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Reviews by Wade Clarke

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Final Girl, by Hanon Ondricek

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Suspenseful, funny and well-informed card-based slasher film game., July 3, 2019
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: StoryNexus, horror, IFComp 2013
* I wrote the following review of Final Girl for my blog upon the game's initial IFComp 2013 release. The game is no longer available for tech reasons, and may not become available in its original form again, so I've left this review 100% as I originally wrote it. I'm not sure that there are/were any specific solutions to the game that could be 'spoiled' by what I've written, but that said, this review looks extensively at the content and mechanics.

Final Girl is a highly innovative horror-thriller delivered via the StoryNexus platform. The player takes on the role of a teen girl who must identify a masked staple gun(!) killer in the wake of a cabin-in-the-woods-vacation massacre of her friends. I haven't played anything quite like Final Girl before, and while some of that will be down to me never having used StoryNexus before either, it's also clearly down to the game itself. I've not seen a game manage horror genre microscopy like this before, with stats like Squick, Terror, Exertion and Badassery. You even need to manually control your out-of-of-control breathing. The whole thing is framed as a slasher flick, and there are some touches of meta level commentary, but they don't come at the expense of the effect of the core story. As it is tense and gruelling to be the final girl in a horror film, it is tense and gruelling to make your way through this game. This is why I find the author's 'send up' description in one of his blurbs (though not the other, and I prefer the other) somewhat off target.

(The other day I read that a term emerging to describe a variety of ironic storytelling less aggressive and more affectionate than postmodernism's is 'metamodernism', but since I've only heard it once, I'd best not harp on it.)

It may be possible to complete Final Girl in under two hours but I died at around the two hour mark, then accidentally conceded my death, losing all my progress. Well, I'm pretty sure I lost it. The trouble with StoryNexus is that there isn't one piece of freaking documentation for players. While working out how to play was a broadly intuitive experience, finer points like 'Is there an undo? Can I save? Do I need to save?' were all left blowing in the wind. Maybe some veterans can chime in here.

The upshot is that Final Girl is a substantial game with some demanding elements, and it might take you to the two-hour mark or beyond. You'll also need to create a StoryNexus account or log in via Facebook or Twitter to be able to play. It's absolutely worth doing these things, unless you hate horror, because this is an unusual and surprising game. It also has an attractive visual style and an effective audio soundtrack. And more than once it says: "You no longer have any of this: 'staples in your face'". Low level spoilers ahead.

The term Final Girl, describing the lone female survivor at the end of many a horror film, was coined by Carol Clover in her book of horror film criticism "Men, women and Chainsaws". When Final Girl, the game, started with what appeared to be the final scene of a slasher film, I was disappointed with both of the trajectories I anticipated. I thought that either (a) the game was going to cut away from this final scene back to the very start of the story, one of my least favourite filmmaking devices, or (b) the game was just going to be really short and end then and there.

The first surprise of Final Girl was that neither of these things happened. The scene ended with the apparent death of the bad guy, but then the debriefing just kept going until a new investigatory story began. And this story becomes the game, interspersed with flashbacks to the prior story which led to the first scene. So the game's title is a good one. Final Girlness is normally a state acquired by a film's end. In this game, you begin as the final girl, fully formed and already possessed of a degree of savvy – which you'll need because as you'd expect, the killer isn't really dead, and you need to work out who he or she is.

StoryNexus play is based around cards. In Final Girl, these represent locations you can explore. To play certain locations you'll need to have already played particular cards, acquired certain items or set certain stats. Conditions like these can also apply to actions which might appear on the screen. To be able to move, you might need to rest to lower exertion. To do something particularly cringeworthy, like examine a corpse, your Squik level might first need to be reduced, or you might need to take a deep breath to reduce your fright levels. This micromanagement is a good match for the minutiae of horror films the game is simulating, because they're all about microscopic detail: a foot trying to not squeak on the floor, someone hiding in a closet trying to hold their breath, a door handle being turned as slowly as possible, etc. In response to your decisions, the game produces a ceaseless and fascinating parade of cards, badges, icons, skill updates and status reports. If you get better at something like using a pair of pliers, you'll be told exactly how you just got better at using them, whether you learned from fumbling or whether you learned how to wield them with sweaty hands.

Amidst all of this mechanical fun there's still a mystery which needs solving. You went to the cabin by the lake for a vacation with a dozen friends. Where are they now, and is any one of them the masked killer? Flashback scenes round out your relationship with each of these horror archetype teens. So much of this game comes in short stabs of prose, but these slightly longer memories are well written and do a little for each character. They also allow you to act upon the knowledge gained from them back in the present.

The lone element of Final Girl I disliked was the ubiquity of the killer. He (or she or it) attacks you again and again as you explore, and it's a time-consuming and no-gain encounter each time. This kind of ongoing harassment of the player is a pretty common stress tactic in horror games, but it's not handled well here. I suspect its random occurrence rate has been set too high, and similarly, too much of the encounter itself is down to 50/50 luck. That said, it is kind of StoryNexus to either explicitly tell you the odds of success of an action you're about to take or to give you a broad estimate of your chances in words (EG 'nearly impossible').

Dying and accepting your death leads to a game over screen with a movie review assessment of your playing style. This is the most overt display of the game's meta film material, though there are scattered in-game jokes as well. However, Final Girl walks the walk so well, the commentary comes across mostly as a fun addition. The game's act of quoting so many slasher films in its performance is its major gesture, a much stronger communication delivered at a more fundamental level. This is an excellent horror game with a sense of fun, but which doesn't skimp on tension or grizzliness either. It's got a few grindy elements, but with the exception of the repetitive run-ins with the stalker, I think they help make the experience what it is.

Fish Bowl, by Ethan Rupp and Joshua Rupp
Short'n'effective sea'n'character horror., July 18, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform
(I originally published this review on 22 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 25th of 26 games I reviewed.)

Fish Bowl is a short and effective horror piece in which you play sozzled beachcomber Larry Wyndham, a man who wakes up in his shack one day to find that a dusty fishbowl has materialised atop his three-legged dresser. The game is atmospheric with the whiff of sea horrors and sticky dead things, and it's quite a good character piece as well, evoking your awareness of Larry's constant fatigue and salty decrepitude. There are some bugs and oversights about but none that really impeded my play.

Larry's opening narration suggests that he's a guy who stumbles around in something like a semipermanent hangover. When he can't remember the previous night or recognise the fishbowl, these are immediate motivations for the player to start investigating Larry's surroundings. Doing so induces weird intrusions of memory and flashes of conversational static, though I wasn't crazy about the presentation of the latter. On the topic of presentation, the games sports some indented paragraphs. They look quite nice and I'm surprised IF games/authors don't think about this style more often, but I suppose the tradition that it is more helpful to leave an entire blank line between different chunks of information is well established for good functional reasons.

I read other reviews of Fish Bowl which reported over-awareness of its linear nature, or of its mechanism of containing the player to the present location until they perform certain tasks. The game is basically linear and it does contain the player to make sure they get everything they need from each of its few locations, but I didn't perceive either of these qualities in a negative light. The more character-based and naturalistic a game becomes, the more I fear that it will let me do something stupid like walk right down the beach when all the important things I need to attend to are back at my shack. I think Larry is written clearly enough that his thoughts can direct player effort to where it needs to go, and that some of the blocking in general is pretty natural. For instance, Larry's mini-rant to himself which prevents him from leaving the area in front of the shack without (Spoiler - click to show)burying the dead cat. I also don't mind repeating entry of a command when it very clear that the same action is the one that needs to be performed again – for instance, typing GET BOTTLE, seeing the bottle float further out of reach in response, then entering GET BOTTLE again. I think Fish Bowl is consistently good with this kind of thing.

Thoughts on the finale: (Spoiler - click to show)After you trigger a weird and unpleasant series of memories and images, and try and fail to retrieve the bottle from the ocean, you end up back in your shack, ready to wake to a day which is much worse. The revelation about your situation, confirmed by your supernatural answering machine, arrives all at once, and contains some elements that you might have vaguely guessed at by now as well as unexpected background information about you actually being a spaceship pilot infected by some kind of sea monster. Your various memories now make sense and the props you have been dealing with for the past two days are revealed as masking hallucinations. It's a creepy outcome, a bit Ray Bradbury and a bit H.P. Lovecraft, especially the final image of Larry slithering back into the ocean. And I was able to reach it without too much trouble. Fish Bowl's story plays pretty well now, and could play even better if the text output was tidied up, the feedback messages were coralled so that they don't sometimes appear in the wrong order, and missing nouns were implemented.

Dracula, by Rod Pike

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Garish and gory, bewildering but compelling., July 17, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Commodore 64, horror, commercial
Dracula is an exciting, garish and highly confounding 95% text adventure which was released for the Commodore 64 by CRL in 1986. It was the first of a series of similarly themed horror adventures by Rod Pike (and later, other authors) including Frankenstein and The Wolfman. Dracula broadly follows the events of Bram Stoker's novel and remains highly regarded in C64 circles to this day for a multitude of reasons, sensationalism amongst them. The non-text 5% of the game consists of gory digitised images which are displayed when the player meets one of the game's many violent ends. The game deliberately courted the attention of the British Board of Film Censors, and got it; it was the first game in the UK to receive a 15 certificate. The game's producers admitted they had wanted an 18 rating.
"Their claws bury into my flesh! They beat their wings on my body while their beaks tear into me! They are tearing me to pieces!

