Brave Bear by John Evans (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I can’t believe the doll likes the monkey more than me. I hate netorare.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wanna be brave just like Brave Bear. Fear me, shadows!

My Verdict:

This is what happens when you come up with a decent idea for a game, implement about 25% of it, and then click submit just for the hell of it.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: John Evans has been creating text adventures since the early 2000s. His work is known for being ambitious but is also often accused of being unpolished and buggy. He has a website which is kind of…well, unpolished and buggy. If you really want to plant the Chaoseed (I don’t know what that even means), you can check out his Twitter and Tumblr.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2021/Games/Brave%20Bear/brave.z5

Other Games By This Author: Castle Amnos, Gilded, Order, and more.

IF authors have realized for decades that there is a simple shortcut to immediately invoke feelings of nostalgia and childlike innocence in your audience. All you have to do is put characters who are stuffed animals or other toys into your game and the feels will inevitably follow. It’s a fairly foolproof strategy as long as you don’t have the toys murder anyone which is the part I’d struggle with. John Evans’ great realization, to the extent he had one, was recognizing that the formula that worked for David Dyte in 1997 is still potentially just as pleasing in 2021.

I’m honestly not even a stuffed animal kind of guy really, and yet this stuff still works on me. Prior to my participation in the Great Taxidermy Shop Raid of 2002, I had had exactly one stuffed friend in my life. It was a bunny, and because it had been my sister’s before it was mine it was a little worn down. It was also soft, adorable, and an all-around solid kind of friend for a little kid to have. Due to an unfortunate breakdown in the parental-child lines of communication, the news of the changing of the guard never reached my sister, and she reclaimed what was once hers before too long. She still has it, I think, and I still have my grief all these decades later. It was a formative moment in my young life that taught me a few important things. People steal and take. Friends are more easily lost than gained. And as for me, I wasn’t going to be screwed over ever again. So, yeah, the point is if you put a stuffed animal into a game it’s going to invoke some stuff.

In Brave Bear, you play Brave Bear, a stuffed animal with a firm heart, steely gaze, and plush claws that delight in shredding evil. In the house where you, your owner, and your other toy pals live, something doesn’t seem to be right. For one thing, mysterious phantasms have invaded your domain and are blocking various exits in an incredibly rude manner. This won’t do at all. When Brave Bear senses wrongness, he doesn’t debate or ponder…he SMASHES, SLASHES, and EVISCERATES. However, even Brave Bear can’t do it all on his own. He needs help from his friends, and his pals happen to mostly be other stuffed animals and toys. Sometimes they have the special abilities that bears crave while solving puzzles. At other times they just provide moral support. Their help is clearly essential because this thing that’s going on, whatever it is, is definitely going to require some good old-fashioned teamwork to overcome.

This game got me very interested for a while when I realized I would basically be leading a whole gang of toys. Finally, true power would be at my fingertips. Once my team was assembled, I spent a good amount of time trying to direct my followers to solve problems for me a la Frenetic Five. As eager as I was to start fucking shit up, I ran into one major issue very quickly: most members of the team don’t seem to bring very much to the table. Nightlight, the one non-toy in the bunch, is the least exciting fictional character I’ve encountered since Barney the Barnacle Who Refuses to Ever Detach. Nightlight theoretically gives you light and helps you see your way, but all he wants to talk about is how he won’t leave his room no matter how much you need him. One major obstacle you face in this game is a dark room that needs illumination. Can we call on Nightlight in this situation where his powers would undoubtedly come in handy? Hell no we can’t. Nightlight doesn’t move, remember? He’s literally less useful than an actual nightlight would be because a regular nightlight wouldn’t put up a hissy fit just because I wanted to plug it into another outlet in a different room.

At least Nightlight is semi-functional. The Transforming Robot should theoretically be able to turn from a robot into a car, but I wasn’t able to get him to actually transform despite numerous attempted verbs. I would’ve probably spent hours turning the robot into a car and then into a robot again, but since it didn’t work I wasn’t able to use his incredible abilities to do anything at all. What use is a Transforming Robot who doesn’t transform or robot or car? The robot isn’t the only thing that doesn’t work very well here. Frog Reporter looks cool with his coat and webby hands/handsy webs, but can we use him to climb stuff and flash people? The answer appears to be a resounding, “No!” And then there’s Doll who literally just stands around and looks pretty. Is this really the kind of strong, independent female role model we want our young, hypothetical daughters to encounter when playing IF? The weird thing is there’s a whole sequence where we help rescue Doll so I was expecting her to become an important part of the story…but she just isn’t. We rescue her, she follows us around, and she proceeds to do a whole lot of nothing. It’s as if the Germans stuck Lenin on a train, he went back to Russia, and then there was not even a single attempt made at revolution. Maybe Lenin and Kerensky shared some polonium-free tea together and Vladimir Ilyich grudgingly decided parliamentary democracy might be worth a try after all.

We’ve gotten to the point where we can note that literally the majority of team members do absolutely nothing useful whatsoever throughout the whole game. For my money, there are only three toys who pull their own weight in this whole crummy operation. Monkey has the best redemptive arc in the story. When you realize his only skill is grabbing things, it’s easy to assume the worst. This stuffed simian is no Monkey Weinstein, however, and no doll butts are grabbed during the course of this game…well, at least not by the monkey. Monkey’s grabbing skills are needed to solve one of the puzzles, and that alone is enough to make him one of the most useful team members because as we’ve already established most of the toys are straight up bums. While Plastic Car and Music Maker seem like minor characters — Plastic Car doesn’t even follow you around because he’s an outdoor car — they also absolutely come up huge at the exact moment when you really need them. You know, the way friends are supposed to. That was totally directed at you, Nightlight.

It often seems like the first room in a game can tell you all you need to know about how good the parser is going to be throughout the game. In the case of Brave Bear, you wake up in a bed surrounded by blankets with a dim light shining in the vicinity. You can look at the blankets, but the bed and the light don’t even get descriptions. Meat Loaf didn’t do a song called “One Out of Three Ain’t Bad” because one out of three is, in fact, pretty bad other than in baseball. The parser doesn’t improve much after that first room. Most things you try won’t work in this game. It’s particularly frustrating because the toys are fun and interesting characters. You want to interact with them and see them use their skills. Unfortunately, very little actually works. You can talk and hug most characters. In a few specific situations, you can issue a basic order like “stormtrooper, get tiara.” Beyond that, crickets. The parser is by the far the biggest source of frustration you’ll encounter in this game.

Sometimes I wonder just how a game like this comes to arrive in its final state. John Evans had a pretty solid idea for a game, and a Frenetic Five type of game with sentient toys could have ended up being pretty cool. Instead, the final result feels more like a fragment of a game than a completed work. The game is short and simple in an unsatisfying way. At the very least, I would have liked to see each toy have to use its abilities at least once to move past obstacles in this game. Having a transforming robot that cannot transform is a crime against game design. In fact, most of the characters feel severely underutilized. The ending attempts to explain what’s going on, but it comes completely out of left field and isn’t foreshadowed or even hinted at during the game so it also feels more hastily cribbed together than planned. Perhaps the comp deadline crept up on John Evans and he suddenly realized he had to submit the game pronto. We’ve all had “I can’t do it. We’ll do it live. We’ll do it live! Fuck it! Do it live!” moments in our lives that have left us no time to do anything but improvise. Some of mine have happened this year on this very website. Unfortunately, the ultimate cost of hurry and underdevelopment is that we don’t have the good game we could have had. I would definitely advise anyone in this kind of situation to delay their game until they get it right. You can always enter the next comp, but it’s a lot tougher to revise a game that’s already been released and judged.

Simple Rating: 3/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 4/10

Writing: 5/10

Playability: 3/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Off-Season at the Dream Factory by Carroll Lewis (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The whole reason orcs as a concept exist is because sometimes you need mindless, murderous brutes to make a story complete. Sure, you can turn around and say, “Oh, but this particular orc reads books and doesn’t like violence!” but at that point your orc tale is basically indistinguishable from an ugly, green human tale and God knows we don’t need any more of those. Must woke IF authors destroy all of my fictional role models?

