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

A Rope of Chalk by Ryan Veeder (2020)

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

Ryan Veeder? More like Ryan WEEDER if you ask me. Get it? Haha. Yeah, I get that Ryan is actually more into the harder stuff, but I couldn’t find a way to make Ryan CRACKER not sound racist.

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

Drug use should never be trivialized. Some of the best people I’ve ever known took trips on episcophacetin and never returned home again.

My Verdict:

To play this game is to step into another, very strange world. I think I finally understand now what Ricky Martin was talking about when he sang about livin’ la Veeder loca.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Ryan Veeder is one of the best and most intriguing IF writers to emerge on the scene over the past decade. He’s prolific, he has a website, he tweets, and people give him money every month on Patreon just for existing. I assume all the hot AIF action is only accessible to his OnlyFans subscribers which is in my opinion one of the greatest injustices ever perpetrated by capitalism.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/A%20Rope%20of%20Chalk/chalk.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: Taco Fiction, Ryan Veeder’s Authentic Fly Fishing, Reference and Representation: An Approach to First-Order Semantics, and many more!

A Rope of Chalk is a mess, a glorious, chaotic, and entertaining mess. It is a wild, topsy-turvy ride that takes you from the banality of a college art competition to the furthest reaches of the center of the mind. Like a babe in the dark woods who is cruelly plucked from the protection of the crib and abandoned to the whims of the ravenous wolves, the player can do little but react helplessly to the swirling environment that surrounds him or her. The wolves happen to be baby wolves so there’s no real danger, but it’s all pretty goddamn confusing nonetheless. It’s worth diving blindly into the maelstrom primarily because our guide through the pandemonium happens to be one of the best young writers of interactive fiction we have.

This may not be a particularly useful comparison, but I tend to think of Ryan Veeder as being the most Adam Cadre-like of his generation of IF writers. The games aren’t particularly similar, but both fellows tend to do interesting, unique work that challenges our preconceptions of what IF is and should be. They push boundaries, innovate, and take bold risks. Furthermore, they’re both excellent writers who are adept at creating vibrant, complex worlds and vivid, complex characters. They’re two of the funniest guys around when they want to be, too. Perhaps the most infuriating quality that they have in common is that even when their games annoy me I have to temper my criticism with thoughts like, “But that was interesting. That was unique. That made me think. That made me feel. That kept my attention and made me keep playing.” I hate that. If you’re going to be annoying, just be annoying. “Annoying good” and “annoying fascinating” aren’t valid alignments except in highly specialized D&D campaigns.

Ryan Veeder games often start out one way and then twist, turn, and ultimately reveal themselves to be something else or at least something more. So it is with A Rope of Chalk. Even though the game starts out in a very ordinary way and places you in the very ordinary role of a college student who is judging a chalk art competition at her school, there’s a sense that not everything is as it should be. Weird things keep happening. People seem a little off. As you wander the competition, study the chalk art, converse with the artists, and try to settle a dispute between two of the competitors, you’re also waiting for the shoe to drop. The dynamic tension that Charles Atlas once utilized to make himself unreasonably ripped now feels like it is in the air, supercharging the atmosphere and creating an uneasy aura of anticipation. Something is coming. Something is going to happen. You just don’t know what. Yet.

If ARoC was less Veedery, it could very well have been a perfectly reasonable if unremarkable addition to the slice of life genre. I wouldn’t like it nearly as well if it harbored no mystery, but exploring the art show isn’t unpleasant. Thanks to the game’s first unexpected change in perspective, you get to view the event from two different and distinct vantage points as Lane, a judge at the show, and then as Alec, another student who is helping organize and judge the competition. The perspective changes and arty setting make it a little reminiscent of Exhibition, but this game is less dramatic and brooding than Ian Finley’s old chestnut. In both games, the skillful characterizations are the highlight. The brief conversations you have with the artists make you feel like you are really getting to know them, and in so doing you get to know the characters you control as well. My first frustration with this game was the extent to which I found myself locked to the personality of the player characters. You can’t really change their attitudes towards the other characters or the art. For example, there’s one artist that Lane and Alec seem to share a visceral dislike for. Those feelings don’t seem completely unreasonable under the circumstances, but all your interactions with this artist are predetermined by Lane and Alec’s preexisting opinions. The dialogue options you are presented seem to offer ways for Lane to be friendly and Alec to be flirty, but these are phantom choices that the PCs will actually ignore if selected.

