Xenographer's (very short) reviews

Last year I played and voted on every game in the comp and reviewed at least most of them; this year I don’t think that’s going to happen, and I contemplated skipping out on reviews entirely, but apparently I have Opinions and I can’t help myself. So here goes the first batch:

How to Win at Rock Paper Scissors

A fun if sort of lightweight game, but I am the kind of person who has a hard time being mean to pixels, so the fact that the central conceit was finding ways to sacrifice all of your friends and a number of other innocent bystanders to the gods to win a Rock Paper Scissors tournament made it kind of less fun for me. But that’s just me, really; it’s a solid game, and really well done for a first effort.

Eight characters, a number, and a happy ending

This was a competently-put-together game (aside from some weirdness with plural items) that nevertheless left me cold for reasons I’m having trouble putting my finger on. I may just be burnt out on space and moral dilemmas, though I guess the thrust of the game is less “make this difficult moral choice” and more “get enough information to realize that your mission is really inexcusably terrible and then figure out how to not do it.” On a side note, though, I was glad that the amnesia element was not as prominent as the blurb led me to believe it would be.

Steam and Sacrilege

[spoiler]Steam and Sacrilege has a good concept which is somewhat let down by clumsy implementation. I had guess-the-verb issues (“open latch”? “undo latch”? Oh, “unlatch latch”…), and exits were often not clearly indicated or entirely unlisted (I had no idea the PC’s shop even had a back room until I checked the walkthrough–it’s not mentioned in the description for the main room at all). There were also times when the game didn’t really provide enough direction about where to go and what to do, which made things tricky since the hotel is so sprawling. It’s obvious a ton of work went into this, with all the different endings and alternate solutions, but the experience of playing it was more frustrating than anything else.

Also, I note in the walkthrough files that there’s a “cheat code,” as it were, to skip both the intro and the daily-life stuff at the beginning and start right in the middle of the action. I feel like just starting there rather than giving the option to skip to there might have improved the game. I was expecting the prologue to have some kind of relevance to the rest of the story, but unless I missed something, it seems like it was just there to give a sense of how the hotel looked/operated in its prime, which is something I wouldn’t mind sacrificing for a more streamlined game.[/spoiler]

Theatre People

I am myself a Theatre People (though, like this game’s creator, strictly on an amateur basis), so this adventure in tech stuff going wrong at the last minute definitely felt a bit familiar, and I could sympathize with the plight of the underappreciated stagehand. (I’ve heard it said of theatre tech that when you do it right, no one notices you’re doing anything at all.) The game is a little lightweight–I got through it twice in about twenty minutes–but it’s well done; the puzzle solutions are well clued even before you break into the game’s built-in hint system, and it all moves along at a good clip. I was sufficiently motivated to find a solution to the optional bonus puzzle (which leads to a slightly different ending) to play it through a second time. The author says in his introduction that he spent years playing IF before writing any, and it shows; it’s a promising first game and I look forward to seeing what the author does in the future.

You are standing in a cave…

I have to admit, I didn’t get very far with this. It had a lot of the same “inexperienced parser game creator” issues as Steam and Sacrilege, but unlike Steam and Sacrilege, it had no walkthrough or hints, so when I got tired of verb-guessing and unclear objectives, I just gave up. I thought it had a fun narrative voice and if polished up could be an enjoyable puzzlefest, but I’m just not a patient enough person to deal with this stuff.

Rite of Passage

I found this a pretty accurate portrayal of the difficulties of being a preteen. I played through several times and couldn’t find any way to get a non-negative outcome, which is also accurate (I don’t think I know anyone who won at middle school), but made the experience depressing enough that I didn’t keep at it for as long as I might otherwise have. I find it interesting that all the PC’s friends seem to be struggling with problems of their own, but we only ever get hints of what they are. When I encounter a character in a game who seems to be troubled, I tend to expect to be able to become a Level 4 Friend and unlock their tragic backstory, but in Rite of Passage each of the characters is too preoccupied with surviving their own personal hell to be that interested in anyone else’s.