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wish I’d had an uncle like Uncle Carroll when I was growing up. I definitely could have used a few spells of my own to ward off playground bullies and turn their attacks back on them. My actual uncle did know Wax Lips, but he was never interested in teaching the spell to me despite my pleadings every time I came to visit. On the plus side, my time with Uncle Charlie did leave me with permanently waxed lips and now I have to consume all fluids and nutrients intravenously. I was always a pudgy kid, but weight gain is no longer something I have to worry about!

My Verdict:

My showstopper closing sentence for a fifth grade book report on this would be, “It didn’t make any sense and it was very entertaining.” If Miss Pembroke doesn’t appreciate that line of genius, I’m dropping out of school and joining the circus.

Game Information

Game Type: Adventuron

Author Info: Carroll Lewis is the kind of name you get when your parents decide it would be fun to take the name of a popular Victorian children’s author, reverse it, and then slap it on their firstborn, irreparably scarring you for life. The good news is that a reverse Lewis Carroll is probably not going to turn out to be a pedophile. The bad news is I can’t Google this dude even when I use quotes and as such I was not able to find any information about him which makes for a rather pitiful Author Info section. We found a way to enjoy it anyway, though, didn’t we?

Play Online Link: https://2410.play.ifcomp.org/content/index.html

Other Games By This Author: I have no idea. Maybe none?

I think the primary difference between fantasy and science fiction is that scifi tends to have rules. Despite the futuristic technology, sexy aliens, and exotic planetscapes, you still expect a consistent world that probably resembles our own world in highly significant ways. When it comes to fantasy, there aren’t necessarily any rules. Things don’t have to make sense and the world doesn’t necessarily need to be consistent. The only real limit is the author’s imagination. In fantasy, a powerful spellcaster can leave destroyed armies and toppled empires in his wake only to be stopped in his tracks by one willful, precocious child. When this kind of thing happens in science fiction, it’s annoying as hell and people create angry threads about it on the Internet, but when it happens in fantasy, it’s completely normal (and also annoying as hell).

Off-Season at the Dream Factory is definitely fantasy by my definition. It’s not a world much like our own, and not everything makes sense or is explained. The game takes you to the kind of place where songs can be sung in color, dreams are bought and sold like commodities, items can travel freely between dreams and reality, newly planted cabbages spring up from the ground fully-formed, and orcs don’t necessarily like to kill things. In particular, the orc you play — a morose teenager named Zildud — is strongly pacifistic by nature. That’s problematic because your job at the local Dream Factory is to play a monster and fight with adventurers in their prepackaged, purchased dreams. You simply show up, barely put up a fight, and get “killed” over and over again like an unusually green and charmingly hapless Bill Murray, enraging your manager who insists adventurers want monsters to give them a good fight and even defeat them from time to time.

If you still have any doubt as to whether this game is actually a fantasy, I think the Dream Factory’s ostensible business model should effectively settle the matter. Who exactly is going to fork over good money to explore dungeons and fight things in their dreams? I like a good dungeon crawler and monster (sorry, Zildud) basher as much as the next guy, but I don’t want to have a bad day because my head got smashed in by an ogre in the dream I FREAKING PAID FOR. If Excedrin and a free sandy beach and palm tree dream aren’t included as part of the dungeon package, I’m guessing the Dream Factory has a terrible Yelp rating.

OatDF does several things quite well if you can look past the whole not making much sense at times thing. Personally, I AM quite inclined to look past it. It’s fun to shut your analytical brain off temporarily and go on a mad adventure every now and then. The quality writing throughout the game tells the story of Zildud’s journey through the realm of dreams and back quite vividly. The puzzles are fun though straightforward. The parser is solid, and the author does a good job of providing descriptions for everything and responses to many common verbs. The gentle game design makes errors easily irreversible — even the final fight can be repeated without needing to reload a save or restart. I tend to think it is generally good to have consequences, even dire consequences at times, in interactive fiction, but I also think forgiving games like this one can be very good for newbies who might need a more gentle introduction to the medium. There are times when the game spells things out only after first giving the player the chance to figure things out for him or herself. For instance, an experienced IF player is likely to figure out Zildud’s mom is giving him directions before the game breaks it down explicitly. Similarly, you have the opportunity to find the sponge by looking around before you get pointed to it more directly. There are also a number of secrets to discover that often give you extra points but aren’t vital to the story. I feel like there’s enough here to interest and please IF players of all skill and experience levels.

Combat in Off-Season at the Dream Factory is essentially a series of simple puzzles, but watching Zildud somewhat reluctantly climb up the ranks at the Dream Factory is one of my favorite parts of the game. For some reason (and yes, this is another thing that doesn’t make much sense), Zildud’s morality allows him to cast spells that turn his opponents’ attacks back on themselves even as it frowns on Dud making direct, physical attacks on anyone. I suppose the idea is that anyone fighting Zildud could choose to back away and not have anything bad happen to them because the spells only affect them when they try to attack. The test of each battle ultimately is to find the correct spell to thwart your enemy’s particular type of aggression. The opponents are interesting, fun, quirky, and among the most interesting of the game’s NPCs — I could imagine the demonic couple or the angels of death popping up in a Robb Sherwin game or a Slayer game for that matter.

The combat and Zildud’s attitude towards combat is the backdrop for the one major moral choice in the game: ultimately, is Zildud going to turn out to be a killer like the orcish stereotype or is he going to be true to his initially more pacifistic nature? I would say Carroll Lewis definitely and unambiguously has a preferred path he’d like to see players follow, but at least he gives us meaningful choices and appropriate endings that more or less fit the choices. I did find myself wondering if it was really so bad to kill people in dreams. Yeah, it’s bad when Freddy Krueger does it, but that’s because people tend to die in the real world when he does his thing and there’s no consent for any of it. If it stays in the dream and has no significant real world consequences, is killing really so bad? When Zildud is confronted with real world, remorseless evil, the game still seems to suggest killing in that situation might be wrong. I think it could actually be more wrong to NOT kill under circumstances like that. It’s to the credit of Off-Season at the Dream Factory that it makes you think a little when it’s not busy being silly and fantastic. Even if you struggle to relate to Zildud and his moral qualms at times, his sensitive heart is fundamental to his character. He’s consistent even if the human controlling him is not. Unfortunately, however, the evil Zildud ending I was hoping for never quite materializes because no matter what Dud does he never seems to get roasted by Heather Langenkamp starring as Heather Langenkamp.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 8/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

An Amical Bet by Eve Cabanié (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I’m hoping the sequel will focus more on the hot lesbian action and less on the item gathering.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

A cell phone? Of course! Why didn’t I think of that?

My Verdict:

It certainly has its charms, but the gameplay is more basic than pumpkin spice. It is more basic than sodium hydroxide. I’d even go so far as to say it is more basic than 10 PRINT “HELLO WORLD” 20 GOTO 10 which is rather basic indeed.

Game Information

Game Type: Quest

Author Info: Eve Cabanié is a French game designer, graphic artist, and student. You can view her art on ArtStation and Instagram or buy prints from Displate. You can also play her other games on her Itch.io though sadly An Amical Bet seems to be her only text adventure so far.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/springthing/2021/AnAmicalBet.zip

Other Games By This Author: Free Ticket, CUBI

My first thought I had while playing this game is that it was probably the author’s first text adventure. It has that feel of having been created by someone who is still experimenting with the form and who is creating rooms, NPCs, and objects on the fly largely because she can. I don’t hold that against the game — we all have to start somewhere, and sometimes our early beginnings are interesting in their own right. We must first learn and become comfortable with the basics before we can improve and achieve mastery. It’s all part of the process. Taken as a first game, An Amical Bet is not even close to being the worst of its kind that I’ve played, but playing it feels more like you are looking at a hastily put together sketch in an artist’s sketchbook rather than viewing a fully realized, polished masterpiece in an art gallery.

The game has an interesting enough concept. You play Svetlana Asimov, a noted thief, who is living it up in an Italian villa with her romantic and business partner Jodie following a successful joint heist. Jodie has an interesting challenge for you that for once doesn’t involve your cunnilingus skills. Your paramour wants you to steal an item or a group of items that meets three criteria: there should be something shiny, something useful, and something unexpected. If you were to add a goat’s head to the collection, you would have everything you need to make a bride of Satan’s special day truly memorable. There’s a large villa with interesting objects available for the taking. Go forth and steal, young lady!

