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Writers Are Not Strangers, by Lynda Clark
Writers may be strangers, but they're also real people, November 21, 2018
Writers are Not Strangers is a story about Alix (a writer), Alix's dying mother, Alix's aunt, and a meteorite that's threatening Earth.

But the plot seems to me to be less important than the overall theme; namely, how readers can affect writers' lives. As the player you rate stories that Alix has written, and Alix responds emotionally to them. Then at other times you select actions for Alix. So you switch back and forth between playing as one of Alix's readers and playing as Alix herself.

In addition, Alix responds to the ratings you give her when you're playing as a reader. For example, the first story of Alix's that I read I had trouble following, so I gave it a very low rating. Then I watched Alix go through a difficult visit to the hospital to see her dying mother. Afterwards, she checks her ratings and is quite upset by the low score. I felt like I had just punched her in the gut after she'd already been through this emotionally-wrenching experience. But at the same time I was Alix, as I had directed several of her actions while she was in the hospital. So in a sense I had gut-punched myself with the low rating.

This continues throughout the game, as you keep rating Alix's stories and watching her respond to them. In addition, her later stories are actually affected by your ratings. I found myself trying hard to be honest and give her writings the scores I thought they deserved, but I definitely felt the temptation to give her high ratings just to make her feel better. I think this is a tension many players will find themselves in.

I found it all quite moving. Alix is a stranger at the beginning, but you come to know her better as you play through the work: both through her writings (when you're the reader) and through her life (when you're Alix herself). So, by the end, Alix the writer is definitely not a stranger.

In real life, though, we don't get to play as our favorite writers. We are only the reader, not Alix. And how much can you truly get to know someone through their writing? Some writers you probably can come to know - at least somewhat - through their writing. More often, though, I suspect that when we think we're coming to know someone through their writing what we're experiencing is actually an illusion of familiarity. If this is the case, then most of the time writers do remain strangers; the claim in the work's title is not actually true. But what is definitely true, and Writers are Not Strangers succeeds in dramatizing this, is that writers are real people, with real feelings.

Some of Alix's stories are mashups of famous works. Readers may have fun playing "catch the reference" on replays. I know I did: Pride and Prejudice, A Tale of Two Cities, Anna Karenina, A Confederacy of Dunces, and Kafka's Metamorphosis were ones I caught. In one of the stories there was also, oddly enough, a hint that you're a character in the old arcade game Centipede!

I think Writers are Not Strangers is definitely worth a play for the way it dramatizes how readers can affect writers' lives.

Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night!, by Mike Carletta
Tough, fun puzzler with a well-drawn setting, November 20, 2018
Playing Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night! made me feel like I'd been dropped into the middle of a text adventure version of one of those old space opera radio serials from the 1930s, like Buck Rogers or Flash Gordon. The game does a great job of immersing you in this setting from the very beginning, with its cover art, the opening scene featuring the titular hero trying to escape yet another deathtrap, and the game billing itself as Episode 7. There are also some classic IF references and even a Looney Tunes reference.

Gameplay is fairly linear and entails solving a sequence of challenging puzzles. There are only a few such puzzles, but they're all rather intricate and require multiple steps. It took me about two and a half hours to play through the game, which included two instances of diving into the hint system.

Said hint system is a helpful feature, too. Each of the major sections of the game has a large number of hints that you can slowly uncover until you learn what you need to do. I was able to keep uncovering hints until I had just the right nudge to send me back to the game without spoiling the puzzle.

There is some learning-by-death involved, which I'm not normally a fan of. However, the puzzle that features this most strongly - the second major puzzle in the game - is quite clever, and I really, really like it. In fact, I'd say it's my favorite individual puzzle out of all of this year's IFComp games.

The game is also cruel on the Zarfian scale, although outside of the learning-by-death puzzle I noticed this mostly with respect to some information that you need. Thus if you can acquire this information some other way you don't actually have to restore to an earlier save game.

The last major puzzle is particularly challenging. Again, though, the hint system is strong enough that I was able to uncover just what I needed to proceed while still coming away with the feeling that I had solved most of it myself.

The final scene is a pretty much perfect ending to the game.

Overall, I enjoyed Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night!. It's got a fun setting and some challenging puzzles that I enjoyed thinking through. It was also in my personal top ten for IFComp 2018. I'll definitely be tuning in next time for Episode 8!

