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Reviews by Christina Nordlander

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HAIZARA, by Rani Baker
Twine retro beat 'em up, with graphics and music, May 12, 2018
HAIZARA cuts the Gordian knot of Twiny Jam's extreme word count limit, by using Twine commands to power an LCD-style game, complete with music and sound effects. The result is slick, funny, and addictive (if hard).

I have to admit, I still haven't beaten it. (Spoiler - click to show)I can't figure out how to defeat the fire demon.

The only reason I'm not giving it five stars is because some of the puzzle solutions are counter-intuitive. (Spoiler - click to show)Instead of attacking the spider, you have to JUMP up to the spider, causing it to drag you to its lair where you find an emerald. Fortunately, emeralds are wizard stuff, leading the wizard to let you into his castle. Obviously, this is part of the intentional retro silliness of the game, but it still makes progress a matter of trial-and-error rather than reasoning.

Contains some gratuitous swearing and meme usage, for those who don't like such things.

Definitely should be played by everyone, if only for the innovation factor.

little mermaids, by Prynnette

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Just a story, but a beautiful story, May 12, 2018
little mermaids is an entry in Twiny Jam, which has a 300 word size limit. You are a siren, setting out with your sisters to charm and drown the sailors of an approaching ship -- not because you're evil, but because the law of the sea is the same as the law of the jungle: hunt or starve. And your sister is going to die unless she feeds soon.

This piece is completely linear, but the writing is excellent enough that I'm not taking any points off for that. While the story is short and simple, there is enough wealth of detail that I didn't feel the wordcount limit. The Twine links pace out the story well, with a nice effect in the ending.

A lushly written, tragic work. Well worth a read if you're a fan of mermaids or the darker side of folklore.

YOUR PARTY IS DEAD, by Naomi Norbez
Interesting story marred by uneven writing and lack of interactivity, May 5, 2018
(Disclosure: I participated in Ectocomp 2017.)

YOUR PARTY IS DEAD grabbed me with its title, and the plot is pretty interesting, though far from cheerful (obviously the game was written for Hallowe'en, but I found it more depressing than scary). It presents an unpleasant situation, and made me identify with the PC's desperation to get out of it. The use of intentional boredom is well handled: making the reader experience boredom without feeling bored is very hard, but the monotony of the PC's undeath is handled well here and doesn't outstay its welcome. While I don't quite understand the reasons for why the ending turns out as it does, it is unexpected and ties in nicely with what came before.

Unfortunately, the writing quality fluctuates a bit. A lot of that can probably be laid at the door of the time limit, because there are some genuinely nice, emotionally intense moments, while others feel dull. "Show, don't tell" is an overused piece of writing advice, but I feel it's particularly warranted in IF: in static fiction, there are times when telling the reader how a character feels are the best option, but in IF, the reader takes the role of a character and thus really should never need to be told how they feel. In YOUR PARTY IS DEAD, there are several instances of the PC being told how they panic, scream, etc., when letting the situation speak for itself would be more effective.

Another issue is the lack of interactivity. The author is upfront about this, but it's still rather jarring: there is a single instance where the player can choose multiple options, and they all lead to the same continuation, and there are other instances where options would seem logical, even if they would simply lead to failure. Again, this is a function of the short time-frame. An expanded version with all the branching and multiple endings the author originally wanted would be interesting.

Tonally, there is some fluctuation as well. The blurb and monochrome-and-red palette made me expect something either teen-angsty or genuinely distressing, but there are also adventuring parties straight out of a derivative RPG, complete with a bard who speaks in rhyme. That makes it hard to pinpoint just how seriously this story wants to be taken.

The NPCs are not deep, though they feel sympathetic enough to explain the PCs feelings for them. Oddly, the NPC I liked best was the Bat Dragon, (Spoiler - click to show)again, it's not a groundbreaking character, but it gets quite a bit of charm and pathos in some of the well-written passages.

On a technical level, the dark palette feels suitable, but the (custom-made?) font is a bit rough, with small Fs looking identical to capital ones and unnecessarily tall colons. There are a few typoes, but again, that's to be expected from a Petite Morte game.

In short, a fairly engaging but completely non-interactive dark fantasy story, with writing that isn't quite up to the task, despite some good passages. Worth giving a try if you're in the mood.