To a large extent, you don’t really control Lane or Alec or any of the other characters in whose shoes you will walk. You can’t change them. They are what they are. When their minds are made up about something, you can’t do anything about it even though you’re the one typing and nominally the one guiding the action. There’s good and bad aspects to this. The best thing is that each character is distinct and well-developed, including both the NPCs and the PCs. There’s no character here who is as nebulous and plastic as Shepard from Mass Effect who can to a certain extent be whoever the player wants them to be. These are characters with prior attitudes, personalities, relationships, and life experiences that shape who they are. That can become annoying when you don’t see things quite the same as your characters. In retrospect, I certainly shouldn’t have spent as much time as I did trying to hook Alec up with the badass snake lady or the badass tattoo lady when I knew his heart was already set on another, considerably less badass lady. Screw me for trying to broaden a guy’s horizons and inject some excitement into his life. Was it so wrong to want him to see the possibility that there might be someone out there he could meet who would actually be sure if she liked him or not? That’s a potential drawback to great characterizations, I suppose…Veeder did such a great job developing the characters that I started genuinely caring about them and wanting to run their lives for them. It turns out I would totally play the hell out of a Ryan Veeder college dating sim which gave me some meaningful agency. Maybe next year?

The boldest game design decision in A Rope of Chalk was undoubtedly to make the final sections of the game largely take place in the drug-addled minds of characters exposed to a dangerous hallucinogen. The Veed manages to pull it off without it seeming too ridiculous or disrupting the narrative of the game. That’s no mean feat. One of the game’s main characters, Hina, really only comes to life when we confront the angels and demons that lurk in her mind as she’s tripping balls. The amount of character development and quality writing Veeder manages to stick into a series of hallucinations is nothing short of remarkable. The depiction of drug use in the game is largely playful, but there are unpleasant aspects to the hallucinations as well. The fictional drug in the game, episcophacetin, seems to have insight-yielding qualities similar to LSD, but Hina’s hellish experiences in Cealdhame would likely deter all but the most hardcore of addicts from partaking. There was something about the combination of a pseudo-maze with garbled generic fantasy writing that I found deeply unsettling. Luckily, you don’t need to stay in that fiendish realm for very long.

While the writing and the characterizations in A Rope of Chalk are top-notch, I found the playing experience to be a little too passive for my taste overall. You aren’t given enough freedom to influence the story, and there isn’t enough to do to make you feel like you’re driving the story forward through your own actions. It’s not a completely puzzleless game, but you’re only called on to perform a few basic actions from time to time. As such, it’s easy to feel like an observer watching the story unfold from afar rather than an active participant who is interacting with the story and making things happen. Although this is undoubtedly a good game and one of the best entrants in the 2020 comp, the passivity and limited interactivity keeps it from achieving great game or classic status in my mind.

One interesting thing Ryan Veeder does with some of his games is give them elaborate back stories that seem highly unlikely to be true. For example, A Rope of Chalk is presented as a true recounting of actual events, and there is even a closing section that lets you study documentary material ostensibly collected from the actual participants of the art show that gives you additional information about the events and updates on what the group is up to now. I still don’t really think this game was really based on a true story, but I think this might be the method Ryan uses to make his characters seem more real to him. It’s like an author imagining herself having a conversation with her characters so she can understand them better or Sean Penn literally becoming Spicoli to fully immerse himself in the role. Then again, maybe I’m wrong and it really is all true. Even Nega-Hina. And hey. maybe this review isn’t really even happening at all and we’re both just super high on episcophacetin right now. What up, Skellington?

