Tailypo

By Chandler Groover (Twine; IFDB; play here)

It’s winter, and he’s run out of food. He’s hungry, he’s cold, and if he doesn’t go hunting, he’ll freeze soon. But something wanders into his house. If he doesn’t eat it, he will starve.

[This game contains sound effects.]

Tailypo belongs solidly in the desperation-horror genre: the horror that comes from doing something loathsome, even though it is a choice between that and dying. Groover makes judicious use of timed effects in Twine and repetition, building tension as creak, creak did.

Like Taghairm, Tailypo derives its premise from a creature from Appalachian folklore. While it might be easily repurposed as a story for campfires, or otherwise sanitised, I think Groover’s take on this creature captures some of the desperation and terror – a terror from knowing that you are the only human in a mile’s radius, and that no matter what, you have to do something  – that probably inspired the original folk tale.

A short-ish Twine, published on Sub-Q, well worth playing.

The Northnorth Passage

by Caleb Wilson (writing as Snowball Ice) (Parser; IFDB)

The family curse has activated. If you do not go north, you will die.

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(Cover art: compass rose, with N in all four directions)

The Northnorth Passage plays around with restricted actions. Though the parser gives the impression of freedom, you can only really do one thing. Obeying the parser, though, brings you through a series of self-contained scenes, colourful and detailed; Wilson’s writing sparks with life, with the kind of evocativeness reminiscent of Sunless Sea.

Yet, in each scene, you must forever remain at arm’s length. In this sense, it is similar to dynamic fiction, the term coined to describe linear games which nevertheless require the player’s interaction and participation to reveal the story. The PC’s travel north also seems to reflect the passing of time (the movement over swathes of space and time reminded me of Victor Ojuel’s Pilgrimage).

There was a very, very clever move right at the end of the game – an invisible puzzle, if you’d like – which wrapped it up perfectly. If I were to mention a game with a similar move, it would be very spoilery, but there is one…

Chemistry and Physics

By Carolyn VanEseltine and Caelyn Sandel (writing as Colin Sandel) (Twine; IFDB)

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(Cover art: pixellated meteor across a black sky)

When you agreed to meet him, you thought it would all end amicably. That you could go away and close this chapter of your life. Instead, you’re now running from him. Bad news: no cell phone reception. You can’t call for help. You’re stuck. Good news: this is familiar territory. This is your lab. Can you get out of this alive?

[This game contains mentions of abuse and violence.]

The game is simply done and technically well-thought-out, with an inventory system and a navigation system using a compass, a la The Axolotl Project. Item descriptions of things in the lab reveal a close attention to accuracy and detail; you can pick up a beaker of isopropyl and trust that the information you get will be like something you might find on an MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheet).

The writing steers clear of florid detail or elaborate tricks with language, instead reminding the player of the urgency of the chase at every other turn (“He’s near”). Some might find it too technical or clinical; I found it struck a good balance.

Chemistry and Physics uses no fancy tricks, does nothing neat with multimedia, but instead relies on the strength of its writing to convey the animal fear of being chased.

SABBAT

By oh no problems/Eva. (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Cover art: ink/line drawing of a creature with four goat heads and the body of a snake)

(There is also a commercial/paid version of SABBAT with art and a soundtrack. This was based on the free version, linked above.)

[Warning: this game contains mentions of sexual content and self-harm, also optional animal abuse.]

It’s hard to have a sabbat of one, but hopefully, once you get all the materials together, you’ll be able to gather power for yourself.

SABBAT’s narrator is friendly and encouraging. It was kind of like having a friend to guide and cheer you on, and in a game about making blood sacrifices to gain power, it was unexpected, but oddly cheering. I cannot hate a game which calls me witchdumpling. The mildly cynical humour here is refreshing. Instead of making trite remarks about how awful everything is, the humours slants toward the self-referential. You’ve made candles infused with centipede venom, and you muse how hard it was to get that venom in the first place and why did you buy a centipede again?