ARRGH!! MY EYES!! NO! THE PAIN.. I CAN'T STAND THE PAIN! I CANNOT SEE!!"
The above passage is typical of the game's thrilling tone of demise, and after each death the player is treated to a SID chip rendition of Bach's Toccata and Fugue in D minor.

While all of these flourishes are inseparable from the game's intense atmosphere, they aren't the primary elements of what, it must be remembered, is an adaptation of a classic novel. The game puts the player into the shoes of two of the novel's heroes, Jonathan Harker and Doctor Edward Seward, and presents puzzles across a wide range of contexts: Good old-fashioned obstacle removal by useful object, observation and exploration, warding off Dracula and his minions and, perhaps bizarrely, the testing of social and domestic common sense.

The game is frequently unfair, with an inconsistent approach towards what the player knows versus what his/her character knows, lengthy and attractive room descriptions which are nevertheless quite misdirective, plenty of unheralded and undoable deaths, and countless incidences of time-based sequences in which you have to start typing WAIT repeatedly to achieve crucial aims. Considering all these difficulties, I was surprised by how enjoyable I found Dracula, and I realised that the game's mitigating circumstance is that for two thirds of its length, it is almost entirely linear and episodic.

If you've been dropped off by coach at Dracula's Castle, and you're standing in front of a locked door and there are no other exits, what else is there to do but assault your current location with every verb and noun you can think of? I discovered in playing Dracula that I don't mind brute forcing a game so long as the story is exciting and the process isn't querulous. Many stretches of this game involve just getting through one or two rooms at a time using only observational skills or objects that are immediately at hand (okay, and at times, desperate illogic). What you don't have to worry about at such times is whether you failed to pick up some important item twenty rooms earlier. On the other hand, what you do have to worry about are the game's assumptions about your character's knowledge, abilities and inventory, as these change without warning throughout the adventure.

A tiny first room (Spoiler - click to show)spoiler: In the game's first location, your path into the inn is blocked by a drunk coachman. Checking your inventory shows that you are carrying nothing, not even money, but the solution you must dredge up is PAY COACHMAN. You might say to yourself, 'Fair enough, I can now assume I carry money around with me,' and the assumption holds true for awhile as you lavish various Transylvanian yokels with your Earth dollars. But in a later chapter of the game, your money starts off in a coat which you aren't wearing, and you won't be able to pay people until you have noticed this, taken your coat from your chair and rummaged through it.

A less nitpicky observation is that despite the fact that you get to play two very intelligent men in this game – or at least one very intelligent man plus Jonathan Harker – there will be times when both men are capable of acting like imbeciles if they do not receive your explicit directions to the contrary. The game's wavering treatment of the entity that is 'me' certainly caused me to reflect on what what actions I expect should be automatically taken for me during a text adventure, based on the qualities of my character in such games where I am playing a character with a pre-existing background and disposition (like Dracula) as opposed to games where my character is entirely a cipher for action (like Zork.)

The silliest incident along these lines in Dracula occurs when you are playing Doctor Seward and need to catch a train to Stratford. (Spoiler - click to show)Having purchased a ticket, you then step south onto the platform. As often happens in this game, the room description does not mention any of the exits. Most of the time you can only find these by trying to move in every direction in turn. So you dutifully wait for a train to arrive, then board it. To paraphrase what happens next…
"You caught the train to Folkstone. You lose."
Apparently the doctor is so klutzy as to be unable to board the correct one of two trains from his hometown station without player input, though he oversees the running of an entire mental asylum for his day job without the same. What the player must do here is bump into every 'wall' in the original platform location, find that there is a path to another platform and go and wait there, despite the fact that neither platform is labelled.
It pays to save often in Dracula because you never know when another strange game-ender like this will crop up.

The game's prose is often uncharacteristically rich and lengthy for a text adventure from this period, even if the author misuses apostrophes. His punctuation mistakes don't matter because the perilous tone and content are well delivered, and the compelling writing places you thoroughly in the shoes of each character. The prose is also delivered in a gothic red font which definitely helps to create the game's particular atmosphere, at least for those whose eyes can stand it. Even in the game's heyday, hackers released patches which allowed players to use a more basic font. Different kinds of text are colour-coded, marking out objective description, your own thoughts, other characters' dialogue, etc., and this feature provides visual interest and clarification. The game's parser comes across as fairly opaque, simply because the game is so episodic that all the vocab you might struggle to guess is only relevant for a screen or three at a time.

It's hard for me to think of any other text adventure which trespasses so often against sense, logic and fairness, but which has remained engrossing to me. Dracula benefits from the qualities of Bram Stoker's novel, maintains the book's fearful tone in its prose and recreates some of its most memorable sequences, such as Harker's imprisonment and escape. The game presents mostly as sequences rather than as an open environment, and this seems to be the key to making its often inscrutable puzzles work. The player must doggedly persist with minimal cues to claw his/her way from one dangerous scene to the next, bashing against the walls to find the exits and turning to features in the environment which even the game itself suggests are useless, like a cupboard described as 'totally empty' which, predictably for Dracula, isn't.

Dracula demonstrates that there can be unexpected benefits to having a linear structure in a text adventure, and its decided confusion towards the ideas of character and agency is at least thought-provoking. It knows scary and is reverent to its source material. It is also highly irrational, probably impossible for any modern player to complete without the walk-through, and not a place a newcomer to older adventure games should start, fans of Stoker's book excepted. I believe, however, that anyone who does play Dracula today will be able to perceive why the game is well remembered.
* In 2003-2004 some Inform users remade Dracula using this modern Interactive Fiction system, an impressive feat. In the way of fidelity, the remake offers a choice of Commodore 64 or Amstrad colour schemes, and in the way of niceties it offers cleaned up text formatting and the inclusion of features like UNDO. Strikes against the remake are the absence of the original music (replaced by an extremely dodgy Bach MOD) and the replacement of all the original graphics, except for the title pages, with uninteresting 3-D renderings. The new version is undoubtedly easier to play but it loses the specific aesthetic effects of the Commodore 64 hardware.


The Black Lily, by Hannes Schueller

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
A novel but very elusive mystery lily., May 23, 2016
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2014, Inform
Hints came early in The Black Lily that its narrative and subject matter would be following the trajectory of a giallo. The original giallos – yellow-spined Italian mystery novels – morphed into an eponymous genre of Italian thriller-horror-whodunnit films from the 1960s onwards. The films are often graphically violent, sexually charged, visually fetishistic and filled with histrionic characters and extreme psychology.

My familiarity with giallo established some expectations I had of The Black Lily that were helpful in understanding it, but the game turned out to be far subtler than its cinematic counterparts; actually, it's quite elusive. It is an elusive version of a kind of story known for flamboyance rather than subtlety, and certainly novel in this regard. The game's 1975 setting is probably also an extension of its giallo aesthetic, since the 1970s were the heyday for giallo films.

The Black Lily's protagonist narrates in the first person, the game alternating passages set at home in the present with past tense memory episodes the PC willingly triggers by looking at pictures of women in a photo album. My own reviewing coyness (what kind of protagonist is the protagonist?) is both in aid of preserving the game's mysteries and an extension of its deliberately evasive narration. The PC presents a vain and polished front but tries to slide around introspection of the kind IF often prompts via commands like EXAMINE ME or INVENTORY. Nor is the PC comfortable with the game's ubiquitous mirrors. The only thoughts pursued with passion are those about women, usually intermingled with visions of a black lily. These thoughts arrive frequently but suddenly, and explode with a galvanising intensity, and even more exclamation marks than the game normally uses.

The Black Lily gives directions on the way through that show the author has clear ideas about how players will be interacting with it. For instance, it specifies moments when it's important to save, and specifies from the outset that it might take multiple playthroughs to work out what's going on. Giallo-armed as I was, I felt I only half-understood what was going on when the game ended, but I also didn't feel great trust in the experience I'd had that the game would round that understanding out too much if I did replay (which I did, from various save points). For instance, there is a score system in place, but points are few and far between, and tend to be found in a blundering fashion, sometimes at fringes of the terrain. It's hard to feel them as a measure of progress or even interpret what kind of progress they are measuring. At least not for awhile.

I'm very into the psychology and horror terrain that the Black Lily is working, especially via the giallo prism, but the game is probably a bit too reticent to make most players feel confident about their interactions with it. It's fascinating to explore the first time, but not too fascinating. I spent too much time thinking: 'Why was that? What's that character? What just happened?' It's hard to be pulled into a story when your first degree comprehension of it is so gap-filled. The Black Lily is deliberately tough about offering ways in. There is a sophistication to be appreciated here if you are prepared to dwell on the material for long enough, in spite of some of its scantness. Perceiving the sophistication slowly is probably not as satisfying as being able to feel it in a lived way while playing the game.

