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Reviews by Wade Clarke

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The Intruder, by Shane Anderson

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Basic horror CYOA barely scrapes over the 'minimum content' line., September 29, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Quest, horror
Presumably a time will come when the author base of Quest format adventures ripens, but at this time of writing, it remains that the majority of these games (almost all of which are published online) are of the quality of learning exercises. Such is the case with The Intruder. This teeny CYOA of binary choices see the player waking one morning to the sounds of someone or something else in the house. Doing the wrong thing at any point leads you to a scary picture and sound which act as the Game Over message. In these circumstances, maybe it is scarier to convey Game Over without the use of any text, and without including any means of undoing or even restarting the game from within the main window. The trouble is that The Intruder has almost no content; the prose is ultra spare, the results of the handful of choices available are either predictable or boring – though in a broad sense you can probably intuit which choice is the wiser one to make of the two presented to you each time – and the whole thing is far too short.

In spite of all this, the "urban myth explained" win screen is curiously effective, though also likely to provoke head-scratching or laughter, since it says that (Spoiler - click to show)a man, an escaped lunatic, was the person who menaced you, but the scary graphic seems to be of a female and/or non-human monster.

Chapter Zero: Welcome to Cicada Creek, by P. F. Sheckarski

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
I also wish the other chapters were completed., September 22, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, horror
Storm Cellar opens with the player driving through fields towards a sunset storm. A truck abandoned on the road blocks the way, forcing you out of your vehicle in some desolate terrain. The rustic Cicada Creek Motel is the only dwelling in sight, but is anybody home? From this traditional horror setup, Storm Cellar quickly develops an atmosphere of charged suspense and creepiness. Lit but inaccessible windows beckon mysteriously. Something is glimpsed slithering around the building. The deserted wooden decks of the motel prompt strong fears about what could be out there in all that open space. Cramped and dingy room interiors generate a different kind of insecurity.

As other reviewers have said, this game is of such high quality that it's a shame it was never expanded from this solid introductory chapter into a complete adventure. I had a feeling it might be good as early as the content warning screen, which seems to channel the introductory warnings of console-based survival horror games. In turn, I felt the positive influence of the Playstation's Silent Hill strongly throughout.

The prose is clear, measured out perfectly to breed suspense and sprinkled with dynamic atmospheric elaborations. The transitional lines of text describing your passage from one location to another are a neat touch. The puzzles are mostly about portals and blockades, doors and keys, and the yearning to find a way into each room is a strong motivator. My guess is that had more chapters of the game been created, the puzzles would have become more novel. This first chapter is about establishing access to the motel and setting the scene. It also demonstrates a smart and comprehensive parser.

Storm Cellar gave me real chills more than once and its horror elements are expertly wrangled. Usually I'm not interested in incomplete games, but as Storm Cellar is a veteran of Introcomp 2008, what exists of it is entirely functional. It also ends at a dramatically satisfying point (I.E. not just while you're walking down a hallway or something.) The game was ambitiously touted by its author as chapter zero of a pending eight, but it ended up being the only one. You should definitely play it if you like suspenseful horror.

P.S. There's no mention of the title Chapter Zero: Welcome to Cicada Creek in the game itself, only of Storm Cellar, but the author used the former title when he created the game's entry on IFDB.

The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons, by Marshal Tenner Winter

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
Hardboiled meets Lovecraft with entertaining consequences., April 12, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Lovecraft, Inform
The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons is a Lovecraftian adventure based on a scenario for the Call of Cthulhu tabletop RPG, a scenario in turn based on H.P. Lovecraft's short story 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward'. In spite of its convoluted sounding provenance, this game is actually one of the most accessible Lovecraft IF games out there. A player doesn't need any prior knowledge of the source material or of Lovecraft's work to be able to get into it, and while it's of moderate size, it's more about linear action than the kind of painstaking puzzling folks often associate with Lovecraftian games ala Anchorhead. A word of caution; it's also a game which gets shootier and bloodier as it goes on.

While Lovecraft's protagonists usually have some kind of personal involvement in the supernatural goings-on they face, the PC in Brian Timmons doesn't. He's a detective from the hardboiled school who gets mixed up in a stranger's supernatural goings-on only because they stand between him and his next paycheck. The novelty of adopting an outsider's viewpoint is a welcome one in this busy IF subgenre, and the detective brings humour, attitude and action to the table – three things you normally don't much associate with Lovecraft. The resulting game is straightforward, episodic in a good way and becomes quite gripping as you move towards its climax, though some elements of the delivery could be improved.

