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Horse Master, by Tom McHenry

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Flogging a Live Horse, July 15, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: tom mchenry
Play it if: you want to read a story you can admire, a short, brutal punch of a game that'll stick in your mind for a long time to come.

Don't play it if: you're out of room in your heart for bleak truths.

How sarcastic I must seem, using such grim terms about a game that advertises itself so lightly.

To be honest, it took me about three playthroughs of Horse Master to really grasp what I felt about it. On the one hand it's a tragedy of desperate ambition, but at the same time it's a snigger-inducing parade of the absurd and the grotesque. Half the time I felt like I was being asked to laugh and cry at the same time, so I ended up doing neither and instead just feeling emotionally mangled.

The story is on the surface that of a person rearing and training a horse for a prestigious competition. The immediate twist is that the "horse" in this case is not really a "horse" as we know it, but appears to be some sort of mammoth crustacean grown from a larval stage. Much of the sheer oddness of the game is derived from the contrast between the glowing, admiring terms in which the horses are described and the true details of their appearance, which are left a little vague but sound anything but noble or graceful to the common reader.

Of course the more important twist is that it's not really a fun, quirky horse-raising sim at all. That's just the foot in the door.

Bodybuilding.

Say what you will in its defense, but to the uninitiated it's not so different. To achieve competitive success as a bodybuilder, a person has to exercise, diet, gorge, dehydrate, medicate, and groom themselves obsessively to warp their bodies into extreme forms. They risk and experience poverty, ridicule, and failure in turning themselves into something that is ultimately decorative. They don't perform astounding feats of strength or agility. They pose.

Speaking purely as an outsider, there's something terribly tragic to that sort of lifestyle, or at least to the way it's seen by much of the world. That men and women can invest so much of themselves into an endeavor which is so often thankless.

As odd a decision it might seem to have the horses not be mammalian, I think there was a purpose to it, and that purpose was to emphasize just how un-beautiful this sort of thing can really be. Some types of dog shows maintain frankly arbitrary and ridiculous standards for their competitors. To me, weirdo that I am, breeding creatures for their aesthetic value to humans is something deeply disturbing and abhorrent - but their aesthetic value often inoculates us to the ethical concerns. In Horse Master, we don't have that illusion. The creatures being bred and displayed are not the kinds of things that inspire joy and awe in the minds of My Little Pony fans.

It's a value dissonance of the kind present in the assassination-training scene of howling dogs, though here its purpose is much clearer: to make us reconsider our questionable relationships with the animals who inhabit our lives.

(Spoiler - click to show)I think it's somehow fitting that the ending will always destroy someone in the balance. Either the player loses everything and has no future outside of poverty and obscurity, or the horse dies in an exploitative, orgiastic display. Either the player character is crushed by a world which does not really care about her existence, or the horse is slaughtered by a system and a protagonist who does not really care about its wellbeing. You're a bodybuilder, or you're a dog breeder. The perpetrator or the victim.

It's not very uplifting. But it is compelling in its own way. And it sort of gives you pause for thought, doesn't it?

Castle of the Red Prince, by C.E.J. Pacian

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Intriguing gameplay and an undercooked story, July 14, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: you want a short, sweet game with a smoothly-implemented gameplay gimmick.

Don't play it if: you prefer gameplay to be accompanied by a fleshed-out story, because in narrative terms this does feel a bit incomplete.

The most memorable aspect of this game is immediately noticeable: verbs of movement are discarded in favor of an alternative mode of transportation, and EXAMINING a place is what takes you to it. What impresses me more than the coding (not that I'm a wizard, but I can make a couple of guesses at how it was done) is the manipulation of English in order to make the effect seamless.

A common flaw in descriptive writing is the provision of information that confounds the mind's natural means of acquiring that information. For instance, in an oft-quoted sequence from the novel Bronwyn: Silk and Steel, the observing character is implied to be standing some distance from the lady he is observing. But then:

"Her face had the fragrance of a gibbous moon."

The reader is confused on two counts: first, the assertion that the moon has a fragrance (which given that's located in space, is impossible); and second, that the observing character can smell her face - specifically - from more than arm's length. In Silk and Steel, this is just poor writing. In Castle of the Red Prince, though, it's twisted into a means of travel. Essentially, examining locations from a distance will often bridge the spatial gap by simply beginning to provide information that would be unavailable from your original location. Coding aside, it's a fascinating linguistic trick.

(I should mention that this gimmick plays havoc with your ability to appreciate the relative locations of things, but given the small size of this world it's not really a major drawback.)

What's also interesting about this device is that it's left ambiguous to what degree this travel is simply a novel description of normal movement, and to what degree it's a form of sorcery available to the player character. This also leads into a minor disappointment I experienced: the player character has a sort of ambiguity which is suggestive of depth, but that depth is never really exploited. I mean, in theory the PC's dreams are being haunted by this Red Prince, but it's not used for much more than a basic motivator to tell the player what they're doing in the game. The Red Prince's rather blase attitude to your machinations, couple with the contents of a certain book, made me think that the PC was the Red Prince's son, or that the Red Prince had some sort of personal role in the PC's dreams and backstory. None of this appeared to be true, which is a bit of a shame.

The point is not to judge Castle by the arbitrary standards of my personal imaginary alternate universe for this game, but to point out that this game ignited my curiosity in a way it wasn't prepared to engage. In fact, the story itself is not particularly engaging, lacking much in the way of twists. The titular antagonist knows what you're doing from quite early on, but he'll be damned if he expends any energy on trying to actually stop you - and speaking here as a reader rather than a game-player, seeing that sort of thing feels like it's the story itself expressing this attitude to me (though I'm hardly going to go about accusing the author of laziness). Victor Gjisbers's The Baron might have been fairly unremarkable gameplay-wise but it made better use of a similar sort of premise.

On the whole, then, I have to agree with previous comments that this is a better experiment than a game. It's not that it's a bad game, it's just that what actually happens in it is barely enough to fill a two-page short story.

Rogue of the Multiverse, by C.E.J. Pacian

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
There may be a banana in it for you!, July 13, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: as with Gun Mute, you want a game short and easy enough to breeze through but quirky and different enough to be memorable.

Don't play it if: you get turned off by dodgy pacing or an absence of any strong sense of story, because while this game has a number of great set-pieces it doesn't really feel like a streamlined, complete narrative.

Elements of Rogue of the Multiverse reminded me of Gun Mute. Non-human NPCs with human-like behaviors. A stoic protagonist of few words. The eschewment of compass directions. Gameplay consisting of repeatedly achieving the same goal, but with subtly differing details. And an environment whose nature is revealed more through small, evocative details than verbal exposition.

While I do prefer Gun Mute to this game, Rogue of the Multiverse still carried a couple of elements that delighted me and made it absolutely worth playing.

First is the main character, the antagonist Dr. Sliss, who subjects the PC to scientific experimentation. Sliss does superficially resemble GLaDOS in that she is a pleasant-speaking female taskmaster, but I find her a good deal funnier and more likable because while GLaDos is pretty obviously malevolent, Sliss is well-meaning but rather ignorant. Her patronizing comments to the PC, such as offers of banana rewards (she has trouble distinguishing between you and a rather hairless chimp), are perfectly balanced to get you liking her against your better nature. And in spite of the potentially lethal conditions to which she subjects you, I was very happy to see the game give the player the option to develop their relationship with her.

Second is what is arguably the central element of gameplay, the resource-gathering exercise. Normally I should find this sort of thing to be tedious: fewer things turn me off to modern RPGs faster than being asked to perform dull, repetitious resource-gathering tasks. But it works a lot better here than it has any right to, partly because it's quite easy and fast-moving (turn-based time will do that for you), and partly because each procedurally-generated world is given just environmental detail to make it a little memorable. You can encounter security robots in industrial complexes and rock-hurling apes in mountain ranges. The description is sparse, as it would have to be, but it a Zork-like way the concise description allows the imagination to fill the gaps.

Third is the vehicle sequence. I loved this scene. It pulled off the kind of urgency and excitement I so enjoyed in Gun Mute - again, we're not talking about real-time events here! (Spoiler - click to show)Sliss's shooting and dialogue during this sequence do a lot both to keep the scene fun and varied and to increase my adoration of her character. It's difficult to describe what made it work for me on a visceral level, but that's just another reason you should check out Rogue for yourself.

I did say that I preferred Gun Mute, of course. This game is a lot less streamlined than Gun Mute: structurally speaking, it's more like two or three games stuck onto one another than a complete experience in and of itself. Finishing Gun Mute gave me the satisfaction of a completed story; in the case of Rogue of the Multiverse, though, it's difficult to know when the story is supposed to end - I identified about two or three different points at which it could plausibly have ended, only for the game to continue so as to depict events which, frankly, didn't really need depicting. This is a short game, but it's not exactly concise; the endgame is dragged out a little unnecessarily. I also can't help but feel that the resource-gathering game offers a lot of room for expansion into a fuller game. Yes, the procedurally-generated environments are part of the point and yes, repeating the missions as they're written here for a long game would get tiresome fairly quickly, but there's definitely more that can be done with the basic idea.

Ultimately, though, none of these issues will by any means preventing you from enjoying yourself here. It's a light, humorous, not-too-long romp in an imaginative sci-fi setting and deserving of a look.

Fogged Up Mirror, by Cha Holland

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Labels don't matter much, until they really do, July 11, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: cha holland
This is not a game. But you should play it, because it is a personal essay on identity and in this regard it is well-written and interesting.

Don't play it if you are looking primarily for a game or a story, though I recommend you check it out as some point in any case.

Fogged Up Mirror is interactive fiction more or less the way you have to interact with a browser to visit a web site. There is a recurring image of words being wiped off a mirror, which strikes me as a rather interesting means of tackling something like identity labels; unless actively wiped off, a word written on a mirror will fade but show up again when the mirror is fogged up. Labels persist unless we take conscious action against them.

Nevertheless, this image is used sparsely and Twine is employed here less as a cinematic technique than as a sort of filing system. The reader picks different categories of identity and hears the author's introspection on her self-perception through these categories. Holland delivers her thoughts in honest, straightforward language that makes them accessible. I don't necessarily mean "accessible" in the sense of "will convince bigoted people of the validity of her position"; what I mean is that his thoughts remind me of what I've thought about my own identity. Her words are spoken the way I speak them in my head. The thoughts are not at heart judgmental, though they can express frustration with people. There isn't any attempted ethical justification for choosing these labels or inhabiting these identities; the underlying, intuitive assumption is that the author deserves respect by virtue of being a human being, which is probably the best universal reason to be OK with exploring identity in this way.

"Labels don't matter much, until they really do." That's the opening sentence. In the way that words on a mirror appear when you breathe on them, identities often don't occur to people until they're challenged. I never gave much thought to my sexuality until my social circles became largely composed of non-straight people. I had little sense of my gender until I started to live in a national culture which prized masculinity above most human qualities. As a result I felt a kinship with the author, even though in many ways his personal experiences are different to mine.

I rate Fogged Up Mirror four stars because, low interactivity aside, Twine's use is appropriate here: none of the identities you can choose to explore are given priority of placement over the other, encouraging you to read them and discard them in any order. And the content is not unique in any surface sense, but it engages the reader and is worth your time. Read it not for art or gameplay or story, but for a simple, elemental glimpse into someone else's head.

CRY$TAL WARRIOR KE$HA, by Porpentine

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
If you don't like my review, close your web browser, July 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: porpentine
Play it if: you're a fan of Ke$ha and all performers possessed of such unabashed pride in themselves and their identities, and the idea of a glitter-soaked confidence rampage makes your blood fizz.

Don't play it if: you want story, structure, elegance or audacity to support a rather messy near-stream-of-consciousness experience.

howling dogs invites endless speculation. CYBERQUEEN is its own kind of masterpiece. CRYSTAL WARRIOR KE$HA, on the other hand, reads like one of a thousand Tumblr blogposts. Though it plays with words a little, it lacks a distinctive personality. It has weirdness by the bucketload, but doesn't really channel it in an interesting way. CYBERQUEEN was a chainsaw, but it was a chainsaw wielded by a surgeon. This is a firehose of glitter aimed at a paper cup.

I'm starting to get swallowed by questionable analogies here, but my deal here is that the language and the content of CYBERQUEEN come across as fresh. They demand attention and create visceral impressions. By comparison, when CRYSTAL WARRIOR KE$HA presents a vehicle called Vagina Jungle and a choice to drain my boyslave's virile energy to fuel my slutwave mantis transformation, the foremost thought in my head is "this sort of thing has been said seven million times before and it's old already". Perhaps my own lengthy Tumblr experience affects me in that regard, but I think there's more to it than that.

Let me just mention that I have no issues with Ke$ha. I happen to think she's a very talented singer-songwriter, and though her album work tends to disguise this rather well, her music is generally not something I listen to by choice and as such I don't really care enough to offer an opinion. Judging her on her presented persona alone is equally pointless to me.

That being said, the championing of Ke$ha is not done particularly well here, as far as I'm concerned. I got the impression that bits of the writing were references to actual lyrics or quotes, and confirmed it by Googling the first phrase to arouse that suspicion in me: "If you don't like my song, then turn off the radio."

Why did that phrase stick out? Because as a sentiment it comes across as too lazy for an author as smart as Porpentine to have come up with. (Though she did endorse it, so maybe I'm not all that perceptive.)

Yes, I'm aware of the vested interest inherent in being a guy who writes his opinions about things. Nevertheless, a sentiment like "turn off the radio" or "change the channel" strikes me as an admission of defeat. It says I'm only comfortable in a world where everyone compliments me, which is sort of at odds with this game's overriding sense of confidence and assertiveness, of the never-ending battle against the haters. I find it rather ironic that a game which attacks haters with the statement "I pity your attempts to justify your insecurity with analysis. It is false analysis with no substance" would then follow it up with a statement decrying all analysis!

Not every work has to be a masterpiece, and not every work has to be particularly ambitious. This is after all something of a glorified music video. But even with the relatively novel software of Twine this already feels like it offers nothing new or interesting.

Shrapnel, by Adam Cadre
A lopsided puzzle-box, July 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: adam cadre
Play it if: you have a thing for mindscrew tales and want a short, essentially puzzleless story.

Don't play it if: you're looking for a story that's truly elegant and powerful, because the cool ideas here are not delivered in a very consistent way.

I think I'm noticing a trend with my reaction to Adam Cadre's work. I'm impressed by the technical stuff, the subversive elements blow my mind, and the actual stories leave me cold. The exception is Varicella, whose story I do find quite engaging. But other than that my favorite of his would still have to be 9:05, which numbers among the least technically skilled of his works but is also perhaps the most elegant, with the entire story structure focused on the singular aim of delivering the punchline.

Shrapnel fits fairly neatly into how I think I perceive his work. The ideas are interesting, the subversion of traditional IF devices such as ressurection is excellent, and the story leaves me a bit too confused to describe.

I mean, don't get me wrong, I understand what happened/happens/willen haven been able to have be happening...but it's not really delivered correctly. It's reminiscent of that much-awaited blockbuster The Dark Knight Rises. To spare (admittedly unlikely) spoiler pain, I'll just say that a certain amount of backstory is revealed at precisely the wrong time for it to have any emotional impact, and it undermines much of the third act as a result.

The thing is, the last-minute reveal works well when it's a simple thing that crystallizes everything that came before. But there's nothing simple about the explanation for Shrapnel, and the player doesn't even find out through piecemeal investigation. It's just a fairly long-winded, multi-turn exposition-fest...admittedly something to which science fiction can fall prey, but even mediocre science fiction tends to know how to get the tiresome recitation of knowledge out of the way at the beginning of the story.

I don't want to give the impression that I hated Shrapnel; I quite liked it, really, not least for its initial setup and the execution of that core idea (not to mention the very end, which is quite memorable). But it is a bit of a jumble, really, and could have benefited from a bit more tinkering with the structure.

Ex Nihilo, by Juhana Leinonen

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Ex nihilo duo, July 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: Juhana Leinonen
Play it if: you've sort of failed to see the point of hypertext up until now, for this is an accessible and wonderfully creative use of the medium.

Don't play it if: if you roll your eyes at any poetry that tries to deal directly with the concept of transcendence.

This is the first hypertext game I've played that really made use of the medium in such as a way as to make me feel the medium itself was necessary to the story. This probably says more about my shamefully lacking experience with hypertext than it does about any transformative aspect to this work, but contextual considerations aside Ex Nihilo is more than worthy of praise.

