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Harmonia, by Liza Daly

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Harmonia, November 16, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
In college, I walked backward into nineteenth-century utopianism after obsessively rereading The Blithedale Romance. It's a lesser known Hawthorne novel. It's also one of my favorite books. The story is about a utopian community that destroys itself from the inside. Almost all academic literature concerning the novel touches on the fact that Hawthorne himself belonged to a real utopian community, Brook Farm. So I found myself digging into Brook Farm, and women's suffrage figures like Margaret Fuller, and utopian socialists like Charles Fourier.

Harmonia is an interactive novella that swims in the same waters. It's a story about a substitute teacher, Abby Fuller, who comes to fill in for a missing professor at an "obscure women's college, tucked in the upper corner of Massachusetts like a bookmark." That college is named Blithedale College. Brook Farm was likewise tucked into a corner of Massachusetts. I think I have a sense for where I am.

Before I get into the story, though, I need to talk about the game's aesthetics. They create a powerful first impression, and sustain that impression throughout. Harmonia was written in Windrift (also used for Stone Harbor), which is a custom engine designed by the author. Rather than clicking hyperlinks strictly to move between pages, hyperlinks in Harmonia either unspool more text on the same page, or spawn marginalia on the sides. These marginalia often contain additional hyperlinks the player must click to continue unspooling the main text.

A similar convention exists in Twine games. You click a link, move to a new page that has a marginal note, and then click another link to return. Harmonia streamlines that mechanic. Not only does it reduce the amount of clicking required, but by pairing the marginalia with its parent text, it keeps the reader focused. You don't need to reorient yourself after returning to the main page, because you never left. The game even traces lines for your eyes to follow back and forth to the notes.

When I saw how well this worked, my gut reaction was that it should become standard practice. After further reflection, I wasn't so sure. It's undoubtedly an elegant design, but it does make the marginalia feel like marginalia. That's appropriate for a story about academia. I don't know how well it would suit something like, say, their angelical understanding. Sometimes there's a reason to disrupt a player's focus. A changed page, reorientation, demands more attention, implies a shift in mental space. Nevertheless, same-page marginalia would be neat to see in more cybertext games.

Harmonia also pays great attention to typography and layout. I've heard many players bemoan, with reason, how unappealing parser games can look. Twine's default formats also attract valid criticism. Despite text being their main feature, many text games don't present their text in the best way. And that's no surprise. Web design is not easy, and tools like Twine and Inform aren't built to handle it for inexperienced programmers.

Font choice in Harmonia plays a role in the story. Different fonts indicate that different characters wrote the marginalia. This trick has also been used in books like House of Leaves and S. It works well as visual shorthand.

Apart from that, the game's design is essentially window dressing, but what exquisite window dressing! It demonstrates how a slick interface can propel a game into the spotlight. Without the interface, the story would still attract readers. But it wouldn't have shot as far, as fast, with less aesthetic appeal. More authors will need to invest in how their games look as the audience for interactive fiction continues to grow.

In short, Harmonia is as excellently designed as most text games come. It's a pleasure to navigate, and a lesson for other authors to study.

But what is it actually about?

The story puts its academic foot forward right away. Not only does it revolve around nineteenth-century utopianism and women's suffrage, but its characters are invested in professionally studying these topics at the university level. Abby Fuller, our protagonist, teaches a course titled Nineteenth Century Utopian Literature that she inherited from the missing Professor Lynn. We play through a few classes. We get to see selections from the reading list. Blithedale College itself is steeped in the subject. It was built on a site where Harmonia, an old utopian community, burned down.

That disaster still looms over the college. Relics physical and philosophical remain. A meteorite buried in the quadrangle, around which both Harmonia and Blithedale were founded, is slated for removal, which attracts controversy and student protests. And of course there is the question of what happened to the missing professor, who was researching the college's history when he vanished.

Naturally, Abby goes poking around. Naturally, she uncovers secrets. I'm going to discuss these, which means you should stop reading if you'd like to avoid spoilers.

(Spoiler - click to show)As it turns out, Harmonia was more than your run-of-the-mill utopian community. One member, Ignatius Cadwell, was also a dabbler in "galvanic experiments." By utilizing the meteorite on the property, he was able to construct a functional time machine. Except he didn't build it alone. Elsie Cadwell, his wife, served a major role in its construction, which both history and her husband overwrote.

She was also used as a guinea pig to test it.

In the future, this machine still exists, buried beneath the Blithedale College quadrangle. Professor Lynn discovered it. Abby Fuller discovers it too. And they both travel back to the original Harmonia when Elsie Cadwell, now masquerading as a research assistant in the present, activates her "Instrument" to send them into the past and trap them there.

Elsie Cadwell is the game's most compelling character, and most successfully embodies the themes the story wants to address. As a woman in the nineteenth century, her genius is appropriated, her humanity diminished, by the very community that would claim it seeks human utopia. Instead, she seeks her own utopia by traveling to a new century. What she finds is the same prejudice in another shape. Working at Blithedale is an improvement over working under her domineering husband, to be certain, but when she applies her engineering skills to help Professor Lynn repair the time machine, he considers thanking her with "a bouquet of flowers." No professional recognition, no payment, nothing more than a token reward.

This story is all too common. Women have their accomplishments stolen by men; or, if not outright stolen, then overlooked, sidelined. I'm reminded of authors like the Bronte sisters adopting masculine pseudonyms to be taken seriously, and Mary Anne Evans creating the pen name George Eliot. Even someone contemporary like J. K. Rowling publishes with gender-neutral initials. These are literary examples, but you could pull countless others from countless fields. David Auburn's play Proof, about a mathematician whose greatest work was actually done by his daughter, also comes to mind.

I mentioned "a bouquet of flowers," but that's just one straw in the pile that gets stacked on Elsie Cadwell's back. (And a pitifully small one, compared to something like Harmonia's breeding program.) Her back, understandably, breaks. She's the arsonist who burned the community in the past. Her righteous anger festers until it's hideous and unrighteous. As an antagonist, this makes her very interesting. Every step in the path that guided her toward violence has our sympathy, but that doesn't make the monster she's become any less monstrous. Guilt expands beyond the individual, into society.

At the story's conclusion, however, her character arc breaks down. I should specify: in one conclusion. At the end, Abby Fuller has the choice to return to the future or remain in the past. If she returns, she meets Elsie Cadwell again, and the game is forced to explain why Abby isn't furious during this confrontation. She indeed isn't, despite having been pushed against her will into a time machine, and being thrown back into a nineteenth-century commune that practices eugenics.

Instead, Elsie says that she did this to protect her daughter, Lilian, who's still living in the abusive Harmonia community: "I knew she could have people who would love her, if I sent them back." Apparently Professor Lynn was the best choice, since he's the one who remains behind in this ending. Abby herself only meets Lilian briefly before returning to the future. Nevertheless, Abby accepts this explanation, and Elsie appears to mean it sincerely. All animosity is not quite forgiven, but at least put aside.

I appreciate the story's desire to not paint Elsie Cadwell as wholly villainous. She's not a foe to be defeated, after all. She's a person in pain who needs to be understood. This resolution, though, strikes me as too good to be true, as though the plot's elbow has been twisted. What's more, Elsie's motivation for sending Lynn and Abby to the past is the story's lynchpin, and here it pops out.

The game's other ending has its own rough patches. If Abby decides to stay in the past while Lynn returns, she has no problem blending into nineteenth-century society. Although she emerges from the time machine's "enormous sinkhole" in "a cloud of soot and dust," everyone in Harmonia still "accepted [her] story: I was a widow schoolteacher from New York looking to start a new life." She also says it was "trivial for me to assume guardianship" over Lilian. Elsie Cadwell's own experiences in the past seem trivialized by the trivial effort it takes Abby to overcome them herself. I don't believe this was the game's intent. Rather, it feels as though the story, rushing to tie up loose ends, tied some into a knot.

This isn't the only point at which Abby Fuller's behavior seems strangely bent to fit the plot. She's presented as someone who loves paging through books, scribbling into margins. It's a personality quirk that works well with the game's hyperlink marginalia. However, it's taken to a cartoonish extreme when she follows loose diary pages that have been dropped as "deliberate breadcrumbs" to lead her into the time machine, which is vibrating so intensely that "my teeth ached and the wooden structure on which I stood swayed noticeably." The story may acknowledge its absurdity, and Abby may say "I don't regret walking into this trap, not for one moment," but that doesn't make it less absurd: both as a trap for her to walk into, and as a trap that Elsie Cadwell would've thought to set.

As someone investigating a mystery, Abby has to be a protagonist willing to snoop through desks, crawl into abandoned tunnels, break rules. She has no time for doubt because the story has no room for it. Rather than feeling like a character in her own right, she becomes a chess piece for the game to move wherever it needs her.

Because she's solving a mystery, it's also imperative that she knows less than other characters. She can't know about Blithedale College and Harmonia already: she has to uncover their history along with the player. This means she needs to come from outside the college for the story to work as it's written, but the game never convincingly explains why she was chosen as Lynn's substitute in the first place. The dean is openly hostile, and reminds her that she can be replaced on a whim. She arrives late to class, and her students are so much more knowledgable about the material that they teach the lessons themselves.

We're meant to sympathize with Abby, and to groan at the dean's elitism when she mentions Abby's "less-than-stellar qualifications." She graduated from "state and commuter schools, but [she] still worked [her] ass off." Now she's the underdog in a snobbish academic environment.

I was ready to sympathize. I kept waiting for Abby to put her critics in their place. Instead she moved through the story as a neutral entity. Her students remained smarter than she was. When she finally discovered the time machine, I found myself asking: Why her? She has no real investment in the college. She's barely just arrived. But she's already uprooting secrets that have been hidden for decades.

There's a quote from Truman Capote that applies here for me:

"The test of whether or not a writer has defined the natural shape of his story is just this: After reading it, can you imagine it differently, or does it silence your imagination and seem to you absolute and final? As an orange is final. As an orange is something nature has made just right."

Harmonia isn't final in my mind as an orange is final. Immediately after finishing it, I began to pull it apart and put it back together in different configurations. What if Abby Fuller weren't the protagonist at all, and a student like Lillian Horace had been the detective who solved the mystery? Would the story feel more natural if the timeframe were longer, an entire semester, an entire year, with each chapter representing another month? What motivation would make more sense for Elsie Cadwell while preserving her moral ambiguity? Would it be better to remove her from the story's present, and keep her as a background figure? Could we remove the dean entirely? Or make the dean more invested in Professor Lynn's research? When we visit Harmonia, almost nothing happens before we return to the present; what would make that visit more memorable? Investigating the mystery is underwhelming before the revelation; how could the process be more engaging? More rummaging in books? More hyperlinks flooding from marginalia?

I don't have answers.

My final impression was that this is a story whose story is incidental to its themes. Its themes are important. Utopianism and dystopianism are popular topics nowadays, and it doesn't take much to see why. They're often explored in marvelously wonderful or marvelously horrible science-fiction settings. Harmonia returns to the soil, to the hard labor and practical requirements a society needs to consider. Visions about paradise in the future don't matter when people are being mistreated in the present. Women have it especially tough (a gross understatement), yet women still survive, fight back, and build wondrous things: in this story, a college. Education is one antidote to prejudice.

Harmonia itself wants to educate players. It's rigorously researched, filled with quotes. Its glossy presentation is a hook to draw more readers in and teach them something new. I wish its story had been given the same attention, but I'd still consider it a safe recommendation for anyone interested in digital fiction.

The Wizard Sniffer, by Buster Hudson

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
The Wizard Sniffer, November 16, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Buster Hudson isn't as popular as he should be. I think that will change after this year. He wrote Oppositely Opal in 2015, about a witch with valley girl mannerisms who finds herself trapped in a cabin with all her spells cursed to work in reverse. He wrote Foo Foo in 2016, about a fairy detective investigating crime in a Chinatown-style slum occupied by anthropomorphic animals trading illegal cheese. Until he released The Wizard Sniffer, his other 2016 game might've been my favorite. That was Her Majesty's Trolley Problem, where you man a harpoon cannon on a royal trolley traveling over a grass sea, transporting a captive skeleton admiral.

But I think Wizard Sniffer has dethroned Trolley Problem.

It's a game where you play a pig in service to a knight and his squire. The knight bought you recently because he thought you were a "wizard sniffer." Now he expects you to sniff out a shapeshifting wizard in a castle and help rescue a princess. Although you can't really locate magical artifacts or people by smelling them, smelling things is pretty much all you can do.

Your snout is like a pointer. You point toward objects, and your companions handle the interaction. Ser Leonhart, the knight, always attacks everything. His squire, Tuck, attempts more sensible actions: turning a doorknob rather than trying to kill it. At first they stick together, but as the game progresses, you can separate them. Many puzzles are constructed around bringing the right person to perform the right task at the right time.

As Hudson has demonstrated before, especially in Oppositely Opal, he knows how to design clever puzzles. Opal's puzzles might still be his best. Since it's a one-room game, the puzzles have a greater unity. Wizard Sniffer sprawls more, with new areas constantly unlocking, new puzzle sequences unlocking in old areas, and various puzzle styles thrown into the mix. Some are fetch quests; some are environmental. My favorite is probably a hide-and-seek game. But the sprawl means it's almost inevitable that players will get lost wandering the map at one point or another, wondering what to do next.

What do players do when they're lost? Turn to the hints. Most games fear this possibility and do everything they can to convince players not to look. Hudson embraces it. Your hint system in Wizard Sniffer is delivered by two fleas behind your ears. When you OINK, they drop clues, with a twist: one is true and one is false.

The hint system therefore becomes its own puzzle. Players don't feel like they had to give up by using it. Instead, they're rewarded with more jokes, more characters, more story.

Once again, Hudson has done this before. Opal had Killjoy the Hint Cat, and Foo Foo had another detective you could consult. But Wizard Sniffer's fleas rise to the next level. Their influence permeates the game, allows it to sprawl as much as it does.

Nowadays, when players will search for walkthroughs after a few minutes, rather than continuing to puzzle over a puzzle, I think it would be wise for more authors to adopt this approach to hints. The fact is they've become a standard part of how players experience games.

