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

Download Link:

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:

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:

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:

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:


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 if you’re into that sort of thing.

Download Link:

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

The Curse of Rabenstein by Stefan Vogt

Twitter Review:

Full of equal parts atmosphere and fun, The Curse of Rabenstein pairs vintage commands and graphics with excellent writing to create a short and spooky adventure you’ll want to solve in a single session.

Full Review:

The Curse of Rabenstein is a text adventure with graphics that was originally submitted to the 2019 Adventuron Halloween Jam, where it placed second. The Halloween-themed competition had specific requirements (for example each submission was required to contain a graveyard, skeleton, bell, and spooky building), and were limited to classic VERB NOUN commands. Since the conclusion of the contest, the game has been relocated to where it can be downloaded for a multitude of systems including the Commodore 64, Commodore 16 and Plus/4, CPC, Spectrum, Amiga, Atari ST, DOS, and any Java-enabled browser.

As the game begins, your carriage’s coachman has become lost, and has asked you to travel (on foot) to a village to the north in search of shelter for his exhausted horses a rest. As if you needed any more foreshadowing, your spooky journey begins in the Black Forest in search of the Tavern of the Sad Wanderer.

In the first half of the game players must accomplish several tasks, like getting the horses into a stable and obtaining a few necessary items. The game contains so few locations that it’s impossible to get lost, and essential locations and objects present themselves in a linear fashion so it’s pretty hard to accomplish anything out of order. For example, No matter how many times you knock, nobody will answer the church’s door… until it’s time. Like many vintage text adventures, you’ll have to revisit the same locations multiple times as you work your way through the game.

Having recently played several modern interactive fiction games over the holidays, Rabenstein’s limited parser can be frustrating at times. More than once, I got hung up by trying verbs more specific than USE (ITEM). That being said, for as sparse as the game’s parser is, author Stefan Vogt makes up for it with his delightfully descriptive writing. Every word adds to the game’s overall atmosphere. The story of the curse, along with in-game descriptions, are wonderfully detailed without ever flooding the screen with text.

The puzzles sprinkled throughout Rabenstein aren’t terribly difficult, and in at least two cases, I figured out the solution to a puzzle long before I figured out what verb the parser was looking for. There are a couple of red herrings that made solving the puzzles more fun. Twice I had to resort to reading online hints: once was because I couldn’t guess the correct verb, and once because I didn’t know enough about church procedure to get through one of the puzzles.

The Curse of Rabenstein was an absolute joy to play through, delivering a perfect balance of good writing, pleasing graphics, interesting puzzles, smooth programming, and an engaging story. I originally played the Commodore 64 version which was a little heavy on disk access, but the other versions played much more quickly. Players should be able to complete the game in one to two hours depending on their skill level. Beginners will be glad to find a walk-thru and invisiclues located on the site. Also available on the site is a physical edition which ships with artwork, media, feelies, and extras.


Captivity by Jim Aikin (2020)

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

The duke talks a good game, but I think we all know he’d rather play Pass the Wand with the wizard than ravage an abductee. In the director’s cut of the game, there’s even a scene where Esteban skips down the hall to his lover’s room while singing, “He’s a magic maaaaan.”

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

Rape is never light-hearted or whimsical or funny. It’s awful and horrible. Some things just shouldn’t be joked about.

My Verdict:

Let’s just say it finishes a lot stronger than it starts.

Game Information

Game Type: TADS

Author Info: Jim Aikin is a science fiction author, musician, music technologist, and an experienced creator of interactive fiction. His game A Flustered Duck won Spring Thing 2009, and a number of his other titles are especially highly regarded among enthusiasts of puzzle IF. You can visit his homepage for more information on all things Jim.

Download Link:

Other Games By This Author: Lydia’s Heart, Not Just an Ordinary Ballerina, Mrs. Pepper’s Nasty Secret, and more!

