Viv Dunstan's IFComp 2020 Reviews

The Eleusinian Miseries by Mike Russo

Ok not sure what this is from the blurb. Greek, but is it Ancient Greece as the picture hints? Here goes …

I love the opening poem. That really sets the mood. And kudos for the content warning in ABOUT which is the first content warning that’s ever made me laugh out loud.

Things continue in a strong way. The game, a parser game which I played for about an hour, is a series of puzzles to solve, using a good mix of locations, objects and NPCs. The writing is strong throughout, the in-game help system excellent. Best of all it is all extremely funny, and very much written in a Wodehousian vein. I did constantly feel “Why is my character doing this?”, but you just have to go with the flow, and think almost like Bertie Wooster, and not worry about the why, just the journey.

The only downside for me was a sense of dislocation. For example I didn’t know what a herm was, and didn’t in my first play examine them en route, far too distracted by what else was going on to give them enough attention. So I didn’t understand what the fuss was about at the end. I think given their importance it would have been better to explain them briefly in-game directly, which might prompt a player to examine them for more information. Also other Ancient Greek terms were tricky for me to get my head around. My fault to a large extent, but a sense of otherness that made the game experience that little bit trickier than a setting I was personally more familiar with.

However it’s extremely well done. Nice smooth implementation, and I didn’t run into any parser issues. I appreciated the walkthrough, but preferred to use the excellent in-game help when I got stuck. And I just enjoyed the whole thing hugely.

So thanks a lot! I now want to go and read more about the society depicted. I do technically have a degree with honours half in history, half in classical studies, but it’s fair to say I studied more of the Roman side of things than the Greek!

Note for the author

There’s a slight bug in the ending if I try DROP UNMENTIONABLES INTO ALLEY with the first five dropping ok then last two unmentionables saying “That isn’t available”, and I need to drop them out in two more steps. I was playing the original version though, so this may have been fixed since. Not a problem for play really though.


You Will Thank Me as Fast as You Thank a Werewolf by B.J. Best

Ok going in with this one, a web-based choice experience, based on neural network analysis of text.

First critique is that the entry doesn’t work layout-wise with an enlarged font in a browser. In Firefox or Safari on my Mac. I can make the font bigger with CMD+ but although the font gets bigger text vanishes unreadably off the top of the screen. So back to teeny. It would be good to fix that for people like me who benefit from being able to use a larger font.

It took me a while to realise that you can click on the text after the static quote each time. I honestly thought initially that there was just a single screen, and that was it, with START AGAIN as the option at the lower right.

However even after this realisation I was disappointed with the level of interactivity. Yes I can click on things, but it moves things forward in a story that simply doesn’t make sense. Nowhere is there enough of a sense of continuity for me - the sequential choices made by the neural network beforehand don’t seem sensible or connected to me as a reader experiencing this. And while I’m extremely open to spinning my own narrative around things, and very much appreciate the surreal, this is just too bizarre and simply disconnected for me to make sense of it.

Critically it also goes on for far, far too long like this. The percentage progress counter increased achingly slowly. In the end I just clicked manically to get to 100%. Given the level of interactivity I think that something about half the length would have been a much better experience for the user, certainly for me. I fear some people will just give up. I was determined to stick to see the very end.

So sadly frustrating. I appreciate the idea, I admire the computer science technologies behind it, but I ran into (1) major accessibility issues, and (2) a very frustrating stretched-out non-interactive experience. Having said that I want to read more about GPT-2, with my former computer scientist’s hat on. So am heading off to do that now. Thanks.


Thanks so much for the review, Viv! I actually recently played, and really dug, Napier’s Cache, so I’m glad to have been able to repay at least a bit of the enjoyment I got from that.

Your feedback on things that felt under-explained is very helpful – I struggled with how much exposition to layer in, especially on the spoilertexty things you mention. I’ll probably do a post-comp release, so a nudge towards providing a little more context and clarity is a useful thing to keep in mind.

As for your note on the small bug: I didn’t catch that one in my recent update, I’m afraid, though I have to confess that the whole ending sequence is held together with rather more spit and baling wire than would be ideal. Do you remember whether some of the unmentionables had already been hidden by that point? I ran into a bunch of challenges with how Inform handles multi-object commands, as well as how it parses removing generically-named objects from containers or supporters, so suspect there’s some overlap of those two issues causing mischief. No worries if you can’t recall, I think you’ve given me enough to go on to try to suss things out!


No they were all in my inventory, not hidden at all. It’s a very minor thing though. Glad we both enjoyed each other’s games!


Quest for the Sword of Justice by Damon L. Wakes

Ok a fantasy choice/web-based piece. Here goes. Note I normally play the downloaded initial ZIP file version, but this has an error when I try that in Firefox, reporting “Error: Failed to load: data/Actors.json”. Ditto in Safari on my Mac. So trying the play online version instead.

