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

Last Valentine’s Day by Daniel Gao

TLDR: Introspective slice-of-life game about experiencing Valentine’s Day before a breakup. Competently written, I was perfectly happy to chug along through to the end, even though it’s a genre I tend to bounce off.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Player choices seemed to determine flavor text, but not substantially affect the outcome of the game. I got the sense there’s just one ending (although I didn’t re-play to confirm).

[ + ]

  • Enjoyable descriptive writing. I liked the little details (the office-bro pickingu p flowers, etc.) The flower shop in particular had some promising hooks.

  • Smoothly designed etc., I was never confused about where to goo or what was happening.

  • I enjoyed the way the weather changed in keeping with plot progression!

  • This is between a plus and a delta, but I was sort of fascinated with the “you can just take anyone’s flowers” aspect of the “florist choice” that was explored in a few places and I would have been pleased if that had been paid off more.

[ Δ ]

  • Not sure I picked up the intended theme beyond “sometimes loss is inevitable” and I didn’t feel super emotionally connected to the story, which is what makes or breaks this type of game for me. I think I would have felt more engaged if I knew more specific details about the player character or their relationship history. (I noticed that some of the relationship-history details changed between cycles, I assume intentionally. For me this had the effect of making the relationship seem generic.)
9 Likes

20 Exchange Place by Sol FC

TLDR: A combustive concept (high-stakes hostage negotiation). This isn’t stated in the materials but I take it it’s inspired by the 2006 movie Inside Man, where a combination heist & hostage negotiation occurs at a bank of the same address.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Player choices are highly impactful in how the plot develops. No “undo” etc. so failure generally means starting from the beginning.

[ + ]

  • Top tier concept, I found it very compelling and interesting and it motivated me to keep trying past my first ending, which I don’t always feel called to do.

[ Δ ]

  • The writing is uneven (e.g., references to the player character switch between “you” and “I”). The player character is inconsistently characterized, switching suddenly between an attitude arrogant a sort of “oh, I’m so incompetent” (neither of which is how I characterize aseasoned hostage negotiator?). (OK, to be fair, some of the incompetence is on me.)

  • I couldn’t deduce the “correct” choices from either the description text, or common-sense knowldege, so it felt like I was clicking arbitrarily

One-third of a walkthrough:

For those who, like me, got pretty invested in the ending but found some of the choices unintuitive: I stopped after I found an ending where you save the hostages. I’m not sure if there’s a “better” ending—the description text suggests the player character is unhappy about not catching the criminals, but in the movie the cops don’t catch the criminals so I wonder if it’s just impossible.

To get to that ending:

  1. Early choices don’t seem to matter much except you MUST choose to smoke before going into the command center (or else you will be so nervous during the phone call you are not even offered the “good” dialogue option).

  2. I chose “sneak in the back” then “wait 4 hours” for the tactical approach, didn’t exhaustively check the others

  3. During the 4 hour wait, the robbers will call you. At one point they refer to the cops doing perimeter assessments. You must choose “keep cool” (don’t reveal anything), which, as stated, is only offered if you smoked earlier

  4. Deliver the pizzas, no funny business

  5. Some plot point happens and you’re offered a choice – choose to go in immediately yourself, Die Hard style

  6. I took the window instead of the door, not sure if it matters.

  7. Either searching up or down will result in saving the hostages but not catching the criminals.

8 Likes

GameCeption by Ruo

TLDR: Propulsive, fast-paced technothriller. Squid game for video games.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Seemed to be one “main” story path that could be executed successfully or not. Certain types of failure led back to a “checkpoint” and it wasn’t too painful to try again.

[ + ]

  • I really enjoyed the premise, it was engaging and interesting. I felt very invested in what was happening.

  • The character work on the 2 main characters and their relationship was really working for me, as was using that relationship as the main motivator of the game.

(me immediately after noticing that i’m playing the game using my bff’s actual body: “hmm, an interesting moral dilemma of whether I should give other players I encounter the benefit of the doubt at the cost of endangering my bff’s fragile corpus”
also me: sneak attack that guy immediately! Run over them all with the car! Do not ask questions first!)

  • I really enjoyed the visual design and art

[ Δ ]

  • I found what I think is the “main” ending and it was a bit bleak. I would have liked the chance to have a happier ending, and maybe that’s possible, but i didn’t receive the signal from the game that there would be a payoff if I kept trying to do that.
  • could have been slightly longer / had a few more puzzles and I would have enjoyed that!
5 Likes

All the Troubles Come My Way by Sam Dunnachie

TLDR: Very funny, well-written romp about a cowboy out of time

Gamemechanical notes: Player choices affect the direction of the plot. There are multiple available endings.

