Girth Loinhammer and the Quest for the Unsee Elixir, by Damon L. Wakes

Although it’s more restrained than its title would imply, “Girth Loinhammer” is a broad, Dungeons-and-Dragons style farce running with the light conceit of being a single-player, pen-and-paper role-playing game.

Gameplay: The game is a simple, choice-based one, with the addition that the player is expected to update a short character sheet and make some die rolls. It’s more of a gimmick than something substantial; most of the gameplay just exists to move between comedic scenes. 4/10.

Mechanics: The game does have state, but its mechanics are there only to divide up the scenes. The player is expected to keep track of all the data by themselves, via the character sheet. While doing so reinforces the pen-and-paper style the game is going for, it would be more convenient to provide an automatically updated sheet in the game itself. (In contrast, I found making the die rolls myself to be a better balance between fiddliness for the player and retro charm. 4/10.

Presentation: Although the game wasn’t as lowbrow as I expected from the title, its humor is based too much on wackiness and nonsequiturs for my personal taste. Of course, humor is subjective, but it should be clear from the first few scenes of the game whether or not it matches your own sense of humor. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You read, or wanted to read, the old Zork Choose-Your-Own-Adventure gamebooks.

Score: 4

Very Vile Fairy File, by Billy Boling

One of my favorite genres of interactive fiction is that of word games, which uniquely use their medium to create interesting puzzles. Like last year’s “Ailihphilia,” this year’s “Very Vile Fairy File” is a light, puzzle-heavy game using a single word-transformation mechanic.

Gameplay: The fundamental mechanic involves replacing alliterative pairs of words with rhyming ones. In the first room, for example, you have to improve your skills by transforming WET WOOD into GET GOOD. (As the game explicitly notes, later puzzles involve spelling changes rather than just simple letter replacement). It’s a clever idea for a set of puzzles, and I went back and forth while playing the game about whether it was too easy or too hard to use the mechanic; that’s a good indication that it’s fair. Some of the transformations are definitely not ones the player would initially expect, but they’re clued strongly throughout the game. As a last resort, there’s also a map and walkthrough. 8/10.

Mechanics: The transformation puzzles in the game are well-implemented and clever throughout. Although they all use the rhyming mechanic, some puzzles have multiple solutions or involve small variations in that mechanic, such as manipulating a song that gets stuck in your head. The rhyming-transformation idea doesn’t entirely avoid becoming repetitive before the end, but it has a good run, and some of the puzzles are quite clever. The rhymes are also fairly short and simple throughout; adding longer or more involved rhymes would give the puzzles more variety. Word games involving rhymes also depend on the particular dialect of the player, and I don’t think all of the rhymes in the game would be accepted as such by all English speakers, even if you assume the audience is American (or British, etc.). 8/10.

Presentation: The text is pretty sparse, and there’s little narrative to the game (though there is an overall goal besides just solving all the puzzles you find). Despite that, the author added quite a bit of polish to the game. Incorrect or red-herring puzzle solutions are generally recognized and noted. To prevent the player from getting from frustrated, there’s a object that gives in-game hints (with a clever and more abstract puzzle about deciphering those hints, which the player can just summarily reveal if that also becomes frustrating) and a inventory of sounds and clusters in English. There were some typos in the game, however; most notably, many of the responses included an extra trailing period. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoyed “Ailihphilia” or “Ad Verbum.”

Score: 8

The Milgram Parable, by Peter Eastman

“The Milgram Parable” refers in both its text and its presentation to Stanley Milgram’s famous psychology experiment and 2013 computer game “The Stanley Parable.” It’s an interesting idea for a game, but it’s ultimately unsatisfying to play.

Gameplay: The game comprises two sections. In the shorter first one, you answer questions about the morality of someone participating something reminiscent of Milgram’s original experiment; in the latter, the protagonist joins a military mission in a sci-fi setting. The first half has a clever twist to it, but the second half is played straight. The game doesn’t drawn any real conclusions about it, though, and I’m not sure what its intentions were. Was it trying to suggest that Milgram was threatening or deceiving (beyond the obvious experimental setup) the participants in his experiment? Was it making the argument that some situations are so complicated and involve so many actors that it’s hard for the person who actually has to push the button or shoot the gun to judge their morality? Was it just a narrative about people who get stuck in unpleasant situations outside their control? I was looking for a deeper message or a more detailed argument, and I didn’t come away from the game thinking that it raised any questions or provided any answers. 3/10.

Mechanics: In neither situation, the player has opportunity to change the course of the game. In the first half, the player is mostly offering commentary on someone’s actions, rather than taking them directly; in the latter, the narrator is coerced by the people around him into following orders. That fits with the subject of the game, but the idea of making an interactive fiction game deliberately non-interactive is a pretty common one at this point, featuring in “Rameses,” “Depression Quest,” and even “Let’s Play: Ancient Greek Punishment” from this year’s IFComp. It’s not inherently a bad idea, but it’s enough to base a game on without some other cleverness or enthusiasm behind it. It’s a simple choice-based game that’s set up well, but I found the experience of actually playing it disappointing. 4/10.

Presentation: I didn’t notice any errors in the text, and the cover art and first section have nice aesthetics. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You find Milgram’s original experiment compelling.

Score: 4

Flygskam Simulator, by Katie Benson

“Flygskam,” meaning “flight shame,” is a Swedish environmental movement to encourage fewer flights. As such, the narrator of “Flygskam Simulator” takes a bus through Europe.