This is a graphical roleplaying adventure, and is very much a spoof on Japanese RPG video games. The graphics and music are excellent, I also enjoyed exploring the world and characters, and seeing the many jokes. But I’m really not sure it’s interactive fiction. It feels much more like a video game as it stands, and too far removed from the text based focus of interactive fiction.

Having said that the story - albeit simple - is nice to play through. And I was intrigued and invested enough to replay twice to see slightly different endings, based on me making different choices in my actions.

Oh and minor point, but I think the 15 minutes or less playtime estimate on the competition game listing page is far, far too low. For a player to have enough time to adequately explore the world, interface and characters, learn the plot, and play through even once should take considerably more time than that.

I’m going to give this a decent score, because I enjoyed my experience. Thanks. But again I have very grave doubts about whether this is really interactive fiction.

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Return to Castle Coris by Larry Horsfield

Ok lengthy parser game time! I went into this game with some trepidation. Would I manage the online ADRIFT play system ok? As a Mac user I can’t run ADRIFT games offline at the moment. Also it’s game 8 in a series and I hadn’t played the earlier ones!

Fortunately things went better than feared. I used the large font version supplied at the ADRIFT site - thanks for that. The online play never seized up on me, although I was saving frequently, in case I died - yes that happened! - and needed to restore.

The game is fun. It’s very much an old-style parser game, a very traditional text adventure. It is slightly unforgiving in the parser, but not as bad as I expected. Most of the time I was perfectly fine. My only recurring hitch was the commands to use with the grapple hook and rope. Also with containers that I was carrying I was a bit thrown that INVENTORY didn’t show their contents, and that EXAMINE and SEARCH on them gave different results. I did learn to use EXAMINE and SEARCH a lot.

The game world is rich, and I only got a bit over halfway into the story in my 2 hours play. The game starts as a dungeon crawl, but contains much more variety. It also has some nicely realised NPCs. I particularly liked my encounter with some goblins.

My main recommendation to the author would be to provide a little more clueing re some of the puzzles in-game. There were a few cases where I needed to do something that wasn’t apparent enough in the location. There’s a balance to be struck in terms of too easy versus too hard, but I think a few more in-game clues would be helpful and give the game itself more polish.

So yup, I couldn’t play through fully in the time I had. And for a few commands I needed to resort to the walkthrough. But generally it was a smooth, rewarding and fun experience, which I would recommend. Thanks again for the large font version.


How The Elephant’s Child Who Walked By Himself Got His Wings by Peter Eastman

This is a choice/web-based piece, presenting a number of mythological animal origin stories, told as bedtime stories to a young child. Note it only took me 10 minutes to play through once, much less time than the competition listing estimate.

Initially I was very concerned about the interactivity. There is a lot of text, especially at the start. But as it continued I was drawn more in. I also liked how my choices started to make a bigger difference. I was particularly amused and charmed by the kangaroo text.

The writing itself is strong throughout. Note I haven’t read Kipling’s original “Just So” stories this riffs off, so I was a fresh reader. But it’s well written. My only recommendation would be to increase the interactivity early on, and break up those early long chunks of text more. Interactivity is really important.

Thanks to the author. I now must go and read some Kipling …


A slight intermission from reviews: I was going to play another #ifcomp entry just now, but stopped after reading the initial content warning. There are a lot of entries this year which I’m avoiding because of content issues that would be triggering for me. I do appreciate the authors giving us good warnings in advance. Meanwhile onto another game instead …


Vampire Ltd by Alex Harby

This is a short parser game of industrial espionage and vampirism. Note it took me much less time than the estimated hour to play through.

Generally the implementation is strong. The only area where I had a slight hiccup was the USE COMPUTER syntax. Yes it’s clued in game, but I still ended up looking at the walkthrough to see what to type. I liked the menu-based approach for this section and conversation, but didn’t explore all the options extensively. Another nice feature is that the layout of locations is straightforward, easy to understand, and helped by in-game display of exits. This made it easier for me to play through.

The story itself is a nice one, though I found the infodump at the start a little lengthy, albeit presented in a series of spoken text while you wait. It’s quite a simple story, but nicely logical, and not complicated to get through. I liked that the nature of the item you’re chasing remains unclear for ages, and I liked that there are multiple endings, depending on what you do at the very end.

So thumbs up! Thanks. A fun game. I also very much felt a sense of tension at key moments.


Doppeljobs by Lei

Onto my second business-related entry of the night! This time a web/choice-based story of a doppelganger offering a unique business service.

I really liked this piece. It plays out over three weeks while you take on jobs to try to earn money to pay off a bank debt. Each job involves becoming the doppelganger for a client, going through a situation they would rather avoid experiencing. I particularly liked how the game described you taking on a client’s personality at each change, and how this made me want to play that through in the choices I then made.

