Viv Dunstan’s IFComp 2021 Reviews

So excited to see the competition open for judging again! I’ve been taking part as a judge since the very start of IFComp in 1995. I’ve also entered in the past, and hope to enter again in the future.

Wha a fun lot of entries! I’ve just gone through the list, drawing up the starting list of 16 titles that I hope to play initially. But I hope, health permitting, to manage more than that.

The blurbs provided where available were a huge help as always, as well as the system specs. So many 2 hour entries this year! Though I tend to get through 2 hour choice entries much more quickly. Parser games are more likely to take me the full estimated time! Thanks also to the authors for the content warnings. I’m definitely passing on some of the entries due to this and trigger issues for me. But I’m sure others will play and enjoy them. And I appreciate the heads up.

I am going to write reviews of each entry I play and judge. I haven’t playtested anything this year - sadly was way too ill neurologically earlier in the year to do that - so am fresh to all the entries! My reviews will be quite light I hope, and I’m aiming as always to be constructive, while discussing things I liked and things that weren’t so good for me. I will try use spoiler tags for anything too specific.

However it’s possible I may be about to have a downturn in my neurological illness. Fingers crossed not! But I look forward to playing what I can, and providing extra feedback here.

Thanks to all the IFComp authors, organisers, playtesters and judges.

Happy IFComp season!


Hope you stay well and can play all the games you want!

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Thank you very much. That’s very kind of you :slight_smile:

Fine Felines by Felicity Banks

Ok first up this tale of cat breeding and much more. This is a choice based web piece of interactive fiction. Often enhanced by gorgeous photos of cats!

It has a one hour estimated playthrough time, but I rattled through it happily in about half an hour. The game played through the year until July, when it ended for me - I’m not sure if another option might have kept it playing for longer. I had opted to merge my business with Briar’s.

Ostensibly the game is about managing a cat breeding business, with suitable use of stats - especially the cash total! - to show how well the business is doing, as well as the story playing out on screen. But really it’s a bigger life simulator, touching on issues such as grief, ill health and disability, friendships and acquaintances, and even romance. Of these the ill health and disability aspect was probably the main one in terms of frequency of appearances. Though I might have picked up on that more due to my own circumstances in that respect.

Early on the player is asked to make a gender choice. I opted for one reflecting me, but it would be nice to replay with other options. As for the wider consequences of this choice they pan out more as how you choose to interact with other characters, alongside building up your new business.

Juggling the finances could easily be a recipe for disaster, but I didn’t end up bankrupt, despite not being careful or prudent! For me the game seemed quite forgiving, though I could imagine if I’d spent more in other areas earlier I might not end up so well.

How the game pans out will depend on the numerous choices the player makes throughout. I was happy with the ending I reached, with a successful business, a new romance, happy cats, and managing my health problems well. In fact I’d have been happy to play for longer. It was an absorbing world.

A choice piece like this always depends on the quality of writing. This was cheerily and briskly written, never too long between significant choices, and yes those gorgeous cat pictures popping up was a big bonus! So thanks to the author.

A fun breezy piece, especially recommended to those with a fondness for felines.


And now to invent a Tron-like portal so you can step through your computer screen and into the virtual life you built. Maybe you could research a history of computer cats through the ages while you’re in there…


Brave Bear by John Evans

This is a short parser game, with puzzles that are fairly easy to solve, and probably won’t require many people to turn to the walkthrough (thanks to the author for providing a walkthrough).

It’s quite a charming piece, capturing the feeling of fluffy toys keen to help their owner. However it does need a bit more polish. For example the start opens:

Owner's bed. Many quilts and blankets cover it in soft, colorful layers. Dim light comes from somewhere outside.

>examine bed
You can't see any such thing.
>examine light
You can't see any such thing.

It really should respond to these commands.

Likewise near the end:

>open door
He's not something you can open.
The door flies open, and beyond it stretches darkness. More than physical darkness, this is like gazing into all the fear a soul can muster. It is a whirling storm of loss, shame, sadness, despair, terror, pain..

I’m not sure why the door was male here, and also “open door” should work the same as trying to go in that direction, given the effect is the same.

The ending is curious, and not entirely clear what goes on. It finished too suddenly for my taste. I think the game could be enhanced quite a bit by fleshing out the story and puzzles further, and adding a clearer ending for the player.

But it is charmingly done, and captures the feeling of much loved toys well. It seems like the sort of game that might be good for youngsters to try playing, though the danger elements may be too scary for the very youngest, and the current ending a bit too disturbing.


