Border Reivers, by Vivienne Dunstan

“Border Reivers” is a historical mystery game in which the protagonist has to solve a murder in 15th century Scotland.

Gameplay: After meeting with his father, the protagonist can question the suspects about their possible involvement in the murder. Although questions are conducted with ASK [character] ABOUT [topic], few of the answers are helpful in unraveling the mystery or even interesting thematically. There’s not much to do beyond finding the one piece of evidence when it appears, showing it to the different suspects, and noting their reactions. 4/10.

Mechanics: Although the conversation mechanic is implemented well, there’s not much to do with it. There isn’t much of a mystery here to solve. There’s no clever scheme to figure out or even evidence or testimony to investigate; finding the killer is just a matter of waiting until you’re handed an incriminating note and then showing it to the different suspects. 4/10.

Presentation: The setting is a creative and unusual one, and it certainly seems (although I know virtually nothing about the subject myself) that the author has done her homework in researching the historical setting. It’s a great setup and setting for a game, and I think it would have worked much better if it were a longer one with a more involved plot. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoyed “Ivanhoe” or “Rob Roy.”

Score: 4

Flowers of Mysteria, by David Sweeney

“Flowers of Mysteria” is a game in the style of the earliest pre-Infocom text-adventures, with sparse descriptions, a focus on inventory puzzles, and a limited parser.

Gameplay: Gameplay is also in the style of those old games: the player wanders through the map collecting items, uses them to solve a few straightforward puzzles, and eventually collects all the objects necessary to make the potion that will win the game. “Flowers of Mystery” is not very original within that genre; what makes it interesting is that very few modern games are written in that style at all. 3/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are also in the style of the earliest Infocom, or even Scott Adams, games, and involve finding objects to use on other objects. They’re similar to the most straightforward puzzles in Zork I: ones about using inventory items in realistic ways to explore a new environment (e.g., exploring the white house), rather than ones involving complicated set piece (e.g., the mine segment in Zork I or the mirror box in Zork III) or exotic or magical mechanics (e.g., the baseball puzzle in Zork II, or the time travel puzzle in Sorcerer). 3/10.

Presentation: Befitting the style, the room descriptions through the game are extremely terse. The opening room, for example, is described simply as “You are outside your cottage. Exits: north, south, east.” The NPCs that exist are there to be used in puzzles, and they have little interactivity beyond that. The parser appears to be a custom system that also recreates the style of pre-Infocom parsers. It’s effective as far it goes, but it’s frustrating to have few synonyms for verbs (e.g., WEAR COAT is understood, but PUT ON COAT and DON COAT are not) and pronouns unavailable. The author provides a walkthrough, but it’s a transcript that contains a few missteps. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You have nostalgia for the oldest generation of text-adventures, and you want a new game in that style.

Score: 3

Birmingham IV, by Peter Emery

“Birmingham IV” is a game evoking the style of game in the first generation of independent text-adventures that involved solving puzzles in a familiar, mostly realistic setting (often a university campus) with some of the author’s friends and inside jokes thrown in. Its opening notes indicate that it’s a conversion of a late-80s game, and that seems to be true (or, least, played straight, unlike “I.A.G. Alpha”).

Gameplay: Unfortunately, those embellishments from the author’s own life makes the game a bit difficult to get into. The text refers to the protagonist as “the Phil” throughout with any explanation given, which is presumably some private joke of the author’s (and it seems like the character is based on an acquaintance of his). The map is a bit confusing, especially given the scope of the game. 6/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles seemed a bit opaque to me (though, in fairness to the author, it may just be puzzle fatigue at this point in the competition). It wasn’t clear why showing a photo to the troll would solve that puzzle, for example, or how I would know to give the bowman a dead rat (which he later explains he can use to bait traps) when his conversation involves asking about feats of strength. The game enforces a low carrying capacity, which is very inconvenient in a game of this scope and doesn’t serve any purpose beyond annoying the player. 6/10.

Presentation: The text of the game is well-written, even though it makes nods to what I assume are private jokes of the author’s (e.g., “the Phil”) throughout. I encountered an odd reponse to BREAK WINDOW WITH BRICK, which proceeded as expected and then added the default, “Violence is not the answer to this one,” response afterward. Aside from that minor problem, though, the text was polished. The author provides a list of hints, although a map would also have been useful. 6/10.

Tilt: The protagonist has a pet raven that can be interacted with and used to solve a puzzle. +1.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a long game in the style of an late-80s/early-90s puzzlefest.

Score: 6

Erstwhile, by Maddie Fialla and Marijke Perry

I’m a fan of mystery novels, but it’s a difficult genre to convert to interactive fiction satisfactorily. One common approach (in, e.g., the Danganronpan series) is to have players tag pairs of contradictory evidence to detect lies in suspects’ testimonies. “Erstwhile” uses a similar mechanic to unravel the mystery of the protagonist’s own murder.