Hints aside, puzzles aside, I want to talk about the story. It's a comedy fantasy parser game, and although the interactive fiction world is rife with those, Wizard Sniffer stands above most. Perhaps by standing on their shoulders and wobbling a little. Imagining people in a stack feels appropriate for a slapstick game like this.

It's true that the game is mostly an extended joke. You're a pig scuttling through a shapeshifting wizard's castle, and though you can't locate the wizard with your nose, things have been shapeshifting. One castle resident has accidentally transformed into a clown with squeaky shoes, to give an example. Moreover, the wizard's family is preoccupied with creating puzzles, which provides an in-story excuse to have them everywhere.

So far, so good, but we're in standard territory. What's special about Hudson's games is how he takes these conventional tropes and probes them to find the heart. This isn't just a silly story about transformative magic: it's a story about how identities transform too, and how they sometimes don't, and sometimes should, and sometimes shouldn't.

Every character conforms to a rigid fantasy archetype. Knights are knights. Squires are squires. Princesses marry princes, and princes are happy to have them. Wizards are evil. Monsters are monsters. Except that they aren't, unless they are.

As the story develops and we move deeper into the castle, learn what's actually happening, these identities begin to crack. Squire Tuck isn't more than a squire. He truly is meek and servile. But he also is more, because he's a person. Ser Leonhart, meanwhile, refuses to expand beyond his role. He forcefully constrains himself to an archetype. It stops being a joke when you realize his identity is a prison he's locked himself inside.

Other characters are also locked inside their identities, and not always of their own volition. But there's magic in the air. Gender and social roles dissolve. People learn to accept who they are.

Other reviewers have compared this game to Monty Python and the Holy Grail. I'd compare it to A Midsummer Night's Dream instead. Although it's absurd, the enchantment is real, not just a parody. Not that it's Shakespeare, mind you. But it's not cynical. It doesn't mock. It wants to uplift the spirit.

I do have a few quibbles. Hudson favors long prose passages to deliver key scenes. Wizard Sniffer occasionally takes these past my limit. I'd prefer more fine-grained interaction. He also makes a few pop culture jokes that didn't land for me. I can't help but think how they'll date the text, make the timeless fantasy less timeless. Finally, there's one sequence where you can drink different magical potions, which is very exciting until you try them and realize their effects aren't as dramatic as you expected.

But these are indeed quibbles. If you like traditional text adventures, you should play The Wizard Sniffer.

Eczema Angel Orifice, by Porpentine

5 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Eczema Angel Orifice, September 28, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Eczema Angel Orifice has been out for a while now, but a new version was just released (I have it for Mac), so I thought it would be useful to finally add a review here on IFDB. This isn't a review for the individual games included, just a brief overview about the compilation as a whole.

Which is the first thing to mention. This is a compilation, and most (maybe all) of these games are available elsewhere. Some are easy to find, like Howling Dogs and With Those We Love Alive, but others require more digging. They're scattered across the web. Eczema Angel Orifice removes the need to dig. If you're a Porpentine fan, this compilation is even more convenient than her website to use as a library for her work.

Here's a list of all the games included:

(Spoiler - click to show)With Those We Love Alive
Ultra Business Tycoon III
Howling Dogs
High End Customizable Sauna Experience
Miniskirt World Network: Business Slut Online
Their Angelical Understanding
Orifice Clique
Neon Haze
Sewer Diamond War of 3096
Her Car is the Edge of the World
Climbing 208 Feet Up the Ruin Wall
Faceless Genderless Amorphous Bonemass Hairbeast
Beautiful Frog
Wild Wild Gender Mines
Frolic RPG
List of Hellgenders
The Sky in the Room
Miss Clemory and the Wall of Fire
One Move Boss

Eczema Angel Orifice is a single app. These games aren't separate files that you download in a zip folder and need to juggle around or anything. Like I said, it's convenient. When you open the app, the main menu is a list of all the games. You click one, and it loads right in the same window.

The menu itself is quite nice. Each title is presented on a banner with a background that matches the individual games (I especially like the one for Hairbeast). They're simple but evocative. It's interesting to just scroll through the list. In fact, the menu has its own score. That's not unusual for game menus, but here it feels as though the menu is designed as a place to explore, an environment in its own right. The design is by Neotenomie, who was also a collaborator for games like Neon Haze, and you can tell it was made with care.

You actually can spend quite a while exploring this menu too. Apart from the games themselves, it contains design notes for every game. Some notes are literally design notes. Others are reflections, ideas, moods. Long or short, they're all worth reading if you like Porpentine's work.

Another feature is a filter to sort the games by duration and tone. There are also notes about the content. The idea is that a player without a clear preference for what to play can use the filters to have the Orifice recommend a game. I'm not sure if this works or not, because it assumes you're unfamiliar with them and need help choosing one, and I was already familiar with most. Only someone coming to the work for the first time would be able to really comment. In any case, it's certainly not a bad feature to include. And if you want to double-check a game's content, you always can.

All the games have been polished. These are the best versions available. If you've already played the big ones, this is also a good chance to try some of Porpentine's lesser-known titles. I recommend Ballast, Her Car is the Edge of the World, and Contrition.

Yellow Dog Running, by Sam Kabo Ashwell

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Yellow Dog Running, May 23, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This game was made for a speed-writing contest. It’s rough. It has unimplemented scenery. Its conversation menus are formatted wonkily. In order to advance the story, at certain points you have to “follow tracks,” which initially creates a guess-the-verb problem. Worse than that, there are no “tracks” in the room descriptions. There are footprints, but “footprints” isn’t a synonym for “tracks.”

Despite these issues, there’s a little masterpiece buried in here.

I like interactive fiction that uses interactivity to put the reader through an experience. Yellow Dog Running takes the reader on a vision quest. Other games would use that as an invitation to roll out hallucinations and weird imagery. Not this game. Its landscapes are real landscapes whose details have been sharpened into unreality. It has a sense for texture, temperature. Dried mud cracking under your feet isn’t a trivial detail. It’s not flavor text. It’s everything.

You’re pursuing a wounded troll, and the story is divided into conversations with characters who block your path forward. At each stage, you have to barter with them. These are short scenes, and you always pay dearly in the end, but sometimes you pay more dearly than others. Making the conversations interactive is what makes you appreciate the price. It only takes a little to get the idea across.

These characters you meet, they’re all guardians and gods. They’re also predators. The first is a hyena who will kill you if you refuse to make a deal. Yellow Dog is a similar figure, but you can never speak to Yellow Dog, and Yellow Dog never blocks your path. Yellow Dog follows because Yellow Dog knows that, sooner or later, he’ll have your bones anyway.

Thwarting interaction is itself interaction, and Yellow Dog’s constant presence coupled with his inaccessibility is a great use for the parser. The mechanics express the meaning.

About halfway through the game, there’s a single puzzle. I don’t like it. What happens in the story during the puzzle is fine, but this isn’t a game about puzzles. We’ve established a rhythmic pace with repeating cycles, and then the puzzle throws a wrench into it. I would’ve preferred for the story to continue flowing onward.

I have another complaint. A few times, the protagonist talks about embarking on this journey to slay the troll because “there’s this girl…” How romance does or doesn’t figure into the story is actually, in the end, handled with maturity. But the way these parts are written makes the story seem to dip into something like teen angst, when otherwise its tone is mythic and universal.

Complaints aside, broken implementation aside, Yellow Dog Running still ranks among my favorite games. It has the perfect size and shape for a parser “short story,” and its subject and mood are unique. It may be a pipe-dream, but I hope Sam Ashwell polishes it up for a second release someday in the future.

The Anachronist, by Peter Levine

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
The Anachronist, May 21, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Anachronism is usually considered a mistake. Often it is. Readers want to know a story’s time period. When they can’t find solid ground to establish one, or when what they thought was solid proves unstable, they report confusion or annoyance. Their suspension of disbelief has snapped.

I have a hard time remembering dates. A very, very hard time. You have no idea what a hard time. When other people discuss generations, when they delineate time by decades, this seems alienating. There’s no great change from December’s last day to January’s first. Dividing the time on either side into different years makes sense for practical matters. Treating that distinction as more than an arbitrary line drawn on a calendar, discussing years as though they were truly distinct -- this is where I start to sink while everyone else floats. For whatever reason, the timekeeping systems that most people use to organize their lives feel meaningless to me. Perhaps I’ve read too many fairy tales.

I think this is why I’m more sympathetic to anachronism. Actually, I’m more than sympathetic. I tend to like it. Rather than creating confusion, it makes sense. It’s fertile ground to explore. Which is a long prologue to explain why this game’s subject matter was like having a favorite dessert served on a silver platter.

You play as a woman about to be burned at the stake for witchcraft. She is lashed to it when the story starts. It is being lit. But she doesn’t burn just yet. She has been apprenticed to an alchemist, and has gleaned the art of memory. This allows her to retreat into her own mind and escape the fire -- temporarily.

A single moment expands to encompass days, weeks, years, lifetimes as she plunges deeper and deeper into her memories. But they aren’t only her memories. Her perception is sharp enough, her empathy keen enough, her imagination wild enough, perhaps, this close to death, that she can share her consciousness with other people. She can look, from the stake, across the city and know what’s happening in distant towers. She can remember stories that her cellmates told her, before she was convicted, and relive their lives through those remembered tales.

Time obviously goes out the window. Anachronism isn’t a mistake: it is the truth. The more time decomposes, the more we understand as we come to learn the circumstances surrounding the present moment. It’s a complex little plot, with conspiracies and double-crosses. Bit players enlarge to take central roles as our protagonist’s focus sharpens. Structurally, this means that the story is based around increasingly dense telescopic descriptions. We have a scene, we concentrate on a detail, that detail becomes another scene, we concentrate on another detail in that scene…

More than any other interactive fiction I’ve played, this feels like a novel. It’s very long for a Twine game. It took me a few days to finish, and probably around ten hours total. My reading speed, granted, is slow as a slug, but still. If you plan to play it, treat it more like a book than a game.

It also features long stretches of non-interactive text. Extremely long stretches. Stretches that tested my patience. I’m reading interactive fiction to interact with it, after all. I have nothing against traditional fiction, but I’ll read that if that’s what I want. Stone Harbor is another recent game that had similarly long, non-interactive passages. I finished that game feeling as though the brief interactive bits were window dressing, that the story would’ve worked as well printed on paper. The Anachronist is even more extreme. When it’s not interactive, it’s not interactive.

But when it is, it is.

I faced the hardest decision I’ve had to make in a choice-based game in this story. At multiple points, you can break your concentration and return to focusing on the stake, the rising fire. I didn’t do that. I stayed in the protagonist’s head (or maybe the protagonists’ heads). And finally I reached a point where I had been reading for hours, for days, while the stake was still burning, and the game confronted me: what was I accomplishing by living in my memories? Shouldn’t I focus on the fire, what’s actually happening?

I didn’t know what to do. After playing for so long, I really felt as though I was avoiding the story’s reality. I had stretched out my time on the stake in real time by reading the text. It was absurd. I should’ve been burnt to a crisp. Here was the story’s most glaring anachronism, and I was the anachronist enabling it.

What I chose to do next doesn’t matter as much as the fact that the game created this situation in the first place. This isn’t a story whose strength rests on making the “right” choices. Its strength comes from how its themes are reflected in the reader’s own experience, which can only happen because it’s interactive.

In this sense, it’s some of the strongest interactive work I’ve seen. I was tempted to give it five stars for the concept alone. But although the concept is great, the game suffers from a few things apart from its long non-interactive patches.

It’s written very well. However, the writing tips more toward scholarly than literary. Scenes usually don’t unfold through direct action. Instead they’re summarized. Considering how much happens, the sheer volume of events packed into the story, you’d expect a certain amount of summarization. But this much makes the prose taste more like a history textbook. You read about what happened. You aren’t always there yourself.

It’s also impeccably researched. Although the story is about anachronism, this is no slapdash text that throws whatever it wants into the pot. It’s Elizabethan, and it revels in intimate period detail. Tastes, sounds, textures. Clothing, accents, architecture, music, food, religion, law. Everything feels evocative and real, and also researched. You can sense the research in every line. Again, that textbook flavor emerges, where you feel more like you’re reading a scholarly article than a story. Even the artwork (there are many nice illustrations) is captioned with bibliographic information if you click it. Attributions are good, but presenting them on every single page really puts the story’s academic foot forward.

Finally, there is stat-tracking. Depending on your choices, you can increase or decrease your “entropy” or “knowledge.” What these stats do doesn’t become clear until the end, when they determine the end. I tried to decrease entropy throughout the story, even if it meant sacrificing knowledge, which led to a sub-optimal ending. Whoops. Since the game is so long, it’s unlikely I’ll play again to do things differently.

You can also look for literal literary anachronisms in the text, quotations that don’t belong, which are links disguised as normal prose. If you click them, your “entropy” decreases. A potentially interesting mechanic, but it didn’t work for me: a) because I didn’t know what the “entropy” stat actually did, and b) because sometimes it plain didn’t work. I know I saw some Alice quotes, for example, but I couldn’t click them. I only managed to find about four clickable anachronisms in the whole text. Which meant I spent a lot of time clicking on nothing when I could’ve been more immersed in reading.

These criticisms are certainly not flattering. The game is not perfect, and I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone. But it is ambitious, sophisticated, and despite everything that I thought it did less than ideally, it still did enough right to keep me engaged to the end.

The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, by Ryan Veeder

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, May 18, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
Along with The Baron, this was one of the first parser games I ever played when I discovered interactive fiction back in 2014. At the time, I thought it was great, but on The Baron’s heels it felt less substantial (what wouldn’t) and I gave it four stars. Now a few years have passed. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower remains a touchstone for me. It deserves five.

In many ways, this game helped shape my outlook on the parser medium. It’s not about puzzles. It’s not about “Aha!” moments that come from deducing the right command to type. It’s not about deep simulation or intricate world modeling. Instead, it’s about guiding the player through a sequence of events carefully designed, above all else, to produce a mood.

Your only goal is to ascend a tower with which the player-character is “mildly” obsessed. No real obstacles stand in your way. It’s twilight, and the tower is located on a campus whose population is thinning as night falls. You’re alone to contemplate the scenery.