Darkiss! Wrath of the Vampire - Chapter 1: the Awakening, by Marco Vallarino

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
In which you play the bad guy., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, IFComp 2015, horror
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2015 IFComp blog.)

This is how I like my vampires: Solitary, dangerous and with vile motivations. (As opposed to ubiquitous, shiny and Mormonesque.)

Admittedly Martin Voigt, the anti-hero of Darkiss, isn't as powerful as a vampire usually would be, but that's because the good guys previously killed him, leaving him with the inconvenient side-effect of weakness. The player's job in this classically styled parser adventure is to get Martin back into fighting, biting shape.

Darkiss was originally released in Italian in 2011. The IFComp 2015 version is a fresh translation into English. The game is puzzly, robustly implemented and relishes the protagonist's intent of evil vengeance. As might be expected, it's also just slightly off in some of the translation, but the core translation is resilient. The off notes don't affect game mechanics or player understanding, just the ideal reading of the prose.

The game is principally set in Martin's lair, into which he's been barricaded by both magical and folkloric means. The puzzles mix magical and practical solutions. Collecting the props needed for them requires quite exhaustive examination of the room descriptions, and for this reason I was glad of the hint system.

The lair's familiarity to this long-lived creature is a good mechanism for triggering anecdotes and memories from the past. Martin moons frothingly over his torture chamber and sadistic treatment of previous victims, while less exciting stuff – like the trick to getting through a certain door – is correspondingly less easy to recall, and thus decently excused in the story.

The game's overall feel is one of a wicked romp, though it's obviously not without some seriousness, too. The scenes in which Martin recalls past loves like Lilith from the painting, or Sabrina from the white coffin, are probably the most resonant and Anne Ricey. It's unusual to have a character so plainly evil and bloodthirsty, yet strangely endearing, at the centre of an adventure, and to play from the villain's point of view in general. The anchoring of this experience in a solid parser puzzler makes it an entertaining one.

The Cardew House, by Andrew Brown
Decent but unremarkable first game about a haunted house., November 18, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, IFComp 2013, horror
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2013 IFComp blog.)

The Cardew House is a short parser adventure of typical mechanical puzzling in a haunted house. It could be said to be of Ectocomp style and hasty Ectocomp or slightly-better-than-speed-IF quality, and it doesn't have any surprises up its sleeve that would warrant anyone already uninterested in the basic premise from trying it. As the author's declared first or equal first Inform game, it's simple and rough and wasn't tested, but at least it has focus and a degree of technical soundness.* (* excepting its habit of just killing the interpreter where it stands whenever the game ends, which strikes me as unsound.) If you play, save the game before taking any particularly exciting actions; there's no undo from a game over.

The introduction tells of cruel Old Man Cardew, he who so aggravated all his neighbours and kin that somebody eventually shotgunned him in the head. Cardew's daughter disappeared, too, but nobody really knows the whole story. Enter you, foolhardy explorer of... The Cardew House. Note that I am going to arrogantly say that I've expressed this in a more exciting fashion than the game does.

Something you'll notice once you enter the house, and which you'll be aware of before you enter the house because the author mentions it in his introductory spiel, is that the lights in the rooms randomly turn on and off. I actually found that the reports about the flickering from adjacent rooms, and the business of me turning things back on, was quite atmospheric. I'm still relieved the author set things up so that the PC will turn lights on by default (an option you can deactivate) because, as he correctly anticipated, it would have made the game super fiddly if you had to do it all manually. The lighting atmos, in tandem with other random sounds and moans, makes the game a tiny bit bumps-in-the-night creepy.

One prop has a good attention-drawing schtick but mostly there's a lot of implementation oversight. Some props, like the kitchen cupboard, have fairly classic guess-the-verb issues attached to them. On the plus side, the hint system gives hints for the room you're in, so it tends not to spoil too much, and you can toggle it off again before you move to the next room.

The denouement doesn't really explain all of the implications of the game's introduction. (Spoiler - click to show)So Betty was buried under the house, but who shot Cardew? Did Cardew shoot Cardew? What about all the black magic stuff and the pentagrams? Fortunately this game is short enough that I wasn't tremendously bothered that I didn't find out the answer to all of these things. I enjoyed my 15 minutes or so in this house enough.

Slasher Swamp, by Robot

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Slip, die, repeat in a swamp made out of bits of slasher movies., November 17, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2014, TADS
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)

As much as I hate dwelling on the concept of tropes, Slasher Swamp is an old school (i.e. all puzzling for puzzling sake, sparse prose, several schtick mazes, scores of instant deaths, no UNDO) adventure in which you find yourself a witness to a nonsensical mishmash of slasher film tropes after your truck breaks down in the middle of nowhere. It’s a Windows application with the TADS engine under the hood, and the author proffers a small command set which can be used to clear the whole thing. I mapped the game and played to completion in about an hour, but I have to admit I achieved this by brute-forcing the content of locations. And there are a lot of locations.

The prose is a mixture of the atmospheric, the overdone atmospheric, the jokey and the juvenile. It's a tone that will be recognised by anyone who’s played any old school games which indulged their authors.

I mildly enjoyed ticking off the scores of discrete images and moments I recognised from horror films I’ve seen, but they're assembled in this game with no overriding design and no consequence, and thus to little effect. Most objects go unused, including conspicuously important-looking ones. The player has no direction or purpose other than to keep throwing themselves at everything until they can win by a kind of exhaustive attrition of props and puzzles, though there are few puzzles in light of the size of the map. The forest mazes are small but tedious, and the random deaths are numerous, and truly, deeply random.

The worst symptom of the disabling of UNDO is that from any of the scores of rooms with teleport-like one-way exits, you can’t go back. I would often save the game just so that I could try each of the four exits from a room without having to circle the entire map after each teleport.

In the end, Slasher Swamp has all the shortcomings of both old school senselessness and aimless design. The world is the base for something decent, but the hodge podge of blood'n'excrement scenes aren't woven into any specific gameplay content. They’re just there, usually described to you and then gone again all in the space of one move, unrelated to each other, unrelated to progress in the game.

In spite of Slasher's shortcomings, I still got moderate amounts of fun out of throwing myself at it for an hour.

Baluthar, by Chris Molloy Wischer
An effectively grotesque dungeon adventure set on a strange world., October 28, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform, fantasy
Baluthar is a fantasy-horror adventure set on a world which has been invaded by the Ivarns, a destructive and technologically advanced race. While this setting informs the events of the game, it does so from quite a distance. The game itself is really about a father following his missing son down the horrible dungeon in the well outside their hut. You play the father, and must first drag yourself out of bed after reading a heavy, non-diegetic quote from the book of Ecclesiastes.

The construction of the sense of the greater world in Baluthar is impressive. The game physically presents just a very specific part of it, but through the ruminations of the character of the father, and through scenic features like paintings and through the anthropology of the game's rather horrible monsters – which are lovingly described – a strange portrait of the whole begins to emerge. I see that the game was criticised upon its release for not letting the player venture out into that whole, but this element didn't bother me. The game's achievement is the grotesque inventory of creatures and weird artefacts it delivers in the space of a single dungeon: a child-ghoul, rooms awash with rivers of fist-sized corpse beetles and a half-alive skull embedded in a laboratory wall amongst them.

Getting around these creatures and overcoming hostile magic are the subjects of the game's puzzles. They aren't too complicated, and there's a completist hint system built in if you get stuck. The writing is vivid, certainly purple at times, overloaded with too-long sentences and prepositions, but given the intensity of the content and the shortish duration of the game, the style does not outstay its welcome for what it's doing. It is also clever in building up the world mythology out of little strokes and asides distributed throughout the prose.

The parser itself is the weak point. It just isn't honed enough to deal with some of the more obvious ambiguities of player intent in relation to the game's content. Baluthar was the author's first game, and programming up the interactions is his obvious site for improvement. But as a fantasy puzzle game with a horror-leaning aesthetic, it is self-contained, imaginative and satisfying.

The game potentially doesn't follow up on the existential weariness expressed in its opening, but I'm not sure. After it was over, I found myself thinking about the way the character of the father had been expressed. Weary at first, single-minded in his quest to find his son, wordless by the end. Perhaps it was the ASK/TELL system, implemented rather feebly in Baluthar for communication between the father and son, that left a querulous feeling on this front.

Vlad the Impaler, by Section Studios

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Goth CYOA-RPG horror in 15th century Istanbul, July 9, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, commercial, choice-based, RPG
Vlad the Impaler is a grim and incredibly bloody choice-based adventure set in Istanbul in 1452. After choosing to play as the explorer, soldier or mage, the player is tasked by an old friend – one who seals his letters with a big red V – with saving the city from a blight of natural and supernatural corruption.

With its character classes, small array of stats and its karma meter, the game aims for replayability over linear depth. Concentrated initial plays may last from 45 to 90 minutes, and there are considerably more encounters available across the finite map of locations than are accessible in any one session. The presentation is lush, with a fixed colour palette of black and white with red highlights, an inventory of expressive pencil drawings of the characters and locations and brooding loops of string music in the background.