Color the Truth

I really enjoy mystery-genre IF, but while there have been some very successful examples (most of which are name-checked in Color the Truth’s credits), there isn’t really that much of it; I imagine it’s hard to pull off. All this is to say that I was looking forward to playing this one ever since I read the blurb, and I really enjoyed it. The conversation-based gameplay (also a tough thing to do) worked well, and the game’s main unique mechanic of pointing out contradictions by linking topics went smoothly too. The game is never all that difficult if you’re paying attention, but I’m okay with that as long as it doesn’t feel like hand-holding, which it didn’t. I did feel like it was maybe over a little too quickly, but I guess there’s only so much you can do with four characters in one building, and the topics list was starting to get unwieldy anyway.

The Mouse

I felt like I was missing some context here; in particular, aside from the one incident that we see during the course of the game, it’s never all that clear what Carrie is doing to the PC, and there are also a bunch of little offhand comments that seem to have stories behind them but are never followed up on, though at least the dance contest one became clearer when I got to the end and learned there was a prequel. It’s possible the prequel wouldn’t explain all the things I wondered about, but I really did feel like I wasn’t quite getting a complete story. It was interesting to see a game explore abuse outside the context of a romantic or familial relationship, though.

Not Another Hero

I have to admit, I’m really burnt out on superheroes, so I’m not unbiased here, but while the writing was generally good, I didn’t think the unusual viewpoint was enough to make the X-Men-type “discrimination against metahumans” story feel fresh. Also, it ended very abruptly. But aside from the storyline running smack into a brick wall partway through, it probably is a much more enjoyable game if you like superheroes.

Inside the Facility

I was skeptical about a parser game where all you can really do is move and wait, but it was surprisingly engrossing and the puzzles worked well. There’s not much plot, but the flavor is abundant and fun. Very enjoyable overall.


This is a pretty well-implemented game, very short in terms of the time a single playthrough taks but with a decent amount of room to try stuff and get different endings, but I found the wacky!!! random!!! humor a little forced, and, ultimately, not that funny. And since the humor is essentially the entire draw here, that leaves me feeling lukewarm about the game overall. I did get to pet a fluffy cat, though, so there’s that.

Cactus Blue Motel

One of the things I really enjoy about parser-based games is the sense of exploring/interacting with/being immersed in a particular environment, and I liked how Cactus Blue Motel managed to capture that feeling within a choice-based structure. The surreal, timeless, nocturnal world of the motel is very vivid, and the visual design of the game, though fairly minimalist, does a lot to add to the atmosphere. The PC and her friends are pretty well-drawn characters, and the game captures that post-high school, pre-college sense of uncertainty and fear of change well. I do wish we could learn a little more about some of the other inhabitants of the hotel–they remained largely two-dimensional and there was never a chance to get much of a sense of why any of them chose to stay, and I think that would have provided a sort of useful counterpoint to the protagonists’ journey from wanting to stay to realizing that they have to go and face their uncertain futures. As it is, the main cautionary tale, as it were, comes in the form of the jackalope, who is frantic to prove that no one ever leaves the motel so he won’t have to face that his own choices are what keeps him there, but he’s a mythical creature operating on a kind of allegorical level, so he can’t have any grounded-in-reality reasons for staying. This wasn’t a major failing by any means, though, and I enjoyed the game a great deal.


It’s not that I’m opposed on principle to surreal, poetic games–I like Porpentine’s work, which this game cites as an inspiration, as much as the next person–but this one didn’t work for me. I was never really sure what was going on with it either on the literal or figurative level, and I didn’t find the imagery particularly striking or memorable. I know this is an especially short review even compared to my other ones, but I don’t think I really got to grips with this game even enough to critique it.


