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The Dead: A Story, by John Leo

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Not quite buried alive, September 8, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Maybe you've been buried dead. Maybe not. Maybe you're not entirely alive or dead. Whatever you are, though, you are aware, and this is a short Twine game about how time passes for you underground.

Itís more prose-poetry than prose. More about the experience than the story, although there is a story that unfolds through memories you turn over in your head as you rot. Memories about a death cult, about your family history, about trees sprung from unusual soil. Piecing this together isnít as important as simply letting these narrative details eat at you like worms while the days, months, and years pass. Death here isnít an ending and itís not a beginning. Itís a state to consider.

This game could have used its fictional setting as an invitation to create some very strange mythology, but it actually doesnít wander too far, almost like itís a shadow just one or two steps removed from the real world. Itís got restraint.

At Anchor, by B Minus Seven
A short interactive shore leave, July 13, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
At Anchor is micro fiction. No more than a few hundred words. But it expands beyond those words, beyond the game. Into Epictetusís Enchiridion and Caelyn Sandelís Tiny Beach. You have to reach outside to understand whatís anchored to the text.

The gameís soundscape and seascape might seem to offer an escape. Only briefly. You are combing a beach but you will return to your ship one way or another. Still, you have a momentís meditation. With just three actions, the game opens diverse options: listen for the captainís call, never listen and search the sand instead, listen but then ignore the call, listen and then obey.

These seem small choices. They are as large as you want them to be. Their largeness lies between their lines. When, at one end, certain sentences repeat with more words missing each time, the blank space following the final line may say as much as the now-missing language.

Interactive fiction this economic cannot simply be swallowed. It will go down too fast. You have to wander with it, let your thoughts circle, allow the game to pull them back to its center. Then maybe let them leave the game entirely.

The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, by Ryan Veeder and Edgar Allan Poe

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A faithful adaptation, May 1, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Faithful, that is, to how Ryan Veeder remembered Poeís only novel one month after listening to the audiobook, and without consulting the novel again. Events are skimmed. Characters are combined. Context is discarded. Forgotten plot beats are swept overboard. The game plunges on. It doesnít matter.

Iím tempted to call the resulting game a parody, but that doesnít sit right. This is simply Poe filtered through Veederís head. A bizarre story about shipwreck and cannibalism becomes a bizarre story about shipwreck and cannibalism. A dog appears. Pickles are eaten. We visit Antarctica. There is a dead polar bear.

Iím not sure how much anyone will appreciate this game without having read Poeís original novel. Iím also not sure how much anyone will appreciate it without having played Veederís other games. But if you do have that background, this game is surprisingly illuminating, both in relation to Poe and Veeder. It puts a spotlight on certain elements in Poe, clearing away everything else so that you can see just how weird these elements really are. And since that spotlight is Veederís interpretation, you also see how heís personally digesting the material.

This all becomes even more interesting when you consider that Winter Storm Draco (one of Veederís best games, in my opinion) was built with Arthur Gordon Pym as its thematic foundation. The references to Pym are so central in Draco that if you extracted them, Draco would vanish.

Finally, Iíll take this opportunity to point out that the cry ďTekeli-li!Ē did not originate with Lovecraft. Itís from Arthur Gordon Pym, to which Lovecraft owes a great debt when it comes to Antarctic exploration, ancient polar civilizations, and unfathomable creatures dwelling below the ice.

the morning after, by verityvirtue

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Utopian post-apocalypse, April 21, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
When I hear the word ďutopia,Ē I think about what regulations are required to sustain societies, and what would be required to sustain an ďidealĒ society. Many games written for the Tiny Utopias Jam have taken a different approach to the theme, imagining utopia as nothing more or less than a small moment set aside for decompression from daily life. Caelyn Sandelís Tiny Beach probably exemplifies this best.

Whatís interesting about the morning after is that it also presents a small moment for decompression, but rather than eliding the more difficult reality surrounding this moment, the game dwells on that realityís harshness. We have an abandoned station, deserted desks, and nocturnal things that leave ďblood and ichorĒ behind when theyíre slain. This is post-apocalypse territory, where people must fight monsters to survive. Nothing utopian about it. The storyís society has failed, is still failing, has achieved a nightmarish stasis.