[ + ]

  • the narrator voice was very engaging, I really enjoyed the jokes and western flair

  • great idea to frame the player character with the attributes “cowboy justice” “tobacco grit” “southern charm,” and “rodeo.” Something I wonder about with IF is how people balance the fact that more specifically drawn characters (who would, by definition, make a certain choice) are usually more engaging with the fact that players like to make choices. I liked getting told up front a bit what traits I was supposed to be channeling.

– puzzles nicely satisfying ( ikea reference ftw! )

[ Δ ]

  • the game can end a bit abruptly. The first one came as a surprise to me for sure. I am a simple woman and all I want is to put on my cowboy hat and do cowboy things in NYC while wearing it, but be warned friends! If you do this then you, too, will have a Very Short game experience

  • No easy way to “undo,” so if the game ends you have to restart at the beginning, which is a bit of a disincentive to exploring

5 Likes

Fix Your Mother’s Printer by Geoffrey Golden

TLDR: Short relationship study where you help your mom troubleshoot her printer.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Player choices don’t really affect outcomes.

[ + ]

  • The dialogue for my mother (yes, she’s my mother now) was so good. Absolutely pitch perfect. Love the way she lowkey negs me for recommending a fancy printer, etc. etc. Suspect the author may have called my mother for research.

  • Cute animation-style visuals that really add to the mood. Love the little shuffle my mom makes every time she has to touch the printer.

  • Isn’t it funny how something that’s tedious in real life (troubleshooting printer) can be pleasant, soothing even, in the frictionless environment of fiction?

[ Δ ]

  • This is minor but I really wanted to see a topiary! Reward me by showing me a page from my mother’s painstakingly designed hedge ppt!

  • [about the plot[ I would have liked a bit more on the relationships. Given the genre I didn’t really expect the player character to significantly change their relationships over the course of the game but I would have like a bit more grist there.

7 Likes

The Whale’s Keeper by Ben Parzybok

TLDR: Atmospheric story where you simultaneously explore your existence (b/c amnesia) and a whale.

Gamemechanical notes: Multiple endings. Has timed text (I think there’s a “speed up” setting but I didn’t try it). I played the web version, not the Telegram version. Although it’s formatted as a parser (ie, you type things in an input field and press enter) all of the available options are stated in the text. I assume the reason it’s not “click on the text you want” is to enable the aforementioned Telegram mode. Undo is available.

[ + ]

  • very vivid, descriptive writing. “warm cantaloupe” is just the beginning! I also very much enjoyed the description of being one more cell in the organism of the whale as it was diving and compressing everything

  • we don’t get much, but I enjoyed the little bits we get about the player character’s backstory

  • I enjoyed the sort of “take an atmospheric wander around an uncanny environment” feeling, the selection of available tasks etc. was creative and interesting.

[ Δ ]

  • [about the plot] I think there’s multiple endings, but I was mildly annoyed that the ending I “got” was not at all what I was trying to get by taking that action. E.g., once I chose to try to leave the whale and swim away, even if it killed me, and that time I still ended up back in the whale, which the text informed me I felt happy about?
8 Likes

Thanks very much for the review, @wolfbiter !

3 Likes

Escape your psychosis! by Georg Buchrucker

TLDR: A short, educational game about living with psychosis.

Gamemechanical notes: Game occurs in a pdf with hyperlinked pages. (One of the hyperlinks actually went to the wrong page, but this was quite easy to recover from manually since, it’s a pdf.) A few different “endings” but also a loop.

[ + ]

  • I do feel I learned something about what it might be like to have psychosis, and how to interact supportively with other people who are experiencing psychosis. I was perfectly happy to play through the entire way

  • It made me think a bit, for example, about the stereotype that psychotic people are violent—even if I believed my neighbors were surveilling me my response would probably not be violence

  • I admire the earnestness with which the author approached this topic

  • the art added to the experience. The art style was what I associate with recent memoir-style “serious topic” comics. Although actually I played for a while before I engaged with the art because I didn’t realize the art on the right-hand page was supposed to accompany the text on the left-hand page. (The things I selflessly admit in the name of critical integrity.)

[ Δ ]

  • I was a bit uncomfortable with the seeming implication that everyone with psychosis will reach the same “ending” eventually / the ending seemed to “flatten” the various options.
7 Likes

DICK MCBUTTS GETS KICKED IN THE NUTS by Hubert Janus

TLDR: A romp wherein we fight nominative determinism. And lose. Close to a perfect implementation of this concept; although the concept may not be for everyone.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing. Multiple endings. Easy undo, which you’ll probably want.

[ + ]

  • extremely funny. Had some incredibly good lines. Also a great sense of absurd humor (E.g., there’s a moment where your character has JUST resolved to give the benefit of the doubt to everyone . . . cue the arrival of time-travelling Hitler )

  • nicely pacey, has good momentum.

