Viv Dunstan's IFComp 2020 Reviews

(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.


Many thanks. I’ll add this to my reading list. I bought another couple of Catalonian history books for my Kindle earlier today. But I did spot the Orwell book too, and will now add it to my wishlist. Cheers.

The Shadow In The Snow by Andrew Brown

This is a Twine choice piece about your car breaking down in the snow, and what happens thereafter.

The opening describes the setting atmospherically. As the sense of unease ramps up this is nicely portrayed in the text, with effective use of words, not too overly long.

Without giving spoilers about what happens things get very scary. There are key moments where what you choose will affect whether you succeed at the very end or not.

After shooting the wrong part the first time I replayed and got the good ending. Though good is relative. I was at least alive.

A nice piece of work, thanks. Scary, but not too scary, balanced use of text and choices, and an effective growing sense of horror.

Oh and nice to see the author comments reflecting back briefly on writing the work at the end. I always like reading those bits.

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At Night by Oscar

This is a choice-based piece about horrors at night, especially nightmares. Note that I played it without sound.

There’s a little use of graphics, but ultimately it’s text based. Where you try to sleep, but get drawn into a battle for survival.

I gather from other reviews that listening to the audio as you play helps in the later section. But I got through anyway, without.

Even with what I think was a successful ending it ended too abruptly. I felt “Is that it?” I think it needed more wrapping up.

I’d also like to see it made clearer if it needs audio for people to play effectively. Not everyone can play with audio. Though to be fair I got through without.

Also I’m never generally a fan of timed/delayed text, which can pose accessibility problems. Though I appreciate that in this game it helped atmosphere and gameplay.

So encouraging, but needed more polish, especially in that ending.

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Ferryman’s Gate by Daniel Maycock

Next up is a parser game, where you follow up a mysterious inheritance, and learn some comma rules along the way.

I really liked a lot about this game. I think it may be a first game by the author, or at least they’re not credited with others on IFDB. The game world is largely sufficiently well implemented, lncluding a number of NPCs that you can interact with.

Best of all it works nicely as a traditional puzzle-fest. There’s a set of things you need to gather, which are nicely scattered around the world. And the game works well to point you forward, and gradually uncover more elements of the world and story.

There are a number of places where you can lose, though these tend to be when you fail to understand a comma rule properly. The comma-based puzzles aren’t too tricky, largely revolving around identifying where a comma has been used in a sentence correctly or not. But they add a nice additional element, that is satisfyingly logical to understand.

I very much liked the glimpses into other fictional worlds that you can uncover during the game. These Easter Eggs of a sort were unexpected, but added to the overall charm.

The walkthrough could have been a little fuller though. In particular I didn’t open all the dresser drawers (didn’t know I had to), so missed the comma key I needed later. Thankfully another judge gave me a helpful prod in the right direction.

There were also some implementation issues. I’ve made a note of some at the end of the review, for the author’s benefit. Note I was playing the original competition game release.

However overall it was a strong entry, and fun to play through. Many thanks!

Notes for the author

The response to ABOUT GAME just says “Details about the game.” Not filled in/finished?

There are disambiguation problems if you are carrying both the note and the letter. E.g. READ LETTER says “Which do you mean, the note or the letter?” and typing LETTER just gets again “Which do you mean, the note or the letter?”

I can’t refer to the scrap of paper as “paper” e.g. READ PAPER responds “You can’t see any such thing.” though READ SCRAP works.


The Land Down Under by The Marino Family

This is a web-based piece, where a group of foster children learn how to relate to each other and themselves, while exploring a magical world in the basement of their house.

I like the user interface. The main text panel, and where you make your choices, is mid screen. To the left is a panel where you can read more about the authors (a family). On the right is a panel of stats and progress measures. The interface also coped well with me whacking up the font size to my preferred huge.

This is the latest in a series of linked stories, and at the start you are given the option to try the earlier ones. But I just worked through this one, because this is the one I’m judging for this competition. So I’m picking up any back story as I go along.

There’s a lot to like in this piece. The writing is generally strong, and very evocative of a foster family situation. It’s particularly imaginative, conjuring up rich images in my head as I read. The fantasy world that the story enters is quite bizarre, but in a good way, and full of images and ideas to spark the imagination. It would be a particularly good read for younger readers.

On the downside it’s not interactive enough for me. Too often there’s only one click option. Even more frustratingly I ran into

Wait? What did you click on? There’s nothing here to report. Guess you think this book is infinite. If only that were the case. Just try one of the other choices.

For me it would have been better not to have offered the option to click than say this. Because I was already feeling a little exasperated by the lack of options, and this rather rubbed it in.

However there are cases where you may significant choices. And I really liked the world conjured up. I’d just like to see more interactivity to break up the story more. But I enjoyed. Thanks!

Note for the authors

I ran into this progress report at one point, just as I started the “Pete’s Lair” chapter. Should that really say 100% then?

% Complete

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That’s me now played and judged 35 games. I think that will be all I manage before the competition closes on Sunday. I’m amazed I’ve managed so many, given how ill neurologically I have been throughout the competition, though fortunately improving as my increased immunosuppression since late September finally kicks in. It’s really nice to have managed to play, judge and review just over 1/3 of all the 100+ entries.

I very much enjoyed playing through the entries I have. There’s a huge variety in terms of genres, styles, user interfaces and subject matter. It’s been a delight to be able to experience.

I’d like to see thank you very much to all competition authors this year. Not just those whose entries I played, but everyone. It’s thanks especially to you that IFComp continues to flourish.

And thanks too to my fellow judges, reviewers, playtesters, and of course the competition organisers. Thank you all very much!


Thank you, Viv! I appreciated reading your reviews. A lot of times you make points and observations that I didn’t think of.


Thank you for the thoughtful review! And we will certainly try to add more choices in future offerings!


Thank you very much for your review!. The truth is that I tried to do my best with the audio, a shame you didn’t try it. The end … you never know if it’s the end or a new beginning. Thanks for your time!

I really like the style of the reviews, you add value and you recognize the efforts of the authors. Encouraging not alienated. Thanks!