There’s a parallel universe where this game takes place in a VILLA OF SECRETS. There young Svetlana must dodge guards, traps, and the suspicious wealthy to complete her death-defying mission. Unfortunately, in our universe the game takes place in a villa of yawns. It is mostly empty, and our intrepid thief faces no opposition whatsoever to her stealing whatever she wants. Indeed, there are no puzzles to solve or obstacles to overcome here. You simply go from room to room and gather whatever you need. No item is hidden. There’s no secret passageway behind the bookcase and no trap door under the rug. It is the most straightforward and simple text adventure you’ll ever play. Quest’s built-in mapping feature and clickable objects and verbs make it even more trivial to solve than it would be otherwise. The best Quest games hide verbs that are unusual but essential to completing puzzles so as to not make solutions obvious, but An Amical Bet only recognizes a handful of verbs and you can easily click your way to victory. Things that are mentioned in the room descriptions but aren’t listed as objects can never be examined or otherwise interacted with.

The only thing that keeps the game from being a total snoozefest is Eve Cabanié’s lively and often humorous writing. There are some hilarious one-liners when you try to pick up or otherwise interact with certain objects, particularly the ones you don’t need for your quest. At times, it feels like Svetlana (and by association Eve) is having a conversation with the player. When you try to pick up a vase, you get told, “And where do I put it ?… Don’t answer that.” There’s a statue you can try to talk to; the response is, ‘”Having fun ?”. Of course, no answer. “What a bitch.” Joke’s on you, cause she probably speaks latin.’ When you read lines like that, you know this game isn’t really THAT far from being good even if it doesn’t quite make it. Eve has style, a great sense of humor, and verve which are all qualities that are not easily taught and which many IF authors lack. She uses a word in this game I’ve never seen before and which I immediately assumed was a typo or an English fail until I actually bothered to look it up. This is probably the only text adventure in the world which has a fastuous corridor and it is fucking fantastic. There are some genuine typos and grammatical errors around like “somptuous” being used instead of “sumptuous” but they hardly seem worth mentioning considering Eve correctly used the word fastuous in a sentence and as such is automatically better at English than I will ever be.

Ultimately, this game would need a lot more depth and challenge to be truly recommendable. As it is, the gameplay is just too shallow and simple. Even the quality writing can’t make a game where all you are doing is essentially walking around and picking up objects in plain sight interesting. A game without real puzzles like this one would at the very least need to give the player a lot more freedom to interact with the environment and offer more things to do to be entertaining. Even when it comes to the writing, I feel like there isn’t quite enough of it because portions of the game are quite underdescribed. It needs a little more of everything.

There are games I don’t enjoy which make me want to never play anything by that author again because I would not want to voluntarily experience that kind of mind-atrophying misery ever again. This is not one of those games. If I heard there was another Eve Cabanié game out, I would immediately go and play it. She has genuine writing talent, and the factors that keep An Amical Bet from being good could be remedied easily enough if she keeps honing her craft. This one won’t go down as a great game, but Eve is a young IF creator to watch in my view.

Simple Rating: 4/10

Complicated Rating:

Story: 5/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 6/10

Puzzle Quality: 1/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Arctic Adventure by Harry McKracken (1981/2021)

Tweet Review:

A harmless, enjoyable, and mostly logical text adventure written for the TRS-80 in 1981 and reworked as a browser-based game 40 years later.

Full Review:

Every discussion regarding early text adventures eventually leads to Scott Adams. Adventureland, Adams’ first commercial release, is considered to be the first text adventure released for personal computers. Adams, along with his company Adventure International, released more than a dozen text adventures for 8-bit computers. These games were not only enjoyable to play, but they also inspired many budding programmers to create their own adventures.

Harry McKracken was one of those kids. A high school student in the early 80s, McKracken was inspired by Adams’ early games to create his own text adventure, Arctic Adventure. The game was originally released as a BASIC listing included in the book “The Captain 80 Book of BASIC Adventures” alongside an author’s biography that McKracken describes as being mostly incorrect. After a very limited release as part of a “tapezine,” Arctic Adventure quickly melted from existence. McKracken wrote a few more games, none of which saw commercial releases, and the only feedback he ever received in regards to Artic Adventure was from a disgruntled player claiming that the listing published in Captain 80’s book had a bug rendering the game unplayable — a fact McKracken was unable to confirm as he never received a copy of the book!

Fast forward forty years. McKracken finally tracked down a copy of the book through the internet and confirmed that the published copy of his code did indeed contain a fatal flaw. McKracken spent the summer of 2021 retyping his own code, this time feeding the game into a browser-based TRS-80 emulator. McKracken’s original code was updated to incorporate another BASIC game he had written (a simple slot machine) into the game. After making a few cosmetic changes, McKracken re-released his updated adventure 40 years after the original was published.

Arctic Adventure uses a pretty primitive parser, not unlike others from that era. All commands are verb-noun combinations, and common abbreviations (“E” for “GO EAST”) work. Like most early parsers, the game only checks the first three letters of each word. (“EXA SHO” is the same as “EXAMINE SHOVEL”, as far as the TRS-80 is concerned.) From memory, I think the game uses less than ten verbs in all.

The game begins with you, the player, inside an igloo along with a shovel and a coat. Every item in the game has a single use, so once you use it you’ll probably want to discard it as your character has a staggeringly limited number of things they can carry. After a while I began dumping everything I found next to the igloo, coming back for items as needed.

The browser-based emulator supports one saved game at a time. At any point along your icy journey you can type “SAVE” and your progress will be saved. Likewise, you can type “LOAD” (or simply “L” after dying) to revert back to your last saved position.

Like many early text adventures, Arctic Adventure is dying to kill you. Enter a location carrying the wrong item? Game over. Enter a different location without a specific item? Game over. Hang around a specific location for more than a couple of moves? Game over. Unlike modern interactive fiction games that offer UNDO features, death is swift and permanent in this game. Play like every move might be your last, because it probably will be.

For me, the most frustrating part of the game was the casino, in which players must win a certain amount of money in order to purchase a required item later in the game. The slot machine appears to be completely random, which means that players have to press the spacebar dozens of times in hopes of winning enough cash. I don’t know what happens if the player completely runs out of money but there were several times in which I thought I was going to find out.

Some of these old text adventures contain logic flaws that would take more code to fix than they’re worth. In at least two different areas, examining an item causes another item to appear, and examining the original item again causes the discovered item to respawn. That being said, while playing the game over the course of a week I found and reported two game-halting bugs which Mr. McKracken fixed almost immediately.

Unlike games of interactive fiction that allow players the opportunity to weave original stories and create their own narrative, text adventures were, for the most part, simple games where players maneuvered through maps, found objects, encountered puzzles, and solved those puzzles using the objects they found. In a nutshell, that’s Arctic Adventure. Explore all the locations, find all the things, and eventually the puzzles will solve themselves. (And if they don’t, there’s a radio waiting to nudge you in the right direction.) If you want to see what text adventures were like forty years ago without having to deal with floppy disks or emulators, put on your warmest pair of mittens and check out Arctic Adventure.

Note: the website below contains more of the game’s back stor, and a version of the game playable within your computer’s browser.

Link: Arctic81.com

Aayela by Magnus Olsson (1996)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

Well, damn. I was trying to forever extinguish the light and silence the music, but that really ended up backfiring on me. I guess violence really isn’t always the answer.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

The protagonist is the best sort of hero. He’s someone who selflessly and without regret risks his life for those he serves, most notably his queen, yet receives no credit when he succeeds against all manner of hardship. I like to think my life is lived in a similar sort of way even though I’m terrified of caves and tunnels. If I’m ever needed to cavort with corgis, feast with foreign dignitaries, or give Harry a good spanking, I’m forever at the ready, my queen. Just don’t send me to war or make me go anywhere dark and/or slimy.

