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:

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

The Zuni Doll by Jesse Burneko (1997)

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

I once owned a Zuni doll myself. A rather well-proportioned female Zuni doll to be exact. My experience was nothing like what is depicted in the game, though. Without going into too much detail, let’s just say that SHE wasn’t the one making holes with her tiny sword. Believe me, the return process was super awkward.

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

Ever since I started playing this game I’ve been unable to sleep or put on a bathrobe. I’ve already destroyed my deceased mother’s priceless antique doll collection, but I’m still seeing that THING out of the corner of my eye everywhere. I’m not seeing a Zuni doll, though — it’s actually a 1959 original Barbie doll wielding a bazooka which is way more terrifying.

My Verdict:

Jesse Burneko likes action-oriented horror, cats, and random misspellings. So do I! Jesse Burneko also likes rigid and horrible parsers. He lost me there.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Jesse Burneko wrote three games during his short late 90s IF writing career which seems to have roughly corresponded with his time studying computer science at Lafayette College. All his games are action-oriented horror adventures, and two of the three take place on a college campus which makes Burneko the almost undisputed King of Collegiate Horror IF. Now he writes RPGs and blogs at Play Passionately .

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: A Breath of Fresh Blair, The X-Child

My screen name wasn’t always No1JesseBurnekoFan. In 1999, I trashed Jesse’s game A Breath of Fresh Blair. I apparently gave it a 2 and said I wanted to shoot it in the head (???). All I can think now is that it must not have been the best time in my life when I wrote that review. My broken memory managed to turn this event in my mind into, “Remember how Jesse Burneko did that interesting but flawed game you played and reviewed on the old site? You should totally go play another Jesse Burneko game!” To be fair, I did end the old review with a semi-promise to one day check out The Zuni Doll so it’s not like I completely wrote off Jesse as a talentless hack. Looking back, I don’t entirely trust my old review of A Breath of Fresh Blair, and it’s not just because of the murder threat. I know I tried to write reviews quickly back then primarily for the sake of having a steady flow of fresh content for the site. In my foolish youth, I had this idea that no successful IF review site could get away with publishing new reviews only every five months or so. Obviously, I don’t feel that way any more. At any rate, I very well may have been too hasty in my judgment and unfair in my critiques. It seems like the least I can do is offer apologies to Jesse Burneko before I proceed to attack another one of his games.

I think what I didn’t appreciate in 1999 is that Jesse Burneko was trying to do a very difficult thing. He wanted to make action-oriented horror games that would be more akin to Friday the 13th than Psycho. His games aren’t brooding or psychological and he wasn’t aiming to be subtle. He wanted to use his words to create an environment of constant, violent, and kinetic danger. This isn’t Anchorhead — it’s an anchor to the head. This isn’t The Lurking Horror — it’s the horror that’s about to stick a sword in your eye unless you think fast. Unlike your typical Lovecraft-influenced text adventure, The Zuni Doll places you immediately in the midst of terror. There’s no slow buildup. Menacing words aren’t used to create a sense of fear and a dark atmosphere. Instead, you start up the game, get out of bed, and suddenly find yourself in a fight for your life.

This simple and direct approach makes sense given that The Zuni Doll is about a doll that comes to life and tries to kill you. The plot was obviously heavily inspired by one of the stories featured in the classic 1975 horror anthology Trilogy of Terror directed by Dan Curtis. “Amelia” was written by Richard Matheson and stars Karen Black as a woman hunted by a murderous knife-wielding Zuni doll. For a budget made-for-TV movie, Trilogy of Terror has memorable visual effects and to me the Zuni doll in “Amelia” is just as if not more menacing than his spiritual cousin Chucky. While I knew I was a big fan of Trilogy of Terror long before I played Jesse Burneko’s game, it took The Zuni Doll to show me just how easily I could imagine myself as Karen Black barely wearing a bathrobe. In a nice homage, you are actually wearing the bathrobe in the game, and you need the bathrobe tie to solve one of the puzzles. You don’t really need knowledge of the movie to play the game, but it might help you understand why you can’t just stick the little bastard in the oven.

Jesse is an effective enough writer for the type of game he was creating. The last thing he would have wanted to do is distract the player from the action so you won’t find any long paragraphs or detailed descriptions here. He tells you only the bare minimum amount of information that you need in order to navigate through your apartment and thwart the bloodthirsty doll. Luckily, that doesn’t mean there is absolutely no room for a line like “hunt and kill, 25 human” which is as chilling as it is ungrammatical, but for the most part the author is very much to the point. The directness of Burneko’s writing helps give the player the feeling that the action is happening quickly. This feeling is further reinforced by the tight time limits required to stop the Zuni doll from killing you during your first two encounters with the thing. In the bathroom scene in particular, you are allowed very little time to digress and so you’ll likely die a few times before you figure out how to get through it. If Varicella had only featured more explosive bouts of diarrhea, it no doubt would have had a very similar scene.