The Miller’s Garden by Damon L. Wakes

I was sidetracked at the start of this experimental choice-based Twine piece by a reference to an academic journal paper! Which being an academic I duly followed up, and may see if I have institutional access to the full paper out of perverse curiosity! I can’t remember a piece of interactive fiction ever starting with an academic paper citation before …

Anyway back to the work at hand! You find yourself in the environment of an old mill, and the legacy of its impact on the course of a nearby river. The environment described around the mill is pleasant, and quite atmospheric, but I was somewhat frustrated by the limited lack of choices available. For example on the first day I kept doing the same thing repeatedly, until time ran out, with no other obvious options. It felt quite railroaded.

On the second day more options opened up to me, but things soon became repetitive again. However I think this was part of the point of the piece. Why was I trying to hold back the effects of time. In fact I wished for an option where I didn’t have to.

Eventually the piece offers you a key choice, and for me anyway, given the choice I made there, closed on quite a melancholic note, but one that I felt was fitting.

It certainly got me thinking. I’d just have preferred a little less repetition to get the point across, but to be fair it was effective.

Thanks to the author.


At King Arthur’s Christmas Feast by Travis Moy

This is a choice-based retelling of the classic story of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Note you don’t have to be familiar with the original poem to enjoy the piece. Though I have previously read Simon Armitage’s modern translation.

The chivalric poem is well suited to an episodic piece of interactive fiction. The opening section is somewhat over wordy and lacking interaction to an extent, though this is essential set up for what follows. I did like how the piece incorporates quoted extracts from the original poem.

I played through to the end, opting for a slightly different set of choices than in the original poem. I was very happy with the ending, and the resolution. The writing was strong throughout, imaginatively depicting the world involved, and I also felt convinced by the characters I was encountering. Many of the choices throughout - and indeed from the very start - relate to how you interact with other characters, and respond to what they say to you. And this works very well indeed.

What I’m not so sure is how much the experience works if you stretch the interaction further, e.g. go against the chivalric code in a blatant series of ways. I may replay to find out. Thanks to the author for offering the ability to jump to a specific chapter.

Best of all I now want to reread the original poem. Oh and watch the new film version! I do feel as if I have spent the last hour (I am a quick reader, given a big enough font - I had my browser set to massive font!) immersed in a magnificent medieval Arthurian world. And I want to stay there. Thank you.


Grandma Bethlinda’s Remarkable Egg by Arthur DiBianca

Next up for me another parser game, though rather alarmingly this one gives no estimate of play time. I’m hoping it’s much shorter than two hours anyway …

The premise is that you’ve managed to get yourself locked into your handcuffs - hazard of being a not very good amateur magician and all! And you have no way of getting yourself free, apart from a mysterious egg, which it turns out responds to voice commands.

Early on I hit a rather frustrating thing in game:

>examine egg
The egg is about two feet tall. It stands upright, somehow. You can see faint outlines of rivets running around the egg in several places.
>examine rivets
You can't see any such thing (or if you can, it's not important).

Given how hard I’ve now found interacting with the egg it would be nice to get what I can see implemented in a more responsive way than above.

I’ve managed to get it to respond to a few commands, and I have unlocked a couple of extra credits. But I’m afraid I’m giving up, finding the experience really frustrating. It does feel as though I’m interacting with a really really bad piece of voice controlled tech. And with no meaningful walkthrough provided or a full hint list of commands I’m afraid I’m giving up. I know the author invites people who are stuck to email him, but I just don’t feel like doing that. It shouldn’t be necessary anyway.

I’m pleased to see some others have had a much better experience, but this isn’t for me. It’s a shame, because when the egg responds I’m often laughing out loud. Then a minute later I’m metaphorically banging my head against a brick wall, as the game yet again says “The egg does not respond.” …

P.S. I’m still sad I didn’t enjoy this more. I wish there had been more in game clueing or help in the walkthrough, to swing the balance more for me towards fun and less exasperation.


Funicular Simulator 2021 by Mary Goodden and Tom Leather

This is a rather curious choice-based piece, seeing the player character travel up a mountain funicular with four other characters, and interact with them in a rather dreamlike way. It also involves looping of a kind.

I’m honestly not sure what was going on, though the story gives a plausible reason for the events that happen. However I did feel strongly that the writing was strong, and there was an evocative sense of place and character throughout.

