Viv Dunstan's IFComp 2020 Reviews

Sheep Crossing by Andrew Geng

This is a short parser game version of the old puzzle of how to get three things across a road or river or similar, without things going awry. I had to program a solution to this puzzle 30 years ago in computer science undergraduate class. So I know it well.

My main critique is that the game doesn’t establish itself very well. Yes I know I’m on my way back to grandmother’s house, to take her a sheep, a cabbage and a bear. But the game doesn’t say the sheep, the cabbage and the bear are right here! I honestly thought they were waiting on the other side of the river, so rowed across first. Which left things not going well back at the starting point. Albeit with a highly amusing result.

However that aside the game catches lots of amusing things you can do very nicely. I don’t want to quote examples here, because they are a bit spoilery, but a lot of the in-game responses to daft things were a highlight for me. So much so I would mess things up deliberately just to see what the game did. And it implements the classic puzzle well. Albeit a tricky first mini puzzle, that could maybe do with more clueing.

After my first hiccup I played through it quickly, knowing the solution. But I can see many people needing to replay, multiple times. Just try some daft things as well. There are hints in the walkthrough of some fun things you can try, hints you can also see in-game at the end of a successful play through.

So yup, a nice short game, that could have done with a bit more polish, but has some remarkably amusing elements, which were much appreciated by this judge. Thanks.


The Call of Innsmouth by Tripper McCarthy

This is a Lovecraftian choice/web-based story, based on a HP Lovecraft story, but effectively a prequel to it. The player is a private detective, investigating a missing person. And the game takes them from a starting point in Arkham to reach Innsmouth.

I played for about 40 minutes, including replaying some bits. Though I am a very quick reader, skim reading at times. I appreciated that the piece worked well with my favourite utterly gigantic personally adjusted font in my web browser.

Initially I was very concerned about the interactivity level. Not least because for the first half of the game the interactivity was generally confined to talking to people, to get information, i.e. choosing which order did I learn things in. Otherwise the game told me what my obvious next step was, and took me straight there, without input from me.

However once the action switched to Innsmouth things improved considerably interactivity-wise. What I chose now really mattered, and the play experience became a real puzzle, and I was determined to solve it to the end, to the best possible ending. When I stuffed up it luckily let me replay portions - thanks to the author for that option!

The writing is very strong, the locations well established, and the characters nicely rounded out. It was also a good choice narrative-wise to make the protaganist an incomer to Arkham and Innsmouth, so experiencing everything afresh, with an outsider’s eyes. And things reach a very tense climactic point, which is well realised.

I just wish the first half had been as interactive as the second half. Tip to the author: try to maximise interactivity, and if possible never assume choices for the player. Let us choose what we investigate next, where and when. And add much more branching.

So encouraging, but could have been better. But it is a very well told story, extremely atmospheric, and if you like Lovecraftian horror I think you’ll enjoy this. Thanks.


The Turnip by Joseph Pentangelo

This is a strange piece! I say that in admiration. The author has adapted an existing short story into web form. It is an extremely peculiar story, bizarrely fantastical, that nevertheless is nicely whimsical. Light and inconsequential, but an amusing diversion.

On the downside interactivity is low. Effectively you are taken through a fixed story, with the opportunity to click on words to learn more about an object, or character, or another thing you encounter. There are no significant choices for you to make.

It is also incredibly short. It took me 4 minutes to go through, and I was clicking on everything to expand to see the text.

So amusing, but a bit too light for my taste, and too short. Yes it is definitively flash fiction, but too flash for me. Perhaps things could have been expanded a bit, to allow more player interaction, and that might be an angle that the author may want to look at developing in future works. But I liked the whimsy. Thanks for sharing.


The Pinecone by Joseph Pentangelo

Having just reviewed The Turnip I thought I should review its companion piece!

Again this is a short story - a very short story - adapted into web/choice form.

But in this case there is a bit more interactivity, with choices where you can do certain things, and it does make a difference what you choose. I was so curious about this that I went back to try the other options, with nice results.

