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Reviews by Matt W

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Mere Anarchy, by Bruno Dias

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Fascinating Interactive Short Story, April 11, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
I highly enjoyed this interactive short story. It really shows what you can do with strong writing, a fascinating idea, and Undum's elegant interface. Dias does a great job of hinting at a rich world filled with intrigues and dark machinations whose exploration lies beyond the scope of the story, but pervades it. The writing is dense and evocative, kind of Mievillian, but without Dr. Mieville's more unrestrained excesses of prose. I played through a couple of times and enjoyed seeing the different vignettes fit themselves into the larger story. I would love to read more stories, interactive or not, written in this setting. This is a great, enjoyable piece of fiction.

Toby's Nose, by Chandler Groover

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
The Smell is the Solution, April 10, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
So much is accomplished here with about four verbs: smell, examine, bark, inventory. The PC is Sherlock's Holmes's faithful bloodhound Toby. And you're assisting Holmes to solve a murder by smelling various objects. On the face of it, this is a one-room game, but smelling something can evoke memories or scents relating to other locations in Toby's experience and you can thus traverse a wide array of very Victorian-British locales and social situations. The London that results is more Dickens-meets-Downton than Doyle, but it is rich and very detailed, providing commentary on nearly everything you can see, smell, and imagine. Groover has provided copious optional footnotes describing the various literary, IF, and pop-culture references in the game.

There's a sense in which the very limited verb-set in this game makes it seem somewhat choice-based. One could imagine re-creating it fairly completely in Twine. But Toby's Nose does a great job showing what the parser potentially does better. It demands an attention to detail (wholly appropriate in a Holmes mystery) that the clearly signaled hyperlinks in a Twine or other HIF story don't, and it permits actions that are off-script, which -- even though they're not necessary to complete the story -- add detail and background and humor that enriches the experience.

The story does tend to anthropomorphise Toby a bit, but it also doesn't forget that he's a dog. There's a wealth of (often funny) extra interactions and descriptive data built into the game to reinforce the canine perspective. Toby's smelling prowess also may seem a bit too impressive at times, but this can be forgiven as in service to a fantastic story. Toby's Nose is a truly impressive and accomplished piece of interactive fiction. Highly recommended.

Quick non-spoilery tip: it's possible to fairly easily brute force the solution to the mystery. (I did not solve it correctly on the first try or -- I'm ashamed to admit -- on the second try.) It may be helpful to know that the solution is obvious, not ambiguous, once you have all the requisite data. Don't cheat yourself by jumping the gun:)

Fifteen Minutes, by Ade McT
Enjoyable Puzzle - A Bit Fiddly, March 31, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
This is a nice, humorous puzzle game involve time travel and paradox management. You must take copious notes in order to arrive at the solution. The timing in the game feels somewhat fiddly -- things occur at certain times and you must know to the minute when they do, but it's hard to tell if they happen before or after the clock tick. And I'm pretty sure the time travel mechanic is handled inconsistently -- sometimes I'd arrive before a clock tick and sometimes after. This meant that I had to experiment to find the correct timing. I suppose it's possible to beat this game on your first playthrough, but extremely unlikely. However, once you've figured out how to proceed through the game, subsequent playthroughs can be tedious, particularly since the machine is tedious to operate after the 20th time or so. And it's entirely possible to miss a crucial action near the beginning and have to restart.

I really liked the premise of the game, and it's reasonably solid in execution. With a little polish, it could go next to Suveh Nux on my shelf of favorite one-room puzzlers.

Varicella, by Adam Cadre

6 of 6 people found the following review helpful:
Hints For Beating Chicken Pox, March 18, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
For a game like Varicella, that's been reviewed to death and has even had academic papers written about some of the characters, I don't know that it's all that useful to write a review that lists my likes and dislikes. (For the record, I liked the structure, writing, and setting lots and lots. I disliked the implied extreme sexual violence; I'm not particularly squeamish but this game made me squirm.) I do think the game's handling of its female characters is under-explored. (Cadre strikes me as trying to have his cake and eat it, while insisting that he doesn't even like cake.) More on that later. I thought I'd focus the review on providing some hints for new players.

