Honeysuckle

By Cat Manning. (Texture; IFDB)

[Mentions abusive relationships.]

Being the wife of an august wizard brings its own dangers. Something is off in the house, and in your husband’s absence, you must investigate.

The PC is wife to the wizard who is now her husband. They were, if not colleagues, then teacher and student, yet he dismisses her own “unruly” research, allowing her to continue only because “it seems to please her”. This echoes sexist assumptions of skill common to numerous other fields – from game development to medicine – which often casts women as the amateurs, forever the apprentice to their male counterparts. And, most notably, she plays into this as well, describing herself as an amateur.

The use of the verb ‘consider’ turns an invasion of privacy into something more like observing, but it quickly becomes clear that the PC’s husband is not who he says he is, that the PC is not safe, that prying is the only way to survival. Unusually for Texture games, Honeysuckle is strongly location-based.

What I most enjoyed – if one may call it ‘enjoyed’ – was the subversion of the traditional player as the chosen one, the powerful one, the one with the gifts. In Honeysuckle, the PC is, initially, utterly disempowered. She is the apprentice, the junior one, the amateur. She is the humble one – the humbled one – who does not speak up because she knows few will listen.

Honeysuckle stands up as a modern retelling of Blackbeard: a predatory husband; the PC just one in a line of victims. The difference, of course, being the outcome. In the same way, this game has similar themes to Sara Dee’s Tough Beans. Both have female PCs who are babied by their male partners, and both find their salvation in his destruction. But where Tough Beans is unambiguous in its outcome, Honeysuckle is a little more ominous: each of its ending branches is wracked with uncertainty.

Honeysuckle is a game about alchemy and escaping domestic peril, and it is straightforward in that front. Several aspects of the story, however, are far from fantasy for a significant part of the population. Although its ending is ambiguous, Honeysuckle envisions the possibility – with both means and opportunity intact – of escape.

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Eat Me

By Chandler Groover. (parser; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 30-40 mins]

Chandler Groover’s work often mixes the decadent with the grotesque, the macabre with the picturesque. Think rotting roses; mouldering filigree.

Here, bound in a prison made of food, your only way out is by eating.

Who knew that eating could be so visceral? This is not just simple eating, it is consumption for consumption’s sake, for pleasure, for satiation. This is not going to be a game for everyone: the descriptions are so detailed as to be cloying, and there is heavy use of cutscenes to denote scene transitions.

This game is generous in allowing the player to backtrack and figure out what to do. As the name suggests, the range of actions available for the player are limited to eating, with the occasional exception clearly signalled – similar, then, to Arthur DiBianca’s games, such as Grandma Bethlinda’s Variety Box and Inside the Facility.

Eat Me resembles Groover’s Bring Me A Head, both in setting and in grotesquerie: both set in crumbling castles, each compartment holding just one singular occupant, doomed, it seems, to pursue their one occupation for the rest of time. Eat Me is not for the faint-hearted, definitely, but well worth playing, perhaps alongside other games with a similar setting.

For a lighter version of an eating-oriented game, try Jenni Polodna’s Dinner Bell; for more of the same, Bring Me a Head and Open That Vein by the same author.

Map

By Ade McT. (parser; IFDB)

[Time to completion: >1 hour]

[Content warnings for mentions of abortion, implied child death]

In Map, you play a fed-up housewife in a subtly mutating house. Space, here, is used to reveal memories. As the reader learns more about the PC, the more the house expands to accommodate that, and each new room offers a chance at atonement. Just as space moves non-linearly, time creeps strangely. If you know Pratchett’s metaphor of the Trousers of Time, or think of decision-making as creating forks in a timeline – it’s very much like that. Just as the PC can enter new rooms in the house,

The themes in this game reminded me of Sara Dee’s Tough Beans, or, a more recent example, Cat Manning’s Honeysuckle. All of these feature female protagonists who have been dutiful and responsible doing what was expected of them until they were all but forgotten, until some catalytic event drives them to change.

In Map, the protagonist is much less involved, on the micro level. The rooms you discover let the player relive key decision-making moments in the PC’s life, but once you enter a moment, you can simply wait for it to get to the only choice you have: a binary yes/no choice. Without this, though, the game might have swollen to an unmanageable size, so the limited agency is more strategy than anything else, and on a conceptual level, this does work – how many times have you wondered what would have happened if you’d made a different decision?

The scope of this game is narrow and deep, delving into the emotions underpinning life-changing moments and distilling these moments into a fork in a very personal timeline. Some bits went way over my head (the rubber plant, for instance), but overall it was an ambitious, thoughtful piece.

IFComp 2017: Redstone

By Fred (Choice-based; IFDB; play here)

“A VIP’s been murdered at the reservation casino. As the deputy on call, it’s up to you to find the killer. You have until morning before the FBI turns up the heat.”

This murder mystery takes the form of a parser-choice hybrid, with an interface reminiscent of Robin Johnson’s Detectiveland. Settings are individually illustrated, and the system is more or less robust, with a separate conversation mode. It may not look the slickest of interfaces – it recalls, vaguely, flash web games; the illustrations are…

The stakes are not always made clear: there are hints about this being troublesome because it’s on reservation land, and about FBI involvement, but these hints never added any tension to gameplay.