As a traditional short story, this wouldn’t work. There isn’t much story to tell. As a space to explore, were the game to be stripped to its bare geography, it also wouldn’t offer much. There’s a parking lot, a lawn, some empty halls, etc. These locations aren’t compelling on their own, and as I mentioned, they’re not that deeply implemented. What makes the game is the experience itself that the player has while moving through the environment.

That word, “experience,” is awfully vague, but it’s what matters. A story as the word “story” is normally understood isn’t required, perhaps isn’t even advisable, because the player’s experience is the story.

It’s the writing that does the trick here. Well, it ought to be. This is a text game. When a reader has to interact with text, move through it, move it around, this changes both what text does and what it has to do.

Not just anybody could’ve written a game like this and made it good. It’s good because Ryan Veeder’s got his finger on your pulse as you’re playing. He knows where you’ll try to go, what you’ll try to do, what you’re thinking at each step. He’s attuned to the experience you should be having, which allows him to gently guide you along and drop little surprises at the right moments. Finding a plain old quarter on the ground, for example, which you don’t even need, feels special.

Wrenlaw is another Veeder game with a similar style. I have to admit, I don’t like it as much. It tips more into modern literary melancholy, where you’ve got mundane objects and scenes, and they’re significant because they’re ever-so-slightly sad. But not too sad. Just enough to feel wistful. This sorta thing, to my taste, is like playing with fire for a writer. It’s really hard to nail. The Ascent of the Gothic Tower, however, pretty much does nail it. Gothic Tower feels more self-assured, and it’s certainly more slyly constructed. I don't think it's going to budge from my personal parser canon anytime soon.

Unicorn Story, by Conrad Cook

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A proper unicorn., February 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
This is short hypertext fiction that takes less than ten minutes to play. It's not a game exactly. It was written with a system called Ramus that functions like the Jonah format in Twine. When you click a hyperlink, new text appears at the screen's bottom, but the old text remains visible above. Hyperlinks that haven't yet been clicked also remain active, which means that the player needs to go back and click links they've previously passed.

The result is a textual jumble. Links will appear that you can open in any order, and the text segments they spawn don't line up and organize themselves. Navigating these links in various orders will not lead to different outcomes either. You always reach the same conclusion. Rather, the intent is to create a jumble.

That's because the game takes place almost entirely in mental space. There are only a few lines of physical description, but otherwise everything is internal dialogue.

What has happened is this: a unicorn has put its head on a maiden's lap. According to legend, the best way to bait a unicorn is with a maiden, and this maiden is being used as bait. With its head on her lap, the unicorn can read her thoughts, and its thoughts become jumbled with hers during their mind-merger.

That's what the interactive hyperlink format accomplishes. It mirrors the mind-merger in the story. Although the story has a traditional beginning, middle, and end, presenting it as static fiction would not have conveyed the same concept.

Now, with the technical side covered, what about the story? It's very simple. A one-act play, if you will, with two main characters. But a lot is going on in this small space.

I'm a unicorn fan. Not the rainbows-and-sparkles unicorns. The haughty, wild unicorns that gore and trample people. Those are the ones I like. There is so much bound up in legends about them. Slice through the unicorn and you'll expose strata about gender, class, public and private power dynamics, sex, spirituality, and I could go on, etc. And all these things come to a head when a maiden encounters a unicorn during a hunt.

Both maiden and unicorn in Unicorn Story are archetypes, but both are also real characters with real conflicts. Both have their own voices. I'm particularly happy with the unicorn's characterization, because this story gets it right. You won't find any innocent forest creature here. Instead the unicorn is arrogant, vicious, manipulative (it can read the maiden's thoughts, but she doesn't know this). The maiden, meanwhile, is no shrinking violet. She has her own stakes in the hunt and grapples directly with her role as bait.

It's fascinating to see these two characters twist and turn to alternately accept, deny, and justify their motives for putting themselves into this situation. As I said, the story's very short, and yet in its small space there are revelations and double-crosses. But nothing is rushed. Nothing is heavy-handed. More is packed into each line of dialogue, and especially into its tone, than you might realize at first.

Just like the legends it's based on, you could mine Unicorn Story for a long time and keep finding new things to say about it.

A Good Wick, by Little Foolery

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A Good Wick, January 27, 2017
by CMG (NYC)
A Good Wick is essentially an interactive storybook. It’s totally linear, with only one point at which the reader can pick between two choices, each choice leading to a different ending. There’s also a secret third ending, but it doesn’t involve further choices: clicking a hidden link continues the story from where a previous ending had stopped.

Some linear games employ cycling links, variables, passage loops, etc., etc., to make the text active and malleable even when the story is straightforward. These games may have limited narrative outcomes, you may have no choices to make, but you still have to move the text around and slide bits into place to reach the end. Games like this are sometimes referred to as dynamic fiction. Well, A Good Wick doesn’t do any of that either.

Nevertheless, I regard A Good Wick as strong interactive work. It’s only using the most basic hypertext mechanic — the link from one page to the next — but it’s highly attuned to how this influences pacing. It withholds and delivers text as an oral storyteller would to guide the plot’s rhythm. New sections are often preceded by titles such as “A Fact About Daylight” or “A Fact About the Town,” but these things aren’t really sections and those aren’t really titles. They’re more like poetic flourishes. They also guide the story’s rhythm. Chapters in a book influence rhythm too, but you know when they’re coming and they have an organizational purpose. A Good Wick’s section breaks are more like intertitles dramatically introduced during a film.

Many pages are illustrated, and these illustrations are also arranged with a consideration toward pacing. I used the phrase “interactive storybook” before, but “interactive comic” might be more apt. A comic uses the sequencing between panels to deliver meaning. A Good Wick does the same thing, with every new page serving as a panel. Not all the pages are given this treatment, and some illustrations repeat, but it’s a technique that finds good employment at some key moments.

The illustrations themselves are well suited to the story. Atmospheric, dark but warm, earthy and hazy. They’re always situated at the page’s center, and they fade outward into the surrounding black background. They flicker and glow. No, this wouldn’t work nearly as well as a printed storybook. It wouldn’t work at all. The game advises you to play it at fullscreen in a dark room, which I did, and would also recommend.

Certain readers, on the other hand, will find this annoying. At some points, the text fades until your cursor hovers back over it. At other points, the text is too bright to read until it dims beneath your cursor. People who just want plain text won’t enjoy these effects. But the effects complement the story’s themes, and you can’t please everyone.

What about the story, anyway? We’re in fairy tale territory. Outside a village in a sunless land, a sentient lantern has been burning for three years beside the road, keeping watch. Something’s prowling out there in the dark. One day it’s going to try entering the village. We know, from the very beginning, that the village is doomed, and this story is about learning why.

The writing is clean and charming. The plot is well structured. It’s sinister, but not too sinister, but actually quite sinister the more you think about it — like a good fairy tale.

Unfortunately I think it trips over itself with its multiple endings. Of the two standard endings, one is much more fleshed-out than the other. The third, secret ending takes elements from the first ending and adds them to the second, creating an awkward mishmash. This third ending feels like it’s meant to be the “true” ending, but by the time I’d gotten to it, I’d already seen its plot beats beaten into the ground. It over-explains things that were already clear; the over-explanation makes everything feel more like a trope; it rehashes sequences that were better the first time around.

I suppose it’s no surprise that the game would falter in this area. It puts narrative branching far, far into the background for almost the entire story, and that’s when its strengths shine. But then branching takes center stage at the end and doesn’t work as well. It’s clear that the team behind this project is extremely talented. They just haven’t hammered down what makes a branching narrative effective.

When I reach a satisfying ending, I often don’t want to replay a story. Many games encourage the player to explore alternate paths, however, and therefore I find myself replaying to experience the game as intended. That’s what happened here.

In these situations, the player doesn’t choose an ending; the player chooses all endings, and the game becomes a collectathon. The pacing is ruined. Any important decisions you might’ve made in the story are nullified when you just go back and pick every option anyway.

Maybe other readers won’t find A Good Wick’s multiple endings as disappointing, since I’m hard to please when it comes to this mechanic. Even with that criticism, though, I enjoyed the story a lot. It’s labeled as “horror” here on IFDB, which doesn’t seem right, but if you like dark fantasy and fairy tales, and don’t mind linear hypertext, then it’s definitely worth giving a try.

Howled House, by B Minus Seven

0 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Howled House, December 1, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Howled House is a short piece made in Raconteur where you play as the titular house. Three imprisoned “howlers” howl during the night as they sleep, and a house with three wings is “raised” by their howling. Each wing has its own personality, and when an explorer enters, the wings attempt in their own ways to either repulse his advances or seduce him toward his doom. What does this explorer want? To scour the house, to take something from it, to understand what can’t be understood about its secret rooms (some open with links; others never open)? The house itself doesn’t quite know. The explorer is not repulsed, is not seduced, but is nevertheless trapped because, once he’s entered the house, he can’t leave.

Howled House itself is also the house it describes, and the player is the explorer. Its words invite you inside and yet they push you back. What do you hope to achieve by playing? What right do you even have to poke around inside this house whose very walls have risen from anguished howls? It’s a question that extends to any art, but especially to art that’s born from pain. That description makes it sound deadly serious, which isn’t right. It’s lively and alive — but it is potentially deadly. “The blade-box, what fun!” says the clowning third hall.

As I write these words, I feel I must tread with caution. At this very moment, I’m walking into the house’s trap, and it wants me or it doesn’t want me or it wants both things. Maybe I’m a guest or maybe I’m a plaything. Maybe I have no business being here. No, I think I’m welcome. After all, the game’s been written for people to experience. But it’s difficult to know where I stand, just as it’s difficult for the house and the author to know what readers want, what their agendas are. And not just this house, not just this author, not just this reader: it’s difficult for anyone to feel their way forward through communication with another person.

Of course this reading might be wrong. Maybe I’m lost in the house. Maybe I took something from it that it never had or never wanted me to have. That’s a danger. All I can do is acknowledge the danger. It’s a dangerous game, but also a game I consider worth risking the danger to play. I wouldn't be surprised if, a few months from now, I understand it in a different way.

The language is phenomenal. I may be unsure about a few things here, but there’s no question in my mind that Howled House ought to be nominated at the XYZZY Awards for Best Writing.

Take, by Katherine Morayati (as Amelia Pinnolla)

13 of 13 people found the following review helpful:
Take, November 19, 2016
by CMG (NYC)
Take is a difficult game to discuss. It attacks the very concept of writing impressions/reviews/any-personal-reactions-whatsoever, and therefore demands a more considered response from anyone who dares to have a response. It’s a challenge. It defies you to “take” it. If you don’t, then you’re a coward turning a blind eye to institutionalized abuse. If you do, then you’re a barbarian participating in that abuse. The only way to touch the material is by walking the same razor’s edge that the game itself walks.

Essentially you are a journalist plugged into the current mass-media machine, right now, today. This is conveyed by an allegory about gladiatorial combat in a dystopian society, but what you’re actually doing is writing “hot takes” for a soulless editor who wants you to flay open your personal life and put it on public display. Your value as a writer depends on how many “hits” you can generate/withstand, but this value carries over to your value as a person, because it determines whether you can make enough to continue supporting yourself. Nobody cares about you as a person, however. Not even your supposed fans. You’re simply cutting yourself open so that they can consume your “content” as they would consume “content” from anyone else willing to undergo similar exposure. The content in your “content” doesn’t matter, as long as it's intimate. It just has to be salacious enough to slip down the throat easily. And if it doesn’t slip down the right way, they’ll still pick you apart, and you’ll see every petty and mean-spirited criticism on Twitter. In short, you cannot win, and indeed the game ends when you’re “taken” yourself, not by yourself, but by an unfeeling audience who finally make you their own and discard you for good in the same moment.

As I said, this is all presented via allegory. Your mental reactions to the gladiator fight are translated into “takes” that feed into a monitor built into your chest, and this monitor also alerts you to all the incoming negative tweets that people write in response. Escape is impossible. Society has welded this contraption into your body. The gameplay itself plays a role in the setup, where examining and taking things are the only actions that you are even equipped to do. Nothing else matters because the game says nothing else matters because it’s making a comment about our current culture where nothing else matters.

As a game, this is extremely effective. You couldn’t ask for mechanics to be built into a story more.

As an allegory, like last year’s In The Friend Zone, it chains itself in a major way to popular slang that will sooner than later fade out, but under the slang are issues that will persist, most probably, as long as humankind survives.

There’s also a gendered aspect to the narrative. You aren’t simply a journalist; you are a female journalist, and the game is as much about society’s attitude toward women as it is about society’s obsession with consuming endless “content.” These hot takes that you’re writing are a journalistic form that has grown and mutated from the literary memoir, which is a genre historically fostered by women. Now it has been repurposed to make them victims for even attempting honest self-reflection. By sharing their viewpoints, they are simply making it easier for the leering audience to gawk at them, and the monitor being inset into your exposed chest, which your scanty armor doesn’t cover, isn’t a trivial design element. Great attention is paid to how prettily disfigured you can become during the battle, and to how actual disfigurement, real wounds, must be camouflaged to look aesthetically pleasing; the audience doesn’t want to confront legitimate suffering because that would spoil their entertainment. A few lines seem to echo passages from howling dogs, where the bone-footed empress must practice her death pose to ensure its elegance, but whereas howling dogs offered relief, even if that meant plunging deeper into a delusion or a dream, there’s no relief anywhere here.

The protagonist’s experience is contrasted by an epilogue that unlocks after the main game is finished, where you play as her opponent and see how the combat unfolded from his perspective. He is radically, grotesquely, stereotypically a “he,” and the game’s own hottest take arrives via this epilogue, which is titled Use and limits its verbset to that command. Whereas the characters, actions, and environments were described with penetrating detail during Take, in Use everything is reduced to brainless mush. “Pretty sweet battlefield.” That’s as deep as the commentary’s going to get. There are no more levels, there is no more thought, and everything exists, of course, to be “used,” including “the girl they sent.” Moreover, “using” anything will produce an automatic one-move victory. This epilogue is where its venom climactically overtops the game’s cup and absolutely everything on the table becomes infected.