The title is a reference to the Latin phrase creatio ex nihilo, literally "creation from nothing" - a rather slippery philosophical and theological concept about how we came to be. Appropriately enough, the game takes an immediately theological bent with the introduction of the PC as a godlike entity; progress is made less through actions and more through the determination of the entity's moods.

The game - I know it's not the best term for this sort of thing, but I dislike the term "work" and try not to use it - isn't particularly long or detailed. What it has is emergence. A major theme here is symmetry, and it is both explicit in the visual presentation and implicit in that the choices you make are mirrored, though not in any straightforward way - down to the final move of entering a text message and thus actually adding something to the world of the game (which, if you consider the universe of the game to be a closed system, really is an instance of creatio ex nihilo).

The result is that we have here something which feels genuinely responsive, where you really are being asked to participate in something rather than spectate. A lot of interactive fiction pulls this off like a magic trick by getting the player into the head of the protagonist and providing them with moral agency; Ex Nihilo is almost breathtaking in how much more real the creativity feels.

Will Ex Nihilo transform your life? Not really, no. But it's a beautifully elegant, elemental use of the hypertext form, and it feels complete in a way few stories ever do.

CYBERQUEEN, by Porpentine

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Nightmares Made Flesh, July 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: porpentine
Play it if: you want a nearly-pure transformation of text into a visceral, cinematic experience.

Don't play it if: you have a weak stomach for just about anything that could reasonably be expected to make a human being queasy.

The first two words in this game are "wet" and "sticky". And if you think the use of sentence fragments as impressionistic descriptors is passé, the rest of Cyberqueen probably won't be to your taste, because what it mainly does - what it does best - is transplant the experience of fragmenting consciousness into writing.

Cyberqueen is a war between intimacy and grotesquery, violation and transformation. The tone and content draw from the erotic and the clinically repellent, switch between them and occasionally combine them. In a certain way it reminds me of the Guillermo del Toro film Pan's Labyrinth, which had the audacity to sew together a wondrous, childlike fantasy and a grim, horrifically real war story. In both cases, the achievement is admirable, though exhausting.

The tale itself reads something like a fusion of System Shock and parts of Ray Bradbury's The City. Interestingly enough the antagonist, while malevolent, is not entirely unsympathetic, though she certainly stretches and probably breaks the boundaries of what constitutes acceptable sympathetic behavior. In certain readings she might be taken to be the protagonist, albeit not the player character.

The nature of this work's structure makes me wonder if it can even be described as interactive fiction, because while you are ostensibly presented with alternative options the game is ultimately an extremely linear experience. You are certainly made to suffer the protagonist's fears, pains and frustrations, but the "interactivity" is illusory. ("Sorry to ruin your power fantasy," gloats the antagonist as she seals your fate.) "Cinematic prose", perhaps.

The story plays with themes of identity, both in an internal sense and in a physical sense; it preys on the communal horror of deformity and dysmorphia. Which is good - it's touching on things of great social relevance. But it doesn't really discuss them, preferring to let them come to fruition in a more emotional than intellectual sense. Forsaking both the pen and the sword, Cyberqueen attacks the human comfort zone by wielding itself like a chainsaw. This would be a flaw under other circumstances, but I get the distinct impression that this was the author's intended direction for the story and as a result I must call it a success.

So why five stars? Firstly, because it deftly exploits the medium in such a way as to charge up the emotional responses we are asked to give to the events of the story; and secondly, because it is a complete and unabashed triumph in terms of what it tries to be: a fleshy, palpitating tale of agonizing transformation that demands your attention.

Gun Mute, by C.E.J. Pacian

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A gun is as good or as bad as the man using it, July 8, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: C. E. J. Pacian
Play it if: you want a game short and easy enough to breeze through but quirky and different enough to be memorable.

Don't play it if: linearity is a major turn-off.

The premise is simple. You're a reticent gunfighter, The Man With No Voice if you will, and your single purpose is to save your loved one. Get from point A to point B. Kill obstacles. Rinse and repeat with feeling.

Gun Mute is probably the most fun I've had with a game this linear. It's something like a cross between Time Crisis and those town-wide shootouts that seem to populate the climaxes of old Westerns. And as with the best action sequences, no two killings are alike thanks to a series of varied if easy puzzles.

Although the game doesn't operate in real time, it maintains a sense of urgency. The need to make use of timing, not only in response to your opponents' actions but to keep your own gun loaded, gives rise to a near-illusion of real-time action. It's an interesting effect, almost reminiscent of watching the still images in a flipbook come to life with motion. Perhaps I'm overplaying it, but I found it notable.

The setting isn't a straightforward Old Western locale so much as a post-civilization anarchy that has reverted to a sort of New Old West. Cyborgs bartend at the local saloon, the railroad transports futuristic battle turrets, and you install GPS software by drinking it. Pacian makes the wise choice not to dwell on the setting, as it isn't the focus of the piece, but lets it color the environment a little and thus keeps it memorable and distinctive while still sticking to the basic forms of the genre.

Overall, this is a fun and different sort of distraction. Hardly morally challenging or thematically deep, but a great deal of fun. I spent less than half an hour getting from beginning to end, and it'll stick with me a whole lot longer.

I Was a Teenage Headless Experiment, by Duncan Bowsman

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A nutcase to remember, July 7, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: duncan bowsman
Play it if: a tiny, smartly-written distraction sounds attractive.

Don't play it if: if, well, it doesn't.

I never know quite how to approach ratings for Speed IF games. I think it's generally agreed that the general "quality" standards for the Speed IF process are lower (at least in terms of depth and scope). So a game like this, while very good for the format, is rather light when considered as a game in and of itself. Do I rate it high, putting emphasis on the circumstances under which it was written? Or do I rate the game and not the writer?

In this case, at least, I figure I'll split the difference and give it a 4.

Though it has enough puzzles for Django Reinhardt to count on his left hand, I Was A Teenage Headless Experiment makes its short length count and gives the player that nice "aha" moment the ideal puzzle should produce. Outside of that, there's a nice level of light macabre humor (the number of terrible head-based puns is thankfully kept to a minimum). A comfortable and memorable distraction.

Party Arty, Man of La Munchies, by Jonathan Blask
A Pop-Tart of a game, July 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Play it if: you have five minutes to waste on some light humor.

Don't play it if: words like "light", "humor", and "waste" are not what you're looking for in IF at the moment.

The entries for the 2012 Hugo Comp come across as relatively polished Speed IF (though, frankly, most IF comes across as polished Speed IF). Not a whole lot of consequence, but enough fleshing-out to create a beginning, middle, and end, which is more than can be said for a lot of other games of this length and depth.

The game itself is almost to small to really bother talking about. Suffice it to say that the main form of humor is an exploitation of the mild-mannered protagonist's alcohol-induced bravado. This livens up what would otherwise be a fairly dull setting - which, not coincidentally, emulates how a lot of people actually experience alcohol...

Party Arty has little ambition and doesn't make any pretense of being a serious work, and is all the more fun as a light distraction for it.

Zork: A Troll's-Eye View, by Dylan O'Donnell
A cute, underdeveloped idea, July 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: one-room, zork, short, parody, fantasy, dylan o'donnell, puzzleless, fanfiction
Play it if: a five-minute joke game playing off Zork cliches sounds like your cup of tea.

Don't play it if: you're hoping for a full-blooded critique of NPCs and minions in old-school IF.

This is a short game, short enough that it would probably take longer to read a review of it than to play it. A one-room, puzzle-less game, A Troll's-Eye View's basic function is to turn a little part of Zork on its head by showing it from the perspective of the embattled guardian troll encountered early in the game.

This is an excellent idea for a game in my opinion. Unfortunately, the execution is undercut by a rather limited implementation of the idea. The writing plays with the timeless Zorkian language, but not in a very complete way: a fair amount of the responses are stock Nelson-era statements which feel anachronistic.

It's one thing to pose a question about identity and agency in games. But you don't really need to make a game to accomplish that, and deciding to make use of IF as a medium for the critique of IF sort of demands more than this game has to offer. Only the barest mention is made of the troll's reasons for being there - not, in fact, much more than the game A Troll's-Eye View parodies. So while it does mirror Zork in certain respects, they aren't really the right ones to produce a critique that is particularly new or memorable.

A more complete attempt would have taken the perspective of a character with more agency, such as the main antagonists, as the gulf between their potential relationships with the protagonist and their actual non-existent relationships are much wider - and therefore a more fruitful source of study.

The Moonlit Tower, by Yoon Ha Lee

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A touch of moonlit magic, July 4, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: yoon ha lee, fantasy, atmospheric, mid-length
Play it if: you want a game rich in atmosphere and abstraction.

Don't play it if: you prefer something more like a literal story or intellectual challenge.

This is a very striking first publication. I think most of us would give an arm and a leg to put out something this good on the first try, and Yoon Ha Lee is to be commended on the thought and imagination she's put into this work.

In the basic technical respects, it's not all that remarkable. A short-to-mid-length game which isn't very puzzle-dense. Not much is going on here that's particularly revolutionary to the medium.

What makes it special is the setting and atmosphere. Here, the work comes alive in the imagination, and not just in the vivid, spellbinding language of description.

The Moonlit Tower reminds me the most of Emily Short's Metamorphoses; although the latter is a more puzzle-heavy exercise, the general feel of the two works is rather similar. Yes, there's a distinctive Eastern aesthetic influence (Korean and Mongolian, apparently), but the more overt impression to me is a pervading sense of toying with abstractions.

In Metamorphoses, it's the essence of things: their shapes, their sizes, their substances. In The Moonlit Tower, it's more about symbols: masks, lanterns, seasons. A sense of symmetry pervades the piece, with asymmetry being a puzzle to solve. A porcelain half-mask. A feast of bones just barely out of place. A compass dividing the four seasons. A symphony with a missing player. These otherwise disparate elements congregate to give an inescapable feeling of some greater whole.

The "story" itself is limited mainly to flashback and suggestion. In a way, it's almost a nudge - a small device intended to clarify one or two things, to quietly lay the framework for the final sequence. It's a testament to this story's belief in letting the player's imagination blossom that you can experience a profound sense of completion upon finishing The Moonlit Tower, even if you feel you never really knew the protagonist.

It's difficult to really say much more about this work. It's a bona fide tone poem - almost a more intimate, intricate IF successor to Strauss's Also Sprach Zarathustra - and as such is something more to be experienced and reveled in than dissected. I strongly recommend it.

Make It Good, by Jon Ingold

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Challenging, ambitious game, July 4, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: jon ingold
Play it if: you want a difficult, voice-heavy playing experience in the tradition of Varicella.

Don't play it if: you'd prefer something more in the vein of Anchorhead, which sacrifices some challenge for ensuring greater flow in the player's experience.

It's a small shame that the most interesting aspects of Make it Good are not ones it can advertise openly. As such, the blurb suffers a little from being a bit too parodied: a very conventional preview to a rather unconventional game.

Make it Good is an impressive piece of detective fiction, not just in the sense of trying to figure out who the killer is, (Spoiler - click to show)but of course in trying to figure out what you evidence you need to destroy and plant to shift the blame from yourself. The moment you understand the big picture of what's going on is a shiver-inducing moment like something out of Spider and Web(Spoiler - click to show) - though in gameplay terms I do think this is a more complete, if not as unconventional, exploration of the narrative twist. It is written with the economy characteristic of any good mystery: no object, character, or detail is truly superfluous. It pulls off a rather neat trick, as well: details which I thought were minor bugs actually turned out not to be!

In structural terms, this feels much better than All Roads, which in my opinion was a more disorganized experiment in this sort of basic story idea which ended up being more of a noble failure.

Smoothing out the gameplay experience is a generally good sense for synonyms (the game doesn't call for too many exotic actions in any case), a TOPICS command to make dialogue as painless as possible, and a GO TO command to assist with navigation, which is welcome if not strictly necessary for a map of this size.

There are flaws, though. The first is the voice. I got the strong impression that this was a story set in the US, yet for a pulp noir protagonist, our hero uses a hell of a lot of Britishisms. Was this a calculated effect? Did I misinterpret the setting? We may never know. But it did feel jarring, and this is coming from me, a multi-national English speaker with little intuitive sense of dialect. It's a stylistic complaint, but there you go.

Second is the mid-game. Rarely have I felt more at a loss for what to do. Chalk it up to my non-puzzle-expert mind, but while I had a fairly straightforward idea of the goal I needed to accomplish, I had absolutely no idea of how to go about it. One of the problems with something like detective fiction this detailed is that you find yourself over-thinking the effects even mundane actions will have, only to miss a fairly obvious opportunity. The cruelty of the game demands a number of re-plays to compound this difficulty. It simultaneously feels fair - because of the detail-oriented nature of this sort of plot - and unfair, because we don't necessarily know as much as we have a right to. I still haven't made up my mind about this sort of gameplay being requested of players. Time will tell.

Even with these frustrations, though, it's a fantastically engaging game. It really does succeed in delivering the sort of excitement and challenge you'd get from investigating a mystery in the tradition of Agatha Christie or Columbo. Just don't expect it to feel particularly fair.

Common Ground, by Stephen Granade

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A static story undercuts the unconventional narrative , June 21, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: stephen granade
Play it if: a character-centric, puzzle-less story told in an interesting way sounds like your cup of tea.

Don't play it if: you're hoping for a genuinely engaging character drama, because this is more of a snapshot than a full-blooded story.

In Common Ground we have an interesting fusion of structure and content. The story is told as a re-tread of the same brief time period from the viewpoints of different players. With the game collecting information about your chosen actions in successive iterations, the perspectives never contradict one another in the broad outline of what goes on - though their subjective filters of what is happening will flavor how characters deliver dialogue, or if they even say certain things at all. The unreliable, non-linear narration is strongly reminiscent in places of the previous year's Spider's Web, though the focus here is on character and there is no explicit requirement that the player remain consistent with the details of the pre-determined narrative.

If there's a flaw in how it's employed here, it would have to be in the fact that the story very much emphasizes the thoughts and intent of one character above the others. The scene is divided between two characters other than the protagonist, and as such they are less well served in the story than they might have been if the plot had only switched between Jeanie and one of her parents.

This is a device which has been seen before and since in other media, but not particularly often, and it is a device which I find suitable to IF. Bearing in mind that the "fuzzy memory" nature of the plot allows for an imperfect recollection of game events, it's still technically notable.

The story itself is perhaps less interesting than the way in which it was presented. In the initial stages, at least, I found it reminiscent of Flannery O'Connor's "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" Like O'Connor, Granade is effective at revealing his female protagonist's character through her reactions to her environment. Jeanie entertains impossible dreams, like appearing in a Bon Jovi music video, and as a result is reluctant to praise much of anything in her actual environment, including her parents. She consistently refers to her mother's husband as "Frank", which is interesting for two reasons: a) she's known him since at least six, and b) the game accepts "dad" as a valid synonym for "Frank" without comment. This implies that Jeanie's attitude isn't related to the circumstances of Frank's marriage, but to some special dislike for him. The game allows her to believe that Frank is drunk even when we can later have Frank get a Coke. Her relationship with her mother seems to be better, but still distant; Jeanie gives the distinct impression of being uncomfortable spending time with her in the same room.

Jeanie is an interesting character, and her development through these indirect means is quite well done, but she doesn't manage to compel much beyond her status as a teenage-girl archetype. The danger with stories which withhold information about characters until late into play is that you risk underdeveloping them, or worse, telegraphing them by forcing too much development into a short time. Jeanie has a goal or two beyond simply going out, but what her motivations are for this are never explained to my satisfaction.

Teenagers are difficult characters to write well. Children, adults and the elderly are generally conscious of the roles society is asking them to play in a way teens are not. Transitioning from childhood to adulthood is a hellish process of comprehending things about yourself you may have never wanted to know; it's an experimental time of making light of things you should value, or taking too seriously things that will later prove embarrassing. Most of us carry some form of embarrassment or baggage from our teenage years, and the natural instinct is to translate this into unlikable, one-dimensional literary characters. The protagonist of "Where Are You Going", Connie, is a fascinating character because O'Connor reveals to us not only her basic character, but the tension between Connie as she presents herself and Connie as she "really" thinks herself to be - a social actor who revels in acting and disdains others who do the same. Jeanie doesn't get much of a chance to be likable, and nor is she given this kind of secondary dimension.

