The Four Eccentrics, by Mild Cat Bean

“The Four Eccentrics” is a completely surreal parser-based game that requires dream-logic to solve its puzzles.

Gameplay: Due to the game’s theme and setting, it’s difficult to describe its gameplay. There are puzzles throughout the game, but both the obstacles and solutions are totally surreal. One of the early puzzles, for examples, involves extracting a weevil from the brain of a dream-weaver and then filling in her outline with ink. The game fully embraces its dream-logic, and it’s entertaining to try to make sense of the alien mechanics. 5/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles are odd, but they do have an internal logic that’s noticeable once the player starts to make sense of the surrealism of the game. Exploring the world is a more satisfying experience that it would be in a more straightforward game because of its unexpected features and the creative mechanics required to do so. 5/10.

Presentation: The game stays in its dreamlike setting throughout, and the text successfully conveys its bizarre nature. Even if it’s often difficult to understand exactly what’s going on in the game, its characters and setting are vividly described, and interacting with them is enjoyable. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games involving dream-logic.

Score: 5

Summer Night City, by ghoti

“Summer Night City” is a choice-based game about a blind bartender in a dystopian future.

Gameplay: In the first half of the game, the protagonist is imprisoned and interrogated by the oppressive government; in the second half, he works as a bartender and has more agency in directing the plot. The puzzle of figuring out how to communicate with the resistance is a satisfying one that’s more involved than just a standard inventory or set-piece one. 6/10.

Mechanics: For the first half of the game, the decisions seem (from my single playthrough) to be largely immaterial, mostly determining reactions to the linear plot rather than causing it to branch. In the second half, though, the player’s actions directly steer the plot. As a blind bartender, the main character can send and receive messages via drink orders. It’s a clever setup, and solving the corresponding puzzle is rewarding. 7/10.

Presentation: The game successfully conveys its oppressive yet somewhat mysterious dystopian setting. It’s not always clear to either the narrator or player how the plot is unfolding, and the corresponding sense of anxiety matches the tone of the game. The text is a bit overdone in places (e.g,. “give vent to an inhuman bellow”), but it’s largely solid. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like dystopian stories.

Score: 6

Remedial Witchcraft, by dgtziea

“Remedial Witchcraft” is an uncomplicated but rewarding game with clever puzzles.

Gameplay: The game is a straightforward, puzzle-based one in which the player gathers some required items with the aid of magic. The puzzles themselves are interesting but not particularly difficult. Although the genre of lightly-comedic fantasy is a very familiar one in IF, the game’s solid puzzles and clever ending make it stand out. 7/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles in the game are reasonable and well-clued, and they invoke the theme of the game without relying so much on the magic system to make them illogical or obtuse. The magic encountered in the game (e.g., the rock) is also more varied than, say, the familiar spellcasting system of the old Infocom games. 7/10.

Presentation: There are a few typos (e.g., a missing line break following READ RUNE), but nothing substantial. During my playthrough, the magic word required to solve the rune puzzle was somehow unavailable well past the point when the puzzle should have already been solved. (It was eventually available, but I don’t know what triggered the change.) The text is solid and reflects the light tone of the game. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like light puzzle games.

Score: 7

The House on Sycamore Lane, by Paul Michael Winters

“The House on Sycamore Lane” is a classic parser-based horror game focusing on exploration and puzzles.

Gameplay: The game begins with the narrator about to leave school. There initially aren’t any clear goals for the character; after solving a few simple puzzles to try to outmaneuver some bullies, though, he winds up hiding inside a haunted mansion. The rest of the game involves solving more puzzles to pacify or exorcise the spirits in the mansion by solving a series of adventure-game-style puzzles. There’s not much connection between the two parts of the story, even thematically, and the introduction is probably unnecessary. 5/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles fit the theme of the game, and I found them to be mostly solid, if not particularly memorable. The ones in the first part of the game are strongly clued; those in the second are more complicated but still reasonable overall. 6/10.