  • fun sound design that adds to the experience (ka-THUNK. ka-THUNK)

  • all of the endings and descriptive text are very engaging and funny. A rare game where I found that I wanted to exhaust every path (and some of the ridiculous choices here lead to equally ridiculous, yet unexpected, outcomes). The “undo” feature makes this kind of exploration low-cost

  • I quite liked the “main” ending! Even a happy ending for our robot pals! Who I was sincerely relieved I was not asked to zap into the void!

[ Δ ]

  • although overall I thought the pacing was quite good, it felt slightly draggy once Fanny showed up—when the “Act 2” banner dropped I felt some distinct “oh no.” I’m not sure if that’s b/c I wanted it to be slightly shorter or if it was a structural issue.
7 Likes

Who Iced Mayor McFreeze? by Damon L. Wakes

TLDR: You’re a noir detective in a world where everyone is made of candy (a lot of other things are also made of candy? but some things are made of metal? or petroleum products? I’m overthinking it) and a few puzzles stand in the way of solving your case. This game is about the puzzles and atmosphere, the mystery will solve itself.

Gamemechanical notes: Parser based. From my single playthrough I had the impression that the player choices don’t really affect the “ending” except that you must solve the puzzles to progress, but see E. Joyce’s comment below: it sounds like how many clues you find affects the ending. In my playthrough, the ending was just the player character going to confront the perpetrator and explain the solution, so not sure how the others vary.

[ + ]

  • Good set-up and pacing, things got rolling fast. Two minutes in and the mayor is dead and you have until 9 AM to escape a building set for demolition (although based on the description when you check the time I do not think you can actually lose by waiting until 9 AM) . The game is focused on delivering a some puzzles, and light mystery, in a streamlined fashion doesn’t bog down with anything else

  • I really enjoyed the setting and its fusion of absurd candy-elements with noir. Lots of fun details–the incessant rain hitting your car is . . . melted caramel. You can taste the mayor’s corpse. Also if you x your shoes the game will tell you “there’s no gum on them, stop asking” ). It was pretty fun just to experience the setting.

[ Δ ]

  • I wanted to give a Hercule Poirot speech! I mean, the player character gives one, but I wanted to be involved. The mystery is the one thing I figured out!

  • I struggled with the puzzles. Fortunately, there are hints / a walkthrough, so it wasn’t frustrating. I’m also not particularly good at puzzles. (Although in a few places I felt I was pushed away from the correct answer / the solutions weren’t in my physics intuition—for example, I tried to enter the office by (1) kicking down the office door, which didn’t work, and then (2) breaking the office window, and was told it was unbreakable. The combination of those moved me away from the idea of physically breaking into the office and made me think my character wasn’t very physically strong. So I was surprised when the solution was to pick up a very heavy object and throw it through the door.)

6 Likes

Dysfluent by Allyson Gray

TLDR: Effectively sketched slice-of-life about living with a stutter.

Gamemechanical notes: No parsing, no significant character choices, one ending. All of the text that I recall seeing was timed text.

[ + ]

  • I definitely felt I learned more about what it would be like to have a stutter. The player character was an attentive observer and offered a lot of details that I’d never thought about–for example, the player character has a sense before they try to talk of which dialogue options would be harder or easier to say, and describes physical sensations associated with being “blocked.”

  • Well written—the scenarios were realistic, nuanced, and compelling. The interactions ring true to life.

  • I enjoyed the achievements, including the dark humor element that several are for negative experiences (e.g., “Get Hung Up On,” etc. ).

[ Δ ]

  • ahhh, the timed text. I’m guessing it was it was used intentionally to create a feeling of frustration etc. in the player in harmony with the player character’s frustration with their speech issues. I’m not a big fan of deliberately making the player experience worse. I found that I was just tabbing into my next browser tab if it seemed like it was going to be a long wait (flashbacks had a particularly long delay), which I’m sure was bad for my immersion.
7 Likes

There actually are multiple endings depending on how many of the clues you find!

2 Likes

Oh, interesting, let me see if I can edit that line.

2 Likes

Thank you for kindly taking the time to play and review Dysfluent – it’s great to read your notes and thoughts!

I’m very glad you enjoyed some aspects of the game, and I’m sorry that the timed text ended up being too intrusive!
I’m definitely taking note of all the feedback so I can hopefully improve the implementation in a future release.

Thanks again for sharing, and I’m happy to hear it was an informative experience. :blush:

3 Likes

I had the same question about whether there was a better ending—curious to see if anyone managed one.

For point 6, the door option actually wouldn’t progress for me at all. (Emailed the author in case it’s a bug.)