For a game that overall has a decidedly whimsical bent, Captivity has a downright grim beginning. I very much wish that I could start off this review by talking about all the things I like about this game such as the diverse set of fascinating characters, the quality writing, and the terrific castle setting, but I don’t think I can do that in good conscience. The elephant in the room is massive and attention-grabbing enough that I think we have to address it first. Simply put, this game has the absolute worst introduction I’ve ever encountered in a work of interactive fiction.

The first text you see upon opening Captivity is a content warning. It reads as follows:

First, a word of caution: This story approaches the traumatic and often tragic business of abduction and rape in a tone that can only be described as light-hearted and whimsical. The story is not explicit with respect to the trauma, and in fact your role as the primary character is to escape before anything awful happens. Nonetheless, if you find this topic disturbing, or if you feel it should be treated only in the serious manner that it no doubt deserves, you may wish to reconsider whether to continue.

Wow. Jim Aikin knows exactly what sentences to string together to provide the literary equivalent of a one way ticket direct to Miseryville. When I cranked up the ol’ HTML TADS interpreter on Day 1 of the competition, all I wanted to do was play an amusing text adventure and have some fun. What I got instead was a content warning my mind parsed as RAPE RAPE RAPE QUIT NOW SNOWFLAKE which is not what I would call a pleasant start to a game. There’s a suggestion there that abduction and rape might not always be tragic (“often tragic”), and I found the very idea that rape would be presented in a light-hearted and whimsical manner to be rather nauseating. Don’t get me wrong: I’d be the first person to say there are no lines set in stone when it comes to either art or humor. It’s just generally my experience that when rape shows up in IF it’s going to be depressing and upsetting because rape is fundamentally a depressing and upsetting sort of thing. You can say all you want that your treatment of the subject will be light-hearted and whimsical, but the problem is virtually no one is THAT funny or has leveled up whimsy to that degree. Simply throwing the word rape around inevitably brings to mind negative associations and upsetting memories. I probably have it easier than a lot of other people do because the first things that come to my mind involve Jodie Foster, a bunch of assholes, and a pool table. If you do have a direct, personal experience with rape, just reading that intro could feel like a punch in the gut. I have my doubts that anyone has ever made a genuinely funny or whimsical rape game, and I have no idea why anyone would even want to.

My first instinct was to quit right there as soon as I read the intro. This didn’t seem like it was going to be my sort of game at all. What kept me playing was the second sentence of that dreary introduction. Just what kind of rape game ISN’T explicit and lets you escape, I wondered? If this is neither a porn game which fetishizes rape nor a work of interactive fiction which reflects on the trauma of rape, why is rape part of the game at all? If rape absolutely has to be mentioned, is it even possible to thread the needle so that it isn’t a downright traumatic and upsetting experience for a good portion of the audience? The other thing I felt curious about was just who the target audience for this game was. Is there a person out there who could read the intro and actually feel enthused about playing the game? Encountering a content warning like that is a bit like driving down the highway, intent on reaching your destination and generally minding your own business, and suddenly spotting a sign advertising RAPEAPALOOZA 2020 NEXT RIGHT. Nine out of ten drivers are going to pass right on by and a sizable minority are also going to contact the authorities as they very well should. The one guy of the ten who is going to immediately start veering right is this dude named Lil Dougie who is driving a black Kia he barely can squeeze himself into anymore. He’s someone who knows what he’s into and who generally cares very little about the societal consequences of his actions, but he’s also very hard to please. He hasn’t truly enjoyed any Rapeapalooza since the 1999 event because they just weren’t rapey enough for him. That doesn’t keep him from attending every single year even with Covid-19 going on. Designing your text adventure with the primary intent of pleasing the Lil Dougies of this world seems like a marketing disaster far in excess of anything that might have gone wrong with the New Coke rollout. I just couldn’t understand why anyone not chained to a computer in Lil Dougie’s basement would want to target their work of interactive fiction specifically to that dude and his 8chan buddies.