The PC is written as a major force in this world of atrocious crime and madness. In almost anything you try to do, you will succeed, or have a solid chance of succeeding – at least for a good part of each game. This may sound like a recipe for boredom, but the high volatility of the encounters and the oppressive atmosphere of Vlad ensure quite the opposite. There is a sense that no matter how many amazing things you do in the city, no matter how many individuals you save from being violated, sold into slavery, murdered or torn apart by monsters (and you tend to tear the bad guys apart yourself) that you're up against too much evil for one person. This feeling is reinforced by the great despair evinced by most of the NPCs about their situation. They also regard you with an awe that inspires heroism, or at least perseverance.

The writing is mostly pointed and effective. It's also especially vivid in a lot of cruel scenes, but this content is balanced by a moral weight. The PC isn't heedless, nor are the citizenry of the cursed city. The characters discuss what's happening, why it may be happening, where does evil come from – without or within? The sense of these ideas is well conveyed through the whole dark aesthetic of the game.

The prose does suffer from bizarre technical variability, though. The strong focus and flow of the majority of it makes me wonder how it could also flop sometimes into great spates of overpunctuation (!!!?) and why there are phases where commas or semicolons just vanish, leaving a bunch of run-on sentences. It's as if half of it was proofread and half wasn't, or different people wrote different stretches in isolation. This didn't hamper my enjoyment overall, but did make me wonder how it happened.

What a greater number of players have been concerned about is the lack of continuity written into a lot of the encounters. You might see an option to 'Ask someone to translate the runes you found earlier' when you don't remember finding any runes. It becomes apparent from the prose that the scope of the actions you're taking in the city is assumed to be greater than just what you read during the course of a playthrough; you're a powerful figure achieving a lot off-screen as well as on. So if you take this attitude that a richer sense of all your character's doings will build up over repeat plays, you'll be okay, but I can appreciate this as a valid point of criticism against the game for many players, given how attentive Vlad is to mechanics in other areas, and that some players will just never accept being given so many shorthanded summaries of things they've 'done'. I personally felt the positive value of the game's approach in that it gives the PC's doings a breadth and depth that would be hard to effect if every single part of them had to be explicitly played through in a game of this length.

The trick of Vlad is working out what your stats are for and how they're affected by your handling of encounters. You can see your stat values and you can see when they go up and down, but 'die rolls' are not displayed at times when they're relevant, nor is it indicated when those times are. The game's structure is that of a broadening fan of encounters you can visit in almost any order you choose, followed by a narrowing into a gauntlet of situations in which deadliness to the PC increases significantly.

I found the whole game tremendously engaging for several playthroughs, but paradoxically, once I'd worked out how the stats figure into major events, the replayability factor the game pushes for weakens a lot. Too many critical moments in the game are either predictably easy, or so hard that it feels pointless trying to reach them again just to have another chance to roll a really high number on an invisible die. If you're killed, your saved games within the current play session die as well. So the weakness is that every game eventually becomes a stat test against the 'gauntlet' section, and you have to replay the whole game to get back there.

There are a lot of other tricks and secrets I can't elaborate on without spoiling, as well as a pile of Steam achievements to be had for people who like that sort of thing. It's just that these elements don't add up to the solid replay model the game seems to promise at the outset. However, by the time I'd come to these conclusions, I was already more than satisfied with my experiences in this dark and bloody world.

The Tomb of Y'Golonac, by Robert Romanchuk

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
An early Lovecraft outing of strong atmosphere but wearying difficulty., March 2, 2014
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Eamon, Apple II, RPG
The relative explosion of H.P. Lovecraftian text adventures occurred in the non-commercial period of IF dating from the 1990s and onwards. It might have happened irrespective of all external factors, but because Infocom released The Lurking Horror in 1987, that game is an obvious landmark. I was therefore a little surprised to find an earlier example in the form of 1984 Eamon adventure The Tomb of Y'Golonac. This game exhibits most of the qualities of the later Lovecraft games – reverence towards the subject matter, wide-ranging knowledge of the author's made-up mythologies and a competent or better pastiche of Lovecraft's writing style, liberally sprinkled with words like 'loathsome' and 'unwholesome'.

Being Eamon, this is Lovecraft done as a kill-em-all-before-they-kill-you explorathon, but Tomb's writing is decidedly above average for an Eamon. It creates an underground world of dank corridors and weird landscapes, and is capable of generating suspense about what dangers may lie ahead. A plethora of weird stains, evil smells and inexplicably dreadful feelings mark the corridors. While this atmosphere is likely to impress a new player, numerous harsh gameplay difficulties become apparent as one spends more time with this game and, unfortunately, they stop it from being fun in the end. Y'Golonac does have cause to be hard. As Pat Hurst pointed out in his review of the game back in the day, it reproduces the core aesthetic of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, itself a logical extension of the implications of Lovecraft's stories. That aesthetic consists of players having an incredibly low survival rate due to them being frequently smitten by the powerful and unknowable horrors from other universes encountered during play.

It's easy to make an Eamon hard in a thoughtless kind of way: Just give the monsters massive stats and pack the map with unheralded instant death rooms. In Eamon's time there was a degree of competition to make 'the hardest Eamon ever', and I don't blame people for trying to achieve this using the relatively limited toolset which was available. Eamon evolved pretty quickly during the 1980s, and later versions of the engine (6 and 7 especially) gave authors the ability to do more sophisticated stuff. Y'Golonac is a version 4 Eamon which mostly hacks the player down using a combination of big-statted regular monsters, super monsters which can kill with one blow and hard-to-avoid instant deaths. The SAVE command is locked and a cave-in prevents players from escaping back to the Main Hall if they want out early. The kicker, once all of these features are in place, is that 90% of the game's secret doors aren't clued at all, and can thus only be found by walking into every wall in every room. The map of 90+ rooms has been slyly arranged to maximise the difficulty of making real progress and the player who discovers the nature of the secret doors after a long spell of vigilant mapping is likely to feel as great a deflation of their spirits as I did.

For its atmosphere and quality of writing alone, The Tomb of Y'Golonac is a remarkable Eamon. It's also significant for being one of the earlier Lovecraft-themed text adventures around. However, the standard of unreasonably difficult play the game adheres to is most definitely of its time. I enjoy the challenge of discerning and hacking out the path through some of these harsh old combat adventures, but Y'Golonac is meaner than even I can stomach. I lost count of the number of times I died, restarted, missed exits or cheated without success (cheating with BASIC hackery is an easy and common tactic in Apple II Eamoning). Eventually I broke out the Eamon Utilities disk and used the Dungeon Mapper program to look at the parts of the game I hadn't been able to reach or find on foot. So while I don't regard Y'Golonac as worth completing for bragging rights, it is worth sampling for those interested in Cthulhu mythos text adventures, especially those interested in actually fighting Lovecraft's grotesque monsters rather than just imagining that they might be slithering about nearby. Y'Golonac doesn't become insanely difficult immediately, but those things which are good about it are present immediately.

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.

A Killer Headache, by Mike Ciul

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
If you think being alive is tough, try being undead., November 7, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, IFComp 2012, Inform
(I originally published this review on 15 October 2012 as part of my blog of IFComp 2012. This was the 19th of 26 games I reviewed. The game had been updated once during the competition before I played it.)

A Killer Headache casts the player as a zombie in a posthuman world with the immediate goal of ridding oneself of one's blinding headache by finding and eating more brains. It's truly a sad time to be a zombie when you have to live off the grey matter of animals and other zombies, but what saddened and maddened me was how excruciatingly difficult I found this game to be. In common with Changes, also from the 2012 IFComp, A Killer Headache has a world model of great sophistication, but it's even harder than Changes, and its nested hint menus almost induced apoplexy in me.

A Killer Headache was apparently inspired by a long and existentially discussion about zombies on the intfiction.org forums. I sped read the discussion after playing the game and can say that cumulatively, the participants knew their zombie stuff, as I claim to myself. Author Mike Ciul has considered the gamut of post Night of the Living Dead ideas and come up with his own version of the zombie mythology. The zombies range in sentience from below average to above, but they are all still possessed by their hunger, which can blind them to almost everything else. They specifically want brains, a schtick begun by the film Return of the Living Dead in 1985, and some of the humour of this game is also in keeping with that film's supposedly funnier aesthetic. (That's to say that RoTLD marked the arrival of "funny" zombies in zombie movies, but that I didn't find that film very funny myself; no slur on this game's humour intended.) An example would be the pathetic, moaning conversation you can have with the severed head of your friend Jim in the game's first location, your trailer.

The practicalities of being undead are foremost amongst this game's interests. The first puzzle is just getting out of your trailer. Your lack of coordination makes fiddling with the doorknob annoying and your lack of strength means that using brute force tends to destroy parts of your own body. Various enemies can tear your hands and feet off, hampering your future hazard-negotiating abilities. Falling down a ravine on your stupid zombie legs could result in an eternity of being pecked at by vultures. The game's commitment to the hopeless grisliness of zombie existence – assuming zombies have feelings of a kind, which is this game's atypical premise – is unwavering.