2 Likes

Yes! I am keeping my eyes out in case anyone found a better ending because I am also curious!

1 Like

Meritocracy by Ronynn

TLDR: An intense college student spends a day talking with people about logical fallacies and meritocracy.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. I only played through once, but had the impression there was only one path. A few times you have multiple conversational options (frequently you have only one option) but I didn’t think any of them were going to really shift the outcome.

[ + ]

  • the player character is very distinctly drawn, which I generally like

  • Where two NPCs disagree on meritocracy, they both raised a variety of arguments to support their views (one side of the argument wasn’t presented as being obviously weaker), which I think must be more challenging for an author to achieve than just supporting their preferred side

  • there are a few funny elements like when the player character thinks they are in a philosophy class but has accidentally attended a different class, or when the player character is moved by enthusiasm to declaim a speech from atop a desk

[ Δ ]

  • I found the player character, with their laser focus on the external appearance / trappings of Serious Academia, exhausting to inhabit. (Sample narration: “You are here, on this immense and splendid campus, where the edifices of science and art rise majestically above the verdant lawns and flower beds, where the pathways of knowledge and culture wind gracefully among the ancient trees and statues, where the fountains of wisdom and beauty sparkle in the sunlight.”)

  • I didn’t feel the content of the game matched the description. According to the description, “you must debate with your professor on the nature of merit” and “Engage in a battle of wits and see if you have what it takes to come out on top.” This made me expect that interaction with the professor would be framed as a debate, that the player would select among different arguments to attempt to persuade the professor, etc. Instead most of the game was reading long passages of the professor or other characters speaking. The player character does respond but it’s more “short prompt to get the professor to say more” or “providing an example to show I have understood the professor’s lesson” than a debate. There was a lot of reading monologues from the professor, other characters, or the player character’s internal monologue

5 Likes

The Long Kill by James Blair

[The player has the option to play as a sniper, a spotter, or a civilian. This review is about the sniper path, which is the only one I played.]

TLDR: A tense and engaging yet thoughtful game about a few key days in the life of a guy who has been a son, a soldier with coalition forces in Afghanistan, and a veteran returning to civilian life.

Gamemechanical notes: Choice based. Multiple endings, player choices affect the endings. Also, a lot of the choices affect how the rest of the game proceeds, even if not changing the ultimate ending. There is an undo button.

[ + ]

  • Highly gripping and engaging

  • Very well written, the writing is very effective in clearly conveying what is happening while also revealing how the player character thinks and setting a general mood. I’m not sure if “sensitively written” is exactly the phrase I want, but I felt that the author had thought deeply about the themes involved. The game was. . . considered.

  • This is definitely not a piece that glorifies war or offers an uncomplicated “every one of us is good, every one of them is bad” viewpoint. That said, it’s also a game closely focused on one character and what that character thinks/experiences, not geopolitics etc.

  • I thought the treatment of sniping as a game element was really effective:

  1. In the beginning, the game teaches the player to do a few basic calculations to adjust for wind. (These scenes also convey character work, backstory, etc., which kept the plot moving nicely.) I know nothing about this subject matter but people generally like learning things and it kept me interested / engaged.

  2. Then in the next step, the player is asked to apply these skills (or not) to carrying out a mission on behalf of coalition forces in Afghanistan.

  3. Finally, the player is asked to apply these skills (or not) to improving the marksmanship of the Taliban insurgents holding the player character captive. This last one in particular I thought was a great way to create conflicted feelings in the player, and that effect is heightened by asking the player do a little bit of work rather than just clicking “cooperate” or “refuse to cooperate.” It helped put the player in the player character’s position of “I am being asked to use these skills that I have learned to _____.” I just thought it was a very smart marriage of the game elements and the plot elements.

  • There’s a walkthrough available that might be worth a look even if you feel you completed all of the content—it contains some of the author’s thoughts and intent on the various options.

[ Δ ]

  • I didn’t totally understand the ending I got until I read the walkthrough. In the ending I got, the player character goes hiking alone, walks to the edge of a cliff, throws his phone over, and the game ends. (It read as ambiguous to me if the player character was also considering suicide.) Reading the walkthrough, the author describes this as a “turning your back on the world” ending, and you get it if you have (1) not reconciled with your childhood friend (slash possible love interest?) and (2) your spotter buddy is dead. [I also didn’t realize until that moment reading the walkthrough that my spotter buddy was dead, perhaps it was stated but I missed it]. I think a bit more in-game explanation / hints about what the player character was thinking in that scene would have helped me understand it without the walkthrough. Separately, while that ending was sad, I didn’t go back to try to either reconcile with my childhood friend or not get my spotter buddy killed because the choices I made were emotionally true to my understanding of the player character! This is my manifesto, etc etc.
7 Likes

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