Wolfbiter reviews IFComp 2023 (latest: finished with reviews, wrap-up thoughts)

Thank you very much @wolfbiter, for your time and kind words but in particular your signposting of some tweaks I can make to elevate this piece.

If it helps, for me, your read on the ending you received is very much valid (and first in my mind among the possibilities that ending might hint at). When I update for further publishing after the comp I’ll be now looking for a way to gently reinforce those plot points you mentioned above.

Thanks once more, it means a great deal! :slightly_smiling_face:

1 Like

Shanidar, Safe Return by Cecilia Dougherty
[Note, it’s stated that this game is a sequel, but I haven’t played the original. This game also took me considerably less than an hour.]

TLDR: A series of brief, naturalistic sequences in the life of early hominids (neatherthals, cro-magnons, and denisovians).

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Choices don’t seem to direct the plot or change the ending, but do determine which scenes you view. Although the game looks at first glance to be download only, the download is actually a pdf with a link to a website, and in fact, on the website seems to be the only way to play it.

[ + ]

  • The author seems to have done meticulous research on the time period, which enriched the game with specific details about plants and geology. This helped create a clear sense of setting. The art, also done by the author, and featuring a lot of plant illustrations, etc., was also very well done.

  • Interesting speculation about possible stone age rituals and cultural practices. It definitely raised a lot of questions in my mind (“I wonder if neanderthals had the language to communicate a concept like ‘I had a vision that people 40,000 years in the future are flying.’”) and I did some googling about denisovians afterwards.

  • The narration is mostly in simple, declarative sentences, which is an interesting way of putting the player in the mindset of the characters

[ Δ ]

  • I lost track of the characters and think I occasionally missed important plot because I had selected to view a scene that moved too far ahead.

  • I’m not sure I understand the case for presenting this as IF instead of in a different format. Other than clicking to advance, the player doesn’t have anything to do. The scenes are from different POVs so the format doesn’t seem to particularly be encouraging identification of the player with a player character. This would make, for example, a beautiful book with illustrations and different sequences on different pages.

7 Likes

The Finders Commission by Deborah Sherwood

TLDR: A light heist game that carefully channels you through stealing a priceless Egyptian artifact.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice-based, the focus is on the puzzles. The puzzles are gentle, the game is hard to lose, and there is an “undo” button. I only played once but it seemed like there was a single main ending (with fun achievements based on your run). I noticed one minor gameplay issue–after you acquire a box, you can navigate to the box in your inventory and interact with it. There’s 3 options: interact, return to inventory, and continue. At one point I think I clicked “continue” instead of “return to inventory” and that seemed to disappear the box from the game. I was easily able to use undo to get it back, but I would suggest using the “return to inventory” option when you’re done with the box. ETA: sounds like this issue may be fixed! (see dsherwood’s comment below)

[ + ]

  • I always enjoy a good heist! We’ve got an objective, we’ve got obstacles, we must sneak around, it’s a fun time!

  • I enjoyed wandering around the exhibit space and seeing the other exhibits. The other locations mentioned (other than the exhibit space) also gave the world feel lived in.

  • The puzzles were very well written to channel the player through completing them all successfully. For me this was in that sweet spot where I never felt stuck and I was always getting just enough information to continue. This was a fun sort of “you are a competent thief and you will make everything work” power fantasy, and it must be hard to get that just right as an author.

[ Δ ]

  • The focus is definitely on the puzzles rather than plot or characterization. I would have enjoyed more interaction with my supposed police-inspector nemesis.

  • There was a character selection page at the beginning, but I’m not sure how much it changed the gameplay. If the character selection did affect the gameplay it might be fun to make that more visible to the player. (Also, all of the characters are described positively, different flavors of “this person is competent.” It would have added some spice if the options also had notable flaws / obstacles! Where’s the finder who’s physically strong but has wrecked her relationships with every important person in the art world? Or the finder who is good at hacking but has a crippling fear of enclosed spaces? Etc etc)


The game doesn’t ship with hints so here are a few in case they benefit anyone. In increasing order of helpfulness:

Walk around the space more than once and try interacting with things at different times. Some of the NPCs seem to move around and do different things.

Assuming you have interacted with everything and gotten the key items:

  1. The keypad code is for exiting through the employee entrance.

more about that:You don’t directly have to do anything with the code? And least I didn’t.

