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Reviews by Victor Gijsbers

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Murder at the Manor, by Obter9

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Murder at a non-very-interactive manor, July 8, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
A detective story that is very traditional indeed, being set in an English manor and going as far as to incorporate some of the basics of the Cluedo board game. Its main selling point is the protagonist-narrator, whose arrogant and extravagantly clichéd demeanour is indeed quite funny. The writing is good and the mystery at least adequate. (Spoiler - click to show)There are clues pointing to everyone, but there’s an early one that breaks the symmetry and points to one person as the most likely perpetrator.

(Because of the arrogance of the narrator, I originally thought he could only be right by dumb luck; and I ended up assuming that whoever you accused, that person would turn out to be the guilty party. Nope, it’s just a classic mystery with one criminal. (Spoiler - click to show)But I did make the correct choice on my first try, since I tried the person against whom I had most evidence – and that turned out to be the right way of thinking.)

It is less clear that this story is well-served by being an interactive fiction. Indeed, there are no real choices before it is your turn to accuse someone; just large pieces of text and then some ‘choices’ that obviously only change the order in which the pieces are presented to you. The entire thing would have been just as effective if it had been printed as a short story, ending with the message: “Who do you think is the killer? Turn to page 120 to see whether you are correct!” One could argue that nothing is lost either by presenting it as an interactive piece. But the reader has other expectations when sitting down to play interactive fiction, and those expectations here turn out to be disappointed. And it wouldn’t have been that hard to make the piece more interactive. So overall: enjoyable, certainly, but also a bit of a missed opportunity.

Ailihphilia, by Andrew Schultz (as N. Y. Llewellyn)

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Be amazed by the wordplay, July 6, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
In a sense, I am not the ideal player for a game that is filled with as many palindromes as the author could device. First, I am not myself an ailiphilist, I mean, a tsiliphilist, nor do I suffer from the darker and more kinky cousin of ailihphilia, ailihparaphilia. Second, and more to the point, English is not my first language. For a game based on wordplay, and especially a kind of wordplay with constraints so severe that it necessitates the use of many obscure and slang terms, this is decidedly a negative. I remember banging my head against Goose, Egg, Badger because my English language skills were just not good enough to realise the nature of its main wordplay puzzle. This could certainly also have happened with Ailihphilia.

But it didn't, and that is because the author has taken great care to ensure that his game is accessible and free from frustration. He has indeed expended immense efforts to achieve this, giving us an almost -- but not quite -- bewildering amount of ways to get reminders, hints and solutions. The player who wishes to solve all the puzzles herself can do so, while the player who is mostly along to revel in the author's inventiveness can relax and enjoy the trip. (I myself fell somewhere in between, taking pride in solving most of the first half of the game by myself, and then using the hint systems to speed up my play in the second half.)

Revelling in the author's inventiveness is indeed the main draw of the game. Christopher Huang complains that there aren't enough puzzles in which the player has to come up with palindromes, but I don't think the aim of the game is to challenge the player to be as smart a wordsmith as the author. Rather, I imagine Andrew gleefully making up and combining palindromes into a (somewhat) coherent fiction, managing to cram in more and more as he continued to refine and expand the game -- and I, the player, am invited to laugh along with him while at the same time being in awe of what he's doing. Playing Ailihphilia is like watching a juggler: it's amazing that somebody manages to do this, and being amazed is where the fun of the experience lies. Or perhaps an even better comparison is this: playing Ailihphilia is like reading a rendition of Poe's poem The Raven that contains not a single 'e'. Fun and awesome, because it is both difficult and done well. Of necessity, it is not the greatest of literature; but it doesn't have to be to be really enjoyable.

Shackles of Control, by Sly Merc

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Bad, but amusing, July 5, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
My first impressions of Shackles of Control were negative. There are frequent spelling and other language errors, such as “appressing” for “oppressing”, “baren” for “barren”, and such phrases as “Where could everyone gone?” and “magnitudes of CDs”. Together with the your-school-is-suddenly-abandoned plot and the fact that pressing “Credits” seems to end your game prematurely, this made me feel that Shackles of Control was just a lazy game, badly put together.

