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.

creak, creak

By Chandler Groover (Twine; IFDB; play here)

In recent months Chandler Groover has produced quite a number of unusual works, with quite a few edging into horror territory. creak, creak is a Twine work written for Twiny Jam which bears some similarities to Tailypo, another of Groover’s works.

Something is creaking in the house. Your mother always said it’s just the wind. You can’t leave it at that. You have to look.

Groover uses timed appearance of text and various transitions to pace out the story, to great effect here. I found myself with a creeping sense of dread as I waited for the text to appear. The writing style is simple and some of the rhyming lines give the sense of a child’s nursery rhyme – making the monster a creature of a child’s nightmares, a la The Badabook.

This game may be a baby sibling of more full-fledged horror games, but creak, creak packs quite a punch and works well for such a constrained format.

Mainframe

By Liz England and Jurie Horneman (Twine; IFDB; play here)

You wake up in an unfamiliar spaceship. Something is wrong with the ship’s mainframe and it needs help.

Developed for ProcJam 2015, this game features procedurally generated locations and objects, the writing of which nonetheless felt natural. Indeed, the writing is one of the high points of Mainframe. It went in a similar direction to Her Pound of Flesh, in that what was inanimate takes on life and flesh, and your treatment of it must change accordingly.

This game contains squicky body horror and gore.

(Side note: there was a discussion earlier on the IF Euphoria chat on to what extent procedurally generated writing is the work of the author, and that was interesting, because the author does need to put a lot of work into the writing to make it sound good, even if the end result is assembled by a computer.)

Mainframe progresses through a series of repeated scenes which often have wildly differing endings. Because of the structure of the game, it’s hard to avoid lawnmowering, but at least the locations are bizarre enough to make this varied.

Mainframe has a solid story at its backbone and excellent writing; it’s certainly a good look at the kinds of things procedural generation can produce.

Her Pound of Flesh

By Liz England (Twine; IFDB; play here)

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(Screenshot of game)

Here’s a game set in another cyberpunkish, dystopian world, where biotechnology is so advanced that all you need to clone an organism – and indeed a human being – is a bit of their tissue and a special reagent. This is what you’ve resorted to, in an attempt to bring back your fiancée.

But nothing’s ever as easy as that, and you may not always get what you expected…

Her Pound of Flesh had a theme familiar to that in many of this year’s IFComp games, with the theme of sacrificing something to get your heart’s desire, yet ending up with less than you started with. Because the author establishes the PC’s motivations and dreams so well, the PC’s helplessness in the face of events taking a rather squicky turn evokes sympathy: it’s clear that thoughts about her are consuming the PC’s life, even to the point of appearing in the PC’s dreams.

No matter how far you run, you can’t seem to escape her.

Maybe you don’t want to.

“Today will be different,” you tell yourself.

The game progresses in ‘days’, with each day comprising about three to four choices. In dealing with her, there’s often the choice to treat her as the human you remember her to be, or as something… less. Each day reveals new and terrifying things about what she has become.

In some ways, Her Pound of Flesh wonders what the limit of humanity is. Is it worth it, to have the physical form but nothing else? But more than that, this game is a story about longing. Despite there being less and less of her humanity day by day, the PC keeps turning back to what reminds him of her: things like her scent and her hair.

Overall, it may involve quite a lot of body horror and gore, but ultimately this game is heartfelt… and tugs at the heartstrings. Read that how you will.

Her Pound of Flesh was made for Asylum Jam, which challenged game devs to create horror games unrelated to mental illness or mental asylums.

 

Voice Box

by B Minus Seven (Twine; IFDB; download to play from here)

In this Ectocomp 2015 entry, the unnamed protagonist is robbed of her voice, and at each turn she has two options: to weep, or to seek.

The two options suggest a world of contrast: weep, and be resigned to your fate; seek, and be active in reclaiming your voice (or finding a new one).

B Minus Seven writes abstractly, hinting here and there at wisps of setting, but nothing really substantial ever features. The focus, rather, is on her actions. There could have been more, but  because of the abstract writing, it’s like looking at something from the corner of your eye. Where is the metaphor? What is it illustrating? It’s never really clear.

The game is over in three moves, and I found it too short to get to the meat of the story. The protagonist remains inscrutable, a blank shell: it’s hard to feel for a protagonist if you don’t know much about her. Nonetheless, BMS uses an interesting way of telling story, and it’s one game worth checking out.

I do like concepts like this – the simplification of the choice mechanic reminded me of When acting as a particle / When acting as a wave – but it felt like a glimpse into a weird and intriguing world, rather than a chance to immerse myself and roam around.

All Alone

By Ian Finley (2000) (Parser; IFDB) (This game is 15 years old!)

You’re alone in Harvey’s apartment. It is raining. The news is on: the ‘Slicer Killer’, who has young women living alone as his prey, has claimed another victim. Harvey will be back soon.