The difficulty which ensues is also unwavering. You're constantly being interrupted or killed by enemies while in the process of trying to solve difficult and fiddly puzzles, often under time pressure or with the added complication of your concentration being dragged away into pre-zombiedom flashbacks. This is clearly a point of the game, to convey that zombie "life" is indeed arduous. The point is effectively made and felt, but I don't think the experience should be quite so impractical to move through as a game. When you die, it tends to be several moves deep into a losing streak of actions, and to verify your suspicions about your situation often requires exploring several branches of the nested hint menus, paging in and out, going deeper and shallower and reading the lists of topics which are so convoluted that they cross reference each other.

A lot of the difficulties of play are also a consequence of what is exceptional about this game: its highly involved world model. The different groups of enemies interact with each other in complex ways, roving the desert, staking out objects and locations, fighting each other and fighting over you. The behaviour of the hated mob of zombie children is especially impressive. However, the author has not missed an opportunity to turn any particular permutation of circumstances into another hazard for the player, and the hint topics reflect this, reading like a troubleshooting manual for a day in hell. Did the dogs tear your hand off? Did they tear your foot off? Have they trapped you in the diner? Have the children trapped you in the diner?

My player wherewithal was gradually eroded over time as I kept trying and failing to solve my zombie problems. Some solutions were quite abstract ((Spoiler - click to show)put the other head on your shoulder), some relied on the kind of small-scale fiddling that has proved eternally difficult to implement to everyone's satisfaction ((Spoiler - click to show)I had terrible problems trying to find the commands to express what I wanted to do with the pump and gas tank), some were solutions I was too late to try ((Spoiler - click to show)try to keep your limbs in this game; it's better that way) and some were just very demanding. Dealing with the (Spoiler - click to show)mob of zombie kids occupying the diner near the end saw me dying on almost every move. I was spending about four times as much time moving in and out of the hint menus as I was playing. I had also been trying to play using speech-to-text, and being constantly driven back to the keyboard to fiddle with the menus was intolerable in my trammeled state, so this was where I gave up, unfortunately missing out on some existential ending, according to other reviews of this game.

A Killer Headache is dense, cleverly constructed and well written, and its savage entitites show a wide range of behaviours. The whole thing is harrowing. I just wish I hadn't found it so agonising to play. Perhaps the context that IFComp creates wasn't right for this game. Without the desire to try to finish this in two hours and the knowledge I still had a pile of other games to get through, I expect I would have been more receptive to the challenges it posed. What I don't have any kind words for are its nested hint menus. Nested hint menus drive me nuts in any game – it's about the only extreme prejudice I have in text adventuring – and the complex nature of A Killer Headache managed to show this particular method of dispensing information in its worst light.

The Cellar, by David Whyld

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The child told not to go into the cellar is unlikely to not go into the cellar., July 18, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 4, ADRIFT, horror
David Whyld's The Cellar was part of the H.P. Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 organised by Peter Nepstad. This was a remarkable project whose IF angle I knew nothing about prior to researching it in relation to The Cellar. I had known what Lovecraft's Commonplace Book was: the place where the author used to jot down unused story ideas. While the Book's contents have been used as a launching point for IF games or IF competitions on more than one occasion, what was neat about the 2007 project was that the six games which participated were set up for play as part of an exhibition in Switzerland's Maison d'Ailleurs, aka The Museum of Science Fiction and Utopias. Further details are available in Peter Nepstad's article about the project in SPAG#50.

Concerning The Cellar, it is no spoiler to reveal which idea from the Commonplace Book the game is based on, as it is displayed on startup:

“Man’s body dies - but corpse retains life. Stalks about - tries to conceal odour of decay - detained somewhere - hideous climax.”

The game is written from the point of view of a character initially standing outside of its unsettling events: the boy Nevare, whose father made him promise not to go into the cellar after returning from a trip to Africa. When the game begins, you (Nevare) find yourself alone in the house one day, consumed by curiosity and with an opportunity to at last search for the key to the forbidden room.

The prose of The Cellar is quite good, and the game's revelations fall comfortably (or should that be uncomfortably?) into the Lovecraft mould, as do its methods of writing, perhaps. One character emerges to tell the game's backstory at great expositional length. It is the quality of this story that is the soul and effect of this game, but the linearity of the whole piece and its broad sidelining of interactivity are very apparent. The choice moment of being a child in a room and having to look around for an object from the world of adults is repeated a few times, and it's well done, but these are the only moments in which you get to really do something other than listen to another's story. Of course, it isn't literally "another's"; being a tale of family, this story involves Nevare indirectly, which turns out to be a salient point for the denouement of The Cellar. However, I imagine many regular IF players would simply wish they could do more in this game. I wished that, but I still enjoyed the story. I can also imagine a game depicting some of the told material in interactive fashion, though this isn't a case where speculating on a significantly different game that isn't will pay dividends. The Cellar's linearity might also have made it more accessible to random passers by in an exhibition. Either way, its story is a good realisation of Lovecraft's jotted idea.

Dead Cities, by Jon Ingold

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Books, glorious books!, July 17, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, Lovecraft, horror
Dead Cities hails from the Lovecraft-themed Commonplace Book Project of 2007 and uses the following jotting of Lovecraft's as its inspiration:

"An impression - city in peril - dead city - equestrian statue - men in closed room - clattering of hooves heard from outside - marvel disclosed on looking out - doubtful ending."

While I've yet to play through all of the project games as I write this, I'm guessing that this one is the most technically ambitious of the bunch. It presents attractively in a multi-pane window which divides up the main text, an inventory list, a hint panel and black-and-white pencil sketches of many of its situations and objects. Suggested commands from the hint panel can also be clicked to enter them into the main window. Unfortunately, these flourishes are not trouble-free. I ran into a fair few bugs while playing, several of them related to the display, some of them serious (no save possible because it was not possible to restore) and was rarely able to determine exactly where the fault lay. I will discuss these issues at the end of the review.

Dead Cities is a Lovecraft pastiche long on conversation, domesticity and quality prose. Lovecraft was good at fetisihising all kinds of things by dwelling upon them at what I like to think he would describe as preternatural length, and Jon Ingold achieves something similar here with the rare books which appear in this game. The player is a solicitor charged by Carter Arkwright with obtaining the signature of Carter's dying uncle. Carter seeks to avoid inheritance tax bankruptcy by acquiring his uncle's valuable books before his death, books which range from rare Isaac Newtons to Necronomicon-like volumes.

It is necessary in the first place to attend to social niceties in this game. You'll tie up your horse, make small talk with the maid and humour an old man. I would say that these things seem to flow easily here, when they often don't in IF, except that with my general dislike of the tell/ask system of IF conversation which Dead Cities uses, the truth is that I was unable to cleave myself away from the hint panel, which perfectly yes'd and no'd and asked and told my way all through the introductory section of the game – and then quite far into the game's core conversation with old man Arkwright. The hint panel feature strikes me as an excellent way to show people how to play IF, and would probably have worked very well for random folks looking at this game in the context of an exhibition. For regular IFfers, it may be a bit too much of an easy temptation, but personally I never say no to an opportunity to skip asking and telling.

The conversation scene with Arkwright has that black humour about it of someone trying to extricate valuable information (or just valuables) from an old person who is dying and knows it. Of course in this game you can say that it was all just business because you're playing a hired solicitor, but there is some scope in your yes-ing and no-ing to treat the old man well or poorly, or somewhere inbetween, which is interesting.

To speak of later more hair-raising shenanigans would be to spoil this not particularly long game. There is a lot of room in it to try little variations in your interactions with the game's few NPCs, but there are perhaps only a handful of opportunities to change a bigger picture. I found a couple of endings hard to read in that they made me wonder if I'd missed chunks of the game, as if I could have achieved something more drastic. But there's no walkthrough and no hints for the later part of Dead Cities, so I decided to be content with what I'd done. The general high quality of the prose and overall flow of events were the real attractions for me.

Concerning technical troubles, I can say that I was unable to successfully restore a saved game of Dead Cities in the current versions of Mac interpreters Gargoyle and Zoom – doing so produced a Glulx error. The game's hint panel spiralled out of control on me more than once, cycling madly through the hints, and in Zoom I found it was sometimes necessary to resize the game window mid-session to prevent the interpreter from pausing after every line of text. Dialogue and hints snuck into the inventory window occasionally, too. I believe this game was put together in two months for the Commonplace project, so it's already punching above its time-weight in overall quality, but it looks like it could have benefited from more testing, and it's probably become a victim of some degree of inconsistency in delivery of the relatively nascent Glulx format, or tweaks to that format over time.

Critical Breach, by Grey

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
It's significantly more exciting than 'Moderately Impactful Breach'., July 16, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: Inform, science fiction, horror
Critical Breach puts you in the role of something like one of the low ranking scientists working for the bad guys in the Resident Evil games. The kind of white-coated underlings who do the dangerous lab work on the zombie DNA and are first to be torn apart when some giant mutant springs out of a petri dish.