  1. The box is for turning off the alarm on the display case.

more about that: you do have to use it and pair it to “ISIS” ETA: sounds like the word you have to pair it to is procedurally generated for each game (cool!) (see dsherwood’s comment below). I think it was written on the case but don’t fully recall

  1. The cylinder is for unlocking the display case.

more about that: To unlock the display case, go to the cylinder in your inventory and interact with it (you can click on the numbers displayed on the cylinder to interact).
even more about that: It’s a code found in the list in the email, matched to the code for the aegis (which I think is written on the case?) The code tells you which numbers to interact with and it sounds like is procedurally generated each game. For example, my code was written: L10 R35 L40 . . . which meant first interact with the number 10 and turn left, then interact with the number 35 and turn right, then interact with the number 40 and turn left. If you interact with the wrong stuff for a while after a few attempts you will hear a sound that indicates the lock has reset, so try again then.

11 Likes

Thank you for playing and the kind review! The box does seem to be an issue that I thought I had corrected. I will be looking at that again.
FYI - the pairing, key code and alarm lock combination are all randomly generated so they will be different for every game.

Cheers!
Deborah

2 Likes

Thank you for writing, it was a fun game! Re: the box, it may have been corrected later, it takes me a bit to get from the “played” to “reviewed” stage.

In The Details by M.A. Shannon

TLDR: Short, energetic game—you’re a pop idol preparing for a show, but an old debt is coming due . . .

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Multiple endings, which will require you to restart at the beginning to experience.

[ + ]

  • I’m a big fan of games where the player character has a distinct personality, and here you do: you’re self-centered, arrogant, not very smart, and have bad impulse control. I love it!

  • Great concept, has a lot of inherent drama and tension

  • I enjoyed the fantastically gory death descriptions

[ Δ ]

  • It’s very short. Exploring every option took maybe 15 minutes. (for the record, the options are: go onstage without your supernatural talents, embarrass yourself, game ends; or die entertainingly after annoying the devil ). The ending felt abrupt, I would have liked to see more of the potential of the premise explored, more complications, more conflict, etc etc
8 Likes

The Whisperers by Milo van Mesdag

TLDR: Literary stage play about five people sharing an apartment in stalinist Russia.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. The player character takes the role of the audience watching an audience-participation-necessary play. The subsequent scenes in the play change based on audience choices. (Actually the player can choose between totally setting the audience participation, or just being one component of it; I chose the former.) There is an undo button and the option to read the entire script formatted for performance (ie, with instructions like “perform this scene if the audience chose ____”).

[ + ]

  • This was well-written and compelling. I think I mostly related to it as work of literature and it succeeded on those terms. I was interested in the characters and invested in their dilemmas.

  • It captured a lot of enjoyable aspects from plays—the stage directions are sparse but evocative, one of the characters comes onstage periodically to talk directly to the audience, etc etc

  • Bonus points for including a glossary of terms and characters thatyou can consult without losing your place. (Note that, as I think is common in Russia, while the characters are referred to by one name in the stage directions / glossary, they’re also referred to by various diminutives by the other characters depending on their level of intimacy. There are few enough characters and their names are dissimilar enough I didn’t find it confusing.)

  • I enjoyed the fun staging detail about how the characters mostly whisper because anything else can be heard throughout the apartment. And there’s a funny bit where the new arrivals do not know this, until the rest of the inhabitants tell them “oh yeah, we heard all of your opinions about us, this is why we whisper all the time.”

  • has somewhat a flavor of nihilism that I associate with Russian literature. ( No matter which options you take, between one and all of the residents of the apartment will end up arrested by the NKVD.)

[ Δ ]

  • The game definitely creates some interesting moments addressing life under totalitarianism. For example, in the first play through I did not choose to make one of the characters destroy his wife’s hidden religious idols, out of sympathy for the wife, but after seeing what happened when the NKVD raided the apartment I had him destroy them on every subsequent playthrough. But overall, the choices don’t change the direction of the plot much. I’m fine with people getting purged being the inevitable conclusion, but I expected the shape the story takes to get there to change more based on the choices. For example, whether the audience choose to have Sergei encourage Agnessa to get a job or encourage Agnessa to get married, she starts a romance with Nikolai in pretty much the same way and they end up in the pretty much the same anti-Stalin conspiracy. As a result, I think I had the best experience on my first playthrough, and then was slightly disappointed on my second.

  • I think a lot of what this game was doing was working really well for me. To really put it over the top into “artistic triumph” range I would have wanted to understand more about what the author was trying to convey thematically. Certainly I got took the point that “life in 1930s Russia sucked and was particularly corrosive to trust and intimate relationships,” but I wanted there to be a bit more. What does the role of the audience have to say about the theme? What are the game mechanics trying to say? I actually thought there was a slight disconnect with the game mechanics, in one major moral dilemma in totalitarianism involves the extent to which individuals cooperate with the system. This is shown really well through, for example, Sergei’s plot line. But the audience is specifically stated to have nothing at stake when it makes choices, so the audience choices (ie, everything the player does) doesn’t really seem to be saying anything in that framework.


