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Reviews by autumnc

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Tragic, by Jared Jackson

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Deck-building combat RPG in Unity, December 31, 2020
I played this using wine on linux. It seemed to work perfectly fine on my computer. The only issue I had was that I felt the UI and font were a bit small and hard to read. I think there were a few bugs; there was one card which was supposed to allow you to draw any card, but it only showed cards that were already in your hand.

This game felt like kind of an odd or at least atypical fit for ifcomp. It is essentially a Slay the Spire-like, a deck-building RPG. In a comic twist, the player character is a character in an RPG game-within-the-game being told by a pair of siblings, who has been brought into the "real world" which is still a part of the same RPG session. It's a pretty fun story. The gameplay itself consists of battling enemies by drawing cards which represent attacks, defenses, or abilities. Defeating enemies allows you to get new cards, and there are opportunities to gain items which give stat bonuses. Throughout the story, there are choice-based segments where you choose (mostly blindly) where to go next or which monster to fight next. This includes a maze segment.

This game may have been experimental for IFComp, but for me, it shifted in my mind from being in an IF space to more of a general videogame territory, and in that territory, it does not necessarily compare well. The deck-builder had a surprising amount of depth, and the game is pretty well constructed (save the bug mentioned earlier), but nothing on an IFComp development cycle will be able to match commercial production values (Slay the Spire had years of early access and essentially thousands of testers). However, there are advantages of IFComp stuff; it can experiment with new mechanics, tell stories without worrying about commercial appeal, and so on. Plus plain text can be a highly effective medium when used well. I enjoyed this game and the puzzle of deck-building/optimizing battle tactics, but I feel like this game didn't exactly utilize IF's advantages over more mainstream videogames. It imitates Slay the Spire too closely in my opinion, complete with text describing what the card images should look like.

I didn't manage to get to the end; I died a few times to the hydra before I stopped playing.

I Should Have Been That I Am, by E. K. Wagner

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
A philosophical short story, December 30, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2018
This is a philosophical short story about free will and AI, told through a poker game. Despite the short length of one playthrough, this game is surprisingly deep, with a lot of paths through the story and some replayability.

You play as a robot casino worker who has also been employed as a sex worker. The game takes place entirely within one round of poker, with a few flashbacks and optional digressions. There are at least 8 possible outcomes of game.

The cards that are dealt can differ between playthroughs, and this affects the outcome of the story. At first I thought it was random, but it actually depends on your first three choices in a pseudorandom manner, as described in the spoilers below. It feels like a commentary on free will and the nature of "randomness".

(Spoiler - click to show)
- recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 8 of clubs -> get drink for sunglasses man -> 10 of clubs -> girl with hood wins
- recognize, answer yes, don’t deal the turn: Jack of hearts -> Ace of hearts -> man in sunglasses wins
- recognize, answer no, deal the turn: 2 of hearts -> husband asks for water -> 2 of clubs -> husband wins
- recognize, answer no, don’t deal the turn: 7 of hearts -> 2 of hearts -> wife wins
- don’t recognize, answer yes, deal the turn: 3 of hearts -> kiss the singer -> 7 of hearts -> older woman wins
- don’t recognize, answer yes, don’t deal the turn: 5 of spades -> 4 of spades -> newcomer wins
- don’t recognize, answer no, deal the turn: Queen of spades -> wife discovered cheating -> 8 of diamonds -> singer wins
- don’t recognize, answer no, don’t deal the turn: 7 of diamonds -> man cursing -> Jack of diamonds -> slot player wins


I like how the choices (or lack of thereof) interfaces with the themes of the story. This game makes a great use of the forced choice technique: you can choose to not deal a card, but you’ll always be compelled to deal eventually. Your programming as an AI leaves you no choice but to fulfill the directives that your employer imposed upon you. There’s also a lot of talk of binaries. Humans always think in binaries. You as an AI are programmed to work in binaries. And there’s always at most two choices, until the very end.

Also I liked the writing style. The diction seems “robotic” and unemotional on the surface, but there’s always the sense of deep internal turmoil. The robot’s programming controls her internal thoughts/analyses as well as actions, but the writing creates a sense that there’s something going on inside her mind that was unanticipated by the programmers.