The game has a core of two busy lab rooms sporting computers, scanners, medical miscellany and one specimen cage containing your charge, the horrible Scorpig. Your goal is to implant a chip in that little bastard, a procedure which does not go routinely. This main part of the game is very satisfying, coming on like a significant but not overly tough set piece from a larger adventure. There's good interactivity amongst the many props at your disposal, a fair bit to do and a fair bit to work out. The game successfully conveys a feeling of the dangerousness of the PC's situation without ever killing the player. I did get stuck once, at which point I consulted the walk-through and discovered that (Spoiler - click to show)a particular object which common sense had told me would never fit inside another particular object actually did – so I blame the game's failure to make clear the size of this object.

Unfortunately, the post-Scorpig section of the game is poor. It may also be short, but it dragged down my experience with its relatively lame implementation (EG a vital noun makes no appearance in the prose at any point), vagueness of purpose and possible bugginess. I was stuck in one room for ages, and when I turned to the walk-through, it didn't work – (Spoiler - click to show)nor did its instructions on getting either of the game's endings.

I was tempted to lop a star off my score for the messy endgame, but I felt that would fail to accurately reflect the fun I had in the laboratory section, which comprises the bulk of Critical Breach. I had also been expecting a small game from the outset, and wouldn't have minded if it hadn't continued beyond the lab anyway. It's a good and basically satisfying dose of puzzle in a sci-fi setting. An update to the endgame would be great, though.

The Awakening, by Dennis Matheson

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
But I am in my grave, and, oh, The difference to me!, July 14, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
I was going to begin this review by saying: 'Not to be confused with the 2009 game of the same title, genre, initial situation and initial geography,' and then I realised how dumb that sounded. If ever a human being should be allowed to accidentally confuse a pair of games with each other from a position of ignorance, it should be in the case of these two Awakenings, though admittedly this one has a 'The' in front of it.

Now that I have kindly allowed for human fallibility, I can say that Dennis Matheson's lone IF game, 1998's The Awakening, is a well written piece of goth horror in which you wake up in a grave in the pouring rain and must seek to solve the mystery of your predicament. The prose is steeped in Lovecraftian dread and 'unnameable'-ness, and the development of the plot moves strongly in the direction of one of Lovecraft's short tales.

At the time of writing this review, I was mostly in the habit of playing more recent IF games – IE from the mid 2000s and on – and as I played The Awakening, I discovered that I needed to shift my playing style and mindset a bit to accommodate what feels like a game from a different time. The differences were subtle, but they spoke to me about the adventure games I am used to playing, which could be generalised as coming from both the old school and the new school. The 90s games are in a middle period for me. I had no awareness of them at the time, and this one certainly feels more like a small Infocom title than something newer.

The puzzles, though not numerous, are quite finicky and also subtle. Important props are sometimes buried with equal subtley in the room descriptions. It is possible to make your game unwinnable or to miss out on points, and there's also the technical limitation of only one UNDO being allowed. I don't think anyone would say this is a really difficult adventure, and there are in-game hints you can call upon, but it asks a little more of the player puzzle-wise than more modern games.

Atmosphere is king in The Awakening, what with its shuddery graveyard and dilapidated church settings. Some of the gettable objects about the place are just there to enhance the story and the reality of the situation, and there are a couple of nasty NPCs. (Spoiler - click to show)I have to confess that in the case of the guard dog, I only got stuck because I found the description of its chain inadequate. Folks who like non-explicit Lovecraft spinoffs, graveyard spookiness or a bit of rigour in their adventuring should enjoy this middle sized mystery.

Awakening, by Pete Gardner

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Rain rain go away, why me sleeping in a grave?, July 13, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
Awakening is a short to moderate length horror adventure of likeable clarity. To solve the existential mystery of your identity there are two main things you need to do in this game: Pay attention to the descriptions of the rain-drenched church grounds you'll find yourself wandering and pay attention to the automatic feedback you'll receive from your character's senses. Nor should you forget that you woke up by an open grave when the game began. Like I said, three things.

Awakening won the Saugus.net Halloween Contest of 2009 and delivers a Halloweenish variation on the IF amnesia theme. Though a little overladen with adjectives, it has a strong mood of ceaseless rain and mud and a good way with the burden of the numerous physical sensations experienced by your character. Your bedraggled state gives you strong motivation to try to improve your lot by exploring, or at least to try to do something loftier than mope about by a grave.

The implementation is rusty in some places but then surprisingly detailed in others. While there are a handful of inflexible moments, the game as a whole isn't complex enough to be undone by them. Awakening's mood is sustained by good location writing and its world is small enough that you don't have to retrace too much ground if you get stuck. Some mystery, some mostly staple puzzling and a moody locale of small inventory make for a satisfying goth horror outing.

Forest House 3: Sacrifice, by Seciden Mencarde

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
The For3st House gets simultaneously better and worse., February 15, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 3.8, ADRIFT, horror
Keen followers of The Forest House saga would have been pretty happy with the ending of part two, and probably at least mildly curious to see what would happen in part three. The answer is: you get half a game which is potentially the best in the series, followed by half a game which is easily the worst.

Basically the third episode seems too ambitious for anyone to be able to bring off properly in just three hours of programming, the competition limitation which defines all three games. So the further you play, the worse the programming gets, until the building is practically falling down around you.

The kid from episode one is now grown and married, "With a gorgeous wife to your left and beautiful son to your right" as the game says. But this is a Forest House game, so it's not long before people need to start getting on down to The Forest House to progress the plot.

This game features an animated NPC, a first for the series. It's your wife, and she dutifully follows you around, guides you in the right direction and offers some advice. This is a very cool start to the game, and the conversations actually clear up some of the family relations that have popped up in the earlier games.

Unfortunately things go downhill once you get into the supernatural half of the adventure. First, a bunch of room descriptions vanish. This is clearly a bug, even though there are other weird room shenanigans going on, including is a semi-endless stairway, again inspired by Silent Hill. Second: (Spoiler - click to show)The fight with The Beast demonstrates more new programming, but feels silly. And finally the game just crumbles into programming hell. Its responses become erratic and inconsistent, things disappear or don't disappear which shouldn't or should respectively. (Spoiler - click to show)The end is supposed to present a few choices but I could only interact with one of them; the others seemed broken or bizarre. If you can make it to the finale, it offers a bunch of fairly crazy exposition.

Over the course of three Forest House games, the author demonstrated a growing range of abilities. It's probably time for him to string them all together in a game not ensmallened or bugged-up by a three-hour programming time limit. That limit hurt this third game in the series the most.

I Was a Teenage Headless Experiment, by Duncan Bowsman

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Small scale grand guignol fun, February 15, 2012
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 4, ADRIFT, horror
This comic horror mini-adventure was written in three hours for Ectocomp 2010, and fits a clever central conceit and a great 'Aha!' moment into a handful of locations.

The game begins with your head being sawed off by an evil bad guy and placed on a table. To speak more explicitly on the content in this review would, unfortunately, amount to game-wrecking, given the petite size of Headless, but what I do particularly like about this game is that it doesn't fall down that speed IF hole of being overreaching and underimplemented. Headless's design is totally amenable to the format's logistical restrictions, and the game has a good trick that's fun to work out. This is one "they done sawed my head off" game I am not shy about recommending to the non-squeamish and sundry.

All Alone, by Ian Finley

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Effective in its aim but low on interactivity., December 4, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: TADS, horror
All Alone is a very short horror game riffing on those urban myths about what can happen to women who are unfortunate enough to receive a creepy phone call late at night. You play one such woman fielding one such phone call; you're alone in your apartment when the call arrives, a storm's moving in and the TV news is yelling at you about the local serial killer.

The game is effective in evoking the fear people can experience and generate in their own homes at night, and eliciting that fear from a handful of rooms and domestic props. It also uses a couple of sound effects at choice moments. Unfortunately, it's also tremendously short and not really very interactive. Suspense is built up from a sequence of timed steps which mostly proceed no matter what you're doing. Admittedly this is a rather dull and mechanical perspective on how the game works, but if that suspense is the game's sum effect (Spoiler - click to show)(though the final twist is pretty good, too) it's too little for me in an interactive medium.

One more note: Reviews contemporary to All Alone's release (11 years ago at this time of writing) often quote the author's advice on how to play it – that is, with lights out, alone, at night. This advice wasn't anywhere in the game that I could find, so I assume it was on a promotional website which no longer exists or in a readme file which is no longer attached to the game.

Blind, by Andrew Metzger

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Well-designed creepiness., November 18, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2011, TADS, horror
When I came to play this game, I thought, "I see political trouble ahead for Blind from reviewers, based on the title and tagline…" that tagline being: "Who says blindness is a handicap?" As it turns out, Blind isn't about overcoming blindness through medical advancement or political agitation. It is about overcoming blindness by having you play a young blind woman who must escape from the house of a cannibalistic serial killer.

Blind women in peril (or women whose eyeballs are demonically possessed - that one doesn't apply to this game) have a rich history in thriller and horror films. Audrey Hepburn played one in Wait Until Dark (1967), foiling a drug-dealing criminal in her own unlit apartment. In that film it was all about the drugs. In many later blind-woman-in-peril films, and in Blind, the criminal's goal is the blind woman herself, his motives sexual and sadistic. This takes the game into creepy and harrowing terrain, and puts the player in a desperate survival situation.

