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Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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LET'S ROB A BANK, by Bethany Nolan

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Squad-based diversion, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
There is a tradition of games in which you can select different squad members for different missions, the aim being to maximise the match between your squad’s capabilities and the challenges you will face in this particular situation. The Syndicate/X-Com games do this, as do some of the Mass Effect games, if I’m not mistaken. There’s something like this in LET’S ROB A BANK, except that here you are doing only a single mission, which makes sense, since you’re planning to make so much money that you’ll never have to work again.

The bank robbery will unfold in a variety of different ways depending on whom you put in your squad and which choices you make during the robbery itself. (The latter are in general far less consequential than the former.) Some of these differences make perfect sense: take the muscle guy who hates drivers and the irritable driver, and infighting will doom your effort. Other differences make absolutely no sense at all. There’s one squad member whom you cannot really choose, because taking her on board will always coincide with the total destruction of the world. Frankly, this feels less like a serious possibility and more like something put in at the last moment when the author realised they wouldn’t have the time to develop content involving this character.

The different ways in which the robbery can develop are often pretty entertaining, and you’ll probably see a few losing ones before you hit on a winning ending. A fun diversion, but I didn’t feel compelled to hunt for all the endings.

Into the Lair, by Kenna

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Vampire adventure, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
We’re in vampire territory here, and it’s the “living in a sewer and keeping herds of thralls and human cattle” kind of vampire. Clan Nosferatu, maybe, if we’re thinking in terms of Vampire: the Masquerade, which the author is probably not. There’s some in-game indication that not all vampires live this way, since both the protagonist and their rescuer are or can be animated by much less selfish desires. Indeed, the game starts out by giving us a choice of goal: freeing the other thralls, avenging ourselves on the elder vampire, or obtaining an amulet that will allow us to withstand the light of the sun. The game might have been more interesting if we had actually been forced to choose between these three goals – as it is, we can simply do all of them. It’s not so much a choice as a list of goals, then, although we can decide to murder the thralls if we so prefer.

The caverns that we traverse are a curious combination of good and not-so-good world building. The dungeon is especially effective, conjuring up images of horror without descending into gory details. But there are also numerous points of the “you’re at an intersection and can go in these and these directions”-type. I did enjoy traversing the catacombs, but it seems there was a lot more potential here for atmosphere and memorability.

There did seem to be a bit of a mismatch between the way the game tells us that the elder vampire is really scary and powerful, and the incredible ease with which one can depose of him. How did this guy ever earn his fearsome reputation if a newly freed thrall can kill him with no trouble at all? I certainly didn’t dislike the ending, but I again felt that there was untapped potential here. (What if you could only become strong enough to defeat the enemy if you first sucked every last drop of blood from the two human prisoners? Okay, I realise that that is the kind of game design that takes us squarely into the realm of my own obsessions, and the current author might not be interested in it at all. Still, it’s one way to make victory feel more costly and more consequential.)

I ran into a couple of bugs – a game-ending one if you tried to avoid the pit trap for the second time, and a bug where you can repeat the fight with the elder vampire as if it had never happened before – but those can easily be fixed.

All in all, enjoyable, with some strong moments, but more could have been achieved.

Linear Love, by Tom Delanoy

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The boundaries of a work, July 17, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I have little interest in policing the boundaries of IF. Yet I'm willing to state that Linear Love should not have been entered into the interactive fiction competition, since it is not interactive by any reasonable standards. The piece is simply a short story about a guy(?) who falls in love with a French girl until their very happiness weakens the attraction. The text is presented in a rather unusual way: rather than scrolling down to read more, in this particular piece you have to scroll up. (You can also scroll sideways indefinitely, but this serves no purpose.) The difference between scrolling up and scrolling down surely does not map onto the difference between traditional and interactive fiction.