Frank and Deb, Jeanie's parents, are of a similar persuasion: while they are presented well in their basic forms - the harried housewife and the under-appreciated husband - they aren't much developed beyond these things. Frank thinks in passing about how he loves Jeanie but sometimes feels like spanking her for being a brat; but the game never asks him or the audience to think further about this. Deb's personality is conveyed more through very light puzzles - I'd call them "frustrations" - but again, we're not shown how she generally addresses her frustrations with Frank and Jeanie.

The thing is that there's nothing obviously wrong with the writing; and while the characters don't exist much outside of their archetypes, you can still use archetypal characters to write a good story. I had to think for a bit about what really bugged me about them before I realized it.

I'm fond of saying that narrative is about setup and payoff. In this instance, the better term would be "conflict and resolution".

"Where Are You Going" isn't just a portrait of Connie, it's a shattering of Connie's world. Her interactions with Arnold Friend, the antagonist, are at least as fascinating as Connie herself; Friend is a creature from the edge of Connie's comfortable reality, a man who cannot be manipulated by adolescent "performances" the way the other drooling boys can. Connie's encounter with Friend slowly strips away her sense of security in her presented character. In other words, O'Connor is doing more than telling us who Connie is: she's throwing obstacles in the path of Connie's existence and telling us something about how Connie navigates (or fails to navigate) them.

Jeanie, by comparison, never really encounters obstacles. There are a couple of very minor inconveniences that slow her down, sure, but at no point is she really in danger of failing in her goals. We see who she is, she does what she does, and that's it. There's no conflict. Common Ground lacks it, and as result it lacks drive, it lacks thrust. It is content to present its characters without really challenging them.

As a result, while hardly an incompetent work, Common Ground never attains the edge it might otherwise have had as an IF short story.

(P.S. The comparison to "Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?" isn't because I particularly think the author was influenced by O'Connor; it's more that I found O'Connor's story instructive in examining the flaws of Common Ground.)

Things, by Jacqueline A. Lott and Sam Kabo Ashwell

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Good short IF, June 21, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: jacqueline a. lott, sam kabo ashwell, speed IF
Play it if: you don't bear a grudge against Speed IF entries, because while this is extremely limited in scope it does have a fun quirk to make it a decent waste of three minutes.

Don't play it if: you bear a grudge against Speed IF entries, because while this does have a fun quirk to make it a decent waste of three minutes, it is extremely limited in scope.

Speed IF reminds me a lot of improv comedy: it's quick and scrappy, and easier to enjoy when you're in a certain frame of mind. It's a less concentrated experience than what you get with longer, planned stuff, but occasionally it's spontaneous enough to give you a few powerful moments of experience.

Things won't change your mind, but its central notable feature is a gratifyingly subversive take on "opaque narration" games like The Gostak and For A Change. I feel fairly certain that it would have gotten tiresome in a longer game, but as Speed IF it's a quick enough experience to preserve the novelty - making Things an appropriate use of the genre's creative limitations.

Corvidia, by Alan DeNiro

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
Modernist poetry with a bit of cinematography, June 20, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: alan deniro
Play it if: you're interested in seeing some of Twine's fancier tricks, or indulging in mutable free verse for a few minutes.

Don't play it if: you hate it when you get the feeling that what you're reading would work better if it wasn't "interactive fiction".

Corvidia is a short work, less interesting for its actual content than for what it suggests about IF in general.

What is it? Well, in essence, it's a narrative existing somewhere between poetry and dramatic monologue. You click certain allowed keywords, and this determines the next lines to be spoken.

Does it work as poetry? Not...entirely, I would say. It doesn't strike me as doing anything terribly original or striking with the English language. Simple present tense has been kind of beaten to death in English poetry for me anyway. The imagery is too opaque for my taste as well. William Carlos Williams, it ain't.

Does it work as an interactive construct? Well, no. Sure, you can pick words out of the poetry, but there's no reason to pick any particular word except on a whim. You know how you can tell a poorly-written CYOA book when you can win by just letting your eyes glaze over and picking what seem like the least-stupid options? Less "guess-the-verb" and more of a "winging-it syndrome". It seems to be a problem with a lot of Twine works, and it's in full force here. The problem with this kind of writing is that it corrodes the player's attention, their willingness to engage with the material, their desire to savor the text. There's no inter in the activity. There's no give to balance the take.

The visual presentation is - well, it's like 3-D technology in film. Sure, it adds novelty and a touch of pizzazz to what you're seeing, but - do you really need it? I don't need funky glasses to tell me a scene is occurring in three dimensions: my brain already tells me that whenever I watch 2-D images of 3-D environments. (The magic of imagination.) In a similar vein, it's all very well that the words are glowing and fading in and out, but I did come here to read, after all. The words could be in bubblegum-pink Comic Sans and they'd have as much meaning to me. It's the same response I have to people who refuse to use e-readers because they "love holding paper books" or something similar: isn't the point that great writing leaps off the page?

It's a decent showcase of Twine's flashier visual capabilities, but other than that - I'm sorry, it's not my thing.

The Edifice, by Lucian P. Smith

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Good, but has more potential to fulfill, June 20, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: lucian p. smith
Play it if: you'd like a collection of realistic puzzles presented in an engaging and quite atmospheric way, because as far as the central premise of the puzzles goes it's a good one.

Don't play it if: you want an overarching story, because this game never really amounts to what you think it will.

Not long ago, I gave five stars to a game which was in most respects average because the outstanding elements more than made up for them. Now I'm giving The Edifice three stars, because while it's in many respects a very well-designed and well-conceived game, it has a rather large deficiency that left me a little disappointed with it.

I like prehistory. I don't think there's enough of it in our storytelling. The last "serious" film to take place before the dawn of writing was 10,000 B.C., for God's sake. But there's a sense of mystery to that era. In many ways, it is a time we will never understand fully, because it is so alien to us: we are left to decipher figurative artifacts like cave paintings and tombs rather than dead languages. And yet it carries objects of profound curiosity - our first experiments with the technologies that made us great...tools, fire, language, husbandry. Who developed these things? What inspired them? I always wished the Civilization games would start a little earlier in time, before these concepts entered the psyche of our species - and now we have a game which takes place almost entirely in that black box of history.

The game's most prominent artistic influence should be obvious. The titular Edifice, an enigmatic construct which steers the protagonist's "evolution", draws from the Monolith of Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey (and of course the first chapter involves tool development under...somewhat similar circumstances to that film's famous opening scene). There's even an underplayed "reincarnation" aspect to the plot which is metaphorically reminiscent of the Star Child.

A more distant possible influence, and one I freely admit is probably just my own imagination, is EVO: The Search for Eden, a Super NES game released for American audiences in 1993. It features a protagonist (initially a fish) who "evolves" through various stages of complexity in a process not unlike reincarnation, passing through eras of geological history and approaching a sort of evolutionary singularity. It also has a driving plot device which remains mysterious in many respects. Players of the game will immediately understand the comparison, though I don't know whether the author has any experience with it. I recommend it, though.

The point is, this game hits a lot of my buttons in terms of genre interest. Smith wisely keeps the "sci-fi" elements of the story low-key; the Edifice is basically a plot device that allows him to string his puzzles together, and unlike the situation with certain games, in this case the puzzles justify it. They've got variety, verisimilitude and a good level of complexity. Individually they've probably been done before (level two comes to mind, obviously(Spoiler - click to show), with The Gostak employing it in a more complete sense a few years later), but they're done well. The worst thing to be said about them is that they're very unlike one another - yes, the game's basic thematic premise is helpful in understanding what it is you're supposed to try and achieve, but in any other sense solving one puzzle won't help you solve another. This is understandable when the puzzles require you to sort of reinvent the wheel (almost literally), but it can be a source of frustration at times.

That's not what I'm talking about with the whole "three stars" thing, though.

I hesitate to criticize a story for feeling like it hasn't sufficiently explored...well, itself - that is, its setting or its main theme - because the scope of a game is the author's business. Asimov's "Reason" might have been worthy of a novel, but it's hardly his fault he decided to publish it as a short story. Nevertheless, The Edifice doesn't feel like it ends; it feels like it stops. This was the same problem I had with Kim Stanley Robinson's The Years of Rice and Salt, which shared the themes of reincarnation and humanity's evolution but failed (in my opinion) to do much of interest with them.

Three levels feels insufficient for a game with this much promise, but it's more than that. It's that the protagonist unthinkingly accepts the circumstances of his or her situation regardless of its surreal nature, which in some cases is an acceptable artistic touch but here feels incomplete - a dangling thread in what could have been a tapestry. Hemingway once said that omission was acceptable as long as you knew what it was you were omitting. The Edifice feels less like a case of deliberate omission and more like a case of Smith simply not knowing how to continue the idea much further. Which is understandable, and I'm not going to criticize the guy for laziness or anything, but it did mean I left The Edifice feeling disappointed.

How would I have addressed this gap? It's admittedly a tough question. If I were to plot out a "full" game, it would involve the protagonist understanding something more of the Edifice itself. (Spoiler - click to show)I'd have probably had him end up building it, I'm a sucker for those sorts of circular narratives. But even giving the protagonist the option to work against the Edifice, or act upon his knowledge of its existence and function in the "real" world, would have been interesting.

But even if I hadn't expanded or added to the settings, I'd have done what 2001: A Space Odyssey did: close the game with a vision of what was to come from our perspective. Not necessarily transforming the protagonist into a space fetus, but something awe-inspiring and transcendental - after all, isn't the Edifice godlike in its powers and implicit motives?

Perhaps 2001 is the key comparison here. As a work of art, 2001 is about the promise of transcendence - in a spiritual as well as technological sense. The Edifice has the technological development down pat, but it can only feebly suggest the spiritual, and so to me it will always feel like it could have amounted to something much greater.

Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom, by S. John Ross

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
By Huron's all-conquering bowels, a tale fit for a manly-thewed BARBARIAN!, June 19, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: s. john ross
Play it if: you enjoy any or all of the following: a) loving pastiches of the science fiction and fantasy of the 1970s, b) games with a strong and thoroughly-implemented narrative voice, and c) a fun, roller-coaster romp that gleefully abandons the emotional jugular in favor of charming the pants off you - because this is perhaps the pinnacle of "fun-over-meaning" in IF.

Don't play it if: you think parody's passe, you want an intellectual challenge or a complex emotional commitment, or you have absolutely no connection with the loved fantasy and sci-fi institutions of yesteryear (though that shouldn't necessarily get in the way of you playing the game.)

Far out in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the Internet hides a short, unregarded 1970 publication known to the initiated as The Eye of Argon, authored by Jim Theis.

If you have not read this sacred text, I encourage you to seek it out. It may have been unintentional and to his undying shame, but Jim bequeathed something unique and priceless to the world when he published Argon: a work of fantasy literature so poorly-written - in such a hilarious way - that it is a thing of beauty, deserving its place on the shelf of history alongside such works as English As She Is Spoke and Troll 2.

And most importantly, we now stand in the shadow of its spiritual successor in IF form - Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom.

The main difference, of course, is that ToaSK is a technically-accomplished work designed as a loving homage to the crappier yet more charming corners of our obsession with fantasy and sci-fi. Whereas Argon abuses the English language with a form of incompetence bordering on subconscious genius, ToaSK does so knowingly and with an eye for provoking the longest laughs out of the player.

It may seem odd that I'm giving five stars to a game which is average in numerous respects - competently executed, yes, but average. The player is limited to a spare handful of commands, which streamlines the "guess-the-verb" problem out of existence but doesn't leave much room for complex gameplay. There's almost no plot outside the puzzle-solving - a lot of the game consists of level-grinding, though through puzzles rather than combat (usually). The game is quite thoroughly implemented but also very under-described in certain ways. It's a throwback - intentionally, yes, but under normal circumstances I'd think of this as a pretty decent beginner effort, worth maybe three stars (in the alternate universe where star ratings actually have meaningful worth as a system of evaluation).

So why the five-star rating? Why the soon-to-follow high praise?

One word: voice.

ToaSK cultivates a narrative voice that proves utterly charming and engaging, one which actually complements the half-baked feel of the rest of the game and makes you totally lose sight of any importance you might place on complex puzzles or narrative ambitions. Basically: it's so funny that you don't care.

Humor is a difficult thing to review as it often simply comes down to a question of individual taste. A couple of reviewers have already expressed a dislike for the story on that basis. But it can be comfortably established that the author is applying his chosen comic devices in a consistent fashion. There's method to the madness, and if it's to your liking, then welcome to the house of fun: find the first five points' worth of ToaSK funny and you'll almost certainly have a ball earning the next 495.

The sheer effort put into structuring the game in the service of the comedy is staggering. Extensive lists of responses to various ludicrous or impossible player actions; deliberate homages to the trends and fads of the late seventies; a fantastic range of feelies that includes an entire fictional RPG format; and a couple of behind-the-scenes tricks that'd make your eyes water.

The game's central success lies in the protagonist and our relationship with him. Lost Pig features a dim-witted hero whose lack of intelligence colors the narration, and much of the fun comes from the player using their own intelligence to help him succeed - a process which inadvertently reveals some hidden depths to his character. There's something similar going on here, though with more of a comedic bent. The nameless barbarian who constitutes our PC is exceedingly dull and more or less progresses through life by killing and screwing everything and everyone in his way, and not giving much thought to anything outside that process. He draws influence from a number of sources. There's the sorts of nameless, wordless protagonists who populated fantasy RPGs at the time - Steve Jackson's Fighting Fantasy series, beginning publication only three years after the fictional writing-period for this game, was pretty crammed with those. Robert E. Howard's anti-intellectual (if not perhaps "stupid") Conan is a more obvious influence, living chiefly for the glory of battle and the satisfaction of hedonistic pleasures rather than the dusty accomplishments of book-learning. (Howard also corresponded with the more sci-fi-oriented H.P. Lovecraft and wove strands of a common mythology into his work; ToaSK also flirts with - no, rather messily seduces - certain loved sci-fi tropes.) We are invited to laugh at the nameless hero even as we carry out his quest and experience his victories - and basically, we do:

>ASSAIL DUFFEL BAG
During many points in your life, the THESKIAN DUFFEL BAG has been your only friend, confidante, and bed-partner. Save your mindless rages for the SLAVER KING, barbarian. Don't hurt the ones you love.

>PARLEY WITH ME
You've tried it before. You never get any of the jokes.

>SEIZE SKY
When thy saga is writ and thy story is told and maidens swoon to hear it, the tale-tellers will, in kindness and in mercy, skip the part where the SKY hath distracted thee so.

It's easy to imagine this sort of thing overwhelming the game and getting terribly stale...but oddly enough, it never does. Ross's effort to devise entire lists of randomized responses to the same basic sorts of errors (over twenty different responses to an unrecognized verb) goes a long way to keeping the game's language diverse. It's almost like the game itself is a fleshed-out character, never answering the same question the same way twice. A given joke's format may remain the same, but the joke itself never will - and so the game remains fresh till the end.

I think what ultimately makes the game work is that it's just utterly charming. How could it be otherwise? It's so clearly a labor of love: hours of effort to tune the humor in the narration, to compose the feelies, to write a draft source code document for would-be sequeleers, to construct all the little details and mechanics from the ranking system to the final battle. How can I not love a story which is so clearly an exercise in fun - from an author who had fun writing it so that we could have fun playing it?

For me, at least, Treasures of a Slaver's Kingdom is the perfect antidote to the wider Hollywood climate that would have us watch Snow White and the Seven Dwarves reinterpreted as a grim, militaristic low fantasy epic. The absolute peak of fun over substance, the ultimate triumph - and I mean "triumph" in the genuine, positive sense - of good-natured ribbing and entertainment over the cynical and the dour.

Though barkest up the right tree, barbarian. Though barkest up the right tree.

Cheeseshop, by David Welbourn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Slice-of-Python, June 16, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: david welbourn
Play it if: like me, you have a passionate appreciation for the work of Monty Python and would enjoy seeing an effective adaptation of one of their better-known sketches.

Don't play it if: you're one of those people who never really understood the appeal of Monty Python, or are feeling a bit short on patience - because you may spend a couple of minutes sharing Mr. Mousebender's psychosis-inducing frustration.

Cheeseshop is an IF rendition of the Monty Python sketch of the same name. As a result, it's fun and not too ambitious: puzzleless, at most five minutes in length, and chock-full of reliable Pythonic humor.

Something about the scenario - a man wanting to buy cheese from a shop which appears not to stock any - works bizarrely well for IF. In the original sketch, Mousebender's failure to acquire the cheese he wants is a source of humor for the audience; here, the player is additionally asked to share in his frustration. It's a nice, subtle twist. Maybe it works a little too well - the process of mechanistically typing cheese varieties can wear on you a little, though the game's responses to your attempts do add a sense of progression - but it's effective.