My Verdict:

Despite its shortness, Aayela offers a compelling study of darkness, a memorable game world, and a surprisingly emotional story.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Magnus Olsson is a Swedish text adventure author who was a major force in the IF community in the 1990s. He is a former editor of SPAG. You can visit his homepage — in fact, I really think you should. When is the last time someone wanted to share their public PGP key with you? You need this experience, dammit! He also has an IF page which probably hasn’t been updated since 2004. To be fair, I probably haven’t been updated since 2004 either.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/tads/aayela.gam

Other Games By This Author: Uncle Zebulon’s Will, Atomia Akorny, The Dungeons of Dunjin, Zugzwang

Magnus Olsson’s name may not come up too often in IF circles any more, but Magnus stills looms large in my mind when I think about the history of our hobby. He was a major presence in the IF newsgroups during the 1990s and early 2000s, and I regard him as one of the best thinkers and theorists we’ve ever had. It’s tough to compare him to someone like Andrew Plotkin or Graham Nelson because Magnus only did a few games and perhaps never quite delivered us the magnum opus (magnus opus?) we may have expected. Nonetheless, I truly believe he influenced, encouraged, and challenged many of the best interactive fiction writers ever. We needed a really smart dude who could code and believed text adventures were serious business and truly worth thinking about, not to mention someone who didn’t mind spending time unselfishly mentoring others (or just telling them they were wrong). I personally still feel like he’s going to come back to this hobby any year now, put out some new games, and thoroughly kick all of our asses, but until that happens we should still remember him and everything he did for us. Thanks, Magnus. Thagnus.

Aayela firmly thrusts you into the role of a young knight who serves King Dargon. Queen Dahra, Darg’s favorite lawfully wedded squeeze, is dreadfully sick from some mysterious illness. Out of desperation, the king sends you out on a mission to retrieve a magical item, the Stone of Aayela, that might offer the only possible cure for the queen’s condition. Granted, it also might not really exist, but what sort of adventure would that turn out to be? Your quest lead you to the tunnels beneath the Dark Mountains, which are dark, twisty, narrow, and generally unpleasant. Supposedly, the Stone and the evil wizard who captured a spirit of light inside it are somewhere to be found here, but where?

One of the most interesting aspects of this game is that it takes place mostly in the dark. In other text adventures, darkness is often a problem to be combatted with effective lantern or other light source management or something to be removed by solving a puzzle (find the hidden light switch, learn the illuminating spell). In Aayela, darkness is something inherent to your environment. It can’t be beaten back — you must live with it, cope with it somehow. The darkness affects every aspect of gameplay. You must play by its rules for you are not the master of your domain here. The tunnels are rather large and expansive, but every room feels much the same due to the blackness. They can feel claustrophobic and confusing at times even when Olsson hasn’t stuck us in a maze. There are useful items to find, but you might stumble over them or find them only on a second pass over the same area because it’s just so hard to see anything. Luckily, there are no grues waiting to eat you in the shadows here, but the tunnels don’t feel exactly safe either. The general feeling is one of uneasiness. It’s a primal human thing. We’re afraid of the dark until we’re shamed not to be, and even then unexpected darkness is still alarming. We’ve also been trained by horror movies and other video games that darkness equals danger. Grues, vampires, werewolves, and all the myriad creatures of the night know just when to strike when we’re at our most vulnerable, and I haven’t even mentioned ravers yet. I think part of the reason it took me a long time to find one of the endings to this game is because I wanted to move through the tunnels as quickly as possible to shake the uneasy feeling. That caused me to miss an important item. Of course, it’s also easy to forget to look around when every room is dark, barely described, and looks much the same as any other.

Aayela is a simple, straightforward game to play through. Its puzzles, such that they are, typically only have a couple of reasonable possible solutions and only one of those will make sense in the context of your goal. This isn’t the type of game you’ll likely get stuck playing though one ending is marginally more difficult to reach as I alluded to earlier. You will need to spend some time navigating the tunnels and occasionally double back to trigger the appearance of an item or event. Even there, you’re not really solving a puzzle in a traditional sense…you’re just exploring, just wandering around really. I did feel like there could be more to actually DO in the tunnels. Adventurey type things, you know. Shouldn’t I be dodging falling stalactites, riding stalagmites, dangling from ropes, swinging on ropes, and bashing on dwarves who steal instead of largely just futzing around in the dark? The game does feel a little spare. I think it comes down largely to Magnus’ choice to enshroud most of the game in darkness. That would make doing any of those things I mentioned difficult. Plus, there’s the whole effect where every room in the tunnels feels similar to all the other rooms…you’d lose that vibe if there were more things to interact with. Magnus did it all for the vibes, and I can respect that.

Magnus Olsson is a very good writer and coder, and this is a well-implemented game. This is more than just a dungeon crawler. One important aspect of the plot is that you can communicate with the spirit of light not through language but through music and feeling. This could have turned out rather corny, but Magnus did a terrific job of making it resonate emotionally. Somehow in the midst of all that groping around in the darkness I began caring about and wanting to help the captured spirit; I felt bad when I failed my quest or when I got the ending I regard as less optimal because it didn’t help Aayela. I noticed no bugs, and the parser is solid. I did wish I could communicate more with the evil wizard — I was curious about what his goals were and why he had opted to live in the tunnels with his captured spirit. Were he and his magic behind the queen’s illness? How did he hope to use the spirit’s powers? Was he just another Gollum obsessed with trying to hold on to and in some sick way “protect” his precious? Unfortunately, he proved to be the generally noncommunicative sort of evil wizard and my attempts at conversation largely failed.

Some of the best writing in the game is saved for the endings. There are two paths to victory and both are worth playing. It would be a simplification to call one the good ending and the other the bad ending, but one made me feel a heck of a lot better about myself as it seemed designed to do. On the other hand, the less optimal ending gives you a chance at turning the tables on the wizard which was a nice feeling. One ending could be criticized for assuming too much and denying the possibility of you taking a less extreme, middle path. I personally didn’t mind it because it highlighted a future I regarded as possible albeit one I certainly wouldn’t have chosen for my character. Still, the path it shows my character walking is one many others in history have walked. If nothing else, it demonstrates a realistic danger that always exists when unlimited power is at one person’s fingertips.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Tenebrosity: 9/10 (One point had to be docked because the game starts out in a well-lit area plus the spirit of light is rather bright. Nonetheless, Brother Darkness gives it two bony thumbs up.)

Rambo: First Blood Part II by Microprose/Angelsoft (1985)

Twitter Review:

You have a better chance of surviving behind enemy lines in real life while blindfolded than you have of beating this game.

Full Review:

Since the dawn of video games, developers have attempted to reproduce the excitement and emotions experienced in movie theaters on video game cartridges and computer monitors. When converting action heroes, explosions and gunfire to small sprites made of smaller pixels, the thrills and chills that occur on the silver screen sometimes get lost in translation.

Even more challenging must have been taking one of the year’s highest grossing action films and attempting to reproduce those same levels of adrenaline through text. Unfortunately, that didn’t stop Angelsoft from trying.

After releasing a series of children’s educational games based on the characters Tink and Tonk, Angelsoft decided the market they really wanted to conquer was text adventures based on books and movies. Between 1985 and 1987, Angelsoft developed eight text adventures, most of which (like Indiana Jones in Revenge of the Ancients and James Bond 007: Goldfinger) were based on others’ intellectual properties. The first of these games was Rambo: First Blood Part II, published in 1985 by Mindscape for the Apple II, IBM PC, and Macintosh.

The box cover of Rambo: First Blood Part II has a painting of Sylvester Stallone as Rambo, holding a machine gun with as many bullets as Rambo has muscles. The picture is superimposed over a red sunset that matches both Rambo’s headband and the blood he is ready to spill. Against the clouds, nearly a dozen helicopters stretch back toward the horizon. I’m sure many an adolescent begged his or her parents to purchase this game based on the artwork alone, ready to help Rambo put a bullet into every wrongdoer standing between him and Freedom.

Unfortunately for those bloodthirsty adolescents, the game doesn’t resemble the cover. The closest you’ll get to graphics in this game is a black and white digitized picture of Rambo that appears on the Macintosh and PC’s title screens (the Apple II version contains no graphics at all). Instead, the game throws you directly into the action with paragraphs of text as Rambo has just leaped from an aircraft and is falling toward the earth. Your mission according to the game is to “confirm the presence of Americans still held in a Vietnamese POW camp without revealing your presence to the enemy.” Rambo has eighteen game hours to complete his mission, and a timer in the upper right-hand corner is a constant reminder that every move counts.

The game begins with Rambo standing in the jungle. Players are informed that the first rendezvous point lies three miles to the north. In perhaps one of the most brutal text adventure beginnings of all time, if the player doesn’t remove Rambo’s parachute and hide it immediately, he will be mowed down by enemy fire within two moves. Even worse is that if Rambo leaves the drop site on his first move, there aren’t enough moves remaining to both remove the parachute and stash it somewhere before deadly bullets rain down from above. The game plays coy, only stating that “you get the feeling [the Vietnamese gunship] must have been tipped off.” If the game mentioned something like “your progress is slowed due to the fact you’re dragging a parachute,” players would at least have an idea where to begin. Instead, players will get killed over and over again, forced to discover what is tipping off the enemy and how to prevent it from happening.