However, there was one, perhaps unintended aspect of the piece that actually made reading it an interesting experience to me. If you right-click and press “Escape”, you are suddenly in an environment where you can select different portals to different stories. I quickly got stuck in the steel door of a Panopticon, unable to move any way. This wasn’t particularly entertaining, unless one interprets it as a parable about getting through the prose of Foucault. (For the record, I like Foucault. I just don’t always like his prose.) But what interested me was that I wasn't entirely sure where the boundaries of Linear Love lay. Was it just the original story, and was using the escape option a way of leaving the work and entering other works? Or was it all one whole, an entire universe of stories hidden behind the tale of linear love? It made me realise that the IF community still has a relatively traditional conception of a work, even though digital environments allow for much more vagueness and flexibility.

Instruction Set, by Jared Jackson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Unconventional puzzle game, now broken, July 16, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Instruction Set consists of a series of abstract puzzles of varying originality, embedded in a narrative about scientists who attempt to wake up a comatose woman. The puzzles are fine, but not great. The weakest is perhaps the 3-by-3 number sliding puzzle, which basically forces you to solve a puzzle you've already solved before, but this time in an inconvenient medium. On the other hand, the falling ball puzzles are fun, and the list-copying puzzles are also entertaining. Overall: adequate. The main storyline too is best described as adequate. It works to create interest, but nothing too unexpected happens, and there's no real drama.

Still, I liked the game more than the previous paragraph may suggest. I liked it because it has charm, a charm created by the combination of the pictures and the often quite funny dialogue. To give some inexact quotes: "I chose to interpret it as a rhetorical observation rather than a command." "Would you like a soothing cup of mildly warm water?" These moments brought a smile to my face and made playing the game a pleasure rather than a chore.

(Spoiler - click to show)More could perhaps have been done with the memories of the protagonist and the reaction of her mother; more character building, more narrative. We learn that there was a car crash, but this fact alone has little impact. On the other hand, more dramatic development at this level of the story might not have meshed well with the tone of the cartoon scientists.

One interesting question that the game raises is this: who are you playing? The comatose woman? Well, her memories are present as external to us, not internal. So perhaps we are merely a part of her brain, the part specialised in puzzle solving? If so, I think this is a very original choice of PC!


Unfortunately, Instruction Set can no longer be played, because an update to the software platform it runs on has broken keyboard input. I hope it will one day be restored, because it if worth checking out.

Diddlebucker!, by J. Michael

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Solid puzzlefest, July 16, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Diddlebucker!'s cover art looks as if it came straight from Infocom, and there's some obvious Infocom-era nostalgia going on here. We are participating in a great puzzlefest, recreating some of the feel of, say, Hollywood Hijinx; and the year is 1987, the last great year for the company that gave interactive fiction its name. But Diddlebucker! is evidently a 21st century game, as can be seen from the nice in-built hint system, the relative fairness of the puzzles and the fact that it is almost merciful on the cruelty scale. (Almost: you can get yourself into an unwinnable situation near the very end of the game, so it's useful to save when things get intense.)

The game consists of several segments, and I found some of them more compelling than others. For me, the stand-out section is the part along the river. Here, all the puzzles made perfect sense to me; I did not need the hint system at all; and I was particularly pleased by the use of geography. (Spoiler - click to show)It is satisfying when you get to explore the roofs and the river that you already know are there but did not expect to be able to traverse. This part of the game was very enjoyable for me.

I found the theme park section more difficult to like. There are many red herrings (e.g., all the shops and games and attractions you don't need); some of the content is arbitrarily restricted or appears only at certain moments (e.g., the white house tour, the employee, the couple); and a few of the puzzles were beyond me. (If anyone solved the song clue without using hints, I'm impressed.) Perhaps the experience was made more difficult for me because I had to look up many of the arcane Americana, although it turned out that none of that was really necessary for solving the game. In this part, I frequently relied on the hints, which of course makes for a less satisfying experience.

I nevertheless persevered, and was happy that I did. There is a nice plot twist near the end, a sudden ramping up of the danger level, and all in all a satisfying ending to a mostly satisfying game. Although if a popcorn king called 'Diddy' invites me to come to his 'seaside mansion'... I'll find a polite way to decline.