And then I arrived at an ending that involved a suddenly abusive narrator, a countdown timer to my death, over-the-top music and a fake button puzzle to give me false hope. This made me laugh out loud. Turns out the entire game is built around the conceit of having the player stray from the story in weird ways and having this strain their relationship with the narrator. The ending with the timer and buttons was perhaps the funniest, but there are some other amusing paths to discover as well.

I understand that the game might be more than a little inspired by The Stanley Parable, but since I’m unfamiliar with that piece, I can’t comment on the extent of the similarities or dissimilarities.

The complaints from my first paragraph still stand, of course. But I ended up having fun, and that counts for more than a little.

Dilemma, by Leonora

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Applied ethics zaniness, July 5, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
When I read this game's competition blurb, I thought: it makes it sound as if the game is a mix of trolley-style ethical problems and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5. To my not inconsiderable surprise, that is exactly what Dilemma is. You are faced with a terrible accident about to happen, and you have either one or, depending on what you do, just a few moves to come up with a solution. Shades of Rematch, certainly, but instead of trying to find the right solution, you are exploring an extremely wide possibility space, so it ends up feeling more like Aisle.

Let me stress that the possibility space is really wide. You start out by thinking of clever ways to save an old man from being run over by a bus, but you can easily end up deciding whether living people should be used as life support for important artists, or whether to hand over the Earth to a race of benevolent aliens. The central enjoyment offered by the game is the exploration of this zany universe, where everything weird seems to be happening at once.

But this very zaniness sits somewhat uneasily with the game’s claim of serving up moral dilemmas – a claim that even determines the title of the piece. Most of the piece is just not about dilemmas. Sometimes this is because you know nothing about the consequences: the question of whether or not to shoot the front left tire of the bus is not a moral dilemma, since you don’t know what will happen. But often it is because of how bizarre the choices are. Should I surrender the world to paternalistic aliens, or should I embrace an anti-communist quote by C. S. Lewis? Of course, it’s a great and important moral principle to never embrace anything by Lewis, but... let’s just say that this choice is a bit too ‘out there’ to really count as a thought experiment in moral philosophy. It doesn’t help that the game regularly gives ethical interpretations of your choices that have nothing to do with what you were thinking when you made the choice, nor that the game actively encourages you to find every ending, which means that you end up not making choices, but just exploring all the possibilities.

All in all, it was enjoyable for a while, and made me laugh at some of its weirder twists. But there wasn’t enough substance to keep me motivated to find all the endings. I experienced about a third and then called it quits.

A Final Grind, by nrsm_ha

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Kill monsters with multiplication, July 3, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
I wanted to like this game. I have a soft spot for games that combine interactive fiction with RPGs, and also a soft spot for traditional dungeon crawls. Furthermore, although the game’s premise seems tired and cliched – rescue miners from a mine filled with goblins and orcs – the author nevertheless manages to make it feel fresh. The scene in the storage room, for instance, where you remember your training days? That’s great! Nothing fancy, but enough to turn a standard scenario into something more memorable.

Unfortunately, the game suffers from two big problems: an annoying combat system and a severe lack of testing. To take the latter first, (Spoiler - click to show)if you try to crack open the safe, you get stuck on a page with a dead link. In some circumstances – I do not know which ones – the spade cannot be found in the storage room even though you have seen the cave-in. When you arrive at the magical barrier, the page displays an error message and some code. It seems to me that even some mild beta testing would have caught these problems.