Diddlebucker!, by J. Michael

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Scavenger hunt, puzzlefest, Infocom homage, November 19, 2018
Diddlebucker! consists of an all-night scavenger hunt around a city, set in 1987. It's intentionally reaching for a comparison with Infocom - the cover art and the era, for instance, as well as the fact that the scavenger hunt plot is somewhat reminiscent of Hollywood Hijinx. But the comparisons go deeper than that: The terse location descriptions, the level of scenery implementation, the extent of character interaction, the kind of puzzles and their degree of difficulty - they're all a good enough imitation of Infocom's style that, to me, Diddlebucker! plays more like an Infocom game than any non-Infocom game I can right now remember playing. (Thaumistry might be an exception, but of course that game was written by a former Infocom implementer.)

The 1987 nostalgia runs deep. For example, while you don't interact with them, many of the Diddlebucker! teams that you're competing against consist of real people who would have been well-known in 1987. I won't spoil the game by mentioning any of them specifically, but this child of the 1980s enjoyed that aspect of the game. (Why they are all contestants in this scavenger hunt remains unclear, but that's all part of the madcap fun. Also, younger players may not catch some of the references.)

Puzzle-wise, I found Diddlebucker! to be one of the more challenging games in IFComp 2018. It's not quite as difficult as Bullhockey! or Birmingham IV (although it's also not anywhere near as long as those two games are), but I found it harder than just about all the others. Well, the puzzles in Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night! are, strictly speaking, probably more difficult, but Diddlebucker! is so much broader in most places that the search space for potential solutions is a great deal larger. (Diddlebucker! does feature somewhat distinct stages, though, which helps you mentally narrow down the options for potential puzzle solutions.)

One thing I will recommend to potential players: Pay attention to the scenery. That includes what appear to be ephemeral random events; some of these contain clues or can even be interacted with.

Overall, while I do think a few of the puzzles could use more cluing, I found Diddlebucker! to be a solid puzzlefest that I would recommend to puzzle-game fans.

Charming, by Kaylah Facey

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A fun, light-hearted game with somewhat intricate puzzles, November 19, 2018
In Charming you play as an apprentice witch who has destroyed several magical items and must repair them. This requires solving a series of puzzles, often with multiple parts. Unlike, say, Dynamite Powers vs. the Ray of Night!, though, the gameplay isn't linear. After you solve what amounts to the initial puzzle you can work on a few different tasks at once. Normally having multi-part puzzles simultaneously going on would be a lot to keep track of, but the game includes a very helpful TODO command which will tell you what tasks are available, what tasks you've completed, and what tasks remain.

The puzzles themselves require a lot of consulting the various magical books for information. You really have to pay attention, and there's a lot of extra information that you don't end up needing. But I found this to be a plus; it provides background for the world that you're in, making gameplay feel more immersive. It also makes the puzzles more interesting; you can't just go through the magical books and say "O.K., what information have I not used yet?" in order to solve the puzzles. Some of the information can also be used to perform actions that later show up in the "For Your Amusement" list, increasing the game's playability.

One thing I found particularly satisfying was (Spoiler - click to show)creating a crystal ball. Structurally, it wasn't much different from the other multi-step puzzles, but something deep in me just really appreciated the act of constructing a fabled magical item that I've seen in dozens of stories and games.

One thing a player should be aware of going into the game is that some of the magical book topics only trigger on the entire phrase, whereas some will trigger with the entire phrase or the right keyword. However, the game does includes a shortcut READ verb, so that you can, for example, READ [a topic] instead of always having to CONSULT [a particular book] ABOUT [a topic].

Overall, I think Charming lives up to its name. I found it to be a fun, light-hearted game with somewhat intricate puzzles, and I would recommend it to fans of such. It's particularly impressive that this is the author's first work of IF. I hope she continues making games!

Dead Man's Fiesta, by Ed Sibley

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
We all deal with death in different ways, November 19, 2018
Dead Man's Fiesta tells the story of a young man coping with the death of someone close to him. However, the game never gives the identity of the deceased or the PC's relationship to him. Nor does it focus much on the PC's grieving process - at least not directly.

