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The Ballroom, by Liza Daly
Spike's Rating:

The Missing Ring, by Felicity Drake
Spike's Rating:

The Empty Chamber: A Celia Swift Mystery, by Tom Sykes
Spike's Rating:

Violet, by Jeremy Freese
Spike's Rating:

Oppositely Opal, by Buster Hudson
Spike's Rating:

Grimnoir, by ProP

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Well-done noir homage that plays with noir's tropes in interesting ways, March 12, 2019
Dark background. Sweet jazzy opening music. First person narration. Rain pounding on the windows. Early entrance by a femme fataleÖ who is actually your business partner, not to mention (Spoiler - click to show)a succubus - the ultimate femme fatale! - and who totally calls your bluff on pretending to be asleep. With all of this, plus the title, Iím thinking that Grimnoir is going to be a noir detective story that nevertheless plays with noirís usual tropes. And, sure enough, thatís what it is.

One major aspect of the game perhaps takes noir in a different direction rather than playing with its tropes. This is the fact that (Spoiler - click to show)the PC specializes in the supernatural - particularly tracking down various undead spirits. There are probably other works that feature this as well, but I was reminded of Jonathan Stroud's Lockwood & Co. series of novels.

A second aspect is truly playing with noirís tropes. As you slowly come to realize over the course of the game, (Spoiler - click to show)the detective PC is gay. This affects the story and gameplay some, as it makes him immune to the charms of his succubus partner, while leaving him susceptible to an incubus in one of the mid-to-late-game cases.

Gameplay involves solving a series of cases. You're given three cases initially that you can investigate in any order. After you complete those you're given three more cases that you can investigate in any order, followed by the endgame case(s). (It's kind of like Detectiveland doubled, in that respect.) Three cases at a time gives the player some choice without it feeling overwhelming in the way six or seven cases might.

The player also has access to the Grimnoir, which contains a list of monsters and their powers. This was fun and reminded me of a miniature Dungeons & Dragons monster manual.

The cases feature some interesting narrative and investigate variations. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)in one case you play as the succubus partner, which was fun partly for variety and partly because she has cool powers. In addition, another case involves two spirits rather than one.

My one gameplay critique has to do with your selection of the monster that you think is causing the crime. After you've completed your investigation, the game gives you a list of three monsters to choose from. With only three names itís easy (if you remembered to save just before the monster encounter) to try all of them and then reload if youíre wrong.

Also, from a narrative standpoint Iím not sure why naming a monster would cause it to freeze, although from a gameplay standpoint I can understand this: The game needs some way for the selection of the monster type to be decisive in terms of the investigation, and having the monster freeze when named accomplishes that.

The final case is a nice wrap-up of the PC's storyline and series of investigations.

Overall, I enjoyed Grimnoir. It's a well-done noir homage that nevertheless plays with its tropes in interesting ways.

Polish the Glass , by Keltie Wright
Dynamic fiction with strong, spare writing, March 11, 2019
Polish the Glass is a medium-length choice-based game with an unusual story. The PCís mother canít stop herself from (Spoiler - click to show)polishing the glass in the Bar (itís always capitalized) down the street. This leads to a breakdown in the PC's parentsí relationship and eventually the dissolution of their marriage. However, as the PC grows up, she eventually takes a job working at the Bar, just like her mum. She finds herself drawn to the Bar, continuing to polish the glass, and slowly cutting herself off from relationships with other people, again like her mum.

There arenít too many choices in the game. The vast majority of your clicks are to advance the text a sentence or three. At first I didnít care much for that, but the more I read of Polish the Glass the more I came to appreciate this mechanic: It forced me to slow down and actually read every sentence. I couldnít as easily skim the text and only carefully read the parts just before my next choice. So, even though I didnít have many choices, the story actually did feel interactive to me - and more so than some other choice-based games Iíve played that also give you few choices but have much larger chunks of text between successive clicks.

The writing is good. Itís spare in a way that works with having to click to advance the text every couple of sentences.

I feel like the events in the game are a metaphor for something, but I canít decide what. Here are some ideas Iíve had: (Spoiler - click to show)Alcohol addiction. Addiction in general. Aging and death. Depression. Perfectionism. Giving yourself too much to other people and having that suck the life out of you.

It might also just be a story, with nothing particularly metaphorical about it. I think itís fair to say, though, that I feel like I didnít really ďgetĒ Polish the Glass. For some works youíre on the authorís wavelength, and for some youíre not. Or perhaps dynamic fiction is just not my thing.

Again, though, I thought the writing was strong, and if you like dynamic fiction you may very well appreciate Polish the Glass.