In technical terms, Blind's sensory schtick is less than perfect. As you cannot see, you are given other verbs to discover information about your environment, such as 'feel' and 'smell'. 'Look' remains implemented, giving general feedback from your other senses on your present location. Being able to use several senses multiplies the amount of feedback you can get from each object in the game, but sometimes it can feel like a simple obligation to have to 'examine' each item in three or more different ways, and more objects could use more describing. Nevertheless, the overall effect works in that you do progress through the game by applying sometimes unexpected senses to the obstacles you encounter in a way that a sighted person wouldn't.

I was surprised to learn that the author is not particularly a fan of the horror genre, as he demonstrates a pretty good understanding of it in Blind. Some of the heroine's realisations about her plight (and the plight of those who went before her) as she stumbles about the killer's house are written with great psychological and physiological realism. Unfortunately, the game is also capable of undercutting such moments with the odd joke at the expense of the fourth wall, or occasionally managing to frame the heroine in a pervy way, even though it's her POV. These weak spots do not detract from the game's overall sincerity of effect, nor from what turns out to be a very elegant and detailed game design.

While Blind's early scenes distressed the adventure gamer in me by presenting me with a huge number of implemented household items which I could pick up (I was having visions of having to construct some incredible escape device from my packrattings, and I feel I am only being kind to future players in saying -- that is not what you have to do… (Spoiler - click to show)At least upstairs. When you get downstairs, some assembly may be required.) Blind demonstrates a lot of interactive possibilities and outcomes in its second act down in the basement. Violence has been used against you; how much and what kind of violence are you prepared to resort to in order to escape? Some possibilities seem to be a stretch when derived from the context sensitive hint system, but other clever and resourceful actions for the heroine to take are well implemented. You might have to face your captor more than once, and the game becomes particularly dangerous and exciting as it approaches its climax.

I also like that when you first complete Blind it presents you with a list of achievement-like extras you might want to try to avail yourself of in a subsequent game. Some of the proffered feats are easy to pull off, others quite difficult. In any case, I found this to be a more strongly motivational approach to inviting replays than those typical 'amusing' lists, which I've never really liked. And the second act gamespace is both small and detailed enough that I think most players who enjoyed the game are likely to be interested in going for the extras.

Version 1.6 of Blind (the final IFComp 2011 version) could use more polish in proofreading and implementation, but its core design is good enough that some roughness is unlikely to be bothersome for any player who is interested in its subject matter. It certainly doesn't betray any sign of its having had no testers beyond the author; I find it to be as least as well implemented as many games which placed above it. Blind is an imperfect but strong horror-thriller puzzle game, with moments of authentic creepiness and gruesomeness.

The Lighthouse, by Marius Müller

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Promising horror needs more programming., September 16, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
If this short horror adventure had been more tightly programmed, I'd praise it as being very good. As it stands, it manages to be both pretty good and pretty annoying.

The player is determined to apprehend the wonders of the St Cafasso Lighthouse on Buwch Island, and not even a torrential storm is going to put them off. This is a brisk and atmospheric set up with a lot of possibilities, and the game quickly makes good on them, confronting the player with a corpse, violence and secrets.

Where it doesn't make good is in fielding the majority of commands which are slightly off course. Perhaps it is only the fate of good writing to be seriously injured by the unvarying tone of default parser messages. There's nothing more obnoxious than being in the throes of trying to stave off another character's attempt on your life and having to wade through a sea of the old chestnuts like, 'That seems to belong to Mr X', 'That's hardly portable,' or 'That would achieve nothing.' The (quite good) mood of this game was ruined for me on countless occasions by such oversights.

The game has several endings that I could find, and the fact that they are not immediately adjacent to each other, but aren't miles apart from each other, either, is a plus in my book. Yet there is also a a terrible bug along the lines of: characters who are alive shouldn't suddenly be dead, and vice versa.

This is the kind of short piece which, if its holes were plugged, I would probably elevate into my totally underpopulated horror top 10. (There is a sore shortage of non-Lovecraft horror text adventures out there.) But bugs and oversights really work against the Lighthouse's quality content.

Cattus Atrox, by David Cornelson

8 of 8 people found the following review helpful:
They didn't skimp on the Atrox., September 15, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
It's probably hard for anyone to tell a really convincing story about a small lion pride stalking an innocent man through the suburbs one evening at the behest of a psychopath, but this is the subject matter of Cattus Atrox. Some of Cattus is pulse quickening, much of it is inexplicable, and a lot of it is very funny. Some folks would say that hilarity (either intentional or unintentional) has no place in a horror game, but I think horror and humour are weird emotional cousins, and there is something about this game that I found both intense (sometimes) and hysterical.

For half Cattus's length, I fled cleverly through the foggy night streets while killer lions and 'Karl' harassed me. Then I typed 'wait' about ten times while a beautiful lady conveyed me to safety, or at least to another location. (This is one of those games where you have to type 'wait' an awful lot.) During this gust of confidence, I found myself thinking, "The reviews of this game are wrong. It's totally playable and solveable." Then I found myself dying repeatedly in a drug induced (in the game!) stupor, which seemed inescapable. Then I turned to the walk-through, and then I realised that the other reviews were right. I don't think anyone could divine the series of actions leading to the solution of this game. Some crucial objects aren't mentioned in the room descriptions and tons of objects which would seem to be of help to you are just never implemented. The playing area may be large, but it's also samey and mostly painted-on.

I also discovered I was about 50 moves too late to even be trying to get off my fatal path. I don't mind learning from being killed, in fact sometimes I quite enjoy it, but it was galling in Cattus because of everything about the game that was revealed in one fell swoop when I had to turn to the walk-through -- at which point I just typed in the walk-through.

Still, there are a lot of weird little delights in Cattus. I don't think anyone expects a threatening stranger to suddenly reveal that he has a car full of lions. There's preposterous dialogue, leonine gore, crazy plot twists, and silly episodes of violence which animal-loving players will find completely objectionable. Some of these elements seem to belong in the world of the game, others have been added without care. This makes the whole a bit of a mess, and while Cattus is not a good game by conventional standards, the particular concoction which is Cattus Atrox is certainly that – particular. In terms of its playability, though, I'd say it's guaranteed to aggravate any player cocky enough to persist with it in the belief they can solve it off their own back.

The Zuni Doll, by Jesse Burneko

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
Brief and bare-bonesy action-horror., September 15, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: horror, Inform
The Zuni Doll is a short horror adventure in which you have to fend off the eponymous and cursed African doll when it starts trying to kill you. Your goal in purchasing the thing was to add it to your collection of curios, but one stupid action by your pet cat has reactivated the doll's evil.

The game is set in the few rooms of your house and doesn't beat around the bush, quickly getting you into the business of finding a succession of methods to stave off the doll's attacks. It has some exciting moments, but the programming is entirely bare bones. The included background information says that The Zuni Doll was written in four days as a programming demonstration, and this shows. There are no synonyms, no alternate ways of doing things, and Undo isn't even mentioned in the game over menu, though it's the most common command you'll need in response to the frequent snuffing out of your life that occurs. There are also random typos, and objects aren't necessarily described through the filter of the life and death events which frame the action.

In spite of these weaknesses, the game is so short and linear that you won't feel like you've wrecked your experience by consulting the equally short walk through, which you'll probably have to do. There's also a bit of humour in the writing (and the whole idea), and some interesting gore. Overall, the game offers brief fun with a good idea, but scattershot delivery. It's certainly a candidate for a tune up which it will probably never get.

Room 206, by Byron Alexander Campbell

5 of 5 people found the following review helpful:
When weddings turn bad in extremis, August 31, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ALAN, horror
Room 206 is a huge mystery-horror game of poetic venereal prose (and poetic overkill), a boggle-leaning story and reality-skewing assaults. Programming and writing this game would be an extreme challenge for even a whole team of superhuman IF veterans to pull off smoothly – and I have to say upfront that the game's author Byron Alexander Campbell has not pulled the programming off in bullet-proof fashion – but he has pulled the game off, and done so using the ALAN development system.

The game kicks off in a chapel where you're considering the aftermath of your wedding to exquisite Erica. The wedding party waits for you out on the lawn as you observe stray paraphernalia like a dropped handkerchief and a wafting ribbon, but once you head outside, you find the party has disappeared. Only an anonymous limousine remains. Thus begins this noir-wedding-horror-hardboiled-nightmare-daymare mystery.

Room 206 doesn't have any trouble integrating its sprawl of content and styles into one story, but does have trouble integrating it into the tone of its prose. Lines which are functional, overripe, poetic, super earnest and bizarre all chase each other's heels, often within the space of a paragraph. Dynamically I found this too erratic, so I didn't always buy the narrator's ability to construct back-to-back vivid metaphors while digging through the garbage in a hotel room, for instance. Scripted conversation, especially by telephone, is also in abundance. If you don't like your IF extra writerly, you're unlikely to be able to come at Room 206, but the more you stick with this game, the more you get into its style.