Spoiler-free Hints
1) The game has a reputation for being impossibly difficult. It's really not. I suspect it's the intended playstyle that throws people off and gives them this impression. The puzzles are clever, but logical and well clued.
2) There are multiple solutions to many (all?) of the game's major problems. Some of the solutions are exclusive to each other (e.g. by using one, you preclude another), but there are multiple ways to combine the multiple solutions to ultimately solve the game. (Though I'm pretty sure there's only one 'winning' ending.) This creates the initial impression that there are lots of red herrings in the game (and I suspect that there are still a few), but most of what seem like red herrings are actually used for other solutions to your problems.
3) You will die. Many times. This is, I think, what lends the game its aura of difficulty. But if you expect it, it's kind of freeing. You can experiment: spend a whole playthrough standing in or watching a room to see what happens there, try various methods of solving puzzles, feel free to do dangerous seeming things, etc. This playstyle is apparently known as 'accretive protagonist'; it's like the movie Groundhog Day, where each playthrough allows you the opportunity to learn something and over many runs, you can build up enough knowledge to complete a successful one. The protagonist hints in the introductory text that he has a master plan. You can view your task as the player is to discover what that plan is and put it into action.
4) The time restraint is somewhat tight, but there's some slop built in for mistakes. Since the solution to the game is mostly modular, you can focus your experimentation in one playthrough on trying to achieve a particular solution to one problem, then in the next on optimizing it. Then move on to another problem, etc.
5) There's a jpeg map that comes with the game. It's worth printing it out. The geography of the game is simple and logical (though with many rooms), but the map helps keep your directions straight.
6) There's a lot to discover about the setting of the game and the characters that isn't vital or even useful for the solution. It's worth it to spend a few playthroughs wandering around, examining things, and asking questions.

About the Women (heavy spoilers)
(Spoiler - click to show)I've read a few reviews that mention Cadre's use of Sierra as his mouthpiece. If asked the right questions, she'll discuss women's political and cultural status both in the Piedmont and in the geopolitical reality of Cadre's setting. She comes off as something of a freedom-fighter for women's equality. Then she takes Rico's money and wields a team of assassins to assist him in cementing his power (which may actually be the good ending in the game.) She's obviously based a trope: the femme fatale. And Sarah is the weeping, simpering, weak woman. And Charlotte is crazy. (Note that Sierra herself seems to despise these other female characters, or at best evinces no sympathy for them.) And what are their ultimate fates? Sarah is murdered by her own son (who only ever refers to her as 'bitch'), and Charlotte gets locked back up in her cell. These women aren't agents, they're caricatures intended to be manipulated by the player, then pushed back into the background. Maybe that's Cadre's point, but then you have to look at the rapes.

Sarah was raped by her stepfather (crudely revealed by Sierra), Charlotte has been raped by Rico and Louis, and Sierra herself has been raped by Modo. In other words all of the female characters in the game have been subject to repeated sexual violence. Sarah's and Sierra's rapes serve very little purpose to the story: perhaps Sarah's is used to justify or explain her temperament and maybe Sierra's is used to make Modo look more evil. Charlotte's and that of Prince Charles are even more unsettling -- they're used to advance Varicella's agenda. You wouldn't be able to solve the game without those rapes. And maybe Cadre is trying to implicate the player or make a statement about agency or something. But it's a cold, disturbing, alien thing.


Conclusion
I'd give this game 5-stars for its great imaginative setting, for its thoroughly complicated but fascinating plot, for its very strong writing, for its technical accomplishments and for its engaging play-style. But I found that the implied sexual violence jarred both with the tone of the narration, with my desire to sense more agency from NPCs (especially female ones), and with my tolerance for utterly depraved human monsters stalking the halls.

Gun Mute, by C.E.J. Pacian
A Textual Rail Shooter, March 15, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
A rail shooter implemented in text; makes you wonder where there isn't more effort to take graphical game tropes and remake them as text (c.f., e.g. Kerkerkruip.) Pacian seems to have decided on a limited list of verbs and actions, then created a puzzle using every possible permutation. This could potentially have been a tedious string of rooms, except that the concept is wholly novel and the writing is very strong. The game doesn't outstay its welcome, and has a visceral and satisfying feel.

Violet, by Jeremy Freese
Highly Polished, Endlessly Inventive, Funny, Cruel, and Exquisitely Relatable, March 12, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
I was looking for a quick game to test out an IF interpreter (Text Fiction) on my Kindle. I knew Violet was a one-room game, so thought it would be a good test. Little did I know I'd be playing what may be my favorite IF game so far.

Plenty of others have reviewed the game more than adequately. I'll just reiterate that Violet is highly polished, endlessly inventive, funny, whimsical, cruel, wistful and exquisitely relatable. This one is a must play.

Taco Fiction, by Ryan Veeder

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A Lovely Little Game About Crime, March 8, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
Digression: I know there's a lot of discussion about the impact that IFComp has had on the kind of IF offerings available from the last decade or so, and I'm glad that the XYZZY Awards and Spring Fling and ParserComp and other contests are around as well, but I really like this size of game: 10-20 rooms, can be played through in an hour or two. It's easy to keep the geography in your head and you can play through it in one sitting after putting the kids to bed.