I don’t know how branching the game is, I only played through once, but I got 1/4 endings, the humanologist. Near the end I made a choice that I wasn’t entirely happy with, but felt that it was in character. It says a lot for the strength of the writing that the game made me want to play in character like this.

The only recommendation I would make would be to change the user interface to display the credits score (money accrued) and client personality traits on screen all the time. These were things that I needed to keep track of myself, and it would be nice to have them visually represented on screen. I would also like at the end to have read a few words from the author about the ideas behind the entry. But otherwise it is strong. Thanks.


(s)wordsmyth by Tristan Jacobs

This is a choice-based piece, where you are seeking revenge, armed with a talking sword. Note it is a Windows executable, but I was able to run it under Crossover on my Mac. I think it was running ok, but I only saw the wide text window at the bottom, a square empty window top right, and blood splatter effects whenever I got a bad ending. Most of the screen was blank, and I’m wondering if I should have seen pictures there. Frustratingly this Unity-based game implementation meant that I couldn’t adjust the font size, as I could have done in a web-based version. I also found clicking choices tricky at times, though I was able to use the keyboard to mvoe the text on, as required a lot.

The story is quite fun, revolving around choosing how to interact with other characters that you encounter, as part of a wider quest. At key points there are almost the equivalent of video game boss battles, where you have to negotiate something that can end the game. I don’t know how many solutions these have, but I kept making the wrong choices. Luckily the game at this point allows you to replay from the last crucial choice point, and have another go. I did this several times to overcome some of the “big bosses”, but got stuck eventually at a certain point.

So fun, but a rather frustrating user interface, that does have accessibility implications. I also wonder if it works at all for blind users. I’d like to see this reworked into a more conventional web-based version, preferably with in-game hints that you can pick up on. Because as I say I got very, very stuck eventually.


Thanks for the kind comments and critique! I had a lot of trouble thinking of sensible synonyms for some of the puzzles, as my beta testers might attest, so I’ll take another look at the use computer thing if I do a post-comp release. I’m glad you enjoyed the game :slight_smile:

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The Arkhill Darkness by Jason Barrett

This is a choice/web-based piece, where you are based in a small town, charged with investigating strange goings on. It’s a quasi roleplaying game, where you have stats, and can acquire gold (and potential death!) by fighting monsters to gain money.

On the downside there are an awful lot of typos. Including two in the opening credits - in the original download version, only one has been fixed so far in the latest online version. But also so many typos throughout. It is extremely distracting.

However on a more positive front the game is fun to play, has a nice implementation of inventory etc., and is very tense and nerve wracking to play through at times. Which is good! I also liked the way the game modelled you gradually uncovering what was going on, with a mentor Wizard character advising you on what steps to take next, as well as giving you mini quests. The game revealed itself in a logical and stepwise manner.

I died before completing the game, after heading off to the castle to try to get some more gold coins, and running into a monster far too powerful for me to fight yet.

Oh and where is the priest? I could never find them.

So overall thumbs up for gameplay and atmosphere. Thanks! But those many many typos need fixing, or at least reducing.

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Mother Tongue by Nell Raban

This is a web-based piece in the form of a text chat between a mother and her child (the player), as the mother teaches the child some Tagalog terms and grammar, and also uncovers more of their relationship and family story in the process.

In many ways it’s a language test. The core mechanism is for you to respond to questions from mother about how to express something in Tagalog, building on previous examples. So learning language, yes, but it also uncovers your relationship as it goes along.

The chat-based web interface also works nicely. Quick to play through, and quick to read, it nicely balances things between choice responses and text on screen. So good stuff.

I actually found it really touching, and I want to know more about the language! I would have liked to see some recommended further reading and/or web resources at the end. But I’m certainly going to investigate the subject more myself. Thanks.


The Impossible Bottle by Linus Åkesson

This is a parser game, where you help your Dad prepare for visitors, tidying your toys, setting the table etc, then things go in a more magical direction than that suggests.

There’s much to enjoy. The game world is logical and well implemented. There are also nice mini puzzles to work through. And a quite incredible mechanism at the heart of the gameplay, which I won’t describe in any more detail for spoilers.

The writing is particularly strong. If I dare quote one bit, not too spoilery, this was what I got on examining the steogosaurus, after slightly despairing about typing X STEGOSAURUS, and being relieved I could type just X DINOSAUR.

x dinosaur
It occurs to you that “dinosaur” is a long and somewhat impersonal nickname, so you ask: “Do you mind if I call you Dino, or Deb, or maybe Al instead?”

“Gah-gronk!” The stegosaurus (or Dino, or Deb, or Al) nods enthusiastically.

(x dino)
The stegosaurus is ponderous but cheerful, and occupies a large portion of the room. It has silvery scales, sturdy back plates, and a long tail.