There’s no solution offered here, and these characters aren’t people. They are monstrous parodies pitted against each other in a death battle they’ve both created: an eternal victim and an eternal persecutor. Nothing will ever change. It will only evolve, as the “hits” in the game’s dystopia did from virtual to physical, to become more complicated and more hideous. Subtleties don’t tease out meaning. They provide more openings for attack. We may sympathize more with the victim but our sympathy is as worthless as the takes that she’s writing because it will have no influence on anything. We might try to say, “I understand,” but she’s still going out onto the arena floor to suffer.

I don’t think that art needs to offer solutions. Sometimes pointing a finger at a problem is already hard enough. I certainly won’t propose to offer a solution in this review to the problems the game is highlighting, but what I can do is give my own opinion about a few issues, and the foremost thing that I want to say is that sharing your opinion is not “giving a hot take.” Writing an essay is not “writing a thinkpiece.” Playing a game, reading a book, watching a movie — these activities are not reducible to “consuming content.” And yet people do reduce them, every day. They reduce them by how they approach subjects, how they use words to frame discussions. When communication is drowning in #ironic #hashtags #about #hottakes, that begins to color how people actually interpret reality. When people self-consciously discuss their #brands, they are heating the fire for their own branding irons. Even the last two sentences that I wrote are contributing to this problem.

I’ve seen other authors, during perfectly innocent conversations, refer to themselves as content-creators, and to their games as content. The thing about content is that it matters less than the receptacle it’s filling. Even in the niche interactive fiction world, people have adopted this terminology and its accompanying mindset from the mass-media treadmill that’s responsible for crushing people as Take’s protagonist is crushed. It won’t stop crushing anyone until people stop turning it. Stop slathering everything in corrosive irony. Stop swallowing authors whole and then banging the table to demand more. If you turn life into a blood-drunk meme, “one joke until expiration,” then that’s what it will become.

I don’t agree with everything this game depicts, and I wonder how effective it will be at getting players to think about certain topics, but it’s certainly straining to do as much as it possibly can with the tools and the room that it has. It’s impeccably written and designed. Even newcomers to parser should be able to play it. Recommended, but beware the spikes.

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.

It’s 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 isn’t as important as simply letting these narrative details eat at you like worms while the days, months, and years pass. Death here isn’t an ending and it’s not a beginning. It’s a state to consider.

This game could have used its fictional setting as an invitation to create some very strange mythology, but it actually doesn’t wander too far, almost like it’s a shadow just one or two steps removed from the real world. It’s 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 Epictetus’s Enchiridion and Caelyn Sandel’s Tiny Beach. You have to reach outside to understand what’s anchored to the text.

The game’s 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 moment’s meditation. With just three actions, the game opens diverse options: listen for the captain’s 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 Poe’s 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 doesn’t matter.

I’m tempted to call the resulting game a parody, but that doesn’t sit right. This is simply Poe filtered through Veeder’s 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.

I’m not sure how much anyone will appreciate this game without having read Poe’s original novel. I’m also not sure how much anyone will appreciate it without having played Veeder’s 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 Veeder’s interpretation, you also see how he’s personally digesting the material.

This all becomes even more interesting when you consider that Winter Storm Draco (one of Veeder’s 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, I’ll take this opportunity to point out that the cry “Tekeli-li!” did not originate with Lovecraft. It’s 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 “utopia,” I think about what regulations are required to sustain societies, and what would be required to sustain an “ideal” 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 Sandel’s Tiny Beach probably exemplifies this best.

What’s 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 reality’s harshness. We have an abandoned station, deserted desks, and nocturnal things that leave “blood and ichor” behind when they’re slain. This is post-apocalypse territory, where people must fight monsters to survive. Nothing utopian about it. The story’s 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 isn’t 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 wouldn’t be much more than a small coding exercise, but positioned as a “utopia” 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. That’s not a criticism against those other games, just a statement about what Fridgetopia does differently. It’s 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 doesn’t 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. It’s 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 Seven’s 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 game’s 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 elsewards…

Gorey’s words are unmoored, but their cloud forms a mood.

B Minus Seven’s words, on the other hand, aren’t quite as lacking in context. In Powers of Two, they represent a utopia. A utopia, perhaps, where meanings aren’t necessary, where explanations aren’t demanded, where language is free to simply play in the space between the author’s and the reader’s minds. There’s no pressure. Only pleasure at the language’s 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.

Map, by Ade McT

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Remapping life, November 30, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
In Map you play as a dowdy housewife who finds that her house is expanding. Rooms take longer to cross. Ceilings feel higher. Suddenly, one day, there is an extra doorway that wasn't there before. When the protagonist enters this doorway, it takes her into her own past, where she is given the opportunity to remake certain major life decisions.

The game does not have puzzles in the normal sense, but as more and more doorways appear and you're given more decisions to reshape the protagonist's life, the entire story becomes a sort of master challenge. Once you change an individual moment in the past, you cannot redo it; you have to enter the command "tomorrow" and advance the current timeline to the next day to see how the present has altered. And while at first it may seem like you want to change everything you can in the past, you soon realize that these changes are impacting each other. You're gaining one thing only to lose another.

Once you've come to this point, no decision in the game is easy, and none is right. There isn't a "good" ending you're trying to reach. Every outcome involves compromise.

Photopia is the nearest relative to Map that I know about in the text adventure world. There's a stereotype about the "my shitty apartment" genre that many games fall into, and I'd say that Photopia and Map both fall into the "my shitty middle-class life" genre. They deal with realistic problems, sure. They deal with tragedies. And they're uplifting in the end, even though they don't iron out life's complexities. You're meant to relate to them. But personally, this is not my style whatsoever. It is everywhere in modern literature -- in fact, it's what the term "literary fiction" often means as a genre label (poor literary fiction, being saddled with that). I can appreciate Photopia for what new tricks it did with the parser, but if I came across its story as a novel, I would pass right by that novel without looking back.

Well, for me, Map was better than Photopia, even though Map suffers from what I call the Moll Flanders Effect. If you don't know about Moll Flanders, here is the book's full title:

The Fortunes and Misfortunes of the Famous Moll Flanders, &c. Who was Born in Newgate, and during a Life of continu'd Variety for Threescore Years, besides her Childhood, was Twelve Year a Whore, five times a Wife (whereof once to her own Brother), Twelve Year a Thief, Eight Year a Transported Felon in Virginia, at last grew Rich, liv'd Honest, and died a Penitent. Written from her own Memorandums.

All the novel's major events are summed up in this title, and even though the events themselves are very serious, when they're compiled into a laundry list they become silly. Moll Flanders is doing this on purpose. Most stories that suffer from the Moll Flanders Effect are not. Map does not mean to be silly, but when it hits you with major event after major event, the story strains beneath such a dramatic load. You've got everything from teenage pregnancy to extramarital affairs to Aunt May being shipped off to the nursing home, and more.

Again, these are realistic issues. They happen to people. They sometimes even happen all together as they do in Map. It's not the issues themselves that I'm talking about, but rather how they're being handled by the narrative.

But whereas Photopia remained mired in its "my shitty middle-class life" muck for me, Map broke free. That's partly because the interaction is integrated really well into the story. You are seriously making these choices, and you seriously feel their weight every time you make them. By the end, it's as though you're performing a high-wire act, aware at every step that the wrong decision might send you plummeting -- and as I said before, there are no "right" decisions. You will make sacrifices, and you will feel it.

The other thing that Map does really well is ramp up the tension. As you approach closer and closer to the ending, one horrible past event slowly unveils itself, and you know where you're going, you know you have to face it. It almost becomes a horror game, with the supernatural house bending around you, driving you toward this confrontation.

One thing that Map does need, objectively, is a copy-edit. It has lots of text, and there are lots of typos. I also felt that the text could've been trimmed back at certain places. It will always go for more explanation rather than less when it has the chance, even once something has already been established clearly.

Those quibbles aside, this is a game that everyone should play. It shows what you can do when you put the story first and use the parser to full advantage to tell that story.

Kane County, by Michael Sterling, Tia Orisney
Stat-based survival, November 29, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Your jeep has crashed and you're stranded in a desert wilderness . At the outset you can choose to be an athletic rock-climber or a more knowledgeable but less physically robust nature-loving survivalist. These classes will have obvious repercussions on how you navigate the desert. Would you prefer to scale that cliff wall, or would you prefer to know whether this water is safe to drink?

The game is choice-based and has stat-tracking. Your water and stamina levels are what you need to maintain. Sometimes they'll decrease for obvious reasons. Trekking for hours in the midday sun is going to dehydrate you. But sometimes you'll suffer an accident like a tumble down a ravine and unexpectedly lose some stamina. If either stat drops to zero, you're dead.

There's no plot in sight. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. The game is purely about wilderness survival, and I was actually surprised by how engaging it was. Normally I want a story, but this game is filled with enough environments and events that it pulls you along anyway.

I was also tremendously lucky to get as far as I did. I felt like I was skirting disaster a few times only to barely scrape through and keep going. Occasionally this was because the game gave me a challenging situation and I put on my little thinking-cap and did the right thing, but occasionally it was because I randomly stumbled across some garbage like an old glass bottle that I wound up needing later. No thought went into that on my part. It was total chance. And it did strike me as odd how you sometimes needed these artifacts to accomplish a survival task when surely there would have been other ways.

(Spoiler - click to show)For example, the glass bottle provided me with a shard to scrape bark from a tree and brew some medicinal tea. But someone stuck in the wilderness would've dug into that bark with their bare fingernails if they didn't have a tool for it.

Eventually, however, I did die. I was so far along that I felt like I had to be near the end, and when I checked the walkthrough I discovered I was one node away. Rather than encouraging me to try again, this made me stop playing. I didn't want to reread all that text just to try changing one variable to earn the extra stamina point that would've let me live, especially since it wasn't guaranteed that I'd be able to change a variable that easily.

This was also where the game's plotless aspect finally caught up with it. Because there was no story, I wasn't invested in reaching the ending to see what happened. I had experienced the wilderness survival simulation thoroughly enough. Other players might be more motivated to make it all the way through.

The Problems Compound, by Andrew Schultz

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Your own worst enemy, November 25, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
The Problems Compound is a pure parser puzzlefest filled with fetch quests. You play as Alec Smart, an intelligent but socially maladjusted student, and the world around you is being formed by your imagination. Most of the NPCs are snide, condescending, dismissive, self-important, and terribly pleased with themselves. They obey a social order established by a tyrant in the fortified Problems Compound, who is the nastiest and also most popular person around, and your goal is to usurp that tyrant.

Every location and character in the game is based on a pun, where common phrases are reversed in word order and sometimes in meaning. For example, the Labor Child is a successful boy businessman who owns the Scheme Pyramid. This doesn't impact the puzzles or story as much as I thought that it would. Mostly it functions as a representation for how Alec disassembles everything in his mind to find the logical underpinnings at work. But it's also a constant reminder that things can be reversed. Alec wants to reverse his own submissive personality. Whether that is a good idea is what every interaction in the game is about, and one fantastic episode with a "cutter cookie" demonstrates that becoming a Smart Aleck might not really be the best outcome.

The writing is snappy, filled with little quips, and it skewers just about every form of social interaction that you can have. It goes for some obvious targets, like art critics, but it also goes for really subtle things in everyday language. Although he might be hesitant to assert himself, Alec has studied people and can pick them apart to the bone.

The game wears The Phantom Tollbooth as a huge inspiration on its sleeve, but The Problems Compound really made me think more about the Alice books. Alice is a young girl and everyone speaks down to her as adults will speak down to children. Wonderland is more socially hostile than the world in The Phantom Tollbooth, and The Problems Compound is also swimming in social hostility. But Alec Smart isn't a child. He's practically an adult, and his own peers are behaving this way toward him.

Even though the game doesn't have much plot momentum, all the puzzle vignettes cohere to create a strong narrative tone and theme, and interpreting the story involves more delicacy than you might at first realize. After all, no characters you encounter are actually antagonizing Alec; they are constructs inside his own fantasy land. He's not doing himself any favors by dwelling on their negative attitudes, and yet confronting them is what might allow him to make progress in the real world.

Summit, by Phantom Williams

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Have a fish, November 25, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Fishstomachs. For this concept alone, Summit would have my praise.

The story here is universal. You play as a character dissatisfied with many things. You can see in the distance, both metaphorically and physically, a summit. Climbing this summit might erase your problems. Therefore you set out to climb it.

The game is episodic. You're waylaid beside the road, in cities, in towns, you meet people, you part from them, years pass, and still you are trying to reach the summit. The world is unusual and alien, yet familiar. One sequence involves attending a pseudo-religious function where the participants convulse on the floor after ingesting nano-machines. This echoes our world directly. Just remove the nano-machines.

Fishstomachs are extra stomachs that everyone in this game has, and that are filled with living fish. The fishstomachs eject the fish, the characters eat the fish, and then the fish eat through the characters' normal stomachs to nibble at their internal organs before the fish die and decompose. Eating a fish and having your organs nibbled is an ecstatic experience like taking a potent drug. Everyone is dependent on eating fish, but not like drug addicts are dependent on drugs. You need to eat the fish to stay alive. There's no rehabilitation possible. If you don't tend your fish, your fishstomach will erupt and kill you. If you do keep eating fish, eventually that will kill you too, once they nibble your organs enough and their fishrot infuses your body.

This is a thoroughly nightmarish concept to me. I'm averse to most seafood anyway, but having fish swimming in your body, nibbling your organs, rotting away into toxic slime? Phantom Williams has created a potent metaphor with this fishstomach business. It's not a metaphor for anything in particular. Like the game's summit, it's universal. It resonates on many different levels.

And you totally understand why the protagonist would want to reach the summit and have all their problems wiped away, including their fishstomach.

One curious feature of this game is that "you" is not really "you." Sometimes "I" takes over when "you" gets too tired, and the game addresses this, proclaiming that the "you" in most text games is actually narcissism masked as empathy.

It's interesting, but I don't entirely agree. Although there's some truth here, the "you" in a text game is no more narcissistic than the "she" or "he" in a novel. No matter the narrative viewpoint, the player/reader is always consuming the material, absorbing it to change or reinforce their own perspectives about the world. Whatever pronouns are being used, everything is another fish going down the gullet.

