Writers Are Not Strangers, by Lynda Clark

I’m currently rating a work of fiction about rating a work of fiction. I’m not sure how I feel about that, so let’s just jump directly to the review.

Gameplay: The game is about a young girl who’s writing short stories as her world (seemingly Earth in the not-too-distant future) is under threat of annihilation by a meteor shower. It’s highly meta, as the interaction includes rating those stories and offering occasional prompts to “get on with it” as the narrator describes Alix’s life. The work is primarily-choice based, aside from rating some of the protagonist’s stories on a scale from 1 to 10. It feels odd to interrupt a story a large, epic story with those bursts of short fiction, or to have a character dealing with literally earth-shattering events to spend her time writing short stories. On the other hand, I played and am currently reviewing this game around the time of the 2018 midterms in the United States. So yeah, highly meta. 6/10.

Mechanics: The choices taken do affect the game, though it’s not entirely clear even in retrospect which choices lead to which endings. The protagonist does react directly to the ratings, and those responses are entertaining. 6/10.

Presentation: The game is well-written throughout, and the characters are detailed and realistic. I had a bit of trouble identifying with the protagonist, though. I have no problem with stories that contain characters, even protagonists, I dislike; rather, the difficulty I had I didn’t have much sympathy for her goals. Low scores resulted in her complaining with self-indulgent, middle-school-style lazy sarcasm; high scores resulted in breezy, overwrought praise. (That’s not a complaint about the author; those two passages were brilliantly written.) I was more interested in the frame story and didn’t have much sympathy toward the protagonist’s escapism, and that’s part of the point of the game. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve ever written a creative work and posted it online for reviews.

Score: 6

En Garde, by Jack Welch

One of my favorite things about interactive fiction is the medium allows itself to creative experiments in interface design. “En Garde” involves a protagonist whose moveset expands over the course of the game, starting with rudimentary abilities indexed by colors and progressing to a slate of full English commands.

Gameplay: The clever idea behind the game is that the protagonist becomes more intelligent through certain plot points. Not only does his moveset become larger and more well-defined, but his descriptions of the world and his understanding of the objects in it become more precise and clear. It’s an interesting approach to exploration, and it makes figuring out exactly what’s going on a fun puzzle. 8/10.

Mechanics: Gameplay is straightforward: the protagonist takes actions by clicking on the list of available commands on the side of the screen (with any necessary arguments automatically inferred). There really aren’t any puzzles in the game, at least until its last stage; the challenge of the game is figuring out how to use the limited descriptions offered by the narrator to build a model of the world. 7/10.

Presentation: Having spent quite a bit of time and effort coming up with different room and item descriptions for the different protagonists in my last game, I’m impressed that the author put so much effort into making revisited locations feel and behave differently as the protagonist changes. Each of his stages of cognition has a unique, characteristic tone to it, and it feels like an accomplishment to move up to the next one. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You liked “Suspended” or “Flowers for Algernon.”

Score: 8

Within a circle of water and sand, by Romain

“Within a circle of water and sand” is a choice-based game in which the protagonist attempts to win a swimming race over a series of islands. Once committed to it, she realizes that the circumstances and stakes of the race are not what she expected.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with the decision points relating to the protagonist’s preparation for and actions during the race. The choices are clear and do matter, and they succeed in setting up tension during the race. Death is common in the game, but the player can replay from the last relevant decision point rather than having to start from scratch. 6/10.

Mechanics: The core mechanic of the game is trial-and-error gameplay, as in games like Shadowgate. It’s usually unclear when first encountering a decision point which option is the correct one (and the incorrect ones are generally immediately fatal), and it’s often not even clear in retrospect with the post-death hints. The player has the ability to scout out the islands before starting the race, but many such excursions either resulted in nothing productive or a potentially fatal encounter. 5/10.

Presentation: It’s refreshing to see a game that has some supernatural or surreal elements (e.g., the witch and talking crocodile), but isn’t just a retread of what Graham Nelson called the “lazy medieval” setting. The Polynesian setting here is more original and creative than most works’, and it’s an integral part of the game rather than just being an arbitrary place to put the characters. The writing is strong, and the characters are believable and deeper than they might seem at first. The game also features illustrations that are well done and a few other embellishments (a clickable map, graphics for achievements, etc.) beyond what would be present in a text-only medium. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like stories with an unusual setting. You liked the old “Choose Your Adventure” books, but you’d like one with better presentation.

Score: 6

Intelmission, by Martyna “Lisza” Wasiluk

“Intelmission” is a choice-based game about a group on an intel mission, shown as a radioed conversation between the protagonist actually on the mission and a remote team supporting her. The player only sees the conversation and overheard sound effects, putting them in the same situation as the remote team. Aside from the few dialogue choices for the protagonist it offers, the focus of the game is on the banter among the spies.

Gameplay: The game is presented as a series of conversations directed to or just overheard by that team, with the protagonist giving commentary as appropriate. It’s a solid idea for a game, but in practice it feels like passively watching the protagonist like another member of the support team. There’s not much for the player to do, and the few options that are given have little effect on the game. The overall experience is like listening to a radio play about an espionage mission: It’s competently done, but the player is just along for the ride. 3/10.