This game is quite the genre-breaker. It taps on the ‘Living Alone in My Sad Apartment’ genre, but uses this to highlight the contrast between your current state and the power that you eventually attain.

SABBAT draws from, amongst other things, the idea of power through sex. Part of the PC’s transformation involves a change in sexual organs, and one of the ways the transformed PC gets power from people is by having sex (or at least attempting to).

The game could be a bit of a mixed bag. The subject matter involves mixing with unknown forces, a theme usually given a more serious treatment in other fiction, but here it feels almost everyday. Yet the game remains self-aware as the PC acknowledges the strangeness of it all.

The branching reminded me of Magical Makeover, where combinations of items combine to produce different outcomes. Like MM, there are no ‘bad’ combinations in SABBAT (though there are some which are more amusing than others).

I wouldn’t usually have plumped for the storyline, but the narrator really made the game for me. It can be polarising, but, for me, it was a charming game about the powerless seeking power and the lonely seeking companionship.

Open That Vein

By Chandler Groover. (Parser; IFDB)

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(Cover art: background image of vein; foreground: OPEN THAT VEIN/Chandler Groover)

This game was written for Ectocomp 2015.

It’s simple: you have to open that vein. But the vein is just the start of your troubles: you’re chasing… something.

[Warning: this game contains gore/body horror.]

Open That Vein worked impressively within its self-imposed constraints, since the PC could only interact with any noun in very limited ways. Even more impressive knowing that all this was coded in three hours.

The game is linear, with extensive use of cutscenes at important points, and this is what lets Groover’s descriptive, evocative writing shine. The details he gives home in on the visceral. He gives glimpses of images, gorgeous vignettes, though they didn’t immediately make sense to me. There’s a lot of mention about things ‘feeling right’, which I’m still trying to parse.

As with Midnight. Swordfight, this work also makes use of a limited verb list, but the game also supplies suggested verbs without prompting, so a player new to parser IF should not have a problem playing it. This design decision adds an example to the ongoing discussion of how to make parser IF more accessible to new players. Groover solves this by telling the player what to type, and by moulding the game environment around the constraints of the limited verb list. A limited simulation like this works well for short works, but one wonders if this couldn’t be extended to more open-format/sandboxy works – maybe with a gradually expanding verb list? Commands you can ‘discover’?

Patrick

by Michael Lutz (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Cover art: close-up of a person’s smile, with game title underneath)

Patrick is a short, mostly linear game about being mistaken for someone else. It’s not just about people calling you by the wrong name. It’s about strangers clapping you on the back and saying how glad they are to find someone from their frat; about waiters giving you ‘your usual’; about lovers whispering a familiar yet strange name in your ear.

While not as dark as my father’s long, long legs, Patrick once again showcases Lutz’s gift of making every day events subtly disturbing, bringing out the way in which a mistaken identity can be a violation of something intimate. Your alter ego seems to more a parasitic twin than a person. He is forever disrupting your life, even in your most private moments, and your life and his are pressed up against each other skin-close.

The events are uncanny, yet the narrator treats them as everyday (which, for him, probably is). In the end, it is the narrator’s tone which moves the story from surreal horror to the benignly surreal: it is matter of fact, self-aware, even joking.

Lutz does a great job of sketching vignettes of these scenes of mistaken identity, using a few details here and there to instil a sense of unease.

Play Nice

by Alice Thornburgh and Emily Breeze (Quest (?)/web-based CYOA; IFDB; play here)

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(Cover art: a green planet in space; game title in orange text in foreground)

You have the unenviable role of Ambassador to Emerpus, a highly intelligent race with complex social rules. If you can make it through the entire dinner, you should be fine. If not, then you better wave goodbye to your job and, possibly, entire career.

Play Nice is, simply put, a test of whether you know how to play by the rules, a la Tea Ceremony. The rules are given, and though they look complex, I found that not all came into play in the game itself – a bit of an unfired Chekhov’s gun. The NPC’s responses to various social faux pas also did not quite resonate with what had been laid out in the rules.