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating: 31/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 8/10

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 3/10

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10 (The parser is somewhat mediocre by design because there are so few actions allowed by the game. Veeder did do a nice job of providing numerous descriptions throughout, including some you might not expect — take a good look at Faye’s tattoos, for instance. I know Lane sure did!)

Special Ratings For This Game:

Characterizations: 8/10

Amishville by Jacob Amman (2002)

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

I don’t have much use for the Amish generally speaking. Do they not realize we fought a goddamn war just so we wouldn’t be called English anymore? That said, I do love the idea of rumspringa. You live a sheltered, desolate, and extended childhood only to suddenly be unleashed on the world, free to finally discover all the good things in life for yourself. Imagine getting to experience sex, cocaine, Alien, Predator, and Alien vs Predator for the first time on the SAME DAY. It’s enough to make me almost wish I was Amish…almost.

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

Their ways are different from ours, but we should respect and celebrate those differences rather than mock them in our text adventures. I wonder what Amish text adventures have to say about US.

My Verdict:

Terrible games deserve terrible parodies which in turn deserve terrible reviews. So goeth the eternal cycle of one room joke games.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

Author Info: Jakob Ammann was a Swiss Anabaptist leader born in 1644 who probably didn’t actually write this game. Still, anyone who’d name their only son Baltz is OK with me.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/zcode/amish.z5

Other Games By This Author: None known.

One thing I regret about my old reviews is how hard I tended to come down on the one room joke games that were once inexplicably commonplace on the IF Archive. I didn’t like those games then and I don’t like them now, but the difference is I don’t think I’d call any text adventure clutter or suggest it has no valid reason to exist today. There’s nothing actually wrong with putting out a game just for laughs. If you put in the time and made a thing, you have every right to share it with the world. What kind of monster do you have to be to hate creativity and humor, anyway? I refuse to be that monster any longer. When I reflect back on my school days, it’s not the girls, the learning, or the minor achievements that I look back on most fondly. Instead, it’s the memories of those times I made someone laugh that shine brightest in my mind’s eye and are the least tinged by regret. Humor is something wonderful and beautiful, a superpower anyone can use. If you’re truly creating a game because you want to make people laugh, that’s awesome and actually kind of noble. This life of pestilence and sorrow doesn’t deserve you.

With all this in mind, I briefly considered replacing my usual rating system with a new rating system just for joke games which would be based on the number of laughs I incurred while playing each said game. I abandoned this idea when I realized every one room joke game I’ve ever played would receive the same rating of zero laughs under this new regime. At least with my old rating system no game actually gets a simple rating worse than a 1! Sadly, it’s been my general experience that joke IF games tend not to be particularly funny. I don’t think it has to be that way; there’s nothing inherent in the format of the one room joke game that forces it to suck. Of course you’re not going to make the next A Mind Forever Voyaging, but you could theoretically at least take a clever idea and do something funny with it. For some reason, that seems to happen only very rarely if at all in practice. No matter. I’ll still defend the one room joke game’s right to exist to my dying breath. If a joke game makes just one person laugh, even if it is just the author, surely that is enough to make the whole endeavor worthwhile to some degree no matter what the nattering nabobs of IF criticism have to say. Of course, “worthwhile” doesn’t mean “worth playing” and as one of those aforementioned nabobs I’m going to have to say a number of unpleasant things about joke games in this and future reviews. I just want it to be clear that it isn’t personal and I’m not condemning a whole subgenre of IF or advocating that any games be purged from the Internet just because I didn’t like them. With that out of the way, let’s talk about the game!