As it turns out, Captivity isn’t in my view really about rape — it mentions rape, but it doesn’t explicitly depict it and it isn’t the or even a major theme in the game at all. Lil Dougie would honestly hate pretty much everything about it other than the very beginning. The fact that this work has an introduction that forces everyone who plays it to think of rape is a really head-scratching decision on the part of the author. That said, Jim Aikin’s heart was probably in the right place when he wrote the warning. He simply didn’t want anyone to play his game and get upset so he erred on the side of including a warning that would dissuade more people from actually playing it at all. He sacrificed plays for the mental health of the community so you can’t condemn the guy. The problem is a warning like that puts a cloud over the whole game. You’re literally associating your work of interactive fiction with one of the most terrible things one person can do to another and for no good reason at all. Let’s talk a little now about what Captivity is really about, where rape comes into play (I can’t tell you how much it pained me to write that phrase), and how Jim Aikin could’ve easily avoided putting the warning in.

In this game, you play the daughter of high-born but financially strapped parents. You have been kidnapped by the evil Duke Esteban who has imprisoned you in his castle. There is no chance your parents will be able to pay the ransom the duke has demanded so that means Esteban will be settling for his consolation prize: you and your supple, unwashed body. Thus, that’s where the suggestion of rape appears. It has struck me each time I’ve played this game how utterly unnecessary it is for the threat of rape to be made as explicitly as it is. A better text adventure could have made the stakes similarly high by simply describing a lecherous look or revolting leer made by the duke and allowed the player work out the implications in his or her own mind. Arguably, even that wouldn’t be necessary — if you’re imprisoned in a castle, of course you’re going to want to escape. It’s clearly a very bad situation to be in, and I’d be just as motivated to help my character out even if my main fear was that the duke would turn her into Alpo for the sustenance of his pack of ravenous hounds. If anything, the stakes have been made too high and as a result the game makes much less sense as a cohesive whole. If I knew I was facing the imminent threat of rape, I’d be daring, desperate, and dangerous if I wasn’t too traumatized or depressed to do anything at all. I’d do anything to get out of that situation. Unlike the protagonist, I wouldn’t be able to calmly wander around a castle, stopping for friendly, leisurely chats with various characters who are partly responsible for my captivity as I rationally planned my escape. I wouldn’t be able to bottle in the torrent of emotions I’d be feeling at every moment whereas the protagonist remains as cool as a cucumber from beginning to end. In the real world, the story of Captivity is horror, not comedy or adventure. Rape and whimsy fundamentally just don’t go together — it’s a juxtaposition that is doomed to fail. I only found one way to truly enjoy Captivity, and that is to simply pretend the Damocles sword of rape isn’t hovering over my character’s head at every moment. The story simply doesn’t make much sense if you don’t do that because no real person would actually act like the protagonist given the dire set of circumstances presented in the game. The pity of it all is it’s quite a fun game if you can do the mental gymnastics required. The main reason I’ve spent so much time writing about this is because I truly think the rape threat makes the game worse: it makes the plot seem less believable, the characters seem less genuine, and the overall gameplay experience less satisfying. Without it, the game would be more enjoyable and appeal to more people.