This is certainly timely, and a much more nuanced take on police brutality than I at first thought it was going to be (I was a little dubious when I thought it was going to be “innocent police officer accidentally kills in self-defense, surely he is the victim here!”), but I don’t think I’m qualified to state whether it’s overall well handled or not. I thought the characterization was strong, and efficiently accomplished given how many characters there are and how relatively short the game is. I wasn’t wild about the combination prose and script format, though. Maybe it was supposed to read like a transcript of a documentary or something like that? But I found it kind of jarring.

Pogoman GO!

The problem with doing a game poking fun at a current trend or fad is that it might be passe by the time it’s finished, and I admit I do feel like Pokemon GO!'s star has faded sufficiently (and the game has been mocked thoroughly enough) that this seems a bit like beating a dead horse. But it was entertaining nevertheless, and I do always admire games that successfully bend the text parser to the whims of a gameplay format other than adventure game or classic RPG.


I like the concept and the funny, breezy writing style, but this game is pretty rough on the technical side of things. There are a lot of pages with no links out; in fairness, the undo button takes care of most of this, but there are times when hitting “undo” just takes you back to a page whose only link out was to the dead-end page, and then the page before that only links to the page that links to the dead-end page, and it gets a bit annoying. Formatting weirdness with stray punctuation and repeated words and the like is also distracting–I feel a bit nitpicky complaining, but it’s hard not to be thrown out of the story by things like “You can turn around and lock the door, or Returning to your Lab? Or head for the level’s maintenance room room]].” Unless that’s a very avant-garde stylistic choice, I guess.

Aether Apeiron: The Zephyra Chronicles

The ancient Greek epic/sci-fi mashup is fun, but I find this game so busy as to be overwhelming–tons of links per page, sometimes very deeply nested within each other so it takes a long time to get back to the main page and you’ve half forgotten what you were doing by the time that you do. The ending was also quite abrupt–I have no problem with part 1 of a series being entered into IFComp, but I do feel like games ought to have a complete plot arc, even if there are loose ends. This one was really all setup.

Sigil Reader (Field)

This game hints at a fascinating world that I’d love to know more about, but it’s so short and slight that I feel like the reveal that the PC killed his coworkers kind of lacks punch–I didn’t quite have time to get invested in them or in him. Implementation was also a little shaky. I’d really enjoy seeing more games in this setting, but this one just didn’t quite work for me on an emotional level.

16 Ways to Kill a Vampire at McDonalds

I am an absolute sucker for all fiction that treats the supernatural like it’s mundane and in fact really annoying, so this game won me over really quickly. I enjoyed Lucy’s exasperated narrative voice, and I liked that not only can almost every death be accomplished in multiple ways, but every object can be used for multiple deaths. The unlockables were also really neat, especially the extensive run-down of vampire lore through the ages. Also, I’m on-board with vampires as sleazy pick-up artists. All that being said, once I got through the more straightforward deaths and started trying for the more complicated ones, I was really wishing for a save or even an undo function. All you can do is restart, and that means sometimes running through the same opening moves over… and over… and over… (the “burning the whole building down” ending was especially bad for this, for me). Also, for some of the endings it would’ve been nice to have more than the one hint (“get really angry and smash his head in” stumped me for a while). It was still an enjoyable game overall, and I did get all sixteen endings, I just wish it had taken a few more frustration-saving measures.

All I Do Is Dream

Based on the title and description, I half expected this to be something more quirky and whimsical, possibly with dreamworld shenanigans, but no, it’s another Twine game about depression. The writing is competent enough for the most part, but it’s very short and doesn’t do anything to stand out in the very crowded “Twine games about living with mental illness” genre.

500 Apocalypses

As far as my personal tastes go, the destruction of hundreds of civilizations is more of a downer than I really like, but it’s a creative idea, it’s well-written, and there are some images that are going to stay with me for a while. It was particularly interesting seeing the thematic connections between linked entries. Sorry this is a short review, but I’m never sure what to say about things that are clearly very good at being the kind of thing that they are when that’s a thing I’m not especially into.