But despite that, the morning after a monster encounter is a tiny utopia, where the characters can bathe and relax and drink tea and eat cake. This utopia isnít achieved by ignoring the world and focusing inward. The reverse: it depends on that imperfect world. Without monsters to hunt, there would be no morning after the hunt. A dangerous outside must exist for a safe inside to matter.

Fridgetopia, by Mathbrush

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Mechanically Utopian, April 16, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
You have the alphabet on a refrigerator. You can take letters and drop them in a new order to spell anything you want. You also have another refrigerator with more letters that allows for more diversity in word creation. Spelling words is the entire game.

This was a small coding exercise made for the Tiny Utopias Jam. By itself, it wouldnít be much more than a small coding exercise, but positioned as a ďutopiaĒ it invites more interpretation. Inkblot tests come to mind here. Whatever meaning you take from Fridgetopia is likely to be meaning you also put into it, but then, that is the game: rearranging what it provides to create your own message.

As a utopia, however, it actually strikes me as more solid than other utopias in the jam. Thatís not a criticism against those other games, just a statement about what Fridgetopia does differently. Itís not about a moment of escape, or a dream about how life might be better. Instead Fridgetopia creates a working system. Rearranging letters on its virtual fridge is more complicated than rearranging magnetic letters on a real fridge would be. In order to create this experience for the player, the game had to be mechanically implemented. There are rules at work behind the scenes. This control engenders freedom of expression, but not freedom to spell more than the letters on the fridge can support.

Fridgetopia doesnít last long, but as an experimental art piece, it gives you a lot to consider... if you want to consider it. Much like the letters on its fridge. Fiddle with them or leave them alone. Itís all up to you.

Powers of Two, by B Minus Seven
Ritual words, April 15, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
A game about words in the B Minus Seven tradition. Words are not used here to tell a story. Instead the words are the story; or rather, their sounds are the story, and the story is how those sounds flow through your thoughts as you read.

B Minus Sevenís games are always razor-sharp when it comes to wordplay and rhythm. In Powers of Two, everything else has been pared back to allow the gameís words a chance to exist as pure sensations, unencumbered even by their definitions.

As so many things do, because Edward Gorey is such a large reference point for me, this game reminds me of Edward Gorey, whose little books were sometimes nothing more than lists and alphabets. For example, consider this passage from The Unstrung Harp:

Mr Earbrass stands on the terrace at twilight. It is bleak; it is cold; and the virtue has gone out of everything. Words drift through his mind: anguish turnips conjunctions illness defeat string parties no parties urns desuetude disaffection claws loss Trebizond napkins shame stones distance fever Antipodes mush glaciers incoherence labels miasma amputation tides deceit mourning elsewardsÖ

Goreyís words are unmoored, but their cloud forms a mood.

B Minus Sevenís words, on the other hand, arenít quite as lacking in context. In Powers of Two, they represent a utopia. A utopia, perhaps, where meanings arenít necessary, where explanations arenít demanded, where language is free to simply play in the space between the authorís and the readerís minds. Thereís no pressure. Only pleasure at the languageís cadence. A small ritual to create a tiny utopia in your day, and to suggest a larger utopia where people are emancipated rather than constrained by what they can say.

Hard Puzzle 2 : The Cow, The Stool and Other Animals, by Ade McT

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Another hard puzzle, January 9, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
When the first game in the Hard Puzzle trilogy was released, there wasn't a trilogy. That game was a standalone game and it consumed me unlike any puzzle game I'd played before. I thought, once I had solved it, that I was finished for good, that I had broken free, and it was a highly satisfying moment.

Then Hard Puzzle 2 came out. Only then did I realize how deeply the first game had actually sunken its claws. I wasn't finished. I wasn't free. I had to solve the second game. My experience with the first practically dictated my continued devotion to the series.

