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Reviews by Emily Short

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Nautilisia, by Ryan Veeder

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Parody of the surreal psychological genre, January 12, 2013
Nautilisia is a short, surreal piece riffing on the many many games that take place within the psychological landscape of a comatose (or sleeping, or deceased) protagonist. In contrast with most of those, however, Nautilisia makes no secret of its subject, telling the player up front of this premise, and explaining each symbolic object as one encounters it.

In this vein, there are three very basic puzzles, and a helpfully explanatory NPC who will answer questions and deliver rewards. The gameplay is straightforward, and is likely to take only ten or fifteen minutes to complete. Some of the imagery is charming or evocative, but the narrative voice is so quick to explain what it all means that one doesn't really have time to contemplate it before having it explained away.

This is an experience that is only likely to appeal to one who enjoys Veeder's flavor of humor: if the first room or two don't strike your fancy, the rest of the game isn't likely to either. Personally, I find it engaging enough to enjoy. Veeder has (in my opinion, anyway) an excellent sense of pacing -- of exactly how many times he can push the player's patience and still be funny rather than purely exasperating; of how much he can get away with nudging the player in the ribs without being tiresome.

Overall, a fine execution of a small concept, rightfully brief so as not to overstay its welcome.

The Town Musicians, by Anonymous

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Lost in the woods, January 11, 2013
The Town Musicians casts the player as a hunting dog past its prime and driven off by its master. As in the original folk tale, the player character must find some other animals who are no longer being supported by their human owners, and form a small band, with the intention of finding their fortune in the city.

The game is designed as an aid for English-language learners, and is meant to be as accessible as possible. This is an admirable purpose, supported by the relatively simple and repetitive language of the story.

The interaction, however, is quite a bit rougher than it probably needs to be in a game for beginning players. The description says that the game is puzzle-less, and this is perhaps strictly true: one spends the first part of the story mostly in taking actions we're directly instructed to take (such as sniffing around for a rabbit, or following other characters from place to place). I found that this was not entirely easy even so, however, because there were a lot of missing synonyms and scenery, and even for the game's first action, I went through several attempts (SNIFF CLOVER, SNIFF GROUND, SMELL HEDGES, etc.) before lighting on a command that would do the intended action.

It's thanks to one of these situations that I got permanently stuck before the end of the game: our little party got lost in the woods, and though the other characters claimed to be able to see a cottage nearby, I could neither enter nor interact with a cottage object, but wound up wandering more in the woods. I wasn't able to find any hints or clues to put me back on the right track.

I commend the concept behind the creation of this game, but I believe it would need to be stronger on IF fundamentals in order to fulfill its intended purpose: this is a frustrating play for a native English speaker familiar with IF, so I suspect it would be flatly impenetrable to someone who was just learning.

Otherwise, it might be of some interest to people who especially enjoy IF recastings of classic fairy and folk stories, but even in that category, I found it a difficult play.

The Subtropical Server Room, by Andrew Schultz

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
You (Still) Hate Your Office, July 7, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
I didn't get all the way through this one, so I'm not giving it a star rating. However: what I saw of the game was a fairly standard You Hate Your Office puzzler, with obtuse managers, passwords to guess, and lunchroom appliances that look ripe for sabotage. Scenery is fairly minimal, and there are a lot of rooms that, at least at the start of play, have no obvious function.

The reason I didn't get further is that hint system doesn't work the way it claims it's going to: typing HINT gives a general clue and then tells you you can type HELP for more explicit spoilery instructions, but in practice the game seems to interpret HELP as being a synonym for HINT, and no clear solutions are forthcoming.

The hints I did receive suggested to me that I was going to need to do something moderately tedious and tricky ((Spoiler - click to show)decrypt and make use of a whole long sheet of chess notation) in order to make progress. It's possible I misunderstood and that the thing that stumped me was a red herring, but it was hard to tell, and none of my other experiments with the environment were leading anywhere useful either. As I hadn't worked up much of a commitment to my character and am not generally a huge fan of the Office Misery genre, I stopped there.