I would have liked a little more flair, a little more panache in the descriptions, but overall this is a mystery which does what’s expected of it.

IFComp 2017: The Very Old Witch and the Turnip Girl

By Megan Stevens (Choice-based, IFDB, play here)

You play a very old witch who’s not quite at the end of her life… and she feels like something is missing.

Witchcraft, here, runs along the lines of Pratchett’s practical, world-wise witches. Our witch is fully equipped with hexes and curses, but also browses mail catalogues for entertainment. Her attempts at plugging the gap in her life are quite old-style witch, though, including seeking out motherhood. Women finding their fulfilment in motherhood is not a new story. This game subverts it – though I would have been delighted if this had been lampshaded with a bit more of the spunk that the witch PC herself shows.

The Very Old Witch eschews anything more than a veneer of branching narrative, making this mostly a work of dynamic fiction. Nonetheless, it’s not too tedious to click through this linear story – and indeed I think I would have enjoyed this as a short story. There are areas where I would have appreciated a more biting wit – the titular characters don’t quite take things lying down, yet this isn’t always conveyed so well in their dialogue. Overall, The Very Old Witch reads with the simplicity of a children’s story, with some uniquely urban/modern twists.

The World Turned Upside Down

By Bruno Dias. (Parser; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 10-15 mins]

A New Year’s Eve offering from Bruno Dias, set in the same world as Cape and Mere Anarchy.

When I played this for the first time, I had barely played the games referenced here, so why did it appeal so much to me? It’s something about being a refuge from chaos, a safe place where those who put things right can rest – for now. The characters are weary, but at peace.

Its size and scope are kept deliberately small: the verb set is pared down to three verbs; the setting, to one room. But that one room suggests an entire world – one the player gets to know through its people rather than its locations. For a New Year’s Eve story, The World Turned Upside Down doesn’t point so much to hope for the year ahead, as it does to the fixing of past wrongs.

Disclaimer: I identify, to a frightening extent, with one of the characters.

Wedding Day

By E. Joyce. (Parser; IFDB)

An Ectocomp game with the name of what is usually a joyous occasion gets the ominous mood started early. In this short game, you are preparing for your wedding day, and everything about the preamble suggests reluctance, hesitance; it is immediately clear that this is no consensual union. The wedding is a matter of practicality, as many are, and this affair was the best you were going to get.

The author’s light touch with world-building is not unlike watching a theatre backdrop: sketched out with just enough details for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps. Of course, this treads the line between minimalism and under-implementation, and one might argue for the description of this or that.

Like The Unstoppable Vengeance of Doctor Bonesaw (to compare ECTOCOMP to ECTOCOMP), Wedding Day seems at first to have a single path laid out, waiting for you to walk it. But the parser effectively masks the second ending hinted at in the ABOUT text, which gave it satisfying depth for a game with a carefully limited scope.

All Your Time-Tossed Selves

By Porpentine. (CYOA; IFDB; play here)

[Time to completion: 5-10 minutes]

This game uses Google Forms, and why not? It sets up your own website for you, it allows you to make choices in various ways, it even can display text conditionally. It’s a blunt tool, obviously not suited for the task, but it… kinda works?

It is primarily dialogue-focused, taking on the feeling of an interrogation, an interrogation one who has brought on some unnamed catastrophe on the city. There is gentle, devastating rhythm.

Your Time-Tossed Selves explores the various ways there are to make choices, with a little surprise at the end.

IFComp 2017: The Richard Mines

By Evan Wright [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

viewgame.png
Cover art: monochrome picture of a mine entrance; in the bottom right corner, “Eintritt Verboten!” in gothic letters

The blurb tells us that this is ostensibly about one or more abandoned German mines in Czechoslovakia, circa 1949. If I had been playing without that knowledge, I would never have known that.

Despite it being about discovery and exploration, the narration is devoid of excitement. The PC betrays no emotion or indeed reaction to anything. Because of that, it was hard for me to find in-game motivation to keep exploring. Most of the context comes from the blurb, in fact.

While this game could do with a little proofreading and beta-testing for functionality expected of most parser games (the game doesn’t end properly, for instance), this game was not submitted without thought: relatively straightforward puzzles whose presentations suggest their solutions, and an object-based hint system. A decent entry, though using the exploration to frame a story would have given it more depth.

IFComp 2017: Haunted P

By Chad Rocketman. [Parser; IFDB link here; IFComp link here]

First impressions: this game has serious shades of Toiletworld, the infamous troll game from last year’s IFComp. The author’s name is similar; the… tone is likewise jocular; most tellingly, the game is underimplemented, with many of the pitfalls of the modern parser. And, of course, “Chad Rocketman” is not too far from “Chet Rocketfrak”.

While not as thematically… consistent as Toiletworld, Haunted P is not as actively hostile toward the player as Toiletworld was. There is actually some measure of progress. I’m not sure it’s actually possible to get to an ending, but perhaps that’s part of the attraction.

Assuming, again, that the author of Toiletworld was responsible for this work, Haunted P is perhaps not as much of a talking piece as Toiletworld, because it’s almost… too normal.