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Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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For Me It Was Tuesday, by Soda51

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
You're not bad... for a guy, September 4, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Soda51's oeuvre consists for the most part of extremely short games with ham-fisted messages. For Me It Was Tuesday is not exception. Here, we follow two girls as they go to the arcade to comment on two boys playing Street Fighter. At least, that's what I think is going on; on the one hand, the game suggests that you are playing one of the girls and are also playing the Street Fighter game, but on the other hand, the girls continually make sexist remarks that would make no sense when addressed to another girl. So the fiction of the game refuses to become very clear. Either the girls are commenting on two hapless boys, or they have some thing going on where they trash talk to each other as if the other girl were a buy.

The piece is highly non-interactive; you just press a couple of links, and they change what you see next, but there's no meaningful agency.

So why am I giving the game 2 stars? Because the stream of insults the girls engage in are sometimes spot-on as gender-inverted parodies of the stupid things that some male gamers say to female gamers. This makes the current game slightly better than the other Soda51 games that I've played, and that should be rewarded.

Tonight Dies the Moon, by Tom McHenry

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cold war longing, July 31, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Like Horse Master, Tonight Dies the Moon is a futuristic game set in a dystopian world that is sketched in few but striking and imaginative details. Also like Horse Master, it contains some sequences that are reminiscent of existing computer game genres -- a sort of reverse Space Invader and a market-simulating farming game -- but neither deliver nor want to deliver the kind of victory that such games promise. Add the instantly recognisable visual style of the games, and there can be no doubt that you are playing another Tom McHenry game.

(Spoiler - click to show)Tonight Dies the Moon is actually two related games: one where you play on Earth and one where you play on the Moon. In one sense, these sequences are entirely different. On Earth, you are obsessed with the war against the Moon, you go to work to shoot some lunar bases, you say goodbye to your best friend, and then you escape to the moon. On the Moon, you've apparently never heard of a war; you spend turn after turn planting crops for both the government and yourself, raking in big profits for the former and meagre earnings for the latter; you have some non-interactive interactions with your fellow colonists; and finally, you get blown up by an attack from Earth. (Perhaps it is also possible to die earlier from starvation, if you don't manage to be successful at the farming game; and maybe, just maybe, it is possible to earn enough money for a ticket to Earth.) So where the Earth story is a more traditional piece of linear fiction ending on a high note, the Moon story is a farming game with some episodic fictions sprinkled through it and a predetermined loss looming over you.

But in another sense, the two halves of the game are very much alike. Both protagonists live in poverty and must scrape to get by. Both are pawns in a political system that doesn't care about them and with which they collaborate for lack of an alternative. Both keep their lives tolerable through a friendship with a single person. Both dream of a different existence, and look at each other's world in the night sky with the vague hope that maybe there is a better life up there. We, of course, after playing both halves of the game, know that those dreams are only that, dreams; they have no base in reality. But we understand why people would think differently. We understand why they must think differently in order to keep life bearable. As a tale of misguided and yet understandable longing, Tonight Dies the Moon is quite beautiful and affecting. The Moon-sequence could have been a bit shorter (the game goes on and on long after the episodic fiction has stopped), but all in all, not in the least because of the many original details (like ChangeNames and the process of copying and changing books on the moon), it works and stays with the reader.

Less successful is the political side of the game. Earth and Moon are quite obviously meant to be modern-day versions of the U.S.A. and Russia in de cold war. Earth is a hyper-individualistic and shallow society obsessed with a war fought with drones, and even more obsessed with its bad health care system. The Moon poses as an egalitarian community, but the government is just profiting from the people, its plan-based economy is a disaster leading to famine, and anyone who wants to read something good must engage in samizdat. The former, if read as a critique of current right-wing political trends in the U.S.A., is over-the-top and lacks the kind of truth that would make it sting. (After all, not even Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are in favour of expensive health care or ineffective wars, even though their policy decisions might lead to that.) The latter, if read as a critique of the Soviet Union, is like kicking someone who is already dead; while I don't see how it would apply to current left-wing movements. The entire game might have been more successful if the personal stories of longing had been emphasised more and the political background had been emphasised less.

