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

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

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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?

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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…

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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.

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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.

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  • 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.

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  • 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.)

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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.

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  • 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).

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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).

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  • 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.

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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:

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Please Sign Here by Road

TLDR: Somewhat contrary to the synopsis, this game doesn’t play like an investigation. It plays as an unsettling, atmospheric coffee-shop simulator, where the player-character revisits their memories to try to understand how they might be tied to a series of recent crimes.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Multiple endings based on player choices. Experiencing multiple endings seems to require starting at the beginning each time (there is an intermittent “save” option but it didn’t work for me).


What interested me the most about this game requires spoilers to explain, but here’s my attempt at some low-spoiler thoughts:

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  • The art was cute and added to the experience, although less gritty and more of a webtoons style than the genre led me to expect.

  • This game is definitely trying something a bit more ambitious than I initially thought, and it spurred a lot of thinking! So much so that I felt called to write a bunch about the spoilers!

[ Δ ]

  • I found I had to go through multiple endings to understand what I think the author was trying to express. Given that, it would be nice if it were lower friction to try a different ending. I don’t love it when there’s one significant choice in a game, and it’s on the second to last screen, and you have to click through every other screen again if you want to try something different.

OK, the following discussion is really meant to be read after you have played the game. Really, this will spoil the entire game and I would not recommend reading it if you haven’t played.

To frame the discussion, here are the various endings:

Spoilers for all the endings

1. If the player accuses Marta, Aaron, or Quan (the regulars), the police will enthusiastically pursue whoever as a suspect. If you accuse Marta, she is additionally changed with “resisting arrest” (strongly implied to be a frame job). If you accuse Aaron, he is shot and killed by the police (also strongly implied to be unjustified). If you accuse Quan, he is taken to be interrogated without his wife despite saying he needs her to translate. The police don’t mention finding any specific evidence against any of them.

2. If the player accuses Casey, the police will look into her family (recall Casey is dead). They will find evidence related to the delivery driver killings, and also something about a cut brake line on the car Casey was driving. (I think Casey’s dad is the most implicated?) Jackie is shown to be happy about this outcome.

3. If the player accuses no one, the police officer leaves. The narration switches to refer to the woman sitting in the interview room as “Casey,” not “Jackie,” and states that she smiles and thinks to herself that she needs to be sure to wash the hair dye off of her hands. (Implication: Casey has orchestrated this whole chain of events, changed her appearance, and is now taking over Jackie’s life. Jackie is dead in the car crash under Casey’s identity.)

Hmmm, intriguing. So what do I make of all of this?

Spoiler-filled thoughts

I agree with some of the other reviews that there’s a mixture of good and bad things going on in terms of the writing in this game and that makes it harder to process.

On the “not so great from a writing perspective” side of the ledger, Casey’s identify-theft plan wouldn’t work–especially if she wants to take over Jackie’s family relationships?–which strains the player’s suspension of disbelief.

On the “mixed” side, the reveal makes a lot of the earlier details pay off (Casey saying she was unhappy / envied Jackie, the fact that Casey’s family owns the trucking company where the murdered drivers worked, the scratches on Casey, Casey saying “someone didn’t like the schedule I made for him”). This felt like a satisfying “oooh!” moment. However! It also sort of makes no sense, because we only heard these details because Casey told them to the cops. Why would Casey include anecdotes that make her look suspicious? Even if she’s ditching that identity getting investigated seems bad.

On the “good” side, the reveal also recontextualizes the whole barista-simulator bit. This is what finally made the game snap into place for me. I think the player is supposed to notice that the depictions of Marta, Aaron, and Quan are mildly offensive (the way that they can each get on Jackie’s bad side sort of follows racial stereotypes), which I did notice, but I was just confused why it was in the game. But what we see isn’t actually what happened! It’s just what Casey wants the cops to think happened! (Again, setting up decoys to get investigated seems overcomplicated, not to mention that Casey was apparently also framing her new identity, but set that aside.)

So, overall, I think one of the themes the game is trying to express is about how the justice system is too willing to scapegoat people of color. Ironically, I started with the ending where you find out about the impersonation, and while that’s tagged as the “main” ending and does contain important information, it left me really confused what was going on with the regulars in the story. And I think that it’s pretty easy to miss what’s trying to be expressed there if you don’t play multiple endings.

Finally, I’m not sure if this was intentional, but like @DeusIrae noted in his review, I also found it an intriguing move from a game design perspective. You’ve been inhabiting this character, but they’ve been lying to you the whole time about who they are! I didn’t reach any deep conclusions about that but I thought it was neat.

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CODENAME OBSCURA by Mika Kujala

TLDR: A pleasingly retro puzzler in which you play the role of a secret agent tasked with preventing world destruction (city destruction? honestly I’m not sure but that’s not the point) from a picaresque Italian town.

Gamemechanical notes:Parser based. I only played through once and got one ending, there may be others. You can save.

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  • This game is light and fun and full of moments that spark joy. Having the cat resist being taken, finding the TURTLE [device] that looks like a turtle [animal], throwing a boomerange at a baddie, going about all of your business wearing a toga for no reason.

  • The 8-bit style graphics definitely helped summon the quaint Italian town atmosphere, as did the colorful locations ( you can go waste money at the horse-racing track!

