Arram’s Tomb, by James Beck

“Arram’s Tomb” is an entertaining Dungeons and Dragons pastiche that recreates the feeling of both an old-school role-playing game and a Choose Your Own Adventure novel.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with the player directing a party of classic adventurers through a dungeon. The party members are archetypes, but they have their own personalities, and the game is short enough that two-dimensional characters aren’t a problem. It’s not a deep game, but it’s not trying to be one, and its ideas are executed well. 5/10.

Mechanics: The choices given to the player are meaningful, and the game has substantial state. One of the characters, for example, can cast a fireball spell but can only do so only once; using it an enemy encounter usually succeeds, but it can’t be used in future, potentially more dangerous situations. The puzzles are Choose-Your-Own-Adventure style death traps, with learning from dying being the major mechanic. Nevertheless, there is an overall idea of resource management, and some of the puzzles have multiple successful resolutions (although ostensibly correct but suboptimal ones may burn resources needed later, which would be a problem if the game were longer). 6/10.

Presentation: The game is a broad, Dungeons-and-Dragons style adventure, and the text is light and entertaining. There are multiple endings, and they arise naturally from the actions taken by the player over the course of the game. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve played in an old tabletop RPG campaign.

Score: 5

Valand, by Ann Hugo

“Valand” is a medium-length, choice-based about a shipwrecked child who gets involved with magicians. It has promising characters and setting, but the world and narrative aren’t developed enough to sustain them.

Gameplay: Most of the game consists of the protagonist wandering around the island and meeting its inhabitants, being more of an observer than a participant. The world itself is strange and not well-explained. The presentation of the world is not cryptic or elliptical (as in, say, last year’s “+=x”); it’s just not fleshed out. The overall impression I get of the game is that it has the tone and structure of the first chapter in a novel, but its abrupt ending and lack of branching are awkward in an interactive fiction game. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game’s first half is largely linear, but later choices do substantially affect the plot. For most of the game, the player is dragged around by the plot; the few meaningful choices lead quickly to a choice of endings. 5/10.

Presentation: The narrator in the game is a child, and the prose does a good job in describing that perspective. The prose is smooth, though I did encounter a section that simply read, “Double-click this passage to edit it,” toward the end of the game. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like classic adventure novels.

Score: 5/10

Bad Water, by Waking Media

The late 90s and early 2000s had a glut of poorly-made FMV games that were funny at the time and hilarious in retrospect. One of the most notorious of them was “Bad Milk,” a bizarre FMV-based puzzle game with an opaque plot and nonsensical puzzles. Like most people who recognize it, I’m familiar with the game only through reviews or playthroughs of the game more than a decade after its release. “Bad Water” is a parody of that game, updated with interactive fiction references.

Gameplay: The gameplay is a faithful parody of the original, with all that entails: obtuse controls, overwrought video sequences, and bizarre puzzles. The latter even includes the reversed audio and spinning-head combination lock of “Bad Milk.” It’s a great reconstruction of a terrible thing. 5/10.

Mechanics: The parody features the same weird menu navigation and incomprehensible puzzles of the original, and it would be similarly impossible to play without a walkthrough (or familiarity with the original game). Despite the difficult navigating through the game, it’s nice to see a more unusual format than the usual parser- or choice-based engines. 4/10.

Presentation: Despite the poor quality of the original game, quite a lot of work went into the parody, and all its custom audio and video assets faithfully recreates the style of the original. It’s undoubtedly completely opaque to players unfamiliar with “Bad Milk,” but it’s a thorough and well-executed parody. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re familiar with “Bad Milk.”

Score: 5

Break Stuff, by Amy Clare Fontaine

Although it starts out as a lightheartedly bitter game about the aftermath of a breakup, the second half of “Break Stuff” is a serious narrative about its protagonist’s depression and suicidal thoughts.

Gameplay: There’s an abrupt and jarring shift in tone from the lighter (if cynical) first section to the darker second one. Even if that is a deliberate choice to emphasize the unpredictability of the protagonist’s depression, the game jumped into a much more serious tone without building up enough of the protagonist’s character to make the story about her. This is ultimately a game about having suicidal thoughts, rather than the particular character who has suicidal thoughts. The protagonist doesn’t have a clearly established personality (aside from the plot details of her recent breakup), and her character isn’t developed enough to make the transition between the two halves of the game smooth or to get the player emotionally invested in her situation. 5/10.