Instead, the game spends most of its time on the events of the last several days of the PC's bereavement leave. He takes his inheritance money and buys a used Ford Fiesta, which turns out to be haunted by the ghosts of a former owner. The rest of the story entails the PC dealing with these ghosts and what they want while continuing to work through his grief.

The game has a strong voice. The PC very much comes across as aimless, without much direction in life, and this affects his attempts to deal with both the ghosts and the death of his loved one. Most of his sentences feature neither punctuation nor capitalization, which underscores (punctuates?) the PC's aimlessness: It's as if he can't be bothered even to complete his thoughts fully.

At this stage in my life (probably a generation older, and with many more responsibilities than the PC), I have trouble relating. Much of Dead Man's Fiesta just didn't work for me. However, I suspect I might have clicked more with the PC when I was younger, and I bet there are plenty of people who would identify with him right now. My rating is thus more about my subjective response to the game rather than my opinion about its quality as a work of art. It is, of course, hard to separate the two, though.

Several scenes in the game feature well-done illustrations that remind me of the art design in the movie Waking Life.

Instruction Set, by Jared Jackson

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
If you like puzzles, give this one a chance, November 17, 2018
My ten-year-old son wanted to play through one of the IFComp games with me one night last month. I selected Instruction Set kind of on a whim, and it turned out to be the perfect choice. It's written in Scratch! My son has been learning Scratch this past year, and it was really nice for him to see something vastly more complicated than anything he's tried to do on his own. We opened up the Scratch code, too, and looked through it. My son was able to follow the basic structure of the game's code as well.

The gameplay of Instruction Set consists of a series of logic puzzles. Some of them are old classics, like the one where you have only a three-liter container and a five-liter container and you need to create four liters of water. I realize that this particular puzzle is now used as an example of an old, tired puzzle for a lot of folks in the IF community, but I missed that phase of IF where this puzzle was used frequently, and so it did not come across as stale to me.

More importantly, the puzzles get more and more complex the more you solve. So even if you don't like some of the early puzzles, I'd recommend sticking with the game. The puzzles do get better. The last puzzle you actually solve was particularly fun - one of my favorite puzzles in IFComp this year, in fact.

The story involves some researchers in a lab testing a new haptic interface on a patient, Nora Atwood, and understanding what's going on with her. But the gameplay is really about the puzzles.

Folks used to the elegance of Inform's parser will probably find the interface clunky. It is a little clunky. But I'm impressed that the author managed to create a parser-like interface in Scratch at all! To my knowledge there's no native support for such a thing in Scratch. The interface works, too, and there's a window that tells you exactly which commands are allowed on each puzzle, as well as displaying the puzzle for you graphically. (This adds interest to some of those classic puzzles, by presenting them in a form that's not pure text.) There was only one puzzle where I got seriously stuck. I was able to go to the walkthrough, though, and I realized that I had misunderstood the directions for that puzzle.

The author says that he made the game with his kids and that his twelve-year-old daughter did all the artwork. I think that's awesome.

I had fun with Instruction Set, and I'm glad I played it with my son. I'd recommend it for puzzle fans aged ten and up.

The Temple of Shorgil, by Arthur DiBianca

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Another solid DiBianca puzzlefest, November 17, 2018
I might as well state my bias up front: I love puzzle-focused games, and I think Arthur DiBianca is among the most innovative puzzle designers in IF these days. He tends to write parser games where only a few commands are allowed. Some folks in the IF community dislike that approach, but I am not one of them. In fact, I think restricting the verb set for a game heavy on puzzles and intentionally light on story is an excellent design move: It keeps the game focused on the puzzle-solving.

The Temple of Shorgil is another such puzzle-focused, limited-parser game from Arthur. The setting is that you are a scholar studying the ancient Pirothian culture. You've discovered their fabled Temple of Shorgil, and the game consists of you exploring it to uncover its secrets. But the experience of playing the game is mostly of figuring out how to place a set of figurines on pedestals in different ways. This may sound like there's not much to do, but once again (see, for example, The Wand and Inside the Facility) Arthur has taken a simple mechanic and transformed it into a large number of puzzles ranging from easy to much more difficult. The result is a unified game experience that nevertheless provides a varied, complex set of challenges. It's great design.