One odd aspect of Burneko’s writing is his almost random misspellings. He’s fully capable of writing at length without error so when you see a basic word like “curled” suddenly misspelled it can be a little jarring. Are we really to believe that College Boy Jesse Burneko is writing stuff like “My favorite sport is cureling” and “I like nothing better than to curel up with a good book” for his English assignments? It might be dyslexia, in which case we’re terrible for even bringing it up, or it might just be that the author had a strong distaste for proofreading. It did also cross my mind that Jesse might be including some kind of hidden message embedded in the misspellings that I just wasn’t smart enough to uncover. You can’t tell me that the line “Thanks must be given to: Graham Nelson for his generious gift of Inform” in the Acknowledgments wasn’t intended to throw shade at Graham Nelson. “Yeah, British Guy, it’s mighty generous of you to offer up your programming language for free, but at the same time it’s pretty generic.” Jesse Burneko can be ice cold when he wants to be. Can you feel the Burn…eko?

I played through The Zuni Doll honestly wanting to like it. The premise is cool. The action can be exciting. Plus, I felt personally motivated to try to redeem myself for a past review that was probably too negative. Unfortunately, the game is a good example of how a bad parser can make puzzles much harder than they need to be. This is a short game that you should ideally be able to solve in around fifteen minutes, but in practice it took weeks of infrequent play for me to actually slog through it. None of the puzzles are honestly all that hard, and figuring out what to do is generally the easy part. The problem is that the parser is prone to reject perfectly reasonable inputs which makes you think you’re doing something wrong which in turn makes you try to do unreasonably complicated things which just leads to more and more frustration. If this game has taught me anything as a veteran player of IF, it’s that trying to set up a floss trip line should be an absolute last resort option. The reviews that call the game easy aren’t entirely wrong, but they leave out the fact that you kind of need to mind meld with Jesse first so you can phrase all the commands just right. My general approach to solving puzzles is to start out simple, try something more complicated if simple doesn’t work, and then go back and try something simple again if complicated also fails. That strategy is helpful here, but it still takes some trial and error to figure out the game’s quirks. For instance, you can only tie two objects together if you don’t mention what you’re trying to use to do the tying or do the tying in two separate actions. In another scene in the game, you can attach object A to object B, but you can’t attach object B to object A (trying this just leads to a generic error message with no hint that you’re on the right track). I get that that would make sense if you’re attaching something small to something big — you stick a magnet to a refrigerator, not a refrigerator to a magnet, and you attach truck nuts to a truck, not a truck to truck nuts — but in this case both A and B are pretty small so it’s not so straightforward. During my first playthrough, I thought that puzzle was the best implemented in the game because I attached A to B right away. During my next playthrough, I stupidly tried to attach B to A first and got really puzzled when it didn’t work before I remembered what game I was playing. You’ll probably enjoy this game more if you can remain patient and trust your first instincts. When something sensible doesn’t work, you may very well just need to word your command slightly differently.

IF can sometimes reveal aspects of an author’s personality in a way the creator perhaps might not have intended. For instance, the parser in this game is probably rigid because Jesse utterly lacks the ability to see things from someone else’s perspective…just kidding, this isn’t that kind of review. No, this paragraph is actually about cats. You no doubt come to this site for intense analysis, and I’ve got a take you’re going to want to brace yourself for. Ready? OK, the conclusion I’ve reached after deep reflection is that I think Jesse likes cats! After all, this game features a great little kitty named Elmo. He does accidentally hasten things along with the killer Zuni doll in a way that could have proven deleterious to your long-term health, but you can’t really be angry with Elmo for very long since he’s such a nice little kitty. The only time this game surprised me and the only time it made me laugh was during my interactions with Elmo. These were quality interactions to be sure, but I think the reason Elmo made such a big impression on me is because this is a rather austere game all in all. There isn’t much description, there certainly isn’t much whimsy, and most superfluous but relevant inputs don’t receive any unique response at all. Bear in mind that this is a game which will happily tell you that “I don’t suppose the Zuni doll would care for that” when you try to pick up the Satanic fetish object and piledrive it into the floor. It’s only in those moments with Elmo where it becomes worthwhile to try to type different things that might not actually win you the game. Elmo can even help you solve a puzzle at a certain point because he has a response to both items you need if you show them to him. That was the one moment in the game that I felt was really well-designed and satisfyingly implemented. It also made me realize that Jesse Burneko probably could put together a high quality game under the right set of circumstances. Presumably, the game would need to be about cats and only cats. Jesse would need to add some synonyms and recruit a few more beta testers in addition to the Russian chick who hates IF and was credited in the Acknowledgments. I’m not saying drop the Russian chick — I think we need her in all honesty — but different people could offer different perspectives and would undoubtedly type quite different things. For instance, I’m pretty sure I didn’t use the command “say to zuni doll cyka blyat” and ragequit until at least my third playthrough so I could have provided very different feedback until then.

One last thing: aren’t Zuni dolls made by the Zuni people? Why, then, would there be an African warrior Zuni doll like the one in this game? It’s almost as if the only research that was done here involved watching a 1970s TV movie. I promise to do much better with my text adventure version of When Michael Calls. In fact, I intend to research phone phreaking for at least 25 more years before I even start writing it.

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 23/50

Story: 5/10


Playability: 4/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10