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

Thanks for the write-up, and I’m glad you enjoyed the game! (And the cover. Lol)

These are great points, and yeah–the other contestants are pretty much non-entities, for the most part. (Sour Ron being the notable exception.) Something does happen to Marcher in one ending, but that’s it.

For “What’s up with the bread?” this game is a tie-in to an equally ridiculous, yet much, much longer and more plot-heavy game we wrote for Choice of Games, titled The Bread Must Rise. We tried to make this one playable without having to know that game exists–or know anything about it–but Tira Misu and the bread play major parts in the main game. I hoped it would be funny and weird enough just thrown in without explanation, since the game is plenty absurd already, but suspect it just felt like kind of a lead-in to a joke that was never explained.

We thought about randomizing it each time and adding in-game hints, but ran out of time. So instead it’s hard coded: Ron starts with 12 points, the friar with 11, the bread with 10, Argyle with 9, and Marcher with 8. You start with 9 points, and a successful sabotage is -5 points to that opponent. The walkthrough page talks about this a little, but I don’t think it goes into quite as much detail as this spoiler-laden post!

3 Likes

Thanks for writing the game, and for this reply! I didn’t feel like my questions detracted from my experience but I do love having more info . . . which I will definitely not use to go back and sabotage people more effectively . . .

2 Likes

Lake Starlight by SummersViaEarth

TLDR: YA fantasy with solarpunk elements: the player character builds connections with her friends and family at magic camp to help avert ecological collapse. This is a teaser for a longer game.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice-based. Mostly story focused with some player choices and customization. There are a few different endings depending on player choices. Keep an eye on the player profile page, which hints at what the game thinks you should do.

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  • The plot and writing have a YA-vibe. What I found refreshing was that a lot of the standard tropes are jettisoned here and replaced with something a few steps to the left of what I expected, often from a sort of “divine feminine” direction. For example, the 3 character traits are balance, self-awareness, and power. The player character will meet a cast of fellow campers who are, YA-novel style, attractive and competent (and also some of them are initially at odds with the player-character) but here we’re getting character concepts like “my moms are a mermaid and a pirate” and “my family has been helping enslaved people escape for generations”. When the vibes in the cabin are off, the campers do some group meditation before proceeding. Everyone cares a lot about what moon (think astrology sign) you were born under. It was a nice change of pace from some of the standard “you’re sorted into houses” / “your parents are greek gods and that’s where your powers come from” / “my mentor is an old man” YA fantasy tropes. And I would have enjoyed if we had spent more time with some of the other camper characters.

  • Legit some of the in-game meditations were good.

  • I enjoyed that you could refuse the call if you wanted and the game would present you with a little description of the next several decades of your sad, unmagical life.

[ Δ ]

  • I didn’t realize this was just part of a game, so it was unpleasant to get to the end with none of the plot threads resolved.

  • The writing is a bit on-the-nose, especially as to the perils of mistreating the environment

  • I ran into one issue, which I also have sometimes with hopepunk / cozy literature (think Becky Chambers): when the narrative itself seems to take a moral stance / present certain characters as “oh, everything these characters do is the correct and unproblematic,” then if I disagree with something one of the paragon characters does, it really throws me out of the story. (In cases where the narrative doesn’t have a clear moral stance or takes a more “all of these characters are flawed in their own way” approach there’s more room to disagree with character choices without feeling like you’re fighting the author.) Example from the game: I was annoyed in the scene where Elder Q (and I was getting a pretty “they are wise and good” vibe from the Elders) lets her aggressive dogs scare and then run up to and touch the player-character without any pushback.

6 Likes

Assembly by Ben Kirwin
Me when I saw that there was a game themed around assembling IKEA furniture: “This is it! This is my moment! This is what it’s all been for!”

What I’m trying to say is, my deep affection for IKEA prevented me from approaching this concept objectively. (Obligatory internet disclaimer: my love for IKEA is completely sincere and un-ironic.)

TLDR: Get in losers, we’re going to IKEA. This game more than lives up to the Happiest Place on Earth™–our puzzle-based experience will be as satisfying as sinking into a Poӓng and as rewarding YET accessible as being an IKEA Family member.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. Focus on puzzle elements. Has undo, built-in hints, and a walkthrough. Seems to be one ending.