So X DINO it was from thereon in. Marvellous stuff! I also really liked the meta commands GO TO and FIND, and the GOALS command was very helpful.

On the downside I did not find the HINT command as helpful as it should have been. It delivers a sort of context sensitive help, but often not what I needed in a given time or place. I’d probably have preferred a more expansive hint system, where I could burrow down to the hint I needed, at the risk of uncovering spoilers too early. As it was GOALS was more helpful for me than HINT, albeit without then telling me how do achieve them.

Ultimately I got stuck and bailed out, 55% through. The walkthrough is helpful, but with a puzzlefest a walkthrough isn’t always as much help as comprehensive hints, because the order you tackle the puzzles in can be very different from the walkthrough order.

So an awful lot to like, but hampered for me by a less than ideal hint system. Which I needed, to enjoy this puzzlefest properly. I am not the best solving puzzles! But I greatly enjoyed. Thanks.


I loved the part where you examine the brother, and you’re told that his behavior is due to “a doll essence.”

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Sonder Snippets by Sana

This is a curious piece, and I’m not quite sure what to make of it. Which in some respects is not necessarily a bad thing.

It’s a hypertext piece of interactive fiction about storytelling. I think an older relative is relating stories to you, creation myths (I’d be interested to know if they are inspired by any particular culture or religion), and you can continue listening until you choose to stop (select the “make memories” option).

I played several times but didn’t find my choices too significant. Often the same story would repeat identically, which is a bit frustrating, but perhaps representative of how some older people relate stories. Equally though I was intrigued by the concepts being conjured up, each story with a different take on things.

If anything the most significant choices are early on, at least in allowing for a bit of a change in the narrative. Later it just seems to largely cycle through the same things.

I found the user interface with the big save/restore panel at the left of the main text window somewhat intrusive. Luckily that left panel could be collapsed down (with a single click). I did appreciate that resizing the text in the browser displayed well.

So a curious work. I should praise the writing which is nicely evocative. But I would have liked more interactivity, and more of an impression that I could change the path of things.

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Desolation by Earth Traveler

This is a parser game, which starts as an escape from a strange mansion, and then takes even stranger turns.

My first thought on firing it up was “No walkthrough?” And that proves to be a major stumbling block for me. Never make a game so hard people can’t solve it without help that isn’t provided. I, like at least one other judge, ended up looking at a fellow judge’s transcript posted online for help.

Even then I hit a sticking point, and I’m not sure why. The story seems to require you to do certain things before actions are triggered. I guess I hadn’t done something needed. But despite everything I tried in the apartment, after generating lots of sand effects, I couldn’t get OPEN BLINDS to work as I think it should. It always responded “You don’t think you should do that right now.” AARRGGHH!

The other issue, and this is the bigger one for me, is that so many things aren’t implemented, that the game is difficult to interact with. So many objects mentioned in location descriptions or other game text say “You can’t see any such thing.” in response to EXAMINE X. Or as another issue I may try to examine object X but it asks do I mean object X in another location which I haven’t seen yet or object X in my current one. There are also obvious unimplemented verb responses, again hampering what you can do. The game needed full testing to smoothe this sort of thing.

So ultimately frustrating for me. I felt as though I was banging my head against a wall constantly. And I got very stuck, even with another player’s transcript to refer to. Walkthrough needed please, and make sure your game is thoroughly playtested.

A Catalan Summer by Neibucrion

This is a choice-based piece about a family in Catalonia in 1920.

It uses an innovative interface to show location and characters that you can interact with, alongside text explaining what is happening, and the choices that you can make. Through the process of the game you play a number of characters of the family, giving you a further insight into their viewpoints, as well as some control over their choices. Although the colour scheme was somewhat jarring. Giving me throwbacks to the Dragon 32 colours!

The writing is strong, particularly the characterisation. At the heart of the story is the question over how the father character responds to the attentions of an incomer. This is tactfully handled, and well written. I only played through once, but the ending that I got followed on fairly nicely from my choices. Though I was surprised after Clara sees her father and Charles kissing passionately that she still goes ahead with the wedding. This seemed unlikely in the extreme.

On the downside although the game has an impression of location and free choice, for example how you navigate your way around the family’s home, in practice during certain scenes things are pretty much on rails. E.g. every character might say something like "I think our guests would like to see the chapel…” and the story won’t move on until you move to the chapel. And numerous similar examples. I think I might have preferred that aspect to be smoothed a little more, to be less obvious.

However I greatly enjoyed the piece. I also appreciated its glimpse into history. I would like to read more now about Catalonian history, inspired by this. So thank you.


If you are interested in Catalonian history, you must read “Homage to Catalonia” George Orwell’s memoirs about his time served as a mercenary during the Spanish Civil war. Orwell fought with a Communist brigade, but chose the wrong group of Communists and by the end of the war found himself under fire from both sides. Written as only Orwell is able.