Viv Dunstan's IFComp 2020 Reviews

Starting off a thread for these, with reviews to follow. I’m not going to be able to play a huge number of games this year, even with the welcome time extension. My neurological disease is not well controlled at the moment, meaning I have little good time available. However I’ve just drawn up a starting list of 20 IFComp entries to try, so will see if I can play those first. Planning to write reviews for all entries I judge and rate, aiming for helpful and constructive reviews of use to the authors as well as of interest to others.


To all authors who will receive a review from Viv: her feedback is excellent! I advise taking it to heart (:


Standing on the Shoulders of Giants by Ilmur Eggert

This is a short parser game, written in Inform 7. You play Isaac Newton (not yet a Sir), and the game unsurprisingly involves physics.

This is a short, fairly easy game with a neat central idea, clever use of limited locations, and a good core puzzle to solve.

I would have preferred a slightly deeper implementation of the game world, but the writing is strong, and it is a fun, quick play. Also nicely educational, which is always a plus.

I did struggle in one place with the right command to use, though I had the correct idea. So I peeked at the walkthrough there. But otherwise the game plays out nicely. It’s also nicely intuitive - you don’t need to spell out every step of what you need to do.

A strong start to my IFComp plays. Thanks!

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Captain Graybeard’s Plunder by Julian Mortimer Smith

This is a short web-based piece of interactive fiction, a tale of a pirate and high seas, and at the same time a love letter to works of classic literature and fiction.

I didn’t expect to say “Wow!” at the end, but did. I don’t want to say too much for spoilers. It’s a short play through, but impressed me immensely. It uses a very unique mechanism, that reveals itself during play. And while initially it wasn’t hugely interactive, and I was concerned how things were playing out, as things moved on I thought the mechanism a perfect fit for this tale, and the interactivity then was fine.

On the downside I wanted it to go on for longer! I would have quite happily stayed in this world for longer. But perhaps it is best as it is, a short, well-crafted piece.

Oh and don’t worry if you’re not a classic literature expert. You don’t need to be, to enjoy this. You are told what you need to know as appropriate.

Good stuff! Oh and it’s made me want to read/reread some books …


Phantom by Peter Eastman

This is a short web-based piece, giving a different take on the classic Phantom of the Opera tale. Disclaimer up front: I am a big fan of the musical! I have also seen quite a lot of the film versions. One really nice thing in this piece is that at the start there is an introduction to the background context, and the depiction of the Phantom over time.

Overall I enjoyed this work, but didn’t find my choices as significant as I hoped for. The plot takes an unexpected twist, but replaying it didn’t seem to matter what I did, the same thing always happened, something that felt inconsistent with my choices up to that point. Also other more minor choices weren’t reflected strongly enough on subsequent screens, which I found somewhat disappointing.

There is a lot of text to read between choices. Also some delayed/slowed text (I’m never a fan of this). But the story is strong, albeit I’m not convinced by that twist.

It would be interesting to see what someone new to Phantom made of this. They might not have my reaction to one specific bit. Equally it’s fun for those who know the story.

But yes, a recommendation for a revised version would be to make sure that all choices are significant, and where necessary are reflected in subsequent text.

Nice music, though not essential to the plot.

I now want to go and play some Andrew Lloyd Webber. In a good way! It’s been nice to revisit the world of the Phantom. Thanks.

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The Magpie Takes the Train by Mathbrush

This parser game is an authorised sequel to 2018 IFComp winner Alias 'The Magpie’ by JJ Guest. Which I really enjoyed, so was looking forward to trying this followup. Fortunately you don’t have to have played the original to enjoy this. It sets things up quickly and efficiently at the start, so you know what you need to know from word go.

The aim of the game, unsurprisingly for a world-renowned thief, is to steal something. And yes, you need to use the Magpie’s famous disguises. The game is a one room puzzle, with changing status allowing you to do different things at different times.

A number of extra mechanisms are in place. I found the conversation topic mechanism somewhat unintuitive. It does give nice clues though. I also ran into some verb/noun issues when trying to cover the light from the window. Maybe my British terminology! Also there’s an unimplemented “out”, which should be a synonym for “south” at key points. Smoother was the change of costume mechanism, which had nice restrictions on when you could use it. Well handled. I also like the built in help, though the context sensitive clues could have used more. It also includes the walkthrough.

Ultimately this is a logic puzzle, albeit a very forgiving one, without a time limit that I could spot. So you can try different things without penalty. Though in the end I switched to the walkthrough, to polish things up. I was pleased to see that some of the different commands i tried (different from the exact versions in the walkthrough) worked. And ultimately it was an extremely satisfying ending.

So good stuff, albeit for me some niggles over the conversation mechanism (that is never easy to handle smoothly), and some under implemented bits. But it was extremely competent, and good fun. Thanks!