There's not much to say about a game of this length, but it succeeds in terms of what it's trying to be: a well-executed interactive adaptation of a Python sketch.

The Meteor, the Stone and a Long Glass of Sherbet, by Graham Nelson (as Angela M. Horns)

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Schizophrenic, June 14, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: graham nelson
Play it if: you have a strong love for the old Infocom classics and want to re-live the experience with a slightly shinier veneer.

Don't play it if: you expect the narrative element of the story to be developed in much of any sense.

Maybe we've been spoiled by modern IF. My first experiences with the medium were on Ye Olde Classics such as Zork and Planetfall, but it wasn't very long before I stumbled onto the more contemporary literature and, to be honest, I haven't really looked back since. I can handle basically anything up to fifteen years old, and before that it tends to get a little rocky in terms of whether or not I'm likely to have the patience to enjoy it.

The shame of playing Sherbet is that it feels like a bit of a bait-and-switch. At first, it looks like this is going to be a creatively structured game: you're limited to a single location, there's strong effort being put into describing objects, characters, the passage of time. The hints menu has a fairly detailed explanation of the world the game inhabits. The main character is actually a character - yes, not a very vivid one, but bearing the signs of personality nonetheless.

Then you do a thing, and basically all of that goes away. And with what is it replaced? A sprawling, disconnected, Zorkian cave adventure starring our old amorphous friend AFGNCAAP.

Enthusiasts of Zorkian gameplay will be delighted. Me, not so much.

It feels a bit churlish to express this sort of disappointment at a work by Graham Nelson - who kind of literally wrote the book on IF. Nevertheless, Sherbet feels like two entirely different games stuck together: a detailed fantasy story of political intrigue with a comedic touch, and a standard (though not uncreative) under-implemented hunt-the-treasure romp.

A certain someone compared IF to a narrative at war with a crossword. A more accurate statement would be that the process of writing IF is like a narrative at war with a crossword - IF itself should be a harmonious relationship between the two. As it is, the relationship between the narrative and puzzles here is not unlike a tense Cold War-esque standoff: they flirt with reconciliation, but never get there before one side runs out of steam and lets the other have the last laugh.

Sherbet could have been enjoyable, excellent even, as a tale of diplomatic intrigue. It could have been enjoyable, excellent even, as a loving homage to Zork. As both, it's the result of crashing a Ferrari into an Aston Martin to get a super-car: in practice, you just get a rather disappointing mess.

The three stars are for the puzzles, which are creative and worthy of the tradition they inhabit, as well as the writing, which is sharp, witty, and evocative (when it knows what it's about).

World Builder, by Paul Lee

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Asimovian vignette, June 13, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: paul lee
Play it if: you're in the mood for a short, high-concept piece of sci-fi.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for puzzles or much in the way of interactivity.

World Builder seems to draw strong influence from the Isaac Asimov short story "The Last Question". I could be wrong about that, but given the common themes of man, machine, and cosmic godhood, I think I could be forgiven for drawing the comparison.

Perhaps appropriately, World Builder as a narrative shares most of The Last Question's strengths and weaknesses. It succeeds in moments where it evokes grand imagery and higher powers: this is a universe inhabited by machine intelligences, planetary designs and would-be gods. The prose is acceptable, perhaps under-implemented in places but functional in conveying the settings and possessed of occasional moments of striking imagery. The scope of the story requires that the characters speak with Tolkienic grandiosity, which while appropriate does serve to distance the player from any deep emotional connection with the characters, especially given the short length of the game; beside their immediate goals, the characters are generally ciphers. This is not entirely a flaw in a short game emphasizing high-concept imagery: "The Last Question" also had fairly flat and static characters, and it's (by most standards) a gem of sci-fi short stories (Asimov's personal favorite, incidentally, and my favorite short story of his ouevre).

As a game, there's not much to speak of. There are no real puzzles and no real gameplay stakes - as far as I can tell, there's no way to lose, though perhaps the game was just very forgiving. This is understandable when dealing with a PC who is close to apotheosis, but it does make me wonder if the story of "World Builder" wouldn't have been better served as straightforward fiction than as IF.

Still, a diverting five minutes of your time.

The Legend of Robin Hood, by Craig Dutton

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Curiously off-putting, June 13, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: craig dutton
Play it if: you'd like to witness an instructive example of how to alienate a player in the first thirty seconds of play.

Don't play it if: you want a game that makes much of any effort to engage the player.

I like Robin Hood. He's a character with a long and rich tradition in history, politics and artistry; like King Arthur, he combines elements of real folk heroes, poetic exaggeration, outright falsification, and Jungian archetype into something timeless. The point is, Robin Hood is cool, and in the expansive and variegated world of adaptation there's room for more Robin Hood stories in IF (we already have Robin of Sherlock as a good entry).

That being said, this is a rather disappointing effort. Craig Dutton seems not to have beta-tested the game, or even particularly proofread it: grammatical errors and puzzling capitalization abound. The lack of a hint system or walkthrough, coupled with the extremely open-ended nature of the game's beginning, means that I have no way to understand whether or not I've made the game unwinnable or missed anything of importance when I come up against a seemingly insoluble situation (being locked in a cell).

The gameplay itself is poor. I can understand the fascination with mazes even though it's difficult to make them novel or interesting, so to some degree a maze that seems to run on nothing but trial and error is forgivable. That being said, I fail to understand what choice motivated the author to actually start the game with the PC in a maze and no reference points. As a hunter, the main character presumably has some ability to track his quarry, or at least some familiarity with the forest. None of this is translated into the gameplay experience, though, leaving the player to basically wander around a region of single-sentence rooms until stumbling across the deer. And I think the player is supposed to find a couple of items in the process, but these appear to be almost randomly scattered in the forest. I'm looking for a deer. It doesn't make sense to find the deer then go back into the woods to more thoroughly search it for useless objects. Yet that is what the game apparently requires of me.

I mentioned that the forest is a series of one-sentence room descriptions. That isn't limited to the forest. A boring maze is followed up with a locked-room puzzle whose terse implementation verges on the hilarious:

You can go west.
>west
That way is locked.

>x door
A strong iron-bound oak door.

>x slit
A very narrow window. Impossible for anyone to squeeze through.

>speak to much
He grins back at you.

Pervading the game is a sense that the author didn't think much about verb implementation either:

>shoot deer
I don't understand your command

>kill deer with bow
That doesn't work.(Spoiler - click to show)

("Use bow on deer" is the required command.)


>knock on door
I can't see that. (on door)

>knock door
You can't knock it.

It's not my habit to review a game without having completed it. I felt the need to do it in this case because, while the game afforded me neither the support nor the inclination to progress beyond about five minutes' worth of play, it failed to do so in a rather fascinating way. I've always thought that bad art is as instructive as good art when it comes to learning the craft. As a learning exercise in failed gameplay, this one may actually be worth the time of a novice writer.

Head of State, by ronkimmons

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Shallow gameplay makes for a poor economics simulator, June 12, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: ronkimmons
Play it if: you want a bite-sized summary of the more straightforward economic issues developing countries tend to face.

Don't play it if: you want to play a game which takes nuance and interactivity to be must-haves in a game that simulates the effects of political and economic policies.

Head of State is an extremely brief government simulator placing you in charge of the monetary policy of a nascent Southeast Asian country. It bears a superficial resemblance to Jennifer Government: NationStates, a browser-based government simulator - though NationStates is more about exploring the ideological implications of policy choices than modeling their practical consequences, whereas in Head of State that emphasis is flipped.

I happen to be a political science major specializing in comparative government and international relations, so I'm not entirely unfamiliar with the types of issues being raised here. So I can say with some confidence that the author isn't, either. When it comes to detailing possible economic policies and their likely results, there's nothing particularly implausible or eye-poppingly ideologically biased in the game's logic.

That being said, the worth of Head of State as a simulator is suspect. The game forces you to jump through certain hoops to accept the premise - that the player is acting as both the executive and legislative branches, for instance - that rather devalue the kind of verisimilitude needed for a game examining real policies in detail.

Worse is the interactivity - or rather, lack thereof. Insofar as the goal of the game is to determine a policy plan for a country's economy, this is a fairly shallow success. But anyone can lay out a policy plan if they have the time and the masochistic inclinations. The interest lies in the practical effects of those policies, and the reactions of one's constituents to the plan. Head of State is only about building a policy plan in the sense that that all the input it requires is a series of policy choices (though six isn't much of a series). But it also takes the time to point out the public's response and the effect of the policies on the economy, and the problem is that the game has no scope for this. The player is given no opportunity to modify, moderate, or reform his proposed policies with the passage of time (and given that there are no specific time frames, these elements are fairly hazy given the game's own distinction between long-term and short-term policy effects). There are no complicating factors introduced.

In real politics, as basically everyone knows, it's not a simple matter of enacting the "right" policies. Compromises are necessary, often because the people whose interests you're contradicting have some sort of power over you. Yet you can simply choose to stick it to prominent local interest groups by refusing to impose high-tariff barriers to free trade. See, if government would be that simple, most of our problems could be fixed almost overnight. And a simulator is necessarily a simplification of what it simulates - but the model this game proposes is so stiff as to be of little use or interest to anyone.

It's a shame because I do think there is room in the medium for a government sim of depth. I can't be the only person who spent endless hours in fascination with SimCity 3000 or Civilization II and III, marveling at the depth of gameplay, the emergent properties of the world model and the underlying game mechanics whose discovery was left up to the player's experimentation. While the largely textual nature of IF poses a challenge to replicating this effect without becoming a tedious exposition-fest, a little part of me says it can be done well.

So I'll give Head of State this much credit. It does try - not very hard, but it does try - to do something worthwhile with the medium. Consider this as much a public service announcement as a review: interactive fiction is waiting for its great government simulator.

For a Change, by Dan Schmidt

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Evocative and imaginative setting, June 11, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: dan schmidt
Play it if: you're in the mood for a short, light, memorable story which follows intuitive, dreamlike connections rather than logic-based ones.

Don't play it if: you prefer logic-based rather than intuitive puzzles, are looking for a longer story which emphasizes plot or characterization, or are easily frustrated by decoding descriptions.

For a Change was apparently Dan Schmidt's first completed work, and I have to say it's pretty impressive. It doesn't succeed so much in terms of puzzles, plot, or characters so much as it does in worming its way into your head and making itself easily remembered.

The most distinctive thing about the story is of course the language in which it is narrated to the player. It doesn't go out of its way to invent an entirely new vocabulary like The Gostak, but the game shows a strong preference for describing things in metaphor and generalizations. The player character is "faded and silent". A bed is called a "resting". Occasionally the language will reverse intuitive causalities: "the High Wall looms above the shade, creating it". A lot of the joy in playing the game comes from unpicking the games Schmidt plays in his construction of the descriptions and action, and you can tell he had a lot of fun writing them.

The world itself is also bizarrely engrossing. The style of narration (assuming the player character has knowledge of the world), the oblique language, and the small scale of the game necessarily results in a rather minimalist and vague approach to the description of the world. But unlike situations, where this would simply be hallmark of flawed writing, here the poetry of the game's language succeeds in letting the player's imagination fill in the gaps. While I wasn't particularly invested in any emotional sense, I was intensely curious about the nature of the setting, and those questions are still bumping around in my head. Is the model simply an enchanted object, or is it the world itself (as in, a recursive universe that contains itself)? Is the player character just a manifestation of the world, or is it the world's caretaker? I didn't get the impression that Schmidt was writing with a specific allegorical or thematic goal in mind, but Change nevertheless succeeded in engaging my interest on a mythological level.

In a gameplay sense, Change is a little more straightforward and a little more problematic. A couple of red herrings, including in the hints, make the game perhaps a little more complicated than it needed to be.(Spoiler - click to show)I would also say that the puzzle requiring the lie-opener depends on a rather unfair definition of "lie"; after all, it is true that gravity is working oddly in that room and so not technically a lie. It's also unfair considering that how gravity works in our world is not a reliable reference for how it would work here.

At the same time, the final puzzle, while straightforward and appreciated for its connection to the cube puzzle, suffers a little from a lack of synonyms. I would have appreciated "flip" or "turn x upside down" as alternatives, especially given the extremely limited time the player is given to enact the solution.


Still, I don't think these are major concerns in a game which clearly emphasizes setting and atmosphere above everything else. On its own terms, as a brief romp in a surreal, alien world of dream-logic, For a Change succeeds.

Christminster, by Gareth Rees

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Very good, but bettered by its successors, June 10, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: gareth rees
Play it if: you want to play a medium-length game emphasizing clean, forgiving gameplay and a detailed, engaging setting.

Don't play it if: you want plot-heavy IF that hits the narrative highs of later masterpieces such as Anchorhead.

Christminster to me suffers from the rather thankless role of being a classic game overtaken by its successors. It's a shame because in many ways Christminster is contemporary in its design: lower on cruelty and higher on fairness than most of the Infocom classics. In that respect it's the sort of game that will outlive the Zork series, whose entries will more often than not frustrate the contemporary player in spite of their positive attributes.

I think it comes down to the balance between puzzle-solving and storytelling. For every area in which Christminster presented clean, quality gameplay, there's another area in which it falls just a little bit short in its narrative. Yes, the puzzles have both variety and verisimilitude, depending as much on the manipulation of characters as on that of everyday objects. Yes, they're (mostly) well-clued and engaging enough to keep you playing through to the finish. But then I have to stop and wonder why I'm researching the alchemical history of the university when I should be demanding a police investigation into my brother's disappearance. (Spoiler - click to show)And concocting the Elixir of Life is all very well and good for a puzzle, but what is going through Christabel's mind when she is making it? What is the connection between making the Elixir and saving her brother?(Spoiler - click to show) These sorts of details by no means ruined the game, but they did prevent me from really connecting with Christabel and by extension the actual plot.

The thing is that Christminster feels like a prototypical version of Anchorhead. I know it's not really fair to judge one game by the standards of another, but Anchorhead, which might be considered this game's spiritual successor, really did do it better. The personal stakes are higher, the environment is more atmospheric, the backstory and research more detailed and engaging. Christminster paddles along at a good pace in terms of gameplay, but the plot itself changes very little between the beginning and end; nothing of real emotional significance happens until the ending, and there is little build-up to the climax. It works more as a string of well-connected puzzles than as an actual story, whereas Anchorhead managed to balance both of those elements.

So is it a masterpiece? For its time, yes; and even now it has aged extremely well - the original release was in 1995, but it may as well have been yesterday (barring a couple tell-tale gaps in implementation). So it's still entirely worthwhile as a game, if not as engrossing a story as it could have been.


Child's Play, by Stephen Granade

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Babypolitik - The Game, June 9, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: stephen granade
Play it if: you're in the mood for two hours inside the head of a resourceful, self-aware infant, concocting and enacting daring plots to get what you want.

Don't play it if: you want something more narratively substantial, or you have a hair-trigger pet-peeve for anything to do with kids.

I've had a running idea in my head about a work of IF based around a robot protagonist who wakes up in a state of semi-assembly, and has to work to complete itself while having to work around its inability to carry out certain very basic tasks. I mention this because Child's Play is basically a complete fleshing-out of that idea, with the difference being that the half-formed PC is a human rather than a robot.

The challenge and fascination of the game is that the PC's goals are entirely straightforward and achievable for most human beings (i.e. retrieving a toy and playing with it), but require significant effort and lateral thinking for the PC here. The puzzles are surprisingly tough and complex given the limited range of actions the PC can take, but that sort of demonstrates the ingenuity of the game: it's all about milking your few reliable skills for as much as they're worth, and manipulating others to do the things outside your own capabilities. Even though they draw on the same basic principles, the puzzles never feel repetitive or boring, though I suspect that with this game Granade may have exhausted most of IF's potential for games based around plausible baby-behavior.

Plausible baby-behavior is another notable thing. The writing of the parents and the babies betrays significant personal experience with both. The children are believable in their free-form, goal-oriented behavior - most of the time, just living in the moment according to what their personalities dictate, and occasionally acting in the service of some higher agenda - and even more so in their elicitation of parental responses.

The PC is a touch more self-aware and wise than one might expect an eleven-year-old to be, but it was clearly intentional and it adds a neat humorous dimension to the story (with the PC taking pride in his/her age and refusing to commit certain acts as being "unseemly" for such an age category). As with other good examples of prominently-featured narrative voices such as Lost Pig, For a Change, and Counterfeit Monkey, the novelty doesn't outstay its welcome but takes a step back and lets the exploration and challenge of the game take center stage.