I would nevertheless have persisted if it had not been for the fact that the combat system becomes annoying rather quickly. There’s only one action you should ever take: parry. Parrying leads to a sort of mini-game where you have to answer a question of arithmetic in order to succeed. It reminded me a little bit of Typing of the Dead, in which you must practice blind typing to kill zombies. Here you must practice calculation to defeat goblins and orcs. That might be fun... if it were not for the following:

1. You have to do far too much of it. A single fight can easily consist of four to five parries, and there are many, many fights. Not so much the main story ones – they are limited. But the random encounters just pile up, and it happens regularly that you finish a random encounter only to immediately begin another one and then yet another one afterwards.

2. The questions seem to come from a rather short pre-made list. This in itself is mysterious: it seems easy to have a computer come up with random arithmetic questions. Instead, you will get the same questions again and again, so the game quickly turns into memorising the answers and typing them in when needed. This removes any feeling of skill or satisfaction.

3. The difficulty of the questions varies immensely. You might be asked what 2+2 is, but you might also be asked for the derivative of x cos(2x). Who is the target audience here? Anyone who can so much as understand what the second question means, will be insulted by the ease of the first question. (It would make some sense to have easy questions for easy opponents and hard questions for hard ones, but I don’t think it works that way.)

4. And then there’s the impossible question: “-13 x - 7 is 46, so what is x?” Well, it is -53/13, the decimal expansion of which is infinite. As far as I could figure out, getting this question is an instant loss, because you cannot give a correct answer. (Typing in the fraction doesn’t work.)

After a while I noticed that my enjoyment of the game had vanished and had been replaced a feeling of exhausted annoyance whenever another random encounter appeared on my screen. So I decided to quit. (I did not, by the way, find a way to restore saves, even though you can supposedly save the game.) There is something fine here, but changes need to be made before it can actually be enjoyed.

The Addicott Manor, by Intudia

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Genre celebration full of random deaths, July 1, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
The Addicott Manor is a choice-based horror game in which you search for treasures in a haunted house. The author put in every standard element of the horror story: you’re breaking into an old, abandoned, isolated, vast building that was built by a merchant who got rich off of selling weapons; the neighbourhood has been troubled by mysterious strangers and missing locals; an incredible storm is about to engulf the area; and when you arrive, the supernatural starts intruding very quickly. Obviously, the game is more interested in revelling in the traditions of the genre than in breaking new ground, but that’s fine. Most of us can enjoy a good genre tale.

Unfortunately, the game’s prose is marred by a large number of spelling and other language errors. Here is a short, more or less random sample:
The feeling of dread is already wearing you down like a mantle. A long lonely howl pierce through the encroaching night.
I suppose you can wear down a mantle if you wear it frequently enough, but it is surely strange to suggest that a mantle wears the wearer down. (To feel the strangeness more acutely, put “coat” in place of “mantle”.) And a howl of course “pierces” rather than “pierce”. A few such errors are forgivable, but The Addicott Manor has rather too many of them.

Once we reach the manor, the game quickly pulls out all the stops. You can die a gruesome death in the first location and meet all kinds of ghosts and other monsters soon after. I’ll admit that I was rather put off by the fact that avoiding death seems to be a matter of pure luck. You will frequently be asked to make choices like this: “There are three identical corridors. Do you want to go left, right, or straight on?” But that’s not really a choice, is it? It’s a guess. But even when the choices are not identical, it does seem to be the case that life and death hinge on information you cannot have in advance – there’s a crazy guy in the building and a fearsome noise outside, do you go in or do you stay outside? (Spoiler - click to show)Turns out the crazy guy is more deadly, but you can only come to know this by, well, trying and dying. After a few deaths of this type, I decided to quit. Playing this game will involve patiently trying out all the possibilities one by one, and I have neither the patience not the inclination to do so. (I also couldn’t find a way to save/restore my games, though the game luckily allows you to undo a move after dying.)

Note: this review is of the original competition version.