Tavern Crawler by Josh Labelle

I’ve never played D&D or fantasy RPG games, but the genre appeals to me a lot. So yup, this game was fun for me to try. It’s a choice-based piece, where the player has completed a quest, but needs to find their client to get payment. But which pub …

A slight downside for me is that in Firefox the text wasn’t adjustable. It’s much smaller than I’d like (reading problems from neuro disease), so I tried my CMD+ combo (on my Mac) to make it bigger. It made the text bigger in the clickable buttons, but not the main text! However the text size did adjust properly in Safari, so I switched to using that for the play instead.

When the game starts properly it has a well designed interface on screen, showing you the main text you are interacting with, plus stats on the side. These are updated as the game plays, including you playing through the original quest and its aftermath. Along the way you may get other quests to tackle.

The writing throughout is extremely strong, and the characterisation of the player character and the two main companions good and strongly realised. I also felt that the choices I made were significant throughout. Though I thought I was lucky not to have a worse outcome at one point! The game includes a physical world you need to navigate - mapping! - and everything was well implemented and worked extremely reliably.

I was able to play the game to full conclusion, atter struggling around a bit mid game, then finding the extra clue I needed to get to the very end. The first time I picked one ending option, then went back to a saved version (load/save well implemented) and tried the alternative ending. It was extremely satisfying.

Thanks very much. Enjoyed that enormously.


Thanks so much for the review, Viv! I’m sorry you encountered that accessibility issue in Firefox and thanks for flagging it. I’ll take a look at what might be causing it and try to solve it in a future update.


Electric word, “life” by Lance Nathan

This is a fairly short choice/web piece, about a rather awkward Halloween party, that the player definitely does not want to be at.

There is a good sense of discomfort oozing out of the text, nicely captured. Though interactivity is low, and the focus is more on revealing back story through flashbacks.

I was starting to feel a little frustrated about the level of interactivity. But then things went in a very unexpected direction, and I was dragged back into the story, and carried through to the end. And now I’m left sitting here, feeling very thoughtful.

Good stuff. Thanks. Things that shake me up as a reader are always appreciated. And the author’s note at the end is well worth a read.


this is caused by a misapplication of vw units (“viewport width”) for font sizes. the problem is that, even if the global text scale is adjusted, the viewport stays the same size. this is why it does slightly more than nothing – it gets bigger, then shrinks smaller according to your set transition-duration, set for all transitionable properties to 0.5s. (this is also why pinch zoom still works, because pinch zoom actually magnifies the entire screen without altering the document or invoking media queries.)

if you change these two selectors, most of it should work as expected:

body, tw-story {
    font-family: 'Inknut Antiqua', serif;
    // Used to be 1.3vw.
    font-size: 1.3rem;
    font-weight: 700;
    text-align: left;
    background-color: #292929;
    color: #FBFBFB;
    top: 0;
    right: 0;
    width: 100%;
    margin-top: 0%;
    overflow: auto;
tw-link {
    background-color: #191919;
    color: #FBFBFB;
    border: solid 3px #FBFBFB;
    border-radius: 8px;
    padding: 5px 5px;
    text-decoration: none;
    // Used to be 1.325vw.
    font-size: 1.325rem;
    font-weight: 800;
    display: inline-block;
    -webkit-transition: all 0.5s ease;
    -moz-transition: all 0.5s ease;
    -ms-transition: all 0.5s ease;
    -o-transition: all 0.5s ease;
    transition: all 0.5s ease;

in general, font sizes should never be set to relative quantities at all, and if one wishes to allow the simplest whole-page magnification, rem works best, along with changes to the :root element’s font-size in media queries.

this may be somewhat difficult in the twine editor, and best accomplished through manually editing the generated HTML file, but this is also a useful meta element to add for the expected magnification behaviors:

<meta name="viewport" content="width=device-width,initial-scale=1,shrink-to-fit=no">

Wow, thanks so much! My CSS skills are quite amateurish so I appreciate the help.

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of course! it’s a big tent thing, having the whole field become more accessible means we (and i) will get more players interested enough to share bug reports on the really tough stuff :slight_smile:

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Tangled Tales by JimJams Games

First up I was very pleased I could run this game at all. I’m a Mac user, but do have a Crossover installation - a form of Windows emulation. But it doesn’t always run Windows programs nicely. This one worked! Fabbo. So heads up for any Mac users who want to play. I’d expect it should also run successfully under Parallels/Windows, if you have that.

It’s a parser game using its own built engine. This did pose some problems, with quite a lot of issues of verbs and nouns not working as they should. And quite a lot of typos, especially frequent inappropriate use of “it’s”. I don’t know how much playtesting the game had, but I would strongly recommend doing much more next time. Open it to external people to try, because we are very good at finding issues to fix! This may also have helped with some of the disambiguation issues I ran into, and strange object descriptions. Basically it had a lot more problems with the parser than I am used to in e.g. Inform games, which is a pity, and did let down what should have been a stronger game.