Gameplay: The protagonist is a ghost, having recently been murdered at a dinner with his friends and colleagues. He has access to the evidence the police collects, but he can also use his supernatural abilities to revisit scenes leading up to the dinner and thus further explore the suspects’ backgrounds. The mystery itself has a satisfying solution, and the explanation follows naturally and gradually from the evidence collected. 7/10.

Mechanics: After reading through the suspects’ testimonies, the player can then select two pieces of evidence that they think are related in some way. If they do have a connection, a short vignette is displayed that reveals some of the backstory pertaining to the evidence. There’s enough evidence that this mechanic doesn’t feel like it reduces to brute force, and engages the player more than reading static text or conversation trees would. The mystery itself is straightforward; solving is a matter of amassing evidence and unraveling the backstory rather making having a clever flash of insight or breaking someone’s seemingly airtight alibi. In other words, it’s more of a police procedural than a drawing room mystery. 7/10.

Presentation: The suspects and the protagonist are described well, and they have more characterization than most short mystery games’. The interface for linking evidence is simple but effective, and adding different background colors for the different characters’ flashbacks is a nice touch. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like the computer game “Contradiction: Spot the Liar,” but want a shorter game with a stronger mystery behind it.

Score: 7

I.A.G. Alpha, by Serhii Mozhaiskyi

Although most games attempt to create an immersive environment for the player and draw them away from the medium on which they’re being played, there are a few interactive fiction games that embrace the fact that they’re ultimately computer code. “I.A.G. Alpha” is ostensibly a half-finished, buggy game abandoned by the author but released anyway with commentary. Running with that conceit, the game is actually about tweaking the code to accomplish or thwart the author’s original goals.

Gameplay: The fundamental setup of the game is a clever one. I’ve seen it done only a few times before, and this one has a better presentation than any of those games. Gameplay consists of moving around a small environment solving set-piece and inventory puzzles with the aid of a simple in-game debugger. The setting and (ostensible) plot are a bit generic, but they become more involved over the course of the game. There are also a few switches in interface and perspective to make things more interesting: static notes from the author, a familiar hypertext-with-inventory adventuring screen, a rudimentary debugger, and a special conversation tree. It succeeds in evoking a play-within-a-play feel, and the idea feels integral to the game rather than just being a clever gimmick. 8/10.

Mechanics: Aside from a few standard inventory puzzles, the bulk of the game is in examining and slightly altering the pseudocode of setting and inventory objects. It’s not a particularly deep, or at least fully exploited, mechanic; the changes required are just renaming items to trigger certain blocks of code. (An early puzzle, for example, involves noting that one item can be used to take another item without checking to see whether the latter is actually takeable, a bug I’ve run into myself several times.) The game is short, though, and it didn’t overstay its welcome. 7/10.

Presentation: All the different interfaces are well done individually and combine into a coherent whole. The conceit of reviving an earlier buggy game is charming, and the missing graphics and author notes throughout the game are excellent touches. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like coding puzzles or Nabokov’s “Pale Fire.”

Score: 8

Bogeyman, by Elizabeth Smyth

“Bogeyman” is a richly atmospheric game about children who have been taken by the titular creature to his domain.

Gameplay: You play as a newcomer to the Bogeyman’s lair, where you meet with other children who have met the same fate by being naughty to their parents. Most of the game describes the protagonist’s adjustment to this environment, even teaching a newcomer the ropes later in the game. The player learns along with the protagonist the rules of this new domain, how to follow them, and how to break them. What makes it particularly interesting as an interactive work is deciding how to treat the other children. It’s never clear just how much the Bogeyman knows, and the player has to decide whether to conspire with the other children, throw them under the bus, or just keep quiet. 7/10.

Mechanics: There don’t seem to be many branching points in the game. Still, the game does keep track of some sort of state, and there are significant choices toward the end of the game. Ultimately, the work is about its characters and its dark atmosphere, which are memorable. 6/10.

Presentation: The Bogeyman’s cruelty is convincingly presented, moreso because it’s through the eyes of a child. What makes the work genuinely unsettling (especially as an adult playing it) is that it’s never exactly clear what the Bogeyman’s underlying powers or motives are. How much does he know about the children’s conspiring against him? He’s undeniably a monster, but why does he continue to provide basic care for the children? The game effectively invokes times as a child when one had a mean authority figure— a babysitter, a teacher, etc.— whose exact intentions and limits one couldn’t work out at that age. The game is written well throughout, but I also like its stark visual style. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like horror stories that are unsettling rather than gory.

Score: 7

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