This is normally where I would butt in with some discussion of the less positive aspects of the work. But the truth is that I can't see any holes in Child's Play. The author's commentary might have worked better as a running part of the description rather than requiring a separate command for each note, but it would be absurd to count that as a flaw. The game is simply a good, fruitful concept fully fleshed out and executed with wit and polish. This is the kind of short game I think most IF writers want to publish at least once in their lives, and Granade should be very proud of it. Highly recommended.

IF Whispers 5, by Chris Conley, Joey Jones, Marius Müller, Tom Blawgus

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
John Carpenter comes to IF, June 9, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: IF whispers, chris conley, joey jones, marius muller, tom blawgus, horror
Play it if: you have half an hour to spend on a short, sharp genre exercise which delivers a surprisingly punchy and tightly-written horror experience.

Don't play it if: you're looking for a puzzle-solving experience, a long, involving story, or any particular depth of characterization.

I like puzzles and experimental narrative as much as the next person, but at heart I think I'm a genre enthusiast. I love it when IF takes the most memorable elements of beloved genres in other media and makes them into something fresh and new.

Anchorhead did this with the H.P. Lovecraft oeuvre, The Baron did it with German Expressionism...and here we have a bite-sized homage to John Carpenter's The Thing.

I think the most impressive technical feat here was the writing style. As has already been mentioned this iteration of the IF Whispers was geared towards a more cohesive story, but it's still striking how seamless the writing and gameplay feels given that there were four authors at work here. If they hadn't told me, I'd never have guessed it.

Another thing I found impressive was the structure of play. The game is nearly puzzle-less (at least by most definitions of "puzzle"), but it succeeds in gently steering the player towards the next stage of the story. Sam Raimi once said something about how his approach to filmmaking was an exercise in planting seeds and letting the audience's imagination do the rest. That seems to be the principle at work here, with the player left to infer a lot of what's going on based on certain clues. I like that the process partly depends on a degree of genre savvy; once I understood what was going on it became immediately clear to me what I needed to try to do, even though the game never outright tells you(Spoiler - click to show) that you have to destroy the base to prevent the rescuers from causing a pandemic. A significant degree of the game's appeal comes from what TV Tropes likes to call "Fridge Logic"(Spoiler - click to show) - the revelation that the cuddly little cat is the carrier sheds a whole new light on that pesky cold, doesn't it?.

The horror elements here work well because they take their time, letting the player soak in the unsettling environment but never letting the player forget that there is a danger here which has yet to be uncovered. There are some good touches, like the dynamic object descriptions(Spoiler - click to show) and the hallucinations, which let the player appreciate the psychological horrors of the game with a greater immediacy than is possible in a more detached medium like film.

Flaws? Well, there are a couple. The game is a little too difficult for a player to realistically get the "good" ending on the first playthrough, if you ask me. By this I mean that the time limit, when it eventually asserts itself, feels more frustrating than challenging. Then again, there doesn't appear to be a limit to the "undo" function, so maybe I'm just nitpicking there.

There is also the matter of a few items.(Spoiler - click to show)It makes sense to me that the generator and screaming television could be products of hallucinations - or that hallucinations could block out the ability to see the diary - but why are these in play before you've even been exposed to the carrier? If you've contracted the plague from some secondary source, shouldn't the more usual symptoms also manifest? These feel like easily fixable glitches and they have a disproportionately confusing effect on gameplay given those items' importance to the story.

Still, these aren't game-killing details by any stretch of the imagination. This game remains an excellent, atmospheric short entry into genre IF.

A fun list for people who've finished the game:

(Spoiler - click to show)Parallels between this game and The Thing:
1. The main threat is "infectious" and spreads itself.
2. The protagonist's experience with the "infection" is foreshadowed by his encounters with the previous victims.
3. The exploration of an abandoned Antarctic research facility.
4. The first living thing we see is the vector for the infection (the wolf, the cat).
5. The protagonist must destroy the facility to prevent the infection from posing an apocalyptic threat to human civilization.


Spider and Web, by Andrew Plotkin

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
A good magic trick of a game, June 8, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: andrew plotkin, zarf
Play it if: you want a short, sweet line of puzzles with a couple of good twists.

Don't play it if: you want a less linear, more open game that lets you take your time and explore, or a spy story that focuses less on plot and more on theme.

At least at the time of its release, Spider and Web was obviously a novel concept for IF, if not so much for storytelling in general (connections to Rashomon have already been pointed out, but let's not forget The Murder of Roger Ackroyd; and The Usual Suspects, which had hit the theaters in 1995). Me, I came to IF relatively recently barring Zork I, so the historical impact of the game is lost on me. But does it hold up by itself?

Yes. Putting aside the then experimental nature of the game, this is still an appreciably good bit of IF. One thing I've always liked about the medium is that, aside from the really early history, IF can age extremely well, and this is one work which feels like it could have been written yesterday.

Aside from a couple of people who seem not to have finished the game, there's not much other than high praise for Spider and Web here. Most of the positive aspects of the game have already been outlined. So I'll mostly skip that, except to say that I really love games like this and Sean Barrett's The Weapon, where you have to discover and solve at the same time, and do it under observation (it really adds a sense of urgency and pizzazz to the puzzle-solving process). Instead I'll take the time to address some of its flaws.

This is necessarily spoiler-heavy, so...

(Spoiler - click to show)In terms of gameplay before the big reveal, there are one or two moments which feel somewhat underclued. The lockpick distraction method doesn't entirely make sense to me, not least because the lockpick strikes me as the tool a master infiltrator would be least likely to part with. I might as well have just thrown the minilamp, surely? It didn't also make much sense to me that the functions of each dial on the timer weren't explained in the descriptions of the dials; pretty much everything that wasn't intuitive for the other tools was explained upon examination, so why not the timer?

The game does lose a lot of my interest after the big reveal, and I think it's because the climactic sequence is longer than it really needs to be. In a longer game with more varied puzzles I would have found it acceptable, but choreographing your efforts to complete the game takes up enough of the gameplay time that it feels like another game tacked on. It doesn't help that the puzzles bear little relation to what you've been doing up until that point, with the exception of the common geography.

I accept that it might have been difficult to squeeze the post-escape sequence into just a few paragraphs of exposition, and there's no honest middle ground between the two options...but then I simply have to chalk it up to the story being written into a corner, albeit an enjoyable one. The Usual Suspects, in contrast, basically ends with that analogous twist and, regardless of whether or not you appreciated the plot that came before, I think it's fairly obvious that setting the film's climax after that reveal would have been a lot less punchy and a lot more tedious.

I also have mixed feelings about the discussion of moral concepts in the story. Don't get me wrong, I'm a sucker for Cold War narratives and the murky worlds of arms escalation and espionage, but in order for such narratives to work you need the other side to give you something to work with, and while the interrogator has a good deal of personality the PC has almost none (aside from a few flashes of attitude in the first couple of turns). While the conceit of having the PC know more than the player is well-done, it would have worked even better had it been connected with the moral dimension of the story. If the PC actually responded to the interrogator with opinions and ideas, it would have added an extra layer to the intrigue: is what you're saying part of the patter to get him to accept your story, or is it actually what you believe? Or is it even both? The ambiguity in the game is purely external - by which I mean it affects the plot, not the actual stances and opinions of the player character.


In the end, this is still a very good game, and I would argue, worth your time. It's not really a masterpiece, though. A generally well-done employment of one or two neat tricks in a story short enough for them not to outstay their welcome.

De Baron, by Victor Gijsbers

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
A brave, engaging work, June 7, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: victor gjisbers
Play it if: you're interested in spending half an hour with a courageous, if flawed, moral allegory with overtones of Nietzsche.

Don't play it if: you were looking for a game, or have little to no tolerance for some grim realities in your IF.

Reviewing The Baron demands a kind of scrupulousness not common to the medium. This is fundamentally a work which is not about gameplay or puzzle-solving, nor even necessarily about character, but about theme and allegory. In this respect it's sort of the Der Himmel über Berlin of IF - though tonally the subject matter is in almost diametric opposition.

The Baron's main strength lies, I think, in its ability to draw you into responding emotionally to the character, whether it be sympathy or revulsion. The means by which it does this is interesting and worthy of a degree of analysis. In essence, the story is driving at a question about human nature, a question we might summarize as "Do we bear responsibility for our animal desires?" The question experiences four major iterations in the story: the wolf, the gargoyle, the baron, and finally the PC himself.

In another review, Pavel Soukenik comments that the conversation with the gargoyle is slightly undermined because there was another dialogue that made it feel repetitive. I would respond to this with two points. Firstly, repetition is an intentional element of this story - I mean, the gargoyle outright says the phrase "eternal recurrence". The repetition of old habits, old battles, is not just tacked onto the story, but also an important motif in discussion of these taboos.

Secondly, there is a progression in these four iterations, though it may take a bit of thought to see it. The four iterations do re-state the question, yes, but they begin from a point of distance from the player character and become more personalized. It's easy not to blame, even to sympathize with a wolf for fearing and attacking humans; this is after all what a wolf does. The gargoyle frames the question in sharper and accessible terms: both by introducing spoken language and by explicitly referencing specific emotions like joy and lust. The baron gives these emotions human immediacy because he is the first time we are coming face-to-face with the human consequences of acting out one's animal desires. The specific nature of the act, if not obvious beforehand, is made explicit here. And the final iteration, that of the player character's own response to Maartje, brings the point home by asking the player to do more than judge and respond to others, but apply the morality to himself.

The secondary point being made by the story is thus that it's a lot easier to agree to or sympathize with an idea when it is presented in general terms, but often becomes a lot more difficult or complicated as it gains focus, specificity, and a human dimension.

When still ignorant of this structure, I found myself playing out the PC's inner conflicts at different stages of the game. My first response to the wolf was to talk to it and howl at the moon to share its grief. I told the gargoyle that he could only receive forgiveness from his victims, but that there was always hope he could break the cycle. But when I got to the baron and heard his excuses for his actions, I got irritated with him and responded with hostility. This is not to say that there's anything wrong with responding one way to an idea in principle and another to the idea in practice, but it was in my conversation with the baron that I realized the game had made me play out that discontinuity: that I had given different visceral reactions to what is basically the same philosophical question, merely because the environment framed that question in different terms (generalisms about emotion and freedom versus the "real" consequences of an actual crime).

And of course in the end I found myself driving the player character towards the most positive outcome I could imagine, essentially in total opposition to my instinctive sympathy for the devil at the story's outset.

Just as we have a high regard for puzzles that engage the player's intuition, for elements that seem to anticipate what the naive player would do, I have a high opinion of The Baron for its rather shrewd understanding of how I would react and modify my reactions to the scenarios it poses. I do have a couple of notes, though.

(Spoiler - click to show)If there is a weak point to this allegory, it would have to be the final sequence between the player character and Maartje. Firstly because, as Maartje doesn't respond to anything the character says, the scene is just a way of literalizing the work's ideas, which I thought had more weight when they remained implicit. "I learned X was wrong today" doesn't feel like an ending worthy of allegory with this sort of depth. An attentive reader - even a fairly inattentive one - will have formed their opinions on their own. With no way of affecting the game world, there's no real reason to make them say them outright.

Second is the degree of choice the player is given, and here I mean two specific choices: the choice of repeating your crime (or not), and the choice of breaking the cycle (or not). In both cases I don't think this should have been left up to the player. The instinctive choice of most all players would be simply to have the player character not rape Maartje and break his cycle of lust. The problem is that this is too easy to be true to the realities of child abuse. The kinds of deep-seated psychological factors that lead to this sort of behavior do not resolve themselves due to dreams, and aren't overcome by anything so simplistic as "choosing not to". That final scene gives the player a get-out-of-jail-free card which has not been earned - and I would argue, cannot be earned.

My alternative to that scene would simply be ending the game with the player character entering Maartje's bedroom, and leaving it up to the player to decide how the character as played would act. That to me feels like the most "honest" ending.


Another issue is with the mapping. I feel The Baron would have benefited from more conviction in how it chose to shape the player's navigation. There is a degree of free movement in that the player can seek out details not necessary to advancing the story, but at the same time the goals to be hit are ostensibly linear in progression. The two coexist a little awkwardly here for my taste. Making the geography more linear while having the player cross the path of those details might have served the flow of the story better (though I must admit that it isn't immediately obvious to me how I'd go about doing it).

The English translation of the work is good, with only a couple distinctive typos betraying its previous life as a Dutch-language work. The narrative voice does a good job of complementing the dreamlike nature of the setting without making it too obvious.

In conclusion, The Baron is very much worth your time, though more as an exercise in allegory and theme-centric narrative than as an intellectual exercise. I can see it not being for everyone in the way 2001: A Space Odyssey is not for everyone (I personally find 2001 bloated and meandering as hell), but it deserves at least a playthrough - by those willing to engage with a couple of admittedly difficult concepts.

Lost Pig, by Admiral Jota

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Pig maybe smart, but Grunk catch pig. So that mean Grunk more smart, June 6, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: admiral jota, humor
Play it if: you want simple, accessible puzzles and a short, sweet family-friendly game that's big on humor and character interaction.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something long, challenging, or particularly serious.

It's difficult to say something particularly new about a game like this. With its small scope and broad appeal, a lot of the obvious things have been already stated. But I'll go ahead and try to unpick what I like about this game anyway.

The appeal of Lost Pig all about its main character. Grunk is ostensibly the narrator of this tale, so his attitudes towards things colors the player's entire experience. I find Grunk's fairly simplistic descriptions of things interesting because they are reflective of the archetypal IF player's experience. Like Grunk, we put ourselves into a situation where we're confronted with machines and mechanisms we don't really understand, and we're made to figure out how to use them for our purposes. Grunk describes the world with the naivete of a child, and more importantly the naivete of a first-time player. And like the player, Grunk overcomes that naivete with cunning and shrewdness. Sure, he's not great with auxiliary verbs, tenses, or writing, but he does figure out all the steps needed to get the pig back. And with the addition of the gnome, Grunk can even display a fairly deep level of curiosity by learning about advanced principles of chemistry.

So Grunk's traits are those most IF players wish to cultivate in themselves: intelligence (in solving puzzles) and curiosity (in talking with the gnome).

Add to this his sense of humor. I've always held a soft spot in my heart for those throwaway pieces of coding, like Zork's patronising response to jumping for no reason ("Wheee!" "Very good. Now you can go to the second grade"). Little bits that added some personality to the game world and gently steered you away from the game's inability to let you do absolutely everything. Lost Pig almost feels like a game that's composed of that stuff. A lot of the joy in the game comes from having Grunk try stupid or outrageous things just to see his responses. And because the game is so thorough in implementing the things Grunk can try or do, it gets you to sympathize with him even more. Grunk lets the player act out the more childlike side of their sense of humor, because his willingness to try anything mirror's the player's willingness to make him do anything. Take the act of Grunk taking off his pants in front of the gnome. By itself, it's not particularly funny. But the fact that we're complicit in that act does make it funny. While playing this game, I found myself laughing at stuff I haven't been able to laugh at since the fourth grade.

That may not sound like a compliment per se, and I suppose it isn't if you're looking for something a little more literary. But I think the point that this game has constructed a uniquely sympathetic and charming main character stands.

So what about the secondary aspects of the game? Well, there are no obvious holes in the implementation of the setting. The gnome and pig are lovely characters in and of themselves - the pig for his variety of emotions and reactions (including intellectual disdain for Grunk!), and the gnome for the breadth (if not depth) of conversation you can achieve with him. I liked immensely the fact that the gnome is not immediately hostile towards Grunk - I mean, Grunk could realistically eat the guy - nor is he dismissive towards this comparatively dim and uneducated protagonist. Rather, he's willing to talk in basic terms about most any topic Grunk can think of and a few more besides that. For that he becomes a likable character and his relationship with Grunk, small in scope as it is, compelling.

The puzzles are few and simple, but they rely on intuition rather than method (intentionally so, as the maze demonstrates) and so they give you the pleasure of experiencing those little "eureka" moments every puzzle designer strives to cultivate in a player.

If I had something I'd change about this game, it would simply be the length. The core magical mechanism feels productive for more diverse and complex puzzles than what Lost Pig gives us, and even putting that aside I would have loved to have seen a game where the rather simple initial quest gets this young orc embroiled in something a lot bigger. Failing that, I think Grunk is easily a rich enough character for future adventures.

But that quibble aside, Lost Pig really is a gloriously fun and engrossing way to spend an hour or two.