In total, I think Tonight Dies the Moon is less successful than Horse Master, but still a great play. I'm looking forward to more games by Tom, because his imagination is a fecund (and I suspect scaly) thing that takes us to wild and aberrant places!

CAPITALISM: The Role Playing Game, by Soda51

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Hamfisted political satire, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This game is a political satire of capitalism. The premise is that you choose to be one of five classes of capitalist scum, and then battle it out with the 100 people who are richer than you in order to become #1. Battling is an automatic, RPG-like system of seemingly random rolls.

As a game, this has nothing to offer. I assume that that is deliberate; what it wants to be is political satire. But this game is to satire what a cask full of elephant piss is to a glass of gewürztraminer -- not the clearest metaphor I've ever employed, perhaps, but you know what I'm getting at.

After playing three of Soda51's games today, I can reach the overarching conclusion that this author, who obviously wants to make political statements, should read and watch some good political satire to find out what works and what doesn't.

Priapism, by Soda51

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Exploding penis fun, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I wrote a Stiffy Makane game, so one would expect me to be favourably disposed to games where the central premise is that you have an erection that won't go away and you NEED TO DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Preferable something in all caps.

But, man, this is juvenile. If exploding dicks are your idea of funny, or "The police shoot you because you are a black man" is your idea of interesting political satire, go play this game. If not, not.

Garden of Steven, by Soda51

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Unnecessary, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Perhaps the aim of this game is to undermine the claim "God made Adam and Eve, not Adam and Steve" by showing that the sentence remains true under any random combination of names in its second half, including those of 99.999999% of all heterosexual couples, and can therefore not be used as an argument against same-sex marriage. But surely, that is already to pay too much attention to something that doesn't even rise to status of an argument in the first place?

As a piece of communication, I think the game serves only to say "I'm not an extremist evangelical from the USA!". Good for you, but I don't think you need to make a game to communicate that. It comes too close to trolling.

Let's Go Eat, by Tom McHenry

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Unsuccessful restaurant finding simulator, July 30, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The game's premise is fun, but I think it would be fair to label it as a design failure. It just doesn't seem to fulfil the design goals the author set himself. That goal is to simulate the frustrating experience of searching for a restaurant with a group of people, and to comment on that experience. (Spoiler - click to show)In the credits, McHenry explicitly tells us what his message is:

Without autopsying the work you just played too much, I wanted to assure you it's not the worst thing to express your preferences. It doesn't hurt your friends to communicate your needs, but it will hurt you if you wait around for them to guess exactly right. It's how you can starve surrounded by food.

In my opinion, the game fails on two levels. First, it fails because the analysis of the situation given in the quote doesn't go to the heart of the experience that McHenry is drawing one. Second, it fails because play doesn't effectively engage us with either the situation or the message.

Let's look at the first point first. Is the problem of finding a restaurant really a problem of people not expressing their preferences? While a certain fear of making things difficult or less pleasant for other people ("really, everything is fine with me") may play a role, this is at most a very small part of the problem. Suppose that you gave everyone in the group a list of cuisines and asked them to grade each of them ("Steak: 8; Indian: 4, ...") That would in no way solve the problem of finding a restaurant, because the space of restaurants is incredibly complex and so is the space of preferences. Perhaps I'd love to eat Italian, but not a pizza, since I already ate pizza yesterday. What I want is a pasta, but preferably not one with tomato sauce. I'd kill for a pasta with cream and truffles; and also for a dish with anchovies, pine nuts and parsley. However, my budget for the entire meal is $20, so if it's more expensive than that, I simply must look somewhere else. Atmosphere is also important to me; if it looks like a fast-food joint, I don't want to go there. But I don't care whether all twelve of us can sit at one table; I'm fine with splitting up and meeting each other again after the meal. And so on, and so forth... Our preferences are very, very complicated, and there's no way we could possibly communicate them all in advance. We don't even know about all of them in advance. So just "expressing your preferences" is not going to help very much.