A Study in Porpentine, by chintokkong

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Great game, but play Skulljhabit first, November 21, 2017
Creating an homage to a fellow artist (particularly one who is still alive and may come across your work) is a tricky rope to walk. At worst, it may turn into cringeworthy idolisation. At the same time, surely some form of deference to the older (greater?) artist is to be expected; otherwise, what's the point of it being an homage?

chintokkong's A Study in Porpentine avoids the risk of cringe through a fairly original approach: the game isn't so much about its creator's feelings towards Porpentine and her work as it is about a concrete artistic problem: how to create a game like Skulljhabit. The author's page mentions several literary sources with which I'm unfortunately unfamiliar. I'd like to add that it reminded me of Jorge Luis Borges' short story "Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote", the story of a 20th century writer's attempt to recreate Don Quixote; not an adaptation or a pastiche, but an identical facsimile, word by word.

And A Study in Porpentine works. In fact, I may have enjoyed it more than the game it's based on. Skulljhabit is not a bad game by any means; it has Porpentine's usual high writing quality, and the setting and ambience are compelling. Even so, I've only played it once and was satisfied, whereas I keep coming back to A Study in Porpentine, even after solving it. I can think of a few reasons (essentially all boiling down to "it's a taste thing"). For starters, ASiP's story of finding inspiration and creating a work of fiction is closer to my own life and motivations than Skulljhabit's cycle of menial labour. Secondly, ASiP gives you a more driving plot, with your goal and the way to get there set out right from the start. Skulljhabit does have a progressing plot, but it lets you fumble about in the dark to find it. What can I say? It's a taste thing. You may have the opposite reaction.

I enjoyed pretty much everything about it. The challenge of compiling the material for your game is a good example of how puzzles can be implemented in a Twine game. I did find one part (finding the hair) frustrating, since it got me blundering about using trial-and-error, but I don't have many hard feelings for that. And the writing and mood are excellent, fully on a par with the source material.

I found it enlightening to compare my feelings to the other chintokkong game I've played, Save the World in 7 Moves. With Save the World I found the gameplay original, especially for Twine, but didn't feel that the writing or mood were particularly memorable. In ASiP, the gameplay is upfront about being unoriginal, but the writing and mood are as good as I could desire.

Recommended, but play Skulljhabit first.

The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw, by Caleb Wilson (as Lewis Blanco)
On to vengeance!, November 4, 2017
(Disclosure: I participated in Ectocomp 2016.)

In The Unstoppable Vengeance of Dr. Bonesaw you play a genius inventor about to take the final step to get revenge on four enemies. The good doctor's hatred of the enemies shines through; however, since apparently their crime is plagiarising inventions and Dr. Bonesaw's response is murder, you get the feeling that our protagonist may be a bit morally ambiguous.

The first thing that stood out to me in this game was the writing. This has the best writing of any Ectocomp 2016 entry I've played so far, and then some. It is pitch-perfect and funny, with sensuous descriptions. The plot is clever, with an unusual gimmick.

The central puzzle isn't the most groundbreaking thing in all IF, but it's solidly implemented and rewards experimentation. It stumped me just long enough to feel challenging, rather than frustrating. I would have liked to see a bit more variety in the outcomes, even just a slight change to the ending message depending on, for example, whether you (Spoiler - click to show)blocked the southern doorway but not the northeastern one. However, this is after all a speed IF.

While the story is about cold-blooded murder, the ambience of the game is pulp, rather than horror. The most frightening parts were little asides, rather than the main plot: for example, the existence of the morphing surgical table, (Spoiler - click to show)though it doesn't get used for any nasty purposes in-game, or the response to REMOVE MASK.

My only criticism of this game is that I would have loved more: more endings, more things for Dr. Bonesaw to comment on, more puzzle. However, when I come across a game that is as much a treat as this, I'm thankful for what I get.

I haven't rated any Ectocomp entries; it would have felt disingenuous, since I participated in it. However, if I did, I think this game merits at least a 4. Strongly recommended for anyone who enjoys a short, mildly creepy pulp read with polished prose and implementation.

Because You're Mine, by Owlor

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Sleek dark magic Speed IF, hampered by one poorly clued puzzle, October 29, 2017
(Disclosure: I participated in Ectocomp 2016.)

