Clusterflux, by Marshal Tenner Winter

“Clusterflux” is a puzzle-based game with some surreal elements in a sprawling environment.

Gameplay: The game begins with the character and his talking pet mongoose finding a mysterious woman on his couch. For most of the game, that premise is simply a device to encourage the player to explore the game’s setting, which is large and well-implemented. As the setup implies, there are surreal elements to it, but most of it is simply standard adventuring through an environment filled with random NPCs. Playing the game feels like wandering around a college dormitory filled with unusual characters. It’s enjoyable, although I think it would have been more frustrating if I hadn’t used a walkthrough liberally. 7/10.

Mechanics: Despite the surrealism of the game, its puzzles are mostly standard adventure-game-style ones, with the player collecting various items around the house and applying them to puzzles that hint at their use. The wasp puzzle, for example, requires multiple items from multiple locations, and it’s satisfying to bring all of them together and solve it. 7/10.

Presentation: Aside from a few typos (a sweater, for example, seems to be named as “your hooded sweater.”, including the extraneous period), the text is consistent throughout the game. The two NPCs that follow the player throughout the game don’t have a lot of depth to their implementations. They’re interesting characters, though, and they’re not the focus of the game. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like games about exploration that have complicated puzzles.

Score: 7

The Untold Story, by Michael Pavano

“The Untold Story” is an parser-based, puzzle-centric game in which the protagonist attempts to find missing parts of a meaningful chess set after his older brother’s death.

Gameplay: The puzzles are the main focus of the game, and they’re generally inventory and set-piece puzzles. The setting is an odd mix of lazy-medieval-fantasy settings (magic, dwarves, etc.) and real-world elements (a Bible, a reference to a “Chinese symbol”), which makes some of the more unmotivated puzzles difficult to tinker with. Gameplay is awkward at points because of the sparse description of some objects and guess-the-verb problems. There are explicit indications— not even hints— for certain puzzles (e.g., “If you plant something in the golden dirt spot, maybe something will happen”), but they aren’t reasonable substitutes for a more solid implementation. 4/10.

Mechanics: The puzzles take advantage of the fantasy elements of the setting. The guess-the-verb and other implementation issues make them more difficult than they should be, and solving some of them opens up the world map in unpredictable and unmotivated ways. The mechanic of giving explicit, italicized hints to the player is unnecessary, and it would be more satisfying for the player to solve those puzzles without assistance. 4/10.

Presentation: The game is filled with odd phrases (“Inisde from the forest is the Bear’s Den”) and typos (“pails in comparison”). Missing line breaks in descriptions are common. Descriptions are occasionally sparse to the point of uselessness, as in one room presented as simply a “peaceful and beautiful place.” Some setting details are inconsistent, as in a glint in a pile of dirt that still occurs in its description even after the coin causing it has been removed. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a fantasy game with a protagonist who isn’t a mercernary adventurer.

Score: 4

Black Sheep, by Nic Barkdull and Matt Borgard

“Black Sheep” is a choice-based cyberpunk noir about a woman’s attempts to find her missing sister.

Gameplay: Gameplay is smooth throughout, with the choice-based system not feeling limiting. The world is a fairly large one, and the player has freedom to roam around in it and interact with other characters. While some of the puzzle elements are a bit contrived, the mystery itself is solid and well-clued. The revelation at the end of the game, while satisfying, wasn’t a surprise to me at all. 7/10.

Mechanics: The game has quite a bit of state: the protagonist has a burgeoning inventory; the choices available to her at each point depend on previous encounters; and there’s a global timer in the game. Like most ostensible mystery games in IF, the focus of “Black Sheep” is more on evidence collection and standard adventure-game-style actions (e.g., getting into locked areas) rather than deduction itself. There is a mechanic for combining pieces of evidence and thereby drawing conclusions from them, but the game uses it sparingly and only toward the end of the story. 8/10.

Presentation: The setting and writing of the game strongly support its cyberpunk setting. The cyberpunk elements aren’t as overwhelming or pervasive as they are in most games of that genre, but they’re noticeable, creepy, and evocative. (One particular detail I found memorable was a character noted as literally wearing “her uterus on her hip.”) 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You want a more restrained cyberpunk noir with a satisfying mystery.