The problem is exacerbated by two other factors. First, even if we have the preferences of everyone in our dinner party, there's no clear way of weighing them against each other. Is it worse for you to have to eat Indian or for me to have to pay a few bucks more than I intended to? Is it worse for you to have to walk another five minutes or for me to have to sit in a neon lit restaurant? It is here, I think, that self-effacing tendencies are much, much more prominent than in the initial state of communicating our preferences. But even if people didn't have those tendencies, there is no way you can weigh this stuff. Second, unless you are a well-informed local, you're always in a state of incomplete information. You don't know which restaurants exist, how good they are, how busy they will be, and so on.

So the problem of choosing a restaurant is that you only have a vague inkling of people's preferences, have only a vague idea of how to weigh them against each other, and have incomplete information about the possible choices. Solving the problem means that you try to get at least some clarification on all three of these issues, without taking too much time doing it. That's hard, and criteria for success are not obvious. But [i]Let's Go Eat[/i] places so much emphasis on people not expressing their preferences, that it doesn't get to the heart of the problem.

That wouldn't be too bad if play itself had been engaging and enlightening. But in fact, you just choose a restaurant and click "eat here", without any serious discussion ever happening between the people in your party. Since everyone has their own preferences, these generally balance out; and the numbers you get at the end of your meal are so abstract that they don't mean much. The game doesn't succeed in making you care about the score you get; and that means that you are not invested in finding a place that will actually make people happy.

I would have preferred a game where it is actually hard to find a place that your group will even enter. Perhaps you have dozens of restaurants, all of them imperfectly described on your map; and when you try to enter one, it turns out that Jackie will not eat sushi, at all, and that Frank cannot pay anything above 25$; and so on. Or Lydia starts to complain that she preferred the Italian restaurant you passed by three minutes ago. And so on -- give the people in the group some personality, have bickering and discussion, and make the player's goal to find anything that will be acceptable. That could have been more fun as a game, and also much closer to the real experience.

Horse Master, by Tom McHenry

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
The illusion of perfect happiness, July 29, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I don't know whether like is the right verb, but I certainly had a positive response to Horse Master. The game has imagination, especially when describing the central fiction of the horse and the process of mastering it; and it delivers it with good pacing. (Spoiler - click to show)From the very first scene it is obvious that these horses are strange; then the physical details start coming in and our mental image becomes more and more alien; and finally, at the great day, it turns out that all the preconceptions we still had about horse mastering were wrong as well. For it turns out -- and this is of course a brilliant thematic move -- that we are not trying to master any abilities that have to do with horses; we are trying to master the horse itself, to be its master, to dominate it to the point where it wont eat us and will let itself be killed. There is no achievement and no intrinsic worth to the procedure at all. There is only the prize conferred on us by a society that wants to witness a bizarre and gruesome spectacle.

The game poses, at least for a while, as a sort of time management game, although it quickly becomes apparent that the optimal strategy is also the simplest one. This raises the suspicion that the game is not about any kind of player skill. Then, when you get the hang of it, the game kicks you out of your house, and suddenly the time that was your resource becomes your greatest enemy, something to bridge and survive. That too was a neat trick. The fact that you can lose the game during this period does reveal a weakness, though: when one replays, one clicks through all the choices without reading or thinking. There's not enough variation in the game to support the kind of replaying that is demanded.