It is possible that this game would be a significantly different experience if the HELP/HINT system were revised, the text revised to give the player more direction, or both.

The Feather Grange Job, by David Fletcher

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Lightweight fluff, some polish issues, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
Feather Grange Job tells the story of a jewel heist pulled off by a team of birds: it consists of a series of vignettes in which each of the gang uses its particular bird skill, with each scene containing one fairly simple puzzle. It's cute and amusing; and as I tend to enjoy heist capers, I was largely on its side.

I would have been more so, except that there were a number of polish issues that made play slower and rougher than I would have liked. (Spoiler - click to show)Especially problematic was the scene of getting Verbal to open the safe. I tried a whole bunch of different instructions -- (Spoiler - click to show)ask verbal about safe, tell verbal about safe, ask/tell verbal about password, ask/tell verbal about monkey, "verbal, say password", "verbal, say monkey", and so on, before I finally got to the correct method (Spoiler - click to show)which was "verbal, open safe". Futzing around here made the scene take about three times as long as it should have and dissipated a lot of the tension. Several of the other scenes also took me longer to figure out than was strictly fun, just because there wasn't a lot to draw my attention to the right thing to do.

Even given the occasional guess-the-verb issues, however, this took around 10 minutes to play.

Monkey Business, by Benjamin Sokal

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Creepy but extremely incomplete, June 18, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
Monkey Business concerns a monkey on the receiving end of some simian psychology experiments. It's extremely incomplete: there are a couple of brief scenes establishing your problem and then a "to be continued" message.

What's there is solid enough, but there isn't really very much to do; the one semi-puzzle could be solved entirely by accident. This puts the game on the short side even compared with other deliberately-incomplete works such as games entered in Introcomp.

If there's a longer version of this game eventually, I might be interested to see where it goes, but the introduction as it stands is not a very substantial play experience, which is the reason I'm not scoring it higher.

Offering, by Richard Smyth

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
I'm not sure what to do with this analogy, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
Offering is a highly linear, puzzle-light game that seems to be exploring the significance of a certain type of religious thinking. It's also nearly impossible to talk about without spoilers, so most of this review is going to be cut-tagged.

(Spoiler - click to show)Offering comes in two halves, and it's very easy to miss the second half entirely.

The first half tells the story of Abraham preparing to sacrifice Isaac, in terms just about verbatim from the Old Testament version, with just the tiniest bit of additional hinting at what's going through Abraham's mind. This part of the game is pretty linear, and there's not much to discover, or much opportunity to go off the required path.

And if you follow the game's prompting, you'll wind up just hesitating a bit up at the top of the mountain, waiting for the miracle you know is supposed to come along at that moment, and lo the ram shows up, everything is fine, and you get an apparently happy ending in which Abraham's descendants are more numerous than the stars, etc.

But you can also go ahead and sacrifice Isaac on the mountain before God gets a chance to intervene. If you do, you fall through to a second scene, in which you're a girl on a date in a car in the 1950s, and your hunky date in the letterman jacket gets a little forward, and then he won't take no for an answer. You can't fight him off, so he rapes you, in terms described very similarly to the bit with Abraham stabbing Isaac.

When I played the first part and thought that was all there was, my feeling was that it was a pretty pointless exercise, retelling a well-known story with almost no interactivity or embellishment. The presence of the second part gives the story any meaning it might be thought to possess, but it would be really, really easy never to realize there was a second part. This is, I think, a significant structural flaw.

Once we do include the second part, though, I'm not sure it makes hugely more sense.

Ike's rape of the protagonist is described like Abraham's use of the knife on Isaac, so maybe

Ike:girl :: Abraham:Isaac

Conceivably the reading is that rapists and devout religious people are similar in their readiness to override the will of others? But, frankly, this seems like a stretch, especially considering that most devout religious people still don't go around killing or raping anyone. Then again, it's implied that the girl in the second half is the one making a sacrifice, giving up the struggle at the end of the rape scene, so then maybe the idea is

Ike:girl :: God:Abraham

in which case the point is more that the God of the Old Testament was really an incredible jerk? Except that in order more completely to demonstrate his jerkiness, we've postulated a variant version of that God in which he does let Abraham actually go through with the sacrifice.