I wish I didn’t have to devote those first paragraphs to a topic so unpleasant because I have a number of positive things to say here as well. First of all, the castle setting is terrific and is my single favorite aspect of the game. It is vividly drawn and populated by a host of colorful characters. It also feels BIG and is full of objects, features, and secrets…just what a castle in interactive fiction should be like. As I’ve played and replayed this game, I’ve been repeatedly impressed by Jim Aikin’s care in writing descriptions and his skillful anticipation of the player’s reactions to the surrounding environment and the characters he or she comes across. While using the talk command will give you an initial list of dialogue options for each character, you can also ask characters about a pleasingly wide range of topics. It’s quite fun to just explore the castle and think of new things to talk about with the characters you meet. Every time I play I seem to find something new and unexpected. To give an example, consider the very first scene in the game. You are locked in a small room, but you have a barred window you can look out of. The first thing you see when you look out is the text adventure equivalent of a dramatic cut scene. If you look out the window again, you notice various aspects of the castle grounds: the garden, the spiked wall, the forest, the river, and the hounds. You can look at each thing you see, including even the spikes on the wall! The level of detail is consistently impressive, but the descriptions and the writing in general are never overbearing. In fact, much of the content is optional and might not be encountered in a casual playthrough (or because you’re just trying to get out of the castle ASAP so your character doesn’t get raped…completely understandable!). Aikin understands some people will just want to get on with things and escape while other players will want to sniff the grass and mess around with the embroidering materials. Both groups are accommodated, but I think Louis Armstrong has the right advice here: “Don’t forget to mess around!”

Captivity has a few pleasing puzzles, but Jim Aikin has designed the game so it can be completed by even a novice text adventurer. The game is incredibly forgiving — when you mess something up, you generally get rolled back to a point where you can try again and you might even be rolled forward so you can still finish even if you really mucked things up. No player is left behind here. I wouldn’t want every work of IF to be designed in this fashion since sometimes I want there to be consequences for failure, but we also need games that are newbie-friendly. I liked this feature least when I encountered it towards the end of the game because it wasn’t immediately clear what I had done wrong and I wasn’t given the chance to correct my mistake. Instead, I was just zoomed ahead for the big showdown which I didn’t think I deserved to see just yet. As an IF author, you absolutely do lose people when they get stuck and can’t progress so I understand the appeal of a game design that doesn’t let players fail, but at the same time I think a good deal of the pleasure of playing IF comes via the process of figuring out what you are doing wrong and coming up with new solutions to obstacles. You also tend to notice more details of a game when you have to play sections of it repeatedly. I did go back and find the way to complete the game without triggering the rollforward, and it felt like it was a very small, nonintuitive thing I didn’t do that gummed up the works. I think this type of game design would tend to make puzzles worse in the aggregate because the author won’t be as motivated to come up with something clever if he or she knows many players will end up skipping past the puzzles if they don’t solve them immediately. I’m definitely a bigger fan of the rollbacks than the rollforwards, but I’m above all else grateful that most parser IF still doesn’t make things quite as easy as this one does.

Captivity is a generally well-implemented game, but I did notice a couple of bugs. The first and most serious occurs when you are carrying one box and try to pick up another, different box. “Get box” won’t work because the game acts like you’re referring to the box you’re carrying. If you word your command as “get box from ___” the game crashes abruptly and unceremoniously with a nil object reference error message, but only if you refer to the object of the preposition in the plural as the game does. That sentence might not be as clear as I’d like, but I’m trying to avoid a spoiler here. Let’s assume for the purposes of this discussion that the box you’re trying to pick up is in the pair of lutes hanging above the fireplace (it isn’t and there are no lutes above the fireplace). We know the box is really in only one of the lutes — presumably the one with the secret compartment — but the game refers to the lutes collectively as a pair of lutes and you can’t interact with them singly. In this example, “get box from lutes” would crash the game while “get box from lute” would work. To accomplish the box grabbing feat, you can also put your first box in your reticule or drop it in another room first before attempting to pick up the next box in which case “get box” will work correctly. You can also be more specific about the kind of box you’re picking up: “get lacquered box” would work if you’ve already looked in the lutes…or, rather, it would work if it was actually a lacquered box we were dealing with. I’m giving you people nothing! The other bug is less serious. There is a scroll you need to read that you are clearly supposed to use two objects to decode in order to overcome two separate methods of obfuscation. However, you can actually read the scroll by using only one object if you word the command right. I would also say this is the one moment in the game where I found it a little difficult to make the parser understand what I was trying to do, but that’s mostly because I kept trying to use “look” instead of the more sensible “read.”

