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Yellow Dog Running, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Yellow Dog Running, May 23, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This game was made for a speed-writing contest. It’s rough. It has unimplemented scenery. Its conversation menus are formatted wonkily. In order to advance the story, at certain points you have to “follow tracks,” which initially creates a guess-the-verb problem. Worse than that, there are no “tracks” in the room descriptions. There are footprints, but “footprints” isn’t a synonym for “tracks.”

Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.

I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.

You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.

These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.

Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.

About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.

I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.

Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.

The Anachronist, by Peter Levine

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Anachronist, May 21, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a story’s time period. When they can’t find solid ground to establish one, or when what they thought was solid proves unstable, they report confusion or annoyance. Their suspension of disbelief has snapped.

I have a hard time remembering dates. A very, very hard time. You have no idea what a hard time. When other people discuss generations, when they delineate time by decades, this seems alienating. There’s no great change from December’s last day to January’s first. Dividing the time on either side into different years makes sense for practical matters. Treating that distinction as more than an arbitrary line drawn on a calendar, discussing years as though they were truly distinct -- this is where I start to sink while everyone else floats. For whatever reason, the timekeeping systems that most people use to organize their lives feel meaningless to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many fairy tales.

I think this is why I’m more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, I’m more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. It’s fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this game’s subject matter was like having a favorite dessert served on a silver platter.

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire -- temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. But they aren’t only her memories. Her perception is sharp enough, her empathy keen enough, her imagination wild enough, perhaps, this close to death, that she can share her consciousness with other people. She can look, from the stake, across the city and know what’s happening in distant towers. She can remember stories that her cellmates told her, before she was convicted, and relive their lives through those remembered tales.

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. It’s very long for a Twine game. It took me a few days to finish, and probably around ten hours total. My reading speed, granted, is slow as a slug, but still. If you plan to play it, treat it more like a book than a game.

It also features long stretches of non-interactive text. Extremely long stretches. Stretches that tested my patience. I’m reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but I’ll read that if that’s what I want. Stone Harbor is another recent game that had similarly long, non-interactive passages. I finished that game feeling as though the brief interactive bits were window dressing, that the story would’ve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When it’s not interactive, it’s not interactive.

But when it is, it is.

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen. I was tempted to give it five stars for the concept alone. But although the concept is great, the game suffers from a few things apart from its long non-interactive patches.

It’s written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually don’t unfold through direct action. Instead they’re summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, you’d expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You aren’t always there yourself.

It’s also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. It’s Elizabethan, and it revels in intimate period detail. Tastes, sounds, textures. Clothing, accents, architecture, music, food, religion, law. Everything feels evocative and real, and also researched. You can sense the research in every line. Again, that textbook flavor emerges, where you feel more like you’re reading a scholarly article than a story. Even the artwork (there are many nice illustrations) is captioned with bibliographic information if you click it. Attributions are good, but presenting them on every single page really puts the story’s academic foot forward.

Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your “entropy” or “knowledge.” What these stats do doesn’t become clear until the end, when they determine the end. I tried to decrease entropy throughout the story, even if it meant sacrificing knowledge, which led to a sub-optimal ending. Whoops. Since the game is so long, it’s unlikely I’ll play again to do things differently.

You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that don’t belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your “entropy” decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didn’t work for me: a) because I didn’t know what the “entropy” stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didn’t work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldn’t click them. I only managed to find about four clickable anachronisms in the whole text. Which meant I spent a lot of time clicking on nothing when I could’ve been more immersed in reading.

These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is ambitious, sophisticated, and despite everything that I thought it did less than ideally, it still did enough right to keep me engaged to the end.

The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, by Ryan Veeder

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, May 18, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Along with The Baron, this was one of the first parser games I ever played when I discovered interactive fiction back in 2014. At the time, I thought it was great, but on The Baron’s heels it felt less substantial (what wouldn’t) and I gave it four stars. Now a few years have passed. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower remains a touchstone for me. It deserves five.

