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Reviews by Wade Clarke

IFComp 2014

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1-5 of 5


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.

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.

Sigmund's Quest, by Gregor Holtz

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
Cute graphics in this game sample, but I'm not interested in seeing more of it., November 17, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2014, incomplete, fantasy, choice-based
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)

Sigmund's Quest is the visually colourful point-and-click introduction to an incomplete CYOA style adventure based on a tale from Norse mythology. It runs in a web browser, and its deliberately magnified, pixelated colour graphics fill the screen. Unfortunately this is way too short (I reached the end in about five minutes) to sell or indicate much about the game-to-be except that it will have some charming graphics.

The blurb mentions werewolves and incest; none of either were in evidence in my playthrough. The tip of the story didn't hook me, as the content demonstrated up until the endpoint was too generic a tale of medieval royalty. The prose is simple and a bit workmanlike, with an earnestness which does little to riff off the playfulness that the graphics suggest as an aesthetic possibility.

The author cites the inspiration of King's Quest. This is writ large in the visuals, but the aggressive attitude of the King's Quest games (which I really, really don't miss - both the games and the attitude) is not. Yet I feel there needs to be some kind of attitude here to something. That's what's missing.

Sigmund's Quest competed in IFComp 2014. There was no rule against entering incomplete works, but historically they've faired poorly. The context is 99% of the reason why. If I'm given scores of games to play, why would I want to play one which isn't finished? Or in this case, barely begun? In IFComp, receptivity to a demo can plummet at the moment the player realises it's a demo.

To put an Introcomp spin on what I experienced of Sigmund's Quest, I wouldn't be interested in playing the rest of it if it were to continue in the fashion already demonstrated, and that’s primarily because I'm not trusting the prose or writing to become interesting if they continue in the fashion already demonstrated. Such a perception all comes down to the smallness of the sample space presented by this intro, one way or another.

Milk Party Palace, by Alon Karmi & Glenn Parker

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A somewhat arduous party., November 17, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: choice-based, Unity, IFComp 2014, comedy
(This is an edited version of a review I originally blogged during the 2014 IFComp.)

Milk Party Palace is a brief CYOA comedy in which you play a slack hotel employee who needs to round up six gallons of milk to appease visiting celebrity Alec Baldwin. Your eye is also on the twin goals of attending Baldwin’s "Milk Party" and finding out what a milk party even is. With the tone of the game being a bit juvo-Hollywood-teen-comedy wack, I wondered if a milk party might turn out to be a celebration vaguely along the lines of a lemon party, but I will not spoil such a revelation in this review.

Milk Party was made in Unity, a rarity for a text game, and demonstrates a clean and efficient link’n’click style. Once I'd reached one of its three advertised endings, I decided I'd had enough. Obtaining the gallons of milk involves cajoling or harassing various hotel guests by negotiating some absurd scenarios in their respective rooms. This absurd comedy seems to be Milk Party’s main purpose, but I quickly fell offside with the game, which caused me to click away impatiently at each encounter in an effort to hurry through it. I felt critical of my unreceptive state afterwards and tried to work out what I hadn’t liked.

It could be as simple a factor as that it all started off with the anticipation of a very short game involving a celebrity, a description which made me interest-weary. Then came the business of chasing up the milk itself, which was almost hard slog. The guests are understandably wary of your bugging each of them for milk, and the encounters are structured around the pains of you trying to extricate the needed gallons in the face of ridiculous verbal and physical hurdles. These hurdles somehow reminded me in nature of the kind of conversations I’d expect to have to suffer in hell, were I to end up there, albeit shorter in length. It's testament to some kind of effectiveness of what the game is doing along these lines that I did feel aggravated by the hurdles, even though they are less "real" than they might be in a parser-based game, where you could become physically or literally stuck against a puzzle. That can't happen to you in Milk Party, but I was still a bit teeth-gnashy throughout the experiences described in the prose.

So even though Milk Party is not all that long, it feels strenuous. Its brand of absurd thwarting is legitimate comedy fodder – and I found some of it funny – but that wasn't enough to drive me to want to engage with its stuff. Deep down in my heart of hearts, I did not feel motivated to care about getting milk for Alec Baldwin, as fine an actor as he is, and thus I did not get into the shenanigans involved in doing so.

Following Me, by Tia Orisney
Solid Strangers-Met-In-The-Woods CYOA thriller, November 17, 2015
by Wade Clarke (Sydney, Australia)
Related reviews: IFComp 2014, choice-based, Twine, thriller
(This is an edited version of a review I originally wrote for my 2014 IFComp blog.)

It's usually lazy of a reviewer to summarise the content of a game they're reviewing by reprinting its blurb, but I think the blurb for Tia Orisney’s IFComp 2014 entry Following Me already does the best possible job for the purposes of my review, and handily builds in the limits of advance information the author would like players to know about the game:

"Two women take a wrong turn in the woods and make a gruesome discovery. They seek help from a mysterious stranger and are dragged into a vicious trap that they will be lucky to survive.

The story is delivered in a CYOA format characterised by long, unbroken passages of text studded with infrequent moments of choice and ‘Continue’ buttons. It’s a substantial read. Tia’s long format prose, within the context of this kind of game, was on display in two entries in the 2013 IFComp, of which I fully played one, Blood on the Heather", a wacky Buffy The Vampire Slayer-style adventure which wavered for me between being compelling and tiring. I remember the drive of much of the prose though, about which I wrote:

“I wouldn't underestimate the feat of achieving consistent propulsion of a story this big, which BOTH's writing pulls off comfortably, but it is the length of the thing which also throws the jumpy proofreading into relief.”

Following Me is a serious snowbound thriller which threatens to get very heavy. There's still the distraction of some loose proofreading dragging on the author's obvious storytelling skills, but the plot is tight, the whole thing is quite tense and the construction dense enough to push through problems. Psychologically it stays truthful to the headspace of Kat, the protagonist, and her moment to moment bursts of thought. (Occasionally I felt it was a spot off here – it's not that people don't have the odd bizarre and ostensibly comical thought during times of real peril, but I don't believe they narrate it to themselves at the time using the language they’d use to narrate it to someone else later. i.e. They have no time for a longer or circumspect view because they’re in immediate peril. Kat did this a bit too often for my taste. This is not a big nitpick in a piece which is psychologically on target most of the time.)

The physical manifestation of the bad guys is finally handled, too, the way Kat observes their little tics and physical dynamics. How they say things, where they look when they are delivering particular threats, how they brandish their rifles and how the older man brandishes his cane. These details accumulate to vividly convey the repugnance of their characters, and the experience of being a woman who has become their prisoner.

The choices offered always read as weighty alternatives and they caused me a lot of player deliberation, though the ultimate construction of the game is such that most roads eventually lead to Rome. The choices create different vectors to get there, shepherding the prose in a broad way that reflects a choice you probably made heavily, and so whose outcome you are predisposed to invest in. Because Following Me is a thriller with life-and-death stakes for the characters, I think this scheme works well in this game.


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