In the first game you're tasked with assembling a milking stool. This process is complicated by (among other things) how many items the game provides for you to manage. In the second game you're tasked with using that stool to finally milk an animal. This process is complicated by how many animals there are to milk, and how they react to each other. Rather than swamping the player with objects as the first game had, the second game swamps the player with temperamental NPCs to herd around. And to further compound the chaos, there's a countdown timer.

But it's not as simple as herding the animals and getting the milk before the timer runs out. Or maybe it is that simple. That's the trick with these Hard Puzzle games. You never know exactly where you stand.

Coming into the second Hard Puzzle after solving the first made me approach it differently. I knew what had been required to solve the first, but did the game know I knew that? Was its solution going to follow similar logic, or was its solution going to strike into new territory? I'd rather not say. My own uncertainty enhanced the game. And indeed, if you dislike uncertainty, then you're probably best staying as far away from these Hard Puzzles as you can get.

In some respects, I think that the first Hard Puzzle was a better game because it was less noisy, so to speak. But in other respects, I think Hard Puzzle 2 surpasses its predecessor for the same reason. This sequel has more atmosphere, more character, more movement from the animal NPCs bustling around. Seeds planted in the first game about the post-apocalyptic setting begin to bloom here. A mythology begins to develop.

Once again, I hope no solution is ever published. These Hard Puzzles exist in a strange limbo where not knowing their true proportions is what makes them as engaging as they are.

Voice Box, by B Minus Seven

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Micro interactive fiction, December 10, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
At this point, I've become a shameless B Minus Seven fan. Even though Voice Box came in fourth place in its EctoComp division, it was my favorite game entered into the whole contest. I wasn't too surprised to see it place where it did, since B Minus Seven's games are usually divisive (to put it mildly), but I was also happy to see that it got a decent overall score despite its rank. I think people may be warming up to B's style!

Voice Box is probably the most accessible game B Minus Seven has written to date. One reason for that is because it's so short. It also doesn't tax the player like A Trial or play any weird tricks with the code like Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes. You can read it like a traditional story. Another thing that makes it more accessible is that it's tonally consistent. Something I love about B's games is the humor, which can be indirect and eccentric enough to make other people wonder if there is any humor, but although Voice Box has clever wordplay, it sticks to the same surreal horror tone throughout. So at least in that sense, you always have your feet on the ground with this game.

When it comes to the story, things get more obscure. A woman has her voice stolen by two creatures in the night, and she has the choice to either "weep" or "seek" in response. Weeping suggests passivity, retreat, denial, but also perhaps (curiously) acceptance, whereas seeking suggests action, rebellion, an attempt to reconcile what's happened. Each choice leads to another branch point with another "weep/seek" decision, and after three branches the story ends.

But this isn't really a story that ends when the text runs out. It may be short, but you cannot just blitz through it and then say, "Okay, now I'm done." A ton is packed into each little sentence. I've played Voice Box four times, and every time I come away with another idea about what it's doing. Rereading it, I make new connections between the different branches.

Essentially, this is branching flash fiction. It's tiny, but what it manages to do with its tininess is impressive. Even more impressive, to my mind, is that the branching is such a major factor in such a small game. There's barely anywhere for the branches to expand, the space is so tight, and yet every branch is meaningful, and the branching itself is one of those rare gameplay mechanics that illustrates what's happening in the narrative. You don't finish one branch and stop. You go back, you try again, you search them all, attempting to wrap your head around all the possibilities just as the protagonist is trying to do. If every branch tells another story, the protagonist cannot of course know what's available in the different branches that she isn't occupying at the moment, but she does have a sense for the emotions that are flowing through these different branches. She may not encounter her masculine clone when she climbs a tower in another branch instead, but her masculine clone is still out there; ditto for the tower when she does meet her clone.

In the end, Voice Box is a game about identity, and what happens when you've been denied the right to express who you really are. Sometimes outside forces deny you the right. Sometimes it's an inner struggle. Sometimes it's a combination. There's not really a good way to approach this problem logically. You have to feel your way around until you hopefully understand things better.

I like one bit in the game that almost seems like a commentary on the game itself:

All day she speaks in her hazy way to a tape recorder. Each night she ships her tapes. To some they bring peace, to others unease, depending on their need.