I’m a big Poe fan, and I was really impressed by this game’s willingness to not only include, but actually foreground/spend quite a lot of time on the less popular stories. It takes some guts, I think, to have Masque of the Red Death rate a minor mention in a dead end while spending quite a lot of time on Some Words with a Mummy (admittedly one of my personal favorite Poe Stories Almost No One Has Heard Of, though mostly because I enjoy seeing white guys who think they’re better than anyone else get schooled by someone they think is an inferior, which is… proooobably not the authorial intent). Er, sorry, tangent. Anyway, the game’s tone of affectionate mockery was endearing, and the way the various stories were woven together might have been a bit too ridiculous if the game had been aiming for seriousness, but worked well with its over-the-top feel. I also enjoyed the illustrations. All that being said, with how easy it is to die at any moment, I really, really would have liked an undo option.

Stone Harbor

Stone Harbor is well-written, a solidly plotted mystery with lively, believable characters and a pretty good final twist, but the interactivity felt tacked-on rather than being an integral part of the story. The story kept me engaged the whole way through, but I don’t think I’d have been any less engaged had I not periodically had to click links to make the story keep advancing down its predetermined path.

Hill Ridge Lost & Found

[spoiler]I struggle to know what to say about Hill Ridge Lost & Found because I feel like I missed something here. I never really felt like I understood the protagonist’s motivations or his history with the farm and Lonon, and since the crux of the story seems to be his growing understanding that he’s done bad things in the past and his repentance for those things, the fact that I felt distanced from him meant it fell a little flat. I didn’t really understand the world, either; it feels post-apocalyptic, I think, but the worldbuilding is very vaguely sketched out. I actually went back to see if I’d missed something in the lengthy opening text-dump–my eyes glazed over somewhere in there, I admit–but that actually has pretty much no suggestion that this isn’t the modern-day real world. It’s not that I think that everything has to be exhaustively explained, but this whole game just felt… hazy, to me, and I couldn’t connect with it.

Also, this is nitpicking, but I feel like the final choice of which of the two roads to take home lacks power considering that before you make the choice there is zero indication of the implications of choosing one road or the other (at least, nothing I tried gave me any description of what was in either direction). You just randomly choose one or the other and after that you learn what the implications were, even though it’s something the protagonist would’ve known perfectly well beforehand. So I found that irritating.

It’s not a bad game, by any means. The puzzles were good (though I frequently had little idea why I was doing them besides “this seems like the way to advance the plot”), the writing is good on the sentence level, and the setting has a lot of character. Overall I enjoyed it. I just don’t really feel like I got it.[/spoiler]


Okay, there’s not exactly a shortage of humorous noir/hardboiled detective stuff out there, but this was highly entertaining and very stylish. I found the writing funny and the characters fun and memorable if not especially deep. I was especially amused by the Lovecraft-alike and the acceptance letter for one of his stories that you find in his house–low-hanging fruit, maybe, but still amusing (he used the word “cyclopean” two hundred times in one story!). The writer’s homebrew parser-like interface works really well. The puzzles were also mostly good, though I did have to turn to the walkthrough on a few occasions. (The thing that really tripped me up was getting the oil so as to be able to get through the mobsters’ house without waking up the sleeping boss-lady and getting shot. All of the items you need for that puzzle are found in and around the house… except one. There’s no indication that that item is at another location/where it is, and there’s nothing in the game suggesting that you go to that other location first. This could actually have been easily solved by just not giving the player the ability to get the mobsters’ address from the saxophonist at the bar, although in general I was a fan of the multiple puzzle solutions.) … And I’ve just spent a lot of time complaining about a relatively minor problem with a game I overall liked, sorry. It’s a very good game, really!