One thing I would have liked Jim Aikin to explore further is the idea of developing Captivity as a revenge game. There’s already a strong element of revenge in the game which culminates in your character’s final showdown with the duke. Getting the better of His Evilness is deeply satisfying. As the game progresses, we only learn more about his evil deeds, including the probable murders of previous abductees. In very broad strokes, this game’s arc isn’t so far removed from movies like John Wick and Death Wish. If we strip away the whimsy and lightness, we have a story of a young woman who goes face to face with evil and overcomes it with her willpower, strength, and smarts. The threat of rape the protagonist faces actually makes sense in the context of a revenge story. The only problem with that interpretation is that the bulk of the game involves you being relatively kind and helpful to members of the duke’s retinue who are deeply involved in your kidnapping. Should you be killing the wizard rather than kissing him? That’s something of a moral quandary we can’t settle in an interactive fiction review. There is a subtext that perhaps the duke’s servants and family members aren’t absolutely loyal to him and don’t entirely approve of his actions and as such they perhaps don’t deserve the duke’s fate. At the same time, I’m not at all sure that Porfiru or Thibon wouldn’t abet another psychopath’s crimes given the opportunity.

Simple Rating: 6/10

Complicated Rating: 33/50

Story: 6/10

Writing: 8/10 (The descriptions are high quality throughout and just about everything and everyone is worth looking at and interacting with.)

Playability: 6/10 (You should save often just in case you run into the worst of the bugs, but this is otherwise a mostly polished and smooth playing experience.)

Puzzle Quality: 6/10

Parser Responsiveness: 7/10

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

Twitter Review:

Detective Jay Schilling has been hired to solve a mysterious kidnapping in this entertaining parser adventure that combines the best of Robb Sherwin’s wit with Mike Sousa’s rock-solid programming skills.

Full Review:

Imagine ordering the world’s most delicious pizza only to be told you’ll have to wait an entire year for it to be delivered. Exactly 365 salivating days later, the pizza arrives at your front door. Giddy with anticipation, you grab the box from the delivery driver and run to the dining room. As you open the cardboard lid, billowing steam sticks to your glasses as the smell of your favorite toppings tickle your nose. The first bite tastes so good it hurts the hinges of your jaw. You don’t fully appreciate how delicious the first slice was until you start on your second, which somehow tastes even better. Unable to stop yourself, you reach for a third slice and that’s when you see it — a lone hair, resting on top of the pizza.

Now, some people might stop eating right then and there. Others might call the restaurant and demand a replacement pie, even with the knowledge that it won’t arrive for another 365 days. Me? I’m flicking that hair aside and diving directly into slice number three. We’re talking about the world’s most delicious pizza after all, and I’m not going to let one stray hair ruin the experience.

In a way, that’s how I’ve come to view many of Robb Sherwin’s works of interactive fiction. His plots are so unique, his worldview is so cynical, and his writing is so pleasantly sardonic that when I come to those occasional hairs in the matrix, I don’t stop playing. I merely flick them aside, refusing to let them ruin my meal.

In Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos Sherwin teamed up with fellow IF author and coder extraordinaire Mike Sousa to leverage the best of each other’s talents. I don’t know if there’s an official breakdown as to who did exactly what, but each bite of the game tastes as if Sherwin’s deliciously chocolate humor has been poured over Sousa’s peanut-buttery solid framework, creating the world’s first Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of interactive fiction development. Depending on your previous experience, you might describe the game as either one of Sousa’s funniest, or one of Sherwin’s most polished. Either way is a win for gamers.

In the game players become Jay Schilling, a down-on-his-luck and internally-flawed detective who schedules meetings with potential clients late in the day at the local petting zoo not because it’s good for business, but because he’s so sure they won’t show up that he doesn’t care much. Things turn around for Schilling when a potential client not only arrives, but offers him a single Bitcoin to help find a missing person. What the client doesn’t know is that Jay Schilling lacks even the most basic tools most detectives possess (a computer, a cellphone, a gun, a bed, empathy…). What Jay Schilling doesn’t know is what you, the player, will spend an hour or two uncovering.

Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos is designed for beginning-to-intermediate interactive fiction adventurers. Despite enjoying text-based games I’m notoriously bad at completing them, and I only got stuck twice. (A walk-thru is provided.) For the most part, the game plays nice and errs on the side of simplicity. The surprises come not in difficulty of the puzzles, but in the narrative itself.

Despite the game’s potentially large setting, Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos never lets players stray too far off course. Goals are clearly presented for each scene, and once they have been accomplished, a new one is revealed. I personally love this style of gameplay. While everyone has their own tastes, I would rather spend my interactive energy figuring out what to do and how to do it over guessing where I am supposed to go next and what I’m supposed to be doing. While fans of sprawling game worlds and ultimate freedom may not enjoy the game’s linear progression, I enjoyed knowing what I was supposed to be doing at all times, and how that task fit into the game’s overarching story.

By the conclusion of the game, I deemed Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos — and the Sousa/Sherwin partnership — successes. Sousa’s experience with the TADS programming language shows, with no instances of “guess the verb” or wonky loops popping up during my session. Sherwin’s never-ending stream of pop culture pokes (in the petting zoo, the peacock ponders whether or not it should cancel “Community” again) makes every morsel of text enjoyable. Not everyone loves Sherwin’s biting zingers, but those who do will find themselves examining every object and talking to every NPC (human or otherwise) just to find more of them.

At the conclusion of Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos, players are presented with a list of amusing actions to perform at different points throughout the game. Of the 20+ suggested actions, I had only tried two during my initial playthrough. It’s the perfect way to build replayability into a genre not typically designed for it, and I immediately restarted the game with the goal of overturning every rock to find what lies beneath.

That’s how much I enjoyed this Sousa and Sherwin combination pizza.

Link: Jay Schilling’s Edge of Chaos

The Zuni Doll by Jesse Burneko (1997)

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

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

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

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

My Verdict:

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

Game Information

Game Type: Inform

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

Download Link:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Simple Rating: 5/10

Complicated Rating: 23/50

Story: 5/10


Playability: 4/10

Puzzle Quality: 5/10

Parser Responsiveness: 3/10

Ninja by Softgold (1984)

Tweet Review:

A 2017 re-release of this terribly buggy game fixed all the bugs, but still left it terrible. Ninja is perhaps the slowest and most convoluted game ever to feature ninjas. Real ninjas and Commodore 64 owners deserved better.

Full Review:

Although America’s initial infatuation with martial arts is often attributed to the addition of Judo to the 1964 Olympics, it was David Carradine’s Caine who injected the art form into mainstream America during the 1970s via the television series Kung Fu. In 1980, the success of the television miniseries Shogun convinced Hollywood there was a market for sensible movies about feudal Japan, which led to Cannon Films’ Enter the Ninja being released the following year, which is about as far from a sensible film about feudal Japan as a movie can get.

I was ten years old in 1981 when Enter the Ninja was released in theaters, although like most kids my age I didn’t see it until it made its way to cable a few years later. By then, Cannon had already released a sequel, Revenge of the Ninja, and suddenly, like an ancient assassin, the ninja era was upon us. By the mid-80s, not only had ninjas infiltrated b-movies and movie rental shelves across America, but video games as well, including The Last Ninja, Kid Niki: Radical Ninja, Shinobi, Ninja Gaiden, Ninja Warrior, and countless others. If a game was released with “ninja” in the title, I would play it.

Which brings me to Ninja, an interactive fiction game for the Commodore 64 released by Softgold in 1984.