As always in a B Minus Seven game, the writing in Voice Box is great. Even if you never do manage to understand the story, you can still float along on the prose's rhythm.

Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
B-movie horror in a text adventure, December 5, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Originally this game was written in Italian. It has been translated into English, and it shows, and it is amazing. I think people will either love it or hate it. I loved it.

You play as a vampire who's just awoken after having been killed for the second time. You're in your crypt surrounded by protective wards that the people who slayed you left behind to ensure you'd stay dead and trapped. But they didn't succeed. You have to disassemble the wards and break out again to reunite with your vampire queen mistress.

Everything about this game is neck-deep in both serious and parodic vampire lore. The environment is elaborately overwrought, with torture devices and painted bats and spiders and snakes on the walls. One sub-mission involves finding your evil vampire wardrobe and dressing in style for your comeback. What puzzles you'll find here are basic, not really pushing any envelopes, but sprinkled around in just the right places to keep you engaged. Or at least, in the right places to keep me engaged!

But what really won me over about this game was the writing. I can't judge the original Italian. My impression is that it must have been baroque, and the translated prose drips with atmosphere and character. It's decadent. But it's also unnatural, and by that I mean that a native English speaker would have never naturally written prose like this. That does not mean the translation suffers from broken English. For the most part (barring a few typos) it's grammatically sound. Rather, it has a cadence that only a non-native speaker could bring to the language. An inclination to turn phrases in unexpected ways.

In another genre, this would have surely backfired, but here the translation enhances the experience enormously. It places Darkiss into a tradition that I thought only belonged to film: schlocky yet sincere foreign horror overdubbed with out-of-sync voice acting. In fact, it's more than that: Darkiss is like the thick accent that Bela Lugosi brought to Dracula. It's inadvertent but it's perfection.

Maybe this makes it sound as though the translation is doing the game a disservice by misrepresenting the original Italian, but I don't think that's the case. You already know what tone Darkiss has in mind from the narrative and setting and characters. It loves old-fashioned vampire stories, both for their silly tropes and for the true horror that they explore, and it's taking all the classic ingredients and mixing them together into an over-the-top homage. I wouldn't be surprised if the English translation actually succeeds more than the Italian at this goal.

Finally, something else wonderful comes through the translation: earnestness. You can tell that Darkiss was written with love, and you can tell that it wants to share that love with the player. I think this is why it was such a joy for me to play even though the protagonist is so vile (because Martin Voigt is indeed a vile vampire, not a romantic one). Every new action reveals another little passage in the story, and each new passage is a delight to read.

Darkiss is probably the best self-aware horror game that I've ever played.

The Speaker, by Norbez

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
An ethical challenge in theory but not in practice, December 3, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
A prolific alien blogger has been recently disabled and can't write his advice column anymore. You've been hired to be his "speaker" by recording his dictations and publishing them to the web for him.

The game's central dilemma arises from the fact that the speaker disagrees with the alien's advice and wants to secretly edit the column. Are you, as the player, going to record the dictations faithfully, or are you going to tamper with them?

This seems to be a much greater dilemma for the game's author than it was for me, because I was prepared to record the dictations 100% correctly. That's what I was hired to do. I'm serving as a transcriptionist. I don't see an ethical problem.

Perhaps in a higher stakes situation it would have been different. A general gives the command to engage some military target, and you as the messenger who will deliver the command have reason to try to change it. But that wasn't the case here. The alien might have been giving bad advice on his blog (or he might not have been), but it wasn't any worse than you see on many blogs in real life.

It did occur to me that this alien was more influential than a normal blogger, and the sci-fi setting could have been implying that his columns had telepathic sway over the populace, but these were only thoughts that I had about how the game could have gone. I saw nothing in the story to indicate anything like this during my playthrough. Mainly, the protagonist just disagreed with the alien a whole lot (we're told this but not given many examples why), and that's meant to be motivation enough to sabotage the column.

With more development and more at stake, the main concept about tweaking a transcript to serve another purpose could make for a compelling interactive story. There's just not enough conflict in this game right now.

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