Again the writing is strong, and bizarrely fantastic, in a rather delightful way.

And who’d have thought goats could be so scary …

So better stuff I think, a little bit more interactivity, and even multiple endings. More along these lines please. Thanks!


What the Bus? A Transit Nightmare by E. Joyce

This is a web-based interactive story about a rather difficult journey on public transport. Reading the blurb reminded me of my anxieties approaching playing Katie Benson’s past Brexit game some years ago. Anticipating more feelings of the same here!

And sure enough it turns out to be strange, but fortunately in an extremely good way. Initially I was thinking I wish I had in-player knowledge about routes, when things go wrong. But I decided to operate on my usual strategy that I use with parser games: don’t worry about precise mapping/routes, just explore the world in a free-flow kind of a way.

And things got very, very strange in this game. And not what I expected at all. The images and visions the game described are like a bizarre drugged up world. I mean that in a totally complimentary one. It’s like the normal world twisted sideways.

In the end it turned out that replaying becomes part of the game, in fact this game demands replay. And I still at the end of lots of replays don’t have the foggiest idea what was going on. But I know I enjoyed it. Although if I hadn’t managed to unlock all the available endings (I kept going!) I’d have been frustrated.

So good stuff. Another bizarre one for me tonight. Enjoyed that enormously. Thanks.


Thank you for playing and reviewing my entry, The Call of Innsmouth. I completely agree that there should have been more interactivity, especially in the first half of the game. That is definitely something I want to focus on in future projects.

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Thank you! This is a lovely review. I’m glad it wasn’t as stressful of an experience as you initially expected. :grinning:

But I decided to operate on my usual strategy that I use with parser games: don’t worry about precise mapping/routes, just explore the world in a free-flow kind of a way.

This is absolutely how the game is meant to be played–I could probably have done more to telegraph that you’re not really supposed to worry about understanding the train lines or bus routes and how they connect. The point is really just to go along for the ride and see what weird things you find.


Lovely Assistant: Magical Girl by Bitter Karella

I’ve enjoyed games by this author before, but tended to run into problems with the online Quest environment used previously (couldn’t play offline as a Mac user, and the online runtime system is somewhat dodgy). So it’s nice to have an Inform 7/Glulx file to play here, that I can run in my favourite Mac Inform interpreter, with my custom gigantic font.

I’m pleased to say that the game is a lot of fun. It’s a parser game, where you are a magician’s assistant who has to solve a series of mysterious puzzles, to rescue your boss. The writing is entertaining, the plot fun and wacky, and it’s fun to play through.

On the downside implementation could have been smoother. There were too many hunt the verbs/noun issues for my liking. Often I knew exactly what I needed to do, but simply couldn’t find the right words, despite lots of trying, and needed to resort to the walkthrough. Some more aliases for verbs and nouns and alternative ways of typing things would be much appreciated.

So that’s an area that could have been improved. More testing would have helped. But otherwise I enjoyed the game a lot. There’s also a nice in-game hint system, that seems well clued.

Thanks very much.


The Cave by Neil Aitken

It’s a web/choice-based experience, where you wake up deep in a cave system, and must find your way out. Note I played this without sound.

This is a very short piece, but atmospheric, and as soon as I reached the end I immediately played through again. In many ways it’s a simple RPG game, with stats building invisibly in the background as you play through a random series of linked rooms, together with a more apparent inventory management system. Best of all though is the sense of unease running throughout, thanks to generally strong writing.

In the end I regretted that in both playthroughs I couldn’t do one specific thing (return with a book to give to the old lady). Which in itself is a measure of how much the piece affected me. But I did feel an almighty sense of relief to have made it through.

So short, but well written, tense, and a nice piece of work. More would have been good, and also a greater sense of control. But I enjoyed what was there. Thanks.


Thank you for your thoughtful take on The Cave! It’s my first foray into the world of IF and consequently ended up shorter than I had originally planned (I’ve got plans to rewrite this into a longer game and incorporate a lot of the feedback from the 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.