In many ways, this game helped shape my outlook on the parser medium. It’s not about puzzles. It’s not about “Aha!” moments that come from deducing the right command to type. It’s not about deep simulation or intricate world modeling. Instead, it’s about guiding the player through a sequence of events carefully designed, above all else, to produce a mood.

Your only goal is to ascend a tower with which the player-character is “mildly” obsessed. No real obstacles stand in your way. It’s twilight, and the tower is located on a campus whose population is thinning as night falls. You’re alone to contemplate the scenery.

As a traditional short story, this wouldn’t work. There isn’t much story to tell. As a space to explore, were the game to be stripped to its bare geography, it also wouldn’t offer much. There’s a parking lot, a lawn, some empty halls, etc. These locations aren’t compelling on their own, and as I mentioned, they’re not that deeply implemented. What makes the game is the experience itself that the player has while moving through the environment.

That word, “experience,” is awfully vague, but it’s what matters. A story as the word “story” is normally understood isn’t required, perhaps isn’t even advisable, because the player’s experience is the story.

It’s the writing that does the trick here. Well, it ought to be. This is a text game. When a reader has to interact with text, move through it, move it around, this changes both what text does and what it has to do.

Not just anybody could’ve written a game like this and made it good. It’s good because Ryan Veeder’s got his finger on your pulse as you’re playing. He knows where you’ll try to go, what you’ll try to do, what you’re thinking at each step. He’s attuned to the experience you should be having, which allows him to gently guide you along and drop little surprises at the right moments. Finding a plain old quarter on the ground, for example, which you don’t even need, feels special.

Wrenlaw is another Veeder game with a similar style. I have to admit, I don’t like it as much. It tips more into modern literary melancholy, where you’ve got mundane objects and scenes, and they’re significant because they’re ever-so-slightly sad. But not too sad. Just enough to feel wistful. This sorta thing, to my taste, is like playing with fire for a writer. It’s really hard to nail. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, however, pretty much does nail it. Gothic Tower feels more self-assured, and it’s certainly more slyly constructed. I don't think it's going to budge from my personal parser canon anytime soon.

Unicorn Story, by Conrad Cook

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A proper unicorn., February 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This is short hypertext fiction that takes less than ten minutes to play. It's not a game exactly. It was written with a system called Ramus that functions like the Jonah format in Twine. When you click a hyperlink, new text appears at the screen's bottom, but the old text remains visible above. Hyperlinks that haven't yet been clicked also remain active, which means that the player needs to go back and click links they've previously passed.

The result is a textual jumble. Links will appear that you can open in any order, and the text segments they spawn don't line up and organize themselves. Navigating these links in various orders will not lead to different outcomes either. You always reach the same conclusion. Rather, the intent is to create a jumble.

That's because the game takes place almost entirely in mental space. There are only a few lines of physical description, but otherwise everything is internal dialogue.

What has happened is this: a unicorn has put its head on a maiden's lap. According to legend, the best way to bait a unicorn is with a maiden, and this maiden is being used as bait. With its head on her lap, the unicorn can read her thoughts, and its thoughts become jumbled with hers during their mind-merger.

That's what the interactive hyperlink format accomplishes. It mirrors the mind-merger in the story. Although the story has a traditional beginning, middle, and end, presenting it as static fiction would not have conveyed the same concept.

Now, with the technical side covered, what about the story? It's very simple. A one-act play, if you will, with two main characters. But a lot is going on in this small space.

I'm a unicorn fan. Not the rainbows-and-sparkles unicorns. The haughty, wild unicorns that gore and trample people. Those are the ones I like. There is so much bound up in legends about them. Slice through the unicorn and you'll expose strata about gender, class, public and private power dynamics, sex, spirituality, and I could go on, etc. And all these things come to a head when a maiden encounters a unicorn during a hunt.

Both maiden and unicorn in Unicorn Story are archetypes, but both are also real characters with real conflicts. Both have their own voices. I'm particularly happy with the unicorn's characterization, because this story gets it right. You won't find any innocent forest creature here. Instead the unicorn is arrogant, vicious, manipulative (it can read the maiden's thoughts, but she doesn't know this). The maiden, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet. She has her own stakes in the hunt and grapples directly with her role as bait.