  • The computer programming mini-puzzle was a blast

[ Δ ]

  • Some of the implementation choices were unfriendly . . . for example, important passwords and codes are stated once in text that disappears once you click to advance, so you better have written them down

  • While most of the puzzles were straightforward, I did get stuck on a few. Fortunately there was a walkthrough so it wasn’t too frustrating. Barely a spoiler: this is a game that thrives on you giving things to people. If you see an NPC, give them something! A few puzzles felt less than fair. Yes I’m still angry that after my attempts to MOVE the statue’s arm, SET the statute’s arm, CHANGE the statue’s arm, etc etc the answer is you must TURN the statue’s arm. Also I would never have whistled Carmen at a jewelry box.

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Thanks for your feedback.I really enjoy it. As its the first feedback about the game playI get, I hope, its allright, if I ask some questions.
Did you play it in a pdf reader? The hyperlinks should work correctly than. In the browser, they malfuncton.
You missed the second ending apperebtly. I wonder which one.
I am not sure, how well it works to let the player hhimself count the loops, when returning to page 2 and act on it. Is that the one you missed? or the other one?

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Thanks for writing! I think I found all of the endings! What I meant when I said I thought having the same “ending” flattened things a bit I meant the ending on page 46–it read a little bit like it was saying that everyone who experiences psychosis over a period of time will have the experience of learning to cope through friends, medication, etc.

I played it in a browser, if that makes a difference to the hyperlinks. I just checked again to see if I could replicate it and most of them work fine, but for example, on page 6, if you click on “go to page 18” it actually takes you to page 2. Maybe it is a browser issue, I don’t know.

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Hi wolfbiter (@wolfbiter),

Thank you so much for playing Codename Obscura! I’m so glad you found the game pleasingly retro and even fun at times :slight_smile:

I must confess, without spoiling too much, the computer programming part was an evolutionary process, I first had there a mainframe user interface with a fitting theme with green characters on black background. But since that theme mechanism was impossible (or at least I failed to do it) to transfer to the 8-bit environment correctly, I decided to replace it with this, what you called a mini-puzzle.

I remember the challenge with many adventure games in the 80s was that you really needed to draw a map and make also various detailed notes on paper to make any progress. Codename Obscura tries to replicate this “frustration” to some extent, and it seems I have somewhat succeeded in that :wink:

Also, I tried to design the locations and connections in such a way, that the player would always have some way of returning to a location with a certain clue to recheck, if required.

So sorry you had to bang your head with finding the correct verb at the location you mentioned. The idea was to make this particular puzzle seem at first quite easy, but then make the player scratch their head for a while. When I’ll make some bug fixes for the next version, I’ll also take a look at this, thank you for pointing this out :+1:

Thanks again for playing Codename Obscura and for writing this review!

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Thanks for writing the game! I had a lot of fun with it. And yes, I did notice that you were able return to most locations to check/keep working, which was very helpful, and I made frequent use of.

A Thing of Wretchedness by Akheon

TLDR: Unsettling, claustrophobic puzzler with horror elements.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. Multiple endings based on player choices. As mentioned below, I had some trouble with one of the endings.

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  • Well-developed creepy atmosphere. The player character is dealing with an unsettling situation, it feels very horror movie.

  • Good use of environmental storytelling. Making the player piece together what is going on from examining objects in the setting was very effective an building my curiosity.

  • Generally well-implemented objects, etc. When I wanted to use an x to y I didn’t generally have any issues conveying that.

[ Δ ]

  • I would have felt more satisfied if I had gotten a more clear answer to what was going on in the house. I played through one ending and still didn’t really feel I knew what had happened.. My (extremely tentative) theory was that the player character was having a complex grief reaction to the deceased husband’s geriatric dog in the wake of the husband’s death. Sure, the player character seems extremely concerned about some things but hey, grief is weird. (I also toyed with the idea that my husband became the dog, but then I didn’t quite understand the emotional response of the player character?). I think I saw the author give a Word of God answer in the forum, but I didn’t figure it out from playing the game. I take it some people enjoy mysteries that stay mysterious, personally I prefer it when they’re answered. It was effective in building enough interest that I was stalking the forum for answers, though!

  • I checked the walkthrough to get to the end (it wouldn’t have occurred to me that the creature could destroy objects without seeing some evidence of that). I couldn’t get one of the endings to work when I tried it (waiting for the letter to respawn 3x). OK and I freely admit my failure to do the most obvious answer (poisoning) is on me, it just seemed like an overreaction! That might be my beloved pet!

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Into The Lion’s Mouth by Metalflower

TLDR: Cute, short tale about your interaction with a lion. It goes better than you might think!

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. There are multiple endings but exploring all of them would take about five minutes.

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  • I had fun with this! The narrator’s voice was active and energetic. I went and explored all of the endings. I learned some facts about lions and a recipe for formula for baby lions

  • I wonder if this was inspired by that viral video of a guy getting hugged by a lion he hadn’t seen in many years?

[ Δ ]

  • Did I mention it’s short? It’s short. Really more of an amuse-bouche than a full game, but a delicious amuse-bouche.
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Hey, thanks for the review. In regards to the letter, I saw one transcript where a player tried sleeping repeatedly to pass the time to get the letter to respawn. Unfortunately, sleeping at a wrong time had a bug which made it impossible for the letter to respawn. So, in case you were that player, sorry about that, the bug has now been fixed.

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Thanks for writing the game, I had fun with it! Yeah, that person may have been me. There’s a bed, I want to sleep in it. ¯_(ツ)_/¯ Thanks for letting me know, it makes me feel slightly less bad at parsers. Someone posted their transcript so I checked out the ending there.

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