Tea Ceremony

by Naomi Hinchen (Z-machine; download from IFDB page)

You are a junior diplomat, though not a very good one; you probably shouldn’t have gone to that party last night, amongst other things. And now you have an angry Glorpian in front of you. And Glorpians are sticklers for etiquette.

Tea Ceremony is a simple game, in prose and in mechanics. The writing is perhaps sparser than it could be, though it serves its purpose. This game, however, has puzzles at its heart, rather than story. Whether this harms or helps the story is another creature altogether. Logic puzzles abound, which will probably be familiar to even newbies. Mechanically, Tea Ceremony is well-done; the parser handles commands for the puzzles intuitively and everything the player needs to know to solve the puzzles and win the game is clearly stated in-game.

The game’s very simple prose gives the feeling of being unsubstantial, but there are, in fact, some gems, as suggested at the end of the game, to discover. Strong, technically, imbued with a sense of playfulness, even if it doesn’t give the impression of being highly polished.

Square Circle

by Eric Eve (TADS; IFDB page)

You are a prisoner for a crime you don’t remember committing, and your only chance of escape is to draw a square circle.

Kafkaesque is a word many have used to describe this game, and indeed a sense of claustrophobia pervades the entire escape attempt. The writing is solid and sometimes witty; most visible objects were implemented. It was, however, marred for me with imperfect line breaks and the occasional “infodump”.

Balance between story and puzzles was probably a tough call here. There is plenty of both, which provides for a rich playing experience, but the delivery of major plot points was often delivered as an uninterrupted chunk of text. Reading the ‘infodump’ like that broke the flow of the story and, for me, lessened the impact of the most major twists.

The puzzles were well-hinted with contextual hints, and there are multiple solutions to some of the puzzles. Despite this, the puzzles are not easy. For me, solutions weren’t immediately obvious and I often referred to the hints. I found it hard to find that moment of enlightenment when solving the puzzles, partly because there wasn’t enough material with which I could experiment. Also, it seems to be possible to put the game into an unwinnable state, probably meriting its Nasty rating on the Forgiveness scale.

Conversation in Square Circle also merits some mention, with most topics of conversation given an appropriate response. As with Blighted Isle, Eve also includes some natural-sounding responses to topics for which the NPCs do not have an answer – a thoughtful, and also playful, gesture.

Square Circle is technically strong, with a well-thought-out story and interesting puzzles. There is a good twist towards the end, and perhaps could adopt a more strongly consistent tone, but well worth playing.

The Sacred Staff of Deck Koji

by David Guyadeen and Alex Barrick (IFDBplay online)

[Time to completion: 5 minutes]

Styled as a spoof fantasy adventure, complete with wise old sage, you play a hero venturing in search of the titular Sacred Staff of Deck Koji. True to the spirit of the thing, the obstacles you face are silly. The writing is competent and the game isn’t buggy, but it was a rather unmemorable game – it felt more like a test game – but the ‘Making Of’ section included in the game is worth reading.

I just have one quibble, though given the size of this game, it may be a trivial one – many decision points have choices which result in dead ends. There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason why this should be, which made it, in the authors’ words, ‘mildly irritating’.

So, is it fun? Er. Hardly. I had more fun reading the ‘Making Of’ than playing the game, so… your mileage may vary, I guess.

Corvidia

by J A DeNiro (writing as Alan DeNiro) (Twine; IFDBplay here)
Playing time: ~1 minute

The pine tree in front of my house collects gray-blue jays.

Corvidia is a short, branching Twine game-poem. The prose is sparse; the content, abstract. There are references to a daughter and a missing mother, but I found it hard to grasp what the underlying story was about. Despite its brevity, there is, in fact, branching. Choosing different words in the passages yields different passages, and playing it feels like exploring a strange environment blindfolded.

It uses some visual effects, though to no special effect: it’s just fancy for the look of it. Nonetheless, it’s an intriguing work, atmospheric and quiet, and as it lasts about a minute from start to finish, it’s worth clicking through just to have a look.

Dead Cities

As you can tell, I’m working through a very old and very big backlog of ‘Games I said I Would Play But Never Did’. This one is by Jon Ingold (Parser; IFDB).