Comparisons to Porpentine will be made, with reason. Summit seems to have studied Porpentine's work for inspiration. But this game stands on its own.

It has a soundtrack that you shouldn't miss.

Grimm's Godfather, by WaffleShuai

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Choose Your Own Godfather, November 24, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
In the fairy tale "Godfather Death" collected by the Brothers Grimm, a poor man chooses Death as his child's godfather, passing over God and the Devil, who are also in the running. This game retells the fairy tale and gives you the choice to pick God, the Devil, or Death. Whatever you pick, the story continues the same way, with the son becoming a physician who eventually finds himself at odds with his godfather over whether to save a king and princess from a fatal illness.

Some text is quoted from the Brothers Grimm and some text is original. I am guessing that English is not the author's native language. Many sentences do not make sense. Example: Devil appeared as he broken his promised, and served as godfather in as bad influence.

It also seems as though the author didn't understand the original fairy tale, where the poor man doesn't choose God because he mistakenly thinks that God's mercy is biased toward aristocrats. In this game, God is actually biased toward aristocrats, which creates a weird dynamic where, during the climax, God wants you to save the king and princess... and maybe you won't do it, because you're sick of God's upperclass favoritism. So, uh, you can kill these innocent people and be a rebel, or you can treat their sickness as God would prefer. A very weird dynamic, as I said.

The game is made in Ren'Py and has illustrations. They are basic MS Paint style pictures.

Crossroads, by Cat Manning
Branches and branches, November 24, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
You have no other options. That's why you've come to the woods to meet with a witch. She can perform a ritual for you, and what she performs will depend on your emotional state, your motivation, what you want to accomplish, and what you've brought with you.

All these variables can be changed, and the story is presented as a choose-your-own-adventure where you make your selections and then find out what ritual you're going to experience. What happens will be radically different depending on your choices. I played to three endings, none were anything like one another, and there were even more variables I could have tinkered with to find who knows how many additional outcomes.

There's an irony in the fact that a game where the premise is "you have no other options" gives you so many options, which is the whole idea. I wasn't even sure whether I was playing as the same protagonist all the time, or whether my choices had retroactively altered the past to shape a different narrative going forward. And I'm not even talking about the parts where the protagonist tries to alter the past.

This muddy understanding about the evolving game state is both a strength and a weakness. It really makes everything feel dynamic, but things are so dynamic that I wasn't always sure how I was affecting the story. At one point, as the witch was guiding me through the forest, there was a snake attacking a mouse beside the path and I had the chance to intervene before continuing with the witch. How did this tangent tie into the final ritual? Did my decision mean anything? It probably did, judging by how flexible the game is, but I couldn't begin to guess the impact or why this tangent should have had an impact. Other decisions give you much more obvious results with logical cause-and-effect chains, but you have the sense that there are hidden, magical mechanics under the surface too, and you never quite grasp them.

In the end, the game's ultimate irony is that even with all these options, you still don't really have any options. The universe is out of your control. Maybe a very dedicated player who's willing to explore every single branch would come to another conclusion, but when I reached this interpretation I felt as though the game had rounded itself off.

Brain Guzzlers from Beyond!, by Steph Cherrywell

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Spine-Tingling Text-O-Rama, November 24, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Brain-guzzling aliens have arrived from outer space to torment a New Mexican town. The citizens are oblivious, and it's up to you to convince them they're in danger before they've all been brain-guzzled. You play as Bonnie Noodleman, a Well-Adjusted Teen-Ager, and your yearbook profile lists your accomplishments as:

Winner, Miss Human Compass Junior Orienteer, 1956
Winner, Pine Nut Days Girls’ Grocery-Balancing Competition, 1958

I think this succinctly encapsulates the game's intent. It's a traditional text adventure that is self-aware about its tropes, and it's going to exploit them to have fun. And that's exactly what it does.

Structurally, the game is divided into a prologue followed by two main parts. The prologue is pretty much perfect. A character customization system built into an in-game magazine questionnaire, which then segues seamlessly into the action and establishes the setting, tone, and Bonnie's motivation all at once. It's great.

After the prologue, both of the game's two main halves are centered around object fetch-quests. You solve puzzles to collect items to deliver to an NPC in order to progress the story. When the first half concludes, you're treated to a satisfying action set-piece that feels like it will fundamentally alter the game. But then the dust settles, and not too much has changed, and you have to solve another puzzle sequence very similar to the one you just finished.

The second set of puzzles is actually better than the first, and the first set was already good. But the structure saps tension from the story right when things are starting to get dicey. I wanted the stakes to keep rising.

Of course the stakes were never going to be really high, because the game is a parody of B-movie horror. But parodies can have their own high stakes. And actually, the game is more a satire of American society "back in the day" than it is of horror films. It takes place on the cusp between the 50s and 60s. You've got Scooby-Doo hijinks, "ultramodern furniture" in "avocado, orange, and mustard-yellow," and the town fair has a Tomorrow Pavilion whose displays (including a robotic wife) are "glittering with the promise of tomorrow."

This reminded me a lot of The Venture Bros., which has a similar nostalgia for the era, even though it recognizes and criticizes the era's bigotry, repression, and naiveté. Brain Guzzlers is also critical, but it's never as scathing as Venture Bros. It's more interested in using the time period as a playful backdrop.

In the end, this is a very solid text adventure that will appeal to both sci-fi and horror fans, and it's got nice character illustrations too!

Birdland, by Brendan Patrick Hennessy

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Teens and birds, November 23, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Birdland is a very long Twine story (probably at least novella-length for each playthrough) about teen girls at summer camp. They participate in standard camp activities like swimming, they gossip, and they fumble with their developing adolescent identities. This could've been horrible. All the ingredients are lined up for a sappy Hallmark special. But it's not horrible. It's great.

It's written in script format with occasional character illustrations (that are very nice; you can look at them all from the main menu, but they only show up once each in the game itself). What this means, of course, is that practically everything is conveyed through dialogue, and what that means is that major emphasis is put on character interaction. There is no flab. The game is laser-focused on these characters' mindsets.

I have the sense, although I could be mistaken, that you'll get the same overarching story no matter what choices you make. Which is no problem. It is a good story, not just about teen girls canoeing at summer camp, but about the dreams that the main character Bridget Leaside experiences -- strange dreams that seem to have ripple effects in the waking world.

Rather, what choices you make influence sub-scenes in the story by changing Bridget's mood, giving her access to certain actions or cutting them off. You're basically presented with different angles of approach to the same goals. What's especially thoughtful is how the game shows you every possible action, even if you can't choose one because you're in the wrong mood at the moment. This way you know what impact your decisions had. I am growing more and more fond of transparent game mechanics like this.

Since nearly all the writing is dialogue, the dialogue has to be good, and it is. Especially in the dream sequences, where humanoid birds speak to Bridget using stilted, mechanical language. Brendan Patrick Hennessy has a history writing stilted prose. You Will Select a Decision is all about the stilted prose. But whereas that was a pure comedy game, and the prose was stilted because it was meant to be a poor translation from Russian, in Birdland there's more going on. It's still funny in Birdland. The technique is just being used with more purpose.

Actually, Birdland feels like the natural next step after You Will Select a Decision and Bell Park, Youth Detective. Those games crashed together, refined themselves during the crash, and became Birdland. Bell Park herself is a central character in Birdland.

This game made me think about Wes Anderson movies. Moonrise Kingdom specifically. Kids who are more mature than the adults around them, but who are still kids learning how to survive. Kids who find themselves in over their heads as bizarre circumstances develop. Birdland is strong interactive fiction, pushing the medium more toward literature, which I completely support.

GROWBOTICS, by Cha Holland

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A consumer product about a consumer product, November 22, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Aesthetically, this game is definitely polished. Nice blocky buttons. Smooth graphics. It's got "mass market appeal" with a neutral design scheme, like an IKEA catalogue. Which is exactly what it's trying to do.

Not be an IKEA catalogue. Just tap into that commercial zone.

The game is entirely about a product: a contraption that can take "basic creative building blocks" and combine them together to make new products. All that you really do in this game is combine the different ingredients, and then the game spits out an invention at you. The ingredients themselves are vague concepts like "quantity" and "sound."

At the end of my playthrough, the player-character (who had purchased this contraption) was showered with success for the great things they made with the machine.

Maybe I wasn't supposed to react this way, but I felt like this game was making a really sharp criticism about creativity and technological development. Everything that's normally called "creativity" is negated by the GROWBOTICS machine, where you just slot combinations together, press a button, and the machine does all the creative work for you. A product rolls down the conceptual conveyor belt, you snag it for yourself, and then you claim the credit without needing to have a single creative thought yourself.

Not to say that the game's text actually sounds cynical. Everything is upbeat. You're a happy consumer, after all, and you have a shiny new product to play with! Only at one point near the beginning does the game (maybe) show its hand, when the player-character reads the product manual and thinks:

An extended marketing spiel crafted to make you feel good about your purchasing decisions. Absurd thing is, it kind of works.

kind of works like that too.

Untold Riches, by Jason Ermer

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A treasure hunt for beginners, November 21, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Untold Riches is a simple parser puzzle game. You're an assistant to a wacky treasure-hunting professor, and you've been stranded alone on an island during a treasure hunt. You've got to locate the treasure and then figure out a way to contact someone to leave the island.

What you get from the game's blurb is what you get inside the game. The tone is irreverent. The story is slim and self-aware, with references all over the place to past adventures you've had with the professor, which in turn reference pulp adventure tropes from literature and film. Like the gameplay, the writing is simple and direct, but it knows what it wants to be and it's charming.

The "about" text explains that this game was actually written to be played in a middle-school setting as an introduction to the medium for students. It sets explicit guidelines for itself: clear goals, clear clues, thorough implementation. In all three realms, it's a success.

As an intro-level puzzler, this is solid. The only thing it could do better is provide standard verbs for the player, since the game is assuming that its audience will be unfamiliar with the parser format. Otherwise, it's a nice little snack.

To Burn in Memory, by Orihaus

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Gorgeously designed, densely written, November 21, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
In this hypertext game you explore a ruined city that's stuck in time, or abandoned by time, or abandoned by the world at large -- it's all the same. The era this city exists in (or the era that it died in, anyway) shares similarities with early twentieth century Europe, and certain characters are mentioned as being French and German and so on, but its connection to real history is tenuous. Fantastical elements play a large role. There are clocks that don't tell time as we know it.

Gameplay involves poking around, finding keys, unlocking doors, opening safes, and gaining entrance to new areas. Sometimes you can activate memories that reveal how the city came to be in its current condition.

Despite the focus on memories and exploration, though, I never got a good sense about what was going on or what the city even really looked like. The text is written in an abstract, verbose style that often aims for higher marks than it can hit. And when it doesn't hit them, it produces confusion. You have to be an extremely skilled writer to pull off a style like this.

The game's opening references Umberto Eco, but I found myself comparing it more directly with Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, which is an Italian book from 1499 about a man wandering a dreamscape. Almost the entire book is dedicated to explaining the architecture of buildings in the dream, and the text will go on for pages lavishing elaborate philosophical descriptions on columns and fountains. I found it suffocating to read, and while To Burn in Memory is not nearly as overwrought, it does share Hypnerotomachia's interest in allegorical architecture. Both these texts also prefer complexity for its own sake, for its flavor.

Hypnerotomachia is a famously beautiful book, and To Burn in Memory also has a very lovely physical design. But they sit heavily in your gut and are hard to digest.

In The Friend Zone, by Brendan Vance

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Probably not the penal colony you're expecting, November 20, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
If you are "in the friend zone," what this means is that you have been relegated to being "only" friends with someone (usually a woman) who you actually just want to sleep with. If you are a "nice guy," what this means is that you consider yourself an upstanding personality, but in relation to the person you want to sleep with, all your "positive" attributes are really just ploys to get them into bed. Both the "friend zone" and "nice guy" concepts are used seriously by people who feel they're unjustly treated, and satirically by people who think they're being babies (and misogynists).

In the Friend Zone takes these concepts as the basis for its story. Actually, it doesn't have much story. It's more concerned with deconstructing the concepts and fleshing them out into a surreal allegory.

It bills itself as "a horror-parody in the tradition of Franz Kafka," but I don't think this is accurate. Of course the game does owe something to Kafka. The Nice Guys™ in the game's world feel that they're being persecuted by obscure forces beyond their control, like many characters in Kafka's fiction, and one passage is inspired directly by the parable "Before the Law" from The Trial. But the piece is otherwise not similar to Kafka. You have nothing like Kafka's bureaucratic prose, circling around as it eats itself; you have nothing like Kafka's off-kilter absurdity; in fact, you always know exactly where you are with In the Friend Zone. The allegories are obvious, monstrously obvious. They smack you over the head and invite no alternative readings.

I don't think that this is precisely a problem. It just means the game is not advertising itself correctly. It's got much more in common with Pilgrim's Progress. The entire thing involves wandering around an allegorical landscape, and the protagonist is even referred to as "Pilgrim." Kafka fans are not necessarily going to enjoy what's being offered here.

When I went into the game, what I expected was snark in industrial quantities. I wasn't eager for this. What I got instead wasn't snark at all. Make no mistake, this game is critical of its material (criticism that I happen to agree with), but it's not interested in taking cheap shots. It really does dedicate itself to the allegory, painting a surreal hellscape that has been carefully constructed. More than that, it goes a step further and truly considers events from the perspective of the Nice Guys™, trying to walk in their shoes and unravel why and how people exist with such attitudes. They aren't being used as punching bags, which is what I was certain was going to happen.

I also admit that I expected the writing to be dismal. It is not. There are some typos here and there, but for the most part it's smooth, sometimes it's shiny, and the author has a knack for chipper dialogue.

In other words, I was pleasantly surprised by the whole thing, but at the end I was also left thinking, what's the point? Who is this written for? What is it actually doing? It's not written for the Nice Guys™. It won't change their minds. It's not written for their critics. It won't change their minds. Rather, it's simply using the "friend zone" and "nice guy" ideas as jumping-off points to create a fantasy nightmare world.