For players hoping the game gets easier (or even slightly less lethal) after the first puzzle is solved, bad news lies ahead. On the next move, unless players immediately perform another specific (and in terms of interactive fiction, somewhat uncommon) action, Rambo will once again meet his fate. Often, the only hint that death is waiting around the next corner is found hidden in one or two words buried deep within a description. Sometimes, the hint comes after Rambo meets his maker.

It is fortunate that Rambo: First Blood Part II provides nine slots for saving games, because players will want (need) to save their game after every single move. Move east without looking first and Rambo will be shot by a sniper. Walk north without carefully checking the bushes and Rambo will be blown to bits by a landmine. In some cases, an equivalent (but incorrect) verb will also lead to instant death. (“Examine” bushes will get you killed; “Survey” bushes will reveal important information.)

As if the game weren’t difficult enough, Angelsoft added random events to the game’s engine just to keep players on their toes. Enemies both on the ground and up above are constantly spawning in random locations throughout the game. Miss one of the cues and Rambo will end up with more lead in him than a pencil. Occasionally, enemy choppers randomly appear in locations where there is no place to take cover. In those instances, death is unavoidable. Nine saved game slots may not be enough to make it through the game. Ninety-nine slots may not be enough.

Let’s talk about those bloodthirsty adolescents for a moment who purchased Rambo: First Blood Part II based on the box cover’s artwork, assuming they were getting an arcade-style shooter a’la Commando instead of the world’s most difficult text adventure. I was one of those kids. I spent most of a summer playing this game on our family’s PC Jr, desperately trying over and over to make it more than two moves into the game without getting blown to bits. After weeks of struggling, it was my father who helped me solve the game’s first puzzle, only to discover that much more death awaited Rambo in the jungle. This game is like a sadistic Choose Your Own Adventure book where Rambo gets killed on every single page.

While it shouldn’t be particularly surprising given the source material, Rambo: First Blood Part II is surprisingly violent. Through much of the game, Rambo, as in the movie, is constantly rat-a-tat-tatting enemy soldiers hiding in bushes and behind trees. Later in the game, Rambo switches to his trusty survival knife. While we may be desensitized to bullets blazing and blood splattering from hoards of anonymous bad guys in movies or video games, there is something slightly unnerving about being forced to slice people’s throats in a first-person narrative.

Speaking of the film, watching Rambo: First Blood Part II should be considered a prerequisite to playing this game, as some of the game’s puzzles require knowledge of the movie to navigate. As a stand-alone property, this should be considered a crime as punishable as physically torturing captured soldiers. Requiring a gamer to recite a word or find an object based on something that happened in the film and isn’t mentioned in the game simply isn’t fair.

Even with the use of a walk-through, players may not be able to complete the game due to random deadly events. If it was Angelsoft’s intention to develop a game that was as difficult as one of Rambo’s missions, they not only succeeded but exceeded their goal. On the other hand, if their intention was to create a fair but challenging game that made people want to play it, I’m afraid they failed. By the time this game hit shelves, gamers were moving away from text adventures and toward arcade-style and role playing games in droves. It’s too bad Angelsoft and Micrprose didn’t spent a little more time trying to hang on to them with better design instead of releasing games like this which only helped push them further away.

Play (in browser): LINK

Waiting for the Day Train by Dee Cooke (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I would have expected a game with this much crack to be a little more amped up than this.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I want to save the day! Literally.

My Verdict:

It’s a dreamy, artistic triumph with a few nonfatal flaws.

Game Information

Game Type: Adventuron

Author Info: Dee Cooke is a British text adventurer, writer, and editor. She has written a number of Adventuron games which can be played on Itch.io . She blogs at Spirit of Dee, tweets on Twitter, and posts photos and art to her Instagram .

Download and Online Play Link: https://dee-cooke.itch.io/waiting-for-the-day-train

Other Games By This Author: Barry Basic and the Quick Escape, Goblin Decathlon, The Cave of Hoarding, and more!

Introductions are vitally important in interactive fiction, perhaps even too much so. Players count on the opening text to set the vibe and give a glimpse of the story that is about to unfold. I’m certainly guilty of discounting and dismissing games too early when they failed to grab my attention right from the start — it’s just easier to quit a game when your expectations haven’t been raised yet. On the other hand, when a game has a great introduction it’s tough to set it aside even if the rest of the game doesn’t quite measure up to the start.

Waiting for the Day Train absolutely nails its intro. The first thing you see in the game is moody, original art and thrilling, enigmatic text that tells you about a world ruled by angry spirits who seem strangely obsessed with keeping you from catching the day train. Is it all punctuated by mysterious, evocative background music? Of course it is! It’s honestly one of the most artistic and immediately involving game introductions I’ve ever seen. I knew right away that this was the 2021 ParserComp game I wanted to review first. The intro was seriously just that good.

In practice, Waiting for the Day Train is a game with two distinct moods. The verbose, richly drawn intro gives way to a sparse, more traditional text adventure that involves familiar activities like mucking about with rocks and sticking your hand into possibly moist, gaping crevices. I know little of day train despising spirits, but rocks and crevices are my jam. I won’t lie and say I didn’t feel a little disappointed at the game’s sudden change in approach because the beginning was so intriguing, but I think I can understand what Dee Cooke was going for. This work doesn’t tell a story so much as it evokes one. As a player, you know you need to get on the day train and avoid the spirits. It is revealed along the way that this is the last time anyone in this area will see the day…it’s going to be eternal night from here on out. Why? I haven’t the foggiest and it isn’t explained anywhere, but it does underscore the fact that getting on the day train is indeed a damned good idea. It would be cool to know the whole story of just what is going on, but if Dee revealed everything the game wouldn’t feel as mysterious and dreamlike as it does now. Though I generally prefer complete stories to mysterious fragments, Waiting for the Day Train works as a beautiful, intriguing art piece which doesn’t even try to offer us all the answers. You’ll have to fill in parts of the story yourself, but that’s not always such a bad thing. The way the game transitions between moods is quite well done. Drawings give way to photos; the music changes; the paragraphs shrink.

This game incorporates a clock which starts at 10:30 AM and ends at 12 PM when the day train arrives. It’s a short game: some actions take multiple game minutes, and each play session won’t take much longer than fifteen minutes in real time. If, unlike me, you actually know what you’re doing, you can reach the end game quite quickly with a lot of time left to spare. Otherwise, the limited amount of time you have to solve the game gives it most of its difficulty. I have to confess to not being a huge fan of move limits and timers. I’m someone who likes to play IF at a leisurely pace that gives me plenty of time to look at everything and mess around. That’s what makes game worlds seem vivid and real to me. So, as you can predict, my first couple playthroughs ended with me running out of time. Damnable clock! I freely admit I shrank under the time pressure…I think I even had a Varicella flashback at one point complete with all the night sweats and projectile diarrhea that necessarily entails. Ultimately after a number of attempts and a fair bit of save scumming, I did muddle through, and in retrospect I wouldn’t call the puzzles exactly difficult. Unintuitive to me at places, sure, but not objectively difficult. One I found tricky mostly because I had tried the winning solution in a different (incorrect) place and it hadn’t worked there for reasons that still don’t entirely make sense to me. Perhaps the lesson is just that location is extremely important. That’s certainly something I’ve found to be true during my sundry adventures in public nudity. For instance, at art museums you can pretend to be a statue while at mosques everyone (and I do mean everyone) seems to be quite angry and unappreciative all the time. It’s the subtle distinctions between similar places that always throw me off, but clearly location is very important.