In summary: a very competent puzzle-fest, executed with charm, though perhaps a little rough around some of the edges.

Careless Talk, by Diana Rider

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Needs more punch, July 15, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Careless Talk is a short choice-based game about a very heavy topic: lethal violence against homosexuals. Or perhaps it is more correct to say that the game is about living in a world where revealing who you really are could have the most dire of consequences. The protagonist of the tale is a gay sailor -- in fact, a sort of techno-magician -- and he has been speaking about his predicament to the ship's clergyman. This is risky, since you never know whom to trust, but perhaps also necessary, since you need somebody to talk to. As the game starts, our protagonist has heard that one of his former friends, also a gay sailor, has been betrayed and killed on another ship. He needs to talk to the clergyman again, but, at the same time, has the possibility of betrayal more clearly on his mind then ever.

Now there is nothing really wrong with this piece; there are no bugs, and the writing is competent. And yet it failed to make much of an impact on me. It's about something really dramatic... and yet, the drama wasn't conveyed to me. I'm not exactly sure why that happened, but I have a few hypotheses, all of which take the form of describing a way in which the game's impact might have been bigger.

(Spoiler - click to show)One possibility would be to increase the emotional impact of finding out that our friend Tom has been betrayed and killed. This would require spending more time establishing Tom as someone we know and like, a real person; and probably also spending time developing the personality of his betrayer. Perhaps the betrayer even found out about Tom's sexuality because of something we ourselves did, or were at least part of? A lot of potential here, if we were willing to start the story much sooner.

A second possibility, probably closer to the author's intentions, would be to ramp up the tension in the present-day scenes. I never really had the idea that something bad was going to happen to the character. The only homophobe we meet is a stupid as the rear end of a pig, so harm is unlikely to come from there. And what possible reason could the clergyman have to betray us now, at this moment, when he could have outed us much earlier? Perhaps if someone had been on to us, and we needed to convince the clergyman to take a risky action in order to save us, this would have created more real drama in the moment.

A third possibility, on a slightly more meta-level, is to tone down the overt discussion on the world's violent homophobia. From its very first words, the game signals to us exactly what it is about: violence against homosexuals, who therefore have to hide their sexuality. And the game proceeds to show us what is has already told us. I'm not a big fan of the old adage "show, don't tell"; but perhaps we should be wary of first telling the reader what is going on and then also showing it in concrete scenes. This surely lessens the impact of those scenes themselves.

A fourth possibility, perhaps closest of all to the author's intentions, would be to focus more on the nature of friendship. There is a sense in which the main question that the game raises is this: why would anyone risk their very life just in order to talk about their true self? (It was a good choice on the author's part to have the relationship between the protagonist and the cleric be purely platonic. The question why someone would risk their life to enact their sexual preference is also a good and deep question, but most people have a ready-to-hand, if perhaps too simplistic, answer to it: lust is sometimes irresistible.) This is a very interesting question; and I would have liked to see a bit more exploration of the protagonist's struggle with this question. Perhaps multiple encounters with the clergyman could have helped here, including possibilities to either tell him about it or not, and then a subsequent struggle with the negative effects of either choice.


The game, then, ended up falling a bit flat for me. But there's a lot of material here that I could see being developed in ways that might have much more impact on me. This is the author's first piece of interactive fiction, and it is a worthy effort. I'm interested in seeing how they'll develop their craft in the future.

Re: Dragon, by Jack Welch

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Phagocytosis, July 14, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I did not in any way participate in or follow the 2017 IF Comp, so I had never heard of The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now, the game to which Re: Dragon is a sort of unofficial 'sequel' -- if that's the right word, which it almost certainly is not. But since Welch's game is quite insistent about our playing that 2017 game first, I decided to do so. Given how low it placed in the competition, The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now is surprisingly fun. I especially liked the way that it goes from 'ominous' (better watch out, if I make the wrong choice I'll be killed, that owl is out to get me) to utterly zany (let's try a flying ninja kick by first ricocheting off of the opposite wall, the shocked expression of the owl be damned). The fact that you can't open the door is... yes, unsatisfying, but that is part of the deal. Not a great game, but certainly not bad.