It's fascinating to see these two characters twist and turn to alternately accept, deny, and justify their motives for putting themselves into this situation. As I said, the story's very short, and yet in its small space there are revelations and double-crosses. But nothing is rushed. Nothing is heavy-handed. More is packed into each line of dialogue, and especially into its tone, than you might realize at first.

Just like the legends it's based on, you could mine Unicorn Story for a long time and keep finding new things to say about it.

A Good Wick, by Little Foolery

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A Good Wick, January 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
A Good Wick is essentially an interactive storybook. It’s totally linear, with only one point at which the reader can pick between two choices, each choice leading to a different ending. There’s also a secret third ending, but it doesn’t involve further choices: clicking a hidden link continues the story from where a previous ending had stopped.

Some linear games employ cycling links, variables, passage loops, etc., etc., to make the text active and malleable even when the story is straightforward. These games may have limited narrative outcomes, you may have no choices to make, but you still have to move the text around and slide bits into place to reach the end. Games like this are sometimes referred to as dynamic fiction. Well, A Good Wick doesn’t do any of that either.

Nevertheless, I regard A Good Wick as strong interactive work. It’s only using the most basic hypertext mechanic — the link from one page to the next — but it’s highly attuned to how this influences pacing. It withholds and delivers text as an oral storyteller would to guide the plot’s rhythm. New sections are often preceded by titles such as “A Fact About Daylight” or “A Fact About the Town,” but these things aren’t really sections and those aren’t really titles. They’re more like poetic flourishes. They also guide the story’s rhythm. Chapters in a book influence rhythm too, but you know when they’re coming and they have an organizational purpose. A Good Wick’s section breaks are more like intertitles dramatically introduced during a film.

Many pages are illustrated, and these illustrations are also arranged with a consideration toward pacing. I used the phrase “interactive storybook” before, but “interactive comic” might be more apt. A comic uses the sequencing between panels to deliver meaning. A Good Wick does the same thing, with every new page serving as a panel. Not all the pages are given this treatment, and some illustrations repeat, but it’s a technique that finds good employment at some key moments.

The illustrations themselves are well suited to the story. Atmospheric, dark but warm, earthy and hazy. They’re always situated at the page’s center, and they fade outward into the surrounding black background. They flicker and glow. No, this wouldn’t work nearly as well as a printed storybook. It wouldn’t work at all. The game advises you to play it at fullscreen in a dark room, which I did, and would also recommend.

Certain readers, on the other hand, will find this annoying. At some points, the text fades until your cursor hovers back over it. At other points, the text is too bright to read until it dims beneath your cursor. People who just want plain text won’t enjoy these effects. But the effects complement the story’s themes, and you can’t please everyone.

What about the story, anyway? We’re in fairy tale territory. Outside a village in a sunless land, a sentient lantern has been burning for three years beside the road, keeping watch. Something’s prowling out there in the dark. One day it’s going to try entering the village. We know, from the very beginning, that the village is doomed, and this story is about learning why.

The writing is clean and charming. The plot is well structured. It’s sinister, but not too sinister, but actually quite sinister the more you think about it — like a good fairy tale.

Unfortunately I think it trips over itself with its multiple endings. Of the two standard endings, one is much more fleshed-out than the other. The third, secret ending takes elements from the first ending and adds them to the second, creating an awkward mishmash. This third ending feels like it’s meant to be the “true” ending, but by the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already seen its plot beats beaten into the ground. It over-explains things that were already clear; the over-explanation makes everything feel more like a trope; it rehashes sequences that were better the first time around.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the game would falter in this area. It puts narrative branching far, far into the background for almost the entire story, and that’s when its strengths shine. But then branching takes center stage at the end and doesn’t work as well. It’s clear that the team behind this project is extremely talented. They just haven’t hammered down what makes a branching narrative effective.

When I reach a satisfying ending, I often don’t want to replay a story. Many games encourage the player to explore alternate paths, however, and therefore I find myself replaying to experience the game as intended. That’s what happened here.

