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

Tohu wa Bohu, by alex wesley moore

“Tohu wa Bohu” is a surreal Texture game. Within the frame of a psychological diagnostic exam, the narrator describes their feelings of confusion and depersonalization.

Gameplay: I’m not sure what to make of this. It’s not a narrative, although there occasional flashbacks and digressions from the narrator. The state of the narrator is interesting to explore, but it’s done so in a slow, deliberately awkward format. 3/10.

Mechanics: Although it’s a good idea for a frame, especially given the protagonist’s issues, the quiz format is often tedious to go through. Ultimately, it’s just clicking on links in a list, and I didn’t find the text compelling enough to compensate for the minimal interactivity. 3/10.

Presentation: The narrator has an interesting viewpoint, and the text can be interestingly surreal at times. Those portions are overshadowed by the less compelling quiz details, though, which throws off the pacing of the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like stories about protagonists with mental health issues.

Score: 3

Alias “The Magpie,” by J. J. Guest

My introduction to interactive fiction was playing the Infocom games as a kid. They were fun then but a bit dated now, with an emphasis on contrived inventory and set-piece puzzles and less NPC interaction than modern works. “Alias ‘The Magpie'” plays like one of the best games from that era, but with a rich setting, motivated puzzles, and memorable characters.

Gameplay: The protagonist is a thief intending to steal an item from a manor to which he has secured an invitation under false pretenses. The plot snowballs from there, and it adds a bit of excitement to the game to see him get involved in further complications. The characters are immediately recognizable: the scatterbrained major, the reserved butler, the flighty noblewoman, and so on. They’re lifelike here, though, and interacting with them is a pleasure. 10/10.

Mechanics: Despite its strong characters, the game is fundamentally about solving puzzles. Those puzzles are well-designed and clever but fair, with logical solutions that develop naturally from the plot. Conversations are also handled well, with ASK CHARACTER ABOUT THING covering most of the interactions. The game map is also designed well, with rooms revisited over the course of the game and the connections between them changing due to certain events. 9/10.

Presentation: The dialogue and descriptions are strong throughout. The NPCs, although agreeable stock characters (which is completely fitting for this genre of work), are fleshed out with backgrounds, personalities, and interactions among themselves. There are a few typos (an extra space in the description of the driveway, a missing comma in a conversation, etc.), possible guess-the-verb issues with the watercolor in the study and the bull puzzle, and a parser issue in the last scene in disambiguating a cigar from the cigar case (“Which do you mean, your monogrammed cigar case, a cigar or your monogrammed cigar case?”). Those are all very minor complaints, though, and overall the game is extremely polished. It’s clear that it went through extensive beta-testing, and the playing the final product is a smooth experience. The author also provides an illustrated map of the game environment and a walkthrough, to minimize frustration. 9/10.

Tilt: It’s a game about a corvid (by alias, at least) who commits crimes in a British mystery-novel setting. +1.

You might be interested in this game if: You insist on games’ being thoroughly tested and polished.

Score: 10

Dilemma, by Leonora

“Dilemma” is a work reminiscent of late-90s games, most notably “Aisle,” featuring a limited number of moves and a large variety of endings. Instead of the loose zaniness of the earlier era of games, “Dilemma” starts off with Philippa Foot’s trolley problem and introduces more such dilemmas later.

Gameplay: Like “Aisle,” the strength of “Dilemma” is in diversity of endings. I didn’t find them particularly compelling, though, especially given the brevity of the setup. If “Aisle” worked, it’s because its loose structure and light tone allowed more creative in the possible endings. This game seems to play it straight even with the more fantastical actions (e.g., STOP BUS), and there’s not much reward in seeing the unpleasant consequences of whatever difficult decision one makes play out. It’s unclear what commands are accepted and what options in general the protagonist has (the commands suggested in the text are not comprehensive), which makes playing the game frustrating at times. 5/10.