If there’s any criticism I have for this game, it’s that the game is much too short, and re-playing feels repetitive. With only one playthrough, it’s easy to miss a lot of interesting content. And the open ending, while it makes sense from a thematic point of view, is unsatisfying if one is more interested in the character or story.

There’s some uncomfortable content here. The robot protagonist is often the victim of violence, especially sexual violence (there are also references to domestic violence not involving robots). Robots in this world have become receptacles for the worst of humanity. As often happens with can-robots-be-human stories, there are parallels with working class experiences, especially in the women-dominated service industry.

The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton, by Hanon Ondricek

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Well-made story, but I'm not sure how much I got, December 30, 2020
The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton is an excellently crafted story. There is great art, music, complex and mostly bug-free mechanics, and fun writing (especially in the "meta" portions). There is a lot of stuff here. However, I feel like I got stuck too much, and at some point didn't really desire to continue and discover the game's secrets.

This is a parody of the MMORPG genre, which is itself implemented in a text-based simulation of an actual MMORPG, presented as a fallback version for a graphical game. There are NPCs and fake PCs. There is a support forum where players discuss the game and share mods. Beneath each scene there is a chat screen showing the players' interactions in the area.

The problem is that the gameplay wasn't really fun for me. I get that it's *supposed* to be unfun, a simulation of a genre that I never really enjoyed, but plenty of genre parodies manage to make the gameplay decent in of itself (or, in IF, limit the mechanical aspects and focus on the story). I did a ton of delivery quests, sending mail from one part of Sameytown to another. The combat was particularly annoying to me. It was tedious to have to click the words in order, and I didn't like that the turns were on a timer (I discovered the slow time mod thanks to the forum thread). I actually felt like I enjoyed the combat in A Final Grind more than this. And there was the haunted house where everything permanently lowered your level??? I stopped playing in the town after crossing the desert because I couldn't get a sense of how to advance. I did enjoy the Crossing the Desert puzzle, though.

Reading some of the other reviews and discussions, I got a better sense of what this game contained, and how much I missed. I never played The Baker of Shireton by the same author, which apparently has a lot of shared content with this story. I think the key is to not approach this as a typical RPG, and just go hog wild.

A Final Grind, by nrsm_ha

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Underrated twine RPG, December 30, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: ifcomp 2018
I think this was one of the more underrated games in its IFComp batch. The game is crawling with bugs, and contains some rather bizarre design choices, but I still enjoyed the game for what it was.

"A Final Grind" belongs to a similar genre as games like The Forgotten Tavern from its year, and The Cursèd Pickle of Shireton and Tavern Crawler from 2020. It contains dungeon-crawling RPG mechanics built in twine, and its story is a parody of typical RPG tropes.

I was surprised at how compelling I found it to be. Part of me wants to say that this game is the inverse of Undertale, but that would be only correct insofar that every game is the inverse of Undertale. It’s hard for me to describe what makes this interesting; perhaps all the grinding got me addicted. The quality of the writing was good throughout, especially given that this was gameplay-heavy.

The game has a sparse aesthetic, and takes place in a standard Dungeons and Dragons-style fantasy setting. The protagonist is an adventurer trapped in a mine, the last survivor of their party after a cave-in killed the rest. He is a death seeker for unspecified reasons, who wants to go down in a blaze of glory saving other people. The mine is the domain of monsters; they’re just living there peacefully, and you humans had the gall to invade their space, and when they attack in self-defense, you massacre them. Even more so, humans constantly “dehumanize” the monsters and treat them as an unintelligent, uncultured, indistinguishable mass, regardless of their reality. Eventually you have to kill their king. As you approach the king, the monsters are terrified of you and run away. I've never played the "genocide" route in Undertale, but it's familiar from what I've heard.

Much of the game involves mechanical combat, where you can choose to use attack, parry, or magic. Using the ‘parry’ action involves solving math problems randomly selected from a pre-written bank, from “5 + 5” to derivatives. The game says don’t use a calculator, but most of the problems were solvable in my head. Does using pencil and paper count as cheating? The only confusing part was that it required decimals instead of fractions. So I just used parry every time, so I never took any damage or exhaustion. Given how many random combat encounters there were, it got tiresome, but I memorized the answers.