The Fourth Riddle, by reconditarmonia

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Two female perspectives on the classic opera, June 30, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Musically, the most famous moment in Puccini's opera Turandot is the aria Nessun dorma, 'nobody sleeps', in which prince Calaf explains in jubilant tones that in the morning he will conquer the heart of princess Turandot. One reason for the aria's great dramatic power is the contrast of the prince's exuberance with the despair of the choir, which sings: "No one will know his name and we must, alas, die." For Calaf has made a deal with the princess. He has answered all three of her riddles correctly, and therefore she must marry him. But, he has told her, if she manages to find out his name by dawn, he will gladly die. And thus the princess is searching for his name and she has threatened everyone with death unless they help her succeed. But only one person knows his name: the slave girl Liú, who loves Calaf and would rather die than reveal it...

The Fourth Riddle takes place during this aria, but instead of seeing the world from Calaf's perspective, we step into the skins of the two female protagonists, Liú and Turandot. This is a brilliant take on the opera. We know that Calaf is somewhere out there pontificating about his impending victory, but in fact, in this particular rendition of the story, his fate will be decided when he is off-stage, by the interactions of the two women in his life -- the one whom he loves even though she does not seem to deserve it, and the one whom he does not love even though she most certainly does deserve it. It is Liú especially, poor Liú, who is treated with condescension by almost everyone in the opera including, arguably, the librettist, who finally takes the reigns of he own fate and becomes more than a splendid self-sacrifice. Even if she does end up sacrificing herself, at least we know that she had more paths to choose from and that she seriously considered them. For that's the kind of game we have here: a relatively linear main part, but with a wild branching of endings based on choices at the end.

As a game, it's all enjoyable enough. There are some mild puzzles here that will not stump a moderately seasoned player of IF. We get a chance to experience the palace and see something of the emotional state of the two women. In the end, they are not truly drawn as characters, in part perhaps to leave open all these different endings. But that's fine. The Fourth Riddle is not a deep psychological reinterpretation of the opera. Rather, it is a pleasant exploration of some alternate possibilities, a variation on the original theme, some relatively good-natured fun with a classic work. Recommended if you know the opera; probably too baffling if you don't. (In which case: go watch it.)

Korenvliet, by Alexander van Oostenrijk

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Sentimental reasons, June 29, 2019
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Korenvliet was the first piece of interactive fiction I ever played. Not, to be sure, this 2016 English remake in TADS; but the original Dutch version, written in BASIC and included in an MS-DOS game menu that was, for many years, my main source of computer entertainment. Had I lived in a country like the US or the UK, where games by companies like Infocom or Magnetic Scrolls were widely distributed, I would have certainly fallen in love with IF at a young age. As it was, all I had was Korenvliet. This game still managed to capture my imagination, and indeed it was almost single-handedly responsible for my writing a short text adventure when I had developed some BASIC skills of my own at age, say, 13.

But Korenvliet was bad. It was awful. I'm not just talking about the fact that it was utterly generic, that the descriptions were sparse, or that the implementation was even sparser. No, what primarily frustrated me -- and my maternal grandmother, who spent some time sitting beside me behind the computer in what I think was her only serious engagement with such a machine ever* -- were the terrible guess the verb issues. To give you an example, at one point in the game you have acquired running shoes and need to go for a run. I was never able to do this. Many years later I reverse engineered the BASIC source and found out that the single command accepted by the game was "ga joggen", in English, "go jogging". So we were just stuck and in the absence on any sources of help, I remained stuck. For me, interactive fiction retained the mysterious aura of something that was clearly potentially great, but not actually available in any form worth playing.

I'm glad that Alexander van Oostenrijk has turned Korenvliet into a playable game. He has translated it into English, transposed it to TADS and removed the guess the verb issues. If memory serves me, he has also added much in the way of description, although he also seems to have removed some aspects of the original game, especially the randomly moving but utterly useless NPCs. As I said, I'm glad, that he has taken the trouble to do so. Being able to play and finish Korenvliet is both sentimental -- it reminds me of my youth and of my grandmother -- and provides me with just a little bit of closure.