Unfortunately, the adventure reaches close-to-impossible difficulty levels by the halfway mark due to shortcomings in those most important (though boring to always cite) design areas of implementation and giving the player cues. Most objects are implemented for only one purpose, resulting in a lot of preclusion of action and oblivious feedback. Failing to perform a task such as treating your headache with painkillers can result in the game ceasing to progress without telling you why.

Room 206 also makes extreme use of the 'wait' command to progress the script – the walk-through lists more than 50 waits. I appreciate the game's interest in creating an emotional reality in which the player might pause to process thoughts and feelings, but it's too often impossible to guess when you might need to wait to make something happen. It is also in the nature of the game's ambitious content, which becomes increasingly abstract and complex, to make it tough to work out what you might need to do next in general, especially once your character's grip on reality has started to slide. The game mobilises keyword technology for movement (the opening scene is particularly graceful) but geography is typically the least of your worries.

Eventually I was exhausted by the various kinds of onslaught and had to take completely to the walk-through. Doing so typically destroys my interest in a game, but with Room 206 I found that seeing it through to the end was rewarding. I realised I had persisted through lots of challenges, some frustrations – including out-of-game stuff like numerous crashes in two interpreters and corrupted saved files, resulting in multiple replays (I think the latest version of the ALAN interpreter at this time of writing has some Macintosh problems) – and that I had done so because of Room 206's engrossing story and wildness. Even when the prose was overkilly, I started to side with it. And I found myself thinking about the whole experience afterwards. While I was definitely infuriated a lot on the way through, I was ultimately impressed by the fiery reach of this game.

Marika the Offering, by revgiblet

9 of 9 people found the following review helpful:
A thrilling gothic "Barricade-The-Room" adventure, January 16, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 4, ADRIFT, horror
I heard that one-room and escape-from-the-room text games went gangbusters somewhere between the 1990s and 2010. I learned this in 2010, the year I started playing any of the non-commercial IF that had been going on for the past couple of decades. And of the one-room games I have tried so far, Marika the Offering is easily the one what is most killing it in my fave charts.

Marika is a barricade-the-room game in which you play a 15-year-old beauty who has grown up in a ye olde town afflicted by the curse of a vampire. The fiend shows up once every 15 years to snack on a pretty virgin, and God help those who don't supply him with one!.. or at least that's what he says. It's not like the parties involved are talking to each other all the time.

You, Marika, are to be the latest offering to the villain, and find yourself locked in a tower bedroom at game start. The townsfolk expect you to lie back and think of England, but your mum has encouraged you to try to make the room impregnable before you fall asleep. And so begins an extremely exciting and suspenseful race against the clock of the sun.

The writing is lovely, with a bit of a romantic trill, and it also does its utmost to be clear about the potential usefulness of all the features and objects in the room, both before and after you have made your first interaction with each. Player knowledge is divorced from character knowledge, so that even if you've played before, you can't act on an idea that has not yet come to Marika through her actions as you have dictated them.

The game also removes the need to GET or DROP things. Once an object's practical usefulness is known to your character, you can always act as if you possess it, which makes good sense given that everything you can act upon must be in the room. Generally, issuing a LOOK will remind you of the status of most things you have previously messed with, given that they will all be visible from where you stand.

Another cool feature is that if you run out of moves, fall asleep and get attacked by the vampire (it's likely to happen to every player at least once, and probably more times before they solve all the puzzles) you will learn something, from the manner of your death, about what actions you still need to take to vampire-proof your tower.

The complete backstory to the game is presented as an optional read, presumably only because of its length. You will be better off reading it before getting into the game, and it seems plain to me that if you enjoy the writing in the game, you will enjoy the engaging backstory as well. Making it optional seems to have been the only hesitant design choice ("Will this deter players?", perhaps) in a game otherwise defined by clear design choices.

Ultimately, Marika the Offering is a very satisfying and tense time-limited puzzler with a Gothic thrillingness about it and involving writing.

The Sisters, by revgiblet

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Spookin' it up with mystery and exploration at the ol' spook place., January 11, 2011
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 4, ADRIFT, horror
The Sisters is a mystery-horror adventure set in an apparently deserted mansion in the wilds of Sussex. If you're into ghostly horror tales, you will have a lot of fun recalling all of the different stories and styles the game draws on or evokes; in books, Stephen King and James Herbert. In films, there's plenty from the "scary little girls" subgenre and even a touch of Don't Look Now. In gaming, the opening recalls Silent Hill, and The Sisters's method of revealing backstory through written materials like diaries and letters is typical of survival horror.

The game's story is considered, but the dynamic of how much you learn and when (Spoiler - click to show)(50% of the information is revealed as you explore 90% of the game, then everything else leaps out in the last five minutes) makes the outcome a little unsatisfying. The journey is what is important, because the mansion is big and absolutely crammed with examinable decor and objects, all of them contributing to the atmosphere, many of them filling in pieces of story. This is a great example of story being gleaned from the environment.

There is a catch: The repetitive nature of the locations makes it hard to stay vigilant in your searchings. You're in a multi-storey mansion of similarly laid out floors. There are many bedrooms, many tables, many desks, many wardrobes. Descriptions of even sparse locations can be 70 words long on average, and the average non-corridor room will have at least five things you can examine. This adds up to a tremendous amount of detail, but only a handful of objects you will find during your rummagings are needed to complete the game.

If you reach the end and discover that your score seems relatively poor – and you care about this kind of thing – you will need to do a reconnaissance replay in which you doublecheck every furnishing in the house, because particular objects lead into particular point-generating puzzles. But after your fourth bed, fifth table or sixth desk, you will realise how you managed to miss so many things in the first place.

The Sisters is at its best as a spooky and suspenseful exploration game. The mansion is a terrific setting, an integral part of the unfolding mystery and elaborate with atmospheric detail. But the score system and denouement are inevitably a bit disappointing. Too many of the points are attached to optional puzzles which are easy to miss, and the outcome is like a jack in the box opening in your face after the slow piecing together of the past that made up the bulk of the game. The parser has its bumpy moments and the fourth wall is broken unnecessarily a few times with jokes. The mansion is the star, though, and it is definitely worth visiting.

Return to the Forest House, by Seciden Mencarde

2 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
The Forest House is back! And this time it's personal… more so., November 29, 2010
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 3.8, ADRIFT, horror
The child who was a child in the original The Forest House is now a teenager, and he (you) is dropped immediately into the eponymous house and confronted with monster and spook-shaped danger.

This game has little nods to Resident Evil (a shotgun on hooks on the wall) and Silent Hill (alternate realities with consequences for real realities) and considering the game's small size, it packs in quite the bite-sized adventure. It's probably the best designed and best to play of the three Forest Houses, in spite of being written in three hours and also subject to the OddComp 2008 restrictions on the number of allowable rooms, objects, tasks, events, and characters... (Spoiler - click to show)In this game's case, 7, 9, 11, 5 and 3 respectively.

These restrictions manifest primarily in the extreme lack of look-at descriptions for objects. You still can't get away with looking at nothing though, as there are a few objects which must be examined to enable progress.

The score system seems bizarre at first glance, being broken up into blobs of 17 points, but again this makes sense when you remember the game's comp bias towards odd numbers. One character is completely inscrutable, and though (Spoiler - click to show)the game has a couple of endings, trying to work out how to get whichever one you didn't get the first time may prove to be a hair-pulling experience. The inbuilt hints work well at all other times.

A higher-tech revision of this game would be welcome (though it might end up breaking the odd number patterns that determined most of its design), but instead what comes next is For3st House: Sacrifice, the most ambitious and craziest -- but also the most half-undernourished (?!) -- Forest House to date.

The Forest House, by Seciden Mencarde

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
The beginning of an interesting little series., November 28, 2010
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: ADRIFT 3.8, ADRIFT, horror
There aren't a ton of text adventure game series around, let alone series in which each episode deals with the same setting and characters over time. "The Forest House" and its two sequels can make these claims, and what's cool is that they were written over two years (2007-2008) as entries in Ectocomp and The Odd Competition. Furthermore, each game was written in the space of three hours, with all this entails; smallness in the first place, and bare bones programming and bugginess in the second.

If you find low production values or the idea of more simple games intolerable, you should probably drive away now. On the other hand, if you're the kind of person who might be fascinated by the prospect of watching one fantasy/horror story being built up in three quick steps, the first being the author's first game, the third already demonstrating leaps of ambition (probably unmatched by execution… it was still written in three hours) then you may also be a bit charmed by the Forest House saga.

In the first game, The Forest House, you play a young boy who wants to sneak out into the forest at night to explore a house which no-one else can see, not waking your sister or parents in the process. The game presents just a handful of puzzles and evokes a decent atmosphere of childhood excitement.

This very short debut is ultimately the most technically polished of the three games, since it was given a revision makeover by its author after the original Ectocomp. Neither of the sequels have received similar treatment at this time of writing, and it is very important to point out that version 1 of the original The Forest House should be avoided -- bugs make it not-completeable, plus there are numerous other errors and missing descriptions. Version 2 (available from the ADRIFT website) is the one to play.

On its own, this game presents as an unspectacular but neat debut. It becomes more interesting when viewed as the first part of a story. Sequel "Return to the Forest House" offers more action and features the same protagonist, now five years older.


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