Amishville is a one room joke game and it isn’t funny. It probably has a better reason for not being funny than most of its compatriots, and that’s because it’s a parody of Amissville, a “game” that was relentlessly overhyped on the IF newsgroups in the early 2000s but was essentially as I understand it an in-joke that became an Internet performance art piece. There was even a pseudo-company behind the game called Santoonie Corporation which gave the project a veneer of corporate respectability until people began to realize most Santoonie employees had adopted the names of Confederate generals as pseudonyms. You could think of Santoonie as the original Proud Boys of interactive fiction if the Proud Boys were as well known for vaporware as they are for racism. The groundbreaking title we were promised on the newsgroups never quite materialized and Santoonie Corporation never became the new Infocom, but you can still find multiple Amissville-themed titles and parodies on the IF Archive if you dare to look for them. What they all have in common is that they are all pretty bad. In the case of the parodies at least, the lack of quality is obviously intentional. Would a quality Amissville parody even make any sense at all given the history involved? Jacob Ammon or whoever did this game had to underperform just to meet society’s expectations. There’s a harsh cruelty to that. Even if you don’t like the game (and trust me, you do not like the game), it’s not hard to sympathize with Ammon. The position he found himself in was truly unenviable.

Amishville takes the one room joke game concept to startling extremes. A brief introduction establishes your character as an Amish man who is currently just outside of his barn. Unfortunately, there’s no more story to uncover after that. Almost every valid input the parser recognizes reveals the joke and ends the game. I appreciated still being allowed to enter verbose mode the way I always do, but verbose and brief were the only commands I found that worked and didn’t end the game. The design of the game gives it a certain aura of mystery; it’s certainly possible there is hidden content that just isn’t very easy to find, but I can’t say I found anything interesting despite numerous attempts. As for the joke, it takes the single fact most people know about the Amish and uses that as the punchline. It’s obvious enough that there’s a good chance you will already have a pretty good idea what the joke is going to be before actually playing the game. It’s so predictable that it’s almost reassuring. No matter how topsy-turvy your life may be, you can still play Amishville and realize you have a basic handle on the way the world works at least when it comes to the type of jokes people who know little of the Amish tend to tell about the Amish.

Taken just as a parody, Amishville shows a little promise, but it remains very undeveloped. It mocks the strange Preface, Prologue, Introduction opening of the fragment of Amissville that was publicly released and is written in a loose, active style that somewhat resembles but doesn’t quite capture the spirit of the original game. The moment that brought me closest to laughter was the line, “But your adventurous spirit continues to drive your heart to the dangers and perils that spawn from adventure and wearing buttons.” If nothing else, this line gives every Amish scholar the chance to point out that many groups of Amish people do in fact wear clothes with buttons. A brief moment of sunshine in their otherwise dreary lives. Even if you do enjoy the writing, that doesn’t change the fact that game is essentially just an introduction with no interactive elements whatsoever. I’m afraid I can’t quite bring myself to recommend it. I give it ZERO LAUGHS!

Simple Rating: 1/10

Complicated Rating: 6/50

Story: 1/10

Writing: 3/10

Playability: 1/10

Puzzle Quality: 1/10 (What if the WHOLE GAME is the puzzle?)

Parser Responsiveness: 0/10

Alone by Paul Michael Winters (2020)

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

TILL NOW I ALWAYS GOT BY ON MY OWN!

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

This game is a prayer for a swift ending to all pandemics, present and future. Amen.

My Verdict:

Paul Michael Winters gave us the perfect game for 2020, for better or worse.

Game Information

Game Type: Inform (Glulx)

Author Info: Paul Michael Winters is a new, emerging IF author with an uncertain background and biography and an apparently limited web presence. One of his games is on itch.io if you’re into that sort of thing.