In these situations, the player doesn’t choose an ending; the player chooses all endings, and the game becomes a collectathon. The pacing is ruined. Any important decisions you might’ve made in the story are nullified when you just go back and pick every option anyway.

Maybe other readers won’t find A Good Wick’s multiple endings as disappointing, since I’m hard to please when it comes to this mechanic. Even with that criticism, though, I enjoyed the story a lot. It’s labeled as “horror” here on IFDB, which doesn’t seem right, but if you like dark fantasy and fairy tales, and don’t mind linear hypertext, then it’s definitely worth giving a try.

Howled House, by B Minus Seven

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Howled House, December 1, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Howled House is a short piece made in Raconteur where you play as the titular house. Three imprisoned “howlers” howl during the night as they sleep, and a house with three wings is “raised” by their howling. Each wing has its own personality, and when an explorer enters, the wings attempt in their own ways to either repulse his advances or seduce him toward his doom. What does this explorer want? To scour the house, to take something from it, to understand what can’t be understood about its secret rooms (some open with links; others never open)? The house itself doesn’t quite know. The explorer is not repulsed, is not seduced, but is nevertheless trapped because, once he’s entered the house, he can’t leave.

Howled House itself is also the house it describes, and the player is the explorer. Its words invite you inside and yet they push you back. What do you hope to achieve by playing? What right do you even have to poke around inside this house whose very walls have risen from anguished howls? It’s a question that extends to any art, but especially to art that’s born from pain. That description makes it sound deadly serious, which isn’t right. It’s lively and alive — but it is potentially deadly. “The blade-box, what fun!” says the clowning third hall.

As I write these words, I feel I must tread with caution. At this very moment, I’m walking into the house’s trap, and it wants me or it doesn’t want me or it wants both things. Maybe I’m a guest or maybe I’m a plaything. Maybe I have no business being here. No, I think I’m welcome. After all, the game’s been written for people to experience. But it’s difficult to know where I stand, just as it’s difficult for the house and the author to know what readers want, what their agendas are. And not just this house, not just this author, not just this reader: it’s difficult for anyone to feel their way forward through communication with another person.

Of course this reading might be wrong. Maybe I’m lost in the house. Maybe I took something from it that it never had or never wanted me to have. That’s a danger. All I can do is acknowledge the danger. It’s a dangerous game, but also a game I consider worth risking the danger to play. I wouldn't be surprised if, a few months from now, I understand it in a different way.

The language is phenomenal. I may be unsure about a few things here, but there’s no question in my mind that Howled House ought to be nominated at the XYZZY Awards for Best Writing.

Take, by Katherine Morayati (as Amelia Pinnolla)

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Take, November 19, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Take is a difficult game to discuss. It attacks the very concept of writing impressions/reviews/any-personal-reactions-whatsoever, and therefore demands a more considered response from anyone who dares to have a response. It’s a challenge. It defies you to “take” it. If you don’t, then you’re a coward turning a blind eye to institutionalized abuse. If you do, then you’re a barbarian participating in that abuse. The only way to touch the material is by walking the same razor’s edge that the game itself walks.

Essentially you are a journalist plugged into the current mass-media machine, right now, today. This is conveyed by an allegory about gladiatorial combat in a dystopian society, but what you’re actually doing is writing “hot takes” for a soulless editor who wants you to flay open your personal life and put it on public display. Your value as a writer depends on how many “hits” you can generate/withstand, but this value carries over to your value as a person, because it determines whether you can make enough to continue supporting yourself. Nobody cares about you as a person, however. Not even your supposed fans. You’re simply cutting yourself open so that they can consume your “content” as they would consume “content” from anyone else willing to undergo similar exposure. The content in your “content” doesn’t matter, as long as it's intimate. It just has to be salacious enough to slip down the throat easily. And if it doesn’t slip down the right way, they’ll still pick you apart, and you’ll see every petty and mean-spirited criticism on Twitter. In short, you cannot win, and indeed the game ends when you’re “taken” yourself, not by yourself, but by an unfeeling audience who finally make you their own and discard you for good in the same moment.