This means that I entirely sympathise with Welch's wish to rehabilitate the 2017 game through his own 2018 game, which puts it in an entirely new context and thereby gives everything in it an entirely new meaning. I'm a sucker for this kind of thing. I love it. (My own game Nemesis Macana contains a long non-interactive essay in which the fictional author gives a bizarre sex-obsessed reinterpretation of a whole series of famous IF games. Very different from Re: Dragon in form and tone, and yet, there's some underlying similarity.) Of course, this is also why the 2018 game is not really a sequel to the 2017 game. A better image would be that of phagocytosis: Re: Dragon eats up The Dragon Will Tell You Your Future Now and incorporates it, turning it into something else in the process. You can never read the original work again in the same way.

As a game, it's quite enjoyable. I especially liked the weird e-mails we got as a competition organiser, and if there's one thing I was disappointed about, it was that the e-mail interface sort of stopped being relevant as soon as you got to the choice-based dragon story. It could have been a lot of fun if weird mail had kept coming in, and perhaps also some mail based on the choices we make in the story. Now the two parts of Re: Dragon feel a little disconnected.

Still, playing through it was a good time. I'm not sure the final story makes complete sense -- it certainly doesn't seem to fit all the fictional details of the 2017 game -- but that's fine, since it is in keeping with the essential zaniness of the original. Re: Dragon wants to be fun, and it is fun.

(Though one thing was, alas, missing: a cameo by Stiffy Makane!)

Need To Get Right With The Lord? Go To Church!, by ClickHole

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Pointless irreverence, July 12, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is a short choice-based game about going to church. You sit through an absolutely nonsensical sermon, perhaps spending the time checking out some good-looking girls, and then there's a wide-branching set of choices at the end. You may end up seeing God, getting your soul eaten by a demon, or just going home after the sermon.

I fail to understand what the point of the piece is. If it had really focussed on how boring a sermon can be, and how the attendants are mostly killing time while keeping up the facade of piety -- then it would have been a piece of satire. But most of this game is so far out that it doesn't work as a commentary on anything, be it the sociology of church going, the hypocrisy of much piety, the teachings of some particular religion, or indeed anything else. All it is, is irreverent: it refuses to take any aspect of religion seriously.

But what is the point of mere irreverence? There is perhaps a slight chance that a person who is struggling with a suffocating religious upbringing will experience any and all forms of irreverence as liberating. But I doubt it. If you're being oppressed by dogmatic teachings that you neither believe in nor feel able to reject, you're better off reading something substantial -- Mark Twain's Letters from the Earth, say, or Friedrich Nietzsche, or even Richard Dawkins, though I cannot fully recommend his scientistic world view. If you just feel a lot of anger towards certain forms of organised religion and need to get it off of your chest, then you're better off screaming along to some crazy satanic black metal. If you are frustrated by right-wing conservative Christianity, go and read some left-wing progressive Christian authors, like Dorothee Sölle and Gianni Vattimo. If you are interested in a Christianity that can inspire even those who do not embrace the dogmas, delve into Kierkegaard or Renée Girard or Paul Tillich or even someone like Henri Nouwen.

Of course, I'm taking this game far too seriously if I end up recommending you to read a whole bunch of philosopher and theologians; and, to be sure, spending more time writing the review than playing the game. But it irritated me, even though I am (perhaps*) an atheist. There is so much about religion that is worth saying and exploring, much of it positive, much of it negative, but all of it important... and this game manages to do nothing with it. I guess I needed to get that off of my chest.