Mechanics: There are long stretches without any interactivity, and the choices that are occasionally presented do’t matter. With the added unnecessary and frustrating delays between messages, it was difficult for me to sustain interest in the game. 2/10.

Presentation: The game is structured as a conversation among secret agents (or similar actors), and so there isn’t much description aside from their discussions. The characters are stock ones, including the two with a previous romantic entanglement, and I didn’t find their interactions particularly original or interesting. The custom-made interface is well-suited to the game’s setup as a secret conversation between spies in the field. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like “Archer,” particularly its later seasons.

Score: 3

DEVOTIONALIA, by G. Grimoire

In “DEVOTIONALIA”, the protagonist is a priest in an ophidian cult who makes an offering to his gods. They’re no longer a constant presence in the world of the game, and a large part of the game concerns the priest’s reflections on this fact.

Gameplay: The story is short, starting with a narrative about the priest’s daily duties and then describing his offering to his gods. The player makes that offering by choosing among a menu of options, including one for the type of offering itself: a votice object, a sacrifice, or a prayer. As the walkthrough notes, the choices are less about determining the plot and final scenes than about determining how the protagonist interprets them. 5/10.

Mechanics: There are two mechanics to the game: Clicking through highlighted words in the narrative to change them, and making choices to prepare the offering. The former changes the tone of the piece, with the substitutions generally sliding from mystic to prosaic with each click. The latter determines the final scenes of the game and, more importantly, the priest’s reactions to it. There are fewer options than there might appear at first, as most of the configurations for the offering wind up triggering the same scenes, but there’s enough variation to justify repeated replays. 5/10.

Presentation: The pensive mood of the game supports its plot. The author handles the alien details of the world well, showing rather than telling and focusing on the story rather than belaboring the setting details. It’s a much more original setting and plot than most games have, and the author provides just enough details to make it comprehensible but still mysterious, befitting the priest’s uncertainty about his gods. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like character-based interactive fiction involving unusual characters in unusual settings.

Score: 5

Eunice, by Gita Ryaboy

“Eunice” presents itself as a game about “positive psychology”: expressing gratitude, feeling connections to nature, etc. It uses a parser and is puzzle-based, but its real emphasis is on its theme.

Gameplay: The game stresses its topic of “positive psychology” throughout. Problems are solved by dancing, appreciating nature, writing down things you’re grateful for, and so on. It’s less a game than a vehicle for its ideas about psychology, which is not going to be appealing if you’re not interesed in them. The puzzles and setting are generic, though it’s a bit difficult to wander around the fairly small world because locations often lack a description of their exits. The descriptions given, particularly those of the western plain area of the game, are vague and uninspired. One location even says that it’s a “broad field or plain” (well, which is it?) that has “nothing particularly distinguishing about it.” 2/10.

Mechanics: Their solutions are strongly tied into the ideas of psychology clues, but the puzzles themselves are heavily contrived. They’re not particularly difficult, since the game continually points the player toward the positive psychology concepts (and even the syntax) necessary to solve them, but they’re ultimately unsatisfying. While wandering around the western map, for example, the player runs across various obviously useful items lying around that can’t be taken. They can’t be picked up until the player solves a couple of small puzzles about gratitude and mindful eating, but there’s no explanation given at the time or afterward about why they’re unavailable or what changes to make them available. 3/10.

Presentation: The setting is too vague and generic to be interesting. The few characters present in the game (including the protagonist) are only there as part of puzzles, and they have little personality. The game has errors in punctuation and spacing throughout, as well as occasional odd phrases (“focus on your hopeful imagine” and APPRECIATE ME -> “You look closely and seek to recognize the full worth of the yourself.”). There are also a few errors in the world model, such as a well that probably shouldn’t be portable and seeds that are not marked as edible but are eaten if examined. 3/10

You might be interested in this game if: You subscribe to the ideas of positive psychology as described by the author.

Score: 3

And You May Find Yourself, by VPC

“And You May Find Yourself” is a Texture game about a man who wakes up with an identity and a family he doesn’t remember.

Gameplay: I don’t know what to make of the game. Its ending hints that multiple playthroughs will give more insight into the plot, but I was just as confused after doing so. The game gets stuck after entering the kitchen on the version I have, which is the only path forward at that point in the game. Even ignoring that, the game feels more like a demo or sketch of a full game rather than something self-contained and complete. 2/10.

Mechanics: The Texture mechanic works well in the game. There are a few different branches available for exploration. They don’t affect the overall plot, at least in the part I played through, but they do result in different scenes. 3/10.

Presentation: The bulk of the game is concerned with the protagonist’s odd predicament, having the family and IDs of what he believes to be a completely different person. That confusion is communicated well, although the rest of the characters aren’t very well-developed. 3/10

You might be interested in this game if: You like games with amnesiac protagonists.

Score: 3