But this is an unstable nightmare world that's anchored to something ephemeral in pop culture. In twenty or thirty years, will people still be thinking with this game's terminology? Many people right now don't even know about "nice guys" and "friend zones." They hover around in the same space as internet memes. They're more persistent, yes, but In the Friend Zone is essentially an entire game written to deconstruct a few passing linguistic fads.

Pilgrim's Progress and Kafka are still around because they're universal. I don't see In the Friend Zone sticking around. Maybe it's ridiculous to apply criteria like that to a Twine game -- to ask, will this be universal, will it withstand the ages? -- but that's actually something that I ask about every game and book and movie that I consume. Something like howling dogs, I can safely say, is universal. It strikes deep, major veins in humankind. In the Friend Zone doesn't, but the author certainly seems to have the writing chops to produce something more substantial in the future.

Hard Puzzle, by Ade McT

3 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A hard puzzle, November 19, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
As a rule, I'm not that enthusiastic about puzzles, and yet I was drawn into this game and beat my head against it for two entire days. This was more than a hard puzzle for me. This was a mini life experience.

What happened? I'm not that great at manipulating finicky things in parser games, and this game is loaded, loaded, loaded with them. I usually give up on puzzles, and although I talked with other people to make some progress by exchanging hints, I didn't make much progress that way at all. But I never considered stopping. I had to finish. I needed to figure out what the hell was going on, both on a story level and on a meta level.

Hard Puzzle is set in an apocalyptic world where you have been tasked with assembling a stool for "The Family" because they "like the look of it." This stool is intended "for milking." Even though the story is sparse, little details here and there worked their way into my brain like parasites and wouldn't get out. Whereas other puzzle games often lose my interest by requiring too much mechanical tinkering, Hard Puzzle's strangeness wouldn't release me, even while it was clobbering me with more and more mechanical tinkering nightmares.

But what made me truly unable to leave the game alone was that I didn't know on what level I could trust it. Hard Puzzle bills itself as silly speed-IF, but is this true? It has implementation errors, as you would expect in speed-IF, but it acknowledges these errors. And perhaps more than anything, it was written by Ade McT, whose game Map placed second in the IFComp mere days before Hard Puzzle was released onto IFDB.

Normally, not being able to trust a game means not wanting to play it because you think it might be unfair or broken. In this case, not being able to trust it made the experience even more compelling for me.

Now that I have solved Hard Puzzle, I look back at my time playing it these past two days and... feel inclined to say nothing about how right or wrong I was to suspect anything about this game. I think that some people might never solve it. I think that some people might solve it much faster than I did.

There is a famous murder mystery play by Agatha Christie called The Mousetrap that has been running since 1952, and although countless people have now seen the play, its ending is rarely ever discussed in order to preserve the surprise for new audiences. For that same reason, I hope that no walkthrough is ever provided for Hard Puzzle. I hope no solution is ever published. I hope that anyone who solves it will remain silent.

Capsule II - The 11th Sandman, by PaperBlurt

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Requirements on an intergalactic ark: coffee and porn, November 19, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
I feel like this game shouldn't work, but it does. You play as a character in the totally improbable situation of being the only person awake to monitor a spaceship ark transporting the entire human race in cryosleep. At one moment that would be fraught with drama in most stories, you find yourself dressed as a clown. The game is just filled with ridiculous situations like this, and it doesn't take them very seriously, but it also does take them seriously. There's real emotion at stake.

Everything comes down to the narrative tone with this game. It's conversational and confessional, and despite the crazy environment, the protagonist usually has genuine reactions. The story also spans a few years, and sudden jump-cuts in time are effective at conveying how things continue to deteriorate.

There are some very nice graphical elements in this game, especially when you consult the ship's database. It looks good all around. Sometimes the writing is rough. Sometimes it's meant to be rough, filled with misspellings and such, but that's not what I mean. The normal prose could use some extra polish.

Whether you want to humor the game will depend largely on your taste, how much slack you're willing to give it. Personally, I enjoyed it.

Pit of the Condemned, by Matthew Holland

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A labyrinth, a beast, a trap, November 19, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
In this game you play as a convict who's been dropped into a pit to be killed by a mysterious beast. The "pit" is actually humongous: a lost city underground. Every room seems to have multiple exits leading to new places. I was able to familiarize myself with a few key spots, but I never completely wrapped my head around the whole map. Which wasn't a problem. You're meant to be lost and disoriented.

There's not much plot. You don't know why you've been sentenced to death-by-beast. Probably it was an unjust punishment: you have a fellow convict in the pit named Iza who suggests she's there for petty theft. All that you do know is that you need to somehow kill the beast.

I think there must be at least three different ways to do that, judging by items I stumbled across during play. But in the end I only needed to make one functional trap to win.

The room descriptions are terse, but still have flavor. You're not meant to stop and poke around. You're meant to be running for your life as the beast chases you. Still, I came across lots of unimplemented scenery. No flagons, for instance, in a room described as being filled with discarded flagons. For the most part, the writing is workmanlike, but it's got a few really nice lines. This one especially stood out to me, as you're crawling through a sewer and pass beneath a hole in the ceiling:

Spectators are gathered around the hole even though the chances of
you coming this way might have been small; they’re delighted to see you.

"They're delighted to see you." It's so casual that it's sinister.

This game isn't breaking new ground. It's just meant to be a pulp fantasy experience. Discovering traces left behind by the underground city's vanished inhabitants is the best part, and you can even activate a "walking sim" mode to remove the beast from play so that you can explore at your leisure if you want.

Ether, by MathBrush

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
This cephalopod is user-friendly, November 18, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
You're a nautilus, but not a normal nautilus. You inhabit an airy world and it is yours. You are its overlord. You've lived in other worlds before, and now you've mastered this one too. It's time to move on to yet another world. Gameplay is about assembling the necessary magical/metaphysical elements required to open the next "great doorway" in your journey.

Movement in this game is three-dimensional. You can travel in all the cardinal directions, and also up and down, and combine directions, i.e. down north. This seems like it could be overwhelming, but it's not. All the directions have different qualities (less pressure in the upper atmosphere, for example) and you've always got a clear sense of where you are and where everything else is in relation to you.

I feel like this would be a great game for beginners. It gives you simple challenges, rewards you with new powers when you complete the challenges, and rounds itself nicely off at the end by throwing you into a situation where you have to use all your powers in combination.

Your nautilus character isn't completely fleshed out, but has a definite personality and memories from its past worlds, and the game gradually resolves itself into a kind of epiphany for the nautilus on a grand scale. Everything is blended together: the story, the mechanics, the exploration, they're all the same thing, and it feels effortless.

(Spoiler - click to show)It's also really neat how you slowly realize that, hey, this game has an NPC, and the entire world is the NPC.

I don't think that Ether will appeal as much to experienced players who want more difficult puzzles, but that's not the goal it's setting for itself. It wants to be casual and uplifting and it succeeds.

Grandma Bethlinda's Variety Box, by Arthur DiBianca

7 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A compact puzzlebox, November 17, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
You're in a room with a box and that's all there is in the room. Your object is to manipulate the box until you've triggered all the little bells and whistles attached to it. And also the horns, buttons, ropes... you get the idea. It has secrets and surprises and you want to find them all.

This game has an extremely streamlined verb system. "Examine" and "undertake to interact with" (abbreviated "u") are its two primary actions. This is so smooth and prevents so many potential problems. The box is totally stuffed with weird contraptions, and if you had to worry about turning or pulling or tapping them, etc., etc., all but the most patient players would throw a fit trying to figure out what syntax to use. But "u" covers everything while still preserving the need for players to think about how they should manipulate the box.

I could see some people saying, Well, with so few verbs, why isn't this just a Twine game? Click the equivalent "u" or "x" hyperlinks and be done with it. But that wouldn't work, again because the box has so many components. In a hypertext game you'd have to click each component, click components within components, and then return back to previous screens to see what's changed or hasn't. It would be a headache. The parser allows everything to be right out in the open so that you can interact with anything at any time.

Since this game is a pure puzzle and descriptions are brief, I could also see some people overlooking how good the writing is. It's very good. It manages to give you clues, reward you for solving puzzles, and paint a clear description of the box (no matter how complicated the box gets) all within the same snappy little sentences. A tone, a personality emerges from the game that's perfectly complementary to the bizarre Variety Box itself.

Sub Rosa, by Joey Jones, Melvin Rangasamy

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Weird espionage, November 16, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Confessor Destine is an unimpeachable authority. His spotless personal record ensures that he can wield great power in society by exploiting other people's indiscretions, charging them with crimes, without ever having his own position questioned.

You play as someone who has a bone to pick with him. You have been preparing for years to break into the Confessor's mansion and dig up some dirt. You begin the game wearing a pellucid llama-suit that makes you invisible, and you will enter the mansion through a spatial intersection in a giant leather cliff that cuts into another physical plane.

I want to say that this game is surreal, but I don't think that's accurate. It's set in a fantasy world with very unusual qualities, but within this world everything is consistent and makes sense. There's no dream logic. There's just strange logic. The finesse required to achieve this subtle distinction in the writing is spectacular.

I don't want to say too much about the world, because the game's primary pleasure comes from exploring that world. I do think you will have to have a certain taste for peculiarity to enjoy the game though. It made me think about Edward Gorey. Consider this organization system in the Confessor's library:

You could choose a specific book or one of the seven eternal categories: damp, forgotten, implausible, pejorative, exhaustive, unsettling and beseeching.

If you look at the "forgotten" books, some titles you'll find are Urn Dwellers, Emponderations Most Wearysome, and History of The Boundless Plains. In the "damp" category there is a book about milking called Milking.

This library is probably the game's greatest achievement. It has 101 books, and you can read them all, and they are all different and wonderful and enrich the world. At the same time, the library also illustrates the game's biggest weakness, which is that it demands an exhaustive attention to detail from the player to solve its puzzles.

Sub Rosa rewards patience and critical thought, and it does not respond well to being rushed through. Some players will be frustrated by its difficulty, and the puzzles could certainly be clued more overtly, but this is exactly what will draw other players to the game who want a challenge. Even though I personally needed hints, that didn't detract at all from my satisfaction with the game's other elements.

SPY INTRIGUE, by furkle

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Precognition and explosive oatmeal, November 16, 2015
by CMG (NYC)

I was hesitant to play this game. I find ALL-CAPS unpleasant to read, and COMEDY ALL-CAPS usually comes off as someone screaming PLEASE LAUGH AT MY JOKES! I'M FUNNY! PLEASE! I'M BEGGING YOU! As such, I expect that many people will dismiss this game out of hand, and I really don't blame them.

But once I got into it, I started to realize that something very different was going on than I had originally anticipated. The game is written in Twine with an impressive interface, where the screen is intended to mimic a helmet you're wearing. One panel shows your placement in the branching timeline, allowing you to accurately predict what paths will lead to victory or death. The spy-world is loud and obnoxious and absurd, drowning out everything else, filling the helmet with a static field in the background.

And then, eventually, the static dissolves, and the ALL-CAPS disappear, and you enter a passage written in lowercase... before you die and have to use your helmet to revert back to the spy-world and choose another branch. Once again, the ALL-CAPS drowns everything out and you plunge ahead on your ridiculous spy mission. But you can't forget what you saw, what the SCREAMING SURFACE GAME was hiding under its mayhem. In that buried story, the protagonist isn't a master spy, but a vulnerable young person grappling with drug abuse and suicidal thoughts.

Saying it like that makes it sound like it could be cheaply emotional, but it's raw and affecting and very well written. You feel as though the game is truly opening itself to expose something intimate and honest.

Furthermore, this is not a simple case where the CRAZY SPY MISSION is mirroring "real" things happening in the background. There is not a direct correlation between what is happening in the ALL-CAPS and lowercase worlds, even though they are connected. Reconciling that connection and coming to terms with how the two halves relate to each other is how you reach the game's apotheosis.

Something curious about this entire set-up is that as you continue to play, you start to look for the branches that lead to death on your helmet's timeline and, rather than avoiding them, you steer the story toward them, hoping to break back into another lowercase passage. The game is coaxing you into sharing the protagonist's own suicidal impulses. I've never encountered a mechanic like this in a branching narrative before, where you want to hit as many dead ends as possible.

A few comments I've read have stated that this is currently the longest Twine game ever written. It certainly is long. Once I'd settled into its rhythm, I was glad to have it keep going, and the second and third acts are very satisfying. However, because the first act is so long and contains its own internal three-act structure, I thought the game was preparing to end when it wasn't even halfway done.

This strikes me as its largest defect, and further editing could have probably adjusted the text to fix the pace. But I think it's also a defect that can be counteracted if players know about it beforehand, because then they can simply go into the game expecting a lengthy reading experience.

I played SPY INTRIGUE four days before writing this review, but I couldn't just write the review after I'd finished. I had to process the game. It stuck with me. I'm still turning it over. It gets better and better as I continue to absorb it.

Also, it doesn't need to beg you to laugh at its jokes. It's genuinely funny.

., by .

10 of 10 people found the following review helpful:
Dangerous games, November 2, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This review is for the entire Robyn Saga, which is told in four parts. They were uploaded to IFDB but then deleted, and are currently available on the ifarchive under "unprocessed." They're meant to be played in the following order: The Elevator, The Box, The Diary, The Prism.

But I don't think I can recommend that anyone should play them.

These games are transgressive, pornographic, scatological. They feature abuse, kidnapping, torture. Both children and adults are victimized. Both children and adults are abusers. If they had content warnings, those warnings would have to list just about everything under the sun. These games are in the same territory as the Marquis de Sade's writing.

I don't find transgressive media enjoyable in any conventional sense. It disturbs me. But I feel like I have to confront it. I seek out books and movies about horrible things. No matter how disturbing, they are still only books and movies. Fiction is the safest way to experience these horrible things. And I've consumed enough transgressive media to actually become rather picky about it. I don't care for de Sade; he might write about terrible stuff, but he exaggerates ridiculously. Octave Mirbeau's The Torture Garden and Lautreamont's Maldoror are more my style.