With the placement of objects being the mechanic, The Temple of Shorgil has some shades of his game Excelsior. It also reminds me of Inside the Facility, in that gaining more figurines unlocks new areas (in Inside the Facility, you collect higher-level keycards).

The Temple of Shorgil also features a collection of illustrations by Corinna Browning, which aren't necessary for solving the puzzles but add some nice atmosphere. The various map settings range from helpful to extremely helpful with respect to orienting yourself and solving some of the challenges.

Highly recommended for puzzle enthusiasts.

Alias 'The Magpie', by J. J. Guest

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
One of the Best IF Comedies I've Ever Played, November 16, 2018
Alias 'The Magpie' drew me in quickly, with its very English tone and sense of humor. I found it cleverly-written, well-implemented, and a lot of fun to play.

Like last year's The Wizard Sniffer, as the story in Alias 'The Magpie' unfolds it keeps raising the comedic stakes higher and higher in ways that leave you thinking, "How is this all going to hold together?" But it does. Does it ever: I have rarely laughed so much playing an IF game! J.J. Guest has already demonstrated a fine-tuned ear for comedy in To Hell in a Hamper, but it's clear he's gotten better with time: Alias 'The Magpie' is longer, features several more characters, and has a much more complex plot, but that comedic fine-tuning somehow manages to be even more on pitch.

My one critique is that I think a couple of the puzzles are rather difficult for a light comedy game. But this is a minor critique in what is a truly excellent parser comedy - one of the best IF comedies I've ever played, in fact.

Flowers of Mysteria, by David Sweeney

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An Old-Fashioned Text Adventure, Just as It Says, November 16, 2018
The subtitle of Flowers of Mysteria is "an old-fashioned text adventure," and that is very much the truth. For example, the title page features ASCII graphics, and after each command you are asked "What now?" followed by the prompt. It was also written with what looks like a homebrew parser.

The plot is that you are tasked with finding four mystical flowers in order to brew a remedy for the ill king. Finding the flowers isn't too hard; the puzzles are mostly straightforward and logical, in keeping with the game's old-fashioned text adventure sensibility. I did go to the walkthrough for help once, but that was the only place where I was stuck for a while. (And the solution made sense once I knew what it was.)

One solid design choice in particular helps Flowers of Mysteria avoid some of the problems often found in older text games: It tells you exactly which verbs are understood, so there are no guess-the-verb issues. (I went back to this list several times - it was quite helpful.)

If you like old-fashioned text adventures, I'd recommend this.

A Woman's Choice, by Katie Benson
A Work That Explores Reproductive Choices, November 16, 2018
This is the kind of work that goes better in a choice-based format than in parser. You play as Jennifer, a woman who is faced with a series of choices over the course of the early part of her life (through her early 30s, I think) as to whether to have children.

Playing A Woman's Choice and exploring Jennifer's options had me repeatedly thinking back to my wife's and my decision to have kids and the decisions I've seen friends make (both yes and no), as well as why we made these decisions. I haven't really done that in a long time. That's the kind of reaction I'd want from a reader if I had written this work, and so I'd call A Woman's Choice a success.

I do have two critiques to offer, though (with the caveat that I did not play multiple times to see different endings).

A Woman's Choice argues that society places expectations on women with respect to children, and, contra those expectations, women should have the freedom to make their own choices. The choice that I made felt abrupt, though: I think it was when (Spoiler - click to show)I had just met Paul at the party and I chose to laugh when he asked me about kids. I picked this option because I had hoped it would let me delay the choice so that I could think about it some more. Instead (I think) it was my final choice: Everything else seemed to play out from that decision. My first critique is that I would have liked the chance to think about this more and maybe even change my mind.

My second critique is harder to explain without giving away too much of the work, but here goes: I think A Woman's Choice would have been strengthened with more exploration of the different consequences to a long-term relationship from having a disagreement as fundamental as having children. A Woman's Choice felt to me to present the choice to be solely Jennifer's, but my observation is that in practice this usually involves more negotiation. Often the relationship is so important to the two parties involved that together they work out between them how they will handle the question of children. (And, yes, sometimes the distance between what the two people want is so far apart that it makes sense for the relationship to end.) At any rate, I would have liked to have seen more of this exploration in A Woman's Choice.

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