Download Link: http://ifarchive.org/if-archive/games/competition2020/Games/Alone/Alone.gblorb

Other Games By This Author: The House on Sycamore Lane, The Long Nap

“Hope.” That’s the closing line of this game if you get the good ending. I don’t think I’m really spoiling anything by mentioning that here, but that line struck me as the absolute perfect way to end what is a rather grim work about a deadly disease. In 2020 and so far in 2021, hope is exactly what the world has been trying desperately to hold on to as millions have died, tens of millions have been infected, public squares and businesses have been and continue to be closed, and vaccine rollouts have been botched to varying degrees. I’m not sure I personally would have chosen to write a game about a devastating illness in 2020, but I think I understand why Paul Michael Winters made that difficult choice. Alone is art that captures the spirit of the times. It is a mirror that reflects back on us the fear, the desperation, and the uncertainty of the pandemic. As you might expect, it’s not a very pleasant picture for the most part.

When I first played this game, I immediately saw some of its promise, but I set it aside for a couple of months before actually finishing it. Part of me just didn’t want to keep playing a game that uncomfortably reminded me of real life. After all, IF is something that can offer an excellent escape from overbearing reality. I appreciated each and every 2020 IFComp game I played which didn’t make me think about Covid-19 or other current events. Yet IF also has a role it can play in illuminating reality and making us face difficult issues. This probably isn’t the right thing to play if you just attended Grandpa’s funeral via Zoom or have been up all night worrying about why you seem to have all the symptoms…and I do mean ALL of them. If you’re in the right frame of mind to appreciate it, however, Alone can be powerful and resonate strongly. Winters wrote a game which has a bigger emotional impact in 2020 than it would have had any previous non-pandemic year. In 2019, my short review of this game would probably have gone something like, “Haha, deadly pandemic game! Fun fun!” No one’s writing that review in 2020 or 2021. We’re just too close to it to consider the premise dispassionately or mockingly. My review of Texas Chainsaw Massacre for the Atari 2600 wouldn’t have gone, “Haha, chopping up kids game! Fun fun fun!” if thousands of kids were actually being murdered with chainsaws in 1983. (In retrospect, that probably still wasn’t the most socially responsible review I’ve ever written even though chainsaw murders were at a 30 year low at the time.) The topicality of the subject matter combined with Winters’ grim and serious tone commands our attention. It doesn’t feel like just a game. It could be a glimpse of a possible future…perhaps even tomorrow’s reality, unfortunately.

The pandemic in the game is probably even worse than what we’re facing in the real world. It is causing people to drop dead in the streets (and elsewhere) after developing horrific symptoms including black veins in the neck and temporary insanity. Our protagonist — hell, I’ll say it, OUR HERO — is staying alive in a most desperate and daring fashion. Rather than social distancing at home and waiting for inevitable death, he’s taken to the road. He drives aimlessly through a now eerily empty countryside, only stopping when he must to collect gas and other vital supplies. This might not seem like the most Fauci-approved survival strategy, but these are exceptionally bad times. We can safely surmise the main character didn’t feel safe at home. Maybe supplies were dwindling. Maybe there were riots. Maybe Uncle Jim got infected, and you know that guy’s a hugger. Death Ride 2020 isn’t anyone’s first choice for a pandemic lifestyle. Our dude has found a way to survive, but it’s wearing on him and doesn’t seem sustainable. Everything comes to a head when he runs out of gas and must venture out on foot into the darkness. There’s a gas station nearby, but we pretty much know already that it’s not going to be that easy. Not at all.

Paul Michael Winters uses a very spare, austere writing style through much of the game. Alone largely packs its storytelling punch into the introduction and ending sections of the game. The intro is terrific and immediately made me identify with the main character, that lonely, exhausted figure who cannot stop driving ever onwards into the dark and gloomy night. The ending — well, the best ending anyway — provides a satisfying, life-affirming conclusion that makes the journey seem totally worthwhile in the end. It’s the journey itself that tested my motivation to finish at times. When you’re in the puzzle solving and obstacle removing portion of the game (which is the bulk of it), you won’t be getting much exposition or description. The minimalistic style of the writing fits the somber, lonely narrative, but I had questions about the disease and the state of the world I was hoping would be answered as I progressed through the game that weren’t. Part of the problem is my unreasonable expectation that my reward for solving puzzles in a text adventure should be more exposition. Not all games work like that. This game demands some patience and the recognition that answers aren’t always readily available when a pandemic is ravaging the world. There is some background information provided in written materials you find scattered around, but it’s quite limited in scope. The main character seems to know more about the disease than we do, but perhaps not much more. He isn’t investigating the disease’s origin or trying to cure the world — he’s just trying to survive, and that’s quite hard enough under the circumstances.