I did struggle with one of the characters, specifically the scientist and how to use their device effectively, especially to move the plot on, but I did crack it eventually, and I was happy with the way the story played out.

As a piece of interactive fiction it was very effective and nicely done. Imaginative storytelling, and a nice sense of choice and agency throughout. Thank you to the authors.


Apologies for the break in reviews. As expected I had a neurological flare after my 3rd Covid vaccine in late September. My auto immune disease is phenomenally sensitive to vaccines. But still from me: get your vaccines folks! It’s very important! But coming out of it now, so hoping to play, judge and review a few more games before the end of the competition. I’m just going to see which have relatively fewer reviews, to help me pick …


The Belinsky Conundrum by Sam Ursu

Next up this one, which is a choice-based thriller. Rather a broad content warning, about making difficult ethical choices. But I’m going in to it expecting the possibility of more content warning issues potentially. Oh and this is the Facebook Messenger one! Ok, going to run it in my Firefox browser on my Mac laptop.

Facebook Messenger is a really innovative interface for interactive fiction. I was pleased to see there aren’t too many “next” chunks of text. But i’m left feeling my options are still generally limited, and i’d often rather pick something else. I also felt rather disengaged at the start, that my responses weren’t influencing things. Though I did perk up with the “AGENT Dunstan” mention!

Too often though the choice that I make seems to do the opposite of what I want, e.g. at one point I can do X, Y or Z. I was feeling really paranoid about doing X, so picked Y. The text did X and Y together. Likewise later there was a “don’t do X” option. I chose it. The text immediately after did X. Just what I didn’t want to happen.

The story is fun, but rather linear. But I found it gripping, and was engaged. Unfortunately though I seem to have run into a game freeze situation. I’d made it out of the tunnels with Edward, and was in the shower room but then it stopped responding. My internet was still working, so I don’t know if it was a temporary problem with the chat bot at the other end. but the story froze for me. After waiting several minutes I tried manually typing the last command choice (“nothing shameful”), but that just threw up an error message from the bot and restarted the game. I did not want to play through again, having already played for 45 minutes, well over the estimated 30 minutes, and I hadn’t finished.

It’s difficult to rate something where I ran into a killer bug/game freeze. There was a lot I admired. Very creative work. But it seized up on me. And it took a lot longer to play through than the estimated time. I am a very fast reader, and usually complete choice games in half the estimated time or less.

Recon by Carlos Pamies

Firing up this one next, a choice-based (Twine) scifi tale, set in the not too distant future. Estimated play time an hour.

The world building is good, but I’m finding things somewhat under developed. For example my character has a cat companion, but this is only very rarely mentioned, and you could easily forget it’s there. There was also a sequence early on where I assumed the cat had been left behind as I dashed from somewhere, only to find it was with me later. (well, cats do get about!) It would be nice to see the cat present in the game much more, and add some more character to the experience.

The game play is split into chapters, and there is a nice option to save at each point, so you can restore later. There are puzzles, which are a mix of visual and text. I did run into a bug with an early puzzle, where you need to type in a word. I guessed it early, and typed it with capitalised lower case. This revealed a bug:

Sorry to interrupt, but this page’s code has got itself in a mess.


(This is probably due to a bug in the Harlowe game engine.)

If the word was typed in upper case it worked fine, but really I think both should work, and the mix of case shouldn’t trigger a bug. I tried a few other options. Wrong words all in capitals produced the response ‘Incorrect” and the game kept playing. The same wrong words in lower case, with or without a capital letter at the start, triggered the bug. This happened in both Firefox and Safari browers that I tried on my Mac.

However I was able to replay and move on. Frustratingly the story is more linear than I tend to prefer, but I liked the mix of spy type puzzles. Though the more visual of these wouldn’t work for someone who is blind or has major visual disability.

I didn’t make it to the end of the game, hitting a premature ending when I was scanned for an assessment and found to have been done before. I can’t see what I did wrong then, and the walkthrough isn’t detailed enough to guide me re this.

Overall I enjoyed what I played, but I think it needed to be developed more fully and richly, and that bug needed removing. But a nice effort, and an original setting. It took me half an hour of play to reach the premature ending I got to.


Walking Into It by Andrew Schultz

Ah the Python one! Ok I frequently play the original releases, but I know this had some problems re Python installations. So just downloading the fixed version of the game to try. For the record I am running Python 2.7.16 on my Mac running MacOS 10.15.5. To run the game I have also whacked up the font size in the Terminal window I am using, to give a closer approximation to the very large fonts I prefer to play with in both web and parser games.