Score: 7

Zozzled, by Steph Cherrywell

“Zozzled” is an entertaining parser-based puzzle game set in the Prohibition era.

Gameplay: The premise of the game is that the protagonist has the ability to see the ghosts haunting a hotel, and her goal is to exorcise them by drinking them like the other kind of spirits. It’s a light game, and the puzzles never become too difficult or obtuse to get in the way of the story and humor. The setting is compact; the characters are distinct and entertaining; and the puzzles are reasonable. 9/10.

Mechanics: Despite the supernatural premise of the game, the puzzles are fairly straightforward and motivated throughout, and they’re more clever than just routine inventory and set-piece puzzles. (The one exception to their straightforwardness might be the artist puzzle, but I think its solution is clever enough to justify its complexity relative to the other puzzles.) The game switches to a choice-based system in certain sections, though it’s usually to set up particular jokes (most notably, the routine when entering the elevator for the first time) rather than a real change in format. 8/10.

Presentation: The game has a strong voice throughout. The 1920s slang it uses is overdone, but the game doesn’t take itself seriously, and the effect is more charming than annoying. The protagonist has a clearly defined personality that comes through when talking with other characters (most notably the artist, the elevator attendant, and the moll). There are a few minor typos (e.g., a missing quotation mark in the medium scene and a missing line break when leaving the pool), but they don’t detract from the enjoyment of the game. 9/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like the 1920s setting.

Score: 9

Night Guard / Morning Star, by Astrid Dalmady

“Night Guard / Morning Star” is a magical-realist horror game about a woman’s learning the true nature of her mother’s paintings.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with most of the decisions being simply navigation around the gallery and paintings. The main focus of the game is investigating the paintings and thereby understanding the nature of the protagonist’s mother’s artwork, and those interactions are interesting and well-paced scenes from a horror story. 6/10.

Mechanics: The game has some state, with its gallery being a persistent setting in which the player is free to wander. There are multiple endings available, though the branching point seems more like a deliberate choice of the player at certain place in the story rather than something that arises from the protagonist’s previous choices. Although the game is certainly not puzzle-based, I was mildly annoyed at one section in which the protagonist is given a riddle with an obvious solution that I recognized as a player, but that the protagonist apparently did not; the only option was to have it spelled out in-game. 6/10.

Presentation: The writing is strong throughout, and the magical realism is handled skillfully. The protagonist and the characters she encounters are multidimensional and enjoyable (if creepy) to interact with. The ending of the game is a satisfying conclusion to an interesting story. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like magical realism.

Score: 6

Randomized escape, by Yvan Uh.

Despite the popularity of Rogue-like games in earlier decades, randomized or procedurally-generated adventure games are rare in modern interactive fiction. “Randomized escape” is a parser-based horror game in which the protagonist tries to survive in a randomly-generated environment.

Gameplay: Although the idea for the game is a compelling one, its execution is limited and difficult to play through. The setting isn’t an interesting environment to wander around in, and the game lacks details about many of its central ideas and mechanics. Given the strong randomness factor of the game, the only way to proceed is through trial and error, and that becomes tedious quickly. 4/10.

Mechanics: The walkthrough gives a few indications of what items are valuable and how they can be used, but many of the mechanics of the game are opaque. (The download for the game includes its Inform 7 source code, but I haven’t looked through it.) The character’s sanity decreases at various points in the game, triggering hallucinations. 3/10.

Presentation: Grammatical errors, typos, and odd phrases (or mistranslations) occur throughout the game: “I would rather let this newspaper where it lays,” encountering a “pile of cardboxes,” the warning that “You sanity have decrease,” etc. Some of the objects, even ones that aren’t useful to the protagonist, have very detailed descriptions. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’d like to see source code for adding certain procedurally-generated elements to a game.

Score: 3

Skies Above, by Arthur DiBianca

In “Skies Above,” the main character is an airship captain trying to secure supplies and upgrades for the ship by playing a series of minigames.

