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 affectionate 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.

Dungeon Detective 2: Devils and Details, by Wonaglot

One of my favorite games from last year’s competition was Dungeon Detective, the story of a gnoll solving a mystery in a fantasy setting. This game is a direct sequel to it that fixes the few problems in the original and enlarges its scope.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, with the player moving the gnoll around a city, collecting evidence, and interrogating suspects. The process is smooth; the conversations are interesting (which is absolutely necessary in a mystery game) and funny; and there are a few puzzles in addition to the larger mystery that are fun diversions. The biggest change from the original, though, is just that there’s more to do: more locations, more suspects, more items, more puzzles, and so on. Most importantly, the mystery in the sequel is a satsifying puzzle that unfolds organically over the course of the game. 9/10.

Mechanics: There are more puzzle elements in this game than the previous one, and there’s more to do in general. This game introduces an economy (with a couple different methods of generating money), a day/night system, and a few other straightforward mechanics. The one issue I had was with the minigame of clicking on items as they scroll past (e.g., juggling). Maybe it was the particular browser I was using, but I had some trouble getting it to work as expected; when I did, it wasn’t challenging or deep enough to add much to the game. Aside from that, though, everything was solid. 8/10.

Presentation: As with the original, the game is a pleasure to play. The conversations are engaging and funny; characters are well-defined and interesting to interact with; and the protagonist is simply fun. The artist from the previous game has created another great cover artwork, and there’s charming pixel art of the protagonist in the status menu and game-over screens. 9/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoyed the previous installment (which I’d also strongly recommend).

Score: 9

Lucerne, by Dimitri Kaviani

“Lucerne” is a dark fairy tale that’s an excellent short story but has no interactivity.

Gameplay: The game is choice-based, but it has literally no choices. There are a few links to click on to advance the narrative, but they’re single links at the ends of long pages of text. There aren’t even multiple links that have the same effect or ones that immediately end the story. As such, there isn’t any gameplay. It’s a great narrative that I genuinely enjoyed reading, but that’s all there is to it: It’s an excellent short story that the player simply passively reads. 1/10.

Mechanics: There are no mechanics. 1/10.

Presentation: The narrative is strong. It has a consistently creepy tone to it, and it succeeds in capturing the tone of a well-crafted but dark fairy tale or bedtime story for children. 5/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like reading fairy tales.

Score: 2

The Call of the Shaman, by Larry Horsfield

Although it’s the sixth in a series that goes back to 1990, this game is the first of the prolific author’s that I’ve played. It’s a solid work that has an original setting and gameplay that feels like an actual adventure, rather than slogging through a series of unrelated puzzles.

Gameplay: Playing the game does feel like being on an adventure, including wandering around the setting and securing supplies. The Adrift interface is a bit clunky (no small part of which is simply my unfamiliarity with it), but otherwise the gameplay is smooth. The main difficulty I had with it is that even with the walkthrough, it’s often difficult to figure out what I should be doing or how to advance the plot. 5/10.

Mechanics: Maybe it was my unfamiliarity with the series, but I found it difficult to know what to do next. There are several guess-the-verb situations (e.g., early in the game, the player must follow the thief by explicitly typing FOLLOW THIEF; trying to do so by choosing an explicit direction fails), and it was unclear in some situations exactly how to proceed despite knowing what to do (e.g., the exact commands needed to interact with the thief’s shelter). The puzzles weren’t so much about manipulating set-piece constructions with inventory items, but rather just about figuring out what to do next. It’s a nice change, and it fits the open adventure style of the game. 5/10.

Presentation: The setting of the game is a historical-fantasy version of North America, in which the protagonist both encounters a pastor with a Dutch accent and wears a ring given to him “by the dwarf Grom on the battlements of Domreil Castle.” It’s a novel and interesting one, but I found it a bit confusing, not having played any of the previous games in the series. I encountered a few typos (e.g., “I don’t understand what you want to do with The [sic] trader.”), and the capitalization of directions in room descriptions is odd, but neither issue significantly detracts from the work. 6/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’ve played any of the author’s many other games.