Mechanics: I’m not sure why this was written in Unity; it seems like it would work just as well in a parser- or choice-based format, without the time and complication of developing a custom parser. It was also less polished than the standard parsers, despite the work that must have gone into it. Some commands were misinterpreted, and some were just unrecognized. I couldn’t figure out what to do in the Fastmart scene, for example, after GO SOUTH from the opening one; LOOK and BUY SOMETHING, etc. were rejected as invalid. I even ran into invalid choices on what were presumably yes or no questions. 3/10.

Presentation: Although coding up something like this in Unity is impressive, I don’t think the layout was any better than what an off-the-shelf interpreter would provide, and its parsing ability was much more limited. The text was straightforward, though I didn’t find any of the endings I encountered extremely memorable. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like the sitcom “The Good Place.”

Score: 4

H.M.S. Spaceman, by Nat Quayle Nelson and Diane Cai

“H.M.S. Spaceman” is a medium-length, choice-based game about a trio of slacker engineers aboard a spaceship designed to resemble a human. As the game develops, the viewpoints switches around to other characters onboard the ship and their adventures.

Gameplay: The game is very light and conversational in tone, to the point where it feels more like a radio play or improv comedy skit than an interactive fiction game. The choices I made didn’t seem to change the plot substantially, but they did a few trigger different scenes. The plot and characters are a bit confusing, but the work isn’t intended to be taken seriously. 4/10.

Mechanics: The player affects the story by choosing on a menu of options, effectively pushing the characters into a new scene. Instead of a coherent story driven by the player, the game is really more of a series of vignettes the player stumbles through. 3/10.

Presentation: The jokes are too broad and slapstick for my particular tastes, but humor is very subjective. The characters in the game have distinct but simple personalities, like ones in a comedy routine. That’s fine for a game like this that’s based on fast-paced humor, but it’s hard to make that work for an entire story. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like stoner movies.

Score: 4

Junior Arithmancer, by Mike Spivey

Like everyone else who got into post-Infocom text adventures in the late 90s, I’m a mathematician in my professional, non-IF life. I had a great time with Mike Spivey’s entry in last year’s competition, “A Beauty Cold and Austere,” and I thoroughly enjoyed this one as well.

Gameplay: This game focuses on the number line environment from the previous game. Rather than solving an Infocom-style series of puzzles, you’re asked to recreate certain number sequences via a small list of magic spells: duplicate a number (e.g., 22 -> 2222), multiply a number by the previous number visited, etc. Those sequences correspond to the decimal expansions certain important constants, but they’re just there for flavor or even as nothing-up-my-sleeve numbers; they’re otherwise arbitrary. The goal of the game is to understand how the spells work and use them as efficiently or cleverly as possible. The game is entirely based on that one mechanic, but it’s deep enough to sustain interest through both the main game and the bonus tasks. 9/10.

Mechanics: The spells are complicated enough to be interesting to play around with but not complex enough to be frustrating. The required tasks are straightforward and can be brute-forced, but the optional bonus tasks require a bit of cleverness and planning. The game is really about abstract number puzzles, or even a computer science and programming puzzles, rather than mathematics per se. Despite its similarities to ABCA, it reminds me of programming games like “Robot Odyssey.” It’s also one that rewards creativity in thinking about and exploiting its mechanics, which is a great feature in a puzzle game. 9/10.

Presentation: Even though the game is ultimately a series of abstract puzzles to solve, the author put considerable effort into embellishing it. The professors have their own personalities and even sideplots, and the administration even has its own ongoing plot that’s revealed over the course of the game. The professors also provide commentary to some of the protagonist’s own actions, particularly when doing ostensibly unexpected things (e.g., overflowing the numeric state). Beyond the main exam, there’s a considerable number of optional points for achieving particular tasks: completing the tasks in a certain small number of moves, understanding the color scheme for the numbers, reaching certain non-integral states, etc.

The gameplay is smooth throughout; I didn’t run across any bugs in my playthrough. I’m glad the author thought to make other reasonable names for certain spells, like MUL[tiply] for TIM[es], automatically recognized and handled accordingly. 8/10.

Tilt: Math! +1.

You might be interested in this game if: You like math.