When I think of ninjas I think of sleek killing machines; assassins so adept at blending in with their surroundings that their skills seemed borderline supernatural. I think of well-oiled machines; men trained so vigorously that their reactions became involuntary — their reflexes, swift and deadly. Sadly, Ninja (the game) does not remind me of any of those things. For starters, Ninja is an interactive fiction game — perhaps not the genre best suited for conveying quick action. Fortunately for players, there isn’t any here to be found.

In Ninja, you play a member of the Kubuto Ninja Clan on a mission to recover the Statue of Joken. The statue has been stolen from your clan by Grey Ninjas, and hidden in the Temple of Sharloon. I’d like to poke fun at this, but I can’t. I’ve definitely watched late night ninja movies with less plot than this. The introduction sets up who you are, and what you’re supposed to do.

To spice up the game’s presentation, Ninja includes both digitized sound and color graphics. Softgold promoted Ninja as a game in their “Talkies” series of titles, of which, I believe, there were two. The game’s digitized voice is mostly limited to speaking two phrases — “O.K.” each time a move is processed successfully, and “So Sorry” each time the parser fails to understand your commands — although later in the game you’ll receive a few “beware” warnings as well. The quality of the speech isn’t very good, and one can’t help but think the memory it consumes could have been used to improve the game itself.

The game’s graphics, on the other hand, can’t possibly take up much memory at all. They were drawn using the Commodore’s built in PETASCII graphics set, and convey only the most basic visual information imaginable. In one of the game’s first scenes, players find themselves standing in front of a bridge guarded by a samurai — except in the picture, there is no samurai. Unlike most other graphical adventures of the time, the items mentioned in room descriptions are not depicted in the accompanying artwork. The graphics do a good job of visually reminding players of their physical location within the game, but not much else.

The presentation of the game is fairly straightforward. Players move from location to location, gathering, using, and dropping items (players can only carry five items at a time, so anything that’s already served a purpose should be left behind). Location descriptions are often sparse (“I am in a damp dim cave. Several items lay scattered about.”) requiring players to use the “L” command to look for items in the immediate area. Half the game is spent trying to get into the enemy castle, while the other half is spent inside the castle incapacitating guards and avoiding crocodiles. Unfortunately it’s not as exciting as it sounds.

Like many text adventures from the early 80s, players should prepare themselves for frustrating bouts of “guess the verb.” The aforementioned samurai players encounter demands gold from those who wish to cross his bridge, and while “Give Gold” and “Pay Samurai” aren’t recognized, “Pay Gold” is. Don’t forget that each incorrect guess is accompanied with the same digitized response every single time and boy does seppuku start to sound like a good idea the hundredth time you hear the game say “So Sorry.”

To beat the game, players must find and arrange five jade idols into a specific design, the pattern of which is revealed on a secret parchment. The parchment is located two rooms from the game’s starting point, and I had to use a walkthrough to find it — and even then, the first time I went to the secret location, the parchment wasn’t there, despite the room’s description. You know that scene in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where Willie Scott gets trapped in a room with six million bugs? Ninja has more bugs than that, including doozies like this:

In 2017, Commodore sceners Hokuto Force released a hacked/trained/patched version of Ninja that fixed several of the game’s bugs and added many new features. Among the features added are an in-game map, documentation, a walk through, and (perhaps best of all) the ability to turn off the digitized speech. In the bug-fixing department, Hokuto Force fixed some of the game’s graphical bugs, and prevented players from breaking out into BASIC and peeking through the game’s code to find solutions. In addition to documentation and a walk through, Hokuto also included a list of all verbs and nouns recognized by the parser, for players wanting to take a legitimate stab at solving the game. I can’t say their efforts made the game any better, but at least they made it playable.

Even ninja fans such as myself will have a tough time making it far in Ninja, a game that was created during the “wild west” era of Interactive Fiction, back before norms had been established and/or agreed to. Many times when completing a game while using a walkthrough, I’ll slap my forehead after seeing how obvious some of the solutions were. Not this time, ninja-san.

Link: Commodore Scene Database