I haven’t played a lot of Adventuron games before this, but I was favorably impressed with Dee’s implementation here. The parser even handled a four word input at one point like a champ. A lack of synonyms is my main parser-related complaint. For instance, the row of stones can’t be referred to as ROW — CROSS ROW won’t work and X ROW gives a generic description different from X STONES. At another point in the game, there are at least three reasonable verbs that would do all pretty much the same thing, but only one works. The most confusing parser mishap occurs at the stone outcrop. You get different descriptions if you type X STONE or X OUTCROP, but only one description tells you about something very important in the room which I found a little odd. One thing Adventuron clearly handles very well is multimedia. The music, sound effects, and pictures are all flawlessly incorporated into the game and play a big part in making it memorable. You might notice that Dee has two versions of the game available: both are played in the browser like all Adventuron games, but one can be downloaded for offline play. The big difference is the offline version doesn’t have the photos or background music that the online version does. The offline version has all the drawings (plus a placeholder drawing instead of the photos) and some cool retro sound effects. I recommend you play them both like I did. I’m glad Dee offers both versions since online games that use external resources tend to break over time. We’re going to want Waiting for the Day Train to live forever so we need that offline version!

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating

Story:: 6/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10

Special Ratings For This Game:

Art: 8/10 (Sure, it’s a text adventure, but the bleak, otherworldly, and consistently intriguing art is one of my favorite aspects of the game.)

Coming Out of the Closet by Mikko Vuorinen (1998)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

So you play a guy who wears black leather jackets and nothing else, likes to hang out in cramped quarters with little, hairy dudes, and is ready to finally come out of the closet. No one understands the LGBTQIA+ community less than I do, but even I have a pretty good idea of what is actually going on here.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I wish I had a friend like Fip. Those lonely nights in the closet seem to drift on and on.

My Verdict:

This game is definitive proof one room adventures don’t have to suck.

Game Information

Game Type: Alan

Author Info: Mikko Vuorinen paved a truly unique path for himself in our hobby: he was the first Finn I know of to enter the IF Competition and contribute to the IF Archive and he is also among the relatively few developers who have created games using the Alan IF programming language. He may have never put out a perfect game, but I always enjoy Mikko’s work. His games are interesting, unique, funny, and often surreal. They stand alone and they stand out. We need him back and writing games again!

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/alan/closet.zip

Other Games By This Author: King Arthur’s Night Out, Leaves, The Adventures of the President of the United States, CC, and more!

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I never expected to end up reviewing — or playing — not one but two different one room text adventures in 2021. After all, they tend to not be my favorite type of interactive fiction which is something I’ve made very clear over the years. The journey that brought me to these dire straits began with me promising to write a review every month for RFTK this year…the hubris of middle age struck once again. Some men buy sports cars and begin inappropriate relationships; me, I make extravagant promises about how many IF reviews I’m going to write over a given time frame. Fast forward to June 29th: we’re less than 48 hours away from July 1st and I still have absolutely nothing to show for the month. I’ve successfully managed to spend more time worrying about what game I was going to review than actually playing IF. I could’ve worked my way through my Spring Thing backlog, but I didn’t. Plundered Hearts remained sadly unplundered. There are a couple of games from the last couple of comps I still want to review one day, but I had trouble mustering up the motivation to return to them. And so the clock ticked on and the days crept by.

On June 29th, I knew I had to do something. Giving up was clearly not an option. No children or impoverished, elderly ladies were going to be left uncontrollably weeping on my watch. There are few true heroes left in this world of ours, but I am one of them dammit and I had to act accordingly. With the limited time at my disposal, I knew I had to pick a relatively short game. “A one room joke game would probably do it,” I said to myself as a sickening feeling arose in my stomach. Had things truly come to this…again? I had even joked with Robb about reviewing another one room joke game this month because I was so incredibly sure I wasn’t going to actually be doing that. The more I thought about the situation the more my soul rebelled at the notion of reviewing another Amishville equivalent, and I felt myself coming to another mental impasse. Then inspiration struck: what if instead of reviewing a one room joke game I reviewed a one room NON-JOKE game? A one room non-joke game! I cackled with delight, I rubbed my hands together, my eyes grew glinty…and I got to work. It was, after all, about damn time.

Despite the title, Coming Out of the Closet isn’t actually a game about telling your closest friends and family, including and especially bigoted, murderous Uncle Randy, about your true sexual orientation. Instead, it’s actually about physically getting out of a closet that you’ve mysteriously become trapped inside. This is a small, one room escape game that can be finished in about ten minutes. It actually took me a bit longer than that because I first tried to play the game in 1999, gave up, interviewed Mikko Vuorinen for RFTK later in 1999 and got an excellent tip on how to finish the game directly from him, and then in 2021 finally got around to actually playing it again and won it in ten minutes. So, yeah, it’ll either take you ten minutes or twenty two years and ten minutes to finish. I will say it seemed pretty easy to me on the replay so I’m not sure what exactly was going on with me back in ’99 beyond I STUPID.

COotC is short, but it’s fun and satisfying. It might only last ten minutes, but it’s a good ten minutes. Since yesterday, I’ve been trying to put my finger on just what makes Mikko’s closet game so much more compelling than every single one room joke game I’ve ever played. I think its main advantage is that it is first and foremost a game. It knows it is a game, it wants to be a game, it is a game. It’s IF in miniature, but it is indisputably a text adventure that is clearly related to other text adventures we’ve played before. You have an objective, a really small game world to explore, objects to examine and manipulate, a puzzle to solve, and an NPC to befriend. It’s not completely unlike a mini and entirely closet-themed version of Zork when you really stop and think about it. The one room joke games on the other hand tend to be much more jokes than they are games. The descriptions are there not so much to create atmosphere or tell a story but to set up the punchline. They often lack basic elements you expect to see in text adventures such as functional parsers and objects. They aren’t just smaller, less detailed games — they’re barely games at all. Me, I like games.

Mikko Vuorinen games tend to be funny and surreal, and CLOSET.ACD does not disappoint. The humor here mostly comes courtesy of a garrulous closet gnome named Fip whose sudden appearance is also fairly surreal. There are also some funny and rather biting responses when you try to do things that aren’t going to be helpful. Just because I want to sit on a chest from time to time doesn’t mean I don’t have a life. Just because I want to get romantic with some shelving doesn’t make me a pervert. I’m a lonely dude trapped in a closet…a little shelf flirting was a perfectly rational response to my predicament and environment. And let’s be honest here, that shelving looked fantastic leaning up against that wall. The most surreal aspect of the game has to be the door. It goes without saying that if you’re trapped within a closet the closet door must have been locked or be barred in some way, right? That’s not the case in Coming Out of the Closet. The door looks as well-built as the next one, but it isn’t locked or barred. It’s just closed…you can open the door! That blew my mind when I found that out, but it’s not a bug or unintended behavior. If you try to actually exit the closet, you’re told, “You try to leave, but something stops you. You are not ready to come out of the closet yet.” It’s surreal, but it’s kind of annoying too. You thought you just had a door to open, but it turns you actually have to be ready and want to come out of the closet. Doors of wood and metal are one thing, but the doors that close off our minds are far more vexing to open. I suppose being told you can’t go through an open door is not really worse than suddenly encountering a force field, invisible magic barrier, or a more mundane type of exit blocker. I understand IF authors can’t necessarily implement a room in every direction. Sometimes you’ve got to block stuff off, particularly when you’re doing a one room game like Mikko here. Still, I always wonder what’s going on on the side of the barrier. I can’t help but try to climb over every fence and wall I come across. If that doesn’t work, I’ll even try tearing them apart with my bare hands and say, “No disassemble” in my best Deflated Johnny Five voice when I inevitably fail.

I always worry my rating scale fails when it comes to short games because of the way I compare all IF to all other IF regardless of a work’s length. For a one room game, Coming Out of the Closet probably deserves 1000 out of 10. The competition is just that bad, plus it is a fun, worthwhile, and memorable game in its own right. It just can’t give you hours of entertainment the way some other IF can. That’s OK — you can still totally enjoy Mikko’s writing and unique approach in a bitesized piece like this one. The few minutes I spent getting to know Fip were totally well spent. He’s a great NPC who is lots of fun to interact with. The parser is probably the game’s greatest weakness, but it seems to be limited by design. If you can look at or interact with something, it’s likely you’ll need to do something with it…everything else is extraneous and can be ignored. I didn’t find myself needing to guess verbs or constantly reword commands so there are definitely worse parsers out there. There’s only one real puzzle in the game which is fairly straightforward, but I enjoyed figuring out how to solve it (well, certainly more than Fip did anyway!). So what if it’s a little too short for true greatness? It’s just the right size for a few minutes of fun. (That line ended up sounding a lot dirtier written down than it did in my head.)