Problem: I ran into a bug fairly early on. After visiting the foreman’s room and trying to break the safe, I was unable to continue - there was a “Continue” link, but it wasn’t clickable. After restarting, I worked around this by just skipping this room, and continuing onwards. Going back to that room after I got the key worked. There are also a bunch of other bugs in this game, mostly syntax errors with incomplete passages. Also literally the last line of the game is “Double-click this passage to edit it.” which is... surprisingly apt given the path leading up to it.

Like with a lot of Twine RPGs I’ve seen in IFComp, this game is not really “balanced” in any way. My level got ridiculously high, but it didn’t really mean anything. I never knew what exhaustion does because I only ever used parrying.

Translations of the goblin text:
(Spoiler - click to show)
Shrine:

MONSTERS HAVE BEEN DRIVEN FROM EVERY LAND

BUT GHIDORAH UNITED US INTO ONE TRIBE

WE PRAISE HIM, LORD OF THREE FIRES

MASTER OF THE WORLD BENEATH EARTH

MAY HIS REIGN BRING PEACE TO THE WORLD OF MONSTERS

AND IN HIM MAY WE FIND A HOME IN WHICH TO THRIVE

Password prompt:

WHO IS GHIDORAH, KING OF MONSTERS?

Final text:

I WISH IT COULD BE DIFFERENT, HUMAN


Superlunary Episode 1.0, by Communist Sister Interactive

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Twine + Bitsy space adventure, December 28, 2020
Superlunary is one of the coolest things I've seen in recent-ish twine. I love the look of the interface, the art, and the way different forms of interactivity are mixed. The story itself is pretty interesting; it takes place after a revolution that brought a government which seeks to end wars by destroying all remaining weapons. You play as a team of three people, led by a member of the disarmed military, who go around space trying to dismantle old weapons and help random people. Much of the story focuses on the team members' complicated relationships with each other, and their personal histories.

This game uses both the twine and bitsy systems. Bitsy is a simple game engine which basically allows for 2d walking simulators. Through bitsy, the game includes visually navigating around outer space and walking around a planet. In twine, the game includes clickable images, dialogue, and messages. Since apparently twine and bitsy don't share variables, the only way the content between the engines is shared is via passcodes provided in bitsy, which are then entered in the twine UI when they are learned by the player. I just thought it was pretty cool.

I don't know if it would work well from an accessibility standpoint though. Is bitsy usable with things like screen readers?

One complaint I have is that there isn't really much interactivity in the sense of making "meaningful choices". The dialogues are all click-to-advance, and the bitsy portions are basically linear corridors. The player choice basically consists of deciding which order to visit the planets. But I don't really mind as long as the story is interesting, which it is.

Anyway, this is apparently the first chapter of a hopefully greater story. I'm really looking forward to it.

Long Live the Queen, by Hanako Games

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
Another vision for choice-based IF, December 28, 2020
I've started to wonder what would have happened if Hanako had stayed in the IF community rather than move to visual novels, and if Porpentine had moved to visual novels rather than twine. What if a twine version of LLtQ was submitted to IFComp 2012, and a visual novel version of Howling Dogs was published at Steam? How would the gaming world have changed?

The author apparently participated in the IF community in the early 2000s as Papillon, creating One Week among other games. One Week is a time management game with visual novel/dating sim-like mechanics, where the choice is of which action to perform each turn. LLtQ follows the same genre. The main choices involve time management: what to study each week, and where to spend your free time. There are also CYOA segments for major events. The ultimate goal here is to help Elodie (the titular queen) survive until her coronation, and hopefully become the kind of person who would be a good queen.

LLtQ is a difficult game. The "cruelty scale" doesn't really work for choice-based stories, but basically it is possible to die in a copious amount of locations, and there is no forewarning of death. There are unlimited save slots, but it is difficult to pinpoint the exact point at which your failure has become inevitable, and trying to avoid that failure could lead to a different fail state. Helpfully, the stat checks are explicitly given on both successes and failures.

LLtQ has a *lot* of stats, and a lot of little branches based on these stats. However, most stats will only be used a few times; some are only useful once (but that one time will save your life). The time-management gameplay is an optimization problem; how do you best allocate your training time so that you'll pass the key stat checks by certain events? Like in a lot of visual novels, it basically boils down to making a plan of which choices to make at which times, except there is a much larger space of choices than most choice-based games. This often requires replaying, which is encouraged by a fast-forward mechanism. By replaying, you learn the important moments where death is inevitable unless certain checks are met, the "bottleneck" part of the branch-and-bottleneck structure.