Eunice, by Gita Ryaboy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Explore ideas from positive psychology, March 8, 2019
Eunice is a short, parser-based game with a rather unusual purpose: As it states in the intro text, Eunice is ďan introduction to research-based Positive Psychology tools.Ē The research-based jumps out at me there; I assume itís because ďpositive psychologyĒ sounds like ďself-help,Ē and the latter doesnít have all that great a reputation. However, positive psychology is a legitimate branch of psychology, and itís clear that the author has some knowledge of the latest research in this field. The ABOUT section says, ďData shows that some simple actions can improve mood, perspective, and resilience.Ē Eunice is intended to introduce us to some of these actions, such as gratitude, connection, mindfulness, flexibility, and hope. Aiming to give others a deeper understanding of a particular branch of human knowledge may be an unusual motivation for writing a parser-based game, but itís one Iím certainly sympathetic to, as Iíve done it myself with A Beauty Cold and Austere. Eunice is aiming for something more than just understanding and appreciation, though; itís also hoping that players will incorporate into their lives (even if just a little) the insights about positive psychology learned from playing the game. I canít help but admire the authorís goal here.

In terms of the story, youíre in the land of Eunice, where everything is in a state of neglect. In order to win the game, you have to perform, as the PC, acts of gratitude, connection, mindfulness, and flexibility in order to release hope and heal the land. The game world and characters arenít deeply fleshed out, but thatís the intent: Everything is supposed to be understood metaphorically. For example, in one location you (Spoiler - click to show)encounter a group of people frozen as statues. To free them, you must LOOSEN YOUR LIMBS, thereby demonstrating flexibility.

I think the metaphors could be a little tighter, but overall I think they do work.

The solutions to some of the puzzles require unusual verbs, as in the example I just gave. However, the text (with one exception, given below) always tells you exactly what the right phrasing is; you just have to pay careful attention. For example, in the scenario described above, if you first (Spoiler - click to show)EXAMINE STATUES, the response includes the sentence "Looking at them life-like and lifeless, frozen in various pretzel positions, makes you want to loosen your limbs."

This is a good way to incorporate atypical verbs in your game without introducing awful guess-the-verb problems.

There was only one puzzle I really had trouble with, (Spoiler - click to show)unfreezing the troll. If there was a clue in the text for the right approach to solving this puzzle, I missed it.

Overall, how well does Eunice succeed? As a pure parser game, it would be more fun with more attention to some details: stronger puzzles with better cluing, setting and characters that are more richly described, directions the player can travel to in each location mentioned in the location descriptions, and corrections to several punctuation mistakes.

But, again, Euniceís goal isnít to be the latest and greatest parser game. Rather, itís to get these psychology concepts in peopleís heads. How well does it succeed at that? The answer probably depends on the player. In general, though, interacting with a concept is going to make you remember it far more easily than if you just read about it or hear someone explain it. For myself, I think the concepts would stick with me better if (as I mentioned earlier) the metaphor choices were somewhat stronger. But I do think the value of gratitude, of connection, of mindfulness, of flexibility, and of hope will remain with me more now that Iíve played Eunice.

Bi Lines, by Naomi Z (as Norbez)
Complex and multilayered, March 4, 2019
A powerful, choice-based work, Bi Lines manages to weave together multiple hard-hitting issues in just three short acts - and do so pretty much seamlessly, in my opinion. Like a few other works in IFComp 2018, it's hard to say much without giving a great deal away. Iíll start with a few technical comments.

Bi Lines uses an old typewriter font to present the text. Mousing over text indicating a choice blurs the text, although not so much that it becomes illegible. Also, if you leave the mouse in the right spot for some of the choice texts they will switch back and forth rapidly between the unblurred and blurred versions. These are all interesting presentation choices that underline the story, since (Spoiler - click to show)the PC is a reporter who can see and interact with ghosts.

Also, the title is a nice pun.

As I said, it's really hard to discuss Bi Lines without giving much away. Minor spoiler: Bi Lines presents a complex portrayal of the experience of (Spoiler - click to show)coping with sexual assault, particularly the problem of trying to get other people to believe you.

Long, major spoiler, which tries to unpack some of the layers Bi Lines uses to present this experience:

(Spoiler - click to show)It hits hard from the very beginning. The first page of text lays out a difficult scenario: You're a guy on a date with a woman. She's confessing her love to you. Your first choice: Do you trust her with your secret? Do you respond with, "I also like guys. I think."? Or do you hide that?

Then you learn that itís 1981, not 2018, and this raises the stakes on the PCís choice here even more.

The next big twist comes when you discover that the PC can see and hear ghosts. Not only that, the PC has inherited this ability from his mother. Mother spent her life helping ghosts find and complete that one more task (different for each ghost) that was preventing them from moving on from this world. This was her mission in life. As Mom would say, "Always bear the weight of love on your shoulders. No matter how much it costs you." It cost Mom her life. However, even in death (she's still a ghost) this is her motto, and she expects you to uphold it as well.