Because You're Mine is a dark little puzzler where the PC is a sapient horse searching for the ingredients for a spell to get revenge on an unfaithful lover.

The title sets the darkly romantic ambience right from the start, and the game is atmospheric and grim, while still having enough touches of black comedy to make you at least half-sympathise with the protagonist. There are some fine puzzles (I liked figuring out how to enter the swamp and get the wing), and the writing is good, given the time restrictions, though it could of course be more polished. The description of the swamp is particularly atmospheric. While the setting is pretty obviously based on My Little Pony, there is enough original worldbuilding (Brieflings, the magic) to make it a bit more than just a copy. The NPCs are obviously limited, but still get a lot of quite sympathetic characterisation in a few lines. All in all, the game is well implemented for a Petite Morte entry, including an encyclopaedia that you can consult about various topics.

So far I was enjoying both writing and puzzles. However, I got stuck on obtaining the mandrake root. I had an idea of where to find it, but the implementation was so sketchy that I nearly quit the game, before stumbling on the right phrasing.

(Spoiler - click to show)You have to type LOOK UNDER CORPSE. Commands such as LOOK UNDER TREE, SEARCH GROUND etc. will give you a stock negative response

So that brings down the score a bit for me (and if you're not familiar with real-world folklore about mandrakes, the in-game information will not be particularly helpful about where to look). However, in all other aspects the game is well-implemented, with fresh puzzles and fun worldbuilding. Recommended if you're in the mood for a dark, sardonic fantasy game with an unpleasant protagonist.

Keepsake, by Savaric
A flawed work of art, September 30, 2017
The word "keepsake" makes me think of a small object: precious, of course, beautiful, perhaps, but above all exquisite and rare.

Keepsake is small and unique. Unfortunately, its idea is a bit too bold, and the details a bit too out of proportion, for it to form an aesthetically perfect whole.

I let that simile get away from me, didn't I? Let's rewind.

Keepsake has a very bold concept that can't be discussed without spoiler tags: (Spoiler - click to show)you are playing through a series of events in reverse, taking things from bystanders instead of carrying out fetch-quests, handing over important items, on your way away from the climactic moment. It's not a completely original concept: I haven't see Memento, but I was also reminded of Martin Amis' novel Time's Arrow, another example of a bold work of art that perhaps doesn't quite work. This conceit is wrapped up in a very simple but emotionally powerful revenge plot.

So I like the plot, slight as it is, and am impressed by the conceit. I'm in two minds about the puzzles. On the one hand, they're clever: solving them requires having figured out the conceit. On the other hand, once you have done so, the puzzles are 1) essentially the same, and 2) very simple acts of giving or using an item. The simplicity is justified: in this type of story, more complex puzzles might have been very difficult to solve, let alone implement. Still, it meant that while the first puzzle I came across (the old man's cane in the coffee shop) impressed me, the next one was just more of the same.

The writing is good, rather than great. It's not strikingly beautiful prose, and some sentences felt clichéd, but conversely, there were also times when the writing struck a psychologically accurate note, and I feel like those moments outnumbered the duds. The style is a clear window to observe the story through, rather than an artwork.

The epilogue, again, has me in two minds. On the one hand, it's well implemented and serves as a good coda to the story; on the other hand, it made me realise that unplayable epilogues might be rare in IF for a reason.

The version I played was very well implemented: the set-up by necessity causes a bunch of disambiguation issues, but the game is streamlined enough that I had very few problems getting it to understand me. As I mentioned before, the epilogue is also a good piece of implementation.

One of the more original games out there, and perhaps it implements its gimmick as well as can be realistically expected. In the end, however, between the somewhat flavourless writing and the simplicity of the puzzles, I found it not-quite-exquisite enough to live up to its name.

Batman is Screaming, by Porpentine

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Slight but well-written Batman fanfiction, September 11, 2017
Batman is Screaming is a short Batman fanfiction from the Joker's point of view, where (Spoiler - click to show)the Joker finally wins.

It is utterly linear and slight in size, without much of a story, but the writing and characters' voices are top notch (I'm admittedly not a huge Batman fan, but the Joker's actions and props feel true to form). Unsurprisingly for Porpentine, there is some unsettling (not graphic, but unsettling) horror content as well.