Oh yeah, there's also the art, writing, music, setting, etc. LLtQ is a visual novel with anime-esque artwork. The setting is basically a medieval fantasy with rather detailed worldbuilding around its history and politics. Most characters have hidden sides to them, but only some of them are plotting to murder you. There is a dating sim element where you can potentially find Elodie a partner, and there are a lot of interesting character moments that can be missed by not passing the relevant stat checks.

Life is Out of Season , by odditycollector

1 of 1 people found the following review helpful:
Interactive Homestuck fanfiction, December 28, 2020
So. Homestuck is a webcomic by Andrew Hussie that ran from 2009 to 2016, and is in some ways still ongoing. It was very interactive-fiction-inspired, for example with the page-advancing links in the format of parser commands, and text adventure-like descriptions of room objects. In addition, there are interactive segments in the comic. So it makes sense that there will be fanfiction of Homestuck written as IF (although this is a twine game, not a parser game, there are other parser homestuck fanfics). Among the relatively limited world of Homestuck fangames, this is one of my favorites.

This is a story taking place from the perspective of Jane Crocker, one of the main characters of Act 6 of Homestuck. She has just been mind-controlled by the Condesce, an insectoid fish alien who is the empress of the mostly extinct troll race and is also Betty Crocker, Jane's adoptive ancestor (it makes sense in context, sort of). Now, Jane serves the Condesce's will, doing her bidding in her plan to recreate the old troll empire. She's forced to hurt her friends and do stuff against her former interests.

The story is about Jane's existence under mind control. There are always multiple options on each screen, to try to get free or fight back, but clicking on any but the "correct" one, the options that commit harm and are forced by mind control, causes the screen to shake and flash red. Clicking on these links too much will cause Jane's brain to explode. "Denial of agency" and "player complicity" are pretty common techniques in IF, but I think this game works particularly well. Also I enjoyed the writing which captures the flavor of the darker side of the webcomic, while having its own distinct prose style.

The Arboretum, by Matthew S. Burns

3 of 3 people found the following review helpful:
Nostalgic romance in twine, December 22, 2020
The Arboretum is an introspective romance story. It is basically a linear click-to-advance story/kinetic novel (I'm reluctant to call it hypertext even), with only one choice at the end that is more reflective than anything else. However, I appreciated the writing enough that it worked for me.

The story is told as a flashback from two perspectives: the protagonists are middle-class Asian-American high school students living in a college town in Texas, Derek and Lillian (upon re-reading, I don't know if Lillian is Asian-American, but Derek is). Both of them are introverted and socially isolated, and both of them are not really interested in the paths that are pushed onto them by their academically-oriented families. Despite being a little stereotypical, this depiction rang true to me. Eventually, Derek asks Lillian on a possible date, and she accepts. They hang out at a mall, and later go on a date to an arboretum, hence the title.

Most of the sentences in the story are introspective, providing Derek and Lillian's inner monologues. They both have their own anxieties, Derek about being a "real man" and living up to expectations, Lillian about her lack of a stable identity and her literary imagination. The two of them connect through acting out roles as anime and video game characters, of playing at and abandoning pretenses, of revealing tidbits of their "true selves" insofar that such a thing exists. Maybe it's just my personal biases, but I really liked the writing in these bits. It feels self-aware and lacks the self-importance of a lot of coming-of-age stuff.

The story ends with Derek and Lillian fast-forwarded 10 years. They've grown up and have real jobs now, never meeting each other since high school, and they both have memories of their past meeting, filtered through nostalgia. Will they meet again? That's the one choice at the end of the story, after which it immediately ends.

The author has done a lot of other work in games, including writing Eliza, one of my favorite visual novels. So I'm probably a little biased here. I would say that this story is similar to Lilium and other introspective and nostalgic twine stories.

Bee, by Emily Short

4 of 4 people found the following review helpful:
A lovely story, unfortunately cut short, December 21, 2020
by autumnc
Related reviews: favs
I had the good fortune of being able to play Bee before Varytale disappeared from the internet. It was one of the first pieces of IF I played/read, and was part of what made me fall in love with interactive fiction. Unfortunately, Bee in its original form is no longer online; the Dendry version is playable only up to a point. Even so, I think it is well worth playing in its current form.