Score: 9

Grimnoir, by ProP

ProP’s “Grimnoir” is a long, choice-based game about a detective who tracks down supernatural monsters. Even though it’s a well-written text-adventure, its convenient interface, investigation mechanics, and smooth gameplay remind me of the best aspects of point-and-click adventures.

Gameplay: The game consists of a series of separate cases to be solved by the protagonist. It’s presented as a modern noir, with the twist that the detective is pining over an ex-boyfriend, and the classic noir femme fatale is his succubus assistant. It’s a variation on the conventional noir formula that’s different enough to make the work more creative and unusual without overshadowing the rest of the plot. The investigations are done well, but they have the usual problem of games in this genre of ultimately resolving to just clicking through all the links in sequence, without any real planning or player-level investigation. It kept my interest throughout the entire roster of cases, though, and there was enough variation among them to keep them from becoming stale. 9/10.

Mechanics: The fundamental mechanic of the game is that in order to defeat a monster, the protagonist has to identify it by type (vampire, cait sidhe, etc.) and figure out what it wants. If he succeeds, then he has enough control over it to resolve the situation. There’s a well-written in-game book that covers the possible monster types, including many red herrings. These battles are not particularly difficult, but they do tie together the investigation and concluding battle well. It’s possible to solve the cases by brute force, but there’s extra content and variable endings depending on the detective’s successes. 8/10.

Presentation: The text is faithful to the weary, cynical narration in noir works. The human suspects in cases are described well, given the amount of screen time they have, but the detective himself could be characterized more strongly. There’s a section of the game in which the detective’s succubus assistant takes over the case for him, but there’s little difference between the tone of their two narrations. Overall, the game is polished, with solid text, optional content, and choices that matter. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like noir, horror, and the old Carmen Sandiego games.

Score: 8

Ostrich, by Jonathan Laury

There are surprisingly few interactive fiction games that are overtly political. “Ostrich” is one such game, presenting a restrained but effective depiction of a government that becomes increasingly repressive over a short span of time.

Gameplay: The work is similar in tone and play to “Papers, Please,” another work about a bureacrat who’s forced to confront the morality of his job under an autocratic regime. The main difference is while that game takes place in a government that’s already gone over the edge, this one describes a government that slides into fascism. The scenes showing the government’s gradually more oppressive measures and the public’s reaction to them are executed well, and the game is well-paced despite its length. 8/10.

Mechanics: As in “Papers, Please,” the player performs his job during the day and has a choice of recreations at night. The protagonist is a government censor, and so the player has to decide whether to reword or even completely ban certain messages. This mechanic is fun, although it doesn’t seem to have much an effect on the game beyond the endgame summary. (I did, however, get a comment on “sloppy” work after some mostly random clicking during a replay.) Choosing how to spend the evenings opens up a few sidequest options, which enhances the game’s replay value. The main difference between the two games, though, is that “Papers, Please,” was also more interactive (befitting a game in a different genre), while “Ostrich” focuses more on the growing repression and how it affects the public. 8/10.

Presentation: The tone is agreeably sinister throughout. The cautionary scenes in the plot aren’t farcially overwrought; it’s a slow burn. Still, the explicit moral at the end is ham-fisted, particularly as the rest of the game does an excellent job of showing rather than telling the progressive government encroachments. The only significant problem I had with the text is that it contains deliberate pauses, As always, they break up the pace of the game and frustrate me for no benefit. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You read and were disturbed by “1984.”

Score: 8

Linear Love, by Tom Delanoy

“Linear Love” is a short text the player explores by scrolling through it.

Gameplay: The entirety of the work is just scrolling through the text. It’s an entirely linear narrative, despite the potential for something more elaborate in the medium. 2/10.

Mechanics: There aren’t really any mechanics in the game. Still, I had trouble getting the game to work. On one of the four attempts, I couldn’t start the game at all; on another, I somehow wound up in a different game entirely. The other two were more successful, but the text just ended at one point; there wasn’t anything further to do. 1/10.

Presentation: The short story is fine enough, though I personally didn’t find it memorable. I’m not sure what the format added to it, especially given the technical difficulties I encountered. 2/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like experimental works in odd formats.

Score: 2