Brian Timmons is divided up into scenes set in different locations. Each car trip you take from one location to the next acts like a chapter break, and you don't have to worry about deciding where to go. The hero chooses the next relevant stop as soon as he's got enough fresh leads from the current one. While the game itself suggests you should use ASK and TELL to communicate with its characters – and at times it's essential to use these methods – the majority of communication actually consists of the NPCs telling you their stories one line at a time. While a lot of games use this method and it gets the job done, the game could be richer if it would allow the player to interject with some relevant ASKing and TELLing (as is, the characters only respond on the most vital of topics), though I acknowledge this is never an easy area to program. The characters do a lot of neat fidgeting of their own accord when not speaking, and the game is also generally strong in the area of random atmospheric detail, throwing in lots of little snippets about passers-by, the weather and other environmental changes.

Where the game has some trouble is in getting all of its content to live in the same place tonally, at least at once. When the hardboiled shtick and language are in evidence, they really dominate. But they vanish too easily when the detective isn't delivering his Chandler-esque wisecracks, allowing the game to be overtaken by more utilitarian descriptive text. The sexy dame character is a bit cringy in this light – she triggers the "poured into her dress" remarks in extremis, but in isolation, and thus comes across more as a reminder of the game's tonal wobbling than an authentic seeming femme fatale character justified by the genre and context.

I have a few other nitpicks. The game suffers a bit from empty porch syndrome. It needs a little more proofreading. The inventory limit can aggravate, though this last point is mitigated by the coolness of having a trench coat with pockets of seemingly infinite depth. And it's just fun to wear a trench coat and Fedora in general. I enjoyed The Surprising Case of Brian Timmons a lot. It's also a game which comes without hints, and I was pleased to be made to solve it off my own back, pausing occasionally to scratch my head.

Voodoo Castle, by Alexis Adams

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
The Voodoo you can do so well, if you can guess the odd verb., April 12, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Scott Adams, horror, commercial
Voodoo Castle (1979) was the fourth game from Adventure International (AI). It was written by Scott Adams's then wife, Alexis, who had previously assisted on Pirate Adventure, and its opening enthusiastically proclaims that it is "DEDICATED TO MOMS EVERYWHERE!".

The goal of Voodoo Castle is to lift the curse that afflicts Count Cristo, a goal established after the player has opened the coffin in the game's first location and examined the man therein. In the context of the Adams game engine, this is a fairly abstract goal; recall that all of the prose must be extremely minimal (room descriptions generally come in at under 40 characters in length), the parser only accepts two words, and the whole affair has to fit into 16KB of RAM. Doing something like finding treasures and dropping them in a target room, ala Adventureland, is an easy-to-grasp concept in the context of these limitations, but accomplishing a goal as broad as lifting a curse is harder to think about in a vacuum, and potentially a little more intimidating to contemplate when you first fire up this game.

The game's castle isn't actually called "Voodoo Castle", but it is the castle where the action takes place, and Voodoo is clearly afoot. Fascinating paraphernalia can be found lying around in its corridors, including a voodoo doll, a Ju-Ju bag, a witch's brew and a room full of exploding chemicals. With no more to go on than the game's initial exhortation that the player lift a curse, he or she must experiment with these interesting props and advance through the solving of a succession of puzzles, and ultimately of the game. The experience is a lot of fun, and while Voodoo Castle's official difficulty label is Moderate, I find it to be one of the easier AI games. However, I should point out that this was not one of the AI games I had the opportunity to play back in the day. By the time I came to it in the 2000s, I was (a) way older and wiser, (b) had solved a lot of adventure games in general, and (c) had solved a decent number of AI games and acquired a strong sense of their workings.

What is interesting about Voodoo Castle is that there are no antagonists in it. While there are still lots of ways to die or wreck your game, including inescapable rooms and destructible crucial items, there are no people, monsters or other entities that are out to get you. In fact, a theme of Voodoo Castle (if 'theme' isn't too lofty a word in the circumstances) is that people who might seem scary at first are probably not threats, but sources of potential help. Except for the maid, who chases you downstairs if you happen to track soot through the castle. Back in the realm of objects, the cause and effect relationships between a lot of the game's artifacts and things that might happen to you during play are often unintuitive (E.G. "I've recently stopped being blown up by exploding test tubes. Why?") and require much trial and error and game saving to discern.