Counterfeit Monkey, by Emily Short

10 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Excellent technical accomplishment and a great sense of fun, June 6, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, humor
Play it if: you want a lengthy and engrossing puzzle-solving experience and a healthy dollop of satirical humor to occupy you for a day or two.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something that more heavily emphasizes atmosphere or depth of characterization.

Boy, did I like Counterfeit Monkey. It had me grinning like a maniac within five minutes of starting, and that grin never let up. Even when my face got sore after the first few hours.

The most consistent tonal impression I got from Counterfeit Monkey was that of a high-quality Monkey Island game. Surreal plot devices, anachronistic histories, a coastal setting, a light-hearted story with streaks of darkness...it's all there. Oddly enough it also reminds me of The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game in its tone and charm, though I prefer Monkey for its outstanding gameplay and depth of setting. There's even a hint of Planescape: Torment lurking in there somewhere (a detailed setting where belief and opinion have physical power).

In gameplay terms, Monkey combines a feeling of casual puzzle-solving fun with a profound degree of technical effort. In that respect it feels like a sort of leveled-up crossword, which is appropriate because almost all of the puzzles here are navigated through some form of wordplay. I spent a chunk of the first half of the game a little concerned that the gameplay wouldn't significantly change. The letter-removals were great, but they also felt fairly straightforward, more so than what I think I'm used to in the early stages of a longer Emily Short game. But then the story starts to throw in some fun alternative powers, and remains fairly dynamic from there. Mixing it up with some memory exploration and the ongoing plotline, and you have a story which is fairly excellently paced.

It's difficult to overstate how much effort it must have taken (at least form the perspective of a novice like me) to have implemented the wordplay. A lot of my enjoyment came out of trying some more obscure ideas and realizing just how thorough the research was - how delighted I was to find that the author had taken the time to implement a cad, complete with "smouldering gaze"!

Definitely worth your time. Entertaining and impressive.

Banana Apocalypse and the Rocket Pants of Destiny, by Emily Short

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Quirky with some funny moments, June 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, humor, speed IF
No one comes up with a work of genius with two hours' worth of coding, but Emily Short still gives us a wacky and offbeat vignette to match the wacky and offbeat prompt. The IF equivalent of a decent two-minute YouTube video: fun, light, harmless.

Slouching Towards Bedlam, by Star Foster and Daniel Ravipinto

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Could have been so much more, June 5, 2013
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: daniel ravipinto, star foster, mystery
Play it if: you want a competently written, not-too-challenging bit of bite-sized IF which dips a toe into steampunk and utopian tropes.

Don't play it if: you prefer your high-concept stories to have a sense of follow-through, your puzzles to feel varied and necessary to the story, or your IF to have broad scope in any meaning of the term.

Slouching Towards Bedlam is a well-written piece of IF, though I hesitate to call it "great". True, there is appropriate descriptive depth and a good feel for the atmosphere of the piece, and there is a good mix of ideas driving the setting and plot - Lovecraftian insanity, burgeoning conspiracies, steampunk technologies and Bentham-style social progressivism.

And yet something about it doesn't click for me. As an aspiring writer of IF I have to be appreciative of any work that does what it does this well. But holding this up next to Anchorhead, which I feel to be a fair comparative exercise as the two are broadly trying to hit the same notes, really just makes me feel that this is a four-star work at best.

Where Bedlam largely fails and Anchorhead largely succeeds is in the tying together of the story's disparate elements. The puzzles in Bedlam are largely superfluous to the story. The "challenges" are just ways of making information that should be fairly accessible a bit inconvenient to reach. For all the backstory about secrets and conspiracies, there is never any sense that someone is trying to prevent you from learning the things you need to learn. I could have just given the rod to James and asked him to go exploring and he'd have accomplished basically the same things.

Anchorhead approaches this in what I consider to be the more correct sense. There are similar puzzles or obstacles requiring simple research, but the difference is that you are meaningfully synthesizing that information into something higher. Going through the birth and death records is an exercise in deductive reasoning as well as information-gathering (whereas two or three documents in Bedlam will telegraph more or less everything important about the backstory). And the sense of fear and oppression is enhanced by the fact that there are people trying to protect the secrets of the town, whether they be the current inhabitants or long-dead members of the Verlac family. The slower pacing allows for a more genuine "putting-the-pieces-together" feel. I didn't care much for Triage, who switches between adding a bit of character to the descriptions and functioning as a magic-wand solution to a couple of the puzzles. It makes sense in a game of this length, but I'd have liked some way for the player to do the legwork by themselves.

The pacing is really the other major issue. Bedlam bumps up against some pretty high stakes and some very esoteric concepts, but it's content to resolve them (sort of) in the narrative equivalent of about a paragraph. I understand that the nature of the threat inherently limits the kind of scope the story can realistically take(Spoiler - click to show) - if the Logos is verbally transmitted, it's practically impossible to create a fair and winnable scenario in a London-based story that occurs over more than a very short period of time. Nevertheless, the climax of the story occurs much too soon for my tastes - and really, the best conspiracy fiction allows the reader to simmer on the edge of plausibility for a decent while before diving right into the weird stuff. The sense of choice in the endgame is not a bad touch, but it lacks meaning when you have little in the way of actual character or moral dimensions with which to grapple.

Ultimately, I think that I wanted out of Bedlam was a little more ambition and willingness to develop its ideas. It comes in a neat little package, but it never stops and takes the time to develop what it has. Big concepts worthy of games in and of themselves are made to play sidekick to a truncated and not outstandingly deep story - in a narrative or gameplay sense - and that disappoints me.

when i was shot by elephants, by no m3rcy

9 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Can I Truly Emphasize The Word "Troll" Enough?, April 10, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: nom3rcy
Mistakes. We all make them.

As a matter of common courtesy, my original review is at the bottom of this one; but I find I must add to it.

It's been pointed out to me that my tone in writing this review was too hostile, or at the very least too quick to label the author a troll. Now while my impression of the game remains that it was very likely an intentional waste of a potential player's time - and hence characteristic of trolling behavior - I must emphasize that this is a purely personal feeling. In situations like these, one can never objectively determine whether or not someone is a troll, since you can't read the mind of the person in question. You can only make guesses - educated, but subjective - as to what is going on behind the scenes.

So my apologies to the author for an unnecessary accusation without a strong foundation.

Now a word to the author directly.

Please don't think this changes my opinion of the game. The game is, basically, not good. There's one move and there's one joke - the (thin) humor of which is dependent on the game having turned out to be a deliberate and instant anti-climax. Generally speaking, this is the kind of game I'd expect people to write as a sort of prank played on another friend familiar with IF. Which, in and of itself, is fine.

IFDB, however, is not meant to be a dumping-ground for games like this. The people who visit the site regularly, even daily, aren't looking for three-second entertainment. They want interesting and creative games made by people who care about making interesting and creative games.

This game is neither particularly interesting nor particularly creative, but those are forgivable - there's no hard quality standard an entry needs too have to be on this site.

But it's that "care" bit that gets to me. When i was shot by elephants - the length, the joke, the grammar - it all smacks of laziness. It feels like nothing went into making this game. And I do think that on some level you're aware of that.

So please, please: have some concern for the people who want to play games born out of effort, and have some pride in the material you write.

The original review is printed below:

Play it if, once the heat death of the universe has reduced all matter and energy to a fine dust spread out across fathomless reaches of cold, dead space, you have absolutely nothing left to do but torture your disembodied psyche.

Don't play it if: you have more interesting things to do, such as breathing.

There's almost nothing to say. This is a one-move non-game that literally cannot present you with a sentence without mangling its grammar and punctuation. This author is a troll, a bounder, and a cad of the first degree.


Bed Time, by Charlie the Spiffy

9 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
If Only We Could Give Zero-Star Ratings, April 3, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: charlie the spiffy
Play it if: you enjoy the creeping feeling that you're making the day of whichever guy with too much time on his hands wrote this waste of server space to irritate people.

Don't play it if: you have a smidgen more self-respect than I do.

In all honesty, I don't have the energy to give the author here the benefit of the doubt. The game is brimming with jaw-dropping errors in spelling ("easilly", "proffesor"), punctuation ("the kitchen is to the south" and "there is a bedroom door north" lacking periods), capitalization ("HOUSE"), and grammar ("you find yourself in a house, you don't know where you came from..."). It has horrifying coding problems: refusing to print a room's location when you first enter it, allowing you to pick up things like wardrobes and fridges, specifically mentioning details like blenders and cabinets without implementing them. It has outstanding problems in its logic, such as why you would voluntarily lock yourself out of your bedroom and lock the key to the bedroom in another locked area.

My first thought playing this thing was that the game was written by a ten-year-old. I then revised this to thinking it was written by someone younger, since ten-year-olds generally have a better grasp of language. Then I read the glowing five-star, one-paragraph review the author wrote of his own game, and I realized that someone who literally has nothing better to do was having cheap fun at the expense of anyone curious enough to bite.

Don't do it. Don't make the mistakes I did. Shun Charlie. Shun the game of Charlie. Shun everything, and then shun shunning.

All Roads, by Jon Ingold

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A Jumble of Interesting Ideas, April 3, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: jon ingold
Play it if: you love the mindscrew genre, because this more than qualifies, or you prefer largely puzzle-less, narrative-heavy IF.

Don't play it if: you want to see the gameplay tie in with or match the bizarre narrative satisfactorily; if you prefer not to get involved in stories which tread the line between depth and obscurantism.

It's a shame that I couldn't give All Roads a higher score, because there are a lot of ideas here to like. Unfortunately, they're not organized particularly well, leaving me feeling rather frustrated at the end of the game.

Part of the problem is in implementing the main theme as expressed in the title. As with the old saying, Jon Ingold seems to want all choices and actions to converge on one inescapable ending. Which is fine if properly done. But here, the game is not capable of subtly prodding the player into committing the necessary deeds or providing the logic for this convergence. It has to actively force you, the player, to play out its desires, either through making the protagonist do things for unclear reasons (Spoiler - click to show)such as having to sign the guestbook or take the ring from the desk or making the protagonist carry out certain actions without duly reporting them to the player (Spoiler - click to show)(such as signing the guestbook incorrectly). The most irritating sequence in this regard comes (Spoiler - click to show)during the second visit to the Denizen, where the game loses all interactivity instead of finding some way of convincing the player to repeat his or her actions.

The story as a whole is a little too confusing for my tastes. The withholding of certain details, such as any real response to the "x me" command, felt like the game was trying to force mystery where it shouldn't have existed. In Adam Cadre's 9:05, this worked because the game conditioned the player from turn one not to expect...the thing that they weren't supposed to expect. Here, though, the game is explicitly a mystery, and a really good mystery works not by withholding information, but by withholding the key to how that information fits together.

Basically, it feels like the game needs to blatantly cheat its player to get its story across; and I'll take the cruelty of old Infocom over that feeling any day.

Again, it's a real shame I can't really recommend this game much, because it has a lot of positives: the tight prose, the reasonably well-rendered setting, and some core ideas that could have gone a long way if marshaled correctly. (Spoiler - click to show)I guess I'm just still holding out for a game that can enforce the Novikov Self-Consistency Principle without brute force. Ah well. Better luck next time in the genre.

Glass, by Emily Short

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Light Fun, April 1, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: Emily short, one-room, short
Play it if: you're in the mood for bite-sized IF with a bit of innovation and Emily Short's trademark narrative voice.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for something more ambitious, or if you're easily put off by gameplay that constrains player actions.

This is a curiosity: a non-linear game that feels linear. Emily Short's Glass tells a modified version of the Cinderella story from the point of view of the parrot. The objective is to use your limited speech skills at opportune moments to influence the story.

The one or two twists on the classic tale are interesting enough to make the game worthwhile by themselves, but perhaps the biggest draw (at least in concept) is the ability I influence the flow of things from a bird's-eye-view.

Unfortunately, I played Glass very soon after another conversation-based game, Whom The Telling Changed by Aaron Reed, and it blows Glass out of the water when it comes to the main gameplay mechanic. Choosing what to say and when to say it in that game required paying close attention to the story and constantly trying to interpret it subtextually. In contrast, getting to any of the endings in Glass feels more like an exercise in trial and error, and as such the gameplay is not as satisfying as it could have been.

Nevertheless, Glass is a good five-minute distraction with good writing and some engaging concepts. Now that the game's source code has been made public, it can also serve as an educational exercise by giving aspiring IF writers some insight into the inner workings of conversation- and scene-heavy games.

Three Cows and Two Doors, by NOM3RCY

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Total Gaming Brilliance!, March 31, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Play it if: you wish to explore profound metaphysical ideas as interpreted through the fascinating medium of bovine coloration.

Don't play it if: you do not wish to achieve NIRVANA.

What an incredible and psychologically complex game!

The player starts in the first floor of a place called the Grand Tower. The objective is to reach the top of the tower. This is clearly symbolic of the cycles of reincarnation (samsara) as espoused by mainstream Hinduism - as the immortal soul (the player, who can restart the game endlessly and never find an actual solution to the game). The Hindu connection can be conclusively established by the presence of cows in the starting room (though the fact that one of the doors is called Exit might suggest an alternative interpretation along the lines of Jean-Paul Sartre's work).

There are all sorts of details to be interpretively explored here. Why the particular colors of Pink, Green, and Purple? Why is it that examining the Pink and Purple Cows yields the tautology "X Cow is an x cow", while examining the Green Cow produces the statement "You see nothing special about Green Cow"? Or why is the description of Orange Door "The Orange Door is an orange door", while the description of the Exit is "You might be able to exit this way, if, that isn't, the exit wasn't locked". Why the phrase "that isn't"? Surely a game of this caliber couldn't have meant it as a glaring typo easily fixable by even the most basic proofreading process or input of creative effort, but must have some deeper meaning.

But then, who am I to interpret such things?

Perhaps the fact that nothing but three cows and two locked doors are implemented is a sign from the Author, a sign that we must not be troubled with the things of material existence, but must rather look to a higher purpose that exists behind the veneer of a simple interactive fiction game.

Namely, that the whole thing is a brutal waste of your time, the author is likely trolling, and your only path to spiritual liberation - moksha - is to free yourself of the need to play this game at all.

Whom The Telling Changed, by Aaron A. Reed

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Powerful, March 30, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: aaron a. reed, fantasy
Play it if: you wish for a game that explores puzzles of dialogue and discourse, or if you want to hear a powerful, emotionally resonant variation on the tale of Gilgamesh.

Don't play it if: you have trouble with puzzles that depend on intuition rather than pure logic, for it is as often as not by intuition that you progress through the story.

There are two reasons I love this story.

The first is intuition. The "puzzle" of the game, if it can be truly called a puzzle, is one of persuasion: to win the people of your tribe over to your way of thinking by directing the flow of a story. The player does this primarily by interacting with emphasized terms in the telling. Where intuition comes in is that you have no control over precisely what to do with each term; it is on the basis of each word's context in the story that you must decide how to interact.

This means that, to perhaps the greatest degree possible in IF, this is a game about language, a game which emphasizes reading comprehension over puzzle-solving. Not only is this fairly unusual for the genre, it is excellently done - the player can deduce important lessons even from minor details in the telling.

The second is the story itself. The storyteller narrates the first half of the Epic of Gilgamesh, the oldest written epic in recorded history and a myth which still resonates with and influences modern literature. The choice of story is perfectly suited to this work, for the Epic is primarily about fear - in particular, fear of death, and fear of the unknown - and the search for immortality, whether through glory or through the love and friendship of others. These are powerful themes that the framing narrative explores, taking place on the eve of tribal war.

Whom the Telling Changed is itself an allegory of the Gilgamesh story, and in adding another fundamental theme - the power of legend and narrative - Aaron A. Reed succeeds in crafting a myth of his own. This is fantasy from an older and darker time, from a world where life was brief and difficult. For many people in those times, the only spiritual and moral comfort to be offered came from the telling and understanding of old stories - as Reed understood when he tapped into that primordial image of a troubled tribe gathered in darkness around a warm campfire.

There are but a few other notes I have on this work. There are one or two glitches to be ironed out - I only ran into one of them, though, which given the game's NPC interactions is a pleasant surprise. Also, while in general I'm no fan of sequels, there is another chapter to the Gilgamesh myth...perhaps there is another story be told.

Balances, by Graham Nelson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Good Introductory IF, March 29, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: graham nelson, fantasy
Play it if: you're new to IF, or if you're in the mood for some light amusement and fairly easy puzzles.