Not one of Porpentine's more memorable games, but worth a playthrough for the quality of the prose alone.

The Curious Incident at Blackrock Township, by Bitter Karella

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Short, powerful witch trial story, but feels like it's missing something, September 1, 2017
(Disclosure: I participated in EctoComp 2016.)

The Curious Incident at Blackrock Township is a short Twine story about a witch trial in colonial North America, told entirely through snippets from contemporary and later documents.

Historical fiction seems to be a comparatively rare genre in IF, which makes me all the happier when I find a game that lets me immerse myself in an alien time period. Witch trials are a concept that's hard to screw up when it comes to good drama, and I'm always a fan of the "found document" gimmick, which is used excellently here.

I'm not a historian of 17th century America, but the story feels well-researched. My only major nitpick with the storyline is that (Spoiler - click to show)I find it hard to believe that Ezola would be allowed to go free for denouncing Hopkins; to me it seems more likely that they would both have been executed. That said, again, I'm not an expert on witch trials, and perhaps that has indeed happened. (As a minor nitpick, I also find it hard to believe that a Puritan would name one of his children "Diffidence".)

The documents, both contemporary and those of later historians, are well-written and catch an authentic tone. Some of the 17th century spelling felt hokey to me, even taking into consideration the lack of standardised English spelling in that era. (I'm particularly dubious about the spelling "tortor" for "torture".) However, that seems like something that would be difficult to get right in a 3-hour time span - and, to repeat myself, perhaps some of the weirder spellings come straight out of actual documents from the time.

Ezola's character is nicely sketched in a brief space. The horrors are hinted at in a matter-of-fact way, making them stick in the mind better than any melodrama or explicit gore could have done. While many of the passages just have a single link leading to the next one, there is a reasonable amount of interactivity for such a short story.

For all that, I came away feeling vaguely unsatisfied. It felt like the game simply didn't add much to distinguish itself from other witch-hunt stories. The hints in some endings that (Spoiler - click to show)Ezola was indeed a witch is a twist that has been done before. There is some interesting potential in the concept that the player gets to influence events that are already set down by historians and should thus be immutable, but this isn't really given much emphasis in the text.

Well worth playing: for starters, it's a setting and genre that is relatively rare in IF, with a dark, interesting and well-written (my misgivings about some of the archaic spelling aside) story. At the end of the day, though, it feels like there could have been more meat on it.

Drunken Mind Control Slaughter, by Tom Smith

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Fun and original concept, but the lack of interactivity is detrimental, August 30, 2017
The title of this game led me to expect something pretty dark: both "mind control" and "slaughter" are heavy, frightening terms. In fact, the game turns out to be a slapstick comedy, if one with a nightmarish, Kafkaesque side (actually, isn't that true of most slapstick?). You're an ordinary guy, out drinking with friends on your birthday, when you try a mind-control drug. Things spiral out of control quickly.

The effects of the mind-control are funny, surreal, and lead to some original havoc. I won't spoil the events that ensue, since they're the best part of the story.

Sadly, this is one of those Twine games where the lack of interactivity is a negative. Drunken Mind Control Slaughter is not completely linear, but player choice is restricted to the ending. This bothers me, because the effects of the mind-control essentially set the player up with a puzzle: perhaps a difficult one, due to the chaos and the characters' lack of control, but original. Instead, I clicked my way through a mostly static story, without a chance to affect the action. Perhaps more interactivity would just have compounded the chaos, but that would be great for the comedy, too.

The characters are cyphers: good as slapstick props, but virtually blank otherwise. The writing is hardly great literature, but it's good enough. Most importantly, it's clear: more florid writing might have made the chaotic events more difficult to follow. On the downside, there were times when it felt slapdash. Slapdash isn't necessarily a negative: Porpentine has sometimes used a more informal tone without her games suffering for it. Here, however, it made the story feel skimpy in some places (such as in some of the ending scenarios) where more involved description would have added to the drama.

Not a bad story by any means: give it a playthrough, it's short and sweet. However, I would have enjoyed a way for the player to do more. The set-up is good enough that the lack of interactivity felt like a missed opportunity.

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