As I said, this is all presented via allegory. Your mental reactions to the gladiator fight are translated into “takes” that feed into a monitor built into your chest, and this monitor also alerts you to all the incoming negative tweets that people write in response. Escape is impossible. Society has welded this contraption into your body. The gameplay itself plays a role in the setup, where examining and taking things are the only actions that you are even equipped to do. Nothing else matters because the game says nothing else matters because it’s making a comment about our current culture where nothing else matters.

As a game, this is extremely effective. You couldn’t ask for mechanics to be built into a story more.

As an allegory, like last year’s In The Friend Zone, it chains itself in a major way to popular slang that will sooner than later fade out, but under the slang are issues that will persist, most probably, as long as humankind survives.

There’s also a gendered aspect to the narrative. You aren’t simply a journalist; you are a female journalist, and the game is as much about society’s attitude toward women as it is about society’s obsession with consuming endless “content.” These hot takes that you’re writing are a journalistic form that has grown and mutated from the literary memoir, which is a genre historically fostered by women. Now it has been repurposed to make them victims for even attempting honest self-reflection. By sharing their viewpoints, they are simply making it easier for the leering audience to gawk at them, and the monitor being inset into your exposed chest, which your scanty armor doesn’t cover, isn’t a trivial design element. Great attention is paid to how prettily disfigured you can become during the battle, and to how actual disfigurement, real wounds, must be camouflaged to look aesthetically pleasing; the audience doesn’t want to confront legitimate suffering because that would spoil their entertainment. A few lines seem to echo passages from howling dogs, where the bone-footed empress must practice her death pose to ensure its elegance, but whereas howling dogs offered relief, even if that meant plunging deeper into a delusion or a dream, there’s no relief anywhere here.

The protagonist’s experience is contrasted by an epilogue that unlocks after the main game is finished, where you play as her opponent and see how the combat unfolded from his perspective. He is radically, grotesquely, stereotypically a “he,” and the game’s own hottest take arrives via this epilogue, which is titled Use and limits its verbset to that command. Whereas the characters, actions, and environments were described with penetrating detail during Take, in Use everything is reduced to brainless mush. “Pretty sweet battlefield.” That’s as deep as the commentary’s going to get. There are no more levels, there is no more thought, and everything exists, of course, to be “used,” including “the girl they sent.” Moreover, “using” anything will produce an automatic one-move victory. This epilogue is where its venom climactically overtops the game’s cup and absolutely everything on the table becomes infected.

There’s no solution offered here, and these characters aren’t people. They are monstrous parodies pitted against each other in a death battle they’ve both created: an eternal victim and an eternal persecutor. Nothing will ever change. It will only evolve, as the “hits” in the game’s dystopia did from virtual to physical, to become more complicated and more hideous. Subtleties don’t tease out meaning. They provide more openings for attack. We may sympathize more with the victim but our sympathy is as worthless as the takes that she’s writing because it will have no influence on anything. We might try to say, “I understand,” but she’s still going out onto the arena floor to suffer.

I don’t think that art needs to offer solutions. Sometimes pointing a finger at a problem is already hard enough. I certainly won’t propose to offer a solution in this review to the problems the game is highlighting, but what I can do is give my own opinion about a few issues, and the foremost thing that I want to say is that sharing your opinion is not “giving a hot take.” Writing an essay is not “writing a thinkpiece.” Playing a game, reading a book, watching a movie — these activities are not reducible to “consuming content.” And yet people do reduce them, every day. They reduce them by how they approach subjects, how they use words to frame discussions. When communication is drowning in #ironic #hashtags #about #hottakes, that begins to color how people actually interpret reality. When people self-consciously discuss their #brands, they are heating the fire for their own branding irons. Even the last two sentences that I wrote are contributing to this problem.