Presentation: In addition to the numerous spacing issues and missing punctuation, there are other typos throughout the text: “A spectacles,” “You open bike lock,” “growing at your viciously,” “vision flashes before you’re eyes,” etc. Genuine horror (as opposed to parody or light comedy) is a difficult genre for in interactive fiction, and the game never finds the tone it’s trying to achieve. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like classic horror games.

Score: 5

Slugocalypse, by Charlotte

“Slugocalypse” is a short, silly game that recreates a B-movie in a choice-based interactive fiction format.

Gameplay: The goal of the game is to thwart or escape the giant slugs occupying the protagonist’s town, but the experience is similar to that of watching a monster movie; it’s not intended to taken seriously or treated as a puzzlefest to solve. The tone of the game is light throughout, and its humor mostly comes through juxtaposition of random, unexpected things rather than any character- or plot-driven devices. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game is choice-based, but it’s difficult to predict a priori what the effects of any particular decision will be. There are multiple endings, but the determination of which one the player is moving toward depends on happening to be in the right place the right time, rather than anything the player deliberately does. That’s not a problem for a game as short and light as this one, though, and the game does have a bit of state (e.g., money and inventory items. 5/10.

Presentation: The game is lightly comedic, though it tries a bit hard at time to be absurd. The text isn’t extensive or descriptive, but its tone does capture that of a late-night monster movie. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You dislike slugs.

Score: 5

Roads Not Taken, by Doug Egan

While grad school used to be a common setting for interactive fiction, it’s much less common now. “Roads Not Taken” is a serious game about dissatisfaction with the experience and whether it’s ultimately worth it.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with (after an introduction in a slightly different format) the protagonist determining how to spend his time at regular points in each year. In addition to those decision in the present, the narrator also describes medical problems he had as a child and the corresponding isolation he felt. Although grad school is no longer a common theme, it is fairly common now to have a depressed protagonist dealing with childhood traumas, and there’s not that much to distinguish this particular character from similar ones besides the setting. 6/10.

Mechanics: By deciding how to spend his time, the main character can successfully complete his thesis or leave grad school, whether voluntarily or by getting kicked out. Obtaining the first ending requires dozens of research actions, each of which has a random chance of failure. That’s not an unreasonable simulation of the unpredictability research, but it’s not very interesting to the player in a game where there’s little else to do. Even finding the first ending is not particularly satisfying, since the character ultimately decides that it wasn’t worth it. It’s never exactly clear why the protagonist is interested in grad school at all; the interviews in the introduction suggest that he’s only entering it because it’s the next thing to do in life, rather than from any real interest in the field he’s pursuing. Avoiding that situation is fairly common advice, and it’s unclear (even given the flashbacks) why the protagonist is bothering at all. It’s ultimately not satsifying as either as a slice-of-life game or as a character study. 5/10.

Presentation: The text in the game is solid, despite a few minor typos (e.g., “itenerary”). I didn’t find the flashbacks particularly compelling, especially since they occur before becoming familiar with the main character at the current time. 6/10.

Tilt: Like everyone else who was interested in interactive fiction in late 90s, I have a PhD in math, and the protagonist’s isolation and complete dependence on the unpredictable outcome of research was not entirely dissimilar to my own experience with grad school. +1

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve also had to deal with being dissatisfied with grad school.

Score: 6

Heretic’s Hope, by G.C. Baccaris

“Heretic’s Hope” is a choice-based game with an intricate plot and a thoroughly professional presentation.

Gameplay: The player guides the actions, mostly conversations, of the narrator as she fulfills her duties as an unwilling acolyte in the religion of an insectoid race. The protagonist is a human, and she’s as unfamiliar as the player about her new role and what it involves. By building relationships with the different NPCs she meets, she gradually learns more about the true nature of her situation. The plot is more involved than I have space to summarize here (and without spoilers), but it’s well-paced, consistently interesting, and takes place in an original setting. 8/10.

Mechanics: The game focuses on developing the relationship between the narrator and the insectoid effectively serving as her mentor. It’s difficult to anticipate exactly how the conversation branches will affect the development of the plot, but there are definitely branch points in the story and meaningful choices to make. There are also three different mentors from which the player can choose, encouraging replaying the game. 7/10.