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 29/50

Story: 5/10

Writing: 6/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 5/10

Mean Mother Trucker by Bitter Karella (2021)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

You’d be bitter if you were annexed by Russia too. I still feel pretty salty myself about Putin seizing my right toe in a daring nighttime raid last year. Fuckin’ Putin. He doesn’t even really need it because it’s way too big for his childlike body.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I enjoyed the nontraditional romance, the diversity, and the inclusion, but I’m worried about the armadillos and the over-caffeinated pup. Won’t someone please think of the armadillos?

My Verdict:

It captures the seedy atmosphere of a truck stop perfectly and has great characters, but the game design and the parser need a little work to say the least.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Bitter Karella is a text adventure writer and artist who frequently enters games into the Interactive Fiction Competition, Spring Thing, and Ectocomp and has multiple IF Comp top ten finishes under his belt. He describes herself on Twitter as a genderfluid transvestite goblin himbo who uses both masculine and feminine pronouns. Millennials, amirite? If you guessed this means I’ll be using both sets of pronouns to refer to our intrepid author in an extremely confusing manner throughout this review, you are correct, sir! You can check out Bitter Karella’s games and art over at her itch.io.

Download Link: https://www.springthing.net/2021/stories/MeanMotherTrucker/MeanMotherTrucker.zip

Other Games By This Author: Poppet, The Curious Incident at Blackrock Township, Santa Carcossa Nights, and many more.

In Mean Mother Trucker, you play a mean mother trucker named Ester who is preparing to navigate her big rig down the treacherous Devil’s Taint, a particularly hazardous mountain road. You’ve arrived in the small town of Desecration, a one horse, zero armadillo, one diner, one gas station, and one convenience store town. Desecration has everything a trucker needs to get back on the road, but it’s also home to someone who’s very special to you: Flo, a waitress at the local diner. You might be a tough, three hundred pound trucker, but underneath the fat and muscle lies a sensitive heart that still yearns for love despite three failed marriages. Are you a bad enough dudette to finally win Flo’s heart and convince her to run away with you?

MMT does a bunch of things very well. It does a fantastic job of capturing the seedy but not entirely unfriendly atmosphere of a truck stop — Desecration is technically a tiny town, but it feels more like an oversized truck stop. The characters are memorable and lots of fun to interact with. Helpfully, they tend to be gossipy so you can pretty much ask any character about any other character among other topics and get useful information. An interesting cross section of people inhabit Desecration, including a prostitute with a sweet tooth, a lean hitchhiker who hates the local police, and a religious but extremely horny biker gang. The love story is light and charming, and Bitter Karella is an entertaining writer with an excellent sense of humor.

Ester herself is an interesting protagonist and the reason the game got the Best LGBT Characters ribbon in Spring Thing 2021. That may not be as prestigious as it sounds because Spring Thing gives out a lot of ribbons each year, including Best Lil Fluffy Wuffy Dog in 2021, but I thought Bitter Karella took an interesting approach to developing his main character. We find out Ester is transgender only in passing — you’ll see a reference to her dead name in the truck paperwork if you happen to examine it (it’s not needed to solve any puzzle) and a reference to hormone therapy if you try to enter a men’s restroom. It’s not made a big deal of in any way. The game’s not about transitioning or discrimination. There’s no angst to be found here, and the author isn’t heavy-handed or preachy at any point. Ester just is who she is…and fundamentally, she’s just a person. You don’t need to be an activist or an ally to enjoy the game or the character. You don’t even need to know the lingo — I personally didn’t even realize I could accurately be called “cishet” until I visited Bitter Karella’s Twitter feed. I think that’s pronounced “cis…het” rather than shishet seashells by the seashore, but I’m not completely sure. Hey, I’m still learning here. One thing that is for sure, I’m never going to start writing slash fan fiction based on a text adventure character before I’ve actually finished the game and learned all the details of a character’s backstory again. Something always seems to go wrong whenever I try. You see, I was going to include a story about Ester in my upcoming anthology entitled “Large, Leather, Cis Lesbian Goddesses of Phobos”, but now she doesn’t fit the theme and people hate it when the theme is not fitted properly. Luckily, I’ve still got one story about Rosie O’Donnell and five stories about Ruby Rose that begin with her consuming millions of bags of Doritos in a relatively short time frame to fall back on.

Unfortunately, Mean Mother Trucker doesn’t have a very flexible parser and it has some game design quirks that are likely to annoy you despite the game’s charm. Part of the problem is that Bitter Karella seems to have deliberately sought to implement a very limited set of verbs. There were situations in the game where I wanted to use verbs like buy and pour but couldn’t because the author wanted me to use the verb put in those situations: put money in machine, put water on ground, etc. It’s good to allow for those inputs since some users will try them, but I strongly prefer a parser that lets me be more precise and conversational. What’s next…a game with no eat command, but you can “put cheese in mouth” or “put teeth in cheese”? I’m already fearful that IF is going to be secretly taken over by AI as is, but if our human authors are going to start sounding like AIs of their own volition we really have no chance at all to resist the machines. It could be the game was rushed because there is a noticeable lack of synonyms throughout the game. You get a cup of coffee at one point, but you can’t refer to it as a cup. Your quarter can’t be referred to as a coin. These aren’t huge issues, but in practice they force you to repeat commands and add friction to the playing experience. What’s even worse is that sometimes commands seem like they’re giving you reasonable responses when they aren’t so you won’t realize what you really need to do is word the command differently. For instance, there’s something you have to shove in the game. If you push the object instead of shoving it, the game tells you, “Nothing obvious happens” and, indeed, nothing obvious does happen. To be fair, the description of the object mentions shoving it rather than pushing it so there’s a hint on what to do, but it’s still bad game design. When it comes to the item you have to buy without using the command buy, you might see a couple of confusing messages. If you do try to buy it, you’re told, “Nothing is on sale.” As if we’re supposed to wait until Black Friday or something to make the purchase. If you try to just get the item (thief!!), you’re told, “You can’t carry that” which is a terrible error message for this situation. It might make the player think the item can’t be picked up or that he or she is already carrying too many items. Sadly, this game won’t win any awards for playability any time soon.

The puzzles tend to be more fanciful and whimsical than strictly logical in keeping with the light theme. Sometimes the game has to guide you through the final and often least sensible step which isn’t ideal, but it helps a game which already has a lot of friction go a little smoother. My least favorite puzzle is decidedly the one in which you must first find a tool to pick up another item which you can’t get with just your bare hands. I can’t tell you how many ways I tried to pick up that thing with the tool until I finally decided to just try to pick it up directly again. And, sure enough, if you have the tool in your inventory you can indeed just get the item. It’s terrible game design again because the solution makes it seem like you’re not using the tool which isn’t even mentioned.

So Mean Mother Trucker certainly does have its flaws and can’t be called a great game in its present form. It will probably irritate you on your first playthrough, but once you know what you need to do it’s much easier to appreciate all the things it does do well. When you’re busy parser wrassling, you don’t always see the quality dialogue or take in the atmosphere. Having played the game twice now, I can say with confidence that Bitter Karella is in the perfect position to easily improve her games. If he were just to take the testing up a notch, that alone would probably have solved most of the issues I had with this game. I think that’s a better place to be in than, say, the position Matt Barringer found himself in shortly after the release of Detective. Matt needed to find a way to make literally everything about his game better whereas Karella just needs to do some damn testing.

My final thought might be disturbing for some viewers, but it’s been bothering me for a while. I’ve played just two Bitter Karella games: this one and Poppet. The two games don’t have a lot in common except they both feature a dead animal you suddenly find just lying in a room. Seriously, what the fuck is up with that? They’re not animals you know or anything, but it’s still upsetting and Mean Mother Trucker isn’t even supposed to be horror. I’m guessing you don’t want to look inside the chest freezer Bitter Karella has in his basement under any circumstances.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 25/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10

Playability: 3/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos by Robb Sherwin and Mike Sousa (2020)

The Little Ugly, Evil Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

So Black people finally reclaim beloved children’s character Dr. Dolittle as one of their own following decades of cruel misappropriation, and what happens? Whitey just has to go and create an extremely similar character geared for a more mature audience. We’ve all seen this song and dance thousands of times before, but this time the joke’s on y’all. For the movie adaptation of this game, we will be casting Eddie Murphy as Jay Schilling, Tyler Perry as Amanda, and David Alan Grier as Winstone. Arnold and Raisin will be voiced by Shaq and Wanda Sykes respectively. Better luck next time, white devils.