Other reviewers have pointed out that the piece is, at least on one level, about bodybuilding and/or animal shows, both activities where one is manipulating a body to conform with weird standards in order to gain praise and approvan of spectators. On an even more obvious level, the game is about the pains that someone will go through if they are desperate enough, and how a competitive system can create a kind of race to the bottom. But I guess that I'm actually most intrigued by the game's portrayal of the end goal of the endeavour: a state beyond all wanting, where one has transcended all cares. Horse Master is about people who are willing to give up everything because they believe in a reward that is so big that it equates happiness forever; and of course, some people do think that way about particular kinds of success. But, and the game makes this abundantly clear, that is an illusion. It is unreal. The whole bizarre fiction of Horse Master works, I think, precisely because the game wants to tell us that anything that is worth sacrificing everything for must be unreal.

The game may be a bit simple and repetitive when replayed; and the imagery is certainly a bit heavy-handed, both when describing the icky things happening to your body and the horse's body and, especially, when trying to set a political mood. But Horse Master is nevertheless impressive, because it manages to pack a lot of thematic into what is, after all, quite a small game. A great piece of choice-based fiction.

Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
One of the great puzzle games, July 28, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I still haven't finished Savoir-Faire. I played through almost the entire main part of the game a couple of months ago, but then I had to move house and the game languished for a while. Returning to it, I was overwhelmed by the amount of objects I had collected and the amount of information I had at one time processed. I found it very hard to get into the game again. Enough had slipped away that I needed to replay the game, but enough remained in my memory that this would have been mostly boring. No matter. I'll put it aside for now and return at some later point in time, knowing that there will be still more for me to discover -- including de denouement.

For let it be clear that Savoir-Faire is a game you will wish to return to, not so much because of its plotting (which is slow) or its characterisation (which isn't exciting), but because of the beauty and intricacy of its puzzles and of the model world that supports them. Savoir-Faire is in many ways an old-school puzzle game, which means that it is hard; but it is also fair. Banging your head against its mysteries is bound to be a very rewarding experience, and I would encourage you not to use a walkthrough or a hint file. This game is worth persevering.

A large part of the game's beauty comes from its central puzzle mechanic, which is incredibly flexible but also strict enough to give coherence to the whole. This mechanic is the Lavori d'Aracne, which I suppose translates to the "labours of Arachne", that is, the spinning of spider webs. It is a kind of magic in which you can link objects that are like each other, and they will then start exhibiting the same behaviour. E.g., you link two boxes, and then, when you open one of them, the other will be opened as well. A large part of the game is spent exploring the possibilities and limits of this system, and while these limits may sometimes feel a bit arbitrary, they are consistent enough that one will keep faith in the game.

Savoir-Faire is possibly my favourite large puzzle game. And next time I return to it -- perhaps in a year or two -- I'll finally solve it! I'm sure of it.

Escape from the Man-Sized Cabinet, by The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Nice pictures, not as great on the humour, July 17, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The visual aesthetics of this short twine game are very good: deliberately retro fonts are coupled to colourful, old-school pictures. The story features Stephen Colbert getting lost in a fantasy plot, and mostly revolves about twisting clichéd adventure and fantasy tropes. But this twisting is itself highly unoriginal, and the author tries a bit too hard to be funny. There is, unfortunately, none of the sharp political satire that made Colbert's show work.

Not a bad way to spend a few minutes, but forgettable.

Dulle Griet and the Antenorian Icebox, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Impious adventures in Hell, March 19, 2015
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
You are Dulle Griet, from the Pieter Bruegel the Elder painting, who returns from a lucrative trip into what seems to be Dante's version of Hell. Now all you need to do is get your war engine running again. Unfortunately, it has been infested by imps.

This is a short game: you have to find and kill three imps, each of them requiring you to solve a relatively simple puzzle. The game could be more responsive to synonyms, but should be solvable with a little patience. Otherwise, there is always the ClubFloyd transcript.

The main strength of the game is the writing, which goes over the top with archaic and difficult words, but does it well enough to make the reading process enjoyable. Ashwell's Hell is inventive and evokes an entire mysterious universe of stories. Recommended.

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