Taco Fiction seems like a trifle: it's comedic (and quite funny), and the plot is as light as it could be in a game where you can point your gun at anyone you meet. That seems like sort of the point though; this game could have been quite bleak; the PC is desperate and doing desperate things. There's nothing in the game that needs to be funny, but the comedic touch lightens the tone enough to make it consistently compelling.

The world of the game is quite detailed, and actually becomes more of a playground for the player than it seems at first. A straight walkthrough to the best ending would miss about 75% of the content, so it's worth your while to just wander around, talking to all the NPCs and trying out different activities. There are a couple scenes that I found particularly well done (Spoiler - click to show) -- the charades and the Star Wars story are delivered perfectly -- and your initial entry into the taco shop is one of the tensest and most unnerving scenes I've played in any IF. (Spoiler - click to show) Consider the clear uneasiness of the PC from the first moments of the game, the litany of actions that you're going to take, that disturbing painting which catches your eye as you walk in, then the masterful revelation about the bikers. It all functions exquisitely to ratchet up the tension. There are no really difficult puzzles here, just a lovely little game about crime.

Hunger Daemon, by Sean M. Shore

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The Nameless Horror Would Approve, March 8, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
This is an enjoyable little game, humorous and sweet, from an amusing but consistently executed perspective. The prose is excellent, the puzzles are interesting, but not too challenging and the small geography of the game is detailed and expertly realized. And it, perhaps surprisingly given its premise, has interesting things to say about religion and human character. Well worth an hour or so of your time.

Anchorhead, by Michael Gentry

8 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Some Tips for Prospective Anchorites, March 7, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
(I know you're now imagining a one-room IF, playing as a walled in anchorite from the 13th century.) Anchorhead is a classic work of IF. You should absolutely play it. It's perhaps the work to study for creating a consistent atmosphere and a heavily detailed world. Every object in the game, whether a background object or one you can carry around, has a description. And every description in the game is in service to its bleak and disturbing setting. The game is enormous in both number of locations and in length of play, but presents a very cohesive geography and well-structured sequence of events.

That said, some of the puzzles in the game are somewhat unfair, and it is (I believe) still possible, even with the updated Special Edition, to choose an action (or fail to complete an action) that makes the game unwinnable; a situation that you don't discover until much later. Correct me if I'm wrong and I'll update the review, but (BIG SPOILERS HERE) (Spoiler - click to show) you can't get back into the church to retrieve the real estate office key if you've failed to get it, and you can't get back to the green door if you've crossed the rope bridge more than once. Other puzzles in the game sort of circumvent some IF conventions that seem to be more common in recent IF offerings, so I thought a list of (spoiler free) tips for prospective players might be helpful, particularly for those of us who are relatively new to the IF scene:

0) SAVE OFTEN USING A NEW SAVE EACH TIME! I generally would have a master save at the beginning of each chapter, then do a new save after each major puzzle solution. (And this still didn't prevent me from having to replay some chapters from the beginning several times.)

1) Take everything you find with you all the time. You must be a kleptomaniac, stealing everything that isn't nailed down. Your trenchcoat is a hold-all with infinite capacity, so there's no reason not to just have everything with you. That innocuous object you found in the first act may well save your skin in the final one.

2) This game has separate results for 'examine' and 'search'. Make a practice of examining every object in every room, including objects that are only mentioned in room descriptions. Then examine any new objects that turn up in the 'examine' descriptions. Then 'search' everything that you might consider searchable.

3) There are places where scenery objects (that is objects that appear only in room descriptions) can be manipulated. This felt to me like making a puzzle by hiding an object in the wallpaper. Read room descriptions carefully and don't be afraid to try using what you find there to create logical solutions to your predicament. The puzzles in Anchorhead are generally logical; they just are often well-hidden.

4) Ask every character you meet about themselves, e.g. "Ask the clown about the clown" This can help get a conversation thread going.

Horse Master, by Tom McHenry

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Master of Horses, March 3, 2015
by Matt W (San Diego, CA)
There's a sense in which some creators of Twine games understand how prose works in a visceral way and are able to wield it like a scalpel, which is a tool that is normally used to very precise effect, but can easily be co-opted for wholesale, bloodsoaked mayhem. Horse Master is an exemplar of this. There's sense of metaphor-without-being-metaphor that sidles up to its subject matter by both directly addressing it, but distracting the reader. Its primary purpose is to evoke an emotional response, which it does very effectively by inserting disturbing twists in a very recognizable mirror universe. And it's very deliberate in how it presents choice and progression to the reader, using repetition and restriction to dial up the creeping sense of doom. This is a terse, expertly drawn piece of work. The best game about sports (and other things) ever made.


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