[ + ]

  • The overall arc of the game is great. If we’re doing IKEA, of course we must start in the entrance hall, proceed through the showroom, stop by the restaurant, visit the marketplace, take our cart to the self-serve area, and ultimately exit at the checkout. And I very much enjoyed the symmetry of opening and closing with the Dölmen.

  • The instructional booklets as a power-up mechanic are hilarious and create a nice power progression. The emotion I felt after finally opening the locked drawer and finding . . . the instruction booklet to an industrial shelving rack–transcendent. Indescribable.

  • I found the puzzles very smooth and well signposted. I only had to use the hints once, which kept it nicely immersive. And although my inner IKEA fangirl wanted more easter eggs (Where’s the “as-is” section? The paper rulers? The $1 cone of soft-serve ice cream?), I think the choice to focus the game on a few objects / places really helped it feel streamlined and avoid frustration.

  • Amazingly, I never had an implementation problem, despite the presence of many screws and wingnuts etc etc. And the way the game would read you instructions one line at a time, forward and backward as appropriate, was exactly what I wanted.

  • Let us pause to appreciate the cover art, with its Escher-ian depiction of IKEA instructions

[ Δ ]

Loved it, but did have a few quibbles:

  • It would have been great if the “exits” feature was implemented, or if the exits were more clearly described. There was a few points where that led to friction for me. (I wonder if they weren’t implemented to protect the very funny bit in the showroom [the joke centers on the fact that the showroom extends infinitely in all directions], but it seems like there could be some workaround for that section.)
  • The ending could have been described a bit more–I actually consulted the walkthrough to make sure I hadn’t somehow done a mediocre job with the cultists and gotten a mediocre ending.
8 Likes

Tricks of light in the forest by Pseudavid

TLDR: A peaceful, atmospheric puzzler in which we explore an unusual forest and get a glimpse into a fascinating alternate world.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. No undo. Includes both puzzle and story elements. Seems to be one main path with puzzles to solve on the way but I didn’t replay.

[ + ]

  • Excellent use of environmental storytelling. While the game skips any infodumping and drops us straight in, we end up learning throughout the game that we’re somewhere in a post-climate-crisis future, plastic is now rare, etc etc.

  • Smart combination of the player character/plot and the mechanics of playing the game. The player character is young, naive, curious, and collecting materials for school so their behavior feels like a natural fit with the IF player urge to go everywhere, examine everything, and pick up everything that it is physically possible to pick up.

  • This is a fun game to just soak in the atmosphere, which varies between sun-dappled and warm and slightly mysterious and misty. There’s also a cute map that appears periodically.

[ Δ ]

  • I mostly got through the puzzles pretty well but there were a few weird friction points. For example, I tried to pick up the trash the first time I saw it just to be tidy but I think the responses were assuming I would do that to try to get the mirror, so I ended up pretty confused about where the mirror was when I wanted it later. [spoiler]
  • I wasn’t totally safisfied by the ending. I chose to go home the first time it was offered, but then the description text suggests the player feels they’re still missing something. I was curious if that lack would be answered if I kept walking, but not curious enough to replay the entire game.
6 Likes

Honk! by Alex Harby
Playtime: 1 hour, 15 minutes

TLDR: Time to pull on your clown shoes; the show must go on in the big top and only one person can save the day . . . the hero we need and deserve, Lola the circus clown!

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. You can undo. There are hints and a walkthrough.

[ +]

  • Playing as Lola is just a delight. Everything you would want to explore in the circus is implemented. Yes you can drive your clown car to the various locations. Yes you can pie anyone in the face. Based on the “inventory” text you appear to be constantly juggling everything you are carrying. When the “Monster Manor” ride is mentioned, yes, you can go on the ride!

  • There is something deeply satisfying about the structure for this game. The player character has to fix 3 different problems for 3 different friends. Sounds simple! No one is ever really in peril, yet I was extremely motivated to support my friends, and moved by their trust in my ability to help them.

  • The NPCs are very funny and well-written (particularly the completely tactless goose-trainer).

  • The performance mechanic worked very smoothly. The goose puzzle was an absolute banger.

[ Δ ]

  • I did get stuck on a few of the puzzles, although there is a walkthrough so it wasn’t too frustrating. Mostly it was stuff that was close, although I am not sure, for example, that the basket balloon is intuitively the only way you could lift a rabbit up . . .