I’ve seen other authors, during perfectly innocent conversations, refer to themselves as content-creators, and to their games as content. The thing about content is that it matters less than the receptacle it’s filling. Even in the niche interactive fiction world, people have adopted this terminology and its accompanying mindset from the mass-media treadmill that’s responsible for crushing people as Take’s protagonist is crushed. It won’t stop crushing anyone until people stop turning it. Stop slathering everything in corrosive irony. Stop swallowing authors whole and then banging the table to demand more. If you turn life into a blood-drunk meme, “one joke until expiration,” then that’s what it will become.

I don’t agree with everything this game depicts, and I wonder how effective it will be at getting players to think about certain topics, but it’s certainly straining to do as much as it possibly can with the tools and the room that it has. It’s impeccably written and designed. Even newcomers to parser should be able to play it. Recommended, but beware the spikes.

The Dead: A Story, by John Leo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Not quite buried alive, September 8, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Maybe you've been buried dead. Maybe not. Maybe you're not entirely alive or dead. Whatever you are, though, you are aware, and this is a short Twine game about how time passes for you underground.

It’s more prose-poetry than prose. More about the experience than the story, although there is a story that unfolds through memories you turn over in your head as you rot. Memories about a death cult, about your family history, about trees sprung from unusual soil. Piecing this together isn’t as important as simply letting these narrative details eat at you like worms while the days, months, and years pass. Death here isn’t an ending and it’s not a beginning. It’s a state to consider.

This game could have used its fictional setting as an invitation to create some very strange mythology, but it actually doesn’t wander too far, almost like it’s a shadow just one or two steps removed from the real world. It’s got restraint.

At Anchor, by B Minus Seven
A short interactive shore leave, July 13, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
At Anchor is micro fiction. No more than a few hundred words. But it expands beyond those words, beyond the game. Into Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Caelyn Sandel’s Tiny Beach. You have to reach outside to understand what’s anchored to the text.

The game’s soundscape and seascape might seem to offer an escape. Only briefly. You are combing a beach but you will return to your ship one way or another. Still, you have a moment’s meditation. With just three actions, the game opens diverse options: listen for the captain’s call, never listen and search the sand instead, listen but then ignore the call, listen and then obey.

These seem small choices. They are as large as you want them to be. Their largeness lies between their lines. When, at one end, certain sentences repeat with more words missing each time, the blank space following the final line may say as much as the now-missing language.

Interactive fiction this economic cannot simply be swallowed. It will go down too fast. You have to wander with it, let your thoughts circle, allow the game to pull them back to its center. Then maybe let them leave the game entirely.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Ryan Veeder and Edgar Allan Poe

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A faithful adaptation, May 1, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Faithful, that is, to how Ryan Veeder remembered Poe’s only novel one month after listening to the audiobook, and without consulting the novel again. Events are skimmed. Characters are combined. Context is discarded. Forgotten plot beats are swept overboard. The game plunges on. It doesn’t matter.

I’m tempted to call the resulting game a parody, but that doesn’t sit right. This is simply Poe filtered through Veeder’s head. A bizarre story about shipwreck and cannibalism becomes a bizarre story about shipwreck and cannibalism. A dog appears. Pickles are eaten. We visit Antarctica. There is a dead polar bear.

I’m not sure how much anyone will appreciate this game without having read Poe’s original novel. I’m also not sure how much anyone will appreciate it without having played Veeder’s other games. But if you do have that background, this game is surprisingly illuminating, both in relation to Poe and Veeder. It puts a spotlight on certain elements in Poe, clearing away everything else so that you can see just how weird these elements really are. And since that spotlight is Veeder’s interpretation, you also see how he’s personally digesting the material.

This all becomes even more interesting when you consider that Winter Storm Draco (one of Veeder’s best games, in my opinion) was built with Arthur Gordon Pym as its thematic foundation. The references to Pym are so central in Draco that if you extracted them, Draco would vanish.

Finally, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that the cry “Tekeli-li!” did not originate with Lovecraft. It’s from Arthur Gordon Pym, to which Lovecraft owes a great debt when it comes to Antarctic exploration, ancient polar civilizations, and unfathomable creatures dwelling below the ice.


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