The game presents three choices at each turn to test your memory of the in-game rules, and at each decision-making node, there is only one correct answer; selecting the wrong answer leads to instadeath. Replaying it, therefore, is like re-taking a school quiz where you already know the answers. While such linearity was not unexpected for this game, I still would have appreciated some subtlety, where you could build up or break down relations between you and any of the NPCs separately.

Still, the writing is conversational and light-hearted; the observations of the aliens feel like that which a child would make. The game would have benefited from taking itself a bit less seriously, though.

Play Nice is a bit of a mixed bag, unfortunately. On the one hand, it does have a less than serious space-age feel to it; on the other, the story structure is punishingly linear, where it could have done with a sense of playfulness.

Interesting things

Instead of reviews, here are some small things I found of interest these past few weeks!

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Mansion Maniac allows you to explore public domain maps of New York apartment houses (map source here). The funky thing is that when you exit a room, it randomly generates another room. The algorithm isn’t foolproof yet – it’s possible to get stuck in a room because exits overlap with another room’s walls – but it’s awfully cute.


 

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/r/playzorkwithme is a subreddit for playing real-time IF events – a bit like an RPG, a bit like a MUD. The idea looks interesting, though I’ve not tried it out. (I also recently discovered the less active /r/textventures, which runs on the same idea.)


 

Joey Jones created a Twitter bot called Unlikely Powers – basically superheroes with disadvantages.


 

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Nicky Case has created a sim-building tool. It’s astonishingly simple and incorporates some not-so-simple ideas. It’s also fun to play with!


 

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Speaking of simulations and world models, Oskar Stalberg has created an adorable 3D tile editor, where you can plant your own terrain and build your own cities. (He also has other 3D tile editor tools such as Brick Block) It’s great fun, even if it made my computer go mad.

 

Old Fogey

by Simon Deimel (Parser, IFDB)

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(Cover art: map of Salmon River and environs in Idaho)

The strange painting on the wall has always bothered you. It’s your ancestor, apparently, and no matter how much you complain, your parents won’t take the painting down. So it’s up to you.

The first thing that struck me was the writing- it was a little jerky and repetitive, and it felt like the writing of someone for whom English isn’t their first language. Case in point:

There is a chair placed next to a table. You can see a book on the table. The cover of the book shows a horse.

In the ‘about’ text, the author had a vision of this being a window onto the bigger, fictional world of Talliston, Idaho. Perhaps because of the setting of the story (where the PC literally cannot move out of the starting room), this did not come across very strongly, since I never got a feel of what the wider community beyond the PC’s family was like.

As a side note, this game used two sound effects – I’m not quite sure what they represent, though, because there wasn’t a clear indication what types of actions produced the different sound effects.

The puzzle is classified as being ‘Tough’ on the forgiveness scale, but this is really because the single puzzle is on quite a tight timer. The game makes it additionally frustrating if you try the most straightforward action because there’s some kind built-in delay to stop you succeeding on the first try. On subsequent replays I realised there was probably an in-universe explanation for your reluctance, but this was not clearly indicated in the text.

I found it hard to enjoy playing this game, really, because the writing was too minimal to make up for the bare-bones implementation and the timed puzzle.

itch

by Liz England (Twine; IFDB; play here)

England’s previous work (Mainframe, Her Pound of Flesh) has featured aesthetically slick Twine works about body horror, and itch certainly ticks those boxes. This game w2as written for Twiny Jam, one of a few very compact interactive horror game.

You have an itch. The story presents you with two choices: to scratch it, or ignore it. Vaguely reminiscent (to me, at least) of B Minus Seven’s Voice Box, the choices boil down to being either active or passive.

Body horror commonly involves self-harm, whether by your own volition or not. itch calls into question what makes something horrifying. Is it lack of autonomy, and knowing that something bad will come for you? Or is it being forced to do something horrific?

As body horror goes, most of it is implied, but do exercise discretion. itch is a short, slightly icky horror flash-IF, with an unexpected ending.