A note on the ending: All of the above is based on my playthrough. Reading the other reviews after, I saw @manonamora mention a “hidden” ending. If I found what she meant, it’s in the “script” view, near the end, near a reference to audience heckling. A fun twist for potential live performances, but doesn’t really seem to be part of the game in that there didn’t seem to be a way to get there by playing online. ETA: see manonamora’s note below, this is apparently accessible in the game client, too.

7 Likes

Actually, I found it playing it the normal way. On the last screen, where you choose the category of offence, there is a blank block above Category 1, which you can hover to reveal the hidden link.

5 Likes

Intriguing, thanks.

Hey, thanks for the thoughtful and in depth review!

The more I think about it, the more I realise how questionable the decision to put the philosophical core of the piece behind a literally invisible link that none of my playtesters found was…

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I very much enjoyed it with the visible endings, but I am apparently not a savvy enough gamer to find the hidden one!

1 Like

Aha, so that is what it was all supposed to be building up to! I thought it might be.

But yeah, that’s a tough one. On the one hand, if you miss it then the game feels a little empty thematically. On the other hand, if it were too easy to find, that would undermine the point somewhat. I wonder if having it show up on subsequent playthroughs after the player has completed the game once would be a decent compromise?

5 Likes

Yeah, I do think that would be a good solution. The question now is whether changing it now is outside of the spirit of the comp…

1 Like

imo, it should be fine. You’re not changing the content of the game, just making a link that was already there more visible?

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I agree with Manon that it’s not a huge change! And it’s pretty early days for the Comp, too.

1 Like

All Hands Abandon Ship by David Lee

TLDR: “I’ve got a bad feeling about this,” you might think to yourself while evacuating a doomed spaceship in this chock-full-of-pop-culture-references puzzler.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. From my single playthrough, seemed to be one ending that you could either achieve or fail to achieve by solving the puzzles. You can undo.

[ + ]

  • The ship is populated with a lot of fun and unique items. It’s fun to explore the rooms and look at things, and they’re generally well implemented. You can get your litter zapped by the trash chute. You can wear the “taxi bead vest” (although I confess to googling what that was).

  • The use of nautical terms gave the game a pleasing boaty-flair

  • There’s also a plethora of media references that keep things light. For example, if you go to the bridge and sit at the navigation station the player character thinks about Sulu.

[ Δ ]

  • I got a bit stuck on the puzzles. Fortunately there’s a walkthrough so it wasn’t too frustrating. My problem was actually that I totally failed to realize that the kitchen and exam room existed as separate rooms (they both are reached by going through other rooms off the main corridor). I suspect dealing with aft/fore/port/starboard was also making me struggle more with keeping track of the exits, so it would have helped me if the descriptions of the rooms emphasized entrances to additional locations more.

  • So as I was perplexedly wandering about, unsuccessfully trying ot disassemble a magazine rack, I began to wonder, what exactly does Mx. Unnamed Crewmember have to live for? The player character is a complete cipher who occasionally will think a thought related to a pop-culture object you found, but has no comment on your fumblings in the face of imminent death. I absolutely respect that we come to a puzzler for the puzzles, but even a very slight amount of shading in the scenario would have made me invest more in the game. Is this our first day (and thus why the player character doesn’t seem to know where anything is)? Does the player character . . . have amnesia (classic IF problem)? It would also be a chance to answer a few of my background questions, to wit Were there other crewmembers? Surely they wouldn’t all evacuate and leave me without some really good explanation. Is this a test, Kobayashi Maru-style? Are the progressively-less-hinged PA announcements being given by a human or an AI, and why are they so unhinged?

4 Likes

Xanthippe’s Last Night with Socrates by Victor Gijsbers

TLDR: Conversation-based relationship study as indicated on the tin—sex jokes from Aristophanes and philosophy argument included as a treat.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice-based, I only played twice but I got the sense there was one main path. No undo but you can save should you so wish.

[ + ]

  • This game is a highly enjoyable take on the “nuanced portrait of two flawed humans in a longstanding and loving (yet also flawed) marriage” genre.

  • I liked the high concept of playing with historical figures and I liked how it was handled here. As stated in the author’s dedication, which I was very much vibing with: “We will never find out who Xanthippe really was. All we can do is complicate our idea of her; reimagine her; give her a voice that is necessarily our own voice. The dead that speak to us in almost universal silence must live, if anywhere, in our imagination.”

  • I also love a high-stakes concept and “this is our last chance to hash everything out before one of us is executed at dawn” qualifies. And, yes, you can tell off Socrates for not trying harder to get acquitted given that he, ya know, had dependents.