The Little Nice, Handsome Guy On My Shoulder’s Verdict:

I often find myself wondering just what Mr. Rufflewaggers is thinking as we go about our daily lives. Truth be told, I’d be a little scared to find out for certain. I’m not sure I could take it if his first words to me were “The name’s Bill from now on. Just Bill. That clear and simple enough for you to handle, ignoramus?” or “Get out. No one wants you here. Not the wife, not the kids, and certainly not me. Just GET OUT!” Please love me, Mr. Rufflewaggers!

My Verdict:

It’s a detective story that explores the greatest mystery of all: love.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Robb Sherwin is the guy I originally started this website with back in 1999, one of the best IF writers of his generation, and surrogate father to all the demented denizens of Jolt Country. Mike Sousa is an accomplished TADS maestro with multiple XYZZY nominations and IF Comp top five finishes under his belt. Robb and Mike previously worked together on the 2001’s smash hit No Time to Squeal.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/Jay%20Schillings%20Edge%20of%20Chaos/Chaos%20%28Offline%20Play%29.zip

Other Games By These Authors: No Time to Squeal, Cryptozookeeper, At Wit’s End, Necrotic Drift, Fake News, and many more!

The fact that Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos begins in a petting zoo is incredibly appropriate. Ostensibly, we’re there because our character, the eponymous Jay Schilling, is the kind of private detective who prefers to meet potential customers at particularly grubby petting zoos late at night and only accepts payment in Bitcoin. Having the first characters Jay meets be an aye-aye and the other animalian residents of the zoo is excellent foreshadowing because this is a game where animals will be among the most important characters you’ll meet. Indeed, I’d go so far as to say that the major theme of Edge of Chaos is human-animal relationships. Sure, there’s a mystery to solve, but you’ll need your animal buddies around pretty much every step of the way. If you’ve ever wondered what your macaque is pondering as he stares at you with those soulful, deep-set eyes or why the animals we love even put up with us and our senseless hijinks at all, this is interactive fiction written with you in mind.

The fortuitous discovery of advanced technology with the Babel fish-like ability to translate animal speech to English on the fly gives Jay a unique opportunity to get to know animals on a more human-like level than is normally possible. With this plot element, Robb and Mike took a risk I probably wouldn’t have taken if I were writing the game. It’s not easy to create talking animal characters that still seem like animals and aren’t used purely for comedy. The guys somehow managed to thread the needle and create two really memorable and lovable animal characters who can make you laugh OR cry. Even as they talk and crack jokes, they still manage to seem like animals to me. Perhaps it’s the way the parrot still flies around and lands on things and the dog still sniffs and digs holes. Perhaps it’s the way Arnold and Raisin remind me of animals I’ve known and loved. I have a tendency to always see the dude in the animal suit pretending rather than the animal being portrayed, but I didn’t see the dude this time around. These animal characters are compelling and well-developed. I wouldn’t go so far as to call the portrayals realistic, but that’s partly because the game is venturing into one of the great unknowns of the universe. None of us know exactly what it’s like to be a dog, bird, or any other animal other than human. None of us know exactly what they know. Plus, the game engages in some exaggeration for the sake of humor which is perfectly acceptable. In the real world, Arnold might not be quite as witty or Raisin as well-versed in science. That doesn’t ruin the characters or make them purely comedic by any means.

Edge of Chaos is a mystery game, but it plays a little differently compared to many of the classics of detective interactive fiction. That’s in no small part due to the peculiarities of the protagonist. Jay Schilling isn’t entirely incompetent, but he tends to inelegantly stumble his way through life and the cases he works. Like Varick and Vest before him, he is a survivor doing what he can to make do in unpleasant and economically challenged circumstances. He doesn’t have a detective license, his stutter impedes his ability to play Bad Cop, and he lives in what can best be described as a carbon monoxide den. He also loses electronics quicker than a man in a nursing home surrounded by thieving aides who do no discernible work other than wait around for the next Amazon delivery with box cutters in hand. Ideally, as an IF player taking control of a detective you’d want to be able to just put on your investigating shoes and your interrogation tie and get to work, but that’s just not how Jay operates. He doesn’t have his shit together, and shoes and ties are in short supply at the moment in his world. Even performing a Google search is an activity that requires a certain amount of planning and determined execution for him. So, while you will be gathering and following up on clues in the game, you won’t be able to use most of your basic Deadline detective verbs. Sergeant Duffy won’t be analyzing any ladders, you won’t be accusing anyone of anything, and no fingerprints will be taken. We’re doing this thing Schilling style!

It’s a fair question to ask if Sherwin and Sousa allow the player enough freedom to solve the case on their own and explore the game world at their leisure. It is a linear game that at times rushes the player from place to place. I tend to cut the guys a little slack here primarily because EoC was a comp game. This game really can realistically take a couple of hours to finish, and that’s all the time comp judges are allowed to spend before they must decide on a rating. Part of me does wish the game was more like Blade Runner and you could choose where to go and what to focus on first more freely, but that wouldn’t necessarily make for a great comp game. My first playthrough of BR ended with me wandering aimlessly between Chinatown, my apartment, and headquarters for a couple of hours. I was still basically having fun, but eventually out of desperation I checked the newsgroups and found out I had missed a vital clue from a crime scene I could no longer access. In other words, it was restart time. IF Comp hates restart time, and its rules are designed to punish games that don’t let players get from start to finish in a two hour span. The rules of the comp aren’t always conducive to producing the exact type of games I’d like to play, but you can’t blame authors entering the comp for gearing their games to the primary audience that’s going to play them.

Edge of Chaos is written in a style I like to call Sherwin and Sousa meets Hammett and Chandler. No one else calls it that so you should keep that in mind. The descriptions are short and to the point in the classic clipped detective story style. At the same time, the writing is full of jokes and humor that counterbalances Schilling’s somewhat grim world. This game has so many great one liners I couldn’t possibly list them all, and I seem to notice new ones each time I play that are sometimes very subtly buried where you’d least expect them. You’ll probably focus on the case mostly on your first playthrough because a young woman is missing and that’s pretty concerning. Because the jokes aren’t overbearing, you might not notice some of the humor when you’re in serious detective mode, but if you play it again and take the time to look around and try different things you’ll realize this game is downright hilarious at times. It’s very impressive how Robb and Mike were able to create a game that can be serious, grim, and thoughtful but at the same time arguably be the funniest game either man has ever made. It’s just a very well-written game that delivers both as a comedy that will leave you in stitches and as a drama with genuine emotional impact. I loved the game’s humor, but the wallop provided by the ending will probably keep me from playing the game again for a couple years while my aching heart slowly recovers.

This is a generally well-implemented and well-designed game. The parser responsiveness is good but not exceptional. The puzzles range in difficulty and are fun to solve with the possible exception of the one that can get you killed. The most useful skill to have in IF is the ability to keep your eyes and your mind open at all times, and that’ll definitely come in handy here…particularly the eyes part. Conversation uses a system where suggested dialogue options are given once you start talking to someone but you can also ask characters about other things if you are so inclined. There’s a good amount of “hidden” dialogue available which you’ll only find through experimentation. You don’t need to see any of it to solve the game but they make for a much richer playing experience and give you a better feel for the characters. I used to be an advocate of branching dialogue trees in IF, but I’ve found myself growing increasingly skeptical of them recently so I appreciate games that still offer more conversational freedom like this one does.

I had a great time beta testing Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos last year. Robb is an old friend, but I didn’t know Mike Sousa at all when I first started testing. That didn’t last long — I felt like he and I became friends from the first email on despite my testing the boundaries of good taste with some terrible jokes interspersed with the bug reports. Both guys are great to work with. EoC was something Robb and Mike worked on together off and on for many years, and it was inspirational to see them finally put out a finished product when it would have been incredibly easy for them just to walk away from the project because so much time had elapsed from when it had started. Seeing what they were able to do after so many years helped reinforce my commitment to reviving this site. If something remains important to you, it’s worth working on, period. It doesn’t matter how much time has passed or what has changed if you still have love for the work and “abandoned” is more a state of mind than an immutable property.

Simple Rating: 8/10

Complicated Rating: 37/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 9/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 7/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10