Because of genre expectations (the genre is horror, few surprises there), I, the reader, was already conditioned to expect something bad to happen. The serial killer news is the most obvious hook that the threat to the PC’s safety comes from outside, almost definitely the serial killer. That the PC is actually in danger, though, is implied. I played this once early last year, and I remarked then that because the danger was implied, it meant that there was little sense of urgency. Now that I’m playing it again, I think leaving this implicit made the player make a lot more assumptions. What’s to say that the PC fits into the serial killer’s demographic? All we know about the PC is that they’re wearing Mickey Mouse pajamas, for goodness’ sake.

There are some bright spots. Events outside the PC’s control heighten the tension, including, like it or not, the news. Despite my misgivings about various cosmetic and storytelling approaches, All Alone does become quite foreboding in parts. The standard ‘my dirty apartment’ details are drawn up adequately to give the impression of squalour (I like “Piles of Harvey’s dirty clothes crouch on the floor.”).

But this is not the most polished of games. Ellipses are rendered strangely throughout (maybe it’s my interpreter?). There are double spaces after full stops, which is Not A Thing we do nowadays. 

Another major problem is that there is not nearly enough to know about the PC to make the player care about them. We know more about Harvey and even about the serial killer than we do about the PC – in this way, the PC automatically (and disturbingly) becomes the typical horror movie victim: nameless, generic and lacking almost all autonomy.

There are some events which you may or may not see, depending on what you do and in what order you do it. Some of the later events are satisfyingly foreboding. My grouse, though, is that the ending comes suddenly, and it felt a little out of the blue for me. It was ambiguous, and didn’t quite link up with the implications from earlier in the game, but was perfunctorily effective (and I really liked the last sentence).

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.

That Sinister Self

By Astrid Dalmady (author website, IFDB site)

[This game contains mentions of self-hate and anxiety.]

You’re a girl on her first day of high school, but you’ve got a problem greater than friends or horrible teachers on your hands: your reflection in the mirror is threatening mutiny.

The first thing that strikes me is that it’s a very aesthetically pleasing game. Visual elements are used to great effect. The evil mirror-self is shown in the reflected text which changes, not very subtly, to insert negative thoughts about a situation; the text changes when you click through links to reflect what is presumably the PC’s insecurity and anxiety about her new situation. There’s a whole lot of clicking through, though, not all of which I thought was strictly necessary.

The content – family life, high-school social minefields – is very much the stuff of many teen fiction novels, and what should have made it impactful would be the presentation of the evil mirror-self, but the goal of the game was probably nothing overtly spooky. Rather, it was more about the internal emotional conflict of the PC.

Spoilers below.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

So far I’ve found one ending, the triumphant one. I found the confrontation well-written and personally it struck a chord with me, though there was little to build up to this. The endgame could have been much stronger if the PC had been less generic. If we understood a bit more about her fears and personality, then it might have made the triumph feel more like one. That said, I enjoyed the sly ending (though really nothing surprising to one who reads horror fiction so often).

The Urge

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by Paperblurt. (IFDB link; play here)

Content warnings for gore and violence.

I saw this in last year’s IFComp. It had a very disturbing blurb, which is why I wisely did not play it late last night…

You are a serial killer, with his (his? It’s not entirely clear) next ‘guest’.

The Urge is by turns gory and mundane, but largely linear. It is more a character study than an interactive story. It takes us through what the author imagines to be the everyday life of a serial killer, juxtaposing the PC’s uncontrollable bloodlust with mundane activities like cleaning up and going grocery shopping.

What graphics included in the game are well-rendered and attractive, but the formatting of the text had several slips, including missing punctuation marks and inconsistent line breaks.

The story could also have taken some interesting turns – letting the reader decide the PC’s motivation, for example, or the extent to which the PC will go. Instead, the linear storyline reads like lots of other serial-killer TV serials, with little nuance or, indeed, anything to invest the reader in the PC. Maybe this was a reflection of the unstoppable nature of the titular urge to kill. Maybe it was unintentional. But it felt like clicking through a story, and not a very engaging one, at that.

Overall, I felt the graphics looked good and were used thoughtfully, but the story was rather lacking.

baby tree

by lester galin. (Parser; IFDB)

baby tree feels like an origami model of a game.

This game’s main gimmick is its extremely sparse prose, as if it had a strict word limit (300 words, anyone?). This helps to set the mood,especially when this style extended to the default parser responses.

However, the scarcity of prose also means there’s barely any feedback on the player’s actions (i.e. was I doing the right thing? Can I examine thisthing?) grew frustrating after a while. I wouldn’t call it getting stuck,per se, since there’s so little to do that it’s pretty obvious how to get to the end of the story. But again it’s like those simple origami foxes or cats or whatever: it’s so stylised that it gives the idea of the thing,though it lacks many of the features that make the fox or cat or whatever it is.

Is it horror? Because of the prose, a lot of the content which would be considered horror is implicit, and depends on how you respond to certain situations.

As another reviewer has mentioned, the ‘epilogue’ feels rather rushed. The attempt to smoosh in some semblance of ‘story’ was a letdown, precisely because it felt so out of place. Still, it’s interesting for a one-time playthrough, as a writing experiment or a little piece of art.