  • About the ending: I loved everything up until the ending, and I thought the ending was solid but somehow not as engaging. Could there have been more interaction with the rest of the circus cast, maybe? Not sure I totally got what the MP was supposed to represent, and I didn’t really feel much tension about whether the audience would support the circus (they are people who are AT the circus, and also I just helped them see 3 amazing performances!).

One potential bug

I talked to Lola (myself) and it started a debugging conversation.

6 Likes

Thanks very much for your kind review of Honk! Kicking myself about that bug, not sure why that never occurred to me to test in two years of development. Time to work on that bugfix release I keep putting off.

3 Likes

LUNIUM by Ben Jackson

TLDR: Visually rich and detailed implementation of an escape room with a detecting sub-plot.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Puzzle focused. Has robust in-game hints.

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  • the art was SO DETAILED (which also made it effective for the puzzles)

  • Really impressive job re-creating the escape room experience in IF format. I would not have guessed that you could convey some of these experiences, like the feeling of seamlessly looking back at the painting to find the signature, looking at the pile of photos that have fallen to the floor and being able to make deductions from the way the pile is arranged and where specific photos and labels have fallen, in virtual format.

  • The built-in hints were well implemented. The best part was that it would first tell you if you had the requisite information to solve the puzzle you were looking at or not. Several times this was enough to let me solve it myself (or go focus my efforts somewhere else). Great idea.

  • [about the ending] Yes, as the ultimate answer became clear it was fun to see the many, many clues threaded throughout the game.

[ Δ ]

  • Like most escape room concepts, you can’t really think too hard about why some of the puzzles would exist. Yes, there is an in-game explanation, but also . . . what? OK, deeper spoiler: Like, if plan A was the sedative, then why make the puzzles? And it seemed like memory loss was an unexpected side effect, but without that, the puzzles would be completely pointless . . .

  • [about the ending]I wouldn’t have minded a bit more deducting. I solved the mystery mostly by process of elimination,because we hadn’t learned enough about any of my suspects for it to be them.

5 Likes

Hand Me Down by Brett Witty

TLDR: A delectable three-game sandwich, with a dreamlike, elaborate Alice in Wonderland-inspired parser-based puzzler as the meat held securely between a Twine intro and Twine conclusion, which frame the puzzler as a gift from father to daughter.

Gamemechanical notes: The parser game has built-in hints and undo implemented, and seems to have one main ending reachable by solving the puzzles. My single play didn’t give me a good sense of whether there are other branches to the Twine game or not, actually. There’s also a walkthrough for the whole game.

[ + ]

  • The use of the Twine intro and conclusion games was effective in giving me another layer of emotional connection to the parser game. You spend the most time in the parser game, which is full of fun puzzles, but it adds an extra relish to have that additional overlay of knowing that, in-game, the parser was painstakingly coded by the player character’s father in a misguided (my opinion) attempt to connect with his daughter

  • The puzzles in the parser were quite good and fun. The setting, an expansive house and grounds, is also a rich, detailed environment with a lot of objects in every space to examine, and playing feels more like a leisurely exploration than a rush to get to a particular result. Barely a spoiler: a lot of the puzzles have multiple solutions, so you can choose your level of difficulty based on how much of a completionist you want to be. (Smash cut to me wearing a monster mask, a tiara, a captain’s hat, a pair of khakis, a sea jacket, a tutu, and carrying a magnifying glass.)

  • The snail scene was very funny!

  • I really enjoyed the little notes you find around that break the wall of the parser game and refer to people/places that we know from the Twine segments. It was a fun way to get more info.

[ Δ ]

  • This is minor but there are MANY writings in this game and every time I wanted to look at one I had to disambiguate like “do you mean the orange printed note, the weathered vellum note, the scratchy napkin note . . .” There must be a better way

  • I realize it may not be technologically feasible, but yes, it would have been cool if the concluding game had known how my parser game went.