Avoid it if: you prefer a bit more bite in your IF, or you've a hair trigger for cruelty or unfairness, for while not particularly challenging, this game has a soupçon of both.

While more of a showpiece to display some of Inform's capabilities than a true game, Balances is nevertheless an enjoyable enough experience in its own right to recommend it to the novice player.

The game, drawing upon the Enchanter trilogy's magic system, offers several good puzzles - many of which revolve around the player's ability to reverse spell effects. This creates some fun possibilities (Spoiler - click to show)(including the need to die at least once to win). There was an alternative solution to the lottery puzzle, however, which I would have loved to see implemented(Spoiler - click to show) - specifically, reversing the "caskly" spell to turn the first-prize ticket into the last-prize ticket, though that would have required re-tooling of the elephant puzzle.

There are, unfortunately, a couple of puzzles which would qualify as cruel or unfair (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the lottery puzzle). Nevertheless, I only had to resort to a walkthrough only once - and given my flair for puzzle-solving, if that isn't a sign of low difficulty, I don't what is.

Ultimately, Balances is a light and loose distraction. It's probably most suited to newcomers to interactive fiction given its small scope and relatively straightforward gameplay. The magic system and its implementation may also give aspiring IF writers some pointers on basic puzzle construction.

Burn the Koran and Die, by Poster

14 of 15 people found the following review helpful:
Tedious, March 28, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: poster, one-room, short
Play it if: your understanding of the nuances of the Muslim world has the depth of a dessert spoon, and you enjoy reveling in this fact by playing one-note nonsense like this.

Don't play it if: you have a soft spot for troll-feeding, because a game this irritating is sure to provoke more people like me into writing unnecessarily long reviews.

I might not have bothered with this review had I only played the game.

I mean, yes, the satire is one-note (only Muslims will kill you for criticizing them in public, apparently). I mean, yes, the premise is unrealistic to the point of utter absurdity (a college student decides to take five tomes and burn them for no clear reason). I mean, yes, the overall tone of the game is one of self-aggrandizement, attributing free speech to the author's personal deity (Jesus, apparently) and a specific military subsection of a national identity (American soldiers), in spite of the fact that modern democratic ideas have their roots in, among others, philosophers (not soldiers) of revolutionary France as well as the (non-Christian) Hellenic world of antiquity.

No, what finally motivated me to actually review this game was the help file.

Firstly, the author gives thanks to Jesus for "a spiritual empire not dependent upon theft, slavery, lust, or murder". Rather bizarre, given the theft of land, enslavement of Africans and Native Americans, and mass murder that helped build the United States (I'm not sure how lust figures into U.S. history).

Secondly, the author describes the game as "a hard-edged satire". In a word: no. Hard-edged satire presents novel constructs that force its audience to re-think their perspectives. This offers caricature that will appeal only to those already in agreement with the author's views. It's not even as hard as the "Draw a Picture of Muhammad Day" exercise, which in and of itself was nothing more than a brief irritant as far as political activism goes.

Finally, and perhaps most insultingly, is the claim that the game was inspired in part by "a concern for the First Amendment". I don't doubt the author's support for the First Amendment. But censorship is only one of two ways to undermine it. The second is to destroy the integrity of communication. A considered attempt to respect the First Amendment would have resulted in a more complex game, and moreover, one which at least attempted to forge some basis in researched fact rather than general opinion. I don't mean to say that the underlying sentiment - that Islam is uniquely intolerant of criticism and has created a double standard for itself in Western society - is necessarily baseless in reality. In some areas, it is; in others, it isn't. But the game itself makes no attempt to acknowledge this.

The author writes, "My thanks also go out to those who understand and defend this right, no matter whatever else your politics." The irony is that the author has done something worse than not defending this right: the author has defended this right poorly, by offering subjective and simplistic propaganda - yes, propaganda - in place of the kind of considered and enlightening discussion that the First Amendment is ultimately intended to promote.

Had the author designed "Burn the Koran and Die" in mind with actually making a subtle point and substantiating it, I would gladly have called it a success, whether or not I particularly agreed with the point being made. As it is, I can't even call it that. Non-American, irreligious, and non-conservative as I am, I have to say that American conservatives deserve better material than this in the public forum.

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game, by Taylor Vaughan

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Utterly Charming, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: taylor vaughan, humor
Play it if: you're in the mood for some distraction and a bit of light humor that plays off some lovely caricatures of communism and capitalism.

Don't play it if: you're in the mood for intellectual challenge or satire that's actually razor-sharp instead of soft, warm, and fluffy.

The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game can only be encapsulated in the word "charming". The whole game is filled with a kind of whimsy you can find in the old Monkey Island puzzle-solving games: some light satire, a bit of caricature, and a young, plucky would-be hero.

There are really three levels to the humor here. The first is the caricatured viewpoint of the main character (appropriately named Karl). It's great fun to read the verbose and melodramatic descriptions given to vile dens of capitalism (e.g. a coffee joint) and glorious artifacts of the Revolution (e.g. your hat). The second is the ridiculously simplistic tools and methods you're expected to use to overcome capitalism - among them the Ventriloquator, a device which forces its target to spout Marxist slogans. The third level is the fact that the world actually bears out the logic of these methods. The capitalist world is just as surreal as Karl's mind, from the government bureaucrat's behavior to the bizarrely simple steps which will supposedly collapse the government and implode the economy to achieve Revolution.

The only real complaint I have about the game is its lack of ambition. For all its charm, the game feels a bit too short, and one gets the feeling that The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game could have taken its cues from the previously-mentioned LucasArts puzzle-solving games to expand the setting and the story a little.

Still, The People's Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game (boy, am I getting tired of typing that out) is a solid game with no discernible gameplay hitches. This would make a good easy distraction and an excellent beginner's introduction to interactive fiction.

P.S. Oh, and the soundtrack on the author's website is brill. Good touch, Taylor!

Paranoia, by cpuguy89

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The Shortest Waste of Time in IF, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: cpuguy89, one-room, short
Play it if: you thought Asylum was the bottom of the barrel, and you want to prove yourself wrong.

Don't play it if: you were hoping for more of the hysterical mis-coding that characterized Asylum, for while this game is undoubtedly fatally flawed, it has even less of the unintentional entertainment value.

Set in a mysterious toyroom, Paranoia is in fact both vastly easier and vastly shorter than the author's earlier work, Asylum. There is a little less in the way of (unintentionally?) hilarious coding errors,(Spoiler - click to show) (though this could be thought of as a one-move game - try going east!) there's still some clunky writing here. The parser won't recognize any substitutes for "jack-in-the-box", for instance, and a certain object(Spoiler - click to show) apparently hidden inside the jack-in-the-box that seems to be vital to completing the game(Spoiler - click to show), barring your one-move victory option, is not implemented!

Conan Kill Everything, by Ian Haberkorn

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Funny Enough, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: ian haberkorn, one-room, short
Play it if: you've got a few minutes to kill and a few brain cells to waste.

Don't play it if: you want a bit more ambition in your IF than - well, almost nothing - and if you are easily enraged by the dumbing-down of the character of Conan as portrayed in external works.

A seemingly one-note joke of a game that actually does have a few puzzles, I'm not sure whether to praise Conan Kill Everything for keeping its admittedly simple premise brief, or wonder if a longer pastiche of the (now ubiquitous) dim-witted caricature of the character is in order.

But I won't be too picky. This is a fairly funny game, and the point of the joke is made. There are even some minor puzzles and a number of nice touches like Conan's reactions to kissing or cutting things. In sum, it's an OK time-waster.

Metamorphoses, by Emily Short

1 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Technically Innovative and Narratively Intriguing, March 27, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy
Play it if: you have a thing for fairy tales, ancient Greek philosophy, non-linear puzzle-solving, or general weirdness.

Don't play it if: you want truly difficult puzzles or a backstory that completely wins your heart.

Metamorphoses has many of the traits I like the most about Emily Short's best work: a fascination with the past, a fairy-tale atmosphere, and innovative game mechanics - traits which can be found to various extents in works like Galatea, Savoir-Faire, and Bronze.

In this game, it is the mechanics which come to the foreground, with your ability to resize objects as well as change their chemical composition. It's absurdly tempting to lose sight of the game altogether and just spend time looking for different configurations you can achieve with random objects in the setting.

True to form, the puzzles in this story have multiple solutions - courtesy of the above-mentioned game mechanics - and while this substantially reduces the overall difficulty of the game in some ways, it in no way detracts from the fun. In fact, a couple of puzzles may even be harder, since you are forced to consider the uses of not only the normal objects in your inventory, but also the potential objects. In this sense the game is nothing short of mind-expanding in terms of how interactive fiction can model worlds.

The rest of the game, while solid, is more textbook. As you solve puzzles you learn more and more of the protagonist's backstory and understand something of her role in this world. It's good stuff and quite intriguing, but by itself it won't really hook you or haunt you afterwards. Which is fine - a game can't be everything at once - but it does mean that you'll be more likely to find the game itself impressive than the story.

Nevertheless, this is a work that is definitely worth your time: a quirky setting, an interesting story, fun non-linear puzzles, and most of all some fascinating game mechanics.

P.S. Personally, I was curious as to whether or not living objects could be modified. Shame that I couldn't find an animal or something to try it out on...

Anchorhead, by Michael Gentry

5 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
Transcends the Genre, March 26, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: michael gentry, horror, fantasy
Play it if: you've always wanted to think of interactive fiction as a true literary genre, for this is a terrifying and emotional tale worthy of its Lovecraftian origins.

Don't play it if: you have an allergy to great storytelling and demand complex puzzles instead, for this game undoubtedly focuses on narrative rather than intellectual challenge - not that this is a bad thing.

Wow. I'd heard this was good, but...wow.

Anchorhead simply blew me away, and I'll tell you why:

Because it scared me.

I've read a lot of horror fiction and played a lot of horror-themed video games, but this is the first game to truly frighten me. Gentry's writing is nothing short of astounding in this game, showing top-notch effort and a deft hand in bringing all the necessary elements of a good horror story to life: an atmospheric setting, a dark secret from the past, the confrontation of the unknown...with a dash of some Lovecraft trademarks thrown in for good measure. And finally, of course, the fact that you actually care about what's happening.

Oh yes. I cared a lot more about what was going on in Anchorhead than I did in, say, Adam Cadre's Photopia (which seems to be considered a standard tear-jerker among readers). The stroke of genius employed here is that Gentry creates a chain of cause and effect linking the mundane to the supernatural. In the beginning, the story builds the player's investment in the heroine through vivid descriptions of the unfriendly weather and the unwelcoming environment - we don't want to get into a sewer pipe, or get wet in the rain, or drink that awful cold coffee. We want to meet up with Mike, we want to make a phone call, et cetera. These basic needs form the basis of the more complex and fantastic impulses to investigate and explore, and ultimately the story's climax feels like a moment of genuine crisis, because having walked so thoroughly in the heroine's shoes, you care as much as she does about thwarting the evil that threatens Anchorhead.

It's really kind of beautiful: for the first time in my experience with IF, I found myself wanting to win out of simply wanting Michael and myself to survive our ordeal.

The game is full of excellently-written horror scenes that use IF's cinematic potentials well. (Spoiler - click to show)Particularly well-written scenes include the slaughterhouse sequence - including the possible deaths - the asylum chase, Doctor Rebis's testimony, and various possibly insanity-inducing events like reading the black tome or observing the comet. The descriptive writing is also very good, being not only thoroughly-implemented but also evocatively described.

Also of note are the numerous reading materials the player encounters in the course of the game: diaries, journals, newsletters, courthouse archives and clippings that aren't always vital to complete the game, but which cumulatively form a picture of Anchorhead's horrific past. These give the game a real sense of wonder and discovery as the player uncovers mysteries layer by layer - the kind of curiosity very few games can truly evoke.

Let's discuss some technical details. The game is generally well-coded considering some of the more finicky mechanics Gentry chose to include. Minor flaws include some amusing syntax errors when taking inventory, trying to let go of a certain rope when in the dark, and occasional difficulties with adding keys to the keyring. But these are easily ignored in the face of the game's overwhelming quality. While not the most challenging of games, Anchorhead's puzzles are almost totally free of "guess-the-verb" games (Spoiler - click to show)(the one major exception being releasing Jeffrey - somehow the command "free boy" didn't feel intuitive to me). There's enough challenge here that a decent player need never resort to a walkthrough, but may still want to spend a few days to a week poring over the possibilities.

In a way, it was almost a relief to see a game this large and complex managing to tell its story and pose some good obstacles without having to create too much in the way of extra vocabulary. In spite of the almost sprawling nature of the setting, the economy of important objects and required actions helps maintain the player's sense of perspective, and you're never really in danger of getting lost in the town. (Being able to write a realistic yet intuitively navigable system of streets is no mean feat!)

In sum, Michael S. Gentry writes that Anchorhead "doesn't even live up to my own standards about how a REALLY good game should be designed." If so, his standards must be astronomically high, for in spite of the odd glitch, this is one of the greatest works of IF ever written - one which I would be proud to show a beginner as an example of how IF can aspire to tell stories as moving and creative as those of literature and film. As with Watchmen, Star Wars, and Final Fantasy VI in their time, this is a work which leaps beyond the misconceptions and old assumptions about its original genre and could be truly considered a self-contained work of art.

Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die, by Rob Noyes

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Other Games Do It Better, March 25, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: rob noyes, one-room, short
Play it if: you have fairly low standards for joke IF.

Don't play it if: you prefer a bit more elegance in your parodies.

In brief, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die is a punchline game, where the whole point of the thing is just one big joke. This doesn't have to make it bad, but while games such as Adam Cadre's 9:05 and even Ian Haberkorn's Conan Kill Everything accomplish this with some degree of elegance, Pick Up The Phone Booth And Die has basically no replay value - because its joke is one-note. A funnier and thus more effective game might have resulted if the objective had been to avoid picking up the phone booth at all costs, in spite of various incentives to do so.

There's not much to say about a game that has so little to recommend it and so little to damn it. It's too insubstantial to even be considered a waste of time, but that's not really a good reason to play it, is it?

Asylum, by cpuguy89

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Thankfully Short, March 24, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: cpuguy89, one-room, short
Play it if: you're looking (with all due respect to the author) for the kind of example game not to show beginners to IF, or if you have a strong sado-masochistic streak.

Don't play it if: you want to play a game with any real level of thought or creative input.

I'm going to go ahead and disagree with the author: this is very much not the kind of game to show IF beginners, and here's why.

First, the game has little to entertain beginners enough to get them interested in more IF. The descriptive text is Spartan at best (the room description consisting of a list of objects, for instance), and there is no story or atmosphere besides a basic need to get out of a room.

Second, there's no fair challenge in the game. Most of the "puzzles" require either a brute-force approach to opening containers and trying keys out in differenet locks, or guess-the-verb minigames. Neither of these are a genuine test of intellect, and as a result neither are rewarding; any prospective IF player is likely to feel frustrated with this work.

Finally, the game's underlying logic is almost non-existent. One has to wonder what kind of asylum would put its patients in a room chock-full of keys or hire staff who ruin your plans for escape on the basis of a clock's alarm. The corners of the desk are sanded off to prevent you from hurting yourself, and yet the room contains (Spoiler - click to show)a fragile glass object, a heavy hammer, and a chisel capable of penetrating a wall, among other things! Not to mention the time limit - (Spoiler - click to show)if there are no doors described in the room, how do the asylum staff get in to "ruin your plans"? Dearie me. An unintentionally hilarious coding error - and one that could have been fixed with a marginally thorough beta-test - is the error message that pops up whenever the player tries to off himself (the kind of response games of this caliber inspire in me, I'm afraid). The "remove player from play" error, in case you were wondering...which is odd considering that the author successfully wrote in a defeat condition!

Hopefully the author's subsequent work will have more in the way of invested effort.

P.S. Perhaps the most bizarre thing about this game is that the author voted for it in a list of Best Short Games. I don't mean to sound...well, mean, but...really?

Photopia, by Adam Cadre

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
A Curiosity, But Perhaps Not A Masterpiece, March 24, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: adam cadre, fantasy
Play it if: you have a thing for IF that treats itself as a linear story rather than a game, for this is by its very conception one of the least interactive entries into the genre; and if you're big on "emotional" stories in your IF.

Don't play it if: if the line between drama and melodrama is just too fine for you, because Photopia is chock-full of whimsy, abrupt tone shifts, and strongly communicated emotion.

There's very little one can meaningfully say about Photopia that hasn't already been said. This has to be one of the least interactive works of IF in existence - the format is actually used more as a way to give cinematic effects to literature. Most of the time you're doing the equivalent of tapping the SPACE key and moving things along.

