Bad Water, by Waking Media

The late 90s and early 2000s had a glut of poorly-made FMV games that were funny at the time and hilarious in retrospect. One of the most notorious of them was “Bad Milk,” a bizarre FMV-based puzzle game with an opaque plot and nonsensical puzzles. Like most people who recognize it, I’m familiar with the game only through reviews or playthroughs of the game more than a decade after its release. “Bad Water” is a parody of that game, updated with interactive fiction references.

Gameplay: The gameplay is a faithful parody of the original, with all that entails: obtuse controls, overwrought video sequences, and bizarre puzzles. The latter even includes the reversed audio and spinning-head combination lock of “Bad Milk.” It’s a great reconstruction of a terrible thing. 5/10.

Mechanics: The parody features the same weird menu navigation and incomprehensible puzzles of the original, and it would be similarly impossible to play without a walkthrough (or familiarity with the original game). Despite the difficult navigating through the game, it’s nice to see a more unusual format than the usual parser- or choice-based engines. 4/10.

Presentation: Despite the poor quality of the original game, quite a lot of work went into the parody, and all its custom audio and video assets faithfully recreates the style of the original. It’s undoubtedly completely opaque to players unfamiliar with “Bad Milk,” but it’s a thorough and well-executed parody. 7/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re familiar with “Bad Milk.”

Score: 5

Break Stuff, by Amy Clare Fontaine

Although it starts out as a lightheartedly bitter game about the aftermath of a breakup, the second half of “Break Stuff” is a serious narrative about its protagonist’s depression and suicidal thoughts.

Gameplay: There’s an abrupt and jarring shift in tone from the lighter (if cynical) first section to the darker second one. Even if that is a deliberate choice to emphasize the unpredictability of the protagonist’s depression, the game jumped into a much more serious tone without building up enough of the protagonist’s character to make the story about her. This is ultimately a game about having suicidal thoughts, rather than the particular character who has suicidal thoughts. The protagonist doesn’t have a clearly established personality (aside from the plot details of her recent breakup), and her character isn’t developed enough to make the transition between the two halves of the game smooth or to get the player emotionally invested in her situation. 5/10.

Mechanics: In the first half of the game, the choices amount to picking which three of the dozen or so vignettes to read and in which order. Although the larger number of scenes encourages replays, there’s little real interactivity or state to the section. In the second half, the player’s choices do have a substantial effect on the gameplay, though the game strongly pushes the player toward certain plotlines. 4/10.

Presentation: The writing is fine, though I didn’t come away from playing the game with any particularly memorable scenes or dialogue. The narrative didn’t build enough of a connection between me and the protagonist for me to get invested in her plight, and that’s the prime goal of the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve had an experience similar to the protagonist’s.

Score: 4

Extreme Omnivore: Text Edition, by Hazel Gold

“Extreme Omnivore” is a bare-bones parser game in which the protagonists wanders around his apartment until dinner is ready.

Gameplay: Gameplay consists simply of touring the different rooms available to the narrator, after which the kitchen inexplicably opens up. There are no puzzles or narrative to the game, and the descriptions are too terse and uninteresting for the game to be satsifying to explore. Even following the provided walkthrough, I never found a real ending; the narrator just successfully eats his dinner, without any real feedback or resolution. 3/10.

Mechanics: The only real depth to the game is the number of objects that exist in the universe. Each of the rooms has a wide array of items in them, but they offer little interactivity or description. There’s simply not much to do in the game. 3/10.

Presentation: Items are poorly implemented, and there are numerous typos. Unusually for Inform games, the latter includes several problems with articles (e.g,. “You see nothing special about pie,” or, “You open the velvet bag, revealing a dice,” actually referring to a set of polyhedral dice.) Despite its sparse implementation, the game contains several guess-the-verb problems. Thus, for example, ASK INA ABOUT DINNER and ASK INA ABOUT SOUP aren’t recognized, but ASK INA ABOUT FOOD and ASK INA FOR SOUP are. 2/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’d like a quick, simple parser game.

Score: 3

For the Cats, by Lei

“For the Cats” is a short, choice-based game in which the protagonist attempts to save a set of cats.

Gameplay: The game is set up like a better variety of Choose-Your-Own-Adventure novel, with several different characters and plot paths available. Each path is relatively short; the game is designed to be played repeatedly, the goal being experiencing the ten different endings. I didn’t find the setup or the narrative particularly compelling, though, despite the range of paths that can be taken. Each route is in effect a vignette about the industrial dystopia in which the game takes place, but even collectively they don’t establish a strong feel for the setting or show off its unique charcteristics. 5/10.

Mechanics: The game does take advantage of its medium, and it offers genuine state and branching paths. It’s not a deep or involved game (nor is it intended to be), but the different routes are distinct. The dystopia never felt real or threatening enough for the variations in the routes to have much of a narrative or emotional effect, though I did get the feeling that the choices I made did matter .5/10.

Presentation: The writing is solid, but I didn’t find it particularly evocative or memorable. Comic Sans is an odd font to choose for the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like choice-based games with lots of short paths through them.

Score: 5

The Legendary Hero has Failed, by Tom Martin

While I’ve never played that particular game in the Zelda series, “The Legendary Hero Has Failed” clearly takes place just before the bad ending in Majora’s Mask, with the moon about to crash in the world. The idea of having a short conversation just the end of the world is a compelling one, but the game doesn’t take advantage of that setting or mood.

Gameplay: The game is choice based, with the protagonist chatting with four companions while they wait for the end of the world. The tone is largely calm and resigned, and accordingly there’s not much to do beyond going through the narrative. It might be more appealing to players who are more familiar with the game it’s based off, but I didn’t have much connection to it. 3/10.

Mechanics: There’s not much to do in the game beyond wandering down the narrow conversation tree. The addition of a timer is novel and fits the setup of the game. 3/10.

Presentation: The sound effects in the game are fine but don’t contribute much to it. The text is fine, but it didn’t capture my interest. In my first playthrough, the game either stalled or crashed at one prompt (before the five-minute timer had elapsed), making it impossible to continue. I’m adding a penalty of -1 for unskippable delayed text in the introduction and epilogue. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You fondly remember playing The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask.

Score: 3

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