Score: 5

The Shadow Witch, by Healy

While most interactive fiction games are either parser- or choice-based, “The Shadow Witch” is set up as a console role-playing game using the RPG Maker 2000 engine. The game never takes much advantage of that format, though, and it plays like a standard light puzzle game that simply has an unusual interface.

Gameplay: The goal of the eponymous witch is to commit a few acts of petty evil at the expense of her neighbors. There are only a few rooms in the game, and the acts to perform are straightforwardly about finding an item somewhere and then using it on another item or NPC. It’s a short game, and it ends abruptly without giving the player much sense of accomplishment or resolution to the narrative. 3/10.

Mechanics: Despite the engine, the RPG elements are present but unused. The usual RPG Maker menus are still in the game, and the protagonist even has custom abilities and equipment, but they’re unused in the game; there are no battles (at least, I successfully finished the game without any) or other RPG interactions. 3/10.

Presentation: The game has custom graphical assets, and it does play like the opening scene in a longer RPG. The characters have distinct speech patterns, but the text itself isn’t very interesting, and the idea of a character pulling malicious pranks on saccharine NPCs wears out its welcome quickly in an already short game. When it does end, the resolution is abrupt and doesn’t fit the tone of the rest of the game. 4/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You like old-school console RPGs.

Score: 3

The Surprise, by Candy Meldromon

“The Surprise” is a choice-based game in which its protagonist takes a pregnancy test and reacts to the results.

Since this is the first game in the competition featuring it, I’ll specifically note here that delayed text in interaction fiction games is awful. It doesn’t create dramatic tension; it kills it, and it just bores the player. I’m a fast reader, and I find myself pulling up other websites or distractions when the author decides to force me to stare at a block of text I’ve already read before deigning to allow me to continue their game. Delayed text accomplishes nothing besides frustrating me and wasting my time. This year, I’m taking off a point from the Presentation category for any entry that uses it.

Gameplay: The game is starkly simple: You take a pregnancy test, make a call to your ambivalent husband with the results, clean up, and leave the bathroom. The blurb mentions that the game is autobiographical, and I wish the author the best, but it’s just not an interesting story without any characterization or context. 2/10.

Mechanics: Although it’s clear at every stage of the game what needs to be done, it’s often unclear how to do so. The actions required— taking a pregnancy test, washing up, etc.— are obvious to both the human player and the protagonist, but it’s unnecessarily awkward to find the right series of links that will allow her to execute them. There’s not much to do in the game, and it’s unclear what advantage its limited interactivity gives it over, say, an ordinary short story. 2/10.

Presentation: The text is terse and utilitarian. The only description of the main character, for example, is that she’s a “35-year-old woman with long pink hair and glasses.” That’s an odd combination of very specific but unilluminating details, and there’s little characterization of her or her husband during their brief conversation. The game also features significant sections of delayed text, which I’ve already complained about above. 2/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You had a similar experience to the author’s.

Score: 2

Limerick Heist, by Pace Smith

There once was a game about limericks
That was told entirely in limericks.
It’s also about a heist
To steal something highly priced;
I’m not good at writing limericks.

Gameplay: “Limerick Heist” is exactly what the title proclaims it to be: a choice-based game about a heist, conducted entirely through limericks. It goes through the standard heist movie beats: gathering the team together, launching the heist itself, dealing with the inevitable unanticipated complication, and dividing the spoils. The main attractions of the game, though, are the limericks themselves. They’re consistently fun and clever throughout, and the game is short enough that the very repetitive meter and rhyme scheme of limericks don’t grate on the reader. 6/10.

Mechanics: There’s not much interactivity in the game. In old-school choose-your-own-adventure format, most of the branches are immediate dead-ends that come without warning, and part of the appeal of the game is to find all of them. I was hoping that the mechanic for finding the correct path would relate to continuing the meter or rhyme scheme of the limericks, but— with one humorous exception— that doesn’t seem to be the case. There aren’t many decision points, though there are some that significantly affect the plot (e.g., the numeric code puzzle). The overall experience is certainly enjoyable, but it feels more like reading a well-crafted children’s book than playing a game. 5/10.