  • The dialogue is very well-written and funny. A plot-appropriate amount of the dialogue between the two principals rings with sincere affection. Sometimes after I made a selection the player character said something even more clever and articulate than I had in mind (rest assured, reader, my version was already quite clever and articulate).

  • Similarly, it’s a nicely specific game. There’s some great, lived-in details—hazily idealized historical figures these are not (for example, Xanthippe pulling out 4 cheaper jars of wine to mock Socrates with, the option to say your stag cakes were terrible looking).

[ Δ ]

  • I hesitated a bit to queue this game up because the stated objective is for the player character to have sex with Socrates (to be clear, it was the “your objective is to have sex with x” part that worried me, not Socrates specifically). The game definitely avoided the two failure modes I was most concerned about ([1] the player is expected to fan-girl / adulate their way into it, or [2] the player character is expected to harass / harangue Socrates into it). That being said, I would have appreciated not being required to have sex with Socrates. (Sentences I did not expect to type, 2023 edition.) At least in my two playthroughs, we always ended up there. To me, the characters and plot didn’t require sex as the resolution to the tension, so it was a bit offputting to be railroaded into.

  • This is a quibble, but in a few spots I wanted a different / an additional dialogue option. I’m thinking particularly of “I would have willingly followed you into exile” and the discussion about bravery. (I’m always impressed when authors write a game that turns on simulating conversation, because it seems like it must be writing IF on hard mode! While I will happily make the player character commit any number of outlandish acts in the service of plot, god forbid I have to say a dialogue choice I don’t agree with in a serious conversation, particularly one about philosophy or truth, etc.)

10 Likes

Virtue by Oliver Revolta

TLDR: The experience of reading a George Saunders short story with a very unlikeable protagonist. Specifically, the unlikeable protagonist is a bigoted, culture-warrior type stay-at-home mom (who, according to the description, will go on to become an MP).

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Many choices have only one option, where there were two I didn’t get the impression it would change the ending, although I only played once.

[ + ]

  • Well-written, literary, prose was easy to follow and I enjoyed the author’s writing style.

  • I enjoyed the literary / psychological approach, the bits where we see inside the player character’s head didn’t make me like them but it did feel realistic and true to life (ie, the protagonist’s insecurity/fear about her less-than-posh origins translating into disdain for poor people)

[ Δ ]

  • I didn’t have much to do as a player. It was very much the experience of reading a short story or novel. I take it the choice to use IF was perhaps to try to force a greater perspective-taking by the player into the character, but I’m not sure I get what purpose that would serve. If anything, I wanted the game to push me a bit harder to have empathy for the protagonist. The general treatment was very far in the “this person is really terrible” direction.

  • Seems a bit unfortunate implications to make smelling bad the one described character trait of the teenage son (who is the one actually masturbating in the bushes).

5 Likes

Last Vestiges by thesleuthacademy

TLDR: An elegant intellectual puzzle of a locked room mystery. On the “cozier” side of the mysteries in the competition (the player character is not in danger at any point, no eerie or horror elements).

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. I only played once but appears to be one main ending you can get to by solving the puzzles and then solving the mystery (the player will be called upon to explain the mystery).

[ + ]

  • I found everything to be very well designed, and at just a level of friction that I enjoyed. I was never too stuck with the puzzles, each object / puzzle helped with the next, it was a very fun and engaging experience that definitely tickled the “I’m solving puzzles” part of my brain. (I particularly enjoyed the nonagram, although I only learned it was called that from someone else’s review.)

  • I got a bit caught up and didn’t want to go to bed . . .

[ Δ ]

  • The puzzle definitely feels escape-room themed, which is fun, but also means there’s a lot that doesn’t bear too much thinking. E.g., who encodes the solution to their lock on the piano keys?

  • It would be nice if the escape room puzzles were more integrated into the mystery. I had a pretty strong feeling that White’s death was an accidental bleeding-to-death after just hearing Knapp’s description of the body and seeing that he was on blood-thinners (and, when Knapp told me the autopsy was ongoing, I took that to mean we were not going to hear during the game about any other substances that might have been in White’s body). So I was thinking it had to be something like nosebleed / coughed up too much blood before really doing any of the puzzles, and that was confirmed after talking to Knapp. So although I solved the puzzles for fun and to make sure I wasn’t missing something they weren’t the most connected to the medical mystery.

6 Likes

Thank you for your review! Glad you enjoyed the game and to know that it was engaging - hope you didn’t sleep too late :smiley: Will take the feedback into consideration for future games :slight_smile:

2 Likes