Presentation: The custom interface for the game is both beautifully designed and easy to use. The polished and professional writing is consistently strong throughout, conveying the utter alienness of the world and its inhabitants. It might work well as a conventional short story, but there was a substantial part of the story and setting I missed in my single long playthrough, and that feeling of seeing only a small fraction of a confusing world at a time would be hard to replicate in a static work of fiction. 10/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like well-crafted stories with genuinely unfamiliar settings.

Score: 8

Planet C, by Mark Carew

In “Planet C,” scientists attempt to terraform and colonize a new planet as environmental disasters and social upheaval threaten earth.

Gameplay: The game is a simulation written in an epistolary style, with the main character dispatching letters indicating his actions and receiving letters describing their effects. The simulation is a particularly simple one, though, and the only influence the player has over it is choosing about a half-dozen ships to bring resources to the new planet. The letters don’t contribute much to the game besides padding it out, and the characters they introduce don’t have much detail or resonance. 4/10.

Mechanics: The player interacts with the game simply by choosing the order of the ships that arrive on the new planet. There are relationships among them, and the walkthrough lists several winning sequences, but the game isn’t deep in terms of either mechanics or plot. 4/10.

Presentation: Although the writing in the game is fine itself, the bulk of the letters are dull. Several of them end with pictures of various characters, and it’s hard as a player to work up much interest in looking at a picture of a character I have little interest in. There are more interesting variations in the endings based on how successful the player is at managing the nascent colony. The indications about dead colonists and the notes in the letters about the precarious situation on Earth, however, fail to convey the intended sense of danger or loss. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re interested in a simple game involving some ideas from hard sci-fi.

Score: 4

Meeting Robb Sherwin, by Jizaboz

In “Meeting Robb Sherwin,” the narrator does exactly that. It’s a simple slice-of-life game about meeting the prolific IF author as a guest at Sherwin’s wedding.

Gameplay: Gameplay is unsurprising: the main character arranges transportation, stays at a hotel, meets a few people at a party before the wedding, and then attends the wedding itself. There are no real puzzles to solve, and there’s little characterization in the story. The game seems like a recreation of a real event; assuming that’s the case, it’s a pleasant memento for the author and Sherwin himself, but it’s not something that’s particularly interesting on its own. 4/10.

Mechanics: Although there are no puzzles to solve, the player has to fiddle with the low-level details of arranging transportation via a kiosk, checking into his hotel, finding soap for a shower, and so on. Given the low stakes and the absence of any obstacles to overcome, these scenes come off as padding rather than anything of substance. 4/10.

Presentation: The text conveys the events that transpire during the trip in detail, but nothing happens in the story. It’s an effective tribute to or even a wedding gift for Sherwin, but it’s hard to find something compelling about it for anyone else. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You also attended Robb Sherwin’s wedding.

Score: 4

For the Moon Never Beams, by J. Michael

Although I’ve seen very few horror movies, the tropes in it are still familiar to me. “For the Moon Never Beams” is a parser-based parody of the genre that hits all the familiar beats of a horror B-movie while retaining its sense of humor.

Gameplay: The game opens with a high-school student’s prom date suddenly turning into a werewolf. The rest of the game involves trying to escape from her and, eventually, to free her from her curse. Despite its premise, the game is realistic modulo the assumptions of the genre, and the puzzles are reasonable with those conventions in mind. 7/10.

Mechanics: While many of the puzzles are standard adventure-game ones about finding items in the environment and using them in the correct spaces, some of the more clever puzzles in the game (particularly the one in which the player finally confronts the werewolf) rely on knowing horror movie tropes. The game isn’t overly silly, and it’s not a deconstruction of the genre; the situation is played mostly straight throughout. 6/10.

Presentation: The writing in the game maintains a consistent tone of light parody. It’s not a particularly long game, and the pacing in it is reasonable (which is often difficult to pull off in parodies). The setup for the ending is more elaborate than the other puzzles in the game, and completing it gives a satisfying resolution to both the characters and the player 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy horror movies both ironically and unironically.

Score: 6