I know nothing concrete about Paul Michael Winters or his wintery ways, but in my mind he’s a young IF author who is still honing his craft. If it turns out he’s actually 63 and an old hand at text games, then my bad…though I will say that’s still fairly young by IF standards. If you were to play his first game (reviewed by Flack here) and then this one immediately after, it would be obvious to you that he’s improving and growing as an author and a developer. Maybe that alone doesn’t definitively prove the Young Winters Theory, but it does show PMW is pretty serious about this whole IF thing. He clearly put some extra time in for testing and polishing this time around. For the most part, this is a game that just works. It’s a triumph of implementation in its own way. Considering the number of objects you must use to get past a variety of electrical, electronic, and mechanical obstacles, there’s a lot that could’ve potentially gone wrong here that didn’t. As a player, it’s a relief to be able to encounter a gate or a control panel in the game and know it’s going to work as you would expect if you’ve got the right items in tow. I’ve been replaying Vampire: the Masquerade — Bloodlines recently so when I saw an air duct in this game I was both overjoyed and extremely eager to get inside. One of the major differences between video games and real life for me personally is that I’d essentially never voluntarily enter a air duct in real life but I’ll pretty much never pass up a chance for some quality ductin’ time in a video game. As it turns out, the air duct turned out to be totally serviceable though very small. A lot of air ducts have those two qualities, I imagine. The important thing is it worked. Good ductin’, man, good ductin’! The one object I found somewhat fiddly to work with was the drug synthesis machine. Nothing major — it’s just somewhat awkward to use and I blame it for getting me killed when I forgot to do something stupid. In summation, air ducts rule and life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines suck.

The worst parsers try to fight you on everything. Even something as simple as going south or opening a door can be an ordeal, let alone a more complex action like entering an air duct to get some good ductin’. The best parsers understand pretty much everything reasonable you throw at them. It’s like the author knew exactly what you were going to type before you typed it! I swear there’s a line in Deadline Marc Blank threw in just for me to find during my fourth playthrough. The parser in Alone is somewhere in between those two extremes. I generally found that if my first attempt at wording a command didn’t work the second would, but your mileage may vary. There are definitely verbs that should’ve been implemented that weren’t. Have you ever noticed that it’s generally the verbs you don’t implement that you find yourself missing the most? On the other hand, the game understood some complex commands I almost didn’t expect it to. I fully expect PMW to keep the cycle of improvement going and for his next game to be even better than this one so I’m sure he’ll focus more on the parser next time. There’ll be more verbs, more synonyms, more accepted alternatives, and hopefully more air ducts. The parser doesn’t ruin this game by any means, but it may test your patience at times.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Alone is the moral choice you must make towards the end of the game. It’s so cleverly implemented that you might never even recognize it as a moral choice or even feel like you have a choice, but it absolutely is. You can “win” the game either way and feel like you did what you needed to do, but one ending is much, much more satisfying than the other. I strongly recommend playing it at least twice so you can see both endings. You’ll actually probably end up playing it three times because xyzzy kills you. The only things I hate more than life-saving, drug-dispensing wondermachines are death-bringing xyzzy implementations, but the game is still good and very much worth playing.

Simple Rating: 7/10

Complicated Rating:35/50

Story: 7/10

Writing: 7/10 (I’d give it an 8 at its best and a 5 or 6 through most of the game. So somehow it ended up being a 7!)

Playability: 7/10

Puzzle Quality: 8/10 (I’m counting the moral choice as a puzzle with multiple solutions. The other puzzles are generally good as well.)

Parser Responsiveness: 6/10