I'm providing this background about my own tastes to explain why I played the Robyn Saga, and to explain that my negative reaction is not a reaction against transgressive media in general. In fact, when I first learned about these games, I was excited to think that someone might be pushing interactive fiction in such an extreme direction.

But then I played the games, and I couldn't bring myself to finish the last one.

This was a good experience for me to have. It made me realize that there's another layer to the whole transgressive media thing that I hadn't perceived before. As I said, fiction is a safe way to explore horrible ideas. Whatever someone may write in a book, the words are just words on a page. With a movie like Begotten, you know that it's scripted and the actors are consenting and everything is fake.

For that matter, you can even take away the fictional element sometimes. You can read Albert Fish's letters, and they will turn your stomach, but they are still inert letters. There's a boundary in place. The text itself creates that boundary.

Well, with interactive fiction, that boundary is stripped away. Especially with indie games like the Robyn Saga, where "indie" means that anyone -- anyone -- can make a game. Usually we think that this is good. Game developing tools are accessible to everyone! Yes, well, imagine if Albert Fish had made a Twine game and released it onto IFDB.

The Robyn Saga is written well enough, but not that well. It has a philosophical slant in places, but more often it feels as though you're reading about someone's personal fetishes. These fetishes become more and more grotesque. Was the author writing this because they wanted to legitimately explore the material, or because it turned them on?

I cannot say. I do not know. The games never establish trust with the reader. Never. You are on unstable ground the entire time, and then you reach The Prism. This game requires a password to unlock. When you unlock it, what you get is erratic text, sexually charged and violent, completely unhinged. It calls itself a "child porn simulator."

This is where I bailed. Oh, did I bail. As quickly as my little mouse could drag over to close the browser window.

Now, I have to say that if the Robyn Saga is truly an intellectual exercise, then wow was it a success at plunging into the most depraved depths. But if the author was writing about their own fetishes, using Twine as an outlet... then I don't want to know what The Prism contains.

Based on how carefully the first three games were structured, I am inclined to think that the Robyn Saga is well intentioned. Actually, I'm almost positive. But still... some doubt remains. And since interactive fiction can throw anything at you, from text to images to video, I now realize that I cannot tolerate even the smallest doubt. I don't have to trust Albert Fish to read his letters. I do have to trust a game designer to play a Twine game.

I'd like to see transgressive games being created. But an author writing one will need to tread very, very carefully -- much more carefully than they would when writing a book.

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes , by B Minus Seven

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
You're catching the gist but not the exact phrasing., September 4, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This game placed 40th in the 2014 IFComp and has a bunch of negative ratings on IFDB, but I love it. You won't find much plot here. You won't find much coherence. But this game is drunk on language, and it is also hilarious.

B Minus Seven just knows how to write a sentence. Even a non-sentence. Even a nonsense sentence. Even a gobbledygook list filled with misspelled words. The text plays with you and you can almost bite into it and eat it at certain spots.

Inward Narrow Crooked Lanes is about putting you through the wringer. You the player, you the character you're playing as, and you know that the author went through the wringer too while writing it. You're on a little road of trials. The trials make no sense. You fill out intake forms. They make no sense. The lines in the text are the crooked lanes in the title, channeling emotions through the text like veins directing blood through a body. Cleansing. Purging. Producing either purity or waste, you can't tell which; the code is broken; you can't piece it back together.

The words "inward narrow crooked lanes" are taken from a Donne poem quoted in the game. The poem's gist is that a writer can't exorcise demons by putting them onto a page. It may seem possible at first, but then a reader comes along and feels the demon trapped inside the text, and now you've got three demons: one in the author, one in the text, and one in the reader. So much for snuffing out the original demon.

That's what's happening here. This game contains frustrations. It's a prison for them, funneling them inward through those narrow crooked lanes, into the game. And now there's a danger: they might get out again.

It is almost, in a certain sense, a triumph that this game has gotten poor reviews. It has succeeded in failing, which is to say that it hasn't transferred its demons into most people who've played it. All the strange things the game does are like a defense mechanism. When I mentioned broken code before, there really is broken code in the game, in the second room you enter, and it's there on purpose. The game is ripping itself open, showing you everything, but interestingly this direct exposure creates distance rather than closeness between player and game.

But what if you take the game's offer, get on the train, go with it where it wants to go? Is it going to sink you with its negativity? I say, no, because its humor is a buoy.

The snake suggests shearing your mane. You have no razor ready at hand; the idea is apropos of nothing. You don't believe you and the snake are on quite the same wavelength.

Humor is subjective. I know this stuff won't work for everyone, but it works for me.

On a more mundane note, I appreciate one technical feature in the game that allows you to rewind it to any page you've already visited. This makes going back to explore different branches very simple. You don't have to restart from scratch every time.

Funeral for a Friend, by Porpentine

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Simulated mourning, August 28, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Apparently there is a grave-digging sub-genre in interactive fiction. Or maybe it's just this game and Ryan Veeder's Dig My Grave. In any case, both games wear their monotonous premise on the sleeve: your object is to dig, therefore you dig.

At first glance, Funeral for a Friend seems like it would function just as well as a Twine game, and you can see when you play it why Porpentine did move on to Twine to write most of her other titles. That format works conceptually for the experiences she usually wants to deliver. But at the same time, I don't think Funeral for a Friend would quite work as well in Twine, because the more open-ended parser interface makes the action of grave-digging feel that much more restrictive when it's pretty much all you can do. The same holds true for Veeder's Dig My Grave.

This game feels like a precursor to ALL I WANT IS FOR ALL OF MY FRIENDS TO BECOME INSANELY POWERFUL. It's got that same dour minimalism finally giving way to something more alive as the game ends, although the handling is much more lightweight in Funeral for a Friend, since this game is essentially an extended joke.

Time-wise, it takes less than five minutes to play.

Beware The Faerie Food You Eat, by Astrid Dalmady

6 of 7 people found the following review helpful:
A fairy tale without a happy ending, June 25, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This game is about a journey into a fairy world. You step into a mushroom ring and emerge in an enchanted woodland filled with enchanted creatures. But the creatures are sly and dangerous, and it's much easier to die horribly on this journey than to find what you're seeking.

I really appreciate the take on the subject matter here. I can imagine some people saying that this is a "dark" spin on fairies, but actually, it's simply accurate. Fairies were respected and feared for a long time throughout history until they transformed into the wand-waving Tinkerbells that people think about today. In certain traditions, they're even associated with spirits risen from the dead. But mainly, they are amoral, and just as likely to drive a visitor to their realm insane for their amusement as to reward the visitor with (probably booby-trapped) gifts.

What we have in this game is almost a "greatest hits" of fairy trickery from different legends. You pass from one obstacle to another and see whether you can survive to keep going. It's nice, but it doesn't really do anything new with these ideas. I suspect that someone unfamiliar with the folklore would enjoy the game more than I did (I'm obsessed enough to have written a novel on this subject matter).

There are at least ten endings. I know this because at the end, the game lists them in ten spots with ???? next to the ones you haven't unlocked yet. But I do not know why it does this. I do not know why games in general do this. By giving players a checklist to complete, the game is encouraging you to lawnmower its branches until you have 100%. Nobody who does this will read the text fully each time. Whatever magic you might have first felt exploring the enchanted woodland is reduced to a mechanical, automatic exercise in clicking through the passages.

With this particular game, I bit the bullet and found eight endings. Finding these eight endings did not make me reevaluate the story or understand things in a new light. It diminished the experience.

I don't like multiple endings that exist just for the sake of having multiple endings. Normally, though, I don't care enough to write a review about it. But in this case, I love the subject matter so much, and the subject matter is so delicate, that being presented with such a game mechanic really threw a wrench into it for me.

I would recommend this game. Especially if you're only familiar with the sorts of fairies that fly around collecting teeth from under pillows. I would not recommend replaying this game once you reach any ending with the queen.

The Northnorth Passage., by Caleb Wilson (as Snowball Ice)

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Go North, young man, May 28, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
I first played this game months ago and rated it three stars. But sometime later I started thinking about it again, and then I came back and replayed it. And still later, when I was still thinking about it, I came back and replayed it again.

Obviously this game is working for me on levels I didn't initially understand.

You play as a character under a curse who can only walk north (well, almost only walk north). As a result, you have next to zero agency, and playing the game consists mainly of reading about scenes that you're traveling through. Scenes that you cannot participate in.

A huge component in the game is seeing, at every step, exciting new events and locations, and knowing that they are untouchable. This is a clever subversion of parser gameplay, but it's also the reason for my original three-star rating. I felt as though there was nothing to do, that the game could've been a short story instead.

I was wrong.

This game has a single puzzle. On my first playthrough I didn't solve it. I didn't even realize it existed. A short story could not have this puzzle. A hypertext game couldn't have it either, because a hyperlink would announce the solution, and solving the puzzle requires mentally adjusting your approach to the game after it has drilled its "go north" command into your head. It has to be presented in the parser format to work.

Another reason it couldn't be static fiction is because, in that case, you wouldn't feel the tension of wanting to interact with anything. The potential, even if not the implementation, of interactivity must exist in order for the player to feel thwarted.

Now I'm giving this game five stars because I've come to the realization that it succeeds exactly in what it wants to do, and furthermore, its content is fused to its medium. It's a game that does still seem like a short story in the sense that it invites the occasional replaying/rereading, but it's also 100% a game.

And the writing is great too.

And the Pursuit of Happiness, by Soda51

11 of 11 people found the following review helpful:
Nothing to see here, May 10, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This game isn't a game. It's a message. When you click on the play link, you're presented with a 404 error and text that reads: "What you are looking for no longer exists." Additional links lead to websites for the White House and the House of Representatives.

And that's it.

I get why this was made. The attitude being expressed here is common nowadays. In fact, it's so common that this game is beating a dead horse. Perhaps it's somewhat clever, mechanically speaking, to illustrate American happiness's supposed nonexistence by creating a "nonexistent" game, but such an illustration adds nothing to the conversation. All it does is parrot the sentiment that "the American dream is dead" with a smirk.

How players feel about this sentiment doesn't matter. The game won't make anyone think differently about anything. At the most, it will serve as a two-second pat on the back for someone cynical enough to believe the game's boilerplate catchphrase but not interested enough to think about the ramifications behind that catchphrase.

I suspect that the author did want to make people think, and that this game was intended to be subversive. And I'm all for subversive media creeping in and suddenly springing new ideas at people. But in order to do that, it's got to have ideas to spring.

The reason I wrote this review is because, even though this game has little value as a game, I consider it a perfect object lesson in how not to present sociopolitical criticism. In that sense, it may still teach people something.

A Trial, by B Minus Seven

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
An absurd distress, May 6, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This game will make many people wrinkle their noses. That's just a fact. It doesn't have a coherent story, doesn't have coherent characters, and its writing style shifts from passage to passage -- from unintelligible legalese to fairy-tale to script format, and more. Whether you're willing to play along is entirely dependent on your personality, and the game does warn you upfront that it will be "a trial."

With that said, this game made me laugh out loud more than almost any other interactive fiction I've played, and that counts for a lot. And even though the writing style shifts (which I don't perceive as negative, but which others might), it always flows, streaming along with words that simply sound good. Consider this example:

I come from the pen/feather that leaks ink. I come from the brush, that brief blush when we hold hands. I come from the bottle, the blotter the stopper. The well. I do not come well but I come as I am I suppose.

I feel this is a good representation of the game. Perhaps it sounds like nonsense at first, but it's not. We're in some government hellhole where the player-character's identity will be "approved" with a scrawl from a bureaucrat's pen, similarly to how the author's own pen granted this game its identity. The text quoted above is from an answer to a questionnaire's prompt: "Where did you come from?"

Not all the game's text is original. A Trial, in certain respects, is a collage. I'm interested in narratives cobbled together from disparate sources, so I enjoyed what was going on here, with the player-character being cobbled into some rough form as the game cobbles itself together from its influences. Whether this is a valid process to create something is what the game is (at least partially) about. How does one form an identity, anyway?

My favorite sequence was probably a walk down a hallway where the player is obstructed by three uncles, three fathers, three brothers, and three agents. A few lines recited to drive them away are great:

I know many tongues; I have grown many tongues and had many cut out. I know how to speak around you.

I will tie my hands into two thousand knots before I open the door to return to you.

Another sequence involves playing a game-within-a-game when the player loads a save file in a Pokemon parody, only to discover that an old friend corrupted the file with sinister intentions. This would've been right at home in the uncle who works for nintendo.

By now, anyone reading this has probably been able to decide if the game is something they'd be interested in experimenting with or not. It has thirteen endings by its own count, and its opening menu checks each ending off whenever you reach a new one, but I only found eight. In another game, I still probably wouldn't have found them all, just because I don't like replaying games over and over if that's what it takes to get a "perfect" score. In this case, I also feel like breaking away and refusing to satisfy the system is something the story would encourage.

Hey, Jingo!, by Caleb Wilson

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Unfinished? I wonder..., May 3, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
At two points in this game, out-of-world text assures the player that a full version will be released, because what we have here is only one episode pulled from a larger story without context. The game was originally released as an IntroComp entry, so all right. But no full version ever appeared afterward.

I assume that the author was in earnest about wanting to release a full version, and yet I can't be sure, because this game succeeds right now in its unfinished state. It drips with atmospheric jungle menace, briefly sketches characters who are already involved in an ongoing espionage plot, allows something nasty to scuttle into the picture, and ends on a cliffhanger.

Despite this cliffhanger, the player has a mission and is able to complete that mission. There aren't any unsolved puzzles left dangling. Which means that as a bite-sized puzzle game, it works.

What does remain unresolved is everything else. Potentials extend in every direction, inviting questions about the setting, the characters, the social climate, the native fauna, etc. Since these points remain unresolved, they feel alive, on-edge, as though anything could happen, and then the text runs out.

Comics are mentioned a few times throughout the game. The player-character muses that the environment resembles a certain comic book, comics are mounted on various walls alongside paintings, and, at one point, three comics are spread out across a desk to examine. They're the serialized pulp variety. And that's just what this game feels like to me: an installment in a pulpy magazine.

