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

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:

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