themselves through carelessness.
… they died for the fatherland.
… their struggle against the disease is an inspiration for us all.
… they will live again in the hereafter.
… that’s what happens in such countries.
… their works live on.
… God had to create the world with the greatest possible diversity.

Any ploy, no matter how desperate, is deemed too bad to use. Anything that allows us to believe

to quote Tennyson, who ends this poem by stating that he is an infant crying for the light, and “with no language but a cry.” Of course that’s a lie. He does have language. Quite a lot of it, in fact. But it is precisely in using this language to set out so clearly the hope we want to have, that he forces us to hear the cry underneath – the cry of knowing that so much walks with aimless feet, that every day, life upon life upon life upon life is cast as rubbish to the void.

There exists senseless suffering and death. A five-year old girl dying from leukaemia. Why? What’s the point? For no reason, and there is no point. Of course what we want most is happiness. During the terrible months that she is in the hospital and that our mother is, quite understandably, mostly with her, we write a nice little game about our sister’s birthday party, a game we can play with her when she comes back home. But she does not come back. And so we settle for meaning. Or rather, we’d love to settle for meaning, but there is no meaning. The fantasy of the birthday party is now hollow. So we change things up; we tell a story about how we punish the bully who mocked her. But that is even more hollow. It cannot fill the gaping hole left by death.

It’s a smart game, LAKE Adventure. When we play old text adventures of the more amateurish type, we are often struck by the meaninglessness of what we are doing, the deadness of the worlds. Whoever programmed them must have thought them cool, but to us it’s just a series of locations, some under-clued tasks, nothing that generates coherence or meaning. To take that experience and connect it to the meaninglessness of death is brilliant. Of course the game meant something to young Eddie. It’s about his friend! It’s about his wish to have a boat just like his friend does! It’s about having fun with his sister again! It’s, a little more darkly and no doubt less consciously, about having his friend experience some hurt by having her be his sister. So the game starts out as meaningful. But then his sister dies, and his friend drifts away, and the game becomes empty. So he adds the bully. And it’s still empty, even more so. So he adds the memories. But they don’t give meaning. They just pose, again and again, the question of meaning. Why did this happen? Why did she have to die? And there’s no answer.

And now what are we to do? And the horrible thing is – there’s no answer to that either. Oh no, B. J. Best is not going to give us closure. We’re not ‘glad that we still have our memories’. We’re not ‘certain to see her again in Heaven’. And we certainly didn’t ‘grow as a person through this episode of sorrow’. There is no sense, meaning, closure. There can’t be, because there exists senseless suffering and death.

I would have liked the game to end after the end of the text adventure. Perhaps even before the futurity sequence, but certainly before our daughter came to get the computer. That “does ancient history matter?” scene was just too obvious about something that the game had made plenty clear. And among the things that become pretty clear is that reliving the past solves nothing; that all of this is still just as bad now as it was before. Nothing has healed.

My favourite lyric poet is Emily Dickinson, and one of the reasons for that is her ability to express this truth, this hard truth, the hardest truth of all. Here is she on the incurability of pain (this is from the middle of ‘I measure every grief I meet’):

It’s presented as a question, but it’s not a question. No, it would not give them any balm. Yes, they would go on aching still, through centuries of nerve. There is no consolation; nor should we want consolation if it were offered to us. For there is senseless suffering and death, and we must, my friends, we must revolt against that, and never accept it.

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Eat the Eldritch by Olaf Nowacki

This game is interestingly similar to Assembly. Both feature Old Gods and weird cultists who are summoning them, and both combine this with a very mundane setting and a main character who just does fairly mundane things. Assembly is brilliant in its use of IKEA instructions as a metaphor for both ritual and puzzle, and its best puzzles are better then those of Nowacki’s game. But Eat the Eldritch is funnier, and perhaps, in the end, that gives it a slight edge for me. (I’ll score them exactly the same, I think, so we’re talking minor differences.)

Eat the Eldritch plays it so cool. As a player, you recognise extremely soon that you’re in a Lovecraftian horror scenario, while the protagonist remains completely oblivious, obsessed with getting a good meal while evidence of the occult piles up around him. Then we literally bump into Cthulhu. But, and this is the brilliant part, the game does not switch to real Lovecraftian horror. We just double down on the idea that we’re a captain of a fishing vessel and our only concern is to get fish sticks. And so we turn Cthulhu into frozen packages that will bring joy to kids all over the world. And our cultist shipmates happily join us. For all we know, the company brought them on board with this exact scenario in mind.

With good writing, a great comedic scenario, and solid puzzles, Eat the Eldritch was a delight. The only thing I didn’t like as much was the dream sequence. It seemed the only thing that didn’t fit the keeping-it-mundane style of the rest of the work, and also involved the only illogical puzzle (which I didn’t manage to solve, precisely because it didn’t fit the tone of the game).