  • OK given the realistic feeling of the Twine segments I did not expect to SOLVE the player character’s relationship issues. After all, we are rarely able to solve our relationships in real life. But I would have liked the ability to engage with them a bit more significantly, in different ways, given the amount of gametime we’re spending focused on them. Which is not to say “let’s observe these relationships” is not a valid artistic approach, I just don’t prefer it. For example, there were a lot of topics that I wanted to get at with the dad that I didn’t find in-game. Does he recognize at all that he retreats into game worlds as a way of avoiding connection with others? Or does he acknowledge at all that when he prioritizes programming the game over spending time with his daughter on her terms, it’s not an act of generosity to her? And what about the player character’s boyfriend? I would normally expect he would be giving emotional support to the player character, if anyone, but he’s very focused on the dad, how does the player character feel about that?.

7 Likes

Thanks so much for the in-depth review. In a way you got the canonical costume :grinning:

I had prototyped the sections connecting, but there were significant technical and usability issues that I couldn’t resolve to my satisfaction. Maybe a task for Post-Comp.

Thanks for your insights and all the reviews you have given to the Comp.

5 Likes

I picked the “keep walking” option, but I still got the same message about something being missing. I might replay to see if I can figure out what it is!

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Oh interesting . . . thanks for letting me know that “keep walking” is the same . . .

I would be curious to hear if you find something else!

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Thanks for the review! Really glad you enjoyed the escape room aspect and the art! It was definitely my intention to bring some of that ‘physicality’ to the online experience.

I think it’s always tricky making a puzzle focussed escape room type game that also makes complete sense when you really analyse it. But in my mind at least: this is essentially a battle of wills between yourself and your ‘other’ side - ie. the rational vs. irrational (ie. the code to the notebook) - he knows, in his other state he is all rage, but without logical thought. Even with temporary memory loss, the rational side will figure out how to escape. The irrational side will be locked in until they can puzzle it out - at which point they’ll be safe again. There’s also an implication that this isn’t the first time this has happened and the haphazard locks and puzzles are his evolving attempt to keep his other self under control. It’s a bit like Bruce Banner vs the Hulk ;).

3 Likes

Thanks for the writing the game! I enjoyed it. And thanks for the extra lore!

Death on the Stormrider by Daniel L. Stelzer

TLDR: Sneak around a fun secondary-world airship and solve puzzles to find evidence to clear your brother’s name.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. Puzzle focused. Multiple endings based on player choices.

[ + ]

  • The tablet was a nice addition to the game. I enjoyed the sketches and it was helpful in keeping track of what my character thought and needed to do.

  • I liked how there were different options for how you could end the game—often in puzzle-based games there’s just one.

  • The fact that a lot of the puzzles were about avoiding people gave it an interesting flavor, kind of like a stealth video game. I was impressed by the mechanics for announcing nearby footsteps (and different footsteps for each NPC!) and how workable they made it. A lot of work clearly went into planning and tracking the NPC routes and making sure the puzzles were all workable even as the player character summons them, etc.

[ Δ ]

  • The map helped but I still had some issues keeping track of the exits. Which I probably noticed more than I would have in some games since getting the direction wrong could result in stumbling into someone and messing up a puzzle . . .

  • I struggled to emotionally connect to the player character / invest in the plot. Unfortunately this was paired with finding some of the early puzzles hard enough that I opened the walkthrough, which generally makes it hard for me to stay invested. I’m not totally sure why I had a hard time connecting with the player character; I think it may have been a bit not having much development of the relationship with the brother; a bit that the player character is so timid (running away if someone talks loudly), and a bit the very infantalizing way the other characters relate to the player character, e.g., taking the same item away 10x in a row (cough, not that this would happen to a cunning master of puzzles like me, cough). I absolutely get that the intent, which was successful!, was to show the alienation / distance from the crew because of the language barrier, but I also think it may have made it harder for me to connect.

5 Likes

Thanks for the review! The exits will definitely be becoming clearer post-comp.

1 Like

Paintball Wizard by Doug Egan
Playtime: 1 hour, 47 minutes

TLDR: Heartfelt game about building emotional intimacy within a fraternity. Partially via puzzles. (Also, they’re all wizards, Harry.)

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. No undo. You can save, and it autosaves frequently. (It’s pretty kind though, saving not super necessary.) I would recommend playing the tutorial, the interface is unique.

[ + ]

  • Slightly contrary to my expectations, this is lovely story about TRUST and EMOTIONAL VULNERABILITY among friends. Which I am very much here for. I was worried it was going to be stereotypically fratty given the premise but actually it’s not that vibe at all. The main plot arc is the player character, Romeo, building connections with his fraternity brothers, learning more about their pasts, and becoming more willing to open up to them in turn. This stuff is like catnip for me!