Presentation: Both the idea and its executation are clever and charming. There are truly funny points in the text, including the footnotes (my favorite being the one about the difference between positive and nonnegative) and many of the bad endings are truly funny (my favorite being the one involving ‘chutzpah’). There’s even a convenient post-credits list of them with hints on how to find them. It’s a polished, well-designed game. 7/10.

Tilt: I love heist movies. +1.

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

Score: 6

Eldritch Everyday: The Third Eye, by Norbez

In “Eldritch Everyday: The Third Eye,” the narrator is revived after a fatal car accident by a demonic entity with its own agenda. While the premise is promising, a series of bugs in the game prevented me from continuing past its early sections.

Gameplay: The game starts after the entity revives and possesses the narrator, who then struggles to return to work and continue his normal routine. Beyond that, I don’t know how the plot unfolds. In my playthrough, I ran into a series of markup errors and then fatal errors during the puzzle section of the second chapter. I don’t think I was trying anything unusual, and given the limited space of actions in a choice-based game, playtesting should have caught these bugs. 2/10.

Mechanics: The game (or, at least, the early chapters of it I played through) consists of alternating sections of linear narrative and choice-based puzzle solving. The former had very few branching points, and there wasn’t much interactivity in it. The inventory- and set-piece-based puzzles in the latter are awkward in the game’s choice-based format, but the oneiric setting and logic in them are interesting. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to explore very far into them because of the game’s technical problems. 2/10.

Presentation: As the title imples, the game involves an odd juxtaposition of mundanity and paranormal horror. The plot involves the narrator’s trying to conceal those horror elements from the people around him, though, and so its theme seems natural in that context. There are suggestions that the narrator is transgender, and I interpreted his relationship with the entity and his post-accident transformation as a metaphor for it. That’s an interesting idea for a game, but I wasn’t able to play far enough into it to determine whether that’s a reasonable inference. The colors for the game and changes in fonts for the different characters are a bit awkward. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You enjoy the paranormal horror genre.

Score: 2

A Blue Like No Other, by Dan Cox

“A Blue Like No Other” shows a frustrated writer’s creativity trying to break through as she deals with the mundane text of writing an online grammar primer.

Gameplay: The game is presented as an online course in English grammar. The player progresses by clicking on certain words in the sample text in each chapter. Those texts begin as simple filler, but the guide’s author builds an elaborate fantasy story in subsequent chapters. Those words to find mostly relate to the chapter’s lesson in some way (e.g., they’re prepositions in the chapter on prepositions), but that conceit is dropped by the last chapter, where the sample text is unnecessarily long, and the words to find are arbitrary. The game also contains a series of email conversations expressing scorn from the primer’s editor about the writer’s inability to produce simple text.

It could be a strong setup, but there’s little for the player to do. The text isn’t interesting to read; finding the given words in the text is simultaneously tedious and trivial; and there’s no deeper story or characterization of the writer or editors to explore. 4/10.

Mechanics: There’s little interactivity in the game, and two of the chapters are repeated. (Maybe that’s supposed to indicate how little investment the sample text writer had in her work, but it’s still annoying to the player.) The idea behind it isn’t bad, but actually playing the game doesn’t add much to its premise. 3/10.

Presentation: Neither the desultory sample text nor the in-game writer’s more verbose stories are particularly compelling to read. There are some misspellings in the text (“unlikily”, “seclection”) that I don’t think can be attributed to the in-game writer’s inattentiveness. Clicking on certain words in a single body of text is not interesting for the player; answering reading comprehension questions from more frequent but shorter texts (with the setup, for example, of having the sample text’s author aggressively soliciting feedback on her work), or even just going through grammar exercises that require a bit of thought, would make the experience more satisfying. 3/10.

You might be interested in this game if: You’re a frustrated writer.

Score: 3