Comparing the original Varytale version to the Dendry version that is currently online, it is apparent that there is a lot missing. Dendry does not have the visible stat display or character lists, which makes the choice process almost akin to fumbling in the dark. The only indicator of time are the occasional Christmas, Easter, and Halloween events. In addition, the Dendry version does not have the ending scenes (I checked the code; the endings are not present), so instead of ending with the final spelling bee, the story just fizzles out once a certain time has been reached.

Still, I think the Dendry version should be played, if only to experience Emily Short's writing. The scenes that do exist are excellently written, and you can get up to the first spelling bee with zero issues. Also, since the code is available, it is theoretically possible to fix at least some of the problems, like adding stat displays back in...

There's already been a lot said about Bee's story in the reviews here. It really resonated with me, as someone who competed in academic competitions when I was younger. The protagonist has a sense of alienation from both her own family and from the broader American culture as a whole, and she has trouble relating to others and uses spelling as a coping mechanism. Through the player's choices, she can become rebellious, or participate in the spelling bee to the fullest, going all the way to the nationals before getting runner-up (this scene is not in the Dendry version). Even as the player subtly molds her personality, the current of alienation always remains.

The primary way the story is structured is through the progression of time. At each "turn", the player is given a choice of three randomly chosen storylets, each of which is a mini-CYOA scene. Some storylets have higher priority than others, and most are dependent on either a specific time of year or on certain stats. A lot of storylets repeat, especially the spelling practice scenes, which does get kind of tiresome after a while.

Dendry itself has probably become my favorite HTML interactive fiction framework, and my recent game, which was kind of/very inspired by Bee, happens to use Dendry.

RIP Varytale :(

"Incident! Aliens on the Teresten!" by Tarquin Segundo, by Richard Goodness writing as The Water Supply writing as Tarquin Segundo

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful:
A story in three parts, December 20, 2020
This will be about the entire "The Knot" series, as this game contains its conclusion. Overall, I think the games are rather interesting both as a vaguely meta-fictional exercise and as stories in of themselves, and worth playing. It might be best to play them by opening all three games in the browser simultaneously. In general, the presentation is nice, but I am extremely not a fan of the slow auto-advancing text, which is the entirety of the ending sequence.

Spoilers for the ending and for the story overall: (Spoiler - click to show)"The Knot" is a tale about power, storytelling, and alternate worlds. Each story within The Knot contains the same character names and elements in different contexts. They are all about conflicts between two central figures: Chirlu and Ilfane, who are entangled with an artifact called the Knot, supposedly a source of ultimate power. Sometimes Chirlu is presented as a "good" character, other times as an antagonist. In "Terror" he is an evil sorcerer, in "Adventures" he is a Nazi archaeologist, and in "Incident" he is a benevolent scientist. Ilfane is more of a mystical concept than a character; it is a location in "Terror", an ancient autarch in "Adventures", and an evil alien race in "Incident".

(warning: extremely basic and naive analysis ahead - this is like, my opinion only)

Overall, Chirlu and Ilfane represent the conflicting natures of rationality and mysticality/tradition. Neither are totally "good" or "evil; rationality can be put in service of evil as easily as it can be in service of good. However, both figures always seek out the Knot, which is supposed to be the source of their ability to do the ultimate good for the galaxy, or to give themselves ultimate power. Chirlu especially always seeks out the Knot to achieve their ends, conditioned by the societal conditions in which they are raised.

The Knot itself is treated as a representation of power in some way. But the conclusion of the story shows that the Knot does not even exist; it is totally incapable of the feats ascribed to it throughout the course of the stories. This can be interpreted in multiple ways. The Knot is a video game, and the solution to a simple video game puzzle will not give one the power to change the world or to fight Nazis. Similarly, it could be a commentary on the impotence of media in general to bring change. Or on a simplistic, one-off solution to achieve societal goals, sought by progressive revolutionaries and fascists alike. They enter the halls of power, only to find the halls empty.

As a game, the Knot is not particularly challenging: the solutions are given explicitly, and labeled as such. Finding The Knot is not a challenge. But the Knot is ultimately hollow. It is certainly not the ultimate source of power. It might not even exist.



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