Gameplay: There’s not much to the game. After starting out in London, the narrator has a series of short encounters on ths bus, and that’s it. There’s no real narrative or character interactions; it’s just a series of brief, low-stakes vignettes. There isn’t much to do in the game, and there’s no compelling reason at any point in the game to keep playing. 3/10.

Mechanics: The choices might as well be random, but there’s still no goal you’re working towards or any narrative you’re unwinding. You’re on a bus. Sometimes some minor things happen; usually they don’t. 3/10.

Presentation: The prose in the game is fine but unremarkable, and it doesn’t create any motivation to keep playing. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a brief, comfortable, slice-of-life game.

Score: 3

Saint City Sinners, by dgallagher

“Saint City Sinners” is a fun, straightforward farce in a noir setting.

Gameplay: The gameplay is choice-based, and I found in my one-and-a-half playthroughs that the branches mostly determined the order of the scenes rather than their content. (The main exception is that the walkthrough indicates that it’s possible to reach the end without securing all the evidence, but I never had a problem finding it.) That’s not a problem for a game like this, where the desultory mystery is mostly an excuse for showing off some comedic scenes. Still, it did feel as a player that I had control over the course of the game, and I didn’t feel frustrated or railroaded. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game is simple and straightforward. There’s not a lot of state to it, but it’s a light, comedic game that doesn’t need it. 5/10.

Presentation: The main draw of the game is its comedy, and it is legitimately funny. It’s full of fourth-wall-breaking and absurdist humor that’s executed well throughout. It reminded in tone or even style to the Tick franchise, including it’s protagonist’s hammy obsession with justice. Absurdism gets old quickly, though, and my experience was that the game was a bit too long to sustain it. There were a couple of minor issues, such as the in-game title’s differing from its official one and a coding error on returning to the title screen from the credit, but they weren’t enough to derail the comedy. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re looking for a short, funny game with absurdist humor.

Score: 5

Frenemies, by B F Lindsay

This game is an homage to the IF writer Andy Phillips, who wrote several puzzle-heavy games around the turn of the century. The only game of his I’ve played myself is “Heroine’s Mantle,” but “Frenemies” is a well-deserved revivial of a type of game that isn’t as popular these days.

Gameplay: The game is a parser-based one in a single locked room, from which the protagonist attempts to escape with the help of some set-piece and inventory puzzles. Once the player figures out how he’s locked in the room, escaping requires a detailed examination of the environment and an involved series of tasks. The task of escaping the room is foremost; there aren’t a lot of smaller puzzles to solve in parallel, items to collect, and so on. It’s a genre of game that isn’t very common anymore, and it’s a refreshing change. 6/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are difficult but largely fair, although they could be more strongly clued in the text. The environment is complicated, and some extra guidance (or even a more discursive walkthrough rather than just an explicit stepthrough) would have been helpful. Of course, the style of game this entry is recreating is tougher and less ornately narrated than most modern games, so I can’t be too harsh on that aspect of it. It’s an enjoyable series of puzzles. 6/10.

Presentation: Although I don’t know enough about his Phillips’ games to say so definitely, this game feels like an affection pastiche of them. There are numerous references to Phillips’ games that are explicitly noted, and there are undoubtedly many that I didn’t pick up on myself. Even though the game is a puzzlefest, the main character has a definite personality, presented through his friends and prized possessions. (Again, this may be a specific reference to another of Phillips’ characters, or even the author himself; I don’t know enough of the background to identify it as such.) There were a couple of minor grammar mistakes in the beginning, and I managed to make one container in the game open and locked; largely, though, the gameplay was smooth. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You played any of Andy Phillips’ games.

Score: 6

Language Arts, by Jared Jackson

One genre of interaction fiction I’m particularly interested in is programming games, in which the player manipulates or creates a series of rules for the world to accomplish certain tasks. While it has a great concept, “Language Arts” has a steep learning curve and a UI that can be difficult to navigate efficiently.

Gameplay: The player programs a series of rules to manipulate a grid of letters and thus accomplish certain tasks. For example, one of the earliest puzzles is to write a series of rules that implement the “i before e, except after c” rule. The puzzles aren’t strongly motivated, but that’s fine for this genre of game, where the emphasis is on the puzzles themselves and their mechanics. The programming language is a bit unusual in both context and syntax; adopting a subset of a pre-existing language might have been a better choice. The underlying idea is brilliant, but it does take a careful reading of the manual to get into it; it’s not the sort of thing you can jump into. 8/10.

Mechanics: The underlying programming language of the game is exactly that; rather than some sort of graphical interface or more general environment to interact with (as in “Baba Is You,” for example), the player types in commands that are parsed by the game and turned into rules. 6/10.

Presentation: The game has an appealing frame of working at an early-1990s company, with an appropriately retro graphical interface. The puzzles often involved conversation with other NPCs as flavor, but I didn’t find them very interesting or useful. There’s a convenient window to step through the results of your programming, but rules have to be created individually, and the steps to edit them are unnecessarily complicated; I just wanted to open up a buffer and write code directly. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You liked “Baba is You” and similar games, but want the equivalent of assembly language in a programming game.

Score: 7

tmack: So, I’ve belatedly realized there is in fact a manual here; it’s just provided by an external link, rather than being part of the download package. Oops. Totally my fault, and I’ve rewritten part of the review and bumped the score up accordingly.