I don't know. It seemed to me that there were a number of thematic points the author could have been making, tantalizingly adjacent to the story, but that he didn't really follow through on any of them enough to make them work. If it's a story about how the God of the Old Testament is not in fact the kind of character that, in the cold light of the 21st century, looks especially benevolent, then that's a point that's possible to explore, and it's not really necessary to change the end of the Isaac sacrifice story to get there. In fact there were two different games in IF Comp 2011 that dug into the issue of whether God would really desire people to die in order to meet his laws and instructions: Cana According to Micah, which argues that he wouldn't, and Tenth Plague, which suggests that he would and therefore isn't so terrific.

It's also possible to imagine Offering as a story about the way a patriarchal society may use the language of religious obligation in order to force the powerless -- children, women, minorities -- into subjection while silencing any dissent. There are a few hints of this in the first part; for instance, Abraham can't put the wood on the altar himself because it would be unseemly for the patriarch to do such a task, and it must be left to the more subservient Isaac. But, if so, that also doesn't really make much sense, because in fact Ike doesn't bring any of this kind of pressure to bear on the girl. He forcibly rapes her and tells her it's what she can expect for being in a car with a boy, but he doesn't frame it as a moral obligation. There are unfortunately many true incidents in which women were coerced into sexual relationships on some sort of religious pretext, but this isn't a story about one of those situations.

Or maybe the idea is that sacrifices, in general, are like being raped, in general. The game's about text seems to suggest this final reading: "As the story description for this game suggests, this is a story about what it takes to give--more specifically, what it takes to sacrifice something that is valuable to you... Hopefully, this diptych will prompt some thought and debate about the true meaning of sacrifice."

But this doesn't really make sense at all! The whole point of sacrifice is the presence of consent. That's a point in fact especially marked out by the Isaac story: what God is testing with Abraham is whether he would be willing to perform the sacrifice, such that the actual performance thereof becomes irrelevant. And more broadly, things that are given sacrificially are meaningful precisely because they entail the giver's considered decision.

One might say "well, but the consent is meaningless in context: you had to sacrifice things to God because otherwise he could kill you, couldn't he" -- but that's pretty much never how sacrifice is historically framed. The language of ancient sacrificial religions tends to be extremely clear about this point. Making a sacrifice was often framed in legalistic, contractual terms. Do ut des I give that you may give; in other words, you're making a bargain with {God/a god} by providing him with something, in the hope that he will give you something in return.

It's an idea that makes the most sense in the context of polytheism and not-exactly-omnipotent deities who might actually in some sense need human cooperation, and there are stretch marks when this theology is applied to the monotheistic God of the Old Testament. But the terminology still seems pretty clear about this all the same. Man slaughters sheep voluntarily for God: sacrifice. God strikes sheep by lightning, killing it and reducing Man's flock: not sacrifice. Job losing his family and flocks and servants wasn't a sacrifice Job made; it was something really nasty that happened to Job.

Considering this deep misalignment between the consensual, if morally pressured, giving entailed in sacrifice and the non-consensual loss entailed in rape, I'm not really clear on what we're supposed to take away from the juxtaposition of events in Offering.

And, honestly, the longer I think about the attempted analogy between the sacrifice scene and the rape scene, the more bothersome I find it. Trying to say that rape victims are sort of consenting after all, or that being raped is some kind of morally good sacrifice? Surely not. Indicating that voluntarily making a sacrifice of some sort is as traumatizing and destructive as being raped? That doesn't seem right either.

So I don't exactly recommend this piece; I think it's trying to say something, but I'm not sure that something is especially coherent or well-worked-through. Some of the elements may be upsetting or triggering to certain people.

The Legend of the Missing Hat, by Adri

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
As advertised: tiny, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
This is an extremely short, extremely easy puzzle game, as advertised: I think it took me between five and ten minutes to play completely. It's sweet and cheerful, and takes place on a miniaturized landscape, as the main character is a ninja perhaps a half-inch tall.