It would be a struggle to qualify any observations I might be tempted to make about the nature of games Alexis authored or influenced in this series versus the ones her husband authored, but it's certainly fun to speculate. My sense is that when Alexis was involved, the games were a little kinder in tone, though not necessarily in content. The absence of antagonistic characters in Voodoo Castle speaks to this idea, as does its altruistic goal for the player, and the very positive image with which the game ends. Scott of course gave us several games featuring instant death by bear mauling, and he gave us Savage Island Parts I and II, two of the most difficult and masochistic jaunts to ever grace adventuredom. But Adams also opposed the idea of the player having to commit any acts of violence against other creatures to advance in his games. The attitude of the AI games is that violent acts may be visited upon you, usually by nature, if you are stupid or unlucky enough - and we have to take the AI concept of player stupidity with a grain of salt.

Voodoo Castle features a couple of AI's most loveable/hateable guess-the-action and guess-the-verb moments (you won't believe what you have to do with the Ju-Ju bag, and I mean that in a banal way) but fortunately the AI clue sheet cyphers make getting help fun in these games. And I always particularly liked Voodoo Castle's clue sheet. It was the first AI clue sheet I ever encountered, and I encountered it as a kid well before I played the game, back in the Adventurers Corner column of a 1986 issue of Australian Apple Review.

If you haven't tried an AI game before, I wouldn't recommend this one to start with due to the abstract nature of its goal. It's probably best to familiarise yourself with the nature of these very early adventures by first playing a straightforward treasure hunt like Adventureland. But in the scheme of the AI series, Voodoo Castle sports some distinctive features, a castle stocked with lots of interesting objects, and a good dose of that elemental, imminent style of puzzle-solving which is the hallmark of the AI games.

Tenebrae Semper, by Seciden Mencarde

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The promised 'Darkness Always' is well out of reach of the game that is., February 15, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT, ADRIFT 4, horror
To me, Tenebrae Semper was the horrible disappointment of Ectocomp 2010. This may seem like an outrageously unkind statement with which to open a review, but it comes from a place of love. The reason I was so disappointed is because I liked Seciden Mencarde's Forest House games, all of which were made in similarly constrained speed IF competition circumstances, and which managed to punch above those circumstances at least 70% of the time. However, it was obvious that the third Forest House game was starting to get too ambitious, and it came out buggy, holey and underimplemented. Tenebrae Semper falls further into the same pit by aiming far beyond what anyone could achieve in several hours of programming. The result is an incomplete and particularly frustrating demo for what obviously needs to be a much bigger game. It barely brings the promised horror, either.

The PC is a college student who wakes from a dream (?) of a girl screaming when the game begins. Now it's time to get out of bed and off to class. The player's room is jampacked with furniture, books, a bookshelf, a desk, an alarm clock etc. Anything that can have a drawer in it does, and there's stuff in the drawers as well. But every third item is painted on and every second item is improperly implemented. Try and go out the north door and you'll be informed, "You don’t have all your stuff yet, and you’d better not go to class unprepared." So your goal, should you choose to accept it, is to divine which items constitute all your stuff, locate them amongst the mess and then be holding them all when you try to go through the door. Plus you've got an inventory limit which fights you as soon as you start picking up heavy textbooks. This scene was probably intended to be a breezy, realistic start to the adventure, but comes on more like an agonising puzzle from Hitchhiker's Guide. Suffice to say, it is extremely difficult to leave the room.

If escape is achieved, further problems come thick and fast. It's usually unclear what you're meant to be doing. Characters don't express surprise at surprising stuff, like supernatural shenanigans or teleporting books. The exit lister is broken. Room descriptions don't seem to print automatically.

Ultimately the game doesn't go anywhere, and it has, for the time being, squandered the truly awesome title of Tenebrae Semper.

The Dead, by Xander Kyron
Uber basic game about what happens when skeletons attack., February 8, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Quest, choice-based, horror
The Dead is a pint sized CYOA Quest game which drops you in a graveyard and immediately has you fleeing a killer skeleton. The prose is brief and adornment-free. The game also hasn't reached a basic level of proofreading, so there are typos and grammar errors in every line. At least the stakes are high; most choices tend to be life or death, but not in a completely blind 'Will you go through door A or door B?' kind of way. A typical choice might be to decide whether you should glance over your shoulder to identify the unidentified thing that's chasing you, or grab a key off the ground and hope it unlocks the gate in front of you.

As unbaked as The Dead is, it quickly moves into some weird mythology involving glowing green energy and a skeleton army, which feels like a guest power up animation from a videogame. Perhaps the whole thing is the author's first CYOA. The Dead has a dash of suspense, but not much sense and no writing craft. It is complete – there are a good number of losing ends and one winning end. But it's definitely not up to a standard where strangers outside of its home context would be interested in it.