The Arkwright mansion is before you, a solicitor who has been tasked to retrieve a handful of valuable books to rescue the elder Arkwright from financial ruin. When you enter, though, it’s clear something’s not right with Arkwright…

It’s all very Lovecraft, inspired as it is by Lovecraft’s Commonplace Book #67:

An impression—city in peril—dead city—equestrian statue—men in closed room—clattering of hooves heard from outside—marvel disclosed on looking out—doubtful ending. (Source)

Cosmic terrors, eldritch books, powerful magical artefacts: this game has it all. The writing is first-rate. It’s atmospheric, using tiny details in the surroundings to inspire unease and dread. There is plenty of flexibility in the commands that can be entered – a thoughtful move on Ingold’s part – as well as in the story. Although the interface suggests an appropriate command in the beginning half of the story, it’s possible to do something which would make sense in real life but does not progress the story.

The interface is also interesting, featuring multiple panels: one for inventory, one for suggested commands and one for story art. It’s an interesting feature which makes the game that much more player-friendly, especially for those new to IF.

Dead Cities may be short (about 20-30 minutes from start to finish), but it’s a treasure trove of interesting writing.

Tiny roguelikes and roguelites

Not IF per se. Roguelikes which take a few minutes or less to play. Click on the links to play/find download links.

Delia Mute in Grave Grotto (flash, browser)

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Tiny randomised dungeoncrawler with randomised quest. Main gimmick: you can only use items in the inventory (that’s the four panels in the lower left) in the direction where you got the item. That is, if you picked up a potion by moving to the left, you can only throw it to the left. Not easy.

Tinyhack (flash, browser)

by Rob Beschizza.

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Not strictly a roguelike since it’s not randomised, but it’s a dungeon-crawler in 8×8 grid. 

Death of a Lich (Win/Mac)

by Daniel Linssen (managore)

Kill enemies by dropping on them. Progress through the levels until you destroy the phylactery! Aesthetically beautiful, with 8-bit-style graphics and lots of colour.

Trappy Mine (Unity, Win/Mac/Linux)

by rogueNoodle

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Dig for treasures and avoid spikes and bombs! Games can and do end very quickly, but each mine is randomised. Many ways to die, and customisable key bindings, which is nice.

Dungeon of Trials (Win/Mac/Linux)

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Again, no walk in the park. Proceed through randomly generated ‘puzzles’ in each room! There’s enough variety in the puzzles that even though you quickly figure out a way to solve each one, it’s not easy to win at all.

Starborn

By Juhana Leinonen (IFDB; play online)

Note: this review is for the Undum/Vorple version. It does not appear to work on Google Chrome (44.0.2403) or Safari (8.0.8).

You were born on the Magellan, kilometres and kilometres away from Earth. You were born and raised in space, and the ship Magellan has been the only home you’ve ever known.

You want to get home.

Starborn is a melancholic exploration game. Originally a Z-machine game, it has since been adapted for Undum/Vorple, which is a natural fit for this format. The writing is clean, though unremarkable; the most memorable feature about this game would probably be the close attention paid to the playing experience. Keywords are both hyperlinked and given a special column. Navigation can be done either through the hyperlinked keywords or through the panel on the left.

In terms of story, the author gives hints as to what’s going on, but the writing has some emotional depth: a sense of alienation (ahem) and loneliness pervades the descriptions of Earth, and of yourself. A brief but lovely piece.

Everyday Misanthrope

by Liz England. (itch.io page)

Go forth and make people miserable! Armed with ‘misery tokens’, make choices and ruin people’s lives! 

Sarcastic and witty, Misanthrope twists the initial encouragement for your life-ruining into a subtle guilt-trip. In the beginning/middle, the game gives sometimes cruel options – options that people in real life clearly opt for, but at that level of casual cruelty. At first, it’s weirdly satisfying to wreak havoc, but towards the end, the author turns this around by humanising all the people whose lives you have ‘ruined’. Despite the title, Misanthrope is, in truth, surprisingly compassionate. 

A fairly short game – about 10-15 minutes if you read as fast as I do, with plenty of branching and some replay value.