Of course, Korenvliet is still a weak game, very old-school, with illogical puzzles and an utterly generic setting. It is this genericness that now strikes me as the most surprising. The game is based on a now obscure but once popular series of Dutch books by Leonard Huizinga, the first of which is called "Adriaan en Olivier". I loved them as a youth, since they were funny, bawdy and just a little absurd. I reread one recently, and was now less impressed by the often puerile jokes... but still, they have an unmistakable character and style. Somehow, none of that appears in the game. You are not the naïve, romantic, alcoholic, sex-obsessed, but deep down decent Olivier; you're just a nameless person. You don't start the game by drunkenly crashing your car into the Rittenburg town hall, even though all of the books start that way. Why would you choose to base a game on a fictional work, and then use nothing from that work, not even the tone? It's just weird.

Anyway, you're not really missing out if you don't play this; but if you want a little taste of early Dutch IF, Van Oostenrijk has made it available for you.

* My maternal grandfather, on the other hand, was one of the two people in charge of the building the first Dutch computers: the ARRA I and II and the ARMAC. Unfortunately, he died three years before I was born.

Stuck in a room!, by andrus7789

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Stuck indeed, September 28, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
Extremely spare prose and implementation; no plot to speak of; and, as far as I can see, you quickly end up getting stuck in a room with no exits and a single item that doesn't respond to any commands. Oh well, at least the game is true to its title.

Rape, Pillage, Makane!, by Chandler Groover

4 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Bitter satire, August 16, 2018
by Victor Gijsbers (The Netherlands)
From a misogynist adolescent to a fun-loving Roman to the victim of a self-important sex-hater, Stiffy Makane is surely the IF character to appear in the most different guises. Here, he appears as a knight whose repertoire of actions consists of exactly two things: Slay and Lay. When Sir Makane slays, he brutally murders; when he lays, he is often engaged in rape or something very close to it. (The game never explicitly mentions consent, though it sometimes stops short of telling us that the laying was non-consensual.)

The game reminded me of a sequence early in Ludovico Ariosto's magnificent (and feminist) 16th century epic Orlando Furioso. In that sequence, a knight has rescued a naked princess chained to a rock by defeating the monster that was planning to eat her. The princess expresses her gratitude. And then the knight tells her that he knows just the way for her to really show her gratitude, and he proceeds to undress -- he does not even consider the possibility that she might not want him sexually. But taking off his armour is such a laborious process that the princess has fled far away before he finishes it.

Ariosto and Groover are both trying to expose the violence inherent in stories of chivalry and the culture that generates them. (For Groover, of course, these stories stand in for many other kinds of narrative we find in contemporary works, all of which work in fundamentally the same ways.) But there is a distinct difference in tone. Ariosto is always generous and humane, while Groover's satire is bitter. Ariosto doesn't express his disapproval of the knight, but by making him the butt of a joke, he ensures that we cannot mistake the author's intent. Groover, on the other hand, makes his narrator express constant approval of the actions of Sir Makane -- an approval that is obviously ludicrous and often supported by bizarre non sequiturs, but which makes reading the piece a constant struggle against the narrator. Ariosto believes that if one presents the real, people will be able to see and embrace the truth. Groover, living in the age of Trump and looking at U.S. responses to police violence, believes that powerful authorities are giving false interpretations of the real and often succeeding in getting people to embrace those interpretations. His strategy is to make the tension between reality and interpretation so strong that something must give.

Perhaps that is necessarily a weakness. A piece like Rape, Pillage, Makane can hardly open anyone's eyes, since one either already believes that X is an egregious example of violence and false ideology, or one does not believe that the events in this game and X have anything to do with each other. Let X be police violence; would anyone not already sympathetic to the Black Lives Matter movement believe that Sir Makane and the U.S. police are like each other? Probably not. Here, a more detailed piece about the topic under consideration might be more effective.

Rape, Pillage, Makane thus remains somewhat abstract; but its bitter satire is a new way of taking up the Makane character and an interesting addition to the IF corpus.

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