Hauntings, by E. Joyce
Atmospheric and uncomplicated., January 19, 2013
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
Hauntings is a short and well written supernatural tale about a woman who shows up for work at the old house of a mysterious no-questions-asked employer. As the sole entry into the IF section of the Saugus.net Halloween Contest of 2011, it won in its field. The game keeps its interactions simple, advising the player to stick mostly with the movement commands, GIVE and GET and basic conversation commands like YES/NO. The focus is on the prose and its descriptions of the peaceful but dilapidated location and the thought processes of the PC. I don't think the game's period or geographic setting are specified, but the heroine's situation and the hints of social custom mentioned in Hauntings made me feel like it is probably set in the 1940s at the latest – though it could be as far back as the century before that, or maybe even later than the 1940s if in a remote location.

The atmosphere builds well as you search the house, and the tasks you may later perform for your employer don't involve puzzling so much as basic observation of your surroundings, though it might have been nice if a bit more of the scenery had been implemented. There are multiple endings which let you experiment with the situation you're ultimately presented with, and what I like about them is that they all seem to be equally legitimate choices for the heroine to take in light of her backstory. I don't think they are especially surprising endings, and I might have preferred the more dramatic one to be more dramatic again, but the story is basically satisfying. The heroine is also interestingly sketched. I found myself speculating on her background and what she might be doing before and after the events of this game.

Ecdysis, by Peter Nepstad

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Horrors great and small., December 16, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Lovecraft, TADS
Ecdysis is one of the English language entries making up the HP Lovecraft Commonplace Book project of 2007, and in spite of its brevity – or maybe because of its brevity in league with its quality – it's probably the best of them. It is based on the following jotting from Lovecraft's book, which I wouldn't actually read if you want to approach the game in a pure state: (Spoiler - click to show)Idea #221: “Insects or other entities from space attack and penetrate a man’s head and cause him to remember alien and exotic things–possible displacement of personality.”

The great idiosyncrasy of Lovecraft's writing and subject matter are capable of indirectly prompting degrees of weariness from IF players, who cannot help but wonder why so many IF horror games choose to follow in the footsteps of one writer. Yet there is still a great variety of stances the authors of these games can choose from when adopting an approach to the material. What is strong about Ecdysis is that it manages to draw both extremes of the scale of Lovecraft's material together into a short game; the epic, cosmic end involving interplanetary concepts and great, smiting alien beings older and more powerful than humankind can comprehend, and the claustrophobic, imminent end involving monsters and putrefaction in the here and now.

Ecdysis is linear and uncomplicated, but the PC is driven in his actions, which tends to be the thing that makes linear games work as interactive pieces. When there are few actions you can take but they happen to be the ones you'll really want to take, it can draw attention away from the absence of a range of alternate choices and help keep the game out of "Why wasn't this written as a short story?" territory.

This is one of those games where to say more would be to spoil the effect, so I won't.

Body Bargain, by Amanda Lange

1 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
If by bargain you mean "drenched in blood", it's definitely a bargain., December 4, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform
(I originally published this review on 7 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 10th of 26 games I reviewed and it has been updated at least once since the review was written.)

Body Bargain is a horror game set in a near future world of cybernetic body modification. It reminds me of the film The Human Centipede in its aesthetics and ideas, and while none of the characters here get sewn together, I will echo the consumer advice displayed by the game on startup, that if you're squeamish of gore or violence or clinical disturbing-ness, this game will probably squeam you. It also deals with something that remains challenging to successfully negotiate in IF, the continuum of moral and ethical boundaries between the actions a PC might be likely to take based on his or her personality and the in-game situation, and the actions different players might be prepared to take based on their out-of-game personality. Body Bargain doesn't evade all these complications, but even as raggedly implemented as it currently is, I found it morbidly engrossing and definitely interesting. For horror fans, a must play.

The PC wakes up after surgery she has opted for to transform her whole body from that of an overweight human to that of a toned blue elven woman. The story suggests, through the tone of its conversations and the thoughts of the PC, that such fantastic transformations are now contextually acceptable in society, maybe even common. You have paid for your own surgery by becoming the new assistant nurse at the illegal practice which performed it, presided over by the more-machine-than-man Doctor Overclock. However, a big early problem in this game was that it was not clear to me that I had made such a deal. Why some robot doctor was expecting me to help him perform surgery on a stranger just because I had walked into his operating room baffled me. It caused me to fob off his request and look around other areas in the game. In those areas I found information to fill in the gaps, but I don't think it was the author's intent to let this point slip.