I admit, I didn’t go into this one in the most charitable frame of mind, because it seemed to be a satire of feminist utopian literature (indeed, it’s literally just Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s Herland with the genders flipped), and because that’s (1) pretty niche to start with, (2) an expression of extreme–and completely justified–frustration with patriarchal society, and (3) not even really a thing in feminist discourse anymore (I, at least, can’t name any matriarchal utopias from later than the '70s), I don’t really feel like that’s something that requires mockery. My first assumption on reading a genderswapped version of something like Herland is that the intention is to say something like, “This would be really sexist if it were about how great a society with no women is, so why is it okay if it’s a society with no men?” Which is a bit of a “Why is it okay to have Black History Month but not White History Month?” kind of question, so, not something I have a lot of patience for. The links at the end, however, clarify that this is inspired by a sort of postmodern feminist art/critique project devoted to swapping the genders of classic feminist writing. So, okay, I take back my annoyance, but I’m a complete idiot, apparently, because I have no goddamn idea what the point of this is or what, from a feminist perspective, it’s supposed to accomplish. It’s too academic and theoretical for me, I guess. And if I can’t figure out what Manlandia is saying as feminist critique, then there’s nothing else really left for me to say about it, because everything else except the coding was Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s handiwork and not the game’s creator’s.

The browser’s back button works I think? At least I hope so!

In terms of highlighting those aspects of SWwaM it absolutely was my authorial intent. I feel a bit sad/ guilty to tell the truth that a fair few reviewers seem to have mistaken the PC’s own opinions for my own. I’d hoped, for example, the fact that you literally die “in a pique of manly shame” when you discover that the women you were lusting over is older than expected would let people know that the PC is a small-minded jerk limited by his privilege. One of the two true “Good Endings” involves the PC realising that his disdain for the native people of the island (off the coast of South America) was woefully ignorant at best.

Oh no, I’m so sorry, I wasn’t referring to you at all with the authorial intent comment! I meant Poe’s intent in the original story. I did get that you were poking some fun at the racist/sexist content of some of the original stories, and I appreciate it.

Here are my last three reviews written during the comp; if I can finish a few more in the next couple days I may post them, but this is entirely likely to be it.

To the Wolves

I enjoy a good revenge story, and I especially enjoy stories involving a woman defying the shitty fate society has ordained for her. To the Wolves hits those buttons, and it’s a very well-put-together game. I didn’t get to explore many of the options, but I’d love to spend more time with it when I’m not trying to get through a whole bunch of other games. That said, there was something missing for me here, emotionally, which I think is because the game never (at least as far as I saw) gives much of an impression of how Ella related to her village pre-sacrifice. Was she always an outcast, and maybe not surprised to be scapegoated? Or did she truly consider these people her friends and feel betrayed by them? Or whatever else–it’s not that I feel she needs any one specific backstory, I just feel that having a backstory beyond the brief description of her parents and the spring festival would lend some dimension to her anger and make the game a bit more engaging.

Slicker City

I feel like Slicker City does a better job than The Problems Compound did of integrating its wordplay into gameplay, which I enjoy. I didn’t get the final joke/puzzle, though; I had to consult the walkthrough on that one. (I mean, having looked it up, I think I kinda get it? But it wasn’t a logical leap I would have made on my own.) Also, the beginning of the game seemed to set up more internal conflict/room for personal growth than is usual for this writer, but then it didn’t quite go anywhere with it, I thought.

Zigamus: Zombies at Vigamus

Zigamus is short, silly, and extremely meta, and trades heavily on video game nostalgia. It would be a fun not-too-taxing diversion if it weren’t also kind of sexist in a non-malicious, unexamined sort of way. It’s not any one egregious thing, it’s just that the female character waiting helplessly in her office to be rescued + needing to be calmed down by being given a lollipop + being described as “filing her nails while you’re thinking of a way to kill the zombies” (paraphrased) left a bad taste in my mouth. The gender of the PC is not specified, so technically they could also be female, but I feel like this is one of those times when there’s an unspoken male default going on.

Thanks! You’re right, I wasn’t clear about the internal growth bit for the second part. There’s lots to clear up in the post-comp release. I had some stuff to say but worried it was too obvious and it turned out that was the wrong thing to worry about.

And thanks for tracking down your final few reviews! I’d encourage any reviewer with reviews left over, or who wonders if their reviews still matter that yes, yes, they do help, even if the author isn’t planning a post comp release. It’s sort of like getting an additional Christmas present.