  • I had a lot of fun with the spellcasting mechanic and just casting spells at everything to learn what they do. Definitely captured one of the best aspects of “wizard school”-adjacent concepts.

  • Loved the structure with a different minigame for each fraternity brother where you explore their backstory. Also the minigames themselves were a lot of fun.

  • The writing was consistently funny:

“SPLACKing myself would be dangerous. What if I traveled back in time and learned something about myself that I didn’t already know? A person could go insane that way.”

" I’ve no reason to open the tape deck unless I wanted to change the eight track casette, but the chapter only owns one casette. "

[ Δ ]

  • I appreciate @kastel and @joshgrams flagging the consent issue in their reviews. It didn’t jump out at me after my playthrough (I think because the response from the other characters is SO chill that I was sort of mentally retconning “well what if the fraternity talked about this spell earlier or something”). But after thinking about it, I think it would be better if the characters talked about it on-screen before the spell was used. And I think that would work fine, maybe even better, with the themes in the game–the fraternity brothers could offer using the spell as a way of helping Romeo with his spellcasting,which would fit with them being very supportive and trusting of him

  • Despite the fact that I was really into it, I almost ditched this game at about the 80% mark. I got stuck at the necromancy puzzle, banged my head for a while, thought “OK, let’s just open the walkthrough”–but unfortunately, the walkthrough is formatted as hints, not the actual commands you have to give, and I STILL couldn’t finish the puzzle. At that point I was pretty frustrated. Reader, in several nearby universes I bailed. But, in this universe, I took a break, decided to try it once more, and did manage to finish it. Additional hints below in case anyone else has the same problem. (Credit where credit is due, I thought the solution to the time travel puzzle was really well clued through progressive in-text hints if you messed it up.)

spoilery hints for that one puzzle

Fair warning—I may actually be wrong that this is necessary and I may have been doing something ELSE wrong the first few times I tried it, but, to my best guess:

As stated in the walkthrough, you need to make a “bridge” for each element in the cazuela. What I think my problem was–you must use the “clear items out of the center” button in between items! As in: CLEAR CENTER, move tetrahedron (b/c metal) to center, close lid, press FER (b/c metal), open lid, CLEAR CENTER, then move the next object to the center. If you do it right for all 5 polyhedra, then clear the center, then put the brain in the center, when you next close the lid it will take you to a different screen with the option to put the face on top of the cazuela.

  • OK, I also had a few ruminations about the overall plot arc that got a bit out of hand
discussion of the overall plot, including spoilers through the end

So, during most of the game we learn that wizards are an oppressed minority group, and we get glimpses of some of the other fraternity brothers’ lives, including some v. sad wizard-oppression-related backstories.

We also see that Romeo is reticent about his past and reluctant to confide in his brothers. Towards the end of the game, they’ve grown closer, and Romeo reveals that he was “faking” being a wizard. (i.e., he learned stage magic and used mirrors, etc.). Romeo feels ashamed to admit this to the rest of the fraternity. (Although the fraternity was explicitly stated to be open to both wizard and non-wizard members.)

So, on the one hand, this made me think, hmm, ok, we’re going to explore a sort of trans allegory (coming out, feeling like you don’t belong in a group that other people view you as part of, fearing others will criticize you for “taking on their identity for clout” etc etc.). On the other hand, I’m just very confused because on the in-game level we see Romeo do magic. In fact we just spent 90 minutes doing magic via Romeo, which sure seems like it would constitute being a wizard? But maybe I’m missing something in the worldbuilding around wizard-hood. (And, if the events of the game were a huge breakthrough for Romeo in which he finally achieves a cherished dream of doing magic for real I would also have expected to see that land emotionally in the moment, instead of sort of being mentioned by him in conversation much later?) And anyhow, other than this one conversation nothing is done with that revelation.

So, overall, this works at about the same kind level that say, witches/wizards in Harry Potter or mutants in the X-Men movies are working as an allegory but I didn’t feel like it was adding that much to the work. And I would have loved to see it more explored!

8 Likes

Thanks for writing the game! I had fun with it!

1 Like

Thank you for playing, and for your thoughtful review.

2 Likes

Thanks for writing the game! It was a great time!

1 Like