The first episode of surgery is a good litmus test for whether or not any particular player will have the taste or stomach for what is to come. You have to scalpel shoulders, handle severed limbs and put up with the spray of gore from the doctor's sawing, but the result appears to be what the patient requested. (Spoiler - click to show)Not so for the next patient. His grotesque fantasy drawing of the giant-schlonged dragon he wants to become prompts the doctor to euthanase him as a "pervert". It's this moment that is likely to mobilise the player, especially when they discover that the next patient is their own sister. She already has a punk hairdo and piercings. Will she attract the pervert label?

You can now continue to follow the doctor's orders or start to do otherwise. The game is ready for many permutations of what can happen, impressively so in retrospect, but some of its positions are significantly weakened – (Spoiler - click to show)in the first place by the sketchy implementation of the sister character. She is attended by numerous bugs, gives the impression of being asleep even though she is awake and has nothing of use to say to the player. Surely my character is likely to alert her to the murder of the second patient that just took place? My character does not, creating a blank stage for action in which the player can choose to blithely butcher the sister character or not. This is simply an unrealistic presentation of the situation, stealing power from the choice the player makes and what results from it. The PC has demonstrated that she is not a blank canvas upon many previous occasions; with her thoughts on the grossness of her old body and the grossness of the second patient's dragon fantasies, and with her shock at the murder of the second patient. But she seems to become a moral vacuum, as far as the prose is concerned, after that murder. I believe these kinds of inconsistencies can be incredibly difficult to deal with for any author. They have often stumped me just at the stage of thinking about creating a game in which the player might be called on to perform actions generally considered repulsive. Body Bargain has not overcome all of these problems, but that doesn't mean it's not an interesting game for playing with them.

There are a lot of technical troubles with the game, ranging from duplicate and erroneous messages (automatic doors are always opening and closing, sometimes more than they should) to under-helpful implementation (typing "cut X" always asks "With what?…" in a game about surgery and stabby violence), verb guessing (the keycard reader – I'd never have thought to type AUTHORISE) and synonym weakness ("card" and "key card" are not accepted for "keycard"). There's also an unfinished feel to some of the emptier locations in the southern vicinity of the hospital. Nevertheless, I found the core design of Body Bargain to be clear, distinctive and effective. I like the way the operating rooms are laid out diagonally from the hallway, the device of the doctor leading the player from one operation to the next and the grisly but clinical depiction of the operations. Again with The Human Centipede, the incident with the dragon patient's fantasy sketch reminded me of the opening scene of that film in which Doctor Heiter gazes with fascination at the photo of the three dogs he has sewn together.

Body Bargain is novel and has all the ingredients to be a really high quality piece of horror gaming, but technically it needs a lot of work and it faces conceptual challenges, too. These factors make for rough play and work against the game's ultimate effects. I'm glad to have played what's here already and would certainly designate this as a must play for horror fans.

Lonely Places, by Nick Marsh

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A small, pacey excursion into Lovecraft territory, and with a sense of humour., November 26, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Lovecraft, Inform
The best thing about Lonely Places is its high rate of dramatic escalation. I've never seen a game move from a single incident (your car breaking down – at night – in the rain) to the scenery-devouring business end of a whole lot of Lovecraftian shenanigans so quickly. No ponderous sloggings through the mythology of ancient smiting beings for this protagonist!

While it's set in the modern world, the game mobilises a handful of character names, speech styles and incidents from Lovecraft's stories, making it more a winky pastiche than one of those enormous reverent ones. Its own story is freestanding and does not demand any prior knowledge of Lovecraft, but the end of game assessment of the PC does, at least if you want to fully understand it; it tells you which Lovecraft character you most behaved like during play. Your playing style is also described in more practical terms, a neat feature which doubles as a means of giving clues for how you could try to change things up on your next play.

Lonely Places is not a very strongly implemented game but it does a good job of cramming a fair bit of action into a small space. I think it's actually a good example of what you can potentially do with Inform without killing yourself as an author. A significant element of this is the game's forward trajectory, where certain events keep crashing into the protagonist, forcing the player onwards or keeping them alert. It also helps that the forward movement often covers for the game when the player is trying stuff that hasn't been accounted for, which in this game is a lot of stuff.

Lonely Places is novel in its ramping up the traditionally glacial pace of Lovecraftian goings-on. It achieves a degree of hysteria quickly and the effect is of a kind of ghoulish humour, a funny and affectionate comment on the typical trajectory of Lovecraft's stories. It will be more fun if you've read some of his work, but there are no barriers to play if you haven't.


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