* It all depends on your definitions, of course. When Tillich tells us that God is not a being but Being itself, and that theistic belief in God as an entity is atheistic, well, then perhaps I am not an atheist after all. And since this conception of God is more useful to me than most, because it allows me greater access to the tradition... why not embrace it?

The Temple of Shorgil, by Arthur DiBianca

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Masterclass in new-school puzzle design, July 12, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
This is a masterclass in new-school puzzle design. Old-school games had many puzzles, but they were all unrelated: solving one of them did not help you with the next one (except perhaps by providing you with new tools). Playing the game, you are not building up expertise. Did you get the items from the demijohn in Curses!? Nice! But it doesn’t teach you how to retrieve the attic key from the cellar.

New-school puzzle design, on the other hand, is all about teaching the player to think in certain ways, to consider certain possibilities. As you progress through the game, you become better and better at understanding how the puzzles in this game work and hence you become better and better at solving them. This allows the author to make the puzzles more difficult as time goes by, to compensate for the increased expertise of the player and keep the balance between frustration and achievement at exactly the right point.

Temple of Shorgil is, as I said, a masterclass in this kind of design. It does it perfectly. First of all, it restricts the players actions to movement, taking statuettes and putting down statuettes. Except for some information gathering, that is all you ever need to do. Every puzzle then revolves around taking and putting down statuettes. The first few are very simple, teaching us the basics; we are then slowly introduced to the idea that the plaques are useful; and before we know it, we are solving some quite complicated riddles with, if not ease, at least a modicum of skill. Very nice.

(Spoiler - click to show)The hardest puzzles are semi-optional, since they involve the ‘secret’ rooms that a player might never find – although the ending you get if you haven’t solved the secret puzzles isn’t too positive, so that might clue you in that there is more to discover. But even these are utterly fair.

If there is a price to pay for the razor sharp focus on efficient puzzle design, it may be that the game feels somewhat sparse and clinical. The completed legend and the story of our archaeological rivalry are both nice, and the sketches help to bring some life to the world. But the protagonist remains a blank and most of the game world is described in the most utilitarian terms. This is inevitable; anything else would have spoiled, at least to some extent, the masterclass. And yet it makes me feel that for all its faults, a game like Curses! had more charm.

That may be an unfair gripe; or maybe it is merely a statement about my personal tastes. Whatever may be the case, Temple of Shorgil is highly recommended.

The Origin of Madame Time, by Mathbrush

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Emminently likeable, July 10, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I’m not a fan of superheroes. Perhaps you need to be at least a little bit sympathetic to the American libertarian/frontier mentality to enjoy fictions about this one guy who can go and solve problems that society as a whole can’t fix! Or maybe it’s just that I didn’t grow up with superhero comics. My childhood was defined by the Flemish comic Suske & Wiske, in which one of the good guys, Jerom, is as preternaturally strong as any superhero. But the writer ends up devising ever more complicated ways of getting Jerom out of the story, because his entrance solves every possible problem immediately. Boring. That’s why superheroes need supervillains, I guess, but then why bother going to the level of super?

Also: why bother with this introduction? Well, only to point out that it is entirely irrelevant to my appreciation of The Origin of Madame Time, since MathBrush’s effort is not in fact a superheroes game. Of course, it looks like one. It’s chock full of superheroes! But they’re all frozen in time, so they’re not doing anything; and you yourself do not have any special powers that you can use to solve the problems you are confronted with. Admittedly, you have the power to unfreeze time, which is spectacular enough. But you can only use it after solving the problems, not in order to solve them. So we end up with a very human puzzle game, even if it is set in colourful surroundings and uses a plethora of what are, for all means and purposes, magic items. There is not a single action sequence – we are light years removed from the Earth and Sky series.

The Origin of Madame Time ends up being a game that I find very easy to like. The puzzles aren’t trivial, but they won’t stump a seasoned adventurer. The setting and the set of characters are memorable. The implementation is top notch, and the humour is light but effective. It doesn’t break new ground, but it makes me smile. Since I assume that that is precisely its main purpose, I would declare it a clear success.


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