Mechanics: In the first half of the game, the choices amount to picking which three of the dozen or so vignettes to read and in which order. Although the larger number of scenes encourages replays, there’s little real interactivity or state to the section. In the second half, the player’s choices do have a substantial effect on the gameplay, though the game strongly pushes the player toward certain plotlines. 4/10.

Presentation: The writing is fine, though I didn’t come away from playing the game with any particularly memorable scenes or dialogue. The narrative didn’t build enough of a connection between me and the protagonist for me to get invested in her plight, and that’s the prime goal of the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve had an experience similar to the protagonist’s.

Score: 4

Extreme Omnivore: Text Edition, by Hazel Gold

“Extreme Omnivore” is a bare-bones parser game in which the protagonists wanders around his apartment until dinner is ready.

Gameplay: Gameplay consists simply of touring the different rooms available to the narrator, after which the kitchen inexplicably opens up. There are no puzzles or narrative to the game, and the descriptions are too terse and uninteresting for the game to be satsifying to explore. Even following the provided walkthrough, I never found a real ending; the narrator just successfully eats his dinner, without any real feedback or resolution. 3/10.

Mechanics: The only real depth to the game is the number of objects that exist in the universe. Each of the rooms has a wide array of items in them, but they offer little interactivity or description. There’s simply not much to do in the game. 3/10.

Presentation: Items are poorly implemented, and there are numerous typos. Unusually for Inform games, the latter includes several problems with articles (e.g,. “You see nothing special about pie,” or, “You open the velvet bag, revealing a dice,” actually referring to a set of polyhedral dice.) Despite its sparse implementation, the game contains several guess-the-verb problems. Thus, for example, ASK INA ABOUT DINNER and ASK INA ABOUT SOUP aren’t recognized, but ASK INA ABOUT FOOD and ASK INA FOR SOUP are. 2/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’d like a quick, simple parser game.

Score: 3

For the Cats, by Lei

“For the Cats” is a short, choice-based game in which the protagonist attempts to save a set of cats.

Gameplay: The game is set up like a better variety of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, with several different characters and plot paths available. Each path is relatively short; the game is designed to be played repeatedly, the goal being experiencing the ten different endings. I didn’t find the setup or the narrative particularly compelling, though, despite the range of paths that can be taken. Each route is in effect a vignette about the industrial dystopia in which the game takes place, but even collectively they don’t establish a strong feel for the setting or show off its unique charcteristics. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game does take advantage of its medium, and it offers genuine state and branching paths. It’s not a deep or involved game (nor is it intended to be), but the different routes are distinct. The dystopia never felt real or threatening enough for the variations in the routes to have much of a narrative or emotional effect, though I did get the feeling that the choices I made did matter .5/10.

Presentation: The writing is solid, but I didn’t find it particularly evocative or memorable. Comic Sans is an odd font to choose for the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like choice-based games with lots of short paths through them.

Score: 5

The Legendary Hero has Failed, by Tom Martin

While I’ve never played that particular game in the Zelda series, “The Legendary Hero Has Failed” clearly takes place just before the bad ending in Majora’s Mask, with the moon about to crash in the world. The idea of having a short conversation just the end of the world is a compelling one, but the game doesn’t take advantage of that setting or mood.

Gameplay: The game is choice based, with the protagonist chatting with four companions while they wait for the end of the world. The tone is largely calm and resigned, and accordingly there’s not much to do beyond going through the narrative. It might be more appealing to players who are more familiar with the game it’s based off, but I didn’t have much connection to it. 3/10.

Mechanics: There’s not much to do in the game beyond wandering down the narrow conversation tree. The addition of a timer is novel and fits the setup of the game. 3/10.

Presentation: The sound effects in the game are fine but don’t contribute much to it. The text is fine, but it didn’t capture my interest. In my first playthrough, the game either stalled or crashed at one prompt (before the five-minute timer had elapsed), making it impossible to continue. I’m adding a penalty of -1 for unskippable delayed text in the introduction and epilogue. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You fondly remember playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

Score: 3