Implementation and scenery are not as deep as in, say, Sara Dee's "Mite" or Ryan Veeder's "You've Got a Stew Going!", but the central concept is similar, in that familiar household objects and critters function differently when the scale is drastically altered.

Home Sweetie-Bot Home, by Jacques Frechet

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Brief, decidedly quirky homebrew puzzle game, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
In this short puzzler, you play a robot who has to deal with a massive bug invasion in his home. The puzzles are fairly straightforward, and are made more accessible still by a very constrained verb set.

While I did get very briefly stuck on one part of the story, it's because I had failed to notice a state change that was described in the text but that my eye had skipped over. (Spoiler - click to show)If you get stuck after you've done things you think should have solved the problem, note that both the window and the refrigerator will close automatically when you move away from them. Since I'd envisioned the window as the sliding variety, this is not at all what I expected, and I didn't notice when it happened.

The game is implemented in a homebrew system with several notable features. First, output is text-styled in blocky text with blue lettering for objects that are interactive. Second, it's possible to undo multiple layers using a clickable undo link beside each section of text.

And finally, the game accepts voice commands for input. I didn't play the whole game this way out of fear of annoying the people around me, but for the commands I did try, it was fairly effective at recognizing my instructions, especially if I did my best Dalek impression.

For that technical feature, this is worth a look; otherwise, it's a charming diversion of a few minutes.

leaves, by ed blair

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Ultraminimal handling of grief, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
The protagonist is at a funeral. The deceased is already in the casket; the mourners have departed. There's nothing left to do, but the protagonist is still hanging about. The implementation here is extremely minimal, not even allowing for CRY, THINK, REMEMBER, or any conversation about the departed. So it's pretty much impossible to get any details about who died, how the dead person related to the mourner, and so on.

The main interesting quirk of leaves is that events are narrated by a viewpoint character who is not the protagonist. Commands like EXAMINE are carried out by the viewpoint character, but it is the protagonist who moves in response to movement commands.

I do have one possible theory about what's going on here that lends a little bit of additional meaning to its very static feeling: (Spoiler - click to show)Possibly the viewpoint character is actually the spirit of the deceased, and this explains why s/he can't do anything, or speak to the protagonist, or leave the gravesite when the protagonist drives away. If that's true, it at least makes the closing lines of the text a bit more poignant and significant than they otherwise would be.

On the other hand, occasionally the text gives hints that would seem to play against this theory, as in:

>x me
I take a good look at you. I try to hold my breath to keep you from noticing my staring. It's rare to see you so upset.

Surely this concern about being noticed, and the ability to hold a breath, mean that the viewpoint character has to have corporeal form?

So my alternative theories are possibly either that a) the viewpoint character is the deceased, but doesn't actually realize it and continues to behave as though visible and breathing -- in which case the game doesn't do nearly enough to make that clear -- or b) the viewpoint character is someone with a hopeless crush on the mourning protagonist, but isn't actually in a relationship that would make it appropriate for them to leave together.

Whatever the accuracy of those speculations, the limitations of the interaction and the near-total lack of information about the backstory make it hard to empathize too deeply with the characters.

Antifascista, by Greg Farough

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Slighter than the subject matter seems to demand, June 17, 2012
by Emily Short
Related reviews: cover stories
Antifascista presents several scenes surrounding an incident in which a violent thug attacks the (gay) protagonist's boyfriend and seriously injures him. It is at times melancholy or disturbing(Spoiler - click to show), particularly when, as the player, you're navigating through dark alleys towards what you are almost certain will be a horrible encounter. But the game as a whole is extremely short and linear, and the character of the boyfriend remains largely a cipher for much of the game, revealing little of what he's thinking or feeling.

Given where the story opened and how it was presented, I was expecting or hoping for more -- maybe more scenes from the lives of these characters, or more complexity in the reaction they have to this traumatic event.

As it stands, Antifascista presents the player with a starkly unpleasant incident, but refrains from offering much by way of additional perspectives or observations about it. As a story it feels slight. It takes its power from the fact that horrible things like this sometimes do happen in reality -- but it doesn't seem to have very much to say about that reality.

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