What takes the place of interactivity is the weight of narrative: the emphasis is firmly on the "fiction" aspect here, presenting a number of interrelated scenarios revolving around a single subject.

While the concept is interestingly done - and as has been said before, has some historically groundbreaking traits - Photopia leaves me a little cold because the writing, the aspect of this work that's supposed to take up the slack from the interactivity, feels decidedly average.

Don't get me wrong: Cadre's writing is fairly decent, and he can evoke images quite well in his description of things. (Spoiler - click to show)The way the car crash is described from the driver's point of view has details that give the experience a bit of visceral punch. The description of the crystalline maze was also evocative. The problem is that the subject of the narrative (Spoiler - click to show)(Alley) seems to have very little in the way of a genuine arc (Spoiler - click to show)besides just growing up, which reduces the subject's depth and makes the story as a whole feel less fulfilling. (Spoiler - click to show)Of course these things happen, and it's tremendously sad when they do, but it is the work of the storyteller to find solace in lending meaning to these kinds of tragedies. That Alley's death is the kind of awful twist that could happen to any of us is true enough, but as far as meaning goes it's rather mundane. There are also several passages where the writing is at risk of becoming overwrought (Spoiler - click to show)with the passage where Jon asks Alley out feeling overwritten, and the treatment of her curiosity and intelligence making her feel a bit like a Mary Sue character. In particular, the fact that the game wanted me to believe Alley's monologue on Freudian psychology to be a sign of genuine intellectual curiosity - when Freud's model was largely shelved a while before this game was written - really stuck out as an example of Alley being written simply as "smart". The view of the subject is also rather one-sided (Spoiler - click to show)Alley is given little in the way of flaws and as a result does come across as "too perfect".

I can understand why this story made certain readers cry, and I'm not calling them idiots for responding that way. It's just that for me personally, this story won't really stick with me on an emotional level due to the above issues. Ultimately, Photopia is better served by being upheld as an innovation on the IF concept than as a profoundly-written story - but it's still worth your time to play through it, as it offers insight into how IF tools can be used to lend cinematic effect to literature and to tinker with narrative structure.

Savoir-Faire, by Emily Short

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Short Makes Writing a Masterpiece Look Easy, March 24, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy
Play it if: you loved everything about old-school IF other than its cruel gameplay and frequently illogical puzzles; if you want to see Emily Short's talents for innovative gameplay in a more traditional framework; if you're a sucker for prose that is both elegant and vividly detailed.

Don't play it if: Come on, just play it.

In almost every sense of the term, Savoir-Faire is a masterpiece, and in my opinion the best of Emily Short's longer games.

The chief technical innovation is the magic system, which allows the protagonist to blend the properties of different objects and create interesting cause-and-effect relationships. This system is not merely for show: the puzzling possibilities of this game mechanic are explored very fully - you need to use this skill to acquire items, reach areas, observe rooms, and more. The gameplay never feels repetitive as each puzzle involves a different use of these skills, and this is one of those games where you want to take a week to give yourself time to stew over all the possibilities. Another less visible but no less wonderful detail is the fluid dynamics (allowing you to have containers with different amounts of water, to pour them on the gruond, to have the resulting puddles evaporate gradually).

If this is an impressive achievement - and make no mistake, the Lavori d'Aracne is implemented in all sorts of interesting ways - what makes it even more brilliant is the quality of writing to hold it up. Because links can only be forged between objects that are similar in meaningful ways (form, function, or appearance), it becomes necessary to examine objects closely to look for possible links. Accordingly, the aristocratic mansion setting is brought to life with amazing levels of detail; you can examine details that are minute almost to the point of absurdity, sometimes discovering some lovely anecdotes (the reason for the family's cups and plates all being metal made me laugh out loud).

These aspects by themselves would be enough to make Savoir-Faire a great game. But added to this is a back-story that becomes something of a fore-story - the tale of the protagonist's origins and the possible fate of his family. You get a glimpse into the kind of conflict fans of Wuthering Heights or Pride and Prejudice would love, involving aristocracy, intrigue, and class identity.

If I had to sum up Savoir-Faire in one image, it would have to be a tapestry. The magic system is intricately linked to the puzzles, and the puzzles' raisons d'être are linked to both the magic system and the backstory. The result is that you have a game with a medium-sized setting (a mansion) but which feels incredibly tight. There's an almost effortless sense of completeness at work here.

This is perhaps the game's ultimate triumph, for if there was anything we tended not to associate with old-school IF, it was writing this strong. Games like Zork may have had interesting settings and great humor, but they tended to be much looser, with puzzles rarely subscribing to some overarching puzzle or story. In this sense Savoir-Faire is the culmination of an entire genre of interactive fiction, recreating the wonder of exploring a mysterious setting while tying it into an intricately interwoven plot and puzzle system.

The one real flaw in the game is almost absurdly minor: there doesn't feel like much of an overall difficulty progression (Spoiler - click to show)(for instance, the solution to the rat-hole problem seems almost absurdly simple in comparison to navigating the maze, or helping Marie escape D'Envers) which is probably due to the fact that the puzzles themselves don't really have to be done in a specific order. But in a story which has an abundance of fascinating puzzles to offer already, and which is admittedly emulating the exploratory style of early IF, this isn't really something to raise much complaint about.

In sum, this is a game pretty much everyone should play. Newcomers to IF might find it a bit much to take in when you throw in the Lavori d'Aracne, but somehow I think they'll be fine with it.

A definite masterpiece.

Damnatio Memoriae, by Emily Short

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Short and Sweet, March 21, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy, short
Play the game if: you're a fan of Emily Short's trademark attention to detail and creative command systems, or if you want a short, not-too-challenging puzzler which will nevertheless excite your curiosity.

Don't play the game if: you wished this was comparable in scale to Savoir-Faire, or if you're looking for a story that is emotionally gripping.

Damnatio Memoriae is a flawless game, by which I mean that it hits all the marks it's aiming for. It adapts the magic system from Savoir-Faire into a novel setting and a more constrained story, the premise here being that you have to find a way of effecting a room escape and the destruction of certain objects at the same time.

The difficulty level on this one is quite low, which is understandable given the constrained environment that allows for brute-force solutions; it is, however, tricky to get the most desirable ending on a first attempt, though not impossible. Even without prior knowledge of how linking, reverse linking and enslaving work, it shouldn't take more than a few playthroughs to get the hang of things. A minor flaw here is that the help file is perhaps a tad bit too vague for the newcomer as to the magic system: I hadn't played Savoir-Faire when I first tried this one out, and as a result my initial attempts were perhaps more clumsy than they needed to be. In the event of an updated version or future installments in the series, I'd recommend an inclusion of some basic example scenarios to get across the points - as certain help files will so often do for the basic command system.

The setting is a rather cool mix of ideas - Imperial Roman political intrigue mixed with a crime story mixed with fantasy. The environment was given sufficient detail and verisimilitude that I wouldn't be averse to a future game exploring some side of Agrippa's family history. In some ways, though, that's the great gift and curse of complete short stories: they can stir up such curiosity about the world, rather than making it feel mundane by actually showing it.

Although I can't really fault the story for anything, it gets a four-star rating from me just because, apart from being entertaining and interesting, it won't occupy much of a place in my memory next to more complex or emotionally engaging works, many of which were authored by Ms Short herself. Sometimes perfection and inspiration just aren't the same thing.

(But there are worse things than a perfect game!)

The Act of Misdirection, by Callico Harrison

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
A Diamond in the Rough, March 21, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: callico harrison, fantasy
Play this game if: you like your IF short and simple, or you want to play through one of the more memorable set-pieces in the genre.

Don't play this game if: you're easily put off by linear and nearly puzzle-free gameplay.

The Act of Misdirection opens with a wonderful scene in which the player must perform a magic act without knowing the choreography beforehand. Fortunately, the protagonist does know, which puts the player in the interesting position of being one step ahead of the audience (as the narrative voice provides clues to the tricks) and one step behind the protagonist. The writing is very strong here, and the game effectively builds the player's sense of entertainment and anticipation as the player does the same thing to the in-game audience. It's thrilling stuff, the kind of set-piece which would make for an excellent Inform tutorial.

The rest of the game pales a little in comparison. This is not to denigrate Harrison's achievements: from a purely technical standpoint there's still a fair amount to appreciate, such as some solid NPC interactions and a setting that has the population density of character and detail just right. But the writing and atmosphere just don't harmonize with these aspects of the game the way they do in the first act (no wordplay intended?).

Beyond the opening scene, the writing is probably the chief attraction. Harrison isn't afraid to use some flowery prose, but more importantly establishes a good couple of narrative voices. (Spoiler - click to show)The contrast between the narrator's voice for the magic act and the rest of the game is a good touch, with the dramatic and confident narration in the beginning emphasizing Meldellevo's power and skill, and the following imagined diatribes from Sally highlighting how insecure a character Sarah really is. This adds somewhat to the Faustian conflict at play. The settings are easy to picture as a result of the good descriptive text, rendering progress that much more comfortable, and some tense moments have genuine punch. (Spoiler - click to show)Consider the excellent use of the single-sentence paragraph at the climax of the magic routine, as well as the "normal" ending's final sentence. There are, however, some rough patches - syntax and word usage errors not due to technical issues. They aren't really numerous enough to destroy your enjoyment of the game or anything, but together with a sense that a premise this creative could have supported a bigger story, they add to the feeling of the whole package as a little unpolished.

This is also one of the more linear stories I've encountered in IF - as the author notes, it's impossible to put the game into an unwinnable state. However, the alternate ending - and yes, there is one - relies on a sufficiently unfair puzzle that getting it is more of an exercise for a second playthrough than a genuine opportunity for the first-time player. It also means that the nearly puzzle-less environment consists largely of "guess the verb" mini-games, though these aren't particularly unfair.

Overall, this is a story with strong promise - and even as a diamond in the rough (emphasizing the "diamond"), it's worth your time. Were Ms Harrison to expand this into a larger narrative - which I would argue, is a worthwhile pursuit - I'd suggest maintaining (where possible) the information asymmetry between player and protagonist, as well as getting one (or maybe one more) friendly eye to proofread and test-play.

Good job!

The Weapon, by Sean Barrett
An Entertaining One-Room Story, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: sean barrett, one-room, sci-fi
Play the game if: you like your IF compact, your challenges fair, and a little bit of narrative color around your puzzles.

Don't play the game if: you want a genuinely tough game, strong emotional investment, or a setting that provokes a sense of wonder or discovery.

The Weapon is probably a good introductory game for those who are new to IF. The one-room geography won't tax your memory, the straightforward command system won't offend your linguistic sensibilities, and neither the game itself nor the puzzles are particularly brutal or unfair.

The story resembles an escape scenario. You play something of a Hannibal Lecter figure, a criminal genius who is being brought in to investigate an alien artifact of great power.

What I like about this is that most of the puzzles have two layers: your objective is to learn about and activate the artifact, but you must do so in a way that will not alert your captors. This adds significant pizzazz and an extra challenge to what would otherwise be fairly light puzzles (though they're not straightforward).

The puzzles generally take the form of just requiring you to be observant: you'll need to consider the possible uses of pretty much everything in the room in order to progress. I must admit to having a soft spot for escape scenarios (having been brought up on Doctor Who), so this kind of challenge - improvising ways to evade your captors - is one of my favorites.

If The Weapon has any weakness, it's that it deserved to be part of a larger narrative. The backstory, while not uninteresting, can never come to life because it's more or less superfluous, and so comes across as a tweaked version of the backstory to Ender's Game. While the characterization and setting are well-written, certain events lose emotional impact because it's been too soon since we were introduced to the context. It's a shame because, without being specific, this isn't really the kind of game that begs for a sequel, and it seems doubtful that we'll see much more of this world.

Nevertheless, it's an enjoyable distraction that probably won't take you more than a couple of hours to complete, and for a distraction, it's rather well-written. The puzzles are genuinely engaging as the player needs to make a genuine effort to understand the particulars of how the story's technologies work (Spoiler - click to show)(as with trying to mask the transmission or read information on the viewscreen without Cheryl noticing).

Overall, if you have an evening when you have nothing to do and just want to relax, The Weapon would easily give you something fun to do - the equivalent of watching a light movie or re-reading an old book.

A Day for Fresh Sushi, by Emily Short

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Fun Distraction and A Good Introduction To IF, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: emily short, fantasy, one-room, short
Play this game if: You have a fondness for witty banter and a craving for short and easy games.

Don't play this game if: Just play the darn thing.

Something akin to a slice out of a fantasy/soap/comedy webcomic, A Day for Fresh Sushi is short, simple, and fun.

The main reason you'd want to play this - other than as a basic introduction to IF - is of course the fish, the feeding of whom is the objective of the game. It's an objective you may want to put off, though, because the fish's commentary on what you're doing in the meantime is hilarious enough that you may find yourself just trying to get him to react more.

Certainly not the kind of game one plays for a challenge,(Spoiler - click to show)since after all you can win in three turns, A Day for Fresh Sushi is instead an entertaining five-minute distraction.

9:05, by Adam Cadre

2 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Great Fun!, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: adam cadre, humor
Play it if: you have a sense of humor.

Don't play it if: you're under the impression that your time is too precious to bother with a game that isn't long, complex, or challenging.

I don't think a game has made me laugh that hard in ages!

There's only so much one can say about a game like this, because it has a very specific, fairly spoiler-iffic aim in mind. Discussing difficulty, the command system, and technical innovation would have no point. Suffice to say that it accomplishes its goal. It has some significant replay value: it's only on a second playthrough, observing the seemingly mundane yet rather precise way in which everything is described and reported, that you realize how tight the writing really is.

This is my first experience with Adam Cadre's work, and on the strength of this one alone I'm going to go check out some of his other stuff.

Shade, by Andrew Plotkin

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A Solid Four-Star Game, March 20, 2012
by Jim Kaplan (Jim Kaplan has a room called the location. The location of Jim Kaplan is variable.)
Related reviews: andrew plotkin, one-room, short
Play the game if: you simply want to enjoy a competent and in some places innovative work of interactive fiction without getting bogged down in complex intellectual challenges.

Don't play the game if: you want to be dazzled with narrative brilliance, or if you want more out of IF than good prose and atmosphere.

Shade is a work of interactive fiction that could easily have doubled as a script for The Twilight Zone. In fact, certain very apt comparisons could be made to (Spoiler - click to show)Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge", a film adaptation of which was shown on The Twilight Zone.

The bare mechanics of Shade work rather well. In fact, the very question of "difficulty" doesn't even seem to exist in this game. Plotkin's writing is sharp enough that when the rules begin to change, the differences will leap out at you even though they're rather subtle - details such as (Spoiler - click to show)The protagonist's vacuum suddenly being full of sand, or the apartment's plant changing species.

The apartment setting is implemented with convenience in mind, the game allowing for multiple locations in a single-room setting without forcing the player to resort to constant commands of "enter" and "exit". My favorite games in IF focus on synchronizing the kind of decision-making underlying in-game actions with the player's own mind. Such games, and in this case Shade, impart a sense of intuitive control and completeness that can help the game transcend itself in the Turing-esque sense that IF has always striven to accomplish.

There is only so much one can discuss in the story itself without referring to heavy spoilers. The fact that there even exist heavy spoilers is in and of itself something of a spoiler, which poses something of a problem. Nevertheless, for the sake of completeness, the attempt must be made.

An undeniable strength of the story is the atmosphere. The one-room setting achieved the right balance of comprehensibility and potential to explore; the pacing of your introductory searches around the room is good enough to introduce all the important elements at play and keep them in your mind at all times.

Perhaps because I've seen this particular brand of story before, Shade's actual narrative doesn't come across as particularly fresh or new for me. This is likely more a subjective nitpick than an objective criticism, but there you go. What might be called the second act (Spoiler - click to show)(specifically, the process of turning all of your apartment to sand) was for me a rather laborious process of carrying out the obvious, even though I understood more or less where this story was going to end. Even before getting to this stage I'd more or less guessed the ending - showing that while subtle details will leap out at you, there's an added risk of too much foreshadowing.

The result was that I wasn't as gripped by Shade as I might have been - the two moments of genuine excitement being the realization of what was actually going on (turning out to be something I'd seen before), and the epilogue of sorts, which is written rather well.

Still, this is, if not a great work, at least a very good one; the implementation of the setting, the comfortable command system, and the prose are by themselves enough to make this game worth your time.


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