Visually the game is impressive, with atmospheric graphics, albeit low res. Though these aren’t essential to play, and can be turned off. On the downside this custom engine has accessibility implications. I couldn’t test how well the game would work with a screen reader for someone who is blind. But as someone who usually plays with a gigantic increased font due to reading problems from neurological disease I struggled with the default font size. Which could not be adjusted. Again a result of a custom game engine, which can have downsides. I also encountered some load/save issues, nothing obviously not exactly working, but save frequently reporting it was saving to a different slot from the one I asked for. Which was worrying.

On plus the story was a fun one, a tale of trying to get from A to B as a fairytale character, through a maze-like wood, and running into lots of fairytale creatures and characters wanting help with things. Which then led a bit to hunt the object, and take each item to where you need to use it, and repeat. I’d like to say it would be a good game for youngsters to play, given the fairytale theme, but there’s some very bad language in here that wouldn’t be appropriate for the really young! However on plus it’s characterful, especially your near-constant companion Rumpelstiltskin. He did make me think of Thorin in the Melbourne House version of The Hobbit, always sitting down and singing of gold. Though Rumpelstiltskin’s songs were ruder!

I think if you’re flexible on dodgy parser issues - and the walkthrough is a big help if you get stuck with a command - this is a fun game. But ultimately it needed more testing. I would like to see more games come out with this new game engine though, albeit with an improved parser implementation.

Thanks very much! I now want to go and reread some classic fairy tales …


Academic Pursuits (As Opposed To Regular Pursuits) by ruqiyah

Ok this is a parser game where you are starting in a new job, and need to get settled in to your new office. Note it took me about 20 minutes to play through, much shorter than the competition page estimate of an hour.

I don’t want to give away too much plot-wise, but much of the game is about uncovering back story by examining and otherwise interacting with objects. I’ve done something similar myself before with Napier’s Cache, though not for a full game, rather the opening section/prequel. On the one hand I like this approach. On the other hand I wondered if a web/choice design might be better in this case. Then again it might be short on interactivity, and successfully manipulating objects is key.

A back story is gradually revealed, which went in a surprising direction which I liked. But beyond a fairly short object manipulation puzzle and gradual story reveal things felt too light for me. I wanted more. In particular I wanted more human engagement. It felt like an interesting prequel to a story, but one where I needed to see what happens.

The implementation is good though. I didn’t run into any problematic issues. Objects are easy to manipulate - vital given this is the main mechanism of the game.

I just wanted a bit more. I’d like to read something relevant now, in fact I already am part way through a relevant novel! But I can’t say what it is about for spoilers …

So encouraging, solidly implemented, thank you to the author, but I just wanted more.


Minor Arcana by Jack Sanderson Thwaite

This is a short (took me 15 minutes, including a couple of replays) web/choice-based game where you play a sentient deck of Tarot cards. Yup! At the start you are asked questions to customise the deck, and then things go from there. I don’t want to give away plot spoilers, so am going to talk in vague terms.

Ultimately this one depends on the writing, and that was very strong. Very evocative, spooky, and kept me reading eagerly. Even on a couple of replays.

The interace is also nice. Visually decorated with occult images around the edge of the screen, and a clean, simple design in the main part of the screen where the main text appeared. Whose text also scaled up nicely to my browser-adjusted gigantic font.

I liked this a lot. It’s rare for me to replay something this quickly. On the downside I wish there had been more. What you choose can seemingly make a difference to play time. But I really liked what we had, and thought it was a rich and evocative piece. Thanks.


Amazing Quest by Nick Montfort

Ok disclaimer up front: I was a huge Commodore 64 fan back in the early/mid 1980s. So I’m very partial to the idea of something programmed in C64 BASIC for IFComp!

On the downside having a C64 emulation run in a web browser means that the font is teeny weeny. Well for neurological illness me. So that was a hitch. But carried on.

And then it played out. Um, it’s not very interactive for me. Well you are asked repeatedly Y/N as you journey home from space and land on new planets and moons. Do you want to attack a city, or speak plainly, or seek help etc. As suggested in the introductory text I tried to play “in character”, or at least per the character in my head. But it didn’t seem to make much difference what choices I made.

I was thinking of giving up after a while, but then I reached home. So I think I succeeded. But um I didn’t feel as though I earned it, or really enjoyed it.

To be honest I was more curious about investigating the game BASIC listing afterwards! Which is very short, but also reflects my playing experience. Everything was totally random. From that I don’t think I missed any great hidden depth.

So bravo for even entering a C64 game in IFComp. But I wanted way way more. However as a few minutes diversion it was rather amusing, at least until the joke got a bit old.


it’s only 10 lines of basic, they’re pretty much as simple as you’d expect! and it’s completely random, 100%. but the linked post goes way in-depth, and also nick responds repeatedly about a bug in one of those lines.


Thanks! Yes I’d seen that blog post previously. Skim read it the other night, but reread it more fully as I posted my review.


Hi, thanks for the review. I’m concerned about the issues you’ve had with the parsing. Could you please email with a list of the issues you’ve encountered as this is our third game with this engine, and parsing problems haven’t been reported before.


Thank you for playing Minor Arcana and your kind words about it! And yes, I hope to expand the experience post-comp…