Gameplay: Despite those minigames, gameplay more closely resembles that of “Cookie Clicker” or “Paperclips.” Resources are freely available in small quantities. As the number of resources needed to open up new areas increases exponentially, the player can buy upgrades to gather resources more effectively. The game is ultimately about resource- or time-management, with the goal being to reach and complete the final level as quickly as possible. There are also achievements for various actions or strategies that can be viewed post-game, along with other statistics. 8/10.

Mechanics: The minigames themselves are simple. Most involve pushing a certain key based on prompts; the most complicated one is just looking up a particular bit of information in a block of text. The more interesting part of the game is navigating the upgrade tree to get better results from those minigames. One minigame, for example, involves operating a pump to produce a valuable resource; if the protagonist works out in a gym long enough and thus becomes strong, the pump minigame generates more resources. The game is well-paced, and the minigames and upgrades start to get tedious just as it’s almost over. 8/10.

Presentation: Although the idea for the game is fundamentally a simple one, the author has put significant effort into embellishing the game with small details. Most significantly, there are numerous sidequests and optional upgrades to alleviate the repetitiveness of the main game. The NPCs in the game are two-dimensional, since the focus of the game is its mechanics, but they match their setting and are memorable. 8/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You liked “Cookie Clicker,” “Paperclips,” or similar games.

Score: 8

Dull Grey, by Provodnik Games

While there have been a number of limited parser games in previous competitions, “Dull Grey” is the first game I’ve seen with a limited choice system. The player has the same two options, presented as two possible careers for the protagonist, at each decision point in the game. The context of those choices and their ramifications vary, and they ultimately decide the fate of the main character.

Gameplay: The player proceeds through vignettes in the narrator’s early life, pushing him towards one of two future careers at each point. Although the options remain constant throughout the game, the scenes emphasize different aspects of those careers, and the choices the player makes therefore prioritize different goals of the protagonist. Despite the repetitiveness of only having two choices available, the scenes are dissimilar enough and the writing strong enough to prevent the game from feeling like it’s on rails. 7/10.

Mechanics: The game’s central idea of a single recurring choice is clever, and the writing in the game is strong enough to sustain. It’s a simple game, but it’s effective. 6/10.

Presentation: Like last year’s entry from Provodnik games, “Dull Grey” also has attractive art and a clean layout, despite its very different art style. The setting is a science-fiction or post-apocalyptic future in which machines and computers maintain the environment, and the short vignettes present just enough to explain the setting while keeping it alien and mysterious. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You liked last year’s “Railways of Love.”

Score: 7

The Sweetest Honey, by Mauro Couto

“The Sweetest Honey” is a choice-based game about a man who can’t die, yet is still paralyzed by a fear of death.

Gameplay: The focus on the story is on the emotional state of the protagonist as he deals with his new situation. Nothing much happens as a result of it, though, and the character’s mental state and limited curiosity about his ability make it difficult to take much interest in his story. 3/10.

Mechanics: There’s little for the player to do in the game. Most of the links just advance the text without even offering options; when alternatives are available to the player, the choice doesn’t matter. The game is closer to a short story or character study than an interactive work. 3/10.

Presentation: The game is slow-paced and ponderous, matching the mood of the protagonist and effectively setting the tone of the story. There are some translation issues, though, and the link at the end of the game is broken. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like short stories with protagonists who have mental illnesses.

Score: 3

Abandon Them, by Alan Beyersdorf

While other games in this year’s competition have been elaborations or retellings of existing stories, “Abandon Them” is closer to a work of psychoanalytic literary criticism.

Gameplay: The player revisits the story of Hansel and Gretel through a few different viewpoints, which an introductory blurb before each vignette giving the tone and context. The episodes don’t offer much in either plot or insight. The most interesting of them is the final one, in which the player takes the viewpoint of an unrelated (at least, in my interpretation of the story) character who’s simply a passive observer. Its concept has potential, but I didn’t find the actual game itself compelling. 4/10.

Mechanics: The player has few choices to make during the short game, and the ones that are present don’t matter. The introductions to each episode raise a few interesting points, but the game doesn’t offer any tools with which the player can explore them. 3/10.

Presentation: The font is unattractive and hard to read, and the text is often obscured by other elements of the interface. While the passages in the game addressed directly to the reader are interesting, they’re brief and vague. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy applying literary criticism to familiar stories.

Score: 3