In the game you end up playing Tic Tac Toe (or Noughts and Crosses as we call it in the UK) with a young kid. The aim of the game is to try to help them learn the game, and win in a way that’s satisfying. An obvious loss doesn’t make them happy, but the satisfaction of winning in a new or unexpected way does.

Obviously how much or how effectively you can do this can depend on your skills with the game. Mine are pretty low! But I managed to play quite a lot of games, which gave the other player good outcomes, which they were pleased with. It was also nice when the other kids gathered around, wowed by how well the youngster was doing. These emotional responses meant that what in many ways is quite a mechanical implementation of Tic Tac Toe took on more emotional resonance, and became a more satisfying piece of interactive fiction.

However I ran into a big problem when I retried the game with descriptions on for screen readers (selecting the F option). When I then tried to play the centre square first (position 5) this happened:

A new game. Who moves first? 1 = you, 2 = Ollie.1
Nobody has moved yet.
Which square? 1 is upper left, 2 is upper side, to 9 which is lower right.5
Traceback (most recent call last):
File “”, line 1020, in
File “”, line 735, in next_move
File “”, line 705, in player_move
File “”, line 727, in place_move
File “”, line 491, in show_board
File “”, line 476, in describe_squares
print("{} took {}, square {}.".format(player_string, ', '.join(temp_ary), x + starting_number))
NameError: global name ‘starting_number’ is not defined

And the game crashed out. I looked briefly at the Python source code to try to see the problem, but it’s not obvious to me. But maybe Andrew can fix it. It doesn’t happen if I select N for descriptions, but always happens if I select Y or F. This was me playing the November 4th fixed version of the game.

So a rather unfortunate outcome, but there was much that I enjoyed. I don’t think I’m as good or as enthusiastic a Noughts and Crosses player to enjoy this more though. I was pleased to manage to get an ending where I quit, but it said I thought I’d done enough to make the other player happy, which was a nice outcome. Probably more by accident than design though!


Hi Viv,

Thanks for the time and the review!

Sorry to hear about that bug (will take a look at it), but the password works like any password would do on a computer. It differences between upper and lowercase letters.

About that ending: If you spare the restrictor’s life at the bar, and later on at the offices, you stop on the two floors where the evaluation is not taken, that restrictor gets there before you. You just have to go directly to the correct floor.

Once again thanks for the time! And hope you had fun playing it!

Thanks! Yes I’m happy with the case sensitive password. When I said both should work I meant in the sense of the game not crashing/running into a bug with either :crazy_face:

I enjoyed what I played very much. Thank you! And thanks for explaining the reason for my ending. Yes I was slowly making my way up the building from ground floor to top!

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How it was then and how it is now by Pseudavid

This is a very curious piece, a fantastical experience revolving around geometric and spatial puzzles, while at the same time a musing on relationships and personalities.

On the downside it would not be suited for play for someone blind or with significant visual disabilities. It’s also likely to frustrate anyone who wants to know exactly what is going on. Because much is unclear, even after playing through the whole thing.

However I found playing it an evocative experience. And while in the walkthrough the author says it is not intended for repeated play I replayed a couple of times, quite happily. And I’m still pondering on it now. So thanks to the author.


Thanks for the review bug report! I have updated the game to fix a bug specific to Python 2.

I should really have had a checklist of things to check 2 days before release, because Python 2 worked, until I undid what seemed to be a useless bit of overprotective code – except of course it wasn’t.


Great! I made sure I was running the November 4th version of the game, because I knew you’d issued a vital fix to get it working on more Pythons. The bug I spotted was in that version of the game.

I have a family reconstitution program I’ve written and am using in Python 2, so am reluctant to update my Mac Python installation to Python 3 and potentially break my program! I could get it working again, but can just do without the hassle :stuck_out_tongue_winking_eye:

Oh, thanks for following up, and thanks for playing the updated version!

I didn’t pay enough attention to the error message at first (I’ve let my focus drift elsewhere, to finding bugs for final releases of other stuff I’d written.) If I had, I’d have found the culprit was pretty clearly the “just one more harmless fix” which turned out not to be so harmless.

I’d even waited to submit the update in case I missed anything, but now you pointed the bug out, it’s obvious what I should have looked at.

The bug you found turned up a few aesthetic things in the code with the error, so I’m grateful for that. I want to sit on the fix and make sure I’ve tested the relevant code before submitting it.

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