I'm reminded of Edward Gorey's The Bleeding Trunk, which takes the same fragmented format and begins with the recap: "As the last chapter ended, Violet was being chased through the sewers by an alligator dispatched by Kafatasi..." In Gorey's book, there never was a "last chapter," there never will be a "next chapter," and we never learn anything about Violet or Kafatasi or why an alligator should have been dispatched. Considering the adventure setting in Hey, Jingo!, a more apt comparison might be something like the episode "Escape from the House of Mummies Part II" from The Venture Bros. There never was an "Escape from the House of Mummies Part I."

Fragments like these have a strange value all their own, and whether Hey, Jingo! is fragmented on purpose or by mistake, it still has such a value. It will not satisfy anyone looking for a game with a complete beginning/middle/end, but if you're in the mood for an episode, then this is a very good one.

Salvanas, by Andrew Plotkin

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The smell of sulphur and hot mud, May 3, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Considering that this is only the second Age I've played in Seltani, I may not be equipped to judge the format. But I have played the Myst series, and Riven is my all-time favorite game, so I have some experience to rely on -- for good or ill.

Salvanas does capture that classic isolated-explorer-tinkering-with-strange-machinery ambiance from Myst. It's actually more than a single Age, since it contains five different worlds interconnected via linking books. Each world features a different puzzle. Some of these puzzles are more successful than others.

The home world itself, which links to the rest, is a series of rusted platforms suspended over bubbling mud in a caldera. Abandoned industry reclaimed by nature is such a key atmospheric note in Myst (and Riven especially), and here it's done justice. It's sparsely described but effective, and the puzzle to unlock the other linking books, which involves setting sliders to match a code, strikes about the perfect difficulty balance for my tastes. You have just enough configurations to keep your mind turning them over until, click, you've solved it.

Discovering what awaits you in the other four Ages is part of the game's charm, so I won't spoil that by describing their details. What I will say is that one world, whose puzzle heavily features a stream, worked for me just as well as the home world. Perhaps better. The others... not as much.

One world's puzzle involves extending and retracting catwalks and ladders to reach different locations. The environment here is lovely but the puzzle's goal is obscure, because the player doesn't know exactly which location they need to reach until, bam, they've suddenly reached it. You essentially fiddle with opening different pathways until you stumble into one that lets you win.

Another world's puzzle is something I would just consider cruel. Its solution hinges around an ocean's tide rising and falling, and the tide does this in real-time. The player cannot influence the tide, and indeed, unless the player just stands around waiting, they may not even notice that the tide fluctuates. The only reason I noticed was because I kept the game open in my browser and fortuitously glanced back at the right moment. But even once you do notice that the tide can change, you still only have a few opportunities in which to solve the puzzle. If you fail, you'll have to wait until the tide rises again. For me, that meant turning the game off and waiting until another day -- and then waiting again while I did something else for an hour because the tide was still in the wrong place when I restarted.

Maybe this is common in Seltani, and some Ages are meant to be changeable landscapes that players can return to throughout a twenty-four-hour period to discover new features. In that case, my criticism is empty. Otherwise, I found it very frustrating, especially since it was the only puzzle in Salvanas to feature a real-time mechanic.

Salvanas has a fifth Age that you can access immediately from the home world. You can do nothing here, but this Age changes slightly (and I do mean slightly) when you solve all the puzzles in the other Ages. I thought there must be something more to it, but after poking around without success, I finally searched for hints only to find a comment by the author stating that that was the end. The game never pretends to have a story behind its puzzles, but this was still an anticlimax.

However, despite my qualms, I would recommend Salvanas for both puzzle-fans and Myst-fans. It has enough positive qualities to outweigh the negative, and I think it would be more enjoyable for players going into it with the right expectations, which is what I wanted to provide with this review.

As for Seltani itself, that's fantastic, and I look forward to exploring more Ages.

Three Dragons, by Tim Samoff

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
When an adventurer sees a dragon, an adventurer slays a dragon., May 2, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This is a very short game where the player, upon meeting an old man on the road, is randomly tasked with going on an adventure. The "adventure" itself happens immediately when dragons attack and need to be dealt with. But the old man appears to have shifty motivations behind enlisting the player's help, and perhaps the adventure isn't as random as it seems.

As far as storytelling goes, the ground covered here is basic, which is the point. This is a simple fable with a simple setting and simple characters. I only came across a few spelling and grammar mistakes, although there was one jarring programming error involving an elixir. Otherwise, on the programming side, the interface is nice and glossy.

What stands out is the combat. When you fight a dragon, it happens in real-time, with links appearing for you to launch an attack, defend yourself, or retreat. The dragon will continuously attack, and the text will progress, whether you click these links or not -- meaning that it will progress even faster if you do click them. Even though it's difficult to die, this mechanic gives a real sense of urgency to the battle.

The good thing here is that the combat feels like it has stakes, especially when your health, listed in the status bar, begins to deteriorate and flash red as the dragon deals damage. But the bad thing is that, in a text-based medium, this gameplay style encourages you to click links without pausing to read the text, since pausing might allow the dragon to hurt you.

The game also gives the appearance of branching at some points, but most of the branches I picked were dead ends. For example, when you're given the choice to speak with the old man, rob him, or just walk away, only speaking with him will advance the story properly. I see this a lot in CYOAs, where the player will have multiple options to select from, but only as a kind of illusion to suggest there's more choice than there is. In reality, the game has a linear path it wants you to take, and if you don't take it, you lose.

I had to restart this game quite a few times when I picked the wrong option. Since it's so short, that wasn't a hassle exactly, but it did detract from the experience when I found myself wondering why this was necessary to finish such a simple story.

Lime Ergot, by Caleb Wilson (as Rust Blight)

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
An indolent fever dream, January 20, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
In this game you never move. You see and remember and hallucinate.

You are standing on a sunbaked wharf and your commanding officer, a wizened general in a wheelchair, orders you to prepare her a cocktail: a green skull. It requires limes. You have no limes. This is the game's premise, and acquiring the limes is its only puzzle.

Because you cannot leave the general's side, all that you may do is "examine" your surroundings, and as your examinations deepen, you peel back diaphanous layer after diaphanous layer until the atmosphere is swimming with lost memories. The scenario is hazy and beautiful, but also wrong, diseased.

Castle of the Red Prince uses this same mechanic, but whereas that game allows the player to move lightning-fast across the landscape by simply "examining" different objects or locations, Lime Ergot internalizes the action by rooting you to a single spot. The sensations that you uncover gather around you like a fog, and experiencing this mood is the game's purpose.

I discovered two endings. Both are easy to find, and both are worth reading. More might be possible.

The game is short, the writing crisp, with subtle eccentricity throughout. On the surface it is as light and refreshing as a breeze, but there is a creeping plague wind underneath. Try it if that sounds promising; move on if you prefer more varied gameplay or puzzle-solving.

metrolith, by Porpentine
A game where learning more means knowing less, January 16, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This is a very short game. I don't know how many times I played it. You must play it over and over to explore the city fully. In that way, the game draws you into it just as the city does the characters.

The city is unknowable. Gaining familiarity with its features only makes those features more obscure. You glimpse something, you think you understand, might formulate some connection, and then you turn a corner and you're lost again.

You have the choice to play as multiple characters. Although each one explores the same locations, their perspectives yield different experiences. Two characters, a bandit and bounty hunter, live through the same story from opposing sides. The other characters drift in and out on their own personal journeys.

It is worth playing through as all the characters, but that's not strictly necessary. This isn't a game about figuring anything out. It's about brushing against something subconscious that you recognize and yet can't name or comprehend.

Degeneracy, by Leonard Richardson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Interesting/aggravating, January 13, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
Your holy mission to kill the degenerate baron has been fulfilled. You're standing over his corpse when the game starts. His subjects have already fled the castle and there ought to be no further obstacles. But as it turns out, his subjects have fled because they know the worst is yet to come.

Saying anything else about this game's plot threatens to ruin the core mechanic, which gradually reveals itself as you attempt to explore the castle. It's clever, but it's also a tad irritating. As the game closes in around you, your options diminish. This means it's very easy to waste time at the beginning, examining objects and rooms and whatnot, before you even realize that you're wasting time. When you do realize what's happening, it's probably too late.

The outcome leaves me conflicted. It's necessary to go into the game without preconceptions in order to get the most from the experience. However, this means that it will also likely punish you a few times until you learn to economize your puzzle-solving. The "optimal" good ending is also not as rewarding as the "normal" good ending, as though, after you've solved everything, the game is in a hurry to tidy up.

Nevertheless, it's well worth playing for the writing, mood, light humor, and the overall concept. Just be prepared to undo or restart.

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

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Perfect pulp fantasy, January 11, 2015
by CMG (NYC)
This is a game that you pop in your mouth and let melt like a chocolate bonbon.

It is short. It is simple. It is seamless.

The premise is not revolutionary. You have come to a forested land to overthrow an evil prince who lives inside a castle on a cliff. There is a haunted graveyard. There is a village inn. The barkeep has gossip and ale to dispense.

These are all staples in the fantasy genre. This game reminds you why. Here, they have been pared down to achieve purity. And by allowing the player to travel anywhere spontaneously just by "examining" an object or location, the game streamlines the story, letting it slip down so smoothly that it's delicious.

If you want complex puzzles, or difficult moral choices interwoven into the gameplay, or deep characterization, then this game will no doubt disappoint. But if you want a classic fantasy scenario executed superbly, look no further.

Delightful Wallpaper, by Andrew Plotkin ('Edgar O. Weyrd')

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
What is it about mansion murder mysteries?, November 9, 2014
by CMG (NYC)
When you do a mansion murder mystery wrong, it's just another cliche. But when you do one right, you see why mansion murder mysteries are a thing in the first place. The medley of characters, the capacity for both realism and theatricality, the layered motivations, the rooms upon rooms each opening into more scenarios, expansive and yet bounded like a prison, and the wonder and horror and greed and lust and ego that naturally bubble up from the mixture.

And death. There's always death.

This game is two games in one. The first game is about the mansion itself. The second game is about the characters who inhabit it. In both games, you're initially presented with various obscure elements, but as you play along they click together to reveal totally logical underpinnings.

The mansion is mechanized. Its doors open and close, its floors raise and lower, and its tower bridge turns depending on which rooms you've entered in which order. It's not exactly a maze. You can't get lost. Rather, you have to explore your environment until you understand the principles behind its clockwork. After you've unlocked the mansion, then the second game begins.

The cast has arrived, suspended in tableaux in every room, stuck in time (which does not exist here in the usual sense). Now you aren't exploring the rooms but the characters by reading and rearranging their "intentions," which can be taken and moved like physical objects through the mansion. The intentions interact differently with different characters in different rooms. As you piece together who is really doing what to whom, and why, you're rewarded with humorous and grisly couplets describing each death that takes place. The couplets will rewrite themselves depending on how you organize everyone's motivations. It's a murder mystery in reverse, where the player doesn't solve whodunnit, but actually lays the psychological groundwork for "it" to be done.

My only disappointments with this game were that there was not a bedroom (what missed potential) and that one tower is ultimately irrelevant to both the puzzles and the story. It also would've been nice if the mansion had a plot-related purpose behind its mechanization.

It's true that the game is disjointed due to its distinctive halves, but each half is entertaining and I wouldn't sacrifice either. Although I do think the second half is where it really shines. The whole thing is a little like an interactive Edward Gorey book, which also makes "Delightful Wallpaper" about the best title I could imagine for it.

my father's long, long legs, by michael lutz
Amigara Fault's hypertext cousin, November 8, 2014
by CMG (NYC)
The author lists Junji Ito as an inspiration at the game's end, and that influence shows in the best possible way. This is a story situated in that rich, weird realm between body and psychological horror, where the horror arises just as much from what's happening as from how nonchalantly it happens. The characters, without losing their fear, have nevertheless accepted their circumstances. They live with the horror as long as they can until…

Stretchtext is the perfect way to present this story. The text is literally plunging downward on the screen just as the hole in the basement is plunging downward, growing deeper with every click. The linearity fits. You cannot turn back from the depths opening under your feet.

(Spoiler - click to show)And when you finally do reach those depths, and the linear narrative opens into a pitch-black void lit only by a flashlight where you have to search for the next link cluster, never knowing which link to follow, that linearity is even more justified. You wouldn't feel nearly so lost in the dark if the game hadn't lulled you into a false sense of security first.

If you want puzzles, you probably won't like this, but if you enjoy campfire stories and weird fiction, then it delivers.

Castle, Forest, Island, Sea, by Hide&Seek

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Play it for the fantasy, not the philosophy, November 7, 2014
by CMG (NYC)
I enjoyed this game for its whimsical fairy-tale elements, but not so much for its function as an analysis of the player.

Like many online personality tests, Castle, Forest, Island, Sea suffers from the fact that life is too complicated to be boiled down into a questionnaire. This game does succeed in blending the questionnaire with the narrative so that you flow right along with the story. However, in many situations, the choices the player can select are too limiting for the game to generate an accurate analysis about the player's philosophical outlook.

For example… (Spoiler - click to show)after a man-eating three-headed giant has been defeated, the player is asked to either forgive or condemn one of the giant's heads. That head was a pacifist that disagreed with the other two heads for behaving violently. But without any detailed insight into this giant's history, into what arguments the third head had previously made against the others, into how much control each head truly exercised over the body, into how necessary meat-eating was for its diet, etc., I personally found it impossible to pass a judgement. There wasn't enough information. Of course, I had to pass a judgement to continue the game anyway.

Likewise, when confronted with a princess whose governing policies had allowed the giant to run rampant, the player must either criticize the princess for being too rational in her policy-making or agree with her that a person cannot be too rational. This seems beside the point, since one can implement poor policies while still attempting to act rationally. Again, without learning more details about precisely why and how the castle had been governed and what alternatives there might have been, I found it impossible to judge the princess.

When the game ended, my analysis was filled with unhelpful contradictions. I was told that sometimes I judge people harshly and that sometimes I'm forgiving. I agreed with the blackbird more often than the robin, but I also agreed with the robin and the blackbird about the same amount.

I suppose this muddled analysis does reflect my ambivalence toward many of the choices in the game, but it doesn't say anything. Despite that, I can't fault the game too much here, because I don't believe it's really possible to construct an accurate personality test. At least not in this fashion.

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