In the first act you meet a ghost at a party. He kisses you, without your consent. Then he fondles you and grabs your now-erect penis. A desire for this experience must have been what was holding him to this plane of existence, because after he grabs you he fades away, satisfied.

Acts 2 and 3 work out the consequences of this setup. First, there are your feelings about being sexually assaulted: Itís a violation of your physical self, and it leaves you so shaken that you have trouble going about your life for the next couple of days (and beyond). On the other hand, the text indicates that you found this arousing on at least some level. After all, your desire to be with other men isn't something you can be very open about.

Then there are others' reactions to this episode. It's not like you can easily explain to people why you're so upset: You were fondled by a ghost! Who is another male! It's a great dramatization of the frustration and fear of (I presume) many people who have been sexually assaulted: Whoís going to believe me?

There's also your relationship with Mom (and, now, Mom's ghost). You love her and want to honor her memory, but she does not approve of your attraction to other men. In fact, she says the assault would never have happened if it weren't for your (in her words) "unnatural love" for men. There's another aspect of the sexual assault survivorís predicament: Being blamed for the assault. But it's given additional emotional heft by being said by someone you love and who actually uses the episode as justification for her disapproval of a part of you she does not like.

Not only that, there are your conflicting feelings about helping these ghosts move on. Youíre the only one who can, and so you feel some responsibility to assist them. And you do want to help them. But it's also a burden, one that you didn't choose and that feels kind of like something your mother forced on you. Do your responsibility and desire to help them extend to letting them take advantage of you? Even to the point of allowing them to violate you physically and sexually?

Finally, there's Gregor, the ghost who assaulted you. It's clear that Gregor was attracted to men as well, and I don't think it's reading too much into the story to draw the conclusion that what was holding him back from moving on from this earth was a probably never-fulfilled desire to touch another man sexually. So his assault and violation of you itself came from the same source of much of your anguish as the PC: same-sex attraction in a society that does not accept it. From another angle: How else was Gregor going to move on if he hadnít forced himself on you? In his mind, what if he had asked and you said "No"? Would he have been stuck here forever? This line of thinking is heading toward the very uncomfortable conclusion that, in his mind, maybe he felt like he didn't have any choice other than to sexually assault you (!).

All of this is to say that I'm amazed at the degree to which Bi Lines manages to dramatize several anguishing issues in a relatively short work.

In the blurb the author mentions that Bi Lines was inspired by the U.S. Senate confirmation hearings on Brett Kavanaugh's nomination to the U.S. Supreme Court. Lest some readers misunderstand this, let me emphasize that Bi Lines is not an attempt to rehash those hearings. Rather, Bi Lines stands on its own as a powerful dramatic work without explicit reference to anything external.

The Mouse Who Woke Up For Christmas, by Luke A. Jones

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Cute Christmas-themed game, March 2, 2019
The Mouse Who Woke Up For Christmas is a parser game written with the Quest design system. It starts off really cute: Youíre a mouse, and itís Christmas Eve. You have a few more things to do to get ready for Christmas, including finding a present for your young daughter (endearingly represented on the cover art). It turns out that all she wants is (Spoiler - click to show)to have her mother back. Mom went out to the garden months ago and never returned. Nobody knows where she is.

I had fun playing as a mouse. Actions that a human wouldnít think twice of performing arenít so easy for a mouse, some of which the author has turned into features of the game. For example, (Spoiler - click to show)you canít take the spade in the garden; itís too heavy. Also, you canít carry anything else if you pick up the cricket ball.

I do think the size aspect of the PC could have been exploited for a few more interesting puzzles, though.

My critiques of The Mouse Who Woke Up For Christmas are the same issues that so often bedevil us parser authors: a few underclued puzzles, like (Spoiler - click to show)wetting the rock to create a "whetstone" (it's a nice pun, but really hard to come up with on your own) and knocking out the weasel with the cricket ball; some guess-the-verb problems like (Spoiler - click to show)FILL BUCKET, when PUT WATER IN BUCKET and GET WATER don't work, LIGHT/BURN something isn't understood when you clearly need a fire for something, and THROW HOOK to get in the pet shop; as well as not enough feedback when you try something close to the solution, like (Spoiler - click to show)how the text says, "You canít use it that way" when you try to use the match on the lump of charcoal before pouring lighter fluid on it. It would clue the player that theyíre on the right track if the text response was something like, "You try, but the lump of charcoal wonít catch fire. Itís too dry."

My ten-year-old son played through the endgame with me. He really liked (Spoiler - click to show)the ninja outfit, as did I.

The story is sweet in a way thatís endearing rather than annoying (as opposed to certain childrenís television programs). The ending is (Spoiler - click to show)predictable but still moving. Meeting Santa Claus and having his elves help save the day was a nice touch as well, storywise.

Overall, a cute Christmas-themed game.

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