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Kaboom by Anonymous

It’s anonymous. Of course it’s anonymous, although you have to play to the very end to find out why it had to be anonymous. It is a sad thing that this game has to be made, and another sad thing that it had to be made anonymously. “But at least we have the game!” Yeah, well. That’s true, and it’s a fine game, which is very nice to have and be allowed to play. But we know that this niceness pales in comparison to the horror and grief that made the game necessary. And the author knows it; and the game is also about that, in its own small way, at the very end, without being ostentatious about it. Which is exactly right – this game is an apology, and an apology does not want to be ostentatious.

So, we play a stuffed hare, and when we wake up after a nightmare, we find that the little girl who is our mistress is bleeding and in mortal danger. Also, the house is not in a good shape. These two facts, together with the knowledge that the game was translated from Russian, made me guess what was going on almost immediately, so in so far as Kaboom might depend on later revelations to create a bigger emotional impact, it didn’t really work for me. But I’m not sure it needs those revelations.

Our aim is to get people inside the house who can help the little girl. Her parents aren’t responding, so it’s up to us to do something. The puzzles are traditional object manipulation puzzles, not too hard, but made slightly tedious by the fact that the game hasn’t been streamlined very well: we need to click far more often than is necessary, e.g., to reveal room descriptions and to get back to the object we are working on. But thematically, I liked them. We use old toys that have been in the family for some time, and other objects that mean something to these people. It’s a powerful reminder that the physical destruction of a home is also the destruction of meaning. Many of the puzzles also require us to somehow dirty or hurt ourselves – the very first one has us cover our front paws in blood, and we’ll also get glue on ourselves, get burned, and suffer other indignities. We are indeed sacrificing ourselves; but it also seems to me that it is not an accident that the hare, being the fictional character through which the Russian author is living the fantasy of being able to help a Ukrainian girl, starts with bloodstained paws. At the end the hare dreams of being found and cleaned and perhaps given to a new family – but, he thinks, cynically, “Stuff like that only happens in fairy tales.” Forgiveness, cleansing, the restoration of bonds; it is too much to hope for.

The ending sequence is brilliant in another way as well. Strictly speaking, it is only once we hear the rescuers say words in Cyrillic script that the game becomes geographically located. These words are translated for us, except for one: on finding the girl, the rescuers drop the word ‘сиротюка’, which the hare reflects he has never heard before. You cannot find out in-game what the word means. You have to leave the fairytale and go to your online Ukrainian dictionary, and then you learn that, yes, it means what maybe you feared it meant: orphan. Her parents are dead. Of course in fairytales the girl does not get rescued in order to then find out that her parents are dead. But as the very act of having to look up the word outside of the story reminds us: what this story is telling us is very much not a fairytale, but all too fucking real.

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yea, honestly I’m worried about the author, personally I think that this entry should remain an anonymous samizdat, at least for now …

Best regards from Italy,
dott. Piergiorgio.

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Thank you very much for the wonderful review!

I played “Assembly” myself just a few days ago and after 15 minutes I had the strange and cozy feeling that it takes place in the same universe as “Eat the Eldritch”. Like two siblings who are different in many ways and yet very deeply connected. But there are some uncanny parallels too: The screwdriver, for one. For another, they both have a puzzle in which a cable/rope that is tied up in one room has to be pulled through an opening into another room.

(@bkirwi I should add that I think “Assembly” is great!)

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Thank you! I haven’t played yours yet, but as a fan of Wry, I’ve been looking forward to it…

Oddly enough - originally I meant for Assembly’s gods to be whatever the builders of Scandinavia’s megaliths would have believed in, but it turns out very little is known about it. I also tried a version with more Norse-flavored gods, but that ended up being an awkward fit for various reasons too. So I ended up with the current mishmash of Lovecraft and solar cult and spacetime weirdness… a bit syncretic but seems to hang together!

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Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head by The Hungry Reader

After finishing this game, I learned that the title Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head comes from a song by a band called ‘They Might Be Giants’, which was also the subject of an entire interactive fiction collaboration project called Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album. I wonder what the connection is between this band and interactive fiction, given that I have never heard anyone mention it in any other context? Nor can I recall ever hearing their music. I’ve quickly skimmed the band’s Wikipedia page, but it doesn’t answer this question for me. Perhaps it is just a coincidence.

Anyway, that is incidental to this review! Because what we are going to do is put our hands in puppet heads. But maybe we should first talk about puppets, because it took me a while to get into the same puppet headspace as the game. When I think of puppets, especially puppets that you put your hand in, I think of classic puppet theatre. It’s Jan Klaassen en Katrijn, Punch and Judy, the Italian commedia dell’arte character cast. Or maybe princes and princesses, dragons and wolves, your classic fairy tale stuff. Now those are not the puppets we will meet in Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head. They are much more elaborate and idiosyncratic. So for a while I was thinking of some of the greatest works of visual art that I know: the puppets Paul Klee made for his son. The first time I was in Bern, visiting the Zentrum Paul Klee, I was blown away by his paintings; but perhaps even more by these incredible puppets. However, I didn’t have an easy time understanding how artistic puppets like these could be the subjects of television series and movies, and a sort of theme park. And then, at one point, the game mentioned the Muppets, and I was like… ah, wait, that’s the kind of puppet I’m supposed to think of. I don’t know the Muppets very well. I know the Swedish Chef Meat Balls sketch, I know there’s a weird muppet called Animal who plays the drums, I know the memes of the two old men who always complain, and I’m pretty sure I’ve seen The Muppets Take Manhattan as a kid. The only muppet I know really well is Kermit the Frog, because he’s a recurring character in Sesame Street – or at least he is in the Dutch version of Sesame Street. And then maybe characters like Bert and Ernie also count, even if they’re probably not from The Muppets? I slept under Bert and Ernie bed sheets when I was a kid, and I could totally see myself as a kid going to a little theme park dedicated to them. Anyway, that seems to be the kind of puppet we are to imagine in this game. It took me about an hour to understand that.

Which didn’t really matter! The strong suit of Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head are the loving and detailed descriptions of the puppets, the conversations you can have with them, and an entire history of how they came to be, who played them, what they were used for, and so on. The author has poured a lot of love into this fictional world, and one easily gets caught up in the enthusiasm. I’m kind of eager to see one of these puppet shows, which is a great sign. Perhaps the number of characters was a little too high; I found that I could keep the seven main puppets straight, but during the epilogue so many people were introduced that I lost my bearings. But that’s a minor complaint. The idea of setting a piece of interactive fiction at an abandoned puppet show is very original, and to execute it with so much care and detail and inventiveness is simply great.

Unfortunately, my experience of this invented world was made far less enjoyable by basic design decisions in the gameplay. The idea is that we explore four buildings in search of puppets. This search is not very engaging: one simply moves through all the rooms and clicks ‘search’ in every room. After a while, we collect a few puppets that can help us solve puzzles, but I believe that only two puppets are actually used this way – one to open certain locks, and one to fix certain machines. This makes the puzzle element extremely trivial: broken machine? Check. Unable to find the right key? Check. There’s no sense of achievement here.

That by itself wouldn’t be so bad, but three other things about the game make exploration and puzzle solving an enormous chore. First, navigation through the world is cumbersome. I haven’t counted it, but going from a room to your van, taking off one puppet, putting on another, and then going back to that room, could easily take you twenty clicks. Not fun. Second, there is an extremely harsh inventory limit of two items (or actually one item, because if you have two puppets you won’t be able to pick up any new ones), which means that you have to move back and forth between your van and the rooms lots and lots of times. Third, all the buildings are haunted by horrifying security puppets which randomly grab you and steal your puppet.

Playing the game basically goes like this. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go west. Search. Go north. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. Go north. Search. Find and take a puppet. Go south. Go east. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait. See a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Still see a description that you can’t go east. Wait. Go east. Go south. Go to exit. Go to Quadrangle. Go to van. Manage puppets. Remove puppets. Wear puppet. Re-choose the puppet you were already wearing. Leave puppet management. Leave van. Go back to Quadrangle. Re-choose building. Enter building. Go west. Lose a puppet. Undo. Wait… It’s really Not Fun! And it seemed totally unnecessary. Give me a backpack in which I can store the puppets I found, remove the guard horrors, and I would have enjoyed this game so much more.

So Put Your Hand Inside the Puppet Head makes me a bit sad. There was so much great content, and yet I spent most of my time being frustrated. Maybe we can get a “no enemies” mode post-comp?

To end on a happy note, let me share you this great puppet scene from Sesame Street. Some friends of mine, knowing how much I loved it, once made me a doorbell that played the sound of this video from around 2:39 when somebody pressed the button. One of the best presents I ever got.

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Thanks for the review! I’m sorry the gameplay didn’t work for you, but I had a pretty specific game idiom in mind and it’s really more than just a scavenger hunt!

I’m very glad you liked the characters, even if they’re not your go-to idea of puppetry. I had heard that the Swedish Chef is a huge success in Scandinavia and the Netherlands— it’s very funny to hear it confirmed. Obviously this is all from a very USA-centric perspective, though; Maybe I should have taken more inspiration from Augsberger Puppenkiste?

Anyway, I feel I need to address everyone who has PYHITPH on their list of things to finish and hasn’t done so yet: before you cast your vote, ease up on that undo button! Losing puppets, and getting them back, is a major part of the game! You’re missing out on a